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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The 2013 fall season features the premiere of two major spin-offs. The Originals brings the first family of vampires from The Vampire Diaries to New Orleans. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland follows Alice as she battles Jafar (from Aladdin) to rescue her genie quasi-boyfriend. No offense guys, but neither series is ready to spin-off.
All in the Family spawned two major spin-offs, The Jeffersons and Maude. Frasier was a spin-off from Cheers and kept Camille Kelsey Grammer rolling in dollars. But not all series can launch a spin-off or risk losing major characters.
Here are a few major spin-offs that were a little premature:
Klaus (Joseph Morgan) and Rebecca (Claire Holt) were a great in-flux of new blood into The Vampire Diaries. They have great salty lines and offer an evil alternative to the squeaky clean vampires. There also is room for them in the series with Kat Graham and Michael Trevino appearing in less of the show. There was never enough character development for them so a spin-off could does make some sense. However, pairing them with flat model types and constantly relying on flashbacks isn’t as endearing as it is on The Vampire Diaries. Also, Phoebe Tonkin is wasted as a baby incubator when she was the best part of her first American series, The Secret Circle.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland
Once Upon a Time is a fluke. The edgy comic book series Fables is much better at bringing fairy tale characters into the “real world.” Using the whitewashed Disney versions of the popular stories makes each episode feels like gross product placement for the Disney house of horrors vault. The saving grace is likable actors like the lovable Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Carlyle, and the deliciously evil Lana Parrilla. However, Wonderland is just a cheap, shameless sequel that only cannibalizes the few possible storylines for later seasons of the original. Naveen Andrews dressed in an elaborate leather costume is laughable. Poor Emma Rigby as The Red Queen seems like a porn star on the wrong set. It’s also a total waste of actors like John Lithgow and rock legend Iggy Pop.
By the last season of Friends, each character feels like an outlandish stereotype. Except of course Jennifer Aniston who was playing A-list actress Jennifer Aniston. Joey (Matt LeBlanc) was so stupid and unaware that he didn’t seem functional enough to drive a Matchbox car, let alone carry a series. The spin-off finds him in Los Angeles with his sister (Drea de Matteo) and working on being an actor. It wasn’t horrible but there wasn’t enough juice in the character to keep the show alive.
Kate Walsh is magic! She added such great energy to Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Addison Forbes Montgomery-Shepherd. It seemed like a great idea to take her to the sun-soaked beaches of Los Angeles on a hunt for love. The series wasn’t a total fail but it did rob Grey’s Anatomy of one of its greatest characters. It also had trouble finding its sea legs and a format for the show that would work.
Richard Grieco added a lot more edge and man candy to 21 Jump Street. However, it was ill advisedly decided to give him a spin-off. After it tanked, there was an attempt to bring him back to the series but it tanked. Had he stayed on 21 Jump Street he may have been able to take over when Johnny Depp unceremoniously left in the third season.
Charmed Lives/Living Dolls
Successful syndication has proved Who’s the Boss? is a part of television history. Sadly, lightning was not able to strike twice…no matter how hard they tried. Fran Drescher and Donna Dixon were dueling models working with Angela (Judith Light). They were spun-off into an odd couple precursor to 2 Broke Girls. Angela also got a modeling job for Samanta’s friend Charlie (Leah Remini) gets recruited as a model for one of Angela’s contacts she moves in to a house full of models including Halle Berry. Despite this notable casting, neither series lasted very long.
Apples and oranges. Day and night. Prostitutes and Amish people (as Yahoo answers tells me in a search for “opposite things”). Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, our final two finishers on American Idol’s 11th season couldn’t be more different if they were named Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman. One is a low-key growler with a penchant for pissing off famous fashion designers, while the other is a strong-voiced troubadour with a penchant for making you feel like you’ve broken a law just noticing her wardrobe.
The main problem with our Top 2? They have no problems. Here, at the end of our Idol road, are two polar-opposite singers so on top of their games, they might as well be battling Bowser. Of course, this makes it quite difficult for us obsessed fans, who are begging for someone to irrationally root against in the finale. But we no longer have an uneven Hollie. We no longer have the favorite son Joshua. And we no longer have terrible cowboy guy.
Instead, we’re left with two extremely likeable, extremely talented singers. And, for the first time since the Season 8 finale between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, it’s difficult to side with one or the other. Not that it’s necessary — after all, at this point, a Phillip win is about as predictable as my projectile vomit hearing an Armageddon song on Idol.
Not only was the crowd and history on his side — with the exception of the Illinois-based Lee DeWyze, a male from south of the Mason-Dixon line has won every year since Season 6 — but poor Jessica was saddled with the atrocious original single “Change Nothing,” a name that invites far too many headline-worthy puns. (Jessica, change everything, please!) Holy “No Boundaries,” was that a clunker or what? We’re talking about a contestant who could sing the phonebook, the newspaper, or Fifty Shades of Grey — yet “Change Nothing” managed to change Jessica into a floundering singer with an inability to nail any register. True, it wasn’t as bad as “No Boundaries,” but even hangnails, paper cuts, and James Blunt aren’t as bad as “No Boundaries.”
Jennifer Lopez was right — during her one moment of usefulness last night — that Jessica had been given the wrong song to suit her R&B-worthy voice. (“You have to be able to say to someone, this is not me,” the bootylicious one told Jessica, lending advice that all of Idol’s pigeonholed former contestants would have been well-served to hear.) Instead, Simon Fuller was wise in his attempt to transform Jessica into a Whitney Houston incarnate with “I Have Nothing,” the third Houston song Jessica has sung in the past four months. That said, as much as Jessica boasts the powerhouse vocals of the late legend, Idol fans expect more than a note-for-note cover of a song more suited for the days of Season 4. Or should I say almost every other Idol season ever? After all, the song has been performed by the following: Trenyce in Season 2, Leah LaBelle and Jennifer Hudson in Season 3, Vonzell Solomon in Season 4, Katharine McPhee in Season 5, LaKisha Jones in Season 6, and Shannon Magrane earlier this Season 11. Idol needs to retire this song three years ago like it’s Leno.
Jessica’s smartest move of the evening was choosing “The Prayer” as her personal choice, reviving a pre-semifinals power ballad that was all but wiped from our memory following her “I Will Always Love You” cover during Top 13. The repeated finale vocal has always been an Idol pet peeve of mine — don’t the producers know that super-fans can recall every twitch and vocal trick of a previous performance, thanks to the wonders of YouTube and workplace procrastination? Still, only David Cook in Season 7 has been able to deviate from the directive, performing new cover “The World I Know” while David Archuleta rehashed “Imagine.” And Cook was better off for it — not only was “The World I Know” one of the most touching and perfect performances of all-time on Idol, but the originality helped bag him the win. (Let's go back to those simpler times with simpler rules, Idol, shall we?) But while our contestants may no longer be given the choice, Jessica did right by allowing us to remember what we had nearly forgotten. And it would have been a shame if we had — Jessica’s “The Prayer” blew my mind harder than the concept of Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo actually being a real-life, bona fide couple. (The American Idol fan fiction file in my brain just imploded. Nikko Smith and Julia DeMato, you better be next.)
NEXT: At home with "Home."Sadly for Jessica, she still doesn’t have a prayer come Wednesday evening. Mostly because Phillip, equipped with a pimp slot, actually delivered an original performance that was radio-ready in our contemporary music environment. Randy was right to say “Home” sounded like a Mumford & Sons hit. The friends I watched the penultimate episode with were right to say it sounded like a Dave Matthews hit. And I felt Phillip was right to throw in a little “Dust in the Wind”-esque inspiration for extra flavor. In other words, the song sounded right. It sounded appropriate. It sounded Phillip, which is typically something we cannot say about any schmaltzy victory single. You’re my boy, Phillip!
Now, following round 2, I wasn’t so sure of Phillip’s victory — “Movin’ Out” was too recent in my memory for me to be really moved, and the only part of the slowed- and stripped-down “Stand By Me,” Simon Fuller’s choice, was the sweet lick at the end of the song. (That was a gift to you Philophiles: Phillip and “sweet lick” in the same sentence. Sweet dreams.) But following his star-making turn during last week’s “We’ve Got Tonight” and “Beggin’” — and Jessica’s underwhelming “My All” and “I’ll Be There” — it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Phillip’s fans don’t beg the AT&T gods for a win tomorrow night. Hell, the dude doesn’t even have to speak actual words anymore to win over fans — just see his nonsensical response to Ryan Seacrest’s “Phillip, how do you feel?” The guy’s like a still-talented Adam Sandler — people will love everything he does, no matter the effort involved. Plus, Rob Schneider, as Randy’s lapel pin!
Still, does Jessica deserve to win just for having to sing “Change Nothing”? Do you hate the finale performance repetition like I do? Did you go to YouTube to watch “The World I Know” halfway through reading this? (I did.) Does Steven Tyler belong on The Bachelorette, what with his egg talk? What over-eager intern has been tasked with creating the dramatic opening numbers each Wednesday? Was Jason Derulo’s new America-collaborated song as unlistenable as it was “Undefeated”? And is seeing Derulo’s girlfriend, Jordin Sparks, making you wish Idol would release contestant dolls so you can make them all date other Idol figures? Am I too obsessed? Don’t answer that.
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[Image Credit: FOX]
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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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