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.
Top Story: CBS Nixes Reagan Miniseries
CBS has canceled the upcoming miniseries The Reagans, Reuters reports. The official statement from the Viacom Inc.-owned network said the decision was "based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script," referring to a report in the New York Times that said the final copy of the script portrayed the Reagans in an unflattering light. CBS also said that the four-hour final version of the movie failed to "present a balanced portrayal" of former President Ronald Reagan (played by James Brolin) and his wife, Nancy (played by Judy Davis), and that subsequent changes that the network had considered "did not address those concerns." Rather than broadcast the two-part miniseries as originally planned on Nov. 16 and 18, CBS said it has reached a deal with Showtime to license rights to the film.
Tenacious D To Pull Starvation Stunt
Are they serious? In what appears to be a goof on illusionist David Blaine's recent stunt in which he went without food for weeks while suspended in a transparent box, the rock group Tenacious D's Jack Black and Kyle Gass announced Monday that they would begin a 45-day hunger strike to promote their DVD The Complete Masterworks, CNN.com reports. Black and Gass, dressed in silver superhero costumes, told reporters at a press conference in New York City that they will reside in a seven-by three-by seven-foot glass box suspended 50 yards above Times Square at the intersection of 45th Street and Broadway, supplied only with water, a red cell phone and a guitar. The intersection is the location of MTV studios, where they appeared on Monday's episode of Total Request Live. Black quipped, "If we need extra nourishment, we will live off each others' rock."
The Number One Reason To Take a Day Off
David Letterman skipped work Monday to be with his girlfriend, who went into labor with their first child. Bandleader Paul Shaffer took over Late Night hosting duties for Letterman last minute and told the audience: "If you're feeling that there's something wrong with this picture--you're seeing me--because Dave is at the hospital waiting for his baby to be delivered!" As of Tuesday morning Letterman's spokesperson had not returned a phone call from AP about the baby.
Spears Won't Perform at MTV Europe Awards
No girl-on-girl kiss for the European crowd. Britney Spears, who shared an open-mouthed kiss with Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, has pulled out of the MTV Europe Music Awards airing Thursday due to the flu, Reuters reports. "Unfortunately, she is not well. We are disappointed she won't be attending, but we wish her well for a speedy recovery," an MTV spokeswoman told Reuters. Her ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, who has been nominated in five categories, will attend, as will Christina Aguilera, who is set to the host the show.
Jackson May Do Music Special
Michael Jackson is in talks with CBS to perform in a music special, Reuters reports. The show would air Nov. 26 to coincide with the release of his latest greatest hits collection, Number Ones. A November "sweeps" Jackson special in 2001, celebrating the pop star's 30 years as a solo artist, was a major ratings success for CBS, drawing more than 25 million viewers.
NBC Uncouples With Coupling
Another one bites the dust. The racy new sitcom Coupling, based on the hit British series of the same name, has been canceled by NBC, AP reports. The American version--about the mix-and-match romances of six single friends--received low ratings and poor critical reviews. To cover its 9:30 p.m. Thursday time slot during the crucial November ratings sweeps, the network is "supersizing" the sitcoms Friends, Will & Grace and Scrubs, adding a few minutes to each, AP reports.
King Finishes Dark Tower
Stephen King has completed the final three installments of his The Dark Tower series, AP reports. Ever on the cutting edge, King made the announcement through a "virtual" version of himself on his Web site. "People have been asking one question above all others over the past nine years: When are you going to finish The Dark Tower? Well, guess what--it's done. So do me a favor and spread the word," King said. The Gunslinger, the first Dark Tower book, was published in 1982, followed by The Drawing of the Three in 1987; The Waste Lands in 1991; and Wizard and Glass in 1997.
Role Call: Chainsaw Director in Need
After wowing 'em with the box office hit Texas Chainsaw Massacre, first-time director Marcus Nispel has landed his next gig, helming Paramount Pictures' Need. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the thriller is based on David Lawrence's novel of the same name about a successful New York therapist who discovers that one of her patients--a suicidal woman--is having an affair with her husband. Diane Lane is in final negotiations to play the therapist.
A complete list of 44th Annual Grammy Award winners, announced Wednesday night:
Record of the Year: Walk On, U2
Rap Album: Stankonia, OutKast
Song of the Year: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Album of the Year: O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Various Artists
Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal: "Elevation," U2
New Artist: Alicia Keys
Country Collaboration with Vocals: "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright (The Soggy Bottom Boys), from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Female Pop Vocal Performance: "I'm Like a Bird," Nelly Furtado
R&B Album: Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys
Rock Song: "Drops of Jupiter," Charlie Colin, Rob Hotchkiss, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford and Scott Underwood (Train)
Pop Collaboration with Vocals: "Lady Marmalade," Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink
Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," U2
Rock Album: "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2
Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," James Taylor
Pop Instrumental Performance: "Reptile," Eric Clapton
Dance Recording: "All For You," Janet Jackson
Pop Instrumental Album: No Substitutions--Live in Osaka, Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather
Pop Vocal Album: Lovers Rock, Sade
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Songs I Heard, Harry Connick Jr.
Female Rock Vocal Performance: "Get Right With God," Lucinda Williams
Male Rock Vocal Performance: "Dig In," Lenny Kravitz
Hard Rock Vocal: "Crawling," Linkin Park
Metal Performance: "Schism," Tool
Rock Instrumental Performance: "Dirty Mind," Jeff Beck
Alternative Music Album: Parachutes, Coldplay
Female R&B Vocal Performance: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Male R&B Vocal Performance: "U Remind Me," Usher
R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "Survivor," Destiny's Child
R&B Song: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys (Alicia Keys)
Traditional R&B Album: "At Last," Gladys Knight
Rap Solo Performance: "Get Ur Freak On," Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Rap Performance by a Duo or Group: "Ms. Jackson," OutKast
Rap/Sung Collaboration: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," Eve Featuring Gwen Stefani
Female Country Vocal Performance: "Shine," Dolly Parton
Male Country Vocal Performance: "O Death," Ralph Stanley, from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "The Lucky One," Alison Krauss + Union Station
Country Instrumental Performance: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Earl Scruggs, Glen Duncan, Randy Scruggs, Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Gary Scruggs, Albert Lee, Paul Shaffer, Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell
Country Song: "The Lucky One," Robert Lee Castleman (Alison Krauss + Union Station)
Country Album: Timeless--Hank Williams Tribute, Various Artists
Bluegrass Album: New Favorite, Alison Krauss + Union Station
Contemporary Jazz Album: M2, Marcus Miller
Jazz Vocal Album: The Calling, Dianne Reeves
Jazz Instrumental Solo: "Chan's Song," Michael Brecker
Jazz Instrumental Album: This Is What I Do, Sonny Rollins
Large Jazz Ensemble Album: Homage To Count Basie, Bob Mintzer Big Band
Latin Jazz Album: Nocturne, Charlie Haden
Rock Gospel Album: Solo, DC Talk
Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album: CeCe Winans, CeCe Winans
Southern, Country or Bluegrass Album: Bill & Gloria Gaither Present A Billy Graham Music Homecoming, Bill and Gloria Gaither and The Homecoming Friends
Traditional Soul Gospel Album: Spirit of the Century, The Blind Boys of Alabama
Contemporary Soul Gospel Album: The Experience, Yolanda Adams
Gospel Choir or Chorus Album: Love Is Live!, LFT Church Choir, Hezekiah Walker, choir director
Latin Pop Album: La Musica De Baldemar Huerta, Freddy Fender
Latin Rock/Alternative Album: Embrace the Chaos, Ozomatli
Traditional Tropical Latin Album: Dejame Entrar, Carlos Vives
Salsa Album: Encore, Robert Blades
Merengue Album: Yo Por Ti, Olga Tanon
Mexican/Mexican-American Album: En Vivo ... El Hombre y Su Musica, Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte
Tejano Album: Nadie Como Tu, Solido
Traditional Blues Album: Do You Get the Blues?, Jimmie Vaughan
Contemporary Blues Album: Nothing Personal, Delbert McClinton
Traditional Folk Album: Down From the Mountain, Various Artists
Contemporary Folk Album: Love and Theft, Bob Dylan
Native American Music Album: Bless the People--Harmonized Peyote Songs, Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike
Reggae Album: Halfway Tree, Damian Marley
World Music Album: Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000, Ravi Shankar
Polka Album: Gone Polka, Jimmy Sturr
Musical Album for Children: Elmo and the Orchestra, Sesame Street Characters
Spoken Word Album for Children: Mama Don't Allow, Tom Chapin
Spoken Word Album: Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones
Spoken Comedy Album: Napalm and Silly Putty, George Carlin
Musical Show Album: The Producers, Original Broadway Cast with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, lyricist and composer Mel Brooks
Compilation Soundtrack Album For a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Various Artists
Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composer Tan Dun
Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media: "Boss of Me," (They Might Be Giants from Malcolm in the Middle), songwriters They Might Be Giants
Instrumental Composition: "Cast Away (End Credits)," Alan Silvestri (Alan Silvestri)
Instrumental Arrangement: "Claude Debussy 'Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum' from Children's Corner," Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer (Bela Fleck with Joshua Bell and Gary Hoffmann)
Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s): "Drops of Jupiter," Paul Buckmaster (Train)
Recording Package: "Amnesiac (Special Limited Edition)" (Radiohead)
Boxed Recording Package: "Brain in a Box--The Science Fiction Collection," (Various Artists)
Album Notes: (tie) Richard Pryor ... And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992), (Richard Pryor); Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000 The Journey Of Chris Strachwitz, (Various Artists)
Historical Album: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, (Billie Holiday)
Engineered Album, Non-Classical: The Look of Love, (Diana Krall)
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical: T Bone Burnett
Remixed of the Year, Non-Classical: Deep Dish, "Thank You (Deep Dish Vocal Remix)" (Dido)
Engineered Album, Classical: Bernstein (Arr. Brohn & Corigliano): West Side Story Suite (Lonely Town; Make Our Garden Grow, Etc.) (Joshua Bell)
Producer Of The Year, Classical: Manfred Eicher
Classical Album: Berlioz: Les Troyens, James Mallinson, producer
Orchestral Performance: "Boulez Conducts Varese (Ameriques; Arcana; Deserts; Ionisation)," Pierre Boulez (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Opera Recording: "Berlioz: Les Troyens," Sir Colin Davis; Michelle De Young, Ben Heppner, Petra Lang, Peter Mattei, Stephen Milling, Sara Mingardo, Kenneth Tarver; James Mallinson, producer (Various Artists; London Sym. Orch.)
Choral Performance Award: "Bach: St. Matthew Passion," Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Arnold Schoenberg Chamber Orch. and Wiener Sangerknaben; Concentus Musicus Wien)
Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance: "Strauss Wind Concertos (Horn Concerto; Oboe Concerto, etc.)," Dale Clevenger, horn; Larry Combs, clarinet; Alex Klein, oboe; David McGill, bassoon; Daniel Barenboim, piano/conductor (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra): "Britten Cello Suites (1-3)," Truls Mork, cello
Chamber Music Performance: "Haydn: The Complete String Quartets," The Angeles String Quartet
Small Ensemble Performance (with or without Conductor): "After Mozart (Raskatov, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Etc.)," Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer, violin
Classical Vocal Performance: "Dreams & Fables--Gluck Italian Arias (Tremo Fra' Dubbi Miei; Di Questa Cetra in Seno, etc.)," Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo soprano
Classical Contemporary Composition: "Rouse: Concert De Gaudi for Guitar and Orch.," Christopher Rouse, composer
Classical Crossover Album: Perpetual Motion (Scarlatti, Bach, Debussy, Chopin, etc.) Bela Fleck, banjo (Joshua Bell, violin; Evelyn Glennie, marimba; Gary Hoffman, cello; Edgar Meyer, bass and piano; Chris Thile, mandolin; John Williams, guitar)
Short Form Music Video: "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim featuring Bootsy Collins
Long Form Music Video: "Recording the Producers--A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks," Mel Brooks (with Various Artists including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick)
New Age Album: A Day Without Rain, Enya