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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Top Story: Valenti To Step Down as MPAA Head
Jack Valenti, who has held the Motion Picture Association of America's top post for 38 years and oversaw the creation of Hollywood's movie ratings system in the 1960s, announced at the annual ShoWest convention Tuesday that he plans to retire, possibly within three months, The Associated Press reports. "I look at this with mixed emotions, because when you've done something so long, it's difficult to tear yourself away from it," Valenti told reporters before making the announcement to theater owners in a convention opening address. "But also, in any job, you want to leave before people ask you to leave." MPAA has hired media recruiter Spencer Stuart to hunt for a new leader for the trade group, which represents Hollywood's top seven studios--Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and MGM. Valenti said he would maintain an "umbilical relationship" with the MPAA and Hollywood, though he was not certain what that role would be. "I've been blessed with some genetic energy, so I'm not going to fade away," Valenti said.
It's Jackson's Turn To Sue
Usually the target of lawsuits, Michael Jackson filed his own Monday against New Jersey businessman Henry Vaccaro, claiming he is illegally selling private property belonging to the pop star and his famous family on the Internet, Reuters reports. The lawsuit claims Vaccaro obtained letters, pictures, song lyrics and other items belonging to Jackson through a bankruptcy sale involving the Jackson's parents, Joseph and Katherine, and held by Vaccaro and that he has no right to sell them. Jackson's attorney Brian Wolf told Reuters that because Michael Jackson was not part of the bankruptcy, his property should not have been sold and Vaccaro had no claim to it.
Rhymes Sentenced to Six Months' Probation
Rapper Busta Rhymes received six months' probation after pleading no contest Tuesday to an assault charge, AP reports. According to the police report, Rhymes was performing a late-night gig in Fall River, Mass., in December 2002 when a woman, Celine Giguere, allegedly reached out and touched his chin. In a statement read in court, Rhymes said that when he saw Giguere reach for his face a second time, he grabbed her hand and said, "Please make sure you do not touch me again." The police report, however, said the rapper grabbed Giguere, shoved her head into a table and said, "If you try touching me again, I'll kill you." Rhymes, whose real name is Trevor A. Smith Jr., was also ordered to pay $300 in court costs. He'll have a clean record if he successfully completes the probation term, AP reports.
Producers Want To Keep Alamo Set Intact
Producers of the latest Ron Howard film The Alamo, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid and Jason Patric, would like to preserve the elaborate set constructed in the Hill Country near Austin, Tex., but it's not going to be easy. AP reports the movie's production designer, Michael Corenblith, told the San Antonio Express-News in Tuesday's online edition, "I would like to see groups of schoolchildren around there. I would love to see the state contribute a little money and for this to become Texas' version of Colonial Williamsburg. It could become a living history exhibit." The problem, says Alamo historian and college professor Stephen L. Hardin, is that the set materials aren't durable and it won't last. The film premieres in San Antonio, the site of the real Alamo battle, Mar. 27. It opens wide April 9.
Hollywood's Budgets Top $100 Million
The average cost to make and market a movie in Hollywood is now around $102.9 million, a 15 percent rise from 2003, according to the MPAA, which released figures at ShoWest Tuesday. Reuters reports the final tally for 2003 box office revenues came in at roughly $9.5 billion, down around 0.33 percent from the previous year, while the number of people entering movie theaters came in around 1.574 billion, down 4 percent from 2002. "Let's face it. Deficits are not only rising in Hollywood, but it is on center stage in Washington, as well. We've got to get them under sensible control," MPAA head Jack Valenti said.
Lifetime Picks Up Frasier
Lifetime, the cabler for women, picked up the exclusive cable rights to longtime TV series Frasier, which just ended its 11-year run on NBC. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Lifetime beat out bids from Turner Broadcasting, MTV Networks and Oxygen and landed Frasier for about $600,000 per episode. The network will begin airing the sitcom in March 2006, when the local stations currently airing it lose their exclusivity.
Prince Signs With Sony
Prince, who was recently inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has given up his independent status and signed a deal with Sony Corp.'s Columbia Records, Reuters reports. The worldwide deal initially covers only the Purple One's upcoming album, Musicology, which Columbia will release in the United States on April 20. The album coincides with Prince's first tour in six years, which begins on Mar. 27 in Reno, Nevada.
Role Call: Darabont To Pen Mission 3; Harrelson, Harris Under Fire
The Green Mile writer/director Frank Darabont is replacing writer Robert Towne on Mission: Impossible 3, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Towne penned the first two of the series' installments but is free now to focus on his pet project Ask the Dust, adapted from the Depression-era novel by Jan Fante'S…Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris will join forces on 3000 Degrees, a fact-based drama about a fire that turned a century-old storage building in Worcester, Mass., into a cinderbox and claimed the lives of six firefighters in December 1999.