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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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.
S5E14: Love is in the air, but naturally no one at 30 Rock seems to be able to tell through all that thick New York City air and their romantic radar is pointing in another direction. This is a good thing, because there’s only so much romance we can handle after a while. Besides, it wouldn’t be very Liz Lemon-like to have all her romantic dreams work out all the time, now would it?
“I never sleep on planes. I don’t want to be incepted.” –Jack
Nice Christopher Nolan shout out, 30 Rock. We find that Jack and Liz are off to romantic getaways in Nagshead? and Toronto? for Valentine’s Day. Oh yeah, the romantic views of the Toronto skyline just whip me into a complete frenzy. Right. The best part about this open is the little exchange of predictive notes between Jack and Liz – they may be undermining each other but it’s in a way that they both appreciate and adore. The notes are almost like little, friendly valentines to each other, and after all, isn’t this the only relationship on the show that seems to stick? Say it with me, “Aw.”
“We say ‘half an hour’ to control the herds of walking mozzarella sticks who think that 300 dollars and a photo I.D. gives them the right to fly through the air like one of the guardian owls of legend.” -Carol
Liz sets off on her romantic getaway with Jack’s taunting notion in her head – she and Carol are too similar and that only spells trouble. When the ridiculous flight delay sets in and Liz confronts Carol about his untruthful techniques for dealing with the crisis, their mutual stubbornness comes to a head, pitting Carol and the crew against Liz and the passengers. Things got ugly and uncomfortable and sweaty (not in the fun way, but the gross stuck on a plane sort of way), but may I just say it was the best, most epic breakup EVER.
While it was uncomfortable watching the passengers cooped up in the tiny plane while being forced to watch Legend of the Guardians and rejected NBC sitcoms, I did enjoy the little intro to “Gals on the Town” with the theme sung by none other than Tina Fey. And she’s sticking it to Sex and the City…again. Win. Carol finally gives Liz an ultimatum, she can apologize for humiliating him in front of his crew and admit he was right or he won’t take the plane to the gate. Clearly all that long-distance relationshipping hasn’t taught him that Liz would never cave to that. This escalates and gets to the point where Carol grabs the pistol off the air marshal and Liz shields herself from his aim with an old man while they scream at each other. If you’re going down, go down in total craziness, LL. Though it was by all accounts a breakup, they’re both so crazy and they looked at each other with such understanding that I almost thought they were appreciating each other’s insanity and that they would get back together. Who was I kidding? Even if that was true, there is no way Lemon would ever let any of that go. She doesn’t let anything go, ever. Farewell, Carol, you were a babe.
“Oh my God. Where are my manners? Would you like some meth?” –Canadian Methhead
When Jack and Avery get to Toronto, she starts having contractions and of course this starts a panic because they are in CANADA and the baby will be born CANADIAN which is the WORST THING EVER. When there are no flights and no rental cars or trains available, the overly patriotic duo make a run for it – that’s right, Jack and Avery hitchhike. Of course, they manage to take a second to make a jab at President Obama - “If we were in Kenya right now this would all be fine.” Yeah, they’re not winning any conservative viewers when they make fun of that kind of obtuse mentality, but who cares; that notion is crazy anyway.
When they finally catch a break, guest star John Cho and friends give them a ride but it turns out their big van is a roving meth lab. Once again, Jack and Avery’s patriotism and values are tested; meth lab or Canadian baby? Clearly the Canadian baby option is worse. Clearly. Unfortunately, they don’t make it to the border in time and after hearing how pressured Cho’s meth head character was to become the next Canadian Prime Minister and how that turned him into a druggie, they give up their hopes that their daughter will be the next American president and head to the nearest Canadian hospital. It’s cool; they’ll love her just as much as they love “a human baby.” This is of course a problem because they don’t want to participate in “socialist medicine” and in Canada, the healthcare is free, so they panic and set out to find someone who will take their money for medical services.
This whole plot was so great because while these two have become completely over-the-top with their uber conservative nuttiness, it all has a hilarious purpose in this episode. All those strict values are put to the test and they get blown to smithereens.
“Cornell commencement address? Sorry, but Tracy Jordan doesn’t do safety schools.” –Tracy
Meanwhile, Tracy has finally done it. He’s EGOT-ted. Jenna isn’t dealing so well – holy crap, she was BURNING HER HAND to help her deal with the pain of congratulating him. She plays psycho so well.
With his new honor comes responsibility. He’s invited and expected to speak at all kinds of charity events and benefits, but he doesn’t want to deal with it. He’s risen above his ability to handle seriousness and he wants out. We all knew he’d have to crack at some point. He spends most of the episode trying to avoid his new duties, but finally comes around (because the real Tracy Morgan needs to miss a few episodes for a surgery he’s having) and he decides to go to Africa to help the children. Of course, because he’s Tracy, he’s actually in a sound stage that looks like Africa (if Africa was Gilligan’s Island) and he’s doing exactly what Pete suggested he do. I’d act disappointed, but it’s Tracy. Come on.