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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Campaigners at The Little People of America organisation have this week (beg04Jun12) voiced their anger after actors including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost were cast as the famous fairytale characters and digitally altered to appear shorter.
Los Angeles-based dwarf theatre group Beacher's Madhouse threatened to stage a "100-midget march" to the offices of Universal Pictures in protest against "injustice and prejudice".
British actor Davis has now spoken out about the dispute and urged movie bosses not to cut smaller actors out of their castings.
He tells E! Online, "Considering the vast experience of many short actors working in the film industry today, I think it inexcusable that in casting for Snow White & the Huntsman, producers did not utilise this pool of talent. My colleague Peter Dinklage won an Emmy for his performance in Game of Thrones, proving that short actors need roles that will not only challenge them, but allow them to express themselves as actors in their own right.
"It is not acceptable to 'black up' as a white actor, so why should it be acceptable to 'shrink' an actor to play a dwarf?"
A spokesman for the Universal Pictures studio called the move "a casting decision, not a body-type decision," adding, "They (the actors playing the dwarves) came with pedigrees and recognisability."
The Emmy Award-winning star passed away on Wednesday (15Jun11) at the Motion Picture and Television Fund home in Woodland Hills, California, where he lived.
Banner began his career in children's TV before taking directorial duties on pioneering talk show Garroway at Large, which ran from 1949 to 1951.
The star won an Emmy Award in 1958 as director of The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and went on to oversee The Garry Moore Show, before working on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s.
Banner also used his talent to work on several charity shows, including 1964's Freedom Spectacular, featuring Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr. and a 1988 AIDS benefit concert hosted by Dionne Warwick. He worked on 1980s talent show Star Search and his last project was the 1990s series Real Kids, Real Adventures.
John Shaffner, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, has paid tribute to Banner in a statement: "Bob was a true television legend. Over a long and elegant career he produced much memorable programming. He mentored so many of us, educating and encouraging young people to enter the television profession, including myself so many years ago. The television community has lost one its founders, and it is a deep personal loss for many of us. We will remember him with fondness and gratitude."
Banner is survived by his wife, Alice, three sons and two grandchildren.