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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There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
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.
Skewering the politics of the left--and Michael Moore in particular--is not a terrible idea for comedy but American Carol doesn’t do it very successfully. Using the hackneyed uninspired approach of spoofing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol director David Zucker’s version has the Ghosts of John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin) General George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer) and George Washington (Jon Voight) visiting a liberal documentary filmmaker named Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) in order to set him straight and teach him not to hate America but to embrace it in all its glory. Their goal is to stop him from helping a group of Islamic suicide bombers make a new recruitment film. In a series of gags American Carol presents Malone as a man who uses the medium to bash his country. He is portrayed as sympathetic to Nazis and Hitler responsible for 9/11 in bed with Middle Eastern terrorists--wrong on every possible issue and overweight to boot. After pointing out all his perceived evil the ghosts try to get Moore er Malone to see the light and change his ways. Apparently David Zucker--aware most of Hollywood leans to the left--got a list of actors known to be supporters of the GOP and hired them all. Voight Grammer James Woods Kevin Sorbo Dennis Hopper Robert Davi ET’s Mary Hart country singer Trace Adkins and even Zucker veteran Leslie Nielsen signed up to bash Moore using a sledgehammer approach as a substitute for the lack of a clever script. Occasionally thanks to an inspired casting choice here and there Carol is kind of amusing such as in a scene in which Malone and Rosie O’Connell (get it?) guest on the O’Reilly Factor. With Bill O’Reilly playing himself (and doing it well) actress Vicki Browne really nails Rosie who is presented as so far left she makes Moore look like Ronald Reagan. As Malone Farley (younger brother of the late Chris Farley) looks reasonably like Moore but doesn’t really get the mannerisms right. It’s not enough to try and get by just by putting on a baseball cap and glasses and hoping for the best. Of the rest Grammer comes off well as Patton delivering his lines with a lot more panache than they deserve. You know what kind of movie you’re watching when even Gary Coleman and Paris Hilton turn up for a bit. Zucker--whose films Airplane! and the The Naked Gun series specialize in inspired sight gags--seems to have forgotten how to make this style of throw-it-to-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks style of comedy work. Surprisingly the jokes are mostly verbal in this outing and the whole comic soufflé falls flat. Also the events of 9/11 are still too close to serve as a gateway for a few of the gags employed here. The premise is promising but the Michael Malone/Moore character is so far out he doesn’t resemble reality much less the famous Moore. Blaming him for all the ills of the world may be cathartic for the ultra-conservative base Zucker is apparently aiming An American Carol at but there needs to be more than just a kernel of truth to make these jokes zing. Instead what could have been an amusing riff looks more like a propaganda film out to destroy Moore rather than spoof him.
Just one day after ABC announced its surprising fall 2001 lineup, CBS followed suit Wednesday with some curveballs of its own.
The Eye Network will bring back 16 primetime programs, CBS President Les Moonves announced Wednesday - including Survivor, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Everybody Loves Raymond and Judging Amy - and also will introduce eight new series starring some of Hollywood's heavyweights.
Survivor and CSI will remain Thursday's double-threat, and the Monday lineup of strong sitcoms, including King of Queens, Yes, Dear, Raymond and Becker, also will stay untouched.
New blood, however, will shake up CBS' remaining primetime schedule. The network's offering of rookie shows is as follows:
Thursdays, 10 p.m. EST
Set in Washington, D.C., this drama follows a brave group of CIA agents who risk life and limb in the name of national security. The series stars Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal), as a no-holds-barred agent who's haunted by the mysterious death of his brother, and Will Patton (Remember the Titans), as the veteran agent who knows the truth about Bellows' sibling. Also stars David Clennon (thirtysomething) as a fraud expert and Paige Turco (Party of Five) as the determined rookie. Produced by Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm).
"The Amazing Race"
Wednesdays, 9 p.m. EST
Think of it as Survivor unrestrained. Eleven teams, each comprised of two members, traverse the globe in a month-long competition to be the first to reach the final destination. The winning team nabs $1 million. But, alas, here's the catch: all team members must have a pre-existing personal relationship - be it family, friend or foe - adding some tension to the overall scheme. Executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon) and Bertram van Munster (Cops).
Fridays, 8:30 p.m. EST
In one of only two new sitcoms debuting on CBS in the fall, Daniel Stern (City Slickers) stars as a single father who operates a run-down community center populated with a diverse group of people. As the neighborhood ruffians learn lessons in life at the center - receiving guidance, playing sports and seeing tutors - Stern's character also learns what is important in life. Produced by Stern, Howard J. Morris (Home Improvement) and Michael Hanel (Titus).
Saturdays, 9 p.m. EST
James Cromwell (Babe) stars as a man who has spent his entire life as a success in the political arena - having served three terms in the Senate - until, in a shocking defeat, he loses his seat on Capitol Hill and is forced to return to civilian life. His three daughters timidly attempt to make the transition a smooth one, yet their own personal conflicts with other family members render the former senator's homecoming a nerve-racking affair. Produced by John Wells (ER), Lydia Woodward (China Beach) and Christopher Chulack (The West Wing).
"The Education of Max Bickford"
Sundays, 8 p.m. EST
Possibly the most creative of CBS' new dramas, Bickford delves into the bizarre life of college professor Max Bickford (Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss). Max is denied a promotion at work, is regularly stabbed in the back by the college president (Regina Taylor) and is forced to deal with the fact that his former best friend, Steve, is now a woman (Helen Shaver) named Erica. Executive produced by Nicole Yorkin (Judging Amy).
"The Ellen Show"
Fridays, 8 p.m. EST
Ellen DeGeneres returns to primetime TV as an overworked Internet executive who realizes that life in the slow lane is the way to go. Her solution? She moves back to her small hometown to live with her peculiar mother (Cloris Leachman) and sister (Emily Rutherfurd) - but will the pressures of living back at home outweigh the stresses of her previous life on the fast track? And is her former high school sweetheart moving back in on her? Produced by DeGeneres, Carol Leifer (Seinfeld) and Mitchell Hurwitz (The Golden Girls).
Tuesdays, 9 p.m. EST
Half legal drama, half a journey of self-discovery, Simon Baker (L.A. Confidential) plays Nick, a high-powered lawyer who, following a drug bust, is forced by the courts to work in a child advocacy office to set him straight. Though Nick is still determined to please his former legal clients, he slowly warms up to the children he's ordered to assist, shedding his cold exterior. Dabney Coleman (9 to 5) stars as Nick's stern father. Executive produced by Mark Johnson (Donnie Brasco) and Michael Pressman (Chicago Hope).
Wednesdays, 10 p.m. EST
This bizarre drama follows the investigation of a Bureau of Wildlife Management agent (Lou Diamond Phillips) obsessed with unlocking the mystery behind a rash of human disappearances in a Seattle suburb. His investigation centers upon a pack of wild wolves that can morph into human beings at will. Only one man-a Native American biology professor (Graham Greene)--knows the truth behind the supernatural creatures. Executive produced by John Leekley (Kindred: The Embraced) and Bernard Lechowick (Hyperion Bay).
As for returning shows with new time slots, four programs are being shuffled around. 60 Minutes II stays on Wednesdays, but will shown at 8 p.m. EST, not 9 p.m. EST, its current time slot. Another news magazine show, 48 Hours, will be shown on Fridays at 10 p.m. EST, a day later than its current home at 10 p.m. EST Thursdays. That's Life will jump back from Saturdays at 8 p.m. EST to Fridays at 9 p.m. EST. Finally, the family hit Touched by an Angel moves from Sundays at 8 p.m. EST to Saturdays at 8 p.m. EST.
Fox is expected to release its fall schedule sometime Thursday.