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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Those who dream of calling the shots on glamorous movie sets, donning an authoritative baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, and watching a film unfold before you as the actors heed your every call, might want to adjust their expectations early on. Before you can get to Spielberg status, you’ve got to take out the trash — literally.
Most big time directors and producers don’t start out by waltzing onto a movie set and taking charge. They start by learning the tools of the trade, and for many filmmakers, that means working as a Production Assistant — more affectionately (or resentfully, depending on the experience), a PA. Illustrious producer Kathleen Kennedy famously started as a PA on Steven Spielberg’s 1941, before Spielberg brought her in as his assistant for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy’s credits grew from E.T. and Gremlins to all of Spielberg’s biggest hits, including 2012’s Lincoln.
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And to think Kennedy started in a job that had her running for coffee and anything else their superiors might need. There are PAs for every aspect of a film production (office PA, locations PA, set PA, truck PA, and set runners), and in every aspect of the job, there’s dirty work to be done. And the PAs are the ones doing it.
With stars in our eyes at the thought of being paid to hang out movie sets, we spoke to a few working PAs in New York City, both of whom came up through the Made in NY PA training program, and they gave us a bird’s eye view of one of the toughest and most valuable jobs for filmmakers (before and after they make it big).
“When I'm on set I learn as much as I can so I know, when I want to make my own movie... I know what to look for when hiring a grip and when hiring a camera guy,” says professional PA Matthew Butler. “I want to learn what to look for in scheduling and budgeting, and I can learn that while I'm here, too.”
But before you can walk, you’ve got to plunge a toilet.
It’s Quite Literally a Thankless Profession
”A lot people don’t know what a PA really does, but when you get on to set you realize, ‘Oh a PA is all the dirty work that nobody else wants to do,” says Made in NY 2009 grad Will Mahr, who’s since worked as a PA, production coordinator, camera operator, and key PA on various projects, including Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” music video and Remember Me with Robert Pattinson. “When I first came on, I kind of visualized what a PA was until I got on set and had first-hand experience, and my first experience was actually plunging a toilet. Anything goes, but I guess a lot people won’t know what a PA does unless they do it firsthand,” adds Mahr.
When it comes to needs on a film, TV, or live event set, the PAs are there to do whatever might be needed to move the shoot forward. And that truly meanswhateverthe filmmakers need. Sometimes that entails bringing the talent down to set; and other times that means cleaning up messes no one else wants to deal with; sometimes it means running to four different Bed Bath and Beyonds to purchase enough high-end fans to keep stars’ sweat levels at a minimum. It’s like silent magic; others on set don’t always see every little thing the PAs do, but the result of the work is invaluable. All the same, that doesn’t result in a whole lot of hands-on praise for the folks executing PA duties.
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“When I first started, I was just like nobody knows I'm doing anything. I'm changing garbage, I'm helping out on set, I'm doing all these things and I don't think anyone sees it,” says Butler, who’s worked on shows like Snooki and JWOWW and Food Network Star. “But people do see it, because at the end if they hire you again, they know you were doing a good job,” he says. PA work, of course, is freelance, because even most television shows don’t shoot year-round. And that’s how Butler says he knows who’s been doing a great job with their “thankless” positions. “You look around at sets and you see a whole bunch of the same people, but then you see some people that aren't there from the previous set because obviously they weren't doing their jobs,” he says.
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Rubbing Elbows With the Stars All Day? Think Again
The hardest part of taking on any job in entertainment is the realization that it’s never as glamorous as you think it will be. PA work is no different — and not simply because you might be asked to deal with a literal mess as part of the job. On set, the atmosphere is less like the glittering, shiny Hollywood sets we’ve seen in, well, Hollywood movies. In reality, it’s all business and all on a tight schedule. “You don’t talk to too many people other than the other PAs assisting you; maybe every once in a while you chat with the other guys, like camera guys, but they’re pretty busy as well and on the go all the time,” says Mahr.
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Of course, Mahr adds that the distance between PAs and famous faces is more prevalent on big budget movies because the process is more rigid. On smaller projects, like music video and indie movies, there’s a little less of a divide. While working on Gaga’s video shoot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Mahr had the chance to shoot the breeze with the mysterious pop star. “I worked on a Lady Gaga video as well and spoke to her a bit. She was quite a character, I must say, but a very nice person over all,” he says.
Reality TV PAs: Keepers of Unbridled Chaos
Had Mahr been working in reality television, however, that interaction probably wouldn’t have happened. In fact, it would likely have been forbidden.
Butler says when he worked on both Food Network Star and Snooki and JWOWW, he was prevented from speaking with the contestants in most cases as a means of preserving the “reality” of the reality stars’ reactions to the prompts and conflicts laid before them by the producers. “Yeah, it's hard because [the stars] pass you and they'll say ‘Hi’ and the professional thing they tell you to do is that you can't talk to them. So you look like the rude person when they say ‘Hey, what's going on?’” he explains.
It was something that made his job a bit more trying when he was working with Snooki and JWOWW. “They had a PA getting in the van and driving them around, I was in the follow-van driving with the security following them, when she drove the wrong direction. We're going for 45 minutes in the wrong direction and the entire time, I'm trying to like call them on the walkies and tell them like, ‘You're going the wrong way,’ but the producer on my end says, ‘No, you can't say anything; it's just a part of the story,’ he says. Butler says he struggled with the request to refrain from correcting the PA driving the wrong direction while the stars’ friends were waiting at a club and the duo was stuck arguing in appropriate and explosive reality TV fashion.
“As a nice person, I just want to help this girl because she may get fired because she's driving the wrong direction. Finally they pull over and she gets out of the car and she's like crying … when I get to the car they’re like ‘What the f**k is going on?’ using foul language. ‘What's going on? Our friends are there.’ And me, I wasn't allowed to say anything,” says Butler.
Luckily for Butler, and his proclivity for showing others compassion, when they finally got the crew driving the right direction to the club, he had some time to speak with Snooki and co. “It was cool just to be able to sit down and talk with them and calm them down for the entire drive on the way to the city,” he says.
Unfortunately, in the world of reality TV, PAs don’t often get the chance to get chatty. Reality with interference is no longer reality in the world of television.
Welcome to the Boys’ Club
If the top, best-known directors in the entertainment business are almost all men (take a quick look at this year’s Best Director Oscar nominees), it should make complete sense that the PA profession is greatly devoid of women. “There will always be like the one girl on set: the one grip girl in the group, the one camera girl, the one PA girl,” says Butler. He adds that there were more women on the set of The Celebrity Apprentice, but they were in production. “They're the planner, the coordinator, they're accounting. And then most of the camera guys are men, but there's that one camera girl you see sometimes,” he says.
It’s something NYU film professor and documentary filmmaker Christine Choy sees as a deterrent for many young women coming up through the filmmaking world. “There are so few female crew members. I've never seen a female boomer... Same thing with the teamsters. When's the last time you saw a female truck driver?” she says. The PA profession certainly isn’t without women, but men are the undeniable majority. It leaves a bit of a hole in the industry and one that Choy sees as an opportunity to level the playing field. In order to get ahead in the film production world and promote equality, “I encourage a lot of young women to take up the technical aspects,” says Choy.
But man or woman, young or old, anyone looking to sop up the glitter and glitz of Hollywood by working as a PA might want to think again. It’s a tough, tough world. “It’s great that you get to work with celebrities and what not, but it’s hard work. PAs are the soldiers of the production," says Mahr. “It’s a lot of grunt work and sometimes you plunge a toilet … but if you’re willing to be positive and put a smile on your face, you’ll definitely go a long way,” he adds.
If this less-than-rosy look at the profession sends aspiring PAs running for the door, they should likely keep on going. But for those willing to stick with it the potential for rewards is infinite. You just might have to wade through a little crap on the way.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Tim Denison/Getty Images]
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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.