Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
S11E9: It’s time to separate the men from the boys – and a few women from the girls. Perhaps saying this signals a personality issue, but the severe eliminations are generally the most rewarding. Generally, the weaker singers – who’ve hung on despite lacking any real vocal depth – are picked off when it comes time to harmonize on group night or when they get their first shot at performing with the Idol band.
The thought of trimming the fat is a delicious one. Plus, there’s the additional notion that every cut gets us just a little closer to the hallowed Idol stage, where we start forming fabricated bonds with contestants, forming irrational hatred of others, and generally spouting rash, yet steadfast opinions at every turn. That’s why this double episode really got me going. We witnessed not only the sudden death cuts and whiny dynamics of group night, but the brutal four-room split at the end of Solo Night. This brings Hollywood Week to a close, but it certainly didn’t manage to put a lid on my opinions about this year’s crop of singers.
The Betties: Jennifer Malsch, Cherie Tucker, Cari Quoyeser, Gabrielle Casava
Here we find the group that almost broke up last episode, when a few of the girls insisted on staying up all night to practice. Clearly, this idea did not pay off because Cherie and Gabrielle cannot carry their weight or a tune – and that’s in addition to the fact that the group’s routine is generally flat. But the cuts are based on group night and past performance. Jennifer and Cari move forward, though neither one of them seem to have earned it.
Groove Sauce: Reed Grimm, Creighton Fraker, Nick Bodington, Aaron Marcellus, Jen Hirsch
As a whole, this group delivers a rousing performance of “Hold On, I’m Coming” – they get the entire theater on the their feet. They transcend the rinky dink high school piano accompaniment behind them, but the sum is not equal to its parts. Reed Grimm is his jazzy, musical self. Jen Hirsch continues to perform stronger and stronger (though I forgot her when she originally hit the screen). The others, however weren’t so great. Creighton continues his ridiculous over-performance, Nick is a bit of a snooze, and Aaron gets praise from the judges, but his tone just doesn’t do it for me. Still, Randy gives off a big “woooooo” and he sends them all to the next round.
679: Brielle Von Hugel, Kyle Crews, Joshua Ledet, Shannon Magrane
This is the group plagued by the stage mom from hell: Brielle’s mother was supporting her controlling daughter in her vendetta against Kyle Crews. Unfortunately, Kyle proves them right and his run goes into wild territory. It was pretty terrible. Then again, Brielle was fairly flat. Their group mates Joshua and Shannon are strong, but Shannon is slightly off as well. Despite Brielle’s subpar performance, Kyle is the only one sent home. The sad thing is, he’s pretty talented. That’s the danger of sudden death.
Make You Believers: Amy Brumfield , Jacquie Cera, Dustin Cundiff, Mathenee Treco
Amy’s group is the epicenter of the mysterious “Idol Flu” that seems to have overtaken a great portion of the contestants. She’s feeling slightly better, but her teammate Jacquie faints. The team manages to pull it together to get to the stage, but they can’t muster much beyond that. Dustin forgets the lyrics. Amy can’t hit any of the right notes. Jacquie is reaching notes that only dogs can hear. Mathenee is a little sharp, but it’s clear that he’s affected by the cacophony going on behind him. Mathenee is the only one who goes through.
Those Girls and That Guy: Alisha Bernhardt, Christian Lopez, Samantha Novacek, Isabell Gallegos
Ah, Alisha the crazy cop. It seems that between her overbearing nature and Christian’s flu symptoms, the whole group fell apart. Christian sounds pretty decent considering how sick he is, but everyone else is nothing short of terrible. As the producers use shots of sleeping contestants to show us how boring the song is, we find the quick and dirty results: they’re all done.
Hollywood 5: Eben Franckewitz, Jeremy Rosado, Gabi Carubba, Ariel Sprague, David Leathers, Jr.
The set of five sang “Mercy” and while Ariel, Eben, and Gabi are decent singers, they lack the passion or depth of their fellow group members. David is fantastic as always and Jeremy surprises us with a smooth falcetto. They all go through.
Area 451: Imani Handy, Johnny Keyser, Kristi Krause, Bryce Garcia
As seems to be the theme with Hollywood Week this year, another contestant is taken under by a fainting spell. Imani collapses, but insists on performing anyway. After Bryce forgets the whole beginning of the song, Johnny delivers another solid performance, Kristi breaks and is flat, and Imani – despite her solid voice – is overwhelmed and faints again. And Johnny may be cute, but apparently no one taught him that you have to stop singing when someone collapses. The judges seem to think Imani just collapsed from nerves, but it certainly seems like something else. Johnny is the only one they send through.
MIT: Heejun Han, Jairon Jackson, Richie Law, Phil Phillips
The best thing about this dysfunction group is the how often the dynamic prompts Heejun to make one of his now (Idol) famous quips. However, it seems that their bad blood hurts the group dynamic, because the group as a whole experiences some serious pitch problems. Richie is especially bad – he lacks power and range, and his falcetto was just plain painful. Somehow, the judges send all of them through. It was all worth it when Heejun apologized: “I’ve talked a lot of craps about Richie. I’m really sorry to…your parents.” Stay forever, Heejun!
We begin with the annual Ford commercial disguised as the contestants arriving at auditions, and somehow Ford has not asked Idol to switch up this format yet. To welcome the Idol band, Steven and Randy hop up on stage and jam with the contestants who are pushy enough to get up to the front. A few lucky folks get to live out a bit of dream with this impromptu show – and not a moment too soon. This round, the contestants have to deliver a polished performance with the help of the Idol band, and then split into the dreaded four separate results rooms to find out their fates.
While this phase is exciting, it seems that our contestants have a serious case of “Georgia on My Mind” fever. Almost everyone who attempts the song does a fantastic rendition, even the beloved classic can get old.
As he comes out, Steven yells “Heal me. Heal me,” and for some reason, I’ve come to trust Steven’s anticipation more than the other judges. He’s right, and Ledet takes “Jar of Hearts” to new emotional heights. He’s got fantastic range, a strong voice, and he connects with the material.
This young man didn’t want to audition, but the judges begged him to when his sister took her shot. I sort of wish he’d refused. He plays piano and sings “What About Now” and it’s not that he can’t sing, but he’s got a severe case of Timberlake-it is (a condition wherein singers think they sound like Justin, but really they’re just a bit too nasally and borderline unpleasant).
As adorable as Phil is, I worry his charm is wearing off. He plays guitar and sings “Wicked Game,” but he’s sounding a little too Dave Matthews instead of occupying that range of country blues we fell in love with. Still, he’s talented. If he makes it to the top 12, he will undoubtedly be a polarizing contestant.
She’s the first contestant to sing “Georgia on My Mind” and she makes it a tough competition for the rest of the folks who chose the same tune. Where has this been? WHERE. Jen’s performance was truly musical – she sings from the bottom of her soul. She’s not singing “deeply” in a showy way, she really just feels it and you can sense that.
He sings “What a Wonderful World” and believe it or not, this is the one performance of his that I haven’t hated. When he’s not trying to do runs, his tonality is much better. Still, he’s looking to be the season 11 version of James Durbin – the other contestants seem to love him.
Reed is a bit of a problem child. He doesn’t know he can’t sing acapella, so at the last moment, he gets a vocal coach to help him prepare a song to sing, but he’s not serious about it. He says he doesn’t know if this “whole thing” is right. The compromise: he plays drums. Randy says that he’s “another Casey” and that he’s performing “real music.” Normally, Randy’s a bit hyperbolic, but this time, he’s right. Reed’s got a little of the “John Mayer face” going on – he’s actually musical, not just a pretty voice, and you can see it in his face. The only problem: yet another rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.”
Shannon’s version of “What a Wonderful World” certainly wasn’t perfect. She’s not so great on the easy parts of the song, but she can really belt the bigger notes and of course she adds that growl. The 16 year-old has a serious amount of talent, she just needs a little polish to learn how to use it correctly.
The next contestant was taken to the hospital the night before this performance, but that didn’t seem to cause her any problems. She sings “The Way You Lie” and Jennifer says she reminds her of Reba McEntire. Skylar’s cute, and she is an almost vintage style country singer.
This singing mother participated a little too heavy in the early morning jam session with Steven, and her solo performance suffers. The judges give her a mulligan when she flubs the beginning of “The House That Built Me” and it was sweet, but it’s nothing compared to the people before her. We know she’s going home when all Steven can manage is “that’s a great song.”
Again, with “Georgia on My Mind.” Were there only four songs to choose from? Adam is obviously talented, though there’s something irksome about him. Perhaps it’s the fact that he interjects a sob story into Solo Night (the one place we are rid of the heavy-handed back stories), but we’ll have to see what happens during his next performance.
Finally, we have the dreaded four-room split. The three judges – Jennifer in her bathrobe of doom – deliver the news to each of the rooms in the usual drawn-out fashion. I wonder if they realize we’ve learned all their little tricks by now, and if they just keep them around for nostalgia sake. And perhaps it’s the fact that they are suspiciously the largest of the four groups, but everyone in group three seems to understand that their fate isn’t looking so great. Watching them bicker really made it easier to let go of the lesser singers.
Group 1: Including Hallie Day, Creighton Fraker, Erica Van Pelt, Jen Hirsch, Adam Brock, Joshua Ledet, Jonny Keyser, David Leathers Jr, Jermain Jones, Lauren Grey, Colin Dixon.
Conclusion: They’re all safe. (But we knew that – Lauren Grey and Johnny Keyser were in there!)
Group 2: Phil Phillips, Eben Franckewitz, Skylar Laine, Shannon Magrane, Reed Grimm, Jessica Phillips.
Conclusion: They continue in the competition. (Again, you can’t put Reed Grimm and Phil Phillips in a room together and be surprised when they’re a safe group.)
Group 3: Brittanny Kerr, Rachelle Lamb, Jennifer Malch, Jairon Gibson, Sarah Phillips, Madison Shandley.
Conclusion: They get Randy’s “Best Group of Talent Ever” speech before getting the bad news. They’re going home.
Group 4: Stephanie Rene, Brittany Kellogg, Angie Ziederman, Richie Law, Bailey Browne, Heejun Han.
Conclusion: The judges are arguing outside about who’s going to do it, so clearly they all made it. And surprise, they did!
Next week, we’re on to Vegas and things are about to get very emotional. Are you ready?
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.