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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Kidney surgery wasn't enough to keep Steven Spielberg from making an impassioned plea for diversity. The 53-year-old director skipped the red carpet arrivals but mustered the strength to make it to the podium at the 31st NAACP Image Awards on Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.
Only a few days after having a kidney removed, the filmmaker -- looking no worse for his recent wear -- urged his peers in the industry to continue to "expand the opportunities of the portrayal of diversity in all medium." His call to action came after receiving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Vanguard Award for his "pioneering courage to promote social justice through creative endeavors."
"A couple of days ago, I was in the hospital,'' the director said. ``This is the first time I've been out since my operation and it feels like a dream, an absolute dream.''
Spielberg was praised by the NAACP for tackling issues of diversity in films such as "The Color Purple" and "Amistad" -- even if more than a decade ago, questions as to whether Spielberg, as a white guy, was qualified to direct the story of black women in "The Color Purple" seemingly undermined the flick's chances for the 1985 Academy Awards. (It got 11 nods -- and zero wins.)
The night's big-screen acting awards, meanwhile, went to "The Best Man's" Nia Long and "The Hurricane's" Denzel Washington. The former pic was also the overall winner for outstanding motion picture. Washington's award, after his Golden Globe win for best actor, bodes well for his Oscar chances as wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
Less recognized by the NAACP on the night of the Image Awards were the accomplishments of the television industry. The group had previously announced that it had trouble finding enough minority characters on the small screen to honor. On the television front (such as it was), "ER's" Eriq LaSalle and "The Steve Harvey Show's " Steve Harvey were the winning actors in the drama and comedy categories, while "Touched by an Angel's" Della Reese and "Sister, Sister's" Tia and Tamera Mowry were the recognized actresses for drama and comedy series, respectively. Overall, "The Steve Harvey Show" was tapped best comedy, "Touched By an Angel" best drama.
Another notable winner: Rosa Parks. The real-life crusader, whose refusal to move to the back of a Alabama bus in 1955 sparked the modern-day civil rights movement, was honored for her work as an actress in a guest spot on CBS' "Touched By an Angel."
The Image Awards honor the work of minorities in film, TV, music and books. The awards will be presented in an April 6 telecast on Fox.
Here's a complete list of the 31st NAACP Image Awards winners:
Outstanding Motion Picture - "The Best Man" Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture - Denzel Washington, "The Hurricane" Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture - Nia Long, "The Best Man" Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture - Terrence Howard, "The Best Man" Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture - Angela Bassett, "Music of the Heart"
Youth Actor/Actress - Jurnee Smollett in "Cosby"
Outstanding Comedy Series - "The Steve Harvey Show" Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series - Steve Harvey, "The Steve Harvey Show" Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series - Tia Mowry and Tamera Mowry, "Sister, Sister" Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series - Cedric "The Entertainer," "The Steve Harvey Show" Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series - Jackee Harry, "Sister, Sister" Outstanding Drama Series - "Touched by an Angel" Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series - Eriq La Salle, "ER" Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series - Della Reese, "Touched By an Angel" Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series - Clarence Gilyard, "Walker, Texas Ranger" Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series - Rosa Parks, "Touched By an Angel" Outstanding Television Movie/Mini-Series/Dramatic Special - "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie/Mini-Series/Dramatic Special - Sidney Poitier, "The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn" Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie/Mini-Series/Dramatic Special - Halle Berry, "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" Outstanding Actor in a Daytime Drama Series - Shemar Moore, "The Young and The Restless" Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series - Tonya Lee Williams, "The Young and the Restless" Outstanding Variety Series/Special - "1999 Essence Awards" Outstanding Performance in a Variety Series/Special - Steve Harvey, "It's Showtime at the Apollo" Outstanding News, Talk or Information Series - "BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley: Black Men in Crisis" (BET) Outstanding News, Talk or Information Special - "True Life: I Am Driving While Black" (MTV) Outstanding Youth or Children's Series/Special - "Teen Summit" (BET) Outstanding Performance in a Youth or Children's Series/Special - Lynn Whitfield, "The Planet of Junior Brown"
Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction - "Blues: For All Changes" by Nikki Giovanni Outstanding Literary Work, Non-Fiction - "Yesterday, I Cried" by Iyanla Vanzant Outstanding Literary Work, Children's - "If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks" by Faith Ringgold
Outstanding New Artist - Eve - "Ruff Ryder's First Lady" Outstanding Male Artist - Brian McKnight - "Back At One" Outstanding Female Artist - Whitney Houston, featuring Faith Evans and Kelly Price - "Heartbreak Hotel" Outstanding Duo or Group - Destiny's Child - "The Writing's On The Wall" Outstanding Rap Artist - Will Smith - "Wild Wild West" Outstanding Jazz Artist - Quincy Jones - "From Q, With Love" Outstanding Gospel Artist - Traditional - Vickie Winans - "Live in Detroit II" Outstanding Gospel Artist - Contemporary - Yolanda Adams - "Mountain High ... Valley Low" Outstanding Music Video - "Wild Wild West" - Will Smith (directed by Paul Hunter) Outstanding Song - "Spend My Life With You" - Songwriters: Eric Benet, George Nash Jr., Demonte Posey (Artist: Eric Benet) Outstanding Album - "The Best Man - Music from the Motion Picture" - Various Artists (Columbia).