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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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Let the healing process begin. After last week’s terrible episode of Community, my faith was all but broken. The show was a version of itself, a box of discarded ideas hovering listlessly after the bottom was ripped out, just waiting for the moment at which every last bit lost its resolve to hang on and finally let go, slipping into the abyss of forgotten television. “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” was no crowning glory. It doesn’t fix the fact that the NBC show has become a shell of itself, but it proved that there’s still something left to enjoy here.
It’s fitting then, that Abed’s fantasy homage of the week was The Shawshank Redemption. After accepting Shirley’s invite for Thanksgiving, along with Troy, Annie, and Pierce, Abed realizes family holidays can be uncomfortable to the point of unbearableness, especially if the family in question isn’t your own. The non-familial foursome find themselves escaping Shirley’s relatives in the garage, only to realize there’s no possible way to actually escape the dinner. Cue Abed’s Shawshank-inspired montage of the “prisoners” wiling away the hours until Troy’s dream is served: yams baked with marshmallows on top (as a Jehovah’s Witness, he’s never experienced such decadence).
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The problem is, just when the homage was starting to hit its stride, just when we started to feel like it might once again unfold into some greater meaning (or at least some greater hilarity), it stopped dead in its tracks. Abed realized the metaphor wasn’t perfect when Shirley said she only asked them to come because she needed friends to buffer her in-laws’ apparent ire towards her. In the end, we learn that Troy, Annie, and Abed have hearts because they don’t eat the two-year expired Seite Layer Dip that Abed brought in order to escape the dinner in a trio of ambulances. They stay with Shirley as Pierce delivers what he thinks is a comedy act (thankfully unseen by anyone but Shirley’s unseen relatives) and our hearts are warmed, sort of.
And then there’s Jeff, who’s decided to spend Thanksgiving with his dad William (James Brolin), and by default his half-brother Willy Jr. (Workaholics star Adam DeVine, who was a far more entertaining guest star). In typical Jeff fashion, he leaves before he can ring the doorbell, but Britta has already inserted herself into the situation and is sitting in his dad’s living room. (Anyone who didn’t see this coming has never seen a second of Britta on Community.) Jeff knows she’s right and he comes back, where he proceeds to go through the checklist in his head and avoid the mushy stuff at all costs.
It’s not long before he realizes that while his dad’s equipment still works and his hair is still very full (a good sign for Jeff, who fears aging more than Harold Camping fears the Rapture), his father is the sort of person Jeff never wants to be. He raised Willy Jr. only because his mother died and left William alone with the overly-attached young man. DeVine outplays every other actor in the cast this week as he panics over William’s proclivity for Jeff, who’s “got it together” while Willy Jr. is “mushy.” When William points out his disappointment in Willy Jr., the son he actually raised, and says that he did good with Jeff because leaving him made him a strong, independent person, Jeff realizes the man he’s shaped his existence after is nowhere near who he really wants to be.
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He leaves, but when he finds Willy Jr. in his back seat, Jeff realizes that William needs to know what his brand of loveless parenting has done to Willy Jr. (but mostly what it has done to Jeff). That's when Jeff delivers his most vulnerable speech to date, explaining that he’s been seeking love and avoiding showing emotion for his entire life, even cutting his own stomach with his mother’s scissors as a kid so he could get sympathy cards from his peers (sympathy cards he still keeps 22 years later). It’s heartbreaking, it’s moving, it’s almost the Community we’ve missed so much.
When his dad tries to fake a heart attack to get out of the conversation, Jeff realizes that his real family is his study group and not this heartless bachelor. The result is that Britta and Jeff finally share a moment of friendship without the obtrusive presence of sexual tension, and Jeff has a hilarious half-brother who adores him enough to lean into his car window and smother him with a hug. (I wish DeVine could stick around for more episodes, but I fear he’s going the way of Giancarlo Esposito as Pierce’s half-brother.)
In the end, Jeff throws the group a Thanksgiving dinner because they’re the family he chose and thus his real family. It’s a sweet moment that reminds us that even without the fancy homages and antics, we do still love these seven people. It’s a point that the episode itself makes when Abed realizes that he wants Christmas to be like Die Hard, that he hopes it plays out as seamlessly as it looks in his head (it won’t), but that it won’t matter because they’re together.
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This is the Community we live with now. The sitcom will never return to its former glory, but what we can expect is a series that allows us to spend some precious moments with characters we came to regard as televisual friends. We love these "people," and if that’s all this show can give us anymore, we’ll have to let this episode serve as the height of the series’ redemption and simply choose to accept it for what it now is.
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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.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Carbon copying the already overly convoluted idea from the previous Final Destination movies the latest worst installment continues on the theme of one unlucky twentysomething being able to predict who’s going to die and when; this time it’s Nick. After attending a NASCAR race with his girlfriend Lori and their friends Hunt and Janet Nick has a premonition about an elaborate horrific accident that threatens everyone present. Naturally it comes true — and even though plenty of people die in the stands Death (you know the bogeyman) has only just begun. But Nick realizes that he might be able to save the survivors of that day by remembering the order in which they're supposed to die and warning them of their imminent demise. Unfortunately though not everyone believes him and they carry on with their dangerous activities ... like going to a hair salon or — gulp! — through a carwash.
WHO’S IN IT?
Up-and-coming actor Bobby Campo plays the main pretty young thing and he makes the best of what is ultimately an untenable and God-awful role to have to accept. Still fresh faces capable of pulling off his part are a dime a dozen and Destination’s past leads like Mary Elizabeth Winstead at least left us feeling their fear. Supporting actresses Shantel VanSanten as Lori and Haley Webb as Janet are there for little more than eye candy and ear-shredding screams while former MTV 'It' dude Nick Zano as the obnoxious clichéd — and obnoxiously clichéd — Hunt can’t even provide the occasional comic relief for which he was brought on. The lone bright spot comes courtesy of an evidently desperate-for-work Mykelti Williamson (aka Bubba in Forrest Gump) who plays a widowed security guard adding a shred of cred to the otherwise disposable cast (which includes a barely there Krista Allen).
Clocking in at a mercifully brisk hour and 15 minutes the makers of TFD find one way to not essentially call us stupid: They know we want our scares quickly and they deliver — except for actually scaring us. Aside from its running time the aforementioned credible performance by Williamson is literally all the movie has going for it.
Wow where to begin? Destination another in a loooong line of wholly unnecessary sequels is riddled with problems — from the are-you-kidding-me? “special” effects (even in 3-D) to the jaw-droppingly horrendous writing. Director David R. Ellis (helmer of the infinitely better Final Destination 2) should bear much of the blame. He seems uninterested in delivering anything that people go to the movies for; this Destination is nothing more than tenuously connected scenes of video-game-like deaths that try to one-up each other. And not one of the sequences is even mildly suspenseful or scary — just disturbing in the sense that some people will actually smirk in earnest at the cartoonishness of it all.
The writing though is the real culprit. Eric Bress’ (also an FD2 alum) script is incredibly unimaginative merely recycling similar but better executed scenarios from the three previous movies and swapping out the settings. With ideas so bad Bress makes it abundantly clear that there’s no inane death massacre left to explore at this point; it's basically a metaphorical surrender. And yet the dialogue is even worse — with stock stereotypical block characters muttering it to boot.
LEAST FAVORITE SCENE?
Not to completely give it away — lest we make the movie predictable! — but one of the death scenes is just so far beyond ridiculous that it transcends even sarcastic laughter. Hint: It involves water and it’s about midway through the movie … if you dare stay that long.
Even if you’re not a cinephile and you couldn’t care less about things like character depth and plot development and you’re looking for a very quick thrill The Final Destination is well beneath you. It makes recent straight-to-DVD releases look like fully coherent masterpieces. Whether in 3-D or 2-D it’s a mustn't-see!