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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S11E2: Stop two on the American Idol audition train is Pittsburgh – and because of Fox’s new series The Finder we only get an hour of auditions. I’m going to go ahead and assume the shortened timeslot is the reason behind the lack of the usual dose of crazies. We’re introduced to the steel city the only possible: with Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” playing over the montage of contestants. Ryan Seacrest’s voiceover tells us that this is the “city of champions” and he may be right about the sports teams, but as for Idol, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These are just the auditions, if anything, Pittsburgh is the city of people waving crinkly, yellow pieces of paper (with promise)!
“I think you could be an American Idol.” –Steven
This poor guy comes in, sees the other great singers and immediately feels inadequate. That typical Idol goofball music was playing in the background, so I feared they were starting the night off with a joke, but then again he was so humble. The people they make fun of are rarely humble. The Korea native sang “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton and he was wonderful and even a little soulful. Clearly he gets the ticket to Hollywood.
”You are crazy.” –Randy
Age 26 This guy is a born and raised performer, singing onstage with his family since he was two, so of course he’s going to be a complete and total ham. He sings the theme song from Family Matters because he’s just that cocky. It would seem he has license to be cocky because the guy can sing – and scat. He gets a golden ticket, so maybe we’ll get to see him sing the theme song from Full House next.
“She sings better when I’m planking.” –Patty the Pittsburgh Planker
Some woman who claims to be famous in Pittsburgh for planking attempts to steal her sister’s thunder by planking all over her audition. Patty even planks while her sister sings because she’s either insane or she thinks they’re beating the system and getting her sister more air time, which might be true. Good thing Samantha can actually sing. She does “Like I’ve Never Loved at All” by Faith Hill and it’s pretty, plain, and simple. She’s strong and Randy calls her voice pure, but I call it average. She gets a yes as Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on The Floor” plays in the background because the producers have been waiting to use that song in a literal sense and Patty The Planker answered their prayers.
“That was like Jamiroquai and Justin Timberlake had a baby?” –JLo
This jobless kid from New York spends time he could use to get a job singing silly songs in Union Square. So naturally, he spends 9 hours on a bus to get to Pittsburgh and audition for American Idol with a diddy he wrote on that same bus. He’s got serious pipes, but the tone is obnoxious and screechy, still they love him and he gets a ticket through to Hollywood. I fear he’s going to be the James Durbin of Season 11.
“He’s cute, look how cute he is.” –JLo
Apparently, all you have to do to “look like Justin Bieber” is get the right hair cut and be 15 years old with a decent singing voice. But, Eben is sweet and humble, calling the audition a privilege (you mean taking off days of school or work to audition for a singing contest that doesn’t guarantee financial success simply because you have a dream to sing is a luxury? Imagine that). I keep raining on this kid’s parade, but he was actually a pretty decent, sweet little singer. He tries out “Ain’t No Sunshine” and while he doesn’t really have the ability to give it any soul, he does pretty well. He gets a ticket to Hollywood.
“I dropped out of high school. This is an all or nothing thing.” –Travis Orlando
I can’t remember why Travis didn’t make it originally, but the judges insist his voice has gotten stronger, and that they need to hear more of what he’s got. But wait, you can’t dismiss him that easily; he’s got a sob story. His mother ditched his family and now he, his sick dad and his brother live in a shelter. His dad is on dialysis, his brother is in college and he quit high school to do Idol. Personally, I think that auditioning for a show that hasn’t turned out a real star in years instead of finishing one last year of high school is just a little misguided. Luckily for Travis, he gets a “yes.”
“Some kinda magic.” –Steven
Erica Van Pelt
This girl is a Mobile DJ and Wedding Singer, the first of which is a career I didn’t think was actually a thing. There are no gimmicks here, so let’s just get to the goods. She sings “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and sounds a little Joss Stone. She does a little too much of the Christina Aguilera hand and matching head bob, but that usually dies out eventually. She also gets a yes, and continues the streak of winner after winner.
“You ever seen Shrek? I’m going to sing the Hallelujah song that plays right through there.” –Shane Bruce
But it had to end somewhere. Next we meet a young guy who actually likes working in a coal mine. They ruined the surprise of whether he was going to be able to sing or if he’d sound like a monkey being beaten with a feral cat by showing him singing to his work mates, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. He says he’s going to sing some song from Shrek - oh that “song from Shrek” that was written by Leonard Cohen and famously sung by Jeff Buckley and later Rufus Wainwright? His knowledge of music history isn’t the only fumble, he screws up the high notes in the song. Jennifer and Randy tell him to work on it and come back, but Steven tells him sometimes “routine is the secret of life” going on about how being a rock star is his path, but it isn’t for everyone else.
“Music and my husband saved my life.” –Hallie Day
The last contestant of the night is a waitress and a newlywed. She’s bubbly and blonde, so it seems this will be an easy little trip to yellow, crinkly paperville, but nope. She’s the last contestant, and typically these folks have terrible problems in their lives. She moved to New York at 15 to be in a girl group, but she ended up broke and drug addict. Her parents were absent, and the result was extremely low self esteem. She tried to commit suicide, but she lived and then met her husband, Ryan, who gave her the will to live. Normally, I’d say this is overkill, but it’s pretty hard to say a story like that is sensationalized. A story like that just is. She sings “I Will Survive” and while I appreciate the sentiment, the song choice was a little cheesy. Still, she’s a real singer with a strong, smoky voice. The judges all agree that she’s Idol material – and so do I.
All in all the judges handed out 38 tickets in Pittsburgh and snagged a potential winner. It’s a pretty good showing if you ask me. Who do you think was better, Savannah’s Phillip Phillips or Hallie Day? (I can certainly tell you which one has a better stage name.) Let me know in the comments or get at me on Twitter. @KelseaStahler
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.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.