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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Wizard watchers, the moment has arrived. The big-screen "Lord of the Rings" is slated to make its debut here at ShoWest.
Whoops. Did we fail to mention that we meant the trailer, not the film?
"Lord of the Rings" Well, in case you didn't already know, ShoWest is no Sundance. The most buzz-worthy screenings are about three minutes long -- snippets, teasers, coming attractions.
In addition to the much-awaited "Lord of the Rings" footage (being unveiled at the New Line luncheon Tuesday), the coming days will feature previews of Sony's Mel Gibson epic "The Patriot" and clips from the ultimate summer chick flick "Charlie's Angels."
Fox's also pulling out its arsenal of (would-be) summer hits. Films to be sneak peeked include Jim Carrey's new comedy "Me, Myself and Irene" and the comic-book-come-to-life "X-Men."
The first installment of the planned "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (aka, "The Fellowship of the Ring" installment) stars Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler.
In other ShoWest happenings:
WHO DAT? With 10,000 ShoWest participants (8,000 of whom look exactly the same), it's not easy trying to figure out who's who in the sea of convention conformity. And around these parts, it's not the face that people recognize but the color of your convention badge. Here's the color-coded stratification of ShoWest:
-- RED: Press -- BLACK: Delegates and ambassadors -- YELLOW: Trade exhibitors -- BEIGE: Guests
Your typical ShoWest day, then, works like this: The pack-oriented black-badged people talk to their black-badged colleagues; the yellow-badged mucky-mucks stick to the trade shows; and the folks with red badges -- those loners in spirit -- scatter about, walking around aimlessly looking for something to do or somebody (preferably somebody with a black or yellow badge) to talk to.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VARIETY, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER AND LOCAL- TOUR BOOKLETS: None. Besides being free of charge at the ShoWest venues, the Hollywood trade papers are also among the most picked-up (and discarded) items strewn about Vegas this week.
MAKING CONVERSATION: Ever been invited to a huge party where no one knows anyone else? Simply put, that's exactly what today's Columbia-TriStar International Reception felt like.
"Mission: Impossible 2" No helpful studio reps. No introductory comments. The reception was just one huge ballroom filled with food, booze and lots of space for theater owners and delegates to make small talk.
And so we did.
When discussing what they think the next big, bad American film will be, representatives from Taiwan, Japan, Iceland and Mexico all unanimously agreed on "Mission: Impossible 2" with the gritty-looking Tom Cruise, leaving global box-office champ "Titanic's" Leonardo DiCaprio in seeming obscurity.
TYPICAL VEGAS REACTION TO THE PHRASE, "SHOWEST": "ShoWhat?!" Followed by blank stare.
TODAY'S STAR SIGHTINGS: Er ... none.
TUESDAY'S EXPECTED STAR SIGHTINGS:Sandra Bullock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore (You know, Charlie's Angels).
OOPS: "Well, it's OK, I guess. But it seems sort of blurry though," exclaimed one baffled enthusiast at the Digital Cinema Demonstration after watching a demo of four digitally projected film clips. Well, so much for that supposed better picture quality of digital projection.
END OF AN ERA? The buzz around here is that the days of the 25-screen multiplexes might be coming to an end. Today's Hollywood Reporter reported that the oversaturation of new multiplexes and increasingly competitive field (galvanized by new technologies and the Internet) might start putting the squeeze on film exhibitors.
GRIPE: As one ticked-off convention participant put it (in regard to the free e-mail kiosks set up throughout the ShoWest areas): "There should be a freakin' sign keeping people from hogging the e-mail booths. I mean, there're people here waiting." Word!
FILMS WE ACTUALLY SAW IN FULL: "Passion of Mind" (Paramount Classics) -- In what must be a desperate effort to capitalize on the phenomenon of "The Sixth Sense" by way of "The Double Life of Veronique," the schlock "Passion of Mind" has managed to make travesty of both films. In it, Demi Moore does double duty by playing a woman with a split personality -- one an expatriated, widowed New York Times reviewer living bucolically with her daughters in France; and the other, a cutthroat literary agent grinding down the successful single woman life in New York City. Her dilemma starts off as a philosophical one, but after much dime-store psychoanalysis, maudlin romance and cheap symbolism, the whole thing devolves into meaningless sentimentality.
"Where the Money Is" (USA) -- Paul Newman is an aged convict passing as a stroke victim in an elderly hospice, laying in wait for a chance to break free. Linda Fiorentino is a bored hospice nurse paralyzed by the inertia of small-town life with her complacent husband (Dermot Mulroney). Before you know it, the two, along with Fiorentino's reluctant hubby, are planning to pull off a heist. There's a remarkable chemistry between Newman and Fiorentino right from the get-go. So tight is their fit that no one bothers with common sense stuff such as to, you know, why she'd want to be a felony all of a sudden. But even if the story doesn't make sense, there's still a vicarious fun in watching these truants get away with it all. Oh, and one more thing: Paul Newman rules.