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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg (who just finished shooting Minority Report, set for June release), are set to team up again for Ghost Soldiers, a World War II film about the Japanese prison camp survivors of the Bataan Death March, Variety reports. The film will be based upon the bestselling book by the same name and will be produced by Cruise's company, C/W Prods.
Julia Roberts' production company, Shoelace Prods., is teaming up with Revolution Studios to create the CBS drama Queens Supreme (no, not a Taco Bell burrito for royalty). According to The Hollywood Reporter, the show will take a behind-the-scenes look at the trial court system in New York.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, who worked together in the upcoming film Gangs of New York, will team up again for a film about legendary movie mogul Howard Hughes. According to Variety, Jim Carrey and Christopher Nolan (Memento) are also said to be working on a separate Hughes project.
Gene Hackman's absence from recent award shows like the AFI and the Golden Globes is due to his new purchase: an island! Variety reports the land is off the Washington coast, but the actor has been in the Caribbean shopping for a boat. Maybe being the "Royal" of The Royal Tenenbaums will prompt him to pick up a scepter for his new kingdom.
The appropriately named Jennifer Love Hewitt will star in Fox's new comedy My Romance that her own LoveSpell Prods. is co-producing, according the Hollywood Reporter. The show is about an artist who gives up on love, only to realize love ends up finding her. (Makes you wonder what the show would be about if Hewitt's name had "Forest" or "Frankfurter" in it.)
Speaking of names, Rosie O' Donnell ought to change hers to "Accident Prone." People reports the comedian told Rosie show guest Kate Winslet that she "may have broken a toe" after falling down several steps of her 112-step home Wednesday night.
The words "canceled" or "terminated" seem interchangeable, don't they? Not according to Mariah Carey's attorneys, who claim they're ready to sue record giant EMI for using the "T" word instead of the agreed-upon "C" word when they publicly announced their $28 million contract break from Carey. The BBC reports EMI is ready to counter-sue, if necessary.
The 66-year-old singer Loretta Lynn will soon be Dr. Loretta Lynn, according to The Associated Press. The University of Kentucky will bestow the honorary doctorate in arts to Lynn at the Society for American Music's 28th annual meeting March 6-10 on the university's Lexington campus.
Conan O'Brien's Late Night contract with NBC expires in Sept., and Fox is up for the chase. PageSix.com reports Fox could offer O'Brien substantially more than the reported $2 million a year paycheck he gets now from NBC. Negotiations have yet to be finalized.
Rapper Jay-Z and R&B star R. Kelly have collaborated for The Best of Both Worlds, a CD set to hit shelves March 26, the AP reports. Both artists are Grammy winners and multi-platinum artists.
Antonio Banderas will star in the Broadway revival of Nine, a 1982 musical based on Federico Fellini's film 8 1/2, Variety reports. The show will open in Jan. 2003, with David Leveaux directing.
Liza Minnelli begins her European tour beginning April 2, according to the AP, after she weds 55-year-old producer David Gest on March 16. The wedding will be Minnelli's fourth and Gest's first.
Rocker Stuart Adamson of Big Country reportedly had a blood alcohol content of 0.279, three times the legal limit, when he was found hanged in Hawaii in December, according to Reuters. The Honolulu Medical Examiner's office ruled the death a suicide.
Actress Rebecca Gayheart has settled a wrongful death lawsuit out of court, People reports. When the actress struck and killed a 9-year-old boy last year with her car, she was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to produce a safe-driving video.