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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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
Top Story: Indie Couple Coppola, Jonze Split
Director couple Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze have decided to divorce, according to MTV News.com. The couple wed four and a half years ago after meeting in 1992. Since then, Coppola, 32, and Jonze, 34, have become indie film whizkids, with the succsess of Jonze's cult flicks Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and Coppola's Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides. Rumors of trouble in the marriage surfaced, however, in recent months, especially after Coppola's semi-autobiographical Translation was released. The L.A. Weekly recently observed that in the film, the "workaholic, emotionally absent photographer" husband, played by Giovanni Ribisi, of Scarlett Johansson's young wife Charlotte "reminds one of Coppola's husband."
Dead Musicians Reap Grammy Nods
Warren Zevon, George Harrison, and the Cashes picked up multiple posthumous Grammy nominations Thursday. Zevon, who died in September from lung cancer, gathered four nods including song of the year, while Harrison picked up three--two years after he, too, died of lung cancer. Country couple Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, who died within months of each other earlier this year, landed four between them. Other deceased nominees included Rosemary Clooney, Celia Cruz, soul legend Sam Cooke and blues giant Muddy Waters.
Limbaugh Blames Politics for Drug Probe
In the drug investigation against him, Rush Limbaugh's attorney is accusing the prosecutor of having political motives in saying his client bought painkillers illegally, Reuters reports. In search warrants released Thursday, investigators alleged that Limbaugh engaged in illegal drug use and went "doctor shopping" for prescription painkillers. The controversial radio commentator has denied any wrongdoing. "What [the medical records] show is that Mr. Limbaugh suffered extreme pain and had legitimate reasons for taking pain medication," Limbaugh read on his radio show Thursday from his lawyer's statement. "Unfortunately, because of Mr. Limbaugh's prominence and well-known political opinions, he is being subjected to an invasion of privacy no citizen of this republic should endure."
Second Child Claimed Abuse in Old Jackson Case
Authorities investigating molestation allegations in 1993 against Michael Jackson spoke to a second child at that time who also claimed to have been molested, but no charges were ever filed, a retired sheriff told The Associated Press. Former Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas said late Thursday the child was reluctant to testify and the case was abandoned. Apparently, the claims of molestation were not as severe as what was being alleged by the first boy, whose parent's settled a multimillion-dollar civil settlement with the pop superstar. The second child could have been used as a corroborating witness if the primary victim had testified in court, Thomas told AP.
Celebrate Christmas With Ozzy and the Gang
MTV will air The Osbourne Family Christmas Special Dec. 11 to give viewers a glimpse into the holiday season with America's favorite dysfunctional family, AP reports. Promising to take "holiday specials to a bizarre new level," the program was taped at the family home in Beverly Hills, Calif., and includes appearances by Jessica Simpson, newlyweds Dave Navarro and Carmen Electra, and the show-stopping reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas with Electra, matriarch Sharon Osbourne, OutKast's Big Boi, Eddie Griffin, Tracy Morgan, Anthony Anderson and Eva Mendes.
Wanda Yanked, Joe Millionaire Gets New Gig
Fox has pulled the plug on Wanda Sykes' Wanda at Large, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The series had a promising midseason start last March but fell in ratings this fall…Meanwhile, Joe Millionaire's first star Evan Marriott has a new gig as a game show host for the Game Show Network. The show Fake-a-Date will feature a contestant who will date two singles, one looking for love and the other who's hoping to win a luxury trip with his or her significant other, AP reports.
Role Call: Graham With Child, Thornton Turns on the Lights
Heather Graham has signed to do the independent feature Samantha's Child, also starring James Purefoy and Andy Serkis. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film follows Samantha (Graham), who is unable to get pregnant and goes to a fertility clinic, where she is unknowingly impregnated with the Devil's DNA. Serkis (voice of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) portrays a priest who tries to stop Samantha from having the Devil's child…Billy Bob Thornton is in negotiations to star in the football drama, Friday Night Lights. Based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, the film chronicles the 1988 football season of the Odessa, Texas, Permian High Panthers, capturing the struggles and hopes of a financially troubled town that pins its dreams on the team's Friday night games. Thornton will play the team's coach, the trade paper reports.