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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Unfortunately for Simon Cowell, it turns out you can’t control the outcome of the show you created. Both of the the V-neck lover’s most promising acts were shut out from glory on The X Factor, including last-minute front-runner Fifth Harmony. But, if we’ve learned anything from One Direction (who are huge despite not winning the U.K. X Factor), it ain’t over ‘till it’s over. And if the series hopes to up its own X factor, it’s going to need another 1D style miracle.
Yes, the season finale delivered a winner — and one who’s a safe financial bet. But that doesn’t necessarily cut it. Country crooner Tate Stevens rose to the top of the heap, winning the singing competition Dec. 20 and eying what’s likely a pretty smooth road to solid record sales. After all, Country Music is the only genre that continues to post significant growth in sales while the rest of the music industry is putting up little or even negative changes, upping its overall album sales by one million units in 2012, according to Nielsen numbers. Stevens will be just fine. But it’s the buzz factor that’s missing. Even American Idol’s Scotty McCreery, whose debut album Clear as Day went platinum, sailed into his moderate success fairly unceremoniously. He’s not on the cover of every teen magazine, the paparazzi don’t follow his every move, and last time I checked, no one was trying to put his face on any X-rated products. He’s doing fine. But “fine” doesn’t help build a flailing fan base. You need a musical force to be reckoned with to bring the masses to your door.
And The X Factor could certainly use a few more folks tuning in. The season ender’s ratings are down immensely from last year: 9.6 million viewers in 2012 compared to 12.6 million in 2011. To put these numbers into some form of context, last season of American Idol crowned Phillip Phillips the winner while 21.49 million people watched and The Voice ended its third season with 14.13 million folks tuned in for the results. The X Factor is lagging, and a success on the level, or anywhere close to the level, of One Direction could turn that around.
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Part of the promise of the X Factor is obviously the antics at the judges’ table, but the show sold itself on the promise of finding stars. While Idol puts its focus on finding raw, a capella talent and The Voice focuses on its colorful set of judges, The X Factor purports to fill in the gap by seeking out people who’ve got the indescribable glittery insides that comprise one’s “x factor.” Idol periodically proves itself, churning out enough successes like Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, McCreery, and, more recently, Phillip Phillips, whose single “Home” has blown up this year. A success story here and there keeps the hope alive — it keeps the series relevant. And in the case of The Voice, the concern seems to be less on finding talent and more about the fireworks among the spinning chair judging court. It’s relevancy is in its nonsense and where The X Factor judges are comprised of (at least partially) industry experts, The Voice panel is made up only of outspoken artists whose antics often overtake the performers themselves. For the X Factor, the true niche has yet to be carved. The series has been riding all season on the bragging rights that come with a multi-national success like One Direction, but unfortunately for Fox’s second singing show, that success started on the U.K. version of the show. The U.S. one needs it own, and if Cowell plays his cards right, one of his groups could fill that gap.
Now, Emblem 3, who occupied the anti-boy band boy band space we didn’t know existed in their time on X Factor, got a major vote of confidence from Cowell, who eluded to signing them when all was said and done, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m not going to let anyone else get to them.” But since their elimination, talk of the trio has cooled, and in its place is chatter about Cowell’s girl group, Fifth Harmony. The fivesome shot to the top of the leaderboard when they turned their blasé schtick around with a luminescent, bubbly performance of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.” While the song wasn’t their own, the girls proved that given the right material, they could easily slide into the gap in the industry and become the girl group in pop music.
Looking back at One Direction, whose five members were pieced together on the show just like the girls of Fifth Harmony, they’re not particularly remarkable all on their own. (Cue hate tweets flooding my way for the next week and a half.) They are lovable guys who burst onto the market with an unbelievably catchy, absolutely inescapable pop song. They had the raw goods, but they became superstars thanks to pitch-perfect songwriting and great marketing. With no other competition in the market, Fifth Harmony has an opportunity to do the same - if they can get themselves the right song.
Of course, while finding a way to turn one of the X Factor’s discoveries into a cash cow is great for the show itself, it’s also great for Cowell, who’s tied his ship (Syco Music) to the singing competition. He’s got major bragging rights with One Direction, but other than perhaps Leona Lewis of a few years ago, Syco isn’t exactly bringing the heat. What’s more is that most us haven’t forgotten his over-inflated ratings estimate when the X Factor first crossed the pond to the U.S., and it’s looking less and less likely that Cowell will ever reach his original 20 million viewer mark. Cowell has talked the talk (again and again and as loud as ever), but he needs to continue to walk the walk. Perhaps that’s why his comments comparing Fifth Harmony to One Direction circulated the day before the Season 2 finale: He needs the buzz and the merit that could come from another huge success.
Of course, there’s also the glaring geography problem staring us in the face. While One Direction has given Cowell credit for his managerial skills, it doesn’t necessarily give the U.S. X Factor credit. U.S. viewers never saw Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson take their journey through boot camp and performance challenges, yet none of us can stop singing “One Thing” every time it sneaks into a playlist. We became attached once they were already a full-formed sensation. Fifth Harmony, if they can get the song and branding efforts just right, could be the U.S.’s answer to the pop sensation and the gaping lack of lady-led pop star groups. It’s no guarantee and it’s an understatement to call their chances a crap shoot, but as X Factor’s ratings decline, the show needs nothing short of a music industry miracle.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Frank Micelota/Fox (2)]
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Thanks to the recent defection of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler from American Idol, we are smack dab in the middle of another round of pop culture-obsessed Americans' (least?) favorite game: "Who should judge Idol?" After all, as soon as Charlie Sheen's name enters into the conversation, you know fans are desperate for any shred of casting news. But here's something that hard-at-work casting producers might not necessarily want to hear: Despite all the headlines, fans do not care who judges your show. Period.
And that's what makes this news cycle so frustrating. We sit around for months bandying about names and waiting for networks to finally decide on a celebrity or two. And then, when the celebs start judging, they leave plenty to be desired. Let's face it: J. Lo and Tyler were both abominable judges on Idol. Yes, they were, despite any entertainment value Steven's flowery prose and J. Lo's skin-tight catsuits might have brought to the show. They were personalities, sure, but they never even really judged. (And, no, "Oh, good job, buy my perfume and wait for me to perform my new hit single" or "Garble garble garble sea hag incantation Aerosmith WHEEEEEEE" does not count as judging.) Even worse, they refused to call out performances that were inarguably terrible on the show. (Remember Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling"?)
What's more troubling is we will have to continue to cope with A-list passivity on Idol's bastard step-child The X-Factor, a reality series that decided to overhaul the show by overhauling the judges. After canning Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, and dreamy host Steve Jones in hopes that its personalities were the reason the show wasn't a ratings juggernaut, the producers hired big-name trainwrecks Britney Spears (against her best interests) and Demi Lovato, not because they have any experience with helping guide people's careers (Britney still isn't even in charge of her own finances), but because you'll tune in to see how they behave. Perhaps instead of upping the star power of the panel, Simon Cowell should have reevaluated the series' format in order to differentiate it from every other singing competition out there (and there are plenty). Maybe with one less celebrity or two.
Shelling out for A-list judges is nothing but a quick fix. Yes, everyone will tune in to see a live Spears for the first few weeks, but Idol and the UK's X Factor didn't become unstoppable because of their judges. Instead, Idol and X Factor can credit former no-names like Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis for their success. Most fans watch singing competitions for the talent — to see little kids with big dreams belt out songs on the stage. If you want proof of this, just look to America's Got Talent, a series that replaced Piers Morgan (a nobody pre-Celebrity Apprentice and CNN) with Howard Stern (a big fat famous person) and saw the ratings actually go down. And you know what? Morgan was a better judge anyway!
That's precisely the danger to hiring high-wattage stars. It was inevitable that J Lo. (and Ellen DeGeneres before her) would be so worried about what her comments towards the fledgling singers would do to tarnish her own reputation that she would do nothing but heap praise on everyone. And, as Cowell proved, the most successful reality judges are the ones who are going to be honest — or at least mean enough to make for good TV. At one point, Cowell knew that it was the contestants that people cared about, not the warm bodies clutching Coca-Cola cups padding out the rest of the live show. And if one of those warm bodies happened to insult one of those contestants — well, even more reason for fans to care.
It's true The Voice managed to turn this whole concept on its head. Unlike with Idol, TV fans actually do watch the NBC singing series to see Christian, Adam, Cee Lo, and Blake. The talent is there, but mostly to give the judges something to do for two hours. But The Voice has never made any pretense about the (un)importance of its contestants. Commercials, posters, marketing — NBC asked TV viewers to pay attention only to the famous foursome. And we followed suit. But Idol and X Factor — two series that ask viewers to fixate on their contestants for months on end — have trouble balancing both attention to star power and to the anonymous faces. Perhaps you can't have it both. Just see Duets, which continues to flame out despite having Kelly Clarkson on its side.
Yes, it turns out the people who made Kelly famous on a reality show don't really care to see her star on one after she's become famous. Because fame is not what Idol or X Factor fans care about. So, other than keeping Idol in the press while Ryan Seacrest's roots grow in over the summer, this discussion is totally pointless. People are going to watch Idol or not watch Idol based on the quality of its contestants. If we see singers with great stories who movie us, we will set our DVRs and set our fingers in a flurry of text voting. Sure, Paula's droopiness and Simon's testiness might entertain us while we're watching, but it's simply a fun distraction.
Perhaps every singing competition that fears sagging ratings should focus on true innovation rather than blowing the big bucks on known quantities to sit behind a table. Just like in a courtroom, if America is serving as the jury, we're more interested in the case than the person wearing the robe.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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After 11 blockbuster seasons of American Idol, it's hard to believe the reality series' Season 1 finale was virtually star-free (of course, with the exception of the gigantic star the show was in the process of creating). We only had Top 2 Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson, joining forces with their fellow Top 10 to perform schmaltzy performances that looked as uncomfortable as Ryan Starr's wardrobe. Now, 10 years later, the top-rated series attracts top promotion-minded talent like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Jack Black. (Wait, what?)
While Season 11's finale boasts performers slightly less buzzy, we're still in for a respectable line-up tonight: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor, Kristen Chenoweth, Thelma Houston, Sheila E., Nelly Furtado, and Jennifer Holliday will be paying tribute to the late Donna Summer, while members of our Top 12 will duet with names like Holliday (Jessica Sanchez), Jordin Sparks (Hollie Cavanagh), Reba McEntire (Skylar Laine), Fantasia (Mantasia), and John Fogerty (Phillip Phillips).
Of course, we Idol fans are a fickle bunch who will never be satisfied until we're given complete power of attorney over the series — so naturally, I have to suggest a few Idol-star duets I'd be dying to see in tonight's finale. For all that is holy (like a Haley Reinhart and Tony Bennett performance of "Steppin' Out With My Baby"), please, Idol gods, find a way for these duets to happen in the next 12 hours (and our thoughts are still with you, likely-not-to-appear Jermaine Jones):
Jeremy Rosado: Oh gosh, who to pair with the extremely forgettable 13th place finisher with? Why not throw in Idol MVP Barry Manilow, who's appeared on the series five times? Let's make it an even six!
Shannon Magrane: To avoid awkward staging, let's get someone height-appropriate for the tall Idol contestant. The 5'11" Taylor Swift would also help baseball baby Shannon stray away from the too-mature material she seems to focus on. If you build the youth appeal, they will come. (Record companies, that is.)
Erika Van Pelt: Erika turned out to be one of the season's more uneven performers, delivering songs in styles ranging from dance pop to dated soul. And, as Wikipedia reminds me, Erika has a passion for "rhythm and blues, soul, country, jazz, rock, and classical." So what genre-jumping musician could we pair her with? The duet-friendly Kid Rock. Don't laugh — sure, it's as crazy as "Bawitdaba," but it could work.
Heejun Han: Billy Joel. So he, too, can take a piss out on "My Life."
DeAndre Brackensick: As much as we'd like one of the DeBarge brothers to come to the Nokia Theater to recreate DeAndre's "I Like It," the contestant sorely needs to prove himself as a contemporary, relevant artist. Let's get Robin Thicke to beef up his record sales-friendly profile.
Colton Dixon: Creed. Just kidding — I wouldn't even wish Scott Stapp on Tim Urban. And it wouldn't hurt Colton's accessibility to distance himself from his religion. Instead, let's pair him with another piano-friendly band, The Script.
Elise Testone: I'm tempted to pick Joss Stone for Elise — they both boast a hippie-funk style — but Elise's lack of refinement would make us feel like we're comparing apples to much tastier and shinier apples watching the pair. Instead, why not couple Elise with the ultimate hippie, Willie Nelson, whose laid-back style would allow Elise's powerhouse vocals to dominate the Idol joint (heh)?
Skylar Laine: Cheers, Idol. You actually got this one right, pairing the contestant with Reba McEntire, a star who both looks and sounds so like our fifth-place finisher, I'll be wondering if our finale wine is simply making us see double. That said, I'm still eager to one day hear the "Gunpowder and Lead"/"Diamond-Studded Pistol" mash-up from Skylar and Miranda Lambert.
Hollie Cavanagh: Miley Cyrus might be the obvious choice — Hollie always took up the opportunity to sing "The Climb" faster than she could say "[garbled, confusing British-American statement here]" — but she has far more in common with fellow reality series vet Leona Lewis. Doesn't hurt that Hollie's "Bleeding Love" was one of the few standouts of her season.
Joshua Ledet: The judges insist that Joshua is one of the best singers they've seen in 50 years. So let's test their expertise and couple the third-place finisher with the best singer of the past 50 years, Aretha Franklin.
Jessica Sanchez: Even though holograms are all the rage this 2012, let's not hope for a Whitney Houston duet. (Too soon. Too soon.) Though it's an obvious choice, we'd be crazy in love with the great TV that would come from watching a 16-year-old sing with her own greatest idol, Beyoncé.
Phillip Phillips: No, Phillip should not duet with Dave Matthews Band. Instead, he'd be best served paired with another artist with a distinguishable voice that's distinguishable from his own. The dream duet: Phillip proving he's the Better — nay, best — Man for the Idol crown via a finale performance fellow guitarist Eddie Vedder, who has recreated a song or two in his lifetime. I'm not Hiding My Love Away from that pipe dream!
Follow Kate on Twitter @HWKateWard
[Image Credit: FOX]
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It’s that Time of the Season. That time in which executive producer Nigel Lythgoe decides contestants should songs not only from his 1960s youth, but his homeland across the pond as well. But inside the theater at CBS Television City, the crowd at American Idol’s Wednesday night taping was pumped to see the contestants invade the theater on British Invasion night. (Even Lythgoe had one girl holler for him before the cameras started rolling.) But what you may have missed at home is that Steven Tyler aided the thunderous applause for Ryan Seacrest during the show’s opening by pumping his arms, encouraging the crowd to continue cheering. In fact, he appeared to on a mission to have Wednesday night’s crowd be the loudest of the season. And it worked for most of the show.
The performances kicked off with Hollie Cavanagh’s rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High.” From my seat, it was clear that J. Lo dug the performance — the judge began cheering before the song even started and danced with Steven throughout the performance. Even though Randy Jackson showed a little more restraint, he still looked floored when Hollie belted out her biggest. Added bonus for Hollie: A standing ovation from both Randy and Steven.
Hollie continued to win over the studio audience with her second performance of “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis. She had nearly everyone mesmerized from the first note. Her only issue during the performance was her troublesome ball gown. Before the performance, a stagehand did a last-minute adjustment of the dress (no wardrobe malfunctions here), and Ryan even helped Hollie with the gown’s train during a commercial break.
Minus the costume problems, Hollie was still thrilled to be praised by the judges this late in the competition. "I was glad I got positive feedback on both songs. It would be horrible to come out of the night with negative feedback,” she explained backstage. “I mean, now it’s Top 5, so you have to bring it every week, and I'm just glad they're seeing that I'm learning and progressing."
And in case you haven’t already gotten the message, Phillip Phillips once again showed he wants to be known as an artist, not just a pop star. His first song, “The Letter” by The Box Tops, had Jennifer and Randy whispering at the beginning of the performance while most of the audience seemed to struggle to connect to the song. His second solo performance, The Zombies’ “Time of The Season” resulted in a similar reaction in the theater. At least, when it came to anyone but the judges and teenage girls in the audience, who made sure to scream for the contestant per usual.
However, the girls’ excitement may have been short-lived as Ryan announced that Phillip not only had a girlfriend, but she was at the show. (Ladies, are you wishing that your other favorite guy, Colton, could come back to the show?) Phillip seemed to have little concern about losing votes due to Ryan’s admission. “It was funny. It doesn't matter,” he explained in the press tent. “If it does, then [the voters] weren't really liking the music. I'm trying to get the music out there. I'm not trying to be some boy that tries to look good or anything. I want the music to speak first.”
Back on stage, Skylar Laine had no trouble getting the audience grooving to her first performance of “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Randy was even nodding his head along with the music. But it was her second performance of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” that made everyone in the room realize why she is a true contender in this competition. The audience, at least, rose to give her a standing ovation.
It was Jessica Sanchez’s rendition of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” that jumpstarted a major disagreement between Randy and the audience. From the start, Jessica received huge cheers from the audience (and had Steven moving in his chair). But, when Randy criticized the performance, he received a major backlash in the form of boos and one woman loudly screaming her disapproval.
But Jessica redeemed herself in Randy’s eyes with her performance of Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.” In addition to a standing ovation from the audience and universal praise from the judges, Randy may said just the thing she was waiting to hear ever since her near elimination: That she was back at the top of the leaderboard.
And in typical Idol fashion, the show saved the best for last. Joshua Ledet sang “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “To Love Somebody,” and managed to have the audience (and judges) in the palm of his hand during both performances. The whole room (including Steven) was moving to the beat during his first performance and audience members were even singing along with The Bee Gees’ hit at the end of the night.
With many stellar performances, the night’s strangest moments came during the group performances. While the girls appeared to be enjoying themselves and the company during their number, it was simply the musical arrangement of “Higher and Higher” that left that the studio audience and judges wanting a little more. Joshua and Phillip made it clear there was no bromance between them when they awkwardly belted out “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” With little connection between the performers, it was difficult for the audience to join in on the fun of this classic duet.
Will Hollie survive another elimination night Thursday? We’ll have to watch and see — and be sure to return to Hollywood.com Friday to find out everything that went down behind-the-scenes!
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