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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If there is one thing Pete Wells' caustic New York Times review of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar did for Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant it's generate buzz. From Twitter to the conference room, Flavor Town has been on the tip of everyone's tongue for the past two days — and Hollywood.com's headquarters is no exception. Along with the rest of the New York Times-reading, Today show-watching, grub-loving population, we couldn't stop talking about Fieri and his, as Anthony Bourdain so gracefully put it, "terror dome." The one question that was heard echoing throughout our office was, "Could it really be that bad?" Naturally, we had to find out for ourselves. So lunch today for Kelsea Stahler and myself took place at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar.
Even in the wake of a foodie scandal — or as close to a scandal this industry gets — it was business as usual today at 220 West 44th Street. The place was hopping, filled to the brim with hungry tourists and business lunches. According to a restaurant employee, who was instructed to stay neutral on the topic, "Today was just a normal day."
But for passersby and diners alike, the Times review and its fallout was never very far from anyone's mind. A man from Columbus, Ohio, told us as he casually perused the menu outside with his wife, "We knew about [Fieri], we had seen him on the food channel." His wife chimed in, "Yeah, I knew he had a restaurant here before we saw the review." She added, "We saw him on the Today show this morning. I thought he did an excellent job, stood up for himself." And, despite the potential diners' familiarity with the scathing review and the fact that much of the food on the menu "look[ed] kind of heavy," the two headed inside for a bite.
Rishi Sharma and Alex Wolfe, young professional New Yorkers working in the finance industry, cited Wells' review as the sole reason they and a friend chose to make the trek across town to Guy's American for lunch. And the verdict: Not so bad. Sharma (who enjoyed the pork sliders, mac and cheese, and calamari appetizer) said of his experience, "The food was good, our service was very good. The food was flavorful, our waiters were very attentive. The ambience was like a normal, mid-sized, good old fashioned American chain. So I walked away thinking it was a good experience."
But that doesn't mean the review was forgotten. In fact, Wells' critiques formed the foundation for Wolfe and Sharma's lunchtime chatter. "We were just saying over lunch that we're all foodies. No one is more discriminating and can be scathing in their criticism than us," Wolfe said. "But come on, it's a mid-sized, mid-priced, chain restaurant and for that I think it's very good. And I think the review, as entertaining as it was to read, was pretty unfair, pretty over the top. And almost kind of… you think about the New York Times being the gold standard in journalism and all that, and I thought that that review was so over the top that it almost compromised their integrity. And that comes from three vicious food critics."
A couple who wished to be identified as "Native New Mexicans" also said the were inspired to check out Guy's American after reading Wells' review. "I watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. And it was such a scathing review that it was like, Could it really be that bad? So we decided to come and see how bad it was," the wife offered. The couple also echoed Wolfe and Sharma's faint praise of the cuisine at Guy's American. "I thought it was typical bar-type food that was fine. I had the tortilla soup which tasted good. My waitress was cute and nice and friendly," the woman said. (She later clarified, "My tortilla soup was good, but I was warned that it was spicy and — we're from New Mexico, we know what spicy is — it wasn't that spicy. It was tasty, but it wasn't spicy.") Both agreed that the apple crumble (called "House Made Granny Apple Crumble," $11) was the best thing they ate.
Thanks to the review's instant viral popularity, news of its vitriol spread beyond the restaurant's haven on 44th street and into the wilds of Times Square. There we found Jennifer, a young woman visiting New York from Santa Monica, who knew much of the review. "I thought [the review] was pretty funny. I mean, I haven't eaten there, so I don't know, but my instinct is that it was fair. I think there's room in reviews to be creative." Would she be stopping by to see how things were for herself? "I was actually thinking about taking a picture and tweeting it and saying, 'I've heard a lot of buzz about this place. Maybe I should check it out.' But I wouldn't actually eat there."
The question at the heart of this whole debacle is whether the Times was right to hold Guy's American to the same standard as they would the "fine dining" restaurants they usually review. Can we expect the same things from Guy Fieri's curation of greasy American bar food located smack dab in the middle of tourist trap Times Square that we would from Thomas Keller or Wylie Dufresne? Although she enjoyed chuckling at Wells' review, Jennifer thinks not. "I get his brand and I'm sure that the people that would want to eat at his restaurant wouldn't feel the same way that a New York Times reviewer would," she said.
She added, "I mean, it's kind of like reviewing Applebees, right? So I bet that for people who love Guy Fieri and really follow his brand it's going to be just great. And I think that a lot of people who are tourists, especially in Times Square, that's the kind of expectations you have."
And indeed, Jennifer has a point. In waiting to question unsuspecting diners as they exited the restaurant, we witnessed Beth Mowry and Abbey Brown, two young women from Ohio, walk up to the menu posted outside the door, take a gander, and go inside — only to exit two minutes later. "What made you decide not to eat there?" we asked. They gleefully responded, "We're going to, we made a reservation for tomorrow!" While Brown admitted she had read Wells' review earlier that day — "I think it was a little harsh. I mean, if he didn't like it he should give them a bad review, but the things that he said were a little extreme," she said — Mowry was simply a fan of Fieri's. "We just passed by, happened to notice the name with the sign and wanted to check it out," she said. Both agreed, "We watch his show and enjoy it."
Let's now kick it back to our initial query, "Could it really be that bad?" The general opinion seems to say no, not really.
Follow Abbey Stone on Twitter @abbeystone
[Photo Credit: PR Newswire/AP Photo]
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The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.