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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Sure, Bar Refaeli is good at topping Maxim magazine's 2012 Hot 100 list and attractively rolling around in sheets, but, for us, it's not always about the the looks. (Okay, so, most of the time it is. But we dare you to tell us if there's another reason you've already decided to buy pre-sale tickets for Magic Mike.) Or about the ladies — what about the hottest, most talented men in the world? Between a Baldwin revealing a secret musical talent and a handsome actor upstaging co-stars in a stripping contest, these are the gifted men who have us totally buggin'. (Remember the '90s, guys?!) Our ranking standards? We judge based on which man puts the biggest smile on our faces. From top to bottom, here we go:
1. Joe Manganiello: Yes, the handsome True Blood star may make us growl as shirtless werewolf hunk Alcide, but we're downright panting imagining his strapping stripper role in Magic Mike. Oh, wait, we said we'd judge based on talent? Let me rephrase: We're downright panting imagining the Scream Award-winning actor's strapping stripper role in Magic Mike.
2. Henry Cavill: It's a bird, it's a plane... wait, no, it's Henry Cavill, reviving Superman's place on the big screen! Being able to graduate from sucking up to King Henry VIII to big-budget film — Cavill is a promising rising star, he is, he is.
3. Mark Zuckerberg: The newly wed billionaire may have lost a few friends after Facebook's stock plummeted yesterday, but we'd still respond to his pokes.
4. Prince Harry: Our sincere apologies to Wate. Or Killiam? Or why am I trying to make a nickname for the couple? But after seeing prince debut his music talents playing the tambourine in a music video, we'd certainly bow to this royal rock star.
5. The Boys of One Direction (Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson): They may have placed third on the seventh season of The X Factor UK, but now they are tearing up the radio... and making us wonder if we should report ourselves to our neighbors.
6. Phillip Phillips: A name so nice, we have to say it twice! The American Idol Top 2 finisher makes us wish "We've Got Tonight"... and many, many more nights.
7. Ben Feldman: We all love Jon Hamm, but Mad Men has a new Don Draper. But, unlike the series' serious, dour leading man, Feldman spirited Michael Ginsberg is as faithful as he is creative. We'd like him to hit us in the face with a Sno Ball. Euphemisms!
8. Adam Scott: The ideal candidate for romance is the kind of guy who "super-did" Model UN in high school, makes a mean calzone (when he's not working on his claymaysh), and has his very own Bat-suit. Adam Scott's Parks and Rec character Ben Wyatt meets all these requirements. Plus, he's handsome and friends with Jon Hamm. We have an in!
9. Michael Phelps: This year is a big one for Phelps: He confirmed to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that he will be retiring after the London Olympics are done. And we'd be there to share many a five-dollar foot-longs with the athlete. C'mon, minds out of the gutter, people.
10. Kanye West: Imma let you finish, but the musician would no doubt interrupt us if he didn't score a place on a best list. So, for that reason, we'll happily admit to wanting to play third wheel with him and Kim Kardashian, even though we all know he just wants fish sticks.
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