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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Top Story: Prince William and Ashton Kutcher Vie for Bachelor Crown
People magazine released its list of the 25 hottest bachelors Wednesday--but readers get to decide whether Prince William or Ashton Kutcher will be crowned No. 1. The magazine's June 30 issue offers readers a side-by-side comparison of the two, but the similarities seem to end at their height (both men are 6-foot-3). The 20-year-old Prince William, who is second in line to the British throne, dates "blue-blooded babes." Kutcher, who stars in Fox's That '70s Show and the MTV series Punk'd, prefers the company of "Hollywood hotties." He was previously involved with his Just Married co-star Brittany Murphy and is now reportedly dating 40-year-old actress Demi Moore--15 years his senior. Other hot bachelors on the list include choreographer Cris Judd, Jennifer Lopez 's ex-husband; American Idol judge Simon Cowell; actor Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks' son; and North Carolina police officer Jeffrey Postell, who arrested fugitive Eric Rudolph, The Associated Press reports. Readers can post their vote online at People's Web site.
Anderson and Rock on the Rocks?
There is trouble in paradise for V.I.P. star Pamela Anderson and rocker Kid Rock. The couple has been engaged since April 2002, but during a promotional appearance for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Florida last week, Anderson wasn't wearing her engagement ring. She also showed up at party at the Playboy mansion last Tuesday without Rock, whose real name is Bob Ritchie. "Assume what you want about a wedding," Anderson told US Weekly magazine when asked about future wedding plans. "I'm here with family and friends. That might be a hint."
Rachel Hunter Files for Divorce From Rod Stewart
Model Rachel Hunter has filed for divorce from British rock star Rod Stewart, seeking the formal end of their marriage, Reuters reports. The couple married 13 years ago but have been separated for four years. They have two young children together. Hunter, 33, filed papers in Los Angeles Superior Court Tuesday, citing irreconcilable differences with Stewart, who turned 58 in January. It was Stewart's second marriage following his first in 1979 to Alana Hamilton.
Alexander Joins Jag Spin-Off
Sasha Alexander, who played Gretchen Witter on the defunct WB series Dawson's Creek, is set to star in Navy CIS, a spin-off of CBS' veteran military legal drama JAG. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alexander will play a competitive Secret Service agent who joins the Naval Criminal Investigative Service team in the center of the show and butts heads with the team's leader, played by Mark Harmon. The series is scheduled to air in JAG's Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot.
Luther Vandross' Album No. 1
R&B singer Luther Vandross' new album, Dance With My Father, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Wednesday, selling about 442,000 units in its first week of release, according to industry retail monitor Nielsen SoundScan. Vandross, 52, suffered a serious stroke on April 16 and has since then been in the care of Weill Cornell Medical Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Last week, Vandross was finally moved out of intensive care and his manager reported he was growing more responsive each day.
Aiken and Studdard Release Singles
Clay Aiken, the runner-up on the Fox network's American Idol, saw his single debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's singles charts Wednesday, selling nearly 393,000 copies. "This Is The Night--Bridge Over Troubled Water" had the biggest debut since Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," which sold about 3.5 million in its first week in 1997. American Idol winner Ruben Studdard's single, "Flying Without Wings-Superstar" wasn't too far behind, selling about 286,000 copies. Since record companies have put out fewer and fewer singles in recent years, emphasizing the sales of albums, it has become rare to see No. 1 singles sell more than 20,000 copies in their first week.
Cher's Tour Outdoes Younger Acts
After more than 140 shows, Cher's Living Proof Farewell Tour has grossed $130 million and enters its second summer as one of the season's strongest draws, Reuters reports. The tour's success comes as a surprise, considering hyped summer tours such as Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake and Mariah Carey aren't doing quite the hoped-for business. Looks like the singer knows how to our her money where her mouth is: During her long-running farewell concert tour, the 57-year-old singer cracks a ringmaster's whip and issues a stern warning to would-be successors "J.Lo, Britney and Christina," challenging them to "top this, you bitches."
Role Call: Duchovny Makes Directing Debut
Former X-Files star David Duchovny will make his feature writing/directing debut with House of D, described as an emotional fable about New York and the power of friendship. Duchovny, who wrote and direct several episodes of The X-Files during its lengthy run on Fox, will also appear in the film alongside his wife, Tea Leoni, and Robin Williams. The pic is expected to begin production in September.