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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The twentieth season finale of The Amazing Race marks an impressive record in the series’ history: The winning team holds claim to the greatest number of Amazing Race episode victories. Another record might exist in the amount of verbal profanities traded between teammates, but the necessary data on that has yet to be collected.
At the beginning of the episode, the remaining teams include married couple Dave and Rachel Brown, fiancées Rachel Reilly and Brendon Villegas, border patrol agents Art Velez and J.J. Carell, and boyfriend-girlfriend Ralph Kelley and Vanessa Macias. Their travels in the finale take them through metropolitan Japan and waterside Hawaii.
The episode begins with the teams scrambling to decipher Japan’s public transportation system despite the language barrier. Frequent champions Dave and Rachel are left behind as the three other teams proceed to the first Roadblock challenge: “Bring that Chicken Home!” A Japanese game show-style competition forces the players to gather three hanging rubber chickens while maintaining balance on a fast-paced treadmill. Art and JJ are the first team to accomplish the goal; Ralph and Vanessa are forced to forfeit due to the latter’s injured ankle.
Following this, the teams choose from two options of competition: photographing passersby behind sumo wrestler cutouts (which Dave and Rachel choose) and identifying different types of sushi and correctly placing them on a bingo board (which the three other teams choose). Despite getting off to a rocky start with their task, Dave and Rachel manage to reach their goal and arrive at Phil Keoghan’s checkpoint first, followed by Art/JJ and Rachel/Brendon. Ralph and Vanessa are eliminated from the program. Onto Hawaii.
Hawaii brings one of the biggest challenges yet: the teams must first locate and then actually scale, Ghost Protocol style, a gigantic beachside skyscraper… and then rappel down, face first. From there, the teams race to a checkpoint that has them engage in an ice-shaving contest — not quite the most invigorating of tasks, but actor Taylor Wily is a fun surprise guest for Hawaii Five-0 or Forgetting Sarah Marshall fans.
Dave and Rachel win the competition, but somehow misread their instructions and wind up skipping a Roadblock. They are informed of this when they arrive at the finish line, and must double-back to the point at hand: the competition involves sledding down a grassy hill and tossing a small disk into a just-as-small goal. Despite being thrown off course, they manage to beat both rival teams at the competition, and arrive again at the finish line first. Not too shabby.
This marks Dave and Rachel’s eighth episode victory — an Amazing Race record. More importantly, it marks the couple’s acceptance of a million dollar prize and a trip to New Zealand. After having to spend a portion of their married life separated due to Dave’s military career, it’s encouraging to know that this pair will have the luxury of an opportunity to enjoy one another’s company in a relaxing, romantic setting.
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