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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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.
The ratings weren't so big as those for the finale of the original Survivor, but CBS' Survivor II: The Australian Outback still drew the third-highest numbers of the year, behind only the Super Bowl and the Oscars. (CBS noted that the second Survivor finale aired in a more competitive time slot than its predecessor's.) The two-hour episode pulled a 20.1 rating and a 31 share (a 15.9/39 among adults 18-49), peaking in the final half-hour with a 23.6/33. A reunion show, hosted by Bryant Gumbel, at 10:00 p.m. also edged out a new episode of E.R. on rival NBC. CBS said that was the first time a first-run episode of the hospital drama had been beaten by any network since E.R.'s premiere season in 1994. The Late Show with David Letterman also benefited from the Survivor finale, notching up a rare win over NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
CNN WOOING CLINTON?
CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld claimed on Friday that Robert Pittman, the cable news channel's COO, is personally wooing Bill Clinton to join the company as the host of a live, nightly interview program. In an interview with CBS MarketWatch, Schonfeld also indicated that CNN is looking to have CBS anchor Dan Rather host an expanded primetime program of hard news. Schonfeld roundly endorsed the CNN strategy, saying that Clinton "could triple ratings" for the network. Asked about Schonfeld's comments, Clinton attorney Robert Barnett told CBS MarketWatch that the former president "has received many, many offers for media projects, to host his own show or be a commentator, and is not pursuing any of those things at this time."
UPN MAKING FRIENDS WITH DIAMONDS
UPN has sent what its CEO, Dean Valentine, has called "welcome-to-the-neighborhood" gifts to Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar that include a diamond necklace and a Gucci leather jacket, the New York Times reported Monday. The gifts presumably were intended to win over Gellar's affinity after she had publicly stated earlier this year that she would continue to appear on the show only if it remained on The WB. The Times said that other cast members had received gift baskets that include beluga caviar, Cristal Champagne and $4,000 Cartier watches. "They [the gifts] may be a little pricier than a chocolate cake, but the idea's the same," Valentine said.
"THE X-FILES" FINALE: STILL AN X
X-Files creator Chris Carter has indicated that the final two episodes of the current season could serve one of three purposes: as a cliffhanger for a season finale; as the closing episode of the entire series; or as a teaser for a forthcoming feature film. In an interview appearing on the TV Guide Web site, Carter also said that he is in "constructive" negotiations with Fox about returning for a ninth year with the sci-fi drama, but, he suggested, it was unlikely that David Duchovny would be back. "We had a really good, and I felt sweet, send-off for him his final night a little over a week ago. And whatever decision he makes, we have done eight terrific seasons together, and if there are more, great. And if there are no more, I will figure out a way to hopefully make the show as good as it can be," Carter said. He also noted that the final two episodes will center around the character Scully's pregnancy.
CONTRACT TALKS STALL WITH "THE VIEW" COHOSTS
Negotiations to renew the contracts of The View cohosts Meredith Vieira, Joy Behar and Star Jones have bogged down, according to TV Guide columnist J. Max Robins. Writing in the May 12 issue, Robins quoted an unnamed network insider as saying that following Disney's recent round of layoffs, ABC is "trying to lowball everybody." Although The View has become a hit in the 11a.m. hour, Jones and Behar reportedly earn only $300,000 a year according to Robins, while Vieira is paid about $500,000. Lisa Ling, the newest member, makes only $200,000, the columnist said.
WILL ACTORS FOLLOW WRITERS IN SETTLING WITH PRODUCERS?
A spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild has taken issue with numerous analysts who have suggested that Friday's agreement between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and TV Producers is likely to serve as a model for a similar settlement between SAG and the AMPTP. SAG spokesman Greg Krizman told Monday's New York Times: "Everybody is telling us that the writers' agreement is a template for us, but we're trying to back away from that somewhat." Nevertheless, an article in today's Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed labor lawyer who formerly negotiated labor contracts for the studios as saying: "Everyone expects SAG's proposals to fairly closely mirror the WGA's financial proposals." In a statement on Friday, SAG and AFTRA said, "If the AMPTP and the networks are prepared -- as they have assured us they are -- to address the unique needs of actors, we are confident we can emulate this significant accomplishment of reaching an agreement without a work stoppage." Among other things, the new industry contract with the WGA calls for a 3.5-percent pay increase for writers, higher residual fees, greater earnings from foreign and DVD sales, the right to visit sets, attend premiers and sit in on the cast's readings of their scripts.
NAME-CALLING ESCALATES IN "HOLLYWOOD REPORTER" TO DO
John Babcock Jr., the CEO of media publishing giant BPI, the parent company of the Hollywood Reporter, has given a ringing endorsement to the trade paper's publisher, Robert Dowling, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the resignation of the Reporter's labor reporter, David Robb. Robb had quit after Dowling spiked an article that he had written suggesting that the paper's gossip columnist had accepted favors from two Hollywood producers in exchange for favorable mentions in his column. Dowling assigned the article to other Reporter journalists. In a memo to the trade paper's staff, Babcock accused other journalists of painting an "incomplete and obviously one-sided" version of what had occurred. He also underscored Dowling's criticism of Robb's article, saying that "Robb had become so emotionally invested in this story that any pretense of objectivity had long since been abandoned." Without citing specific incidents, Babcock alleged that the issue "also involved claims of harassment (both internally and externally) along with overly aggressive and questionable reporting techniques which put the company at legal risk." Dowling said in a letter appearing in the Reporter that the allegations of harassment had been made by executives of the Directors Guild of America after Robb allegedly threatened DGA Executive Director Jay Roth with an investigation of his personal affairs after Roth complained to Dowling about an article that Robb had written.
INSIDE.COM TO COST. "INSIDE" MAG TO BITE THE DUST
Brill Media, the publishing company formed by Court-TV founder Steven Brill, said Friday that it plans to launch a fee-based version of its online media newsmagazine Inside.com on July 1. The new site, it said, will reportedly combine content from Inside.com with material from other Brill-owned publications, including Folio, Cable World and the Kagan World Media newsletters. Inside, a magazine print version of the online site, which had been expected to be combined with Brill's Content magazine as a new publication, Inside Content, has apparently been cast off. The statement said that "launching any new magazine in this economic environment doesn't make sense."
BOLLYWOOD STAR ARRESTED FOR COCAINE POSSESSION
Rising Bollywood film star Fardeen Khan has been arrested in India for alleged possession of cocaine in the latest scandal to rock the Indian film industry. According to Monday's India Express, the actor has confessed that he uses cocaine. "We are immune to shocks now," an industry veteran told the newspaper, referring to numerous sensational arrests involving Bollywood figures during recent months.