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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It hasn't just been a weighty year in politics -- culminating with President Barack Obama's inauguration. It was also an issue-heavy year in snowy Park City.
At the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival, the issue-focused subject matter -- global and national -- spanned the gamut: from assassination-fearing, aspiring pop singers (Afghan Star) … to fastidious fashionistas on deadline (September Issue) ... to laid-off female factory workers in revolt (Louise-Michel) … to Chris Rock taking-on the politics of smooth vs. kinky hair (Good Hair).
And the big triple winner: Push, a story of survival, literacy and hope by Lee Daniels co-starring Mo'Nique, accomplished its own story-making feat with a captivating leading young lady (Gabourey Sidibe).
Out of the 118 features, 7 prestigious awards were won by a small group of buzz films we profiled in our "Sundance Preview Guide." Narrative winners: Push (Grand Jury Prize; Audience Award; Special Jury Prize for Acting for Mo'Nique) and Paper Heart (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award); Documentary winners: Afghan Star (World Cinema Audience Award); Good Hair (Special Jury Prize: U.S.); Big River Man (World Cinema Cinematography Award).
Not to mention the stars who created their own paparazzi avalanche -- some even splitting their time in D.C. -- on and off the slopes. This year's attendees included Spread's Ashton Kutcher canoodling with Demi; Twilight princess Kristen Stewart pushing Adventureland; Push's partying Mariah Carey and hubby Nick Cannon; Reporter producer Ben Affleck schmoozing at MySpace cafe; 50 Cent giving Phillip Morris' Jim Carrey a birthday shout out; Amy Poehler hangin' with Spring Breakdown co-star Parker Posey; Paper Heart's Michael Cera looking very Michael Cera; Kevin Bacon promoting Taking Chance, La Mission's Benjamin Brat adding to the hunk count; pink-hatted Emma Roberts on double-duty for Lymelife and The Winning Season, and Mr. Redford, himself -- and so on, and so on.
So on to the winners:
The Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary was presented to We Live in Public, directed by Ondi Timoner. The film portrays the story of the Internet's revolutionary impact on human interaction as told through the eyes of maverick web pioneer, Josh Harris, and his transgressive art project that shocked New York.
The Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, directed by Lee Daniels and written by Damien Paul. The film tells the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young girl in Harlem struggling to overcome tremendous obstacles and discover her own voice.
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Rough Aunties, directed by Kim Longinotto. Fearless, feisty and unwavering, the 'Rough Aunties' protect and care for the abused, neglected and forgotten children of Durban, South Africa. United Kingdom
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to The Maid (La Nana), directed by Sebastian Silva. When her mistress brings on another servant to help with the chores, a bitter and introverted maid wreaks havoc on the household. Chile
The Audience Award presented by Honda: U.S. Documentary was presented to The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos. The horrors of a secret cove nestled off a small, coastal village in Japan are revealed by a group of activists.
The Audience Award presented by Honda: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, directed by Lee Daniels and written by Damien Paul. The film tells the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young girl in Harlem struggling to overcome tremendous obstacles and discover her own voice.
The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary was presented to Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking. After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Pop Idol has come to television in Afghanistan: millions are watching and voting for their favorite singer. Marking's film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk their lives to sing. Afghanistan/United Kingdom
The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic was presented to An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby. In the early 60s, a sharp 16-year-old with sights set on Oxford meets a handsome older man whose sophistication enraptures and sidetracks both her and her parents. United Kingdom
The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to El General and director Natalia Almada. As great-granddaughter of President Plutarco Eliás Calles, one of Mexico's most controversial revolutionary figures, the filmmaker paints an intimate portrait of Mexico.
The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sin Nombre, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Filmmaker Fukunaga's first-hand experiences with Mexican immigrants seeking the promise of the U.S. form the basis of this epic Spanish-language dramatic thriller.
The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary was presented to Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking. After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Pop Idol has come to television in Afghanistan: millions are watching and voting for their favorite singer. Marking's film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk their lives to sing. Afghanistan/United Kingdom
The World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic was presented to Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Two men from the same town but from different sides of the Irish political divide discover that the past is never dead. United Kingdom/Ireland
The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award was presented to Nicholas Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi for Paper Heart. Even though performer Charlyne Yi doesn't believe in love, she bravely embarks on a quest to discover its true nature - a journey that takes on surprising urgency when she meets unlikely fellow traveler, actor Michael Cera.
The World Cinema Screenwriting Award was presented to Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Two men from the same town but from different sides of the Irish political divide discover that the past is never dead. United Kingdom/Ireland
The U.S. Documentary Editing Award was presented to Sergio. Directed by Greg Barker and edited by Karen Schmeer, the film examines the role of the United Nations and the international community through the life and experiences of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award was presented to Burma VJ. Directed by Anders Østergaard and edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros. The film takes place in September 2007 as Burmese journalists risk life imprisonment to report from inside their sealed-off country. Denmark
The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to The September Issue. With unprecedented access, director R.J. Cutler, cinematographer Bob Richman and their crew shot for nine months to capture editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her team preparing the 2007 Vogue September issue, widely accepted as the "fashion bible" for the year's trends.
The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sin Nombre, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Cinematographer: Adriano Goldman. Filmmaker Fukunaga's first-hand experiences with Mexican immigrants seeking the promise of the U.S. form the basis of this epic Spanish-language dramatic thriller.
The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary was presented to Big River Man, John Maringouin's documentary about at an overweight, wine-swilling Slovenian world-record-holding endurance swimmer who resolves to brave the mighty Amazon in nothing but a Speedo. U.S.A./United Kingdom
The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic was presented to An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby. Cinematographer: John De Borman. In the early 1960s, a sharp 16-year-old girl with sights set on Oxford meets a handsome older man whose sophistication enraptures and sidetracks both her and her parents. United Kingdom
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Originality was presented to Louise-Michel, directed by Benoit Delépine and Gustave de Kervern, about a group of disgruntled female French factory workers who, after the factory abruptly closes, pool their paltry compensation money to hire a hit man to knock off the corrupt executive behind the closure. France
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Tibet in Song directed by Ngawang Choephel. Through the story of Tibetan music, this film depicts the determined efforts of Tibetan people, both in Tibet and in exile, to preserve their unique cultural identity. Choephel served six years of an 18-year prison sentence for filming in Tibet. Tibet
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting was presented to Catalina Saavedra for her portrayal of a bitter and introverted maid in The Maid (La Nana). Chile
A Special Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary was presented to Good Hair, directed by Jeff Stilson, in which comedian Chris Rock travels the world to examine the culture of African-American hair and hairstyles.
A Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence was presented to Humpday, Lynn Shelton's farcical comedy about straight male bonding gone a little too far.
A Special Jury Prize for Acting was presented to Mo'Nique for her portrayal of a mentally ill mother who both emotionally and physically imprisons her daughter in Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.
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Top Story: Jolie Awarded Prestigious U.N. Award
Angelina Jolie tearfully accepted the United Nations Correspondents Association's first Citizen of the World Award for her continued work with refugees, The Associated Press reports. Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, introduced the actress, saying, "She has helped put the spotlight on a disenfranchised group--refugees--and also those who are not in the headlines and who are victims of long forgotten crises," Lubbers said. "She gives a voice to millions of uprooted people across the globe." Jolie, 28, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency since 2001, said at the awards dinner Wednesday night that she was "inspired and humbled" to work with refugees and also said it was exceptionally meaningful to receive an award named for Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, who was one of 22 people killed in the Aug. 19 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, AP reports. Every time she looks at the award, Jolie said, she'll be reminded of the work he did for the United Nations, not only in Iraq but also for refugees and in promoting human rights.
Japanese Man Sues Britney Spears
A Japanese businessman who was ordered to stay away from Britney Spears has filed a lawsuit against the pop princess, claiming her security guards caused him "extreme emotional distress," Reuters reports. Masahiko Shizawa, a 43-year-old software entrepreneur, says Spears' guards confronted him on a public street at gunpoint and demanded that he leave the area. A restraining order was placed on Shizawa Oct. 7, when a judge deemed he had "engaged in a pattern of harassment and stalking" Spears for more than a year, Reuters reports.
Siegfried Vows Return to Stage With Roy
At the third annual World Awards in Hamburg, Germany Thursday, Siegfried Fishchbacher, of the famed Siegfried and Roy duo, accepted a special award on behalf of his partner, Roy Horn, who is recovering from a tiger attack during a performance Oct. 3, and vowed the two would return to the stage, AP reports. "The Siegfried who you see before you here will soon return again as Siegfried and Roy," the German-born magician told the cheering crowd at the ceremony recognizing outstanding contributions to society specifically by men. Other award recipients included Michael Douglas, Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb, Morgan Freeman and Christopher Reeve.
Columnist Fired for Racist Remarks
ESPN.com has fired columnist Gregg Easterbook as a freelance contributor to its Web site after his derogatory comments towards the producers of Kill Bill were published in The New Republic magazine, AP reports. Easterbook apologized last week for remarking the producers were "Jewish executives" who "worship money above all else," but ESPN said in a statement they found the comments "highly offensive and intolerable."
HBO's Band Could Hit Syndication
Following the sale of Sex and the City episodes to Tribune Entertainment, HBO has started shopping around their Emmy-winning miniseries Band of Brothers to other cable networks in a move to try and generate an additional revenue stream. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the History Channel has expressed the most interest in the 10-hour WWII drama produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
Reality TV Awards Shelved for Now
ABC and veteran Emmys producer Don Mischer have decided to pull the plug on producing an award show honoring the best in non-scripted television, Reuters reports, due to a lack of cooperation from the other networks. Mischer said plans for the new "Reality Awards" were severely hampered by the refusal of some competing networks to grant permission for clips of their shows to be televised on ABC. "In several cases, we were told that 'reality' stars, judges and producers would be discouraged from participating, even though all those we talked to were very excited about honoring this genre of television," Mischer said. The two-hour special was to have been taped on Nov. 23, but no airdate was ever set, Reuters reports.
Role Call: Harlin Picks Up Exorcist's Loose Ends, It's a Man-Thing
Director Renny Harlin will take over the directing chores on Exorcist: The Beginning, helming six weeks of reshoots, Variety reports. He replaces Paul Schrader, who dropped out last month as director of the prequel to the 1973 Oscar-nominated film due to creative differences. Exorcist: The Beginning traces the story of Father Merrin back to his first encounter with the devil in Africa and stars Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar and recording artist Billy Crawford…Another Marvel comic book character is coming to a theater near you. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Man-Thing, a story about a vengeful creature born from the evil and injustices perpetrated against man and nature and starring Jack Thompson and Rawiri Paratene, will open Aug. 27, 2004.