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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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
Last night on Dancing with the Stars, the remaining couples were divided into two teams: Chelsea Kane, Romeo and Ralph Macchio vs. Kirstie Alley, Kendra Wilkinson and Hines Ward. The idea was that the groups of three couples would come out, dance a little bit and be judged on their ability to stay in unison, and then briefly dance as individual couples like they usually do.
Chelsea, Romeo and Ralph danced the Cha-Cha-Cha to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and as a group, they did very well. No singular pair seemed ahead of the other three when they were sharing the floor, which was pretty incredible. But when they danced individually, it was really hard to see the routines as opportunities to enjoy the skills of each couple. Instead, the individual routines just seemed like breathers from the main event. The judges gave them 30 out of 40 points (because there was a fourth judge: esteemed ballroom dancer Donny Burns).
Next up was the team of Kirstie Alley, Kendra and Hines Ward. They also danced the Cha-Cha-Cha, but this time it was to Ke$ha. Again, the individual dances did not allow for time to showcase each group individually, and so it seemed like it was pointless to even ask them to do so. And even though this group’s choreography was better than the first group, they were not in sync as the first group. The judges gave them 30 points as well.
Then came the individual dances. Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas were tasked with dancing the Paso Doble and during rehearsals, Mark had a hard time convincing Chelsea not to laugh or smile because it conflicted with the dance’s seriousness. And since it was the week where the professional dances come by and offer their advice to the performers, Mark’s mom Shirley came by, who was a famous Latin ballroom dancer. And it was a little weird watching her instruct Chelsea to dance with her son more passionately and telling her to grab her son’s hair with passion. When they performed their dance for the judges, their choreography was, as usual, amazing, and it just seems like they’re improving more and more each week. Len complained their dance was too aggressive, and believed there wasn’t enough refinement in their performance. But the rest of the judges liked their moves, and Chelsea and Mark got 34 points.
Louis van Amstel told Kendra that this was week that he was going to make the choreography really hard for Kendra because they’re in week 7 of the competition, and no bad dancers are left. Luca Baricchi (a famous ballroom dancer) showed up during their rehearsals of the Tango, and he told Kendra (in a pretty unlawful way) to feel the dance with her body instead of being afraid of making a mistake. When they danced for the judges, it was arguably their best dance in the competition. Kendra seemed to finally understand what moving elegantly means, and she was rewarded with a score of 31 points from the judges.
Kirstie and Maks were assigned the Jive, and they also received a few tips from Shirley Ballas. They weren’t really shown though, because during rehearsals, Kirstie expressed sadness over how Maks chose to express his frustration by screaming and yelling at her when she missed a step. After they danced their jive, the judges complained that the entire dance was out of sync, but tried to make Kirstie feel better about her performance by complimenting her instincts and her spirit. They gave her 30 points.
Ralph Macchio and Karina Smirnoff danced the Quickstep, and Luca Baricchi came back to tell them what he told Kendra, which was to feel the movements instead of just performing them. Ralph expressed bodily discomfort throughout all of rehearsals and once they danced their dance, it became clear that even though their choreography is pretty weak, they’re a lively pair to watch. They got 36 points from the judges.
Romeo and Chelsie Hightower danced the Samba, and they went into rehearsals on a pretty high note because they got their first 10 last week. Shirley Ballas came by the studio and showed Romeo how to properly move his hips in Latin formation. But the judges didn’t care too much for it because it didn’t represent the Samba as much as it should have. They gave the couple a 30 out of 40.
Hines Ward and Kym Johnson danced the Tango as well, and Luca came back to tell Hines that he wasn’t feeling the moves enough. As usual, their performance was perfect and the judges loved it, as evidenced by their score of 36.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.