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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Back in March, we saw the most jarring episode of plagiarism since William Shakespeare stole King Lear from the Earl of Oxford: Shia LaBeouf "adopted" a 2009 Esquire essay by Tom Chiarella to publicly shame his would-be costar Alec Baldwin, just after opting to drop out of the their imminent Broadway production Orphans. Independent from the project entirely, LaBeouf still managed to voice his antagonism for the 30 Rock star via a series of tweets and emails. All the while, we can only imagine that Baldwin and company had waited with bated breath for the Transformers headliner to grow bored with the play, and set his attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, he's not the only one to do so: less than a month after its stage debut and only a week after garnering a Tony nomination, Orphans is reportedly making plans to call it quits early.
The Hollywood Reporter reports that Daniel Sullivan's production, which also stars Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge, will be taking its bow on May 19, almost six weeks prior to its previously scheduled date of June 30. The play met mixed reviews, and reportedly only managed a 70% capacity during the week of Apr. 23, grossing below $500,000. Considering the hefty paycheck we can imagine Mr. Baldwin is warranting, this is hardly enough to keep the show running.
But back when the play first opened, Baldwin had high hopes. Here, the actor and his costars Foster and Sturridge tell The New York Times about their exciement over their stage endeavor:
But alas, the play meets a sour, early end. If only LaBeouf maintained those email chains, maybe people would still be interested in the darn thing.
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More:How Shia LaBeouf's Plagiarized Email Ruined My LifeShia LaBeouf Calls Himself 'Hustler' and Alec Baldwin 'Chief'An 'American Psycho' Musical!
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This week sees the release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a hard-nosed spy thriller adapted from an equally hard-nosed spy novel by author John le Carré. But it's not for everyone—Tinker, Tailor a mature film, methodically paced and twisted with complexity.
If that doesn't sound up your alley, or you know you'll never convince company to join in on this particular espionage adventure, we present to you a slate of alternatives. Between these movies, there should be at least one match.
From Russia with Love
A Spy Movie for People Who Think James Bond Invented Spies
Yes, yes, yes, the Bond movies are a mainstay, but there are so many options out there! Recommended only for people who can't differentiate between fiction and reality. Or have downed too many martinis to know the difference.
3 Days of the Condor
A Spy Movie for the Kids-These-Days Grouch Who Wants Those Brats Off His Lawn
Much like this week's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Robert Redford's classic thriller is a serious look into the world of American espionage. There's nothing glamorous about being a spy—as Redford's Joseph Turner aka Condor quickly finds out when he's hunted down by Alsatian assassins. That and he had to walk eight miles in the snow in BARE FEET to the Pentagon…
A Spy Movie for the Vocal Gender Equality Proponent
Films centering on spies generally focus on the men of the business, but that's nonsense. Women kick ass. Specifically, Evelyn Salt, who has never seen a fire extinguisher she can't rig into a bazooka. She makes the world a better place on so many levels.
A Spy Movie for the Guy Who Just Can't Take Anything Seriously, Even Spy Work
Leslie Neilsen upgrades his occupation from detective (Naked Gun) to full-blown secret agent. The movie has the same joke-barrage style as his previous franchise, but ups the ante by adding Andy Griffith as a villain and featuring an opening musical number by "Weird" Al Yankovic.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
A Spy Movie for the French Guy Who Just Can't Take Anything Seriously, Even Spy Work
Pretty much the same as Spy Hard, but replacing the creative team with all the guys who made this year's The Artist. It's French, which means it's artsier!
A Spy Movie for the Lucky Charms-Addicted Manchild
Robert Rodriguez's foray into the spy genre came in pint size form, but that doesn't mean its just for kids. For those children at heart, or people with severe sugar addictions and penchants for Saturday morning cartoons, the CG-ified Spy Kids franchise is right up their alley. You may not realize it, but there are people who've been wondering for decades, "when will there be a movie where the bad guys are giant, anthropomorphic thumbs?"
Burn After Reading
A Spy Movie for the Nihilist Who Needs Fuel
One of the biggest criticisms of the Coen Bros. zany "spy" movie was that all of its characters were awful people doing awful things that accomplish nothing. The movie itself might be a paradox for a true nihilist—they'll agree with everything in the movie, but does that make the movie successful thus defying nihilist notions? Eh, even thinking about it is meaningless.
A Spy Movie for the Oxford Scholar Who Finds Movies to Be a Lower Artform
Spielberg proves that history and tense spy movies mix with his brilliant 2005 film Munich. The movie would be a terrifying look at serious undercover politics if it were completely fiction, but the layer of realism helps pile on the paranoia. A spy movie that could be easily followed by an 8-part lecture series.
A Spy Movie for an Actual Spy
Real spies don't want to watch movies about spies. They want razzle dazzle!
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.