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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After garnering widespread praise (and an Oscar nomination for screenwriting) for his 2000 directorial debut You Can Count on Me Kenneth Lonergan was in-demand. In September 2005 the writer/director began production on a follow-up feature: Margaret which touted Anna Paquin Matt Damon Mark Ruffalo Matthew Broderick Allison Janney as well as legendary filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) as producers. The movie wrapped production in a few months time. The buzz was already growing.
Now six years later the movie is finally hitting theaters. So…what took so long?
The journey to this point hasn't been an easy one and it shows. If a film's shot footage is a block of granite and the editing process is the careful carving that turns it into a statuesque work of art Margaret feels like it was attacked by a blind man with a jackhammer. The film is a cinematic disaster a mishmash of shallow characters overwrought politics and sporadic tones. The story follows Lisa Coen (Paquin) a New York teenager who finds herself drowning in chaos after distracting a bus driver (Ruffalo) causing him to hit and kill a pedestrian (Janney). Initially Lisa tells the police it was all an accident but as time passes regret takes hold and the girl embarks on a mission to take down the man she now regards as a culprit. That's just the tip of the iceberg–along the way Lisa deals with everyday teen stuff: falling for her geometry teacher (Damon) combating her anxiety-ridden actress mother losing her virginity dabbling in drugs debating 9/11 and the Iraq War cultivating a relationship with her father in LA and more. There are about eight seasons of television stuffed into Margaret but even a two and a half hour run time can't make it all click.
For more on Margaret check out Indie Seen: Margaret the Long Lost Anna Paquin/Matt Damon Movie
How do you sell a really big summer movie if all the good guys, including your major stars, die at the end? (At least Kate Winslet's Rose Dewitt Bukater, if not poor Leo, survived the "Titanic" !)
When the film is Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm," which opens later this month, stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg have to take a back seat to the movie's real star – the storm itself.
At least that's how Warner Bros.' marketing campaign has lined up its ducks. In the print ads, trailers, TV ads, Web and radio promotions, it's the storm, storm, storm (and loud she is!) they're pushing. There's barely a glimpse of George and Mark, who were seen together last year in "Three Kings."
This marketing manoeuvering for "The Perfect Storm" was surely tricky, especially since the huge marquee value of Clooney and Wahlberg had to be devalued. The film is based on Sebastian Junger's big bestseller of the same title about the real-life 1991 storm that claimed all six lives aboard the Gloucester, Mass. fishing vessel Andrea Gail. Millions of readers already know what happened to the fisherman.
So, while the storm may not have been as "perfect" and infamous as the iceberg that got the Titanic, there's plenty of awareness out there that "The Perfect Storm" has a bummer of an ending. Hence, the savvy marketing that has made The Storm the star (new Oscar category, Best Storm?).
When it blows into theaters June 30th, "The Perfect Storm," like the storm it depicts, will be huge. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who so brilliantly delivered life underwater in the German U-boat blockbuster "Das Boot," will show us what he can do above the waves. And those waves can be 100' high, a whole lot taller than Clooney and Wahlberg.
ALLEY SPAWNS STAR?:The New York New Media Assn.'s recent panel, "Entertainment Online: Are We Having Fun Yet?," made two things perfectly clear: No, we are not having fun yet, and, no, we are not making money yet.
Nor was there any consensus about what "entertainment" actually is. In fact, the real news last Tuesday was that high-profile Alley watcher and media maven Jason McCabe Calacanis, one of the evening's not-having-fun-yet panelists, might become a movie star. But more on that later.
Panel moderator and L.A. Times journo Leah Gentry kept hammering the distinguished panel, which included Calacanis, XM Satellite Radio President and CEO Hugh Panero, party animal and Pseudo founder Josh Harris, and gamester Greg Costikyan, with the question "How do you make money with entertainment content?" Only Panero's subscription-based venture, which will deliver a great variety of digitally-crisp radio channels to cars, suggested a viable business model, except that XM's "fun" is down the road, so to speak, since the venture has yet to launch its satellites.
Unfortunately, that knotty question of fun which was to be the focus of the evening's discussion never even got addressed until an audience member – no doubt wanting to get his money's worth (tickets began at $15 a pop) -- posed the embarrassing question during Q&A. Only one panelist, "fun" guy Harris, dared wrestle with the audacious inquiry by confessing that his idea of fun on the Net is playing Solitaire on his Windows desktop.
So what about all these short films, games, flash animations, etc. spinning around the Web? Gamemeister Costikyan, who wrote the book "The Future of Online Games," kept waxing enthusiastic about gaming's popularity and "stickiness" on the Web (So many people do it! The Web's interactive capabilities make games a natural! Players keep coming back!). Still, Greg didn't show us the money.
So while matters of money and fun were left in the dust as panelists kept emphasizing the new medium's infancy (Look how long cable took to catch on!), the real "entertainment" and "fun" news of the evening was broken by Calacanis, who announced that he has a speaking role in Wayne Wang's upcoming, digitally-captured feature "Center of the World."
Calacanis did not discuss plot or his role but allowed that he also contributed to the screenplay, which Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt wrote.
So what is "Center of the World" about? According to Artisan Entertainment, which is producing with Redeemable Features and gave us that little item known as "The Blair Witch Project," "Center..." is in the tradition of such ultra-steamy films as "Last Tango in Paris," "9 ½ Weeks," and "In the Realm of the Senses."
The story's hero, played by Peter Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry"), is a young computer wizard in San Francisco who has just become an IPO multimillionaire. Apparently he drops some of this newly-won coin at a chic club where he meets a beautiful stripper. Immediately attracted to one another, they take off for three days in Las Vegas where they explore the limits of their sexuality and the nature of passion.
Hopefully they keep their cell phones off and hopefully ever-inquisitive Web Watcher Calacanis stays in character and doesn't ruin their offline onscreen fun.
A MATTER OF 'SURVIVAL'?: As the insatiable appetite for reality-based television becomes more of a, well, reality, producers are frantically scurrying for the Next Next Thing in this exploding genre. And Buzz/Saw radar may have picked up some news-breaking signals regarding a new series.
The reality craze derives from early TV's game shows, gained impetus with PBS's "American Family," and really got going with Court TV, MTV's "The Real World," Robin Leach's leering "Rich and Famous" series, and E! Entertainment's coverage of how we party and have fun.
Cable's growing hunger for things real is even taking us inside the human body as a number of shows feature actual medical procedures. And PBS is back in the game with "1900 House."
Now, comes reality's biggest audience-winning coup. CBS's new "Survivor" series, with its weekly look at a cross-section of regular folk marooned on a island and chowing down on rats or live worm-like bugs, just trounced ABC's "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." This week marks the season premiere of "The Real World" and later this summer comes CBS's "Big Brother," another import from Europe, that keeps constant surveillance over a group of people packed into a house from which, except for one person, they will, one by one, be voted out by audiences.
But, could a mysterious new series called "Ship Mates" ("Noah's Love Ark" and "Shipboard Romance" are other titles under consideration), uh, blow "Survivor," "Big Brother," the lot of em out of the water?
The alleged series combines four of America's biggest crazes -- reality programming, luxury cruise ships, fast and easy money, and the Internet! -- with the profound human need to be loved, the omnipresent tingle of real paranoia, and that old perennial sex.
Throw in for good measure Big Stars and a whiff of an already proven TV classic ("The Love Boat") and, voila! You have "Noah's Love Ark" (our preferred title).
Quite simply, "Noah's Love Ark" brings twenty singles together in the sealed-off, totally opulent first class area of a mega-cruise ship for two weeks. The ten men and ten women, who do not use their real names and will be totally isolated from the outside world, will eat sumptuous meals, play a series of shipboard games and indulge in a variety of networking and entertainment activities until they pair off.
Audiences will participate by predicting the results on the Net. The first few to identify who pairs off with whom wins. And the twenty participants have a chance to win big if they can identify -- the Big Phony among them!
This is where the paranoia comes in. "Noah's Love Ark" pro ucers will recruit a budding actor to play one of the love-hungry singles. They will invent a character he or she will have to maintain throughout the trip. Whoever of the twenty first spots the actor and successfully "outs" him/her is the on-board winner.
Of course, the show's Big Stars will be flown in to a port city to be brought on board for a day or two to entertain the troops, just like on other major cruise ships. As the cruise industry gets more competitive, companies will be dying to show off their boats and will be happy to make them available to "Noah's..." producers for free. So even the show's producers come up winners!
And of course, the concept allows for tons of variations: gay cruises, ethnic cruises, yuppie cruises, cruises for antique lovers who are single, cruises for widows and widowers or Net junkies who'd have to give up their habit for a few weeks. In "reality," it could go on and on. And so could we...