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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Once upon a time in a kingdom far far away (well, not that far if you live in California), there lived the queen of all the Dwarves and she lived in a granite quarry. Her name was Heather, and she had long black hair and was cursed at birth with a ladybeard that she shaved every morning. In the quarry she had all the little workers carve out a huge palace of burnished stone. One day an Evil Queen (who will once and forever be played by Andy Cohen) declared that Heather must throw a party for all the princesses in the realm so that they could come and do battle and only the victorious should leave. Heather's palace was the perfect place, because while it is hard to get blood out of a stone, it is very easy to wash blood off of one.
The occasion for the party was that Heather was changing her last name to Dwarf, which was the last name of her husband Terry, the king of the Dwarfs. They lived happily in their rock quarry with their little rock-eating children for many years, but finally she decided to change her name because the Evil Queen told her it would break the curse and make her beard disappear forever. The key ingredient for this bit of hocus pocus was a very grand cake with her new initials "H.D." inscribed on it which all the guests would eat in unison and then her curse would be broken. However, if even one person eat even a tiny bit of the cake before midnight all would be spoiled.
OK, enough of this fairy tale, at least for now. Let's start talking about Heather's party and all the crazy nonsense that was swirling about. The first guests to arrive are Tamra and her new fiance Eddie the Honeybear (doesn't he look like the clear plastic bear that honey comes in?). Heather is very happy that she is there with her gigantic diamond ring that covers up a literal scar from her last relationship. Everyone was happy for Tamra about her engagement except for Vicki who thinks they are moving too fast. When did Vicki turn into a troll turd of the highest order? Well, I guess she always has been, but she's been especially stinky this past year. She's talking about how Tamra got engaged only "six months after her divorce got finalized." Um, yeah Vicki, but she's been seeing the guy for two damn years. Isn't that long enough? You started dating Brooks while your ex was still living in the same house as you (and may have even been emailing with him while you were still married). Who do you think is moving fast. Argh.
Next to arrive is Alexis "Fun Bags" Bellino, the world's only tit boxer. She actually knocks people out with her titties while she's in the ring. That is why they call them "knockers." Alexis brought Sara the Striver with her. We've seen Sara twice before this season, and she is one of those women (like a Kim G. or a Dana Wilkie) that wants on the show real bad but is sort of too bland and awful to get a full-time gig so they just trot her out when they need some exposition or conflict and let her dig her own grave without getting paid for it. Sara the Striver is officially the worst. Possibly even worse than Jim Bellino who is the Guinness Book of World Record holder and Olympic Gold Medalist in The Worst. Since Jim won't come to the fancy party, Alexis brings Sara who I thought was Gretchen's friend. When did she go from Gretchen's friend to Alexis' friend?
Anyway, we learn at a dinner that Alexis is still pissed off about what happened to her in Costa Rico and that she feels ganged up by the women. When she got back, she called up all her friends and asked if she was phony. "No!" her equally phony friends said to her. Duh, of course they did. As Dionne Warwick said, that's what friends are for. "For good times, for bad times, for times when you are on a reality show and they accuse you of being a materialistic liar to your face and you need people to continually rationalize your self-delusions, I'll be on your side forever more. That's what friends are for." Alexis actually says this thing: "They're mistaking kindness for phony." Excuse me, my ears just fell of and melted into a pool of warm gazpacho. What? I cunt hear you. How does that even make sense? Alexis seems to think that because all the women are awful screech monkeys (which they are, except for Heather) that when someone isn't a screech monkey they think she's not being "real." Oh, Alexis. That has nothing to do with it. It's the fact that you lie about how many Bentleys you have and how much money your The Worst husband makes on his trampoline park that makes them think you're phony. It's your big tits and your fake wedding ring that make them think you're phony. It's your convenient Christianity that makes them think you're phony. It's your fake Louis Vuitton blinged out phone that make them think you're phone-y (get it?)! It's basically everything about you.
Then Sara Striver (no relation to Maria) says, "I have one word for you: jealousy." OK, I am going to set the record straight once and for all, Housewives. No one treats you like shit because they are jealous. Period. This is not a motivation for meanness because all of these women are so self-involved that they all think that who they are and what they have is the best. They are incapable of jealousy (unless they get kicked off the show and you don't). Saying people are mean to you because they are jealous is just another sick symptom of your own narcissism. So, Alexis says she wants some backup at the party and Jim won't going so Sara says, "I'll go if you go." Um, yeah, Sara, that's how it works because you aren't invited! You can't show up at the door and say, "Oh, I'm Alexis' plus one, but she's not coming." You're only along for the ride.
Alright, next up is Gretchen and Slade who pulled up in a Stage Coach from Petticoat Junction. Gretchen had a pink dress with ruffles with black piping and a flower in her hair and her tits spilling out, and she looked like she just got off her shift serving sassparilly at the saloon in Deadwood. But then Slade pulled up in the Delorean from Back to the Future and the door opened skyward and a little puff of smoke emerged and he came right from the '70s where he was wearing a black blazer and turtle neck like he was trying to be the white Shaft. They walked into the Granite Palace together and Gretchen said, "Ooooh. Pretty flowers" (they were quite nice) and then a waiter offered her a "Vanilla Pomegranate Martini" and she spontaneously vomited all over him and her dress, but luckily her bright pink emission was the same color as her dress, so it just blended and she walked into the party.
Gretchen and Slade really didn't do anything last night. That's when I like them the best. When they're doing absolutely nothing. Gretchen and Slade could sit on a couch for the rest of their lives watching reruns of SVU and I'd be totally fine with that. Once a year we could check in and say, "How you guys doing?" and they'd say, "Oh, just fine. Can you get us some pretzels?" and that would be absolutely perfect.