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 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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Top Story: Club Owner Claims Death Threats in Jackson Case
Jamie Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club on the Sunset Strip who introduced Michael Jackson to his 13-year-old accuser, told reporters at a news conference yesterday he has received death threats on the voicemail of his work and privately listed mobile phones this week for speaking out in the case, Reuters reports. Masada said he was speaking out in part because the teen was badly in need of a kidney transplant. "I've gotten phone calls saying if I don't shut up they have a bullet for me to shut me up," Masada said. "If something happens to me, you guys know. You are aware of it." Masada explained that when the boy was hospitalized and given only weeks to live, he fulfilled the ailing boy's wish to meet Jackson as well as comedians Adam Sandler and Chris Tucker. The boy eventually became a regular visitor at Jackson's Neverland Valley Ranch and was seen holding hands with the singer in a controversial 2003 documentary. Jackson, 45, is charged with molesting the boy when he was under the age of 14 and plying him with alcohol to seduce him, charges the singer calls a "big lie."
Crocodile Hunter Not Charged
Steve Irwin will not be charged with any offense for holding his one-month-old son while feeding one of his crocodiles, The Associated Press reports. Irwin, who hosts the wildlife TV show Crocodile Hunter, carried his son into a crocodile pen on Jan. 2 and held him under one arm while feeding a croc with the other. Following the stunt, Queensland's Department of Family Services reprimanded Irwin, but the agency took no action against him. Police also declined to file charges. After interviewing Irwin Thursday, the Office of Workplace Health and Safety there was not enough evidence to suggest that he and his Australia Zoo reptile park had violated any safety regulations.
Zeta-Jones and Douglas' Big Fat Legal Bill
After spending millions to win a court fight with Hello! magazine for printing unauthorized photos of their wedding, celebrity couple Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas have been ordered by a judge to cough up possible millions in legal bills, Reuters reports. Zeta-Jones and Douglas were awarded $27,000 last year in their court battle with Hello!, which printed photos of their wedding after the couple had sold exclusive rights to rival tabloid OK!. But a High Court judge in London Friday ruled that Hello! should only pay $3.6 million of the $7.2 million lawsuit costs, leaving OK! and the Douglases to pick up the rest of the tab.
Bono Swears He Won't Swear
U2 frontman Bono promises he will not swear again on live television if he wins a Golden Globe Award on Sunday. Bono caused a commotion at last year's ceremony when he exclaimed "F***ing brilliant!" when U2 won the Golden Globe for a song the band wrote for the Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. "I swear I won't swear," Bono told Reuters Thursday in an interview. "You can always cause a stir with an expletive and it's not something that I'm conscious of. If you use them in your everyday speech, sometimes they will come out. I don't mean to offend anyone." This year, Bono is nominated with Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer in the best original song category for "Time Enough for Tears," for Jim Sheridan's Irish immigrant drama In America.
NBC Admits Over-Hyping Friends
NBC promised Thursday not to rerun a Friends ad that refers to the show as the "best comedy ever." The ad apparently peeved some people--particularly Kelsey Grammer, whose comedy Frasier has won five best comedy Emmys compared to Friends one. "They were just trying to hype it and went overboard," NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks told the AP. "It ran once and it won't run again." Friends will go off the air after 10 years in May. "I don't blame them for saying that," Grammer told reporters last week. "Although, we all know it's not true."
Eminem's Ex-Wife Gets Two Years' Probation
Eminem's ex-wife, Kimberly Mathers, was sentenced Wednesday in Michigan's Macomb County Court to two years' probation, the AP reports. Mathers, 28, pleaded guilty last month to a charge of possessing 25 grams or less of cocaine and failing to give adequate space to an emergency vehicle. The charges stemmed from a June traffic stop in St. Clair Shores, Mich. Circuit Judge Edward A. Servitto said the charges would be dismissed if Mathers successfully completes probation, but added that he would send her to jail if she violated any of the terms. As conditions of her probation, Mathers may not use alcohol or non-prescription drugs, and must undergo random drug testing and substance abuse evaluation and treatment.
Role Call: Fonda Stars in Monster-in Law, Walken Could Join Wedding Crashers
Jane Fonda is ending her 14-year retirement from acting to appear in New Line's Monsters-in-Law opposite Jennifer Lopez. Fonda, who last appeared in the 1990 film Stanley and Iris, will play the difficult mother of Lopez's fiancé. The film is slated for release in 2005 ... Christopher Walken is in negotiations to star opposite Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in the romantic comedy The Wedding Crashers, also at New Line. The project, two guys have a hobby of crashing weddings in order to meet girls--until one of them unexpectedly falls in love with a bridesmaid. Walken would play the girl's father.