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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
S11E4: Why do you have to make me look bad, American Idol? I was just writing the series’ praises, saying how it had ditched its gimmicky ways, eschewing the usual ridiculous spectacles for a few less-than talented but not obnoxious contestants. Enter the Aspen auditions, wherein all those praises are put to shame, but we’ll get to the main offender in a bit.
We begin in the snowy Colorado town with Ryan’s apparent goal to see how many references to the altitude he can possibly make in an hour. And to go along with that, all of our terrible contestants are paired with such high-minded overlapping images as thunderous avalanches when they fail to hit that high note, or a mooing cow when they’re just plain awful. Classy, Idol. Still, the judges managed to hand out 31 tickets by the end of the trip – even if there wasn’t a single contestant that really left an impression on me. Are we just getting restless while waiting for Hollywood Week or were the contestants really average this week?
“You may kiss the judge.” –Randy
This young music teacher may have had the chops, but she was still pretty grating. Everyone’s got to have their “thing” so she tells Ryan about her “list” (the celebs you can kiss and it’s not cheating list) and says that Ryan is on her boyfriend’s list. She asks for a kiss for her BF, but Ryan leaves her hanging and says there will be hugs on the other end. OUCH. Then she tells Steven about her list and he says she’d better be able to sing “good.” Double OUCH. It turns out she can actually sing; she does “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar; she’s a solid rocker chick, but nothing spectacular. She avoids the high notes, but they still give her a ticket – and Steven finally gives her that kiss. And no, it wasn't innappropriate or creepy - pipe down, overzealous naysayers.
“I’ve been singing since I was a young buck.” -Curtis Grey
If there’s one thing celebs hate, it’s people seeing them when they’ve still got sleep in their eyes and their hair is still standing on end. So if Curtis Grey ever gets famous as a result of his time on Idol, he’s going to have to demand that his intro footage is destroyed. We start out by meeting him via flip cam as he wakes up at the crack of dawn looking and sounding like a gremlin. And as the series moves on, he’ll be recognizable to at least those of us dedicated enough to watch every episode of Idol, because he sings with character, and an almost Boyz II Men flair. He’s going to Hollywood, obviously.
And now for the rapid fire Hollywood-bound contestants that I feel compelled to mention since one was pretty great, one was a maniac, and one was the second coming of Scotty McCreery.
Richie Law Age 19 This young guy garners smiles and emphatic “yeses” and “yeahs” from the judges, and truthfully he’s a good singer. It’s just too bad he auditioned the year after Scotty McCreery, because he sounds just like last year's champion and Idol ain’t big enough for the two of them. Devan Jones Age 26 This guy has an almost Seal-like quality, very natural, no need for little flourishes or embellishments. He’s just got a pure, great voice. Mathenee Treco Age 25 This guy is obviously a dance instructor, judging by the physical performance he pairs with his singing. His rendition of “Hey Jude” is a little over-the-top, but to be fair, he’s into it and he’s not shy about it. Plus he’s got the voice to back it up. So he can pull it off.
“Why hello, dog.” –Randy Tealana Hedgespeth Age 19 And now we get our first “sob story.” It’s a tale of one twin’s fear of being inferior to her sister, citing times when she was younger and her friends would tell her how talented her sister was. “It sucks,” she so eloquently explains. And that’s why she’s on Idol - to outshine her sister. She tries to start out with a joke, telling Randy he can call her “dawg,” but he apparently doesn’t get it because he blatantly calls her “dog” like he’s really unaware of his own catch phrases. While Tealana tries to sing (and fails) Steven and JLo giggle like sugar-high school girls, eventually trying to make up for being mean girls by telling her how cute she is while simultaneously telling her she didn’t make it. Sure, it’s mean that Idol pushed her through just to humiliate her, but her entire family is there, couldn’t they have like encouraged her to do anything else? That’s pretty cruel too. “You’re right out of my era, and I’m honored to be here listening to your voice.” –Steven Haley Smith Age 18 And now we have not a sob story, but a simple story of being someone who works hard and can actually sing. You’d think we’d see more of that, but well-rounded doesn’t always sell. Haley has three jobs, one of which is making sausage even though she’s a vegetarian, but when she sings, we’re not worrying about how she possibly fits all those shifts into her schedule. Everything, from her almost-stoned way of speaking to her 70s get-up and singing style screams flower child. She does “Tell Me Something Good” and puts a singer-songwriter spin on it, showcasing her smoky, character-filled voice. The judges love it and she gets a golden ticket. She’s almost refreshingly real, but say goodbye to this notion now, because Haley is the last sign of reality we’ll see this episode. ”Have you eaten those prairie oysters?” –Steven Alanna Snare Age 22 This girl may have come up with the lamest “it” factor in recent Idol memory: she’s a bartender at bar that’s famous for Rocky Mountain Oysters, a.k.a. bull testicles. And miraculously, they manage to talk about this the ENTIRE time. That is, until the girl butchers “Jolene” and they overlay her auditions with never-ending cow sounds. You could have at least used an actual bull, guys. She obviously doesn’t get a ticket. ”I love that song too, but somebody’s really gotta sing it.” –Jennifer Shelby Twenten Age 17 And here’s the obligatory dose of adorable. Shelby and her cute little Minnesotan accent explain that American Idol has helped her deal with her bi-polar disorder. I worry a bit that potentially being famous could ignite the side effects of her condition, but then again, it’s her dream. And when she sings, you know she deserves a shot. She’s got a strong country voice, and a good range. Her version of “Temporary Home” showcases her sweet, slight rasp. The judges love her and she goes through to Hollywood. ”You’re a lover.” –Jennifer Jairon Jackson Age 19 Alright, so this guy’s original song wasn’t some cheesy pandering jingle like these things usually are, but did Randy and Jennifer have to praise it so highly? He’s a descent singer who sounds like the definition of a generic post-2010 R&B singer and his song didn’t completely blow, but it’s just a typical tune. He makes it through, but I’m guessing his success will be short-lived. “People call me Lady Gaga sometimes when I’m walking down the street.” –Angie Zeiderman Angie Zeiderman Age 25 While this girl is no Lady Gaga – and claiming that in any capacity is just asking for viewers to hate her – she is likable in her own unique way. The judges love her eccentric look, with her purple hair and cute flower dress. She starts off with an aerobic performance of “If You Got It, Flaunt It” from Gypsy. While they should be voting, this starts an argument between Randy and Jennifer because he hates Broadway style singing and complains that it employs “that vibrato that I hate.” JLo says he has to admit Angie’s talented and asks her to sing another song. When singing normally, she has a sweet tone, and she’s fun, albeit a little delusional. This completely changes Randy’s mind and they all send her through. “No one talks to me because I’m frightening and I look homeless.” –Magic Cyclops Magic Cyclops Age Unknown because this guy is a nutjob Finally, Idol gives me – and apparently Randy – reason to lose my mind. After three episodes of good behavior, the series dips back into its tired gimmick well to present this joke of a character from Iowa with a mind-blowingly terrible fake British accent. He wears long 70s locks, an American flag t-shirt, sunglasses and headscarf that says “Magic” in cartoon letters while boasting about his lack of hygiene and his air guitar collection. Seriously, why do we let these staged performances go on? He should have been an aside between legitimate auditions. He gets actual audition time and gives the judges a choice: Neil Diamond or “James Buffet” (buff-ay) and he means Jimmy Buffet (Buff-ett), but Randy doesn’t get it. (Probably because he doesn’t care.) We won’t waste time talking about how he sang – if you really want more, use your googling skills and find his Twitter and website. I’m not doing it for you out of self-respect, though I do know both of those things exist because I've shamefully seen both of them. To end the episode, Randy is enraged by this nonsense and storms off to the bathroom, asking “what is this s**t?” Yeah, we’re tired of it too. Let’s hope that’s the last we have to see of this drivel. Who was your favorite contestant from Aspen? Or did you think they weren’t all that memorable too? Let us know in the comments or get at me on Twitter @KelseaStahler