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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In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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Top Story: Roy Horn May Be Out Within Weeks
Famed Las Vegas magician Roy Horn, half of Las Vegas' legendary Siegfried and Roy, may be released from the Los Angeles hospital by the end of the month. The 59-year-old animal trainer and performer, who was savagely mauled by a 600-pound, 7-year-old, male white tiger during an Oct. 3 performance at The Mirage Hotel, has been recovering at UCLA Medical Center where he was transferred after initially being treated at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas. The duo's publicist, Dave Kirvin, told CNN Monday that Horn is still undergoing treatment for his injuries, but his doctors are optimistic he will be well enough to continue recovering at home in Las Vegas within a couple of weeks. "He's getting better every day," Kirvin said.
Carmen Electra Weds Guitarist Dave Navarro
TV vixen Carmen Electra and Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro tied the knot on Nov. 22 in at the St. Regis Hotel in Los Angeles before 200 guests. People magazine's Dec. 8 issue reports the platinum-and-red invitations called for "hot and sexy" attire and guests were greeted by men dressed in black and wearing red masks similar to those seen in one of the couple's favorite films, Eyes Wide Shut. "What's really going to touch my heart," Electra said before the ceremony, "is when my dad takes a step back when walking down the aisle and my husband takes his place." The 31-year-old actress was married briefly to Dennis Rodman in 1998.
Zellweger's Weight Gain a Non-Issue
Renee Zellweger, who put on 20-some pounds for her role in Bridget Jones's Diary two years ago, tells Vogue magazine in its December issue that she doesn't see what the big deal is about doing the same for the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. "The first time I did it, I learned a lot. I realized the influence of living in a society that focuses so much on physicality has affected me," Zellweger, 34, said. "When the film was coming out, the question I was asked the most was regarding my weight. And again it's happening. I was followed around Heathrow (airport) by a guy who wanted to take a picture of my backside. I don't understand the obsession."
RCA Drops Justin Guarini
There is a reason why American Idol season one number two Justin Guarini didn't join Clay Aiken, Christina Christian, Kelly Clarkson, Tamyra Gray, Kimberley Locke and Ruben Studdard on Fox's November 25th special An American Idol Christmas: he's been dumped by RCA. Launch.com reports Guarini was dropped from the record label after his self-titled debut album landed at No.20 on the Billboard 200 album chart, selling only 54,000 copies. A third season of American Idol is set to debut on Fox in January, starting with a special two-hour episode Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, followed by a special one-hour episode Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Peter Jackson's Rings Premieres in NZ
In Wellington, New Zealand, yesterday, some 100,000 euphoric fans welcomed native director Peter Jackson for the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at the newly refurbished 852-seat art deco Embassy Theater, Reuters reports. Flanked by armored characters on black horses, Jackson led stars Liv Tyler, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood for three miles through the capital city. Filmed in New Zealand, The Return of the King opens worldwide Dec. 17 and in New Zealand Dec. 18 due to the time difference.
Missing Finalist in Berlin Film Fest
Director Ron Howard's Western thriller The Missing is among five films to compete in next year's Berlin Film Festival, which runs Feb. 5-15, The Associated Press reports. German director Romuald Karmakar's Nightsongs, Spanish director Manuel Gutierrez Aragon's Your Next Life, Croatian director Vinko Breoan's Witnesses and Danish director Annette K. Olesen's In Your Hands were also chosen. The films are the first of about 20 that will be chosen to compete in February for the festival's top prize, the Golden Bear.
Luke Perry in West End Production of Sally
Former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Luke Perry is set to star as Harry in London's West End stage show based on the 1989 hit film When Harry Met Sally.... According to the AP, the play is scheduled to open Feb. 20 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for a limited run of 16 weeks. Sally has not yet been cast, but producer James Tod said Monday he expected an American actress to take the part. When Harry Met Sally... is the latest in a string of hit films to have spawned stage musicals and plays, including The Graduate. Billy Elliot is also being developed as a London stage musical to open late next year.
Stephen King Recovering From Pneumonia
A spokesman for Stephen King said Monday that although the author remains hospitalized, his condition was improving in his recovery from a bout with pneumonia, AP reports. King, 56, was diagnosed with pneumonia before a Nov. 19 trip to New York City to receive the National Book Foundation's 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He was hospitalized Nov. 23 and underwent surgery two days later to remove fluid and scar tissue from one of his lungs. But his condition worsened when he returned home to Bangor, Maine, and doctors at Eastern Maine Medical Center later diagnosed him with pleural effusion, an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the membrane surrounding the lung.
TV Director Earl Bellamy Dead at 86
Prolific TV director Earl