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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When the melancholy strings of The Legend of Korra's end credit music began to play at the conclusion of the series' set of back-to-back episodes, "Welcome to Republic City" and "A Leaf in the Wind," I was left stunned, blown away by the sheer amount of drama packed into two half hours of Saturday morning cartoons. I immediately questioned my critical eye, pegging my adoration for the new show as a fanboyish relapse into the world of the show's predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Could a sequel cartoon series really be this powerful or was quintessential devotee projecting?
With last weekend's conclusion of Book One: "Air" (Airbender speak for Season One), I can look back and wake myself up. I wasn't confused at all: The Legend of Korra is really one of television's best shows.
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's Avatar mythology is akin to the Harry Potter series, beginning with Airbender, a kid-friendly hero's journey peppered with action, fleshed out characters, and a heap of emotion, and growing up with the audience into The Legend of Korra. Whereas Airbender felt like a Lord of the Rings for all ages, Korra scales down the scope, while upping the consequences, dropping us into a world seventy years in the future that's on the brink of an Industrial Revolution. Sure, there's magic and meditation and The Avatar (an reincarnated human imbued by spirits with the power to bend all four element types: water, fire, earth, and air), but the world of Korra balances it with technology, political strife, and criminal masterminding. Aang, the hero of Airbender, had a clear mission: defeat the big bad Fire Lord who was bent on controlling the world. In Korra, everything is a little bit hazier, a little more ambiguous, and a hell of a lot more terrifying. Yes, I'm talking about a Nickelodeon show.
With the release of Pixar's Brave this weekend, there's plenty of discussion on animated female characters and their portrayal in TV and movies. Certain characters may tiptoe towards true empowerment, but Korra blows them away. When we pick up with the titular hero (voiced by the lively Janet Varney), she's mastered three of the four elements and his headed to Republic City, the show's 1920s-ish, New York stand in that plays home base to the season's entire arc, to pick up one more skill: the spiritual technique of airbending. The move isn't too different from a teenager's transition to college — at the top of her game, Korra quickly realizes that being the Avatar earns her zero cred with her quiet but powerful airbending master Tenzin (portrayed with fatherly grace by the vet thespian J.K. Simmons), the police force that wishes she'd disappear, or the demanding population of Republic City that is on the brink of war. Besides having her own internal issues to deal with (Korra's a bit of a hot head — and not just when she's firebending), her status as a defender of peace puts her at the center of the city's (and the show's) main conflict.
There's a fissure forming in town, dividing the powerful bending community and the non-benders, who are too-often forced to step aside. Leading the "Equalist" movement from behind-the-scenes is Amon, a masked figure who plays puppetmaster to the non-benders, using propaganda and promises of a bending-free society to amass a militia. Korra's training is quickly interrupted by the reveal of Amon's greatest weapon: the ability to cleanse benders of their powers. In the third episode, "The Revelation," Amon strips a gangster of his firebending abilities with the touch of a finger. Korra's villain may not be murdering people in cold blood, but he might as well be — in the world of Avatar, your bending is your soul. Complicating Korra's balancing act is aggression from the other side of the struggle. Councilman Tarrlok stands alongside Tenzin in governing Republic City, but he's bent on keeping the Equalist forces squashed. He sends out task forces to arrest possible soldiers of the rebellion, attempts to blackmail Korra into aiding and eventually resorts to non-bender internment camps. These are not the sort of issues I had to deal with when I was seventeen.
What could have been political gobbledygook a la the Star Wars prequels is written by DiMartino and Konietzko with consistency, economy and truthfulness. Amon's actions are devastating — but not entirely unwarranted. That's heady material for a "kid's show," but Nickelodeon's faith the in the writing duo is clear with every episode. Anything can happen in Korra's exploration of Republic City and herself. In the fourth episode, Korra challenges Amon to a one-on-one battle to finish things once and for all. In any other show, we know the hero will walk away unscathed, if not successful. In The Legend of Korra, your wrenching gut would only be so lucky.
Korra isn't all about the dramatic shocks, delivering a wealth of comedy and excitement in its short run time (this season came in at a swift twelve episodes). New to the world of Avatar is the sport of Pro-Bending, where element manipulators of all types square off in teams for the amusement of cheering crowds. This is where Korra meets her companions: Mako (David Faustino), the brooding, firebending hero type, and Bolin (the side-splitting P.J. Byrne), his powerful earthbending brother who is never without a quip. The trio, as team Fire Ferrets, rise to the top of the Pro-Bending pack (a sport that has its own bittersweet taste — is this really how the spirits meant for people to be using their powers?) while becoming immersed in the underground workings of the Equalists, and entangling themselves romantic connections that inevitably form around hormonal teenagers. When Asami, the non-bending daughter of Republic City's most valuable innovator, becomes a financial backer for the Fire Ferrets, the core relationships get even messier. It may seem like it on the surface, but don't confuse the bunch for a young adult-lit love triangle. DiMartino and Konietzko craft a disturbingly accurate portrait of teen romance that's messy, confusing and, at times, altogether wonderful. The mushy stuff always plays as undertones — a style I wish some most live-action TV had the gravitas to pull off.
Great storytelling can only get you so far, but series directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu push the series into greatness with action filmmaking that's on par with any of this year's summer blockbusters. Mixing martial arts fights with expertly designed chase sequences and large scale battle scenes, the directing duo leave no opportunity untapped. When you have element-bending at your disposal, the possibilities are endless. Every episode features another ingenious use of adrenaline-infused animation; from police captain Lin Beifong's Spider-man-like attacks on Amon's airship fleet or an intimate battle between Korra and Amon's right-hand man, the electricity-enhanced Lieutenant, no show matches the intensity and grit of a Legend of Korra action sequence. As a cartoon junkie who grew up on X-Men, Batman, and a plethora of anime, Korra sets a new bar.
Nickelodeon does sport a handful of programs aimed directly at the young ones, but underestimating The Legend of Korra would be a mistake. The show is dense storytelling (having a foundation of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender is recommended, as events and characters are built upon in Korra), but an emotional watch, that confidently wrestles with the idea of loss, identity and responsibility. Calling The Legend of Korra a cartoon feels derogatory — the show never panders to any age group. Instead, it presents an adventure that will have a person of any age gasping, laughing and howling at the screen at its most badass of moments. Animation has the unique ability to present whatever the imagination conjures up. Even after one season, The Legend of Korra is inches away from that unreachable threshold.
Now, back to my meditation. Who knows how long it will take for Book Two to begin?
You can find Books One, Two and Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender all on Netflix Watch Instantly. The Legend of Korra is available on iTunes and Nickelodeon streaming. For more detailed recaps of the episodes, check out the Republic City Dispatch podcast.
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[Photo Credit: Nickelodeon]
The Legend of Korra: Book 1
The X-Men Origins: Wolverine star's parents were keen martial artists and they regularly enrolled the young Collins into fight training classes in Japan while she was growing up.
She was able to draw on her karate skills for her role as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Helium, in the upcoming sci-fi adventure - but the actress admits her years of karate became more of a burden then a blessing on set.
She tells WENN, "I spent my summers in Japan where my parents were getting their fourth and fifth and sixth don in Shito Ryu, which is an Okinawan style of karate...
"Karate fizzled out because of acting and this is the first time that the two have married and it was really emotional for me at the beginning. It was hard to bring back the memories from my childhood; it was a childlike feeling that I had to turn into a forceful, feminine and adult (feeling) and to not hurt people was a real challenge. It's completely a part of me now."
Collins stars alongside Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Bryan Cranston and Taylor Kitsch as the title character, a former American Civil War captain who is transported to Mars.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Animation particularly when it comes out of the Disney/Pixar stable is one of those areas of filmmaking that regularly inspires the phrase "They don't make them like they used to." In the case of Toy Story 3 however it's more accurate to say "They have never made them like this." It's certainly not unheard of for an animated film to be good for a Pixar film to be great or for the third film in a trilogy to be outstanding (though that's the rarest of the three) but in the case of Lee Unkrich's film the sheer degree at which it exceeds at all three is not just rare it's unprecedented.
Eleven years have elapsed since Woody (Tom Hanks) Buzz (Tim Allen) and all of Andy's favorite playthings had their last adventure -- rather 11 years have elapsed since Andy stopped playing with his toys. Buoyed by Woody's never-failing devotion the gang is all optimistic that Andy will elect to bring them with him to his first year of college but as that fateful empty-nest day approaches it becomes clearer and clearer that the only toy that will be making the trek to school is Woody. The rest are all by a series of unfortunate events consigned to live out their remaining days at Sunnyside daycare. Things are actually looking up for the neglected entertainers until they realize just how careless the ankle-biters are when it comes to playing with toys.
Unfortunately there is no escape in sight for the lovable personalities Pixar has been refining for over a decade. Lotso Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) runs a tight ship at Sunnyside; the new toys are just going to have to be sacrificed to the aggressive toddlers so the old veterans can have a relaxing time with their more mature counterparts. Eventually Woody catches wind of what kind of life his old pals are being forced to live and Toy Story 3 quite brilliantly becomes a riff on classic prison escape movies as Woody seeks to breach Lotso's security measures and bring his bunch back to Andy where they belong. And while this on-the-run chunk of the film is some of the most thrilling material Pixar has ever delivered it's also some of the most touching.
Unlike most sequels not a moment of Toy Story 3 feels artificial. There's no sense that Pixar decided to make a third film because it knew that the box office would gladly support another entry; no sense that this is a cash grab (unlike a certain green ogre's most recent trip to the big screen). All of those typical sequel pitfalls are carefully avoided by a swelling sense of finality. Toy Story 3 isn't just another adventure with these characters -- there is in fact no doubt that this is their final adventure their final hoorah together. Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt meticulously lead the audience along with bated breath the entire time culminating in a life-or-death scenario for the toys that is more heartfelt and genuine than most live-action films can ever muster.
It's astonishing how the creative team at Pixar can make you forget that what you're watching is all a bunch of digital wizardry. Maybe it's the 3D this time around maybe it's that this is the studio's most accomplished technical feat to date (there are single shots at a landfill that pack in richer detail than the entirety of the pioneering first film) that makes Toy Story 3 such an immersive experience. Or maybe it's simply because Pixar treats its property which is ostensibly for children with the utmost sincerity. The result is an overwhelming success the rare kind of film that were it a human being would be your best friend.
One could reasonably make the case that Toy Story 3 is the single best animated film ever made. I wouldn't outright agree with such grandiose claims but it's certainly not a baseless proposition that you'd be laughed at for bringing up. However with part three now tucked under Pixar's belt one could present an even better case that Toy Story is the best film trilogy ever made -- a claim I am far more comfortable signing on the dotted line for.