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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
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.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
Rings Brings 'Em In at Midnight
"One Ring to rule them all…and in the darkness bind them." Followers of The Lord of the Rings came out in the dark for the 12:01 a.m. screenings of the third and final installment in the Rings trilogy, Return of the King,Associated Press reports. The special midnight screenings took place in 2,100 theaters, twice that of the previous film in the series, The Two Towers, and took in $8 million. Screenings the following day took in another $26.1 million, making it the biggest opening Wednesday as well as the highest one day take for a December release. The film centers on the fellowship of elves, dwarves, and men who rally round hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), as he attempts to destroy a ring with a terrible power. Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers took in $861 million and $921 million respectively, leading New Line (the studio behind the trilogy) to hope the film may break the $1 billion mark. "This thing is so gigantic, we really don't know where we're going," said David Tuckerman, New Line's head of domestic distribution. The only film to ever earn $1 billion was Titanic, which took $1.8 billion worldwide.
Affleck To Visit Troops for Holidays
Ben Affleck will entertain the troops sometime around the holidays as part of a United Services Organization (USO) tour of the Persian Gulf, Reuters reports. According to a release issued by the USO, Affleck will shake hands, sign autographs, and screen his latest film, Paycheck, for the men and women overseas. The visit will take place in the days surrounding Christmas and New Year's, though the exact dates will be kept under wraps for security reasons. Affleck's famously on-again off-again relationship with Jennifer Lopez after the last minute cancellation of their September wedding has garnered more interest than his film roles of late, but Paramount hopes to change all that this month with Paycheck. The USO has been recruiting celebrities and organizing performances for the troops since World War II.
Airport Gets Hope-ful
In more sort-of USO related news, the Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena Airport was officially changed to Bob Hope Airport at a christening ceremony Wednesday, Associated Press reports. The comedian had parked his private plane at the airfield since 1985 and embarked from there on many trips to entertain U.S. troops abroad. The comedy legend's widow Dolores spoke to the crowd gathered on the tarmac about bidding her husband farewell as he few off to his USO duties in the South Pacific during World War II. "Our son Zachary, who was 5, kept saying `goodbye, Daddy.' He didn't know whether his father was coming or going," she said. The comedian and star of numerous films (many with fellow USO performer Bing Crosby) passed away this year at age 100.
Aaron Carter Sues for Emancipation
Claiming he "feels betrayed" by the mishandling of his financial affairs, pop star Aaron Carter is seeking to become legally emancipated from his former co-manager mother, Billboard reports, and alleges she took over $100,000 from his bank account without his permission. The 16-year-old is still managed by his father, Bob Carter, who is currently embroiled in a custody battle with Aaron's mother, Jane Carter. Aaron is the younger brother of the Backstreet Boys' Nick Carter.
Kutcher in the House
Ashton Kutcher and his Katalyst partner Jason Goldberg will executive produce The House for 20th Century Fox TV, Variety reports. Ashton, who recently reportedly shut down his successful hidden camera prank show, Punk'd, will star in the new show. The one-hour drama will center on the goings on at a college frat house. J. Mackeye Gruber and Eric Bress, the writer-directors of Kutcher's latest flick, The Butterfly Effect, will write the show.
"Lingerie Bowl" Too Hot for Chrysler
Chrysler has pulled its sponsorship of "Lingerie Bowl 2004" after critics charged the show was sexist, Reuters reports. The pay-per-view halftime game to air during the Super Bowl Feb. was to feature lingerie clad models with the Dodge ram's head logo prominently displayed on their bras. Proceeds from the game were to benefit the American Foundation for AIDS to fund AIDS research, but the charity also dropped out of the game. Horizon Productions, the company behind the game, said that though they are "disappointed" with the loss of Dodge as a sponsor, they will go ahead with the game as planned.
Studdard Tops Charts
American Idol winner Ruben Studdard is victorious once more. His first album, Soulful, came in at number one, selling 417,000 units during its debut the second week of December, Reuters reports. His tally exceeds that of the first series winner Kelly Clarkson, whose debut album, Thankful, sold 297,000 units during its first week of release. However, this year's first runner-up Clay Aiken bested them both by moving 613,000 units of his album, Measure of a Man, during its debut in April. Says Violet Brown, director of urban music Wherehouse Music stores, "If it's an American Idol record, you know that you have a built-in customer base. If it's an American Idol album that gets good radio play and is a good record, then you know you're going to go even beyond." But not every album is a winner. The most unfortunate of the American Idol offspring is Justin Guarini, last year's first runner up, whose self-titled album sold just 136,000 albums since its release in June.
P.Diddy New Raisin
Hot on the heels of such fading Hollywood stars as Melanie Griffith and John Stamos, newly minted actor Sean "P. Diddy" Combs is heading to the Great White Way to star in a revival of the Lorraine Hansbury classic, A Raisin in the Sun, Associated Press reports. Combs will take the role played by Sidney Poitier in both the stage and screen versions of Raisin's Walter Lee Younger, a young African-American man who moves his widowed mother and family into an all-white neighborhood. The play debuts in March of next year.Combs has previously had small roles in such films as
Actor Kyle MacLachlan is engaged to his girlfriend of two years, fashion publicist Desiree Gruber, the Associated Press reports. The two will tie the knot April 20 in Miami, Gruber's hometown. The couple met at a chiropractor's office. MacLachlan, 42, currently stars in HBO's hit series Sex and the City as the husband of Kristin Davis's character Charlotte.
Singer Jill Scott won three awards at Tuesday night's Seventh Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, including Entertainer of the Year, AP reports. Destiny's Child took home an award for best single for their hit "Survivor" while 3LW captured Album of the Year with 3LW. Singer Aaliyah, who was killed in a plane crash on Saturday, was nominated for rhythm and blues, soul or rap song of the year but lost to Yolanda Adams. The Lena Horne Award for outstanding career achievement went to Patti LaBelle.
Morris the Cat handler Bob Martwick died Sunday at the age of 75, according to AP. Martwick found the original Morris, famous for his star appearances in Starkist Seafood TV ads, at an animal shelter in Hinsdale, Illinois, in the '60s. Though the original Morris died in 1970, Martwick served as a handler for the second Morris. He also helped discover and worked with Spuds MacKenzie, the onetime bull terrier mascot for Anheuser-Busch.
Trouble looms for HBO's hit mob drama The Sopranos. Makers of the series are heading to a Chicago court on Wednesday to ask a judge to dismiss a claim that the series is offensive to Italian-Americans. According to the BCC, the move follows a suit brought on by the American Italian Defense Association (AIDA), claiming the show's depiction of Italian Americans in murders and extortion is "racist." The BBC also reports the network will argue that the claim infringes on their rights to free speech and that the judge will make his ruling based on an obscure Illinois state law that protects individual dignity.
In other Sopranos news, 70-year-old singer and actor Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior on the show, has canceled a Sept. 19 concert with real soprano Cynthia Lawrence. The concert was called off after civil rights groups complained that The Sopranos perpetuates all the wrong stereotypes about Italian Americans.
Former NBA forward Dennis Rodman is in trouble with the law again. Rodman allegedly sprayed patrons at a Newport Beach, Calif., Hooters restaurant with a fire extinguisher after someone said something to him he didn't like. Police told AP that Rodman got into a shoving match with the customer before leaving the restaurant. He then headed to his boat, which was docked near the restaurant, where police questioned him. Rodman has not been arrested but the case is under investigation. According to AP, the police have visited Rodman's oceanfront home more than 70 times for noise complaints.
PageSix.com has apparently obtained a copy of a Sex and the City script entitled "I Heart NY" set to air in February. The script reveals that Sarah Jessica Parker's character Carrie breaks up with her fiancé Aidan. In another story line, Cynthia Nixon's character Miranda fakes going into labor to stop Carrie from having sex with Mr. Big (Christopher Noth). The show is on hiatus until January, when HBO will air the season's final six episodes.
Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant will be starring in a Castle Rock/Warner Bros. romantic comedy due out in December 2002, Variety reports. Bullock will reportedly play a neurotic attorney with Grant as her wealthy boss. The film will be produced by Bullock's Fortis Films and directed by Marc Lawrence.
Michael Jackson will be presiding over the opening of Nasdaq trading on Thursday, Reuters reports. Media coverage is being restricted to giant video screens outside of the Nasdaq in New York. Jackson, who went on a private tour of the New York Stock Exchanges in January, is currently in New York for a concert honoring his 30 years as a solo performer.
David Bowie and Sean Combs have paired up for a remake of Bowie's song "This is Not America," ABC News reports. The project will be included in the soundtrack to the upcoming film Training Day starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. Combs described the song as a fusion of techno, hip-hop, funk and soul rock.
A syndicated TV series based on the online auction site eBay is set to launch in fall 2002, Variety reports. Columbia TriStar Television Distribution and LMNO Prods. will partner on the series, which would take a magazine-style look at the stories behind eBay users. The half-hour episodes would be a cross betweenAntiques Roadshow and Real People. No pilot has been shot yet.
British tabloids are ridiculing Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham's plans to create a new image for herself. Posh was pictured on the cover of British papers Tuesday sporting a ring in her lower lip, causing legions of avid Posh fans to do the same. By Wednesday, however, the ring was gone. According to Reuters, fans were furious after discovering that the piercing was a clip-on. "She is a real cow," one fan was quoted as saying after she spent $43 on a piercing. Posh apparently had no idea the ring would cause such a fuss.
Sara Evans leads the list of Country Music Assn. Awards nominees which were announced in Nashville Tuesday, according to People magazine. Other nominees include Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson and the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The 35th annual CMA ceremony will be hosted by Vince Gill at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House Nov.7. CBS will air the live broadcast of the event from 8-11 p.m. ET.