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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The Cranberries have pulled their new video "Analyze" from TV and are editing it, Reuters reports. A combination of scenes in the video, including a person walking by the outline of a dead body and an airplane flying over London's skyline, was too strong a reminder of America's tragedy. "Analyze" is the newest releases from the band's new album, Wake up and Smell the Coffee.
Variety reports that Louisiana Congressman W.J. Tauzin (R) responded Thursday to Bill Maher's derogatory comments about politicians and the U.S. military, saying, "While we don't agree with what [Maher] said originally, we will continue to defend his First Amendment right to stick his foot in his mouth.'' Maher has been sharply criticized for saying on his show, Politically Incorrect, "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away…. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
Comedian John Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, returned to TV with a sobering program Thursday, The Associated Press reports. The comedian, like his network counterparts Jay Leno and David Letterman, didn't want in-your-face sarcasm to disturb the recovery of the recent attacks on the U.S. Stewart esteemed the U.S. for allowing humor in times like these, and when asked how he would handle his show now, Stewart said, "I don't see it as a burden. I see it as a privilege.''
The Broadway musical "Urinetown" opened Thursday to a crowd of excited theater-goers. The musical, a show about a company that controls public toilets, was moved back from its originally scheduled opening date due to the bombing in New York, according to AP. Audience members seemed ready to resume life as usual--unafraid for their safety--and celebrated the event afterwards at a local club.
Deborah Holcombe, the widow of a man who died earlier this year on the set of the upcoming film Spider-Man, is suing Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment for wrongful death, according to Variety. The man, Tim Holcombe, a welder on the set of the film, died when a forklift fell on him on March 6.
The CBS show Big Brother 2 finished its final episode Thursday night. All the former houseguests who were previously evicted from the show voted for who they thought deserved the grand prize. Will was the winner, walking away with $500,000, and runner-up Nicole won $50,000. The show, pushed back by President Bush's address to Congress, aired at about 10 p.m.
Rock memorabilia continues to fetch a high price with Sex Pistols' merchandise auctioning for almost 28,000 pounds Thursday, Reuters reports. Items included a ripped shirt worn by the band's lead singer and a copy of the controversial song "God Save the Queen." Upcoming auctions include drawings, photographs and Stuart Sutcliffe's guitar." Sutcliffe, who's known as the "Fifth Beatle," was a close friend of John Lennon's, and his estate includes several Beatles items.
Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet may be cast for parts on the London stage by the end of next year, Reuters reports. It is not known whether the two will be in the same production.
Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey will hit theaters again on Oct. 5, in limited release, as Warner Bros. will debut a new, digitally enhanced version of the film. The new-and-improved 2001 will also boast a remastered soundtrack better suited to today's audio technology, according to Reuters.
NBC bought the story rights to the Colombian soap Betty la Fea (Ugly Betty) on Wednesday, Reuters reports. The Peacock Network may produce a sitcom from the material to air in fall of 2002.
In an effort to cut costs, House of Blues, the small-venue concert promoter based in Hollywood, will eliminate almost 40 jobs and decrease its online efforts, according to Variety. The company is also reconsidering plans to move forward with its own record label, laying off the man in charge of the project, Lou Mann.
Several members of Congress are fighting to shoot down legislation that would require major record labels to succumb to strict regulation of their online music ventures. Rep. Rich Boucher (D-Va.) introduced the legislation earlier this summer in an effort to prohibit labels from cutting unfair deals with online music providers. Boucher's colleagues, however, think it is too early in the life of the Internet to begin harsh regulation. The hearing to address this issue has been postponed due to the terrorist attacks, but will be rescheduled shortly, according to Variety.
Hollywood.com staffers Stephanie N. Marcucci and Jason Alcorn contributed to this report
Sean Combs premiered his new collection of men's underwear, pajamas and robes on Wednesday at Bloomingdale's, Reuters reports. Sean John Loungewear has been available at Bloomingdale's for less than two weeks and is selling well, the store's fashion director Kal Ruttenstein said.
Singer Stevie Nicks has postponed two concerts at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles to undergo treatment for severe bronchitis, The Associated Press reports. The two shows will be rescheduled at a later date. Nicks expects to return to her "Trouble in Shangri-La Tour" in Las Vegas Saturday if she responds well to medication.
French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo was released from the hospital Wednesday after making what doctors call a remarkable recovery, according to Reuters. Belmondo was admitted to Saint Joseph's hospital in Paris two weeks ago after suffering from a stroke while vacationing on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Belmondo, 68, starred in Jean-Luc Goddard's 1960 film Breathless.
Raymond E. Scott, the co-owner of Source magazine, was arrested one day after the Source Hip Hop Music Awards in Miami Beach, AP reports. According to police, Scott was arrested Tuesday and charged with reckless driving, battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana. Police stopped Scott for speeding and say he became verbally abusive with the officer who ordered him out of the car. Source CEO David Mays reportedly tried to pressure police to drop the charges by threatening to tear up the city and call Jesse Jackson. A spokeswoman for the magazine said a statement would be released Thursday.
Rapper Nate Dogg was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine after pleading no contest to a charge of possessing an unmarked firearm, AP reports. The rapper, whose real name is Nathaniel Dawayne Hale, was arrested on June 18, 2000, for allegedly kidnapping his girlfriend, holding her against her will, assaulting her and setting a car on fire. The charges were later dismissed at a preliminary hearing.
Actor Roy Scheider could face possible jail time if he fails to appear at his next hearing scheduled in a few weeks, according to PageSix.com. Scheider owes his ex-wife Cynthia nearly $1.4 million in payments stipulated by their 1989 divorce agreement. Scheider and his lawyer Samuel Sharp failed to show up for a hearing last Thursday at the Central Islip, Long Island, courthouse. Sharp reportedly called the courthouse minutes before the hearing, claiming he was stuck in traffic. But when Judge Morton I. Willen called the Nassau and Suffolk County highway patrols, he was told that traffic on the Long Island Expressway was running smoothly. The judge warned Sharp that his stall tactics were intolerable and said that the lawyer could face jail time if he failed to show at the next hearing.
State regulators have proposed fines of nearly $59,000 against Sony Pictures for an accident resulting in the death of a welder Tim Holcombe on the set of Spider-Man, Variety reports. Hale died on Mar. 6 after he was struck in the head when a boom extension fell onto the aerial basket in which he was working. The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health said that Sony owned Columbia Pictures failed to use good engineering practices and that the capacity, operation and maintenance instruction plate had not been changed according to specifications. They also allege that Holcombe did not have adequate fall protection, such as a safety harness. The studio has until Sept. 6 to file an appeal.
The British media is having a field day over Mick Jagger's appearance Thursday on the cover of Britain's Saga Magazine, a publication aimed at people over the age of 50, Reuters reports. Jagger is promoting the new film Enigma, which he produced along with Lorne Michaels. The film is set in 1943, the same year that Jagger was born. Saga editor Paul Bach thought it would be a perfect subject for his readers. The Rolling Stones singer, once known as the wild man of rock 'n' roll, is reportedly dating 23-year-old model Sophie Dahl.
Michael Crawford is returning to Broadway with Dance of the Vampires, Variety reports. The show, which will open on April 11 at the Minskoff Theater, is based on Roman Polanski's 1967 movie The Fearless Vampire Killers. The musical premiered in Vienna four years ago and was directed by Polanski, but show organizers were unable to get the director back into the United States to work on the play. Polanski fled the country in 1977 when facing charges of statutory rape. Crawford, who starred in The Phantom of the Opera for 14 years, has committed to the show for one year in New York.
Tony Danza will host the Miss America Pageant, becoming the first solo male to host the event since Bert Parks in 1980, Reuters reports. Parks died in 1992 and hosted the pageant for 25 years. Danza will replace Donny and Marie Osmond, who have been emceeing the event for the past two years. The Miss America Pageant organizers are trying to boost ratings and appeal to viewers by incorporating elements of reality TV shows and have also added a game show segment.
George Michael has returned the piano used by John Lennon to record the song Imagine to the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool, AP reports. Michael bought the 31-year-old piano at an auction last year for $2 million. At the time, the pop star said that the instrument should be seen by people rather than protected in storage somewhere. But Michael first wanted to use the piano to record a song on his next album. Lennon, who bought the piano in 1970, was killed in New York City more than 20 years ago.
Eric McCormack and Debra Messing from NBC's Will & Grace have been added to the presenters list for the 53rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards, according toVariety. Other presenters include Kelsey Grammer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sela Ward, Martin Sheen, Jessica Alba, Michael Michele and Amy Brenneman.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) on Friday fined Sony's Columbia Pictures $58,805 for violations on the set of the upcoming Spider-Man movie that led to the death of a crew worker. The agency found that the company improperly modified a forklift to operate like a camera crane and that it later crashed into a construction basket in which 45-year-old construction worker Tim Holcombe was riding while welding a set.