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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
Screenwriter Gary Ross, who is currently writing Spider-Man 4, is negotiating a Venom deal with studio bosses at Columbia and Marvel Entertainment.
According to Daily Variety, Topher Grace, who played the baddie in the last Spider-Man movie, is not expected to reprise his role as Peter Parker's rival Eddie Brock/Venom, who is infected with an alien organism and develops superpowers.
Spider-Man spinoff Venom is gearing up with Gary Ross in to do a rewrite and possibly direct.
Ross is already rewriting Spider-Man 4 at Columbia Pictures. Marvel Entertainment, Avi Arad and Ross will produce.
Venom, who appeared in Spider-Man 3 played by Topher Grace, is an archenemy of the webslinger but will be transformed into an antihero who becomes a defender of the innocent for the new film.
In Spider-Man 3, Venom started out as Eddie Brock, Peter Parker's newspaper rival. Infected by an alien organism that grafted itself to his skin, Brock had superpowers and strength superior to Spider-Man's.
Grace is not considered likely to reprise his role, Variety reports.
Despite Disney's acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, Columbia is able to turn Venom loose in a film because the studio holds rights in perpetuity not only to Spider-Man but to the villains in his universe.
Sam Raimi is prepping for a 2010 production start on Spider-Man 4 and writer Jamie Vanderbilt is currently scripting the fifth and sixth installments.
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How much did them country folks dislike Garth Brooks' soul patch? Well, take a look at the Academy of Country Music nominations. The scorecard reads something like this: Garth Brooks -- zero; 'N Sync -- one.
Is 'N Sync a country act? Can you chew bubble gum and tobacco at the same time? Do the Backstreet Boys know about this?
Frankly, we don't know. We just know this: The boy-band popsters of 'N Sync got more props out of the 35th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards than country mega-mega-star Garth Brooks. In nominations announced Wednesday, 'N Sync nabbed a nod for outstanding "vocal event" for their collaboration with Alabama on "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You." Brooks nabbed the aforementioned nothing.
The snub was for Brooks' foray into multiple personalities, a k a "In the Life of Chris Gaines," the hat-act's 1999 concept album. For the uninitiated, the "Chris Gaines" thing featured Brooks assuming an alter-ego (Gaines), adopting a pop/rock sound and sporting (egad!) a wig and soul patch.
Tim McGraw, who sports a hat and a goatee but not a soul patch, was rewarded for his good ol' country fashion sense with nominations in five categories, including Entertainer of the Year. All told, McGraw stands to lasso seven trophies, because in the best song and best single categories he's nominated as both the performer and producer.
Wife Faith Hill and Grammy-winning country trio the Dixie Chicks were the other top multiple nominees, with five nods apiece.
The awards are scheduled to be presented May 3 in a CBS telecast from Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater.
Here's a complete rundown of the nominations for the 35th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards:
Entertainer of the Year: Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Sawyer Brown, Shania Twain.
Top Male Vocalist: Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Collin Raye, George Strait.
Top New Male Vocalist: Gary Allan, Chad Brock, Brad Paisley.
Top Female Vocalist: Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, Shania Twain, Chely Wright.
Top New Female Vocalist: Jessica Andrews, Julie Reeves, Chalee Tennison.
Top Vocal Duo or Group: Asleep at the Wheel, Brooks & Dunn, Dixie Chicks, Lonestar, Sawyer Brown.
Top New Vocal Duo or Group: Montgomery Gentry, Shedaisy, Yankee Grey.
Top Vocal Event of the Year: "A Country Boy Can Survive (Y2K Version)" (with Chad Brock, Hank Williams, Jr., George Jones); "After the Gold Rush'' (with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt); "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You'' (with Alabama, 'N Sync); "My Kind of Woman'' (with Vince Gill, Patty Loveless); ''When I Said I Do'' (with Clint Black, Lisa Hartman Black).
Album of the Year: "A Place in the Sun," Tim McGraw; "Breathe," Faith Hill; "Cold Hard Truth," George Jones; "Fly," Dixie Chicks; "Ride With Bob," Asleep at the Wheel.
Single Record of the Year: "Amazed" Lonestar; "He Didn't Have to Be," Brad Paisley; "Please Remember Me," Tim McGraw; "Ready to Run" Dixie Chicks; "Write This Down," George Strait.
Song of the Year: "Amazed," Lonestar; "He Didn't Have to Be," Brad Paisley; "Breathe," Faith Hill; "Choices," George Jones; "Please Remember Me," Tim McGraw.
Country Video of the Year: "Breathe," Faith Hill; "He Didn't Have to Be," Brad Paisley; "How Do You Like Me Now," Toby Keith; "Ready to Run," Dixie Chicks; "Single White Female" Chely Wright.