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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Jackson gives a DNA sample
Michael Jackson voluntarily submitted a DNA sample to authorities, but it wasn't immediately clear how officials planned to use it in the molestation case against the singer, The Associated Press reports. The sample was collected Saturday--a day after the Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies arrived at Jackson's Neverland Ranch with search warrants, where a source told the AP they measured rooms, trying to establish the sight lines from one room to another. This is the first time authorities have asked for a DNA sample. Monday is the deadline for prosecutors and defense lawyers to complete the discovery process in which both sides exchange evidence they have gathered during pretrial investigations.
Wonder criticizes Eminem for Jackson jabs
Not usually known for public outbursts, Stevie Wonder publicly railed against rapper Eminem for ridiculing Michael Jackson in his video "Just Lose It." In an interview with Billboard magazine, Wonder said he was "really disappointed" in Eminem. "Kicking someone when he's down is not a good thing," Wonder said. "I have much respect for [Eminem]'s work, though I don't think he's as good as (late rapper) 2Pac. But I was disappointed that he would let himself go to such a level. He has succeeded on the backs of people predominantly in that lower pay bracket, people of color. So for him to come out like that is bull."
John, Beatty honored in Washington
Sir Elton John and Warren Beatty were among six entertainment legends honored for their lifetime contributions at the 27th Annual Kennedy Center Honors Sunday, Reuters reports. The other recipients were soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, composer and conductor John Williams, and husband and wife actors, writers and producers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The Honors Gala, which included guests Faye Dunaway, singer Billy Joel and actor Robert Downey, Jr., will be broadcast later in December on the CBS television network as a two-hour prime time special.
Blake's lawyer promises to move ahead with trial
Robert Blake's defense lawyer has promised to move ahead with the actor's murder trial despite the theft Wednesday of a computer from his Sherman Oaks, Calif., apartment, AP reports. Opening statements in the case were set to begin today but were postponed Thursday after a PC that contained what a court representative called "the heart and soul of the defense case" was stolen from M. Gerald Schwartzbach's apartment-office. The former Baretta star is accused in the 2001 shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Blake, 71, has pleaded not guilty to murder and solicitation of murder and remains free on $1.5 million bail.
Stewart's America (The Book) named Book of the Year
Jon Stewart's America (The Book) has been named Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly, AP reports. The industry trade magazine called the book "a serious critique of the two-party system, the corporations that finance it and the 'spineless cowards in the press' who 'aggressively print allegation and rumor independent of accuracy and fairness.'" Stewart's book, released in September, quickly became a bestseller even though retail giant Wal-Mart refused to stock it because of a page featuring the faces of the nine Supreme Court justices superimposed over naked bodies.
People's Choice Awards add new categories
The People's Choice Awards have added 14 new categories to the upcoming ceremony, including favorite movies, favorite smile, favorite cartoon star, favorite overall movie, and favorite movie drama, comedy and sequel. There is also a favorite hair accolade as well as favorite "look" award. Previous nominees for the 31st annual People's Choice Awards were announced in October but the list has been revised, compiled by Entertainment Weekly, the People's Choice production team and pop culture fans. The ceremony will be broadcast from 9-11 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 9--live in the East, but tape delayed in the West.
Guylaine Cadorette contributed to this report.