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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
If a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
S1:E7 Last night’s Real Housewives of DC began with Cat finishing her book, called Inbox Full, and asking her White House photographer husband (whom she’s now divorced from) to help her come up with a cover. A few episodes back he took pictures of her carrying bags up as she went up and down escalators and pretended to look at the The Day After Tomorrow water wave sized group of messages on her Blackberry. She began instructing him as to where he should put her name and what kind of shading to do, and made the mistake of asking what he was doing for the rest of the day. He responded he was flying to Manhattan to photograph the Peter Jackson, then Bill Clinton, then General Petraeus, then Nancy Pelosi, and then Tim Geitner… so could she kindly cease publishing her book and give the tree husbands back to their grieving and terribly devastated tree wives?
Michaele went over to spend an afternoon with the cheerleaders of the Washington Redskins because she cheered for the team back in the 80s and apparently, the Redskins are the only group who want to have anything to do with their old and bored and hated by their mother-in-laws and liverspotted alumni. But she wasn’t alone that day! A bunch of other 80s Redskins cheerleaders were there, and it was very hard to believe the younger cheerleaders didn’t just school them in cheers and youth and thank them for being the generation who discovered if you smoke too much, your voice changes and morphs into a bus motor. Instead, we got many shots of the same stringy blond hair whirling around in different directions. Michaele was by far the worst cheerleader – she had her hands up when they were supposed to be down, forgot that 8 came after 7, and popped her head up and down like she was a Brady. Finally, the choreographer put her in the back.
Stacie did something really cute and gathered up a bunch of crazy sundae toppings for her kids to make sundaes, and invited Mary, Mary’s kids, Cat’s kids, and Lynda over to enjoy on the ice cream bedazzling. Cat went over to Stacie’s friend Erica and started complaining how she fell over on the way over, and Erica was all like, “so you’re mean AND klutzy?” Cat didn’t like that very much, but her attention was immediately redirected to Jacob, Stacie’s son, who asked who the oldest mommy in the room was. The mothers thought it would be better to let the kids guess, and Cat’s daughters recognized this game IMMEDIATELY and said their mother was the youngest and Mary was the oldest. The septic tank stays vacant once again!
The women left the children to their sundaes and all went into the other room to discuss how terrible a mother Mary is because her daughter quit her job and continues to live at home. Then Erica told Cat that she really doesn’t like her because Cat said a long time ago that she hates Tyra Banks. (Why is Erica even on this show? She’s not one of the five housewives…is she an understudy for the guy who makes the horse noises in Spamalot?) Lynda confusingly stepped in -- which was especially surprising because the room wasn’t feng shui at all -- and told Erica to stop judging everyone. Cat got up and left, and Erica kept talking about how negative Cat was, and everyone was like, “cut her a break, her husband wants to go take pictures of a general rather than decide how the placement of her name on her book cover is going to negatively affect the sequins of her dress.”
Mary’s daughter sat down with her parents and asked for more time to stay in the house. Her plan was to save up more money and be out of the house by spring or summer or fall, but not winter because it’s too cold to fold a cardboard box in winter. Lolly’s father wants her out of the nest, like now, because little birds have to fly so their wings don’t become vestigial appendages, but Mary didn’t seem to want her to leave at all. I guess she really likes having her clothes stolen, seeing as she’s feeding the burglar and not locking the lock on her closet!
Lynda, Erica, Cat, Stacie and her husband, Mary and Paul went to David Catania’s office, a D.C. Councilmember who’s trying very hard to get the gay marriage bill passed. Right from the beginning, there was immediate tension between Cat and Erica, but it was quickly overshadowed by a disagreement on the subject itself between Mary and everyone else. Mary said the issue didn’t affect her, which was kind of shocking (seeing as all her friends are stylists and own antique shops where chairs are for looking instead of for sitting), as was when Stacie’s husband said he understood civil unions, but believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Oh snap, and Stacie believed that too! Did they forget their hairstylist (Paul Wharton, the guy who had to pay for his own birthday party because the Salahis stiffed him with the bill) had called the meeting in the first place? Paul was very upset once he found out he was friends with three people who didn’t believe in gay marriage.
The Salahis met with one of their business advisors on how they’re going to make a bill that protects wineries become a law? I think that’s what she said? I was listening…but it just sounded so much like history class and I’ve always spent history class trying to spot the place where I burned my nose with a curling iron, so I kind of was thinking more about how everyone else went to a gay marriage meeting and Michaele was off cheerleading. The advisor also said that most wineries cannot make a profit by just being a winery, which means they must really have no money since the winery isn’t even operational anymore. Michaele and Tareq kept talking about how many people the vineyard had made happy, but that seems improbable since the name is stupid and there’s no wine left.
The next Salahi project they did was meet with a writer (who lived in a decidedly un-writerlike house) who was going to help them write a tell-all book about their terrible family woes. The title of it will be, “Wine, War and Roses,” and this sentence (and recap) is over because I’m too discouraged.