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.
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.
The Client List, Jennifer Love Hewitt's new Lifetime drama, makes no attempt to hide what it is. The words "guilty pleasure" actually appeared on screen in an ad that aired seconds before the start of last night's season premiere. However, for a show based on a Lifetime original movie about a mom turned prostitute, it was actually surprisingly decent. The reimagined Client List aims to be a folksier version of The Good Wife, and while it certainly won't be nominated for any Emmys, no one in the cast embarassed themselves in April 8's episode (which is certainly more than you can say for Smash, TV's last guilty pleasure offering).
Hewitt's role has been cleaned up considerably since she appeared in the 2010 TV movie. In the series, she stars as Riley Parks, a Texas mother of two young children. The series starts with a shot of a bare-torsoed dude lying down on a massage table as Riley nervously slips into lingerie behind a screen. Then we flash back to one month earlier, before Riley's life of happy ending debauchery began. At a backyard birthday party for her husband Kyle, she presents a gift ostensibly from the kids: an expensive leather jacket. Annoyed, Kyle asks Riley to speak with him inside. (Important side note: Hewitt has an entertaining Texan accent, and wears a midriff-baring top and low-slung jeans to the party. In other words, typical suburban mother of two attire.) Kyle reminds Riley that they're both out of work and can barely make ends meet. They bicker about money some more, and then just in case there are any concerns that the show won't be trashy enough, they start passionately making out on top of the kitchen table. Apparently they forgot that the kids, Riley's mother (Cybill Shepherd) and Kyle hotter younger brother (Colin Egglesfield) are all on the patio waiting to finish opening gifts.
While headed to a job interview, Riley runs into her old friend Selena. As Selena steps into a red sports car, she tells Riley that the spa she works at is hiring and gives her a business card. Riley shows up later with her masseuse resume in hand, but the owner, Georgia, takes one look at her and hires her on the spot. Riley doesn't suspect that there's anything unusual about the massage parlor, though co-workers keep making innuendo-laden comments like, "The tips are great. The harder I work the bigger they get," and "Don't worry honey, this job is all about flexibility."
Riley meets the other women who work at the salon, including Jolene (a.k.a. Toby's ex-wife from The West Wing) and Kendra (a.k.a. Lane's Playboy Bunny girlfriend from Mad Men). She gets to work on her first client, a young, hot oil company employee, who tells her his "hips and legs are a little tight." He grabs her butt as she's leaning over him, and she slaps his hand away, saying, "That's not on the menu!" He explains nicely, "The girls that don't give extras don't really do well here," but she pulls off his sheet and storms out of the room.
After a commercial break, Riley confronts Georgia and says what we're all thinking: "You didn't think it was important to tell me that the guys who come here expect extras?" Georgia says she assumed someone told Riley, and explains that 90% of the business is legitimate, but there's a small client list (chug your drink!) of guys who want more. Riley makes it clear that she has a loving husband and two kids at home and is simply not that kind of girl.
Cut to Riley returning home to find her house empty and immediately freaking out, since apparently Kyle never goes on jaunts to Home Depot. As it turns out, her instincts are right. She finds a note from the poor man's Keanu Reeves on the kitchen table and collapses on the floor weeping.
Back at the spa Riley learns via montage that giving massages is hard work! Some people are old, gross, and/or hairy and they don't tip very well. She caves and tells Georgia to get her one of the guys on the list. Now we've caught up to the first shot of the episode, and Riley is wearing a negligee and inching her hand up her client's leg. They have a flirty conversation and she tells him, "This is just not what I expected." It really isn't what anyone would expect dudes who pay for sexual favors from masseuses to look like. Each guy is more blindingly beautiful than the last and the episode averages about one chisled man torso every four minutes.
Her one somewhat less attractive client is a middle-aged man named Jared. She realizes he really just needs someone to talk to, and offers some advice on how he can reconcile with his wife (plus a "groin massage"). It seems that in the TV show Hewitt's character only lets her hands stray into intimate areas, while in the original she had sex with her clients.
Riley is finally able to make her mortgage payment, but her family is growing suspicious. Evan, the aforementioned hot brother-in-law, has taken to helping out around the house in Kyle's absence (while shirtless, natch). He stumbles in drunk one night and accuses Riley of having a sugar daddy. She's insulted and tells him to get out.
Riley becomes even more torn about her new line of work when someone writes "WHORE" on her car. Later she finds the culprit, Jared's wife Valerie, waiting outside her house. Rather than running in her house and calling the cops, she confronts her and winds up sharing some tips on how she can repair her marriage.
Later Evan walks in on Riley while she's changing her clothes for her kids' talent show. (Certainly it's the first and last of their romantic misunderstandings!) He apologizes, and after running into her boss Georgia at the show, Riley tells her she intends to stick with the job. Or as she puts it, "I may not have been able to save my marriage, but I'm going to save my family." Finally, after putting the kids to bed the phone rings, and it's her husband Kyle on the other end... dun, dun, dun.
Surprisingly, the worst thing about The Client List is it's time slot. There are already too many great shows on Sunday nights, and The Client List shouldn't be competing with the likes of Mad Men and Game of Thrones. This is a weeknight, unwind with a glass of pinot grigio after putting the kids to bed type of show. But, that's why they invented DVRs.
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