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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Times were hard.
The stock market had crashed. The national unemployment rate hovered around 25%. Banks foreclosed on countless homes and farms. A series of large-scale environmental disasters had disrupted the economic livelihood of whole regions. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the movie fantasies Americans turned to in the 1930s represented an escapist contrast to the hardship facing much of the United States. And there was no greater embodiment of that silver-screen escapism than Fred Astaire. With his top hat, white tie, tails, and cane, Astaire waltzed into moviegoers hearts with the high thread-count, “Putting on the Ritz” charm of movies like Top Hat and Swing Time. A decade later Astaire had given way to low-key crooner Bing Crosby, who was the top box office draw every year from 1944-48 and remains the third highest movie-ticket seller of all time, behind only Clark Gable and John Wayne. The audiences that opened up their pocket books en masse to see Astaire and Crosby thought nothing of the fact that they would spontaneously “break into song” in their films. It was just a convention of the genre, and, more important, an expression of cinematic joy.
In 2012, however, the movie musical is far from its former place as the most popular of Hollywood film genres. The attention given Les Misérables, opening on Christmas Day, is the exception that proves the rule. Today, audiences even complain about the difficulty they have suspending disbelief at the very act of movie characters “breaking into song.” And if something as fundamental as breaking into song is now a dealbreaker, no wonder any given movie year features only one or two musicals, as opposed to the dozens Hollywood used to produce annually. “The reality is that people need to be coaxed toward a musical today,” says Alan Menken, eight-time Oscar winner and composer of Disney’s blockbuster animated musicals from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to Tangled. “They need to understand why it’s a musical. ‘Do I have to hear people sing their thoughts and feelings? Oh, no!’ And then they end up loving it.”
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That kind of coaxing never used to be necessary at the height of the movie musical in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Is it a cultural shift that explains this change? Ana Perlstein, a musical fan and recent dance major graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, thinks so. “We’ve become too jaded to accept the kind of escapist musicals that the ‘30s provided,” Perlstein says. “People really think, ‘No, you can’t just magically break into song and dance and everything will be okay. The world doesn’t work that way.'”
Then why do we think that when superheroes put on capes, masks, and Spandex “everything will be okay”? Why have boy wizards, hobbits, and Jedi become easier to believe in than people breaking into song? Audiences’ capacity for fantasy remains as strong as ever, but the types of fantasies for which they’re willing to suspend disbelief has changed. The respective evolutions of both the movie musical and the sci-fi/fantasy spectacle explains this phenomenon. As different as both genres are, both have been subject to the advent of “high concept” storytelling. And that pretty much explains exactly why successful movie musicals are few and far between, while sci-fi/fantasy flicks are routinely blockbusters.
There was a time when musicals, on Broadway and in movies, were only about people breaking into song. In the ‘20s, New York’s Ziegfeld Follies never had stories. They were glorified vaudeville acts with an emphasis on sex and spectacle, one-off musical showcases punctuated by two-bit comedy sketches. Early movie musicals like Best Picture Oscar winner The Broadway Melody followed a similar pattern. That all began to change with the debut in 1927 of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat, often considered the first truly story-driven musical, in which the songs advance the narrative and illuminate the characters. It also became the major template for the “integrated musicals” that Hollywood eventually found to be most conducive to its storytelling, musicals that didn’t have spectacle for spectacle’s sake but deployed their songs organically within their narratives. As much of a show-stopper as Agnes DeMille’s dream-sequence ballet is in Oklahoma! it doesn’t stop the show. It reveals fundamental truths about the central character, her thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams. By narrativizing the musical, people embraced the genre more than ever. They suddenly had characters they could identify with, even if those characters broke out into song, not just chorus lines and showgirls. In a superstar like Fred Astaire the Depression Era audience found a perfectly-tailored embodiment of their own champagne-fizzy fantasies—and lifestyle aspirations.
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This model of musical moviemaking remained more or less in place until the early 1970s, though the “meta musical,” musicals that self-consciously displayed and embraced the artifice of the genre also became popular: movies like Singin’ In the Rain and The Band Wagon that tweaked the genre’s conventions while still expressing the greatest admiration for them. Musicals would become more and more self-aware throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s until they, like sci-fi/fantasy around the same time, veered toward “high concept.” “Most successful musicals today need to attach themselves to something bigger, a concept that will make people feel immediately connected to it,” says Menken, who himself blurred the parameters of the musical and sci-fi/fantasy genres with his score for Little Shop of Horrors, an ‘80s musical based on a ‘60s Roger Corman cheapie about human-eating plants. “Years ago, Howard Ashman [Menken’s lyricist on Little Shop] believed you should be able to say about a musical that ‘This is the blank musical.’ Little Shop is ‘the monster musical.’ Dreamgirls is the ‘Motown girl-group musical.’ People like the form to be ruffled up and reinvented, to be something familiar. But with a twist. And if they understand the concept, if they really get it, the ‘breaking into song barrier’ isn’t that daunting after all. It just depends how strong your storytelling is.”
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]
If the movie business had a Hall of Fame, one the major criteria for nomination and induction would be the number of awards that a candidate had received. By those guidelines, John Ford, Jack Nicholson and Ingrid Bergman would be royalty, but with a whopping 8 Academy Awards, Alan Menken would be king.
If you are unfamiliar with the name, its because you've never seen him on the big screen, but have no doubt heard his highly influential music throughout the years. As Walt Disney's Pictures treasured composer, he's written some of the most iconic tunes in Mouse House history, including "Under The Sea" from The Little Mermaid, "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and "A Whole New World" from Aladdin. To celebrate the release of Beauty and the Beast on Blu-ray for the very first time, we talked with Mr. Menken about his favorite musicals, his songwriting process and the cultural impact that his music has had on the world.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Alan Menken and make sure you grab Beauty and the Beast in it's Blu-ray/DVD combo today!
Alan Menken: Hi Danny.
Daniel Hubschman: Hey Alan, how are you today?
AM: I'm very good, how are you?
DH: Good, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
A: My pleasure.
D: So, I wanted to ask you, was it possible to have the kind of knowledge - looking back in hindsight - that films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast - and more specifically, the music within those films - would have the kind of cultural impact that they did?
A: I think that at the gut level, I thought we were doing something special, I did feel that. I often think of The Little Mermaid as my follow up to Little Shop of Horrors. And I knew we had done something special with Little Shop of Horrors, and people really responded to that, and when we worked on The Little Mermaid I had a similar feeling. I guess the answer would be yeah, frankly we were up to something special - I mean how culturally groundbreaking it was or is, that's an objective point, I don't know, I'd like to think they're important but I'll leave that to others to evaluate and I'm certainly, I gotta say, not about false modesty. I'm pretty humbled when people say that about the work. That means a great deal.
D: Well, they are absolutely iconic pieces of music. My fiance, for one, when I told her I'd be talking to the guy who wrote the songs for those films, she really kind of flipped out because they do have that kind of effect on people - they're known around the globe - and the music, you cannot separate the music and the films, and that's a testament to their quality.
A: Well, thanks.
D: So, another thing i was interested in is, you've obviously composed for both animation and live action, and i was wondering what, if any, are the differences between doing the two?
A: Animation is generally a medium that's more familiar and comfortable with musicals than live action. With animation there's a consistency in movies with the teams I work with, the people I work with, and with live action we're kind of reinventing the wheel with each one, because there isn't yet really any kind of existing original live action film musical industry in place right now, and so I'm hoping that the live action film will become as frequent a form as the original animated musical. And I kind of separate the adaptation of the stage musical and the original film musical where all the decisions are up for grabs, because in the development process, that's where all the decisions get made.
D: It's pretty much undeniable that there's been a renaissance in the movie musical in the last few years - we're seeing a lot more produced, and a lot more of a positive audience response to them - do you care to comment on any of those, you know - the Hairspray's of the world?
A: Well, they're all adaptations of Broadway musicals, and I think that kind of audience - Little Shop was another adaptation - I think it's fabulous, and I thought that Hairspray move was just wonderful, I mean really wonderful and I've seen it a number of times. I really enjoyed it, I really enjoyed Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's score, and I just enjoyed Dreamgirls and I enjoyed the movie Nine…
D: I did too. I thought Nine was brilliant in certain ways. That's one where I felt the other technical components of the film really heightened it. I loved the cinematography; it was shot so beautifully. I liked the set design in particular as well as the musical numbers, I thought it was wonderful and I was saddened that the reaction to it was what it was.
A: Yeah, that happens, and it hit a buzzsaw of it not being either what people wanted it to be, or maybe it was Rob Marshall, I don't know. So you know, I think it's great and I'm always weary of these renaissances in the film business because all it takes is one disaster and its over. And right now I've got Tangled that's coming out, and I'm rooting heavily that that does well so we can do more of those.
D: Now can you tell me anything about Tangled or the music you've written for it, or any updates on The Snow Queen also, anything you've been working on?
A: Well, you know Snow Queen is shelved, it was shelved, and the issue is that the jury is out as to how many animated musicals they want to do right now. They want to make money so you know if Tangled does well there will be more of them. We had a wonderful screening last night - I feel really good about the movie, and I hope people flock to see it, obviously. I think it's really good, it's unique and yet it's very much in my vocabulary and in the vocabulary of classic Disney - but updated in a more contemporary way, somewhat akin to Enchanted. I'm developing a couple of live action film musical ideas, which I don't want to talk about in any detail, but that is something I want to pursue as well. I love working in film, I do, and there are aspects of working on film which frankly I prefer over working on stage musicals.
D: So let me ask you: what are the other movie musicals or stage musicals from the past which you feel had a profound influence on your work, would you say?
A: My favorite is The Wizard of Oz. I love the Astaire-Rogers movies, Irving Berlin, or George Gershwin, or Jerome Kern. I love when theater writers comes out and work in film - there are just wonderful examples of that, George Gershwin… Oh my god, so many. There are so many film musicals and you know, I'm not really necessarily a film musical fan per se - that happens to be something that I do, that I enjoy. I loved the update of the film musical of Hair. I was actually very happy with the Little Shop musical. I'm sure most of them are probably escaping my mind - Fiddler (On The Roof) was a good one, My Fair Lady was a good one, West Side Story I loved. And boy, did I love Natalie Wood. I was legitimately in love with Natalie Wood.
D: Who wasn't?
A: Well, I guess it depends on how old you were.
D: I'm a little young for her, but I still can look back on West Side Story or anything with Natalie Wood and still fall in love. She's timeless.
A: It's true, she's timeless.
D: When writing songs, do you go on instinct, based on the things you see, or do you use director's notes, or do you revert to your classical training to write? How does that process work?
A: Well, what we do is sit down with the directors and, for of all, discuss in detail where the song might go: what the sound of the song should be, what musical vocabulary is really going to inform this song, what type of song would it be, discuss examples of other songs that are like it, really go into where does the song start, where does the song end, what does the song say, do we want it to be funny, do we want it to be touching, what are we going after exactly, and then, I go with my collaborators and sit in a room and usually listen to the music first, but no matter what we know what our assignment is - we know the kind of song we want to do, and we start the ball rolling. And when I feel we've got something far along, we send the demo along to producers or directors or whatever, and then we start the back-and-forth and more often than not, we get back a really great response that says "we love it" and then that kind of anoints it. And then you move onto the next level of demo, and then you'll fret about if for the next couple of months, and then you say "hey, we want to go and record this" and you go and record it.
D: Gotcha. Sounds like an interesting process, I'd love to see it. I wish I had more time to talk to you.
A: Same here, Danny.
D: Thanks for the time a lot, Allen, I really appreciate it.
A: My pleasure.