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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There’s a line drawn in the sand for the top 10 contestants on American Idol. On one side, we have a set of singers so perfectly packaged, so talented, so ready for action that picking a favorite is about as easy picking your favorite Internet hedgehog (I’ve tried and it’s impossible. Those suckers are universally adorable). Opposite these fantastic singers are a group of wannabes: people with decent pipes, but no spirit, no direction, and absolutely no ability to compete with the top contestants. The divide has never been more evident and unless a miracle takes place, that’s not going to change. Lucky for the women on the show, they’re all on the more promising side of the competition, especially Miss Candice Glover.
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For the incredibly loosely defined “Idol Songs” week, Candice chose “I (Who Have Nothing)” which was performed by Jordin Sparks on the show, but is actually by Ben E. King (and if we’re splitting hairs, she did the Shirley Bassey version of the song). However, bending of the theme aside, Candice brings her usual brand of unbelievable vocals to the performance, finally finding the right emotional sweet spot for her voice. In a few minutes, she jumps right to the top of heap and brings the entire panel (except Mariah, who’s trapped in a seated position by her impossibly restrictive skirt) to their feet.
Fortunately for us, she’s not the only incredible presence on that stage. Here are my rankings of this week’s Top 10:
1. Candice Glover with “I (Who Have Nothing)” as performed by Jordin Sparks (Duh)
2. Angie Miller with “Surrender” by Celine Dion and as Performed by Kelly Clarkson
While Jimmy Iovine may be concerned that Angie looks too much like a beauty pageant winner, this girl is not slowing down. Performing yet another song that feels like it’s her own, Angie has complete control over the stage, over her vocals, over Dion’s classic ballad. Here’s hoping viewers are on board too.
3. Kree Harrison with “Crying” by Roy Orbison as performed by Carrie Underwood
Again, Kree turns in an incredible performance. It’s so predictable that the lack of drama is almost annoying. Luckily, Nicki made up for the lack of surprise by comparing the happiness she hears while Kree’s singing to her favorite weekend ritual of toasting waffles, melting the butter on top in the microwave, and then covering them with “buttermilk syrup.” I’m not sure what possessed her to use that description, but am I nuts to think it’s actually kind of accurate?
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4. Burnell Taylor with “Flying Without Wings” by Ruben Studdard
Once again, Burnell is adorable. Incredible. Capable. Wonderful. I do miss his glasses and his goofy little baseball cap, but I can see why the stylists have made him a little more slick. The fog machine, however was cheesy. Burnell is already magical, he doesn’t need a misty lagoon to prove that. But visual annoyances aside, this performance is perfection, as usual. It’s easy for him. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: If a girl doesn’t win this year, let the winner at least be Mr. Burnell Taylor (even if that means we’ll have to watch Randy throw another parade for “the great city of Baton Rouge” — we get it, dawg, you’re from Louisiana).
5. Amber Holcomb with “A Moment Like This” by Kelly Clarkson
I want to say I loved this performance, because once again, we can see Amber’s incredible talent being put to inappropriate use. Jimmy suggested Amber do a more upbeat version of the Kelly Clarkson song, but I think perhaps what he really meant was less Mariah or Whitney Houston in the ‘90s (hey, even Mariah noticed that she stole that fan move from Miss Butterfly herself). Amber continually sings flawless ballads with so little effort it’s infuriating, but she can’t seem to make herself a contemporary artist. Rather than Clarkson’s throwback hit or even Whitney’s hits, Holcomb should try on some Beyonce or even (dare I say it) Adele. She’s wildly talented, but if she doesn’t figure out a way to update her sound, she may slip from voters’ notice.
6. Janelle Arthur with “Gone” by Montgomery Gentry as performed by Scotty McCreery
Janelle tries to follow Jimmy’s good advice and find a way to be unique and sort of succeeds, even if her vocals are slightly spotty. She tries to play a bit of the easy going bad girl, and it mostly works (Idol’s own graphics certainly weren’t helping her to lower the cheese factor though). When she’s done and the judges are confused because the big notes in the song just weren’t there, she explains that her mouth went dry while she was singing. It might be an excuse, but her vocal is a little out of whack this round.
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7. Curtis Finch, Jr. with “I Believe” by Fantasia
Here’s where I draw the line. Despite my overwhelming distaste for Curtis, I can acknowledge that the guy has a good instrument, it’s what he does with it that’s the problem. Jimmy warns him against going too old fashioned, but he can’t seem to change it up too much. He steps onto the stage in a coat made out of a square of the Windsor Castle carpet, with a gospel choir in tow. It’s the same ol’ same ol’ and everyone but Mariah is bored. When Randy comes right out and says it’s boring, it’s usually time to change it up, dawg.
8. Paul Jolley with “Amazed” by Lonestar as performed by Scotty McCreery
Paul tries to heed Jimmy’s advice to ditch the theatrics and oversinging, but he only slightly gets it. He starts off his song a little quieter, sitting at the back of the stage and resisting the urge to get to his favorite spot at the front of the stage, but all he’s really done is make his performance more bland. Again, he’s got great parts of his voice, it’s just not adding up to a potential star when he hits the stage.
9. Devin Velez with “Temporary Home” by Carrie Underwood
Jimmy tells Devin to stop aiming for old fashioned styles like those of Josh Groban and Michael Buble and unfortunately, that’s exactly what he does with this Carrie Underwood song. The most exciting thing about this performance is the new special effect the Idol set department seems to have discovered this year (where are we? A bubble galaxy? Is Devin still singing?).
10. Lazaro Arbos singing “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson
Once again, Lazaro proves his biggest weakness is his inability to recognize the great parts of his voice. Since this competition began, he’s never been able to pick a song that really highlights who he is. Jimmy warns him about this, but he still sings Clarkson’s hit and to uncomfortable effect. He doesn’t have the range or the connection to the song. It simply doesn’t work. I want to like Lazaro because he’s adorable and has a great backstory, but the vocals just haven’t been cutting it.
Who do you think will go home?
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Fox]
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Shocker: It’s still a girls game on American Idol. After a quick trip back to Los Angeles, the judges, Ryan Seacrest, and the Top 20 nestled into the Idol auditorium to find out who’d be staying on as part of the Top 10 finalists. Fan favorites like Kree Harrison, Angie Miller, Burnell Taylor, and Lazaro Arbos were easy fits, but as the night wore on, disappointment hit more than a few times.
Of course, most of those time were when we realized that likeable singers like Paul Jolley nabbed spots that could have gone to strong lady singers like castoff Aubrey Cleland were there not a strict five-spot-per-gender rule. Of course, if the past teaches us anything, it’s that voters probably would have kept a few too many of the ho-hum dudes and sent home girls who deserved to stay. Still, it was an exciting night on Idol.
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We got to see what it looks like behind Idol’s famous video screen door. We got to see the singers’ genuine reactions before the judges or the audience, thanks to Ryan delivering the news to them backstage, before anyone else could hear. We got to witness the adorable moment when Keith Urban let Nicki Minaj lean on him as they walked to their seats because Nicki wore impossibly high heels. We got to see Mariah Carey’s incomparable breasts peeking out from behind a mesh v-shape in her patent leather ball gown. We got to witness the cross-promotion of Carey’s new single and the movie she sang it for, Oz the Great and Powerful. But unfortunately, we still didn’t get to see much of Randy Jackson’s prized shoes, which is a shame because Seacrest once told me that Randy has a new pair for every single episode of the show.
RELATED: 'Idol' Recap: Top 10 Guys Step It Up
As the finalists were announced, they each got to perform a victory song followed by feedback, but not criticism, from their favorite judges. I know the point is that we’re not supposed to judge, but if you’re like me, the wheels in your brain were turning, you were judging each and every performance, and you’ve already got a ranking system in your head. Here’s mine:
10. Paul Jolley singing “Alone” by Heart: While he was much better than he was on Wednesday night, he’s still not the strongest of the bunch. But man, is he handsome.
9. Lazaro Arbos singing “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel: It was a good emotional reprisal of his audition song considering he’s overcome adversity and made it to the final 10. It’s very sweet, and very much in his comfort zone, but he will need to step it up to make it past the other fantastic singers.
8. Devin Velez singing “The Power of One (Change The World)” by Isreal Houghton: Nicki clearly didn’t like that he shied away from a ballad, but he’s found a way to be a little more relevant with this upbeat song. His ballads are fantastic, but he’s got to be able to do upbeat to be a mainstream artist. And he gets a few bonus points for his adorable blue-eye-shadow-laden mama hitting on Ryan.
7. Curtis Finch singing “So High” by John Legend: Let’s just make peace with the fact that Curtis rubs me the wrong way. That feeling won’t go away, so I’m going to do my best to get past that long enough to write about his performance: I love this song, I love the effortless way in which John Legend sings it. Curtis’ vocal acrobatics prove he’s got a serious skill, but I’m not a fan of the way he pushes this smooth song. That’s why he’s so far down on this list, but still, I can admit he’s talented.
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6. Amber Holcomb singing “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan: This is where I start to get a bit confused because I love, love, love everyone I’ve ranked from sixth to first. I love them all. While Amber has an issue with sounding current, it’s hard to deny she’s got an incredible voice. And she’s not even trying. At all. It’s almost infuriating. Her voice is so good, and the girl never even breaks a sweat.
5. Janelle Arthur singing “Home” by Dierks Bentley: Janelle has never been my cup of tea, but her emotional connection really brought it home on Thursday night. She finally chose a current song and it makes her feel like she really could be a singer with a hit single on the radio right now. And with tears in her pretty little eyes, she’s a delight to watch. America loves themselves a sweet, little blonde country singer.
4. Candice Glover singing “I’m Goin’ Down" by Rose Royce: I love this girl. She’s so, so good. I like her rendition of this song better than Mary J. Blige’s cover, because it just pours out of her so naturally. She’s just strutting around that stage letting her incredible voice just flow, and after watching her go home too soon last season, it’s hard not to cheer her on a time like this.
3. Angie Miller singing “I Was Here” by Beyonce: She’s adorable and misty as she takes the stage in her sparkly pants. Despite being outside of her usual style. Beyonce’s ballad turned out to be a great choice. I like that she didn’t try to Beyonce-ify her performance. She just tried to make it as Angie as possible. It wasn’t a super clean performance, but the emotional connection was so great it almost doesn’t matter. She’s so marketable, so genuine. She belongs up there.
2. Burnell Taylor singing “Ready for Love” by India.Arie: I want a woman to win this year. I really, truly do. But if a man has to take the crown, it had better be Burnell. He. is. amazing. The intricate things he does with his voice are beautiful and his personality comes through every time he sings. He has every piece it takes to be considered the complete package. He’s going to seriously test my feminist resolve this season.
1. Kree Harrison singing “Evidence” by Susan Tedeschi: This girl rocks. Hard. She’s flawless and connected, just like she always has been. If we’re picking horses, this girl is the one to beat.
Now that gender is no longer a factor in who stays and who goes, let’s hope voters can see the great disparity between the incredibly talented women and the fairly talented men on this show.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Fox]
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There's something about Louisiana. It's just a little hard to be down all the time, when you're in the "Home of the Dawg," Randy Jackson's own Baton Rouge, La. Plus, as Keith Urban points out, "All the good music is from the South." It's just a good time down in Louisiana, and during American Idol's fourth round of auditions, that much was clear.
There wasn't a moment of unrest nor a single sob story that dipped into the well of melodrama. It was simply an hour of goofy judge antics, good voices, and a few requisite unfortunate souls. (We're not reinventing the wheel, here.) It was just about as sweet as the smell of a crawfish boil on the Bayou.
First up, was Miss Baton Rouge, and the sign that things were going to be nice and easy in Baton Rouge. Megan Miller was in an accident just before her audition, but she doesn't spend much time feeling sorry for herself or milking her situation for sympathy. No sir. She's got surgery scheduled immediately after her audition, but she puts on her favorite heels, struts (as much as one can on crutches) into the judging room and shows off her natural, beautiful voice with a little dose of humor at her own expense (crutches make great fake microphones). She doesn't draw attention to the scrapes on her legs and arms, but instead tries to direct all attention to her voice (you know, that thing she's there to show off). Of course this girl is getting a ticket to Hollywood, but not because she made us get all misty over her hardship. She's going to Hollywood (after a successful surgery, to boot) because she's got the goods. Plain and simple.
But the talented people keep coming and their sad stories, while present, are kept in check. Seventeen-year-old Charlie Askew is socially-awkward. His parents joke that he's got Charlie Askew Syndrome because no doctor would diagnose the shy guy's social awkwardness. But from what we can see, he's just a sweet, shy kid. "I'm bad at communicating in a firsthand sort of way," he says with a laugh as America collectively sighs, "Aww." And that's all well and good, but when Charlie finally sings (a little of "Breakthrough" by Queen and a lot of "Nowhere Boy" by David Bowie), the last thing anyone is thinking about is the kid's social fears. His sweet, androgynous tone is haunting and lovely, especially when he takes on the Bowie song. It's a perfect choice, because as Keith notes, "The tone, it's not of a gender ... like Bowie or something." Much like Kez Ban before him, Charlie brings a voice unlike any we've ever seen on the series, and one that could take us to a whole new place if sticks around past group week.
For Randy's mission, he's sent a hop, skip, and a jump down to New Orleans to the world famous Cafe Du Monde to pick up Maddie Assell (and hopeful some of those mouth watering beignets), a teenager on vacation with her grandmother, who's just nominated her for an Idol audition (and who happens to be the sauciest grandma ever). When she stops by the next day to sing her lil song, she chooses "Oh Darling," citing Beyonce, Adele, and former Idol contestant Haley Reinhart as her influences. She's certainly got her own sound though, and the raw goods, but her runs are out of control. She's definitely someone who figured out that she could handle some incredible flourishes in her singing, but she overuses her giftand it sounds a bit messy. Still, auditions are about raw talent and Maddie's got it, and a golden ticket. Now, let's just hope she brings her hilariously strange grandmother along for the ride so she can keep telling Ryan Seacrest things like "I want to kidnap you and take you home with me."
After a brief trip into the Idol producers' latest parody reel, True Bad (it even adds a sexy, dark filter to the action to give it the real dingy True Blood feel). Hey, at least they're trying to keep the tone deaf stretches of auditions somewhat interesting. Still, I imagine I would have liked to see the girl who made Randy scream (yes, scream) "NONONONONONO" and who walked out of her audition yelling "I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY THEY WOULDN'T CHOOSE ME" like a murderous Veruca Salt.
Thankfully, that nonsense is followed with an adorable, gorgeous, talented guy: Paul Jolley. Idol attempts to make a background story out of the fact that Paul just lost his grandfather, but this is about as melodramatic as the episode gets. When he gets down to business, singing Rascal Flatts' "I Won't Let Go," it's clear we've just happened upon someone important in this competition. He sounds like a sweet, countrified Josh Groban, and with those eyes (that chin, that smile, those shoulders), he's what music industry experts might call a total jackpot. Here's to more from Paul come Hollywood week.