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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Thanks to movies along the lines of a Valentine's Day or a New Year's Eve or heaven forbid a Movie 43, all-star ensembles can often conjure up some pretty terrible thoughts. But don't let the casting news for Shawn Levy's adaptation of Jonathan Tropper's funny, heartbreaking 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You give you cause for concern: this isn't going to be Garry Marshall's Sitting Shiva.
No, the movie looks like it's on the path to becoming a well-cast eccentric family drama on par with the likes of, say, Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, I'm gonna just go ahead and say it, this looks like it has even more on-point casting than the Oscar-winner. In fact, the film is shaping up to have one of the best big name ensembles in years. Case in point: Entertainment Weekly broke the news that all-around perfect human/Mrs. Tami Taylor (one in the same, really) Connie Britton has been announced as the latest addition to the already-stellar cast.
Tropper's story (which, you should read if you haven't already — it's a sad, sexy, and often hilarious book) revolves around a Jewish family sitting Shiva for their recently-deceased father at the home of their mother (played by Jane Fonda). The wildly different, screwed-up, but good-at-the-core Foxman siblings are at the center of the story — played by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, and Adam Driver — but the supporting characters boast equally impressive names.
Britton will play the girlfriend of Driver's character, the youngest of the brood and the black sheep. A therapist, her character can deconstruct the Foxman clan with pinpoint precision, but can't seem to see that her too-young boyfriend won't give her the grown-up relationship she wants.
Adding to the on-the-nose casting of This Is Where I Leave You is Timothy Olyphant as the Foxmans' neighbor who once suffered a brain injury and was Fey's character's first great love; Kathryn Hahn as Stoll's sexually frustrated wife; Rose Byrne as Bateman's potential new love interest (in addition to dealing with his father's death, his character also has to come to grips with his estranged, pregnant wife played by Abigail Spencer); and Ben Schwartz as their rabbi (Rabbi Jean-Ralphio in the mix!) in the Warner Bros. project.
Supporting characters still apparently up for grabs: the shock jock boss with whom Bateman's wife has an affair, and the Olyphant character's mother, who is close to the Foxman matriarch. (Looking at you, Aaron Eckhart and Kathy Bates!) This Is Where I Leave You, which also has Tropper on board as the screenwriter (always a smart move with adaptations), is reportedly scheduled to begin shooting with its A-list cast in May. Its eventual release date can't come soon enough.
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The film and television nominations for the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards have been released, recognizing achievements in both individual performances and the strengths of ensemble casts. This year's film award nominations are listed below, and many of us will be quite pleased with the tributes paid to 2011's greats, such as The Descendants, Bridsmaids, and Moneyball, which each garnered multiple nominations. Some others to make the list include The Help, The Artist, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn and Albert Nobbs.
The 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will broadcast live at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Jan. 29, 2012 on TNT and TBS.
Click here to read the list of this year's television nominees.
18th ANNUAL SAG AWARDS NOMINATIONS: THEATRICAL MOTION PICTURES
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
Demian Bichir - A Better Life
George Clooney - The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio - J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Brad Pitt - Moneyball
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis - The Help
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Armie Hammer - J. Edgar
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Nick Nolte - Warrior
Christopher Plummer - Beginners
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Berenice Bejo - The Artist
Jessica Chastain - The Help
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer - The Help
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
The Artist - Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller
Bridesmaids - Rose Byrne, Jill Clayburgh, Ellie Kemper, Matt Lucas, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris O'Dowd, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig
The Descendants - Beau Bridges, George Clooney, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Shailene Woodley
The Help - Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Chris Lowell, Ahna O'Reilly, Sissy Spacek, Octavia Spencer, Mary Steenburgen, Emma Stone, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel
Midnight in Paris - Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Owen Wilson
The Walt Disney Co., reopened its theme parks in the U.S. on Wednesday, one day after a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York, Reuters reports. The last time Disneyland was closed was in November 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The theme parks have apparently heightened security to safeguard guests.
The Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday canceled all of its social events, including its closing party. Many stars were prevented from attending the festival, including Mick Jagger, who was to promote two of his films, The Man from Elysian Fields and Enigma. The legendary rocker was set to arrive at the festival on Tuesday from London via New York.
New York's much anticipated Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which takes place twice a year at midtown's Bryant Park, has been tentatively rescheduled for Oct. 22-24. According to Reuters, one show was held on Tuesday before the tragic events unfolded, but all remaining shows were canceled. The firm that has organized the event since 1993, 7th on Sixth, has offered use of the Bryant Park tent for emergency services.
Laura San Giacomo, who stars in the NBC comedy Just Shoot Me, is talking publicly for the first time about her son's struggle with cerebral palsy. In the October issue of Rosie magazine, San Giacomo said that while she wanted to protect herself and her son, she did not want people feeling sorry for them.
Robert Pisano, a former MGM executive, has been named the new director for the Screen Actors Guild, The Associated Press reports. Pisano was hired Monday and was appointed chief executive officer and national executive officer.
Rapper Timbaland has announced plans to release a duet with Aaliyah and Beck on his upcoming album Indecent Proposal, Sonicnet.com reports. "I'm Music" will appear as a single on Timbaland and Magoo's second album due out Nov. 20. Though Aailyah's label Background Records confirmed the song will appear on the album, they said they had no knowledge of the song being released as a single.
While Metallica postponed recording sessions for their new album following guitarist James Hetfield's treatment for substance abuse, they are still apparently keeping busy. According to Sonicnet.com, guitarist Kirk Hammet and drummer Lars Ulrich invited rapper Ja Rule into the studio to record a rap for a new track. DreamWork Records would not provide any details on the compilation, but did say the album would likely hit shelves in early 2002.
After a commanding performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last week, sales of Alicia Keys' album Songs in A Minor rose to the No. 1 spot after 11 weeks in the rankings, Variety reports. The album has sold more than 2.1 million copies to date. Several other star saw their albums climb back up the charts following their VMA performances, including Break the Cycle from Staind, Hybrid Theory from Linkin Park and J.Lo from Jennifer Lopez.
Country singer Kenny Chasney had been scheduled to shoot a video for his single "The Tin Man" on Tuesday in New York, just blocks from the World Trade Center towers. The video shoot was canceled after executives at BNA records decided the song was doing well and didn't need further promoting. Chesney told The Tennessean Wednesday he feels terrible for all the families affected by this, but was glad he wasn't there.
Bob Dylan's childhood home sold on eBay for $82,000. The house where Dylan lived the first six years of his life sold after a 15-week bidding war on the Internet. According to AP, the former owner Kathy Burns bought the house, which is located in Duluth, Minn., in 1996 for $62,000.
Concert promoter Clear Channel Entertainment, which canceled or postponed most events at its 120-venue network, said shows would resume on a case-by-case basis, Variety reports. Some shows reported canceled include Maxwell's Washington concert and shows by Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, 98 Degrees, P.O.D. and Blues Traveler. The Backstreet Boys' Toronto concert as well as Weezer's Oakland show will continue as scheduled.
Pierre Hugo, the great-great-grandson of author Victor Hugo, has lost a bid in Paris courts to ban a contemporary sequel to the 1862 novel Les Miserables, Reuters reports. Francois Ceresa's Cosette or the Time of Illusions takes the villain Javert and turns him into a hero. Hugo alleged that that Ceresa's novel broke a French law that protects the integrity of works of art. A Paris civil court ruled that Hugo could not pursue the case on behalf of his great-great-grandfather and instead noted that Victor Hugo had insisted his classic should go on into the public domain upon his death. Hugo's descendants also contested Disney's version of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1997.