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
As movies become more and more commonplace, no matter the subject matter, the junkets for journalists who review the movies are becoming more and more lavish. As the number of movies released each year increases, studios are looking for more outrageous ways to catch reviewers' attention.
It's not uncommon for movie reviewers to receive, among other things, airfare, meals and hotel accommodations for attending premieres; merchandise, whether related to the movie or not; and/or chances to meet and interview select Hollywood movie stars, unreachable to their peers.
All for the sake of a favorable review, hopefully elevating a single movie above the fray.
Now, a group of movie viewers are taking the reviewers to task in court. Ten class action lawsuits have been filed against the major movie studios, questioning the ethics of movie junkets and the reviews that the junkets spawn. The lawsuits' intended goal is to prevent studios from wooing reviewers with junkets, merchandise and interviews.
Four individuals and a group calling itself Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising filed the complaints in the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday. The complaints allege that the studios use endorsements by film critics that were given such perquisites as the focus of advertisements for the film.
Defendants named in the lawsuit are Sony Corp. of America, Viacom Inc., Artisan Entertainment, AOL Time Warner, The Walt Disney Co., Vivendi Universal U.S. Holding Co., DreamWorks SKG, Lions Gate Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and Fox Entertainment Group Inc.
No studio contacted would comment while the suit is pending.
The Radio-Television News Directors Association's Code of Ethics advises that followers will "[s]trive to conduct themselves in a manner that protects them from conflicts of interest, real or perceived. They will decline gifts or favors that would influence or appear to influence their judgments."
Gifts or favors, says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran, would apply to those provided for professional as well as personal use. Use of junkets, she says, "certainly raises questions."
[Full discosure: Hollywood.com does attend junkets paid for by studios, when offered.]
Reviewers were named in the suit, not as defendants but as examples of the alleged misconduct. They include Maria Salas of Telemundo/Gems Television, Jim Ferguson of The Dish Network/Fox TV, Jeff Craig of Sixty Second Preview, Mark Allen of UPN, Ron Brewington of American Urban Radio Network, and Earl Dittman at Wireless magazine.
Some of these critics have already received negative reviews in the press themselves.
The New York Post's Lou Lumineck wrote, " there are some people who doubt [Jeff Craig] even exists."
Gil Whitely of InfoDenver.com was highly critical of Maria Salas.
"Would you trust a critic who declared I Dreamed of Africa is 'the most beautiful and moving film of this year!' and called Drowning Mona a 'gutbusting laugh-a-thon!?' No? Well, then you'd better steer clear of Maria Salas."
Salas is no longer with Telemundo, and could not be reached for comment.
Anthony Sonnett of Yukevich & Sonnett, attorney for the plaintiffs, called studio-paid movie junkets Hollywood's "dirty little secret."
"Does anybody really believe that somebody saw Battlefield Earth and thought it was as good as Star Wars? Give me a break!" Sonnet said.
Specifically, the papers filed allege three infractions of California penal law: fraudulent concealment, unfair business practices and misleading advertising.
Punitive and compensatory damages are being asked for. Additionally, the suit seeks court orders barring the defendants from making "false, misleading and deceptive advertising;" requiring the studios to provide warnings, corrective advertising or public notice of their alleged violations; requiring the defendants to correct their ads; and establishing a legal duty to disclose to the public the benefits the reviewer received.
The lawsuits come on the heels of Sony's admission that the studio created a fictitious critic, David Manning, and used favorable testimonials from that critic in the marketing of certain Sony films, including The Animal.
Sonnett asserts that the Sony case just takes studio movie junkets to the next, logical step.
"They know what the people are going to write anyway. Why not just go and make it up?"
Two advertising execs at Sony have been suspended in conjunction with the fictitious testimonials and an in-house investigation was conducted.
Information from CNS contributed to this report.