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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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
Roberts, Diaz collect highest paychecks in Hollywood
Star Julia Roberts, whose action sequel Ocean's Twelve hits theaters Friday, tops The Hollywood Reporter's annual list of the highest-paid actresses with an asking price of $20 million per film. Roberts first gained notice playing a waitress in the 1988 comedy Mystic Pizza and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as the doomed diabetic heroine in the 1989 drama Steel Magnolias, but it was her performance as a warm-hearted prostitute in the 1990 rags-to-riches hit Pretty Woman that made her one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. Close behinds Roberts on the Hollywood pay scale is Charlie's Angels star Cameron Diaz, who also sports a $20 million price tag but didn't appear in any films this year. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore, meanwhile, round out the Top Five with a $15 million asking price per film. The sixth highest-paid actress is Halle Berry, with $14 million, followed by Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie (both earning $12 to $15 million each), and Renee Zellweger and Jennifer Lopez ($12 million), The Associated Press reports. The special "Women in Entertainment" issue also includes what it considers five breakout performers: Kirsten Dunst is No. 1 at $8 million, followed by Lindsay Lohan ($7.5 million), Jessica Alba ($3 million), Mandy Moore ($3 million) and Sarah Michelle Gellar ($2 million).
Joan and Melissa back for the Hollywood awards
Joan and Melissa Rivers are bringing their fashion expertise back to the red carpet, this time for the TV Guide Channel, starting with the Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 16. The mother-daughter duo was shut out of this year's Emmy Awards because of a contractual snafu with E! Entertainment Television--the network they had been with since 1996. According to the AP, an exclusive agreement between E! and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, in charge of the Emmys, prevented the Rivers duo from covering Emmy's red carpet arrivals. "It's been a mess, it's been a very messy couple of months," Joan Rivers told the AP Tuesday. "I think they have their acts together. I just want to get back to work."
Incredibles tops Annie award noms
Pixar Animation Studios' The Incredibles tops the list of nominees for the 32nd annual Annie Awards with 16 nominations, the International Animated Film Society announced Monday. The film's nominations include best animated feature, directing, music and voice acting for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the hero Frozone, and Brad Bird as the fashion designer Edna Mode, the AP reports. DreamWorks' Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, meanwhile, garnered seven nods each. Other nominees include Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. The awards will be handed out Jan. 30 in Glendale, Calif.
Mishaps on Spielberg's War of the Worlds
Looks like a few "extras" were lost on the set of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, a remake of the H.G. Wells novel starring Tom Cruise. Two adult-size mannequins apparently broke free and drifted south down the Connecticut River during filming, Connecticut authorities told AP. Despite a search by the movie production's water safety crew, the mannequins weren't recovered, and other police departments along the riverfront were alerted. "We just wanted them to know that if they got any calls about bodies floating in the river," police Lt. Shannon Haynes said Monday. "But we never heard anything about them being found."
CBS wins ratings week... again
CBS topped TV ratings again this week, bolstered by Everybody Loves Raymond and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the AP reports. CBS averaged 13 million viewers followed by ABC ( 10.4 million); NBC (10.3 million); Fox (6.7 million); UPN (3.6 million); and the WB (3.5 million). The top 10 shows were: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation CBS; CSI: Miami, CBS; Survivor: Vanuatu, CBS; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, ABC; Two and a Half Men, CBS; Without a Trace, CBS; ER, NBC; NFL Monday Night Football: St Louis at Green Bay, ABC; Lost, ABC.
Looking for Dan Rather's replacement
CBS now has the unenviable task of finding a replacement once anchorman Dan Rather signs off in March. "We're almost starting from ground zero," CBS Chairman Les Moonves said last week. "Anything can happen. We may bring in the cast of Friends."According to a recent Broadcasting & Cable article, some of the candidates include ABC News' Diane Sawyer, Dateline NBC's Stone Phillips, 60 Minutes's Lesley Stahl, Lester Holt of NBC's Weekend Today and Sawyer's Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibbons.
Infinity expects Stern to fulfill commitment
Viacom Inc.'s Infinity radio unit expects Howard Stern to remain with the company through the end of next year when his contract expires, Reuters reports. "We are counting on Howard (Stern) being on the air, but we are feverishly looking for someone to replace him," said Infinity's president and chief operating officer Joel Hollander at the UBS Media Week conference in New York. Stern announced in October he was heading to Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. in January 2006, but there has been speculation the shock jock may jump ship before the Infinity deal is up--that is, if someone were willing to buy out the remainder of the contract. Asked by a conference attendee if Infinity would entertain offers to permit Stern's release, Hollander quipped: "If you were to give me a check for $100 million, I'll let him go tomorrow."