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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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I see now. This is why the American Idol guys' audition round was so boring. The drama was waiting on the girls' side.
Sure, a few of the guys got steamed here and there, and then there was Matheaus Fernandes's onstage meltdown, but for the most part, the dudes were rather tame. I'm probably a terrible person for saying this, but it's just more fun when the crying, fighting, self-righteous ladies do their thing during Hollywood week. And this season, apparently the judges sent through more women than men during the national auditions, so the competition is tight and making these girls lose all the oxygen in their brains. It's getting nutty.
First up are the rapid-fire auditions, and we lose a few familiar faces. We lose wacky girl Ashley Smith from Charlotte, who surprised everyone when her fake blonde wig and faux hipster glasses hid a girl with a real voice. Also gone are nominated singer Anne Defani from Nebraska and Sarah Restuccio, who wowed Nicki in New York by rapping "Super Bass" almost as well as those two fairy princesses on Ellen.
Finally, we get to Mariah Pulice whose story of overcoming anorexia by getting into music moved the judges during her audition is sent home after her version of "Gravity" fails to impress the judges. Of course, this is after she's caught on tape saying that the competition means everything to her because it's helping her stay on the right path. It's cruel editing that makes us feel guilty for agreeing with the judges that the girl wasn't strong enough for the competition. Still, it's a blessing the girl is sent home now instead of at the top 24 cut-off.
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As a parade of girls is ushered through to the next round, including mini-Alison Williams Angela Miller, San Antonio's mariachi singer Victoria Acosta, Rachel "Always (seriously, all the time, always) Smiling" Hale from Long Beach, and perfectly sweet country girl Janelle Arthur all make it through, but then come some hard distinctions that are still a bit confounding. When Candice Glover, who's returning a second time, sings her solo, she bbrings the house down, and perhaps it is that juxtapostion, but it completely ecclipses anything Megan Miller, a.k.a. the girl who auditioned on crutches, and her strong, yet bland voice. Both go through, but only one feels like someone I'd buy a record from (duh, Candice).
Isabelle, the girl with only one name, wows the judges again, as does Briana Oakley, the young woman whose classmates bullied her after she sang beautifully on The Maury Show (the the joke's on them because they were home in the middle of the day watching The Maury Show).
Finally, we have Kez Ban, the androgynous woman from Chicago who's bluesy, grassy style won over the judges. This time, she's gotten a little high and mighty. She actually tells Ryan Seacrest, as if he's the valet of American Idol, to find her some space to practice alone for 30 seconds because she's blown out her voice cheering for her friends. Oh, and also she's really sick. Cough, cough. Kez's voice greatly suffers but the judges seem to be keen on keeping her for now because they let it slide and she stays on to create a good 33 percent of the Hollywood Week drama.
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Group round is upon us and, once again, the producers have chosen the groups for maxium drama potential. To separate the trainwrecks from the choirs of singing angels, come the judges (minus Randy, who never misses a thing on Idol but is apparently getting too old for this s**t) in a fleet of shiny new Ford cars whose names are definitely not glistening on the screen unnecessarily when all we're hoping to do is see Mariah lean back like a figure on a Grecian urn and tell us, "Darling, we're finding stars today." She does that too, but it takes us way too long, and too many car shots, to get there.
Luckily, Ford didn't make any of the contestants drive around in these promo autos when they should have been practicing, so we're able to get right into the groups, their drama, and of course, their performances. The Swaggettes have truly got the swagger because they all went to bed on time. They didn't fight over harmonies or choreography, and they walk in looking refreshed and cheerful. Are we sure this is Hollywood week and not the uplifting part of a movie about a plucky young girl group, with its weird hipster-nerd chick thrown in for the "cool" factor? It's not. While Glover is the clear standout of the group, her cohorts Kamiria Ousley, Melinda Ademi, and Denise Jackson the steampunk princess nailed "Hit 'Em Up Style," also known as the song every group wants to sing but usually can't. But hey, you'd be amazed what you can accomplish when you've got serious swag. They all stay on for the next round.
Page 2: The ladies turn on each other in an instant...
We jump straight out of R&B into real country with Rasin' Kane, comprised of Morgan Leigh Boberg, Lauren Mink, Brandy Hotard, and another girl whose name we don't learn because apparently she doesn't make it very far. Decked all in cowboy boots, these girls are country to the very core, to the point I almost felt I was trapped in unknown territory because my realtionship with country music lives and dies with Taylor Swift. Apparently, I'm not the only one because Mariah's tepid smile betrays just how much she hates this honky tonk stuff. Still she knows talent when it sings to her, so all the girls stay on.
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But what is Hollywood week without a string of girls forgetting their words? This year, girls clearly knew the danger of group night because writing lyrics on their hands and arms became practically commonplace during the auditions, sending Nicki over the edge. But first one group probably should have invested in some sort of assistance because without the words, they fell apart completely. Savannah Votion (the mom with the belly shirt from San Antonio), Liz Weiss, Daysia Hall, and J'Leigh Chauvin take on "Somebody That I Used to Know," as many groups chose to do throughout the night, but the performances isn't even as melodic as a slinki hopping downstairs. Yes, a slinky is more pleasant listening material. Actually. In the end, Daysia is the only one who manages to sing when she forgets her lyrics, and she's safe. Naturally, her group members turn on her and the claws come out, but mainly from Savannah, who's claiming that because she chose the harmonies and because they "helped Daysia sing" onstage (which, as far as I know was not a thing that could actually be done, you either sing or you don't) that they deserve to stay instead. Let's be honest though, we're not looking for sportsmanship during Hollywood week. Got a blame shift? Or a catty comeback? This is where it belongs.
And at least one group knew what they were in for when they named themselves: The Dramatics. Cristabel Clack, Kriss Mincey, and Jane; Stiney are pushed together, and at first it seems perfect and easy. The girls get along, the harmonies make sense. But then Janel is concerned that they need to stay up all night because she hears the other good voices ("I hear them!I hear them!) and they need to be perfect. Her group gets some shuteye, but the next morning nothing has changed. She still wants to rehearse solo, until the moment of truth. Even in the group interview, Janel answers the group question by talking about herself. They keep trying to rehearse togehter and she keeps running away to work on her own. Come show time, the girls aren't too bad, minus Janel, who apparently didn't learn the words so well on her own. When Nicki asks what happened, Janel spews some story about not fitting in and lets out an avalanche of tears to boot. It's something Nicki quickly buys (even if I'm not) and she combats Keith's stalwart refusal to budge on the forgotten lyrics. Evenntually, and not by unanimous vote, the entire group is chosen to stay.
And again, Idol takes a step to convince us that it's not picking superstars based on looks, their opinion of puppies, and whether or not they think the sun is great or super swell. It's all about the voice. We meet Urban Hue, a group made up of Camp Mariah alum Tenna Torres, Kiara Lanier, and Seretha Gunn, whose daughter forged an eternal best friendship with Nicki during the Charlotte auditions. Unfortunately, the performance was awful. Seretha is all over place, and no where she should be. Kiara is forgettable and Torres seems off, even if the strength is clearly still present. But as Nicki said at the last minute, they've got to pick up their game... or they're out. Unfortunately for Seretha that chance passed a long time ago, and her shot at the top spots was is dashed as she is the only group member sent home.
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In case anyone forgot Zoannette Johnson, who auditioned with the "Star Spangled Banner" and a whole lot of stumbling, she's thrown into a cute country girl group called the The Pu-snaps? Poo-snaps? Pouschnapps? I'm not sure what theire name means or where it comes from, and I'm not sure I want to. When the process begins, Zoanette is constantly pouting, worried that these country girls will leave her behind. She sits before the vocal coaches pouting, later claiming she's just "over-passionate." When it comes time for the performances, Zoanette, and her group mates Erin Christine, Lauren Bettes, and (just) Isabelle sing their versus prettily, and I'll admit, I really don't get the Zoanette thing or why she's still here. She still sounds like broken down Fantasia and yet the only person going home this round is sweet, little (boring) Lauren. Perhaps the next episode will relveal Zoanette's special power, but until then, I'm going to remain with my brow throroughly furrowed.
As the night winds down, the groups start to get a bit cattier. One group with their knife-like little claws right out and ready to play is that of Liz Bills. She's with Shira Gavrielov, Alisha Dixon, and Courtney Calle who sings songs like she's a cheerleader for Raffi, acting out every gesture of the song as if our tiny little brains depended on it. This group hates Liz Bill. They hate her so much, they go into their group interview without her, they speak ill of her right up until she walks in, and they've somehow concocted the idea that they're above her. Of course, Liz gets to exact her revenge when the three girls wretched vocals get them sent home while Liz's barefoot hippie antics bring her a little bit closer to that top 24. Sometimes justice is swift like that.
But Shira isn't willing to take this decision for face value. She somehow brings herself back onstage to beg for another chance, only instead of begging, it appears that Shira is guilting the judges for missing out on a good thing. Not only is this just about the worst look possible, the girl came in with a sense of entitlement. She has no concept of the fact that she could be cut from the competition if you're not a right fit. And thank goodness we got rid of her now. The last thing we need is another person on television, trying to make us feel guilty for their failure to succeed.
And Shira wasn't the only one convinced that she didn't deserve her fate. Contestant Stephanie Schmiel convinces her group to switch songs the morning of the performance and then promptly missed the intro of the song, again "Somebody That I Used to Know." But it's clear the girls made a poor choice: Stephanie missteps, Alex Delaney screws up the lyrics so badly her dad grimmaces, and Kalli Therinae and Holly Miller are fairly solid, Holly with just a little more strength. Randy makes it very clear he does not want Stephanie to stay, calling her out for going off key, but the judges vote and Stephanie and Holly are allowed to stay, much to Stephanie's surprise, who thought "botched that one."
Before the grand finish with Kez Ban, we stop off in Barbie-ville, where Britnee Kellogg, Kree Harrison, Brandy Neely, and Haley Davis. As the one who's done the show before, Britnee takes the lead, a job she instantly resents. (Then why are you doing everything? Why don't you just stop doing things? When the Dolly Chicks finally get to the performance, only one of them has slep, Haley, who left practice early for a totally nonexistent "stromach virus." When she does hit the stage, she can't remember the words and what's worse is she's caught on national television wearing Uggs and short skirt like it's an acceptable fashion statement. Surprisingly, it's actually sweet little Brandy who's sent home while the girl who can't play by the rules or stick with her team goes on. That's Hollywood, for ya.
Finally, we get to Kez Ban and the Misfits. After arguing over "poppy floofy" songs and picking something that Kez will finally agree means something to her, they start rehearsing, but all is messed the up royally before too long. First Kez demands arrangement change constantly so that the song suits her voice, then she bails on practice to get dinner right in the middle of a vocal coach session. Finally, she doesn't show up for breakfast, misses the bus to auditions, and shows up alone, just in the nick of time. Basically, she's already living the rock star life. And it works, for her. The group sings "Somebody That I Used to Know" and Breanna Steer, Angela Miller, Janelle Arthur, and Kez somehow make the combination of discipline and chaos work. The judges love it and the whole group goes through.
But as fun as the nonsense of the Hollywood groups can be, tomorrow it's time for judgment. The girls will be singing solos, without the cushion of group members and dance moves, and only then will we be able to tell who's worth watching. Well... worth watching in a serious way, clearly we've got no shortage of reality TV gold in this set of Season 12 contestants.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Michael Becker/Fox (2)]
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It takes a big man, or woman, to suck it up and admit their mistakes. But sometimes it really pays off. After a franchise has shot itself in the foot with a crappy installment, ridiculous casting decision, or absurd plot twist, sometimes the only thing you can do is apologize to your viewer. After the debacle of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which received an abysmal 20% Fresh on RottenTomatoes, director Michael Bay has apologized and promised that the next Transformers film will be a (relative) return to form. And judging from early reviews, it may well be. In honor of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, we’ll take a look at other franchises that were able to pull out of nosedives by making it up to their fans.
Ocean’s Thirteen is the textbook example of an apology film. The first Ocean’s film was wildly successful, but the second was, to be blunt, terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it won a place on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 25 Worst Sequels Ever Made, alongside such esteemed company as Jaws: The Revenge and Leprechaun: Back 2 the Hood. The only purpose of Ocean's Twelve is to serve as a reminder to the generations that follow us about the peril of using “wacky” breakdancing as a plot point in film. With the third installment, however, Steven Soderbergh brought the Rube Goldberg-esque heist antics that made the original a hit, and stopped with the weird meta references to Julia Roberts’ character looking like Julia Roberts.
The cast and crew of Ocean’s Thirteen were quite open about their film’s status as an apology. In an interview, Matt Damon joked that “the tagline we’re really trying to get them to use is ‘Ocean's Thirteen: The film they should have made last time'!"And while Thirteen didn’t make quite as much money as the films that proceeded it, it did manage to get people back into theaters for a third time.
If there’s a franchise that’s the king of the “apology sequel”, it’s Star Trek. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to estimate a Trek film’s quality simply by looking at the number at the end: if it’s even, you’re okay. If it’s odd, God help you. The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture is no classic, it did fairly well in theaters, but was clumsy and dull. And for fans who had waited ten years for a continuation of the series, it was hugely disappointing. It wasn’t until the second film, Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan, that the franchise began to take off and fans got the fun, thrilling adventure they were hoping for. (And the return of one of the best villains of film, the infamous KHAAAAAAAAN. Whose name must always be spelled like that.)
The cycle of apology sequels continued for years- after the overly serious third film, the fourth was lighthearted and funny. The fifth film was downright ridiculous, but the sixth brought the franchise back to its roots. Where the seventh over-relied on the reappearance of Kirk, the eighth let the Next Generation cast stand on its own. And after the lackluster ninth and the unmitigated disaster of the tenth film, JJ Abrams gave the series a fresh start with the action-packed new Star Trek. On the one hand, you have to congratulate Trek on getting a sustainable formula down, it’s not every series that gets eleven installments. On the other, is it so hard to make two good movies in a row?
X-Men has proven a surprisingly durable superhero franchise, with five films within the same continuity released since 2000. While this is impressive for any franchise, it’s especially impressive in light of how terrible two of those films were. X-Men Origins: Wolverine managed to make one of the coolest characters in the series look like a boring tool, and you shouldn’t even get me started on X-Men: The Last Stand. Were I to get started, however, it would look a lot like this: they killed of Cyclops off-screen! And didn’t bring it up for half the film! What is Brett Ratner doing?!
While X-Men: First Class was by no means a perfect film, (killing off the black mutant first? Really?) it was a great apology effort on the behalf of the studio. The film focused on two of the most beloved characters, Charles Xavier and Magneto, who had been somewhat sidelined in the prior ensemble films. On a creative level, it brought back Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films, as an executive producer; and give the project to Matthew Vaughn, one of the original perspective directors for The Last Stand, to direct. These smart moves on the part of the studio may have saved a franchise that I was ready to write off.
Like Star Trek, James Bond is another series that’s built on the “apology sequel.” It even has an apology mechanic built in: once one Bond starts to show his age, you can just cast another one. This method helped keep the franchise strong for years, as each new Bond addressed the weaknesses of his predecessors and adapted to audience tastes. Except for George Lazenby.
While there are many Bond apology films, Casino Royale is probably the most drastic example. By the early 2000’s, the Bond franchise’s very future was in doubt- the superspy was seeming more and more irrelevant in a post-Cold War world. Die Another Day did little to redeem the franchise, highlighting gadgets, product placement, and empty fight scenes. While the casting of Daniel Craig didn’t initially win over fans, the series’ toned-down and realistic new take returned the series to relevance. I hate to use the term “darker and grittier”, but sometimes it works out for the best.
The Incredible Hulk
While The Incredible Hulk may technically be a reboot of Ang Lee’s Hulk rather than a sequel, there’s no doubt that it was created in response to the earlier film. And that response is “Oh dear God, we are so so sorry.” Ang Lee’s film was a unique, philosophical take on the Hulk, and was a more internal, personal take on the superhero genre. It was also incredibly slow, misguided, and difficult to watch. With The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios reset the tone of the series and brought the character back in line with their brand image- ready for summer explosions over deep philosophical discussions about the nature of mankind. And thank Thor for that.
It’s easy to forget, now that the Harry Potter series is about to debut its final film, that the series got off to a bumpy start. The first two films weren’t terrible, certainly, but they weren’t especially good either. Chris Columbus seemed intent on creating the most generic kids entertainment possible, translating the events of the book to the screen faithfully but capturing little of the magic (see what I did there?) that made the series a hit. The warm glow of nostalgia has helped to make the films somewhat more appealing, but try to watch them without something like Brad Neely’s hilarious Wizard People, Dear Reader commentary track and see how far you get.
That all changed with Alfonso Cuaron’s take on the third film in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuaron was the first director to approach the world with a sense of creative enthusiasm, bringing something new to the world rather than transcribing it in a different medium. Some of these creative choices were suspect (what’s with the shrunken head?) they indicated an impressive apology on the part of Warner Brothers. Everyone involved with the series knew that the films would make money, whether they were any good or not. Prisoner of Azkaban proved to viewers that the WB wasn’t content coasting on fan approval with a handful of competent films, but was interested in making genuinely good ones. It certainly paid off to the WB’s benefit- the film series remained wildly successful, both attracting new fans and keeping their original fans engaged as they aged. Not to mention the absolutely staggering amounts of money the films have made.
I hated Batman Begins. Before you run off to grab your handy internet stoning kit, let me gush about how much I loved The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was one of the best action movies in years- a movement away from the mis- and over-used CGI that embraced the action potential of just letting really good actors go at it. The city of Gotham was fleshed-out and expanded, and filled with actual people that you could care about. Overall, Christopher Nolan created a film that was thrilling both cerebrally and viscerally. Unfortunately, Batman Begins did none of those things. The action scenes are boring and badly paced- the chase scene in the Batmobile is the only chase scene that I’ve been tempted to sleep through. In order for a Batman film to work, Gotham needs to work. This means that Gotham needs to feel like a city worth saving, one with a culture and people in it besides criminals and murderers. In Batman Begins, Gotham is a dank hellhole- despite Bruce Wayne’s insistence to the contrary, I wasn’t convinced that Gotham was a town worth saving. I mean, what’s worth saving? The little kid who grows up to be Joffrey?
The most significant weakness of Nolan’s Batman films, however, is Batman himself. While Christian Bale makes a compelling Bruce Wayne, his Batman has never been the most interesting part of the films. The actor seems awkward behind the cape and cowl, a fact only highlighted by the ridiculous, and oft-parodied, voice he uses in the role. The strength of a Nolan Batman film then comes down to the success of the side characters. This works out excellently in The Dark Knight, where Heath Ledger’s Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s Dent run the show, but kind of kills the momentum of Batman Begins. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow isn’t a bad villain, but he can’t carry the show himself, and Katie Holmes is painfully dull as Rachel Dawes. With The Dark Knight, Nolan confronted the weaknesses of the original film, and gave us, to paraphrase, “the Batman that moviegoers deserve.”