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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After five incredible seasons Breaking Bad reaches its climactic finish this Sunday. Will you be watching? Here's a rundown of this week's other highlights.
Breaking Bad, Series FinaleWill Walt be killed off? What will become of Jesse Pinkman? And who said Saul Goodman could star in his own spin-off? The last few episodes of Breaking Bad have been some of the most intense ever, meaning all these questions and more will be answered when the series comes to a close on Sunday. What can viewers expect? Hopefully it's nothing like the infamous "blackout ending" that riled up fans of The Sopranos six years ago. Worst. Finale. Ever! The final episode of Breaking Bad will air this Sunday, September 29 at 9 PM ET on AMC.
Modern Family, Season PremiereFresh off another Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series, the extended Pritchett family returns for a fifth season this week on ABC. Season five is usually a turning point for most successful sitcoms, with fatigued writers beginning to run dry of fresh ideas. Sometimes a series could squeeze out a few more solid seasons, as was the case with Seinfeld. Or the show's executive producer will push his staff to continue churning out more of the same, as Matt Groening has been doing with The Simpsons for nearly a decade and a half now. The fifth season of Modern Family premieres this Wednesday, September 25 at 9 PM ET on ABC.
Saturday Night Live, Season PremiereThe 39th season of SNL is one of the most widely anticipated in recent years, with Tina Fey hosting, cast member Cecily Strong joining the soon-to-depart Seth Meyers at the Weekend Update desk, as well as six new members joining the cast. Of course it's become somewhat of sport for those in the media to write off SNL every few years as being past its prime. Yet here we are, nearly 40 years later, and still talking about it. Lorne Michaels must be doing something right. Saturday Night Live kicks off its new season this Saturday, September 28 at 11:30 PM ET on NBC.
Eastbound & Down, Season PremiereYep – Kenny Powers is back for a final season, at least for now. HBO basically canceled Eastbound & Down last year, only to bring the show back for a fourth and (presumably) final season, which premieres this Sunday. Last year saw Kenny fake his own death, only to realize shortly after what a huge mistake he made. Hmm...kind of reminds me of something. Season four of Eastbound & Down premieres on Sunday, September 29 at 10 PM ET on HBO.
Master of Sex, Series PremiereShowtime is quickly proving itself to be a worthy competitor to HBO, with critically acclaimed shows like Dexter and Homeland, and now the widely anticipated premiere of the period drama Masters of Sex, all included in its increasingly watchable lineup. Cable may have at one time been the ugly stepchild of television. But now it seems almost regressive to watch serious television on any of the Big Four networks. Who knew? Masters of Sex premieres at 10 PM ET on Sunday, September 29.
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This month will mark Betty White's 90th birthday. In celebration of the actress' long and prosperous career, and her continued prominence in the media, NBC is hosting a special televised event, Betty White's 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America's Golden Girl, on Jan. 16 (the night before her actual birthday). The tribute, which was announced back in the Fall, continues to attract a large variety of celebrity appearances. New prominent names reported to be paying a visit, and possibly offering some of their talents as showpeople, include Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey, Morgan Freeman, Seth Meyers, Tracy Morgan, Ray Romano, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Carl Reiner, Vicki Lawrence and John O'Hurley. Other attendees you may have already heard about include White's Hot in Cleveland costars Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli and Wendy Malick, her old The Mary Tyler Moore Show castmates Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper and Gavin McLeod, as well as other notable stars including Amy Poehler, Joel McHale, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett and William Shatner. Not too shabby, Betty. -NBC
The Voice returns to television for a second season early next month, and it is bringing with it a wide assortment of celebrity advisors to help its next string of contestants along with their stint on the musical competition series. Appearing on the show this year will be musicians such as Lionel Richie, Kelly Clarkson, Alanis Morisette, Ne-Yo, Jewel, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Robin Thicke and Miranda Lambert. This array of noteworthy musicians will be joining the judging panel of Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton to make for an exciting second season. The Voice's second season premiere will air Sunday, Feb. 5 on NBC, immediately following the Superbowl. -NBC
This has been a season of changes for Law & Order: SVU. Old detectives have left, new ones have arrived. And now, we'll be meeting another new character: Assistant District Attorney David Haden, played by none other than actor/musician Harry Connick, Jr. Best known for his music career, but also for acting gigs like his recurring stint on Will & Grace, Connick, Jr., will be enjoying a multi-episode arc as an attorney who strikes up a beyond-professional relationship with Mariska Hargitay's Det. Olivia Benson. As you can see in the video below, things are already starting to heat up between the pair. Hargitay also confirms that she has no intentions to leave SVU, much to many a fan's relief. Connick, Jr., will join the cast starting on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. -NBC