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 1956, Iowa native Pauline Phillips, aspiring writer and established source of personal wisdom, got a job doling out advice to the readers of the San Francisco Chronicle. Under the pen name Abigail Van Buren, Phillips would come to reach an audience of over 100 million, earning an iconic stature in the worlds of print, pop culture, and life lessons. She is known best as the moniker with which she titled her column: Dear Abby. Sadly, TMZ reports that Phillips, born Pauline Friedman, died on Wednesday at the age of 94, following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's Disease.
Phillips was only the first in a family of professional "advisers" — her twin sister Esther Lederer would too come to make a living as an advice columnist, under the pen name Ann Landers. And it is Phillips' daughter Jeanne who carries on the Dear Abby legacy as its present author (Jeanne began co-writing the column with her mother in 1987, and took over completely in 2002 following the announcement of Phillips' diagnosis with Alzheimer's).
Since the early days of the column, readers have consistently solicited the wisdom of Abby, but have also tuned in to discover a relentless source of entertainment in some of the strange and silly questions sent in by fans. As a tribute to Phillips, we've collected some of our favorite Dear Abby letters and responses, ranging from absurd to heartfelt."I have never written to a paper for advice before, but need help desperately and cannot talk to my family or friends about my problem. I am a private secretary to a well-known executive in the Bay area. I have been employed by him for five years. You may think this sounds cheap, but we are deeply in love. His wife speaks to him only when she wants money and he has no respect or affection for her. He has told me repeatedly that I am the woman he loves, but we can't consider marriage because it would ruin him financially and socially. In addition to an excellent salary, he has given me an automobile, a fur coat, and he pays my rent. When he takes business trips, I always go along. I am not getting any younger, yet I feel one day he will make me his wife. What do you think?" (Written by CONFIDENT - the first Dear Abby letter ever posted)
"As a baby boomer 'coming of age,' my hair has gone from brown to 60 percent gray. When filling out forms and documents that ask for color of hair (like driver's licenses), what should I write?" (Written by PRE-SENIOR MAN IN ARIZONA)
"Here's one for your 'Can you top this?' file. A friend planned a 50th birthday party for his wife. He hired a male stripper to 'entertain' the guests. His mother was terminally ill, but gave her approval for the party to take place whether she was alive or not. Shortly before the party, she died. The party took place before she was buried. The only change was that the guests were asked to wear black." (Written by WHADDAYA THINK IN SEATTLE?)
"When I read the letter about the widower who wore his wife's ashes in a vial around his neck while making love to his subsequent ladyfriend, my response was, 'I wish I could be married to a man that devoted to me.' My female co-worker's response: 'At that age, she should be glad she's getting sex. She should IGNORE the vial!'" (Written by DEVOTED READER, ALTOONA, PA)
"I am a professional whistler and bird caller. Whenever people ask what I do for a living, my reply is often met with the question, 'What is that?' About the best I can respond with is, 'Someone who whistles.' My art is not at the height of its popularity, as it was in the early part of the last century. Whistlers are no longer featured with big bands as they once were; the late, great whistler Fred Lowery no longer headlines at Carnegie Hall or whistles the national anthem at Yankee Stadium; Elmo Tanner is not whistling 'Heartaches' with Perry Como and the Ted Weems orchestra; and Muzzy Marcellino isn't whistling the sweet and plaintive theme song to 'Lassie' that we all remember. Abby, it's hard to deal with the fact that the art of whistling has become so far removed from the public. Could you kindly print my letter as a reminder to your readers that whistling is a beautiful art form with a rich heritage in America and elsewhere? (No name, please. This one's for the art.) (Written by THE WHISTLER, of course)
"Although I read your column daily, I have never had a reason to write until now. I read the obituaries and have noticed that lately there are female pallbearers listed. Is this proper, or should it be a man's role? I always thought that men were supposed to do it. I'm sure other people wonder about this, too." (Written by VICKI IN JOPLIN, MO)
"My husband and I have been invited to a formal, 'white-tie' reception and sit-down dinner. I have finally found the perfect gown. I'm planning on wearing long, white gloves that I've had for many years, but never had occasion to wear. What I'm unsure about is what to do with my gloves once I get there. Can I wear jewelry over my gloves? Should they be removed for dinner? Shall I leave them off for dancing? I'm looking forward to being dressed to the nines, but don't want to overdo it. Help!" (Written by ALL DRESSED UP IN WILMINGTON, DEL.)
"My best friend asked me who I liked. I told her, trusting that she wouldn't tell anyone. Her response was, 'Eew! You like him?!' The next day she got one of our other friends to get the guy I like to ask her out. The worst part is she doesn't even like this guy and she's moving away. What should I do? Help! - (Written by MAD IN LEESBURG, VA.)
"My boyfriend and I are considering living on a sailboat together. He is my true love. We're not yet married, but perhaps we will be in the near future. We get along really great, but I am not confident that living together would be a good idea. Our parents would hate us. What should I do?" (Written by MOTION IN THE OCEAN)
"I am a pretty 29-year-old woman living in a conservative area in Canada. I have always been comfortable with my statuesque body. My boyfriend loves that I dress flatteringly -- or even downright provocatively! My question is about the 'do's and don'ts' of thong bikinis. We have lovely beaches here. Bikinis are common, but I have yet to see another woman wear a thong bikini. I enjoy wearing them, but I'm wondering if it's a breach of etiquette to wear one around families or children. Thong bikinis on older, out-of-shape men (eew!) are common. Abby, if it's good for the gander, what about the goose?" (Written by TOO SEXY FOR YOUR KIDS?)[Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.
This week I had the extreme privilege of being invited to the writer’s room of SNL with Paul Rudd and Paul McCartney. I had been before, but not an ‘event’ episode like one of the funniest actors and a Beatle on the same episode. Say what you will about the show, but being there was fantastic (as it should be).
One of the things that few realize is that while there is a lot of talent and star power on the stage being filmed, there is an equal number behind the scenes just hanging out. Don’t believe me? There were so many people there that I passed by Edward Norton three times and didn’t even realize it (my girlfriend alerted me to this after the fact. I was remiss I didn't get a chance to ask him to punch me in the face). I walked through a doorway with Jon Hamm and nearly passed out from being around so much handsome. When we first got off the elevator we knew we got off on the wrong floor (we got off on the 8th where they film, the writer’s room is on the 9th) because Lorne Michaels was walking down the hall and we passed Paul McCartney’s dressing room. Whoops.
It was an amazing night with great performances, many laughs, and an incredibly random sighting of Val Kilmer (who has really nice hair by the way. Seriously, no split ends at all).
Anyway, onto the skits:
One of the cool things about being in the writer’s room is learning what got cut between the dress rehearsal and the taping. Apparently they cut a minute from the cold opening which included a 9/11 joke that got booed. Thankfully the final result was mercifully short to make room for McCartney’s extra performances.
The 'Kissing Family' sketch has been nearly done to death, but I really appreciated them going for it hardcore early on with Bill Hader feeling up Paul Rudd.
'What’s That Name' was the most delightful skit from this week. Great set up, execution, and jokes and perhaps the only funny appearance from Kristen Wiig this week.
The Mastercard sketch was brilliant if only for Bill Hader’s near pitch perfect impression of Julian Assange. “Ever seen the fourth season of Hanging With Mr. Cooper? You’re about to!”
Why Paul McCartney decided to a bunch of Wings songs is beyond me. Perhaps because it was so close to the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. But either way, experiencing a living Beatle’s performance was amazing. And then after ‘Get Back’ during the credits he continued with ‘Back in the USSR’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ Everyone in the audience, the cast, crew, all the celebrities just hanging out, we were all on the floor dancing, singing, and shouting. Mind = blown.
Stefon is becoming one of my favorite characters. I wouldn’t like to see a movie based on him (he’s perfect the way he is), but it wouldn’t be that bad.
Weekend Update had some unusually consistent jokes this week topped off with Paul McCartney acting like Camilla. Best joke? I won’t ruin it but it happens at 2:10.
Here’s an interesting behind the scenes fact. Sometimes we complain about how the sketches seem to end awkwardly but this is a peril with live television. Such a thing happened with this very funny skit when it didn’t cut on cue. Nevertheless it was great to see Jay Pharoah inhabit a character and not a impression. This kid is someone to watch out for, his control over his voice is outstanding. If SNL continues to use him wisely (which I’m sure they will) they will reap many benefits.
Abby Elliott is one of my favorite players of recent years because she’s really funny. And maybe she just happens to be a little bit beautiful, but that’s purely a coincedence.
NBC hasn’t released it, but the Willkommen sketch was funny if only because it was the only real chance to see Jason Sudeikis this week.
And one final insight that I learned from this little excursion was that if you want to know what the backstage looks like at SNL, just watch 30 Rock. They manage to almost nail it on the head. The only difference is that’s its a little more roomier and a little bit cleaner (but that's like complaining about how the people on TV are too "pretty").
New TV drama Parenthood has been delayed by eight weeks after one of its stars, Maura Tierney, fell ill.
The series, based on the 1989 movie, was due to start later this month, but TV bosses have been forced to move the launch to the end of September due to a "medical evaluation" Tierney is undergoing.
Tierney is best known for playing Dr. Abby Lockhart on hit medical series ER for 10 years, for which she received an Emmy nomination.
It is the second time Parenthood's filming schedule has been pushed back -- in April the pilot was put on hold for two days after NBC's vice president Nora O'Brien died unexpectedly on the set of the show in California.
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