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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While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
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 age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
7:50: I'm ready to start this. I've just finished some leftover Chinese food, and now I'm ready to tear some people apart. Good thing I'm not at my own apartment because my old neighbor Madeline would surely stop giving me lemon tarts every week after a full night of screaming for more shots of Christina Hendricks.
7:51: Ah, commercial. Back to Law and Order: SVU to watch Robin Williams reboot his One Hour Photo creep.
7:59: HERE WE GO! BRING ON THE LOSERS!
8:00: OHHHHH snap just show me Tina Fey and I'll play along. Kate Gosselin, not so much.
8:01: NICE. BETTY WHITE AND JON HAMM. I'm liking this more than the cold noodles I just ate. Oh look! Jane Lynch's wax figure.
8:05: I really like this and everything, but if Conan O'Brien isn't there, I almost don't even want to watch anymore.
8:06 It's funny, I know I'm supposed to be looking at Jimmy Fallon, but I just keep going back to the guy from Lost who was in the news recently about something who had to do with Weezer.
8:07: January Jones is sitting next to Jason OMG CONAN IS THERE!
8:09: Ah yes, a montage of a year in comedy. Set to Chris Brown. Too perfect.
8:11: Is this the first category? Betty White looks like some kind of gradient you use in a Microsoft paint application.
8:13: Eric Stonestreet's rockin that "what's in his tux pocket?" look. So is Seacrest, incidentally. Aw, parents.
8:15: Can I just say thank Prosecco that it's not Jon Cryer?
8:18: Sofia Vergara's supposed to run naked if Modern Family wins. If she does, I suspect you'll check out a little bit early from this and I'll get to go do something crazy, like put on my Thundercats t-shirt.
8:21: Modern Family won best writing. Cool. Why did we go from Best Supporting Actor to best writing?
8:23: Every time I update this I just realize how I have 2 more hours to do this. It's like waiting for a plane that keeps getting delayed, and you're not in a cool city like Manhattan, Kansas.
8:25: BADASS, JANE LYNCH! BADASS. Thank your wife, Jane.
8:27: Matthew Perry's coming on? Where has he been? What, they couldn't get the cow that stands outside Stew Leonard's?
8:31: Oh, I see Lauren Graham was available.
8:33: Ryan Murphy for Best Directing, yeah, I see that. I also see that tux.
8:37: Alright bitches, let's slab some lube on Steve Carell and give him something new to play with.
8:38: WELL SHIT! JIM PARSONS FOR BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY. I don't get this one. Is he even strong enough to be wearing that tie?
8:40: Do I have any designated pee breaks while I'm doing this? I forgot to ask my boss. Maybe this commercial for "You Again" is the best one I'll get.
8:44: I feel like Jimmy isn't even in this. Where's the tweeting? AAAAND Neil Patrick Harris brings the first funny joke of the night.
8:45: Nice! Edie Falco just schooled Tina Fey and Lea Michele. That's her fourth Emmy! She's tied with Tina now, I think! What's the point of Jimmy Fallon's guitar? Is there a theme? Was I drinking when they tried to make it obvious?
8:49: Ah yes, Top Chef for best reality program. I can really say I've never watched this show because nobody ever breaks up with anybody. Padma looks like she just had Angelina Jolie/Billy Bob Thorton limo sex with the baby-daddy we know but kind of don't -- the one who invented Dell or something.
8:52: Lots of commercials for Oprah's last season. I feel like this award show is already so bipolar the Oprah stuff is overkill.
8:59: I will be VERY SURPRISED if Connie Britton and/or Kyle Chandler win. But this cliché montage music...WAIT. THE END OF LOST IS A MASS SUICIDE?! That dog must've been pretty pissed if he'd been there since the plane crashed.
9:04: NICE. Aaron Paul for Breaking Bad. This guy looks so ADD, but cool.
9:05: Did he even thank his mother? I know he told her to stop crying, but that just shows you how ADD he really is.
9:10: Wow, I have nothing to contribute about Archie Panjabi's win for The Good Wife. So instead, here's some video of a shih tzu puppy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpjyCE-R4Y4 My boyfriend doesn't have Firefox, so I can't actually put the link in this post. But I promise you, it's worth the trouble of copying and then pasting into a new window. TRUST.
9:13: AWESOME. Bryan Cranston won his third Emmy. I seriously just started watching Breaking Bad yesterday, and to Michael C. Hall, whom I love: you deserve recognition too. Maybe go have a kid?
9:22: If Dexter only gets an award for Best Director, I will never watch another Emmys again.
9:23: If Jimmy Fallon's going to do this, he might as well go back to SNL. Seriously. JIMMY! HAVE YOU HIDDEN YOUR BALLS IN SOME STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE? Oh, I take it back. Boys II Men. Very nice.
9:27: AVON AVON AVON.
9:30: AVON AND WHISKIES.
9:31: These Twitter updates Jimmy Fallon keeps giving almost make me want to quit Twitter. Wow, Kyra Sedgwick for The Closer! Nobody saw that coming. Not even Paul the Octopus! WAIT SHE JUST PASSED HER EMMY OFF TO TINA FEY! Kyra, you got some bitch in you!
9:34: Do you think she's going to make Kevin Bacon do the Footloose dance tonight in celebration? It's such a waste if she doesn't. He even pimped it out for an episode of Will and Grace!
9:35: VARIETY! CONAN'S CATEGORY! WHAT SHALL I DO IF HE WINS? OH GOD, PLEASE LET HIM WIN. I WILL SIT DOWN IN SOMEONE'S BEDBUG-RIDDEN APARTMENT IF HE WINS.
9:37: Oh, nevermind. Writing for a variety special. Go back to watching some shih tzu puppies.
9:40: Did this asshole just thank Jay Leno?
9:43: How do you guys think Conan is passing the time while he's there? Do you think he's playing Tetris or something? He hasn't been tweeting.
9:46: Ricky Gervais should just do a vampire show already. Now that he's so skinny, your eyes immediately go to his Edward teeth.
9:47: Ah yes, Ricky Gervais does a Mel Gibson joke. "Not worse than the Jews!" he says! Stellar. Not even worse than when you walk into Pets on Lex because you're hungry and you find every puppy that's there in a dead puppy sleep.
9:51 OH SNAP IT'S HERE. I HOPE COCO SAVED HIS TETRIS GAME. THAT SHIT'S A BITCH TO START OVER.
9:53: OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO'WEFHIAOWR723057208YFJNASDMVNMCXZV.NASDKLJF;EW857429---DWRU I;FDSHAF;ASHG;AGY8EWAOPTY9WPQT5729357Q2PIUE'WJFEIJIAKOFJLAKS;HFLAHREOIWRYOIWEYRDKVNSKLNVLFASKHFOAIWEYRO3YO3ITHASHGDSAKLFNLKSDFOIHOWA;IEHR;WOIH;OAEIHTO;AHW;OIASHGO;ADYG
9:53: JON STEWART. AND HE'S NOT EVEN THERE TO ACCEPT IT. I CAN'T BELIEVE I HAVE AN HOUR LEFT OF THIS.
9:57: I can't even enjoy a commercial for Nate Berkus' new show now.
10:00: And now I have to watch George Clooney accept something he'll probably lose on a plane when he's going to stay at his villa in Italy? Please.
10:01: Betty White even stood up to honor George. It just got like a vomitorium all up in here.
10:04: Does anybody watch these "mini-series" or "movies" things?
10:10: That commercial for Jimmy Smits playing a lawyer for Outlaw did less for me than Kim Kardashian's Twitter background.
10:17: GAMECHANGER! JEWEL! PLEASE TELL ME SHE'S GOING TO MISUSE THE WORD 'CASUALTY' AGAIN!
10:26: I think it just hit me that John Slattery didn't win for Mad Men.
10:30: Claire Danes for the win for Temple Grandin. She didn't thank her husband. Downgrade. Now I'm going to go back to googling whether or not Roy Disney was an anti semite.
10:35: Alexander Skaarsgard is officially Jack Skellington. If you don't know who that is, you don't get me and you never will.
10:38: Very nice, Al Pacino for You Don't Know Jack.
10:45: Laurence Fishburne! How's it going brother?! No Montana tonight? That's okay, she's probably studying algorithms.
10:51: Mad Men's third Emmy! I'd like to make a joke about how Fred Armisen deserves and Emmy for having been married to Scientologist Elisabeth Moss for 10 months, but I already took a crack at Jewel and I've gotten lazy after doing this for 2 hours and 53 minutes.
10:57: Who's this goat (thanks EB) and what did he do with Ted Danson! AAAND UPSET! MODERN FAMILY FOR BEST COMEDY SERIES!
10:59: AAAAAAAAAND I'm spent. Remember to tip your lobotomist and visit Hollywood.com for the latest and greatest on awards you'll never win.