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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SAG presidential candidate Valerie Harper, who lost in a bitterly contested race to Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert by 1,588 votes on Nov. 2, is challenging the election results because of what she claims were improper balloting procedures, Reuters reports. Fellow SAG members Elliot Gould and Kent McCord will join Harper in her fight, even though they won their races for recording secretary and treasurer respectively. "This step is based on our disturbance over the legitimacy of the election itself and not in terms of individual races," Harper told Daily Variety. "So many voters are questioning how this election was conducted." Harper said that she would challenge the election on three points: 24,800 of the 73,800 New York ballots lacked a signature line despite SAG requirements, there was an unannounced two-day extension for New York ballots, and SAG staff members were allegedly involved in the presidential campaign, despite a warning by SAG CEO Bob Pisano to remain neutral.
George Harrison was released from Staten Island University Hospital in New York over the weekend and is reportedly receiving personalized care at the home of his doctor, Gil Lederman. According to ABCNews.com, Dr. Lederman spoke to the media in general terms about his stereotatic radiosurgery procedure, and how it's helped patients who suffer from various forms of cancer, but the physician did not confirm that Harrison was his patient.
British television and theater actress Peggy Mount died after a long illness at Denville Hall Nursing Home in Northwood, West London, BBCNews.com reports. She had suffered a series of strokes over the year, and she had recently lost her sight. Mount's film credits include Oliver!, Hotel Paradiso with Alec Guiness and The Naked Truth with Peter Sellers.
Andie MacDowell married high-school classmate Rhett DeCamp Hartzog in a private ceremony at the Central United Methodist Church in Asheville, N.C., on Saturday, The Associated Press reports. "It was just real sweet and simple," MacDowell's sister, Babs Rogers Richard, told AP. About 200 guests joined the family for a reception at the Biltmore Forest Country Club.
The former husband of Spice Girl Melanie Brown, also known as Scary Spice, is facing charges for assaulting a 3-year-old boy on a children's ride at London Zoo, AP reports. Jimmy Gulzar was reportedly visiting his 2-year-old daughter, Phoenix Chi, when the incident took place. Gulzar married Brown in 1998; the couple divorced after 15 months of marriage.
After what they're calling a thorough investigation, Brazilian authorities claim that Mexican singer Gloria Trevi, who has been held since January 2000 in a Brazilian jail, became pregnant by artificial insemination to avoid being deported and facing child abuse charges in her native country. In the past, foreigners who are arrested in Brazil have avoided extradition by having a child of Brazilian nationality, the Brazilian newspaper paper O Estado de Sao Paulo reported. According to BBCNews.com, Trevi spent several months on the run in various Latin American countries before finally arriving in Rio de Janeiro, where she was arrested following an extradition request from the Mexican Government. The Brazilian press has mentioned that the singer might have impregnated herself after receiving a used condom and a syringe, but nothing has been confirmed. At first, Trevi claimed that she was raped during a riot at the Policia Federal prison in March, but BBCNews.com is reporting that police have concluded that she impregnated herself with a male prisoner's sperm. Now six months pregnant, the singer has refused to have a DNA test to prove the identity of the father.
Paul McCartney had just flown into New York on Monday to raise funds for the Sept. 11 attacks when he witnessed the aftermath of the American Airlines crash in Queens. "It was horrendous and tragic irony trying to raise money for the victims of the last crashes and then something dreadful was happening all over again," McCartney told his spokesperson after landing, Reuters reports. The singer was returning to the city to promote his latest record, From a Lover to a Friend, and to do radio interviews. "That's why I wrote 'Freedom' and that is why I am going to keep pushing it. I will not stop," he said.
The sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica will not be re-launching any time soon. Director Bryan Singer, the driving force behind resurrecting the series, which first premiered on ABC in 1978, is too busy working on the sequel to X-Men, Reuters reports. Fox wants Singer to concentrate on the X-Men sequel before committing to any other work. X-Men, which is one of the studio's most important projects currently in development, is slated for a fall 2002 release.
One or two production staff members at CBS's 60 minutes may lose their jobs, or simply be assigned to another CBS news magazine, as the station tries to restructure expenses while covering the war on terrorism, a network spokesperson, Sandra Genelius, told AP on Monday. The final decision hasn't been made yet, she added.
Michael Douglas may team up for the first time with both his father Kirk and his 23-year-old son Cameron in the comedy Smack in the Puss, Reuters reports. "It's a black comedy about three generations of a dysfunctional family living in New York, and their attempt to reconcile," Michael Douglas told Reuters. Fred Schepisi is attached to direct, and Cameron Douglas' Furthur Films production company has plans to produce the picture and secure its financing. Shooting will begin in February 2002.
The State of California will allow film and TV production companies to use dozens of reduced price or free public locations to prevent the companies from taking their business elsewhere, Reuters reported. "By making more public properties available, we will enhance California's dominance in the entertainment industry while boosting our state's economy," Gov. Gray Davis said in a statement. Film and TV production companies have been moving projects to Canada because tax breaks there and a strong U.S. dollar can reduce production costs by up to 30 percent.
Lady Diana -- A Smile Enchants the World, the first stage musical about the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has failed to attract audiences after opening to a half-empty theatre in Saarbruecken, Germany, on Saturday. According Reuters, the musical won what one critic described as "polite" applause as it portrayed Diana's struggle with an eating disorder and a troubled marriage. "I was disappointed," Sandra Brettar, a local resident, told Reuters. "I thought it would be a tribute to Diana but it definitely wasn't. She comes off badly in it."