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
Samuel L. Jackson is a motherf**ker. Hell, he'd say so himself. After all, the actor has spent decades in Hollywood carving out a niche for himself as the industry's go-to tough-talking bad-ass dude. And that's precisely why we fell in love with him in classics like Pulp Fiction, and cheered him on when he actually agreed to star as a parody of himself in Snakes on a Plane. There's not an f-bomb he won't drop; a line he won't sell with expletive-fueled force. He even managed to eke the b-word ("butt," of course) into the family-friendly Jurassic Park.
And he continued to prove he's worth all this praise during his Oscar-worthy performance in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. (Golden Globes snub be damned.) Jackson melts into his role as Stephen, becoming almost unrecognizable as the heartless and loyal slave of Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, if not for that patented penchant for blue vocabulary.
But, strangely enough, in recent weeks, Jackson has become unrecognizable off-screen as well. The actor who charmed audiences in fare like The Avengers has become unchained during Django's press tour, finding himself at the top of entertainment news sites for his bizarre behavior. First, Jackson appeared on Saturday Night Live and dropped a disputed f-bomb (which the actor denied), followed by an undisputed "bulls**t" (which the actor admitted to). Then, following the incident, Jackson stopped by Jimmy Kimmel LIVE! and blamed sketch co-star Kenan Thompson: "He was supposed to cut me off," Jackson said. "I'm used to working with professionals that know their lines, even the ones that are written on cue cards in front of you." (See the interview embedded below.)
And then there's the latest interview from Jackson's Django promo tour to make the Internet rounds: During a sit-down with Jake's Takes Jake Hamilton, Jackson encouraged the Caucasian journalist to use the n-word after Hamilton asked about the controversy surrounding the rampant use of the derogatory label in Tarantino's film. Hamilton refused several times before Jackson chided Hamilton for his query, "It wasn't a great question if you can't say the word." See the interview below (Jackson's interview starts at about 13:50):
While a salient societal discussion surrounding the word is certainly pertinent, conversation on the Web largely sympathizes with the blindsided Hamilton, causing Jackson to lose some goodwill and fans. But, of course, Jackson's mere presence in dozens of headlines only further ingrains Django in our heads. So is Jackson's behavior good for Django publicity? Possibly. But is it good for Jackson? If you read Internet chatter surrounding Jackson's n-word stunt (some feel Hamilton should have yielded to the actor's request in order to push the sensitive conversation), jury's still out.
So perhaps it's time Jackson returned to his status as Hollywood's most likable motherf**ker. Perhaps it's time the unchained actor adds a little restraint to his repertoire. Perhaps it's time to move the motherf**king bizarre behavior off the motherf**king publicity circuit. Then, perhaps conversation will shift back to the film and fans can begin to hold onto their butts for a deserved Oscar nomination.
[Image Credit: Johnny Nunez/WireImage] More: Late Night Last Night: Samuel L. Jackson Slams Kenan Thompson as Unprofessional Saturday Night Live Recap: Alec Baldwin Joins Martin Short, Samuel L. Jackson Curses Tarantino's Django Unchained Fact or Fiction: Mandingo Fighting, Bounty Hungers, and More From Our Partners: Jessica Alba Bikinis in Cabo — Hot Pics! (Celebuzz) 25 Movies to Watch in 2013 (Moviefone)
Sunday's special memorial service, A Prayer for America, at Yankee Stadium was a moving tribute to the victims and rescue workers who have become heroes in the aftermath of the tragic Sept. 11 attacks.
The nationally televised event, which was part secular and part religious, included many celebrities. Oprah Winfrey acted as master of ceremonies for the service, saying at one point, "when you lose a loved one you gain an angel whose name you know...[On Sept. 11], 6,000 angels were added to the spiritual roster."
Many cried when Bette Midler sang the line "Did you ever know that you're my hero?" from her song "Wind Beneath My Wings. " The crowd also participated, saying patriotic prayers, singing along to "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful," and chanting "USA! USA!" afterward.
And when opera singer Placido Domingo sang the hymn "Ava Maria" the crowd was hushed.
Also in attendance was New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who said the service was "beautiful." And among those who struck chords with the crowd was Rev. Calvin Butts from New York's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, who gave an inspirational sermon.
"We are not afraid today. Get back on the airplanes. Get back to work. Rebuild America. We are not afraid today. Together we will get through it because we are the United States of America."
The city had printed 55,000 tickets and originally wanted to keep the service open only to the families of the victims. However, about an hour before the event began, the general public was invited to attend when organizers realized they had plenty of seating.
"I got a feeling of how we all have got capacity to share, to love, to feel sympathy. I'm just hoping it will continue," Betty Robinson, a 50-year-old paralegal told The Associated Press.