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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This! Is! Not American Idol. So why am I here? What could I possibly be doing functioning in recap form without Coke cups (Wha?! Pepsi? Aw, remember this?) and utterly predictable song choices involving hits from artists whose names rhyme with Fitney Blouston (Oh wait!)? Filling in for your vacationing X Factor recapper, Shaunna Murphy, that's what!
But never fear — we're in this together folks. And prior to seeing the episode, I thought we would go through this like Simon Cowell got through Season 9: Slowly and begrudgingly. Because unlike your dear Shaunna, I am somewhat new to the X Factor train, which, from what I know, rides you straight past our judges "homes," into a Pepsi commercial, and straight out onto the Island of Forgotten Misfit Reality Stars. But this season is different! This season we have bright-eyed promise, Britney Spears, and, of course, Canadian wonder Justin Bieber. So what’s all the fuss aboot? Let’s get into it!
As screaming host man made clear during his voiceovers (nope, Dunkleman is still worse), on Wednesday night, our judges were handed their teams. And first up tonight was L.A. Reid’s group of youthful twenty and thirtysomethings. Oh wait, did I say youthful twenty and thirtysomethings? I meant slowly decaying corpses. At least if you ask L.A., a man who passes much judgment despite a friendship with a man named Scooter. (Did he learn nothing from Valerie?) Yes, the big news was the Biebes and his manager, Scooter Braun, were on tap to coolly bop their heads and say insightful things like, “They have to give it their all,” “He has a good voice,” and “She was singing, eh?” Let’s roll through L.A.’s lineup of moving carcasses:
Jason Brock: “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” by Fergie: The former misfit delivered an impassioned — if a bit overstated — performance of the hit single. The judges, however, seemed unimpressed until Bieber perked up halfway through the song, possibly simply identifying with the lyrics, “I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket.” Poor Bieber blanket. All alone. It was a decent performance that would have affected me more if Jason’s speaking voice didn’t sound like he was constantly stumbling out of a Watch What Happens Live taping after too many cocktails.
David Correy: “Domino,” by Jessie J: The man who chose the most complicated method possible to reconnect with his birth mother delivered a strong performance of the Jessie J single. Negative points, however, for pointing at the skyline while singing about the “Hollywood stars.” 1999 called, and Backstreet Boys want their moves back.
Daryl Black: “She’s Gone,” Hall & Oates: I agreed with Bieber here when he essentially stated that Daryl was, in fact, a human who made noises from his mouth. Sorry, Daryl — you were as forgettable as Johnny Mnemonic. Oh, Canada.
Tate Stevens: “One,” Brian McKnight: X Factor’s resident cowboy may be unique, but his vocal chops need plenty of work to be fit for a $5 million prize. But, lucky for him, this isn’t a singing competition, silly! It’s a package competition. And when you have Bieber rooting for you, you know you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or you have a leg up in the competition. Bonus points to Tate, however, for singing “One” on 10/11/12, a day dedicated to the art of counting.
Vino Alan: “Sober,” Pink: I wanted to like Vino after hearing his horrific backstory, but, unfortunately, if I wasn’t sober, I’d swear he was the seventh member of Crazy Town.
Tara Simon: “The Reason,” Hoobastank: You know that girl back in drama club who only loved the Rent soundtrack more than the spotlight? That was Tara, a vocal coach who claimed in the course of 60 seconds, “I feel like I will win the whole thing,” “I’ve always been a star — people have just now caught onto it,” and “I want to be America’s darling.” Typically, however, darlings don’t use the meat cleaver that is their voice to murder a song that was already a bloody mess. Then to clinch the whole audition with, “Thank you, Jesus.” Well, there’s “The Reason” to show yourself straight out of L.A.’s door.
Following the ghoulish sight of people who have outlived puberty, it was time to move on to Britney Spears' group of teens, guest mentored by will.i.am. And we finally learned why the Black Eyed Peas singer gave himself the nickname — as a reminder that he is Will, and not a series of objects and things he associates with people. “She’s like a caterpillar … he’s like a used hairbrush … she’s like that plastic thing that sits in the center of delivery pizza … he’s like lamp. I love lamp!”
Meanwhile, the children sat waiting for their turn to sing, “joking” about “fighting to the death.” You see, they’re all competing against one another, but no, they really aren’t, because they’re all in the same boat and care for each other, but no, they’re really competing and they all better watch out, cue teenage eye rolls, and BAM! At least two of these girls suddenly became emotionally damaged. Hooray for child stardom! Ready for precociousness?
Diamond White: “I’m With You,” Avril Lavigne: Funny how the episode didn’t hit its stride until the introduction of this young teen, who managed to deliver a beautiful rendition of a hit that’s a song version of hangnails. Plus, Diamond is adorable, sparkling, and ripe for plenty of jewelry puns. A writer’s dream.
Reed Deming: “Hey There Delilah,” Plain White Ts: Remember Idol’s Eben Franckewitz? Short, tiny, poised? Extinguished “Set Fire to the Rain” until it was a heap of semifinal rubble? Well, Reed was like a slightly more talented and robotic version of Eben. And, I have to admit, I dug it, despite wondering what will happen when his voice eventually changes. (Ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease on the live X Factor stage!) will.i.am labeled Reed “The Emperor,” which makes me wonder why he’s imagining Reed without clothes and oh my god does this mean I am too? Do I have to report myself to my neighbors?
James Tanner: "Party Like a Rock Star," Shop Boyz: This child raps. It’s adorable. But, sorry, James — you’re about as gansta as Eminem is a Southern Belle. Next.
Arin Ray: “Starships,” Nicki Minaj: The boy formerly known as an inTENsity group member irritated me for two reasons: 1) The unwillingness to take responsibility for his Season 1 failure, claiming that now he doesn’t “have to rely on anyone,” and 2) Being part of a group with unnecessary caps that my computer autocorrects, forcing me to go back and reformat my text. That said, Britney liked his stripped down version of the hit, meaning my wish to see him escape to the island over overly complex titles — ruled by President HawtoRNe — will likely go ungranted.
Beatrice Miller: “Titanium,” David Guetta: Beatrice is like a baby, 2010s version of Fiona Apple: She has a mad cool voice, is incredibly artistic, and is an emotional loose cannon. The young singer almost crumbled under the pressure of having to perform in front of Britney, giving us uncomfortable Season 1 Rachel Crow feelings. Still, she pulled through with an excellent, unique performance of Guetta’s hit. Britney, however, might not think she’s emotionally ready. But if they cut you, Beatrice, just remember: This X Factor is bulls**t.
Carly Rose Sonenclar: “Brokenhearted,” Karmin: Beatrice’s biggest competition, however, is teen frontrunner Sonenclar, who boasts a voice so mature, I think it just purchased a fine Malbec. Smooth, silky, and absolutely refined — is there any beating her at this stage? Word to the wise: Stay away from the Cornucopia, Carly.
What did you think of the episode? Which eight will advance to the live shows? Were you as disappointed as I was that the ho-hum “Overs” proved L.A.’s first instincts right? Did you feel like checking yourself into a retirement home every time the teens said they’ve been working towards this their whole. Entire. Life? And are you, too, disappointed that we were treated to no pool-centric slapstick at Britney’s home? How did no one fall in?!
[Image Credit: FOX]
The X Factor Recap: Groups and Young Adults Get Judged
The X Factor Bootcamp Recap: Battle Round
The X Factor Bootcamp Recap: CeCe Frey and a Ballad of Broken Dreams
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.