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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If there's anyone who knows a thing or two about having to prove himself when the odds are stacked against him, it's Eli Manning. The two-time Super Bowl champ went in to last night's Saturday Night Live with the task of living up to great athlete hosts of SNL past, including his older brother Peyton Manning.
While Lil' Manning has always seemed like a sweet and approachable kind of fellow, Big Bro has been seen as the mainstream star thanks to his funny turns in commercials and, yes, SNL. Of course, if there's anything the New York Giants quarterback does best, it's defy expectations. (Just ask the New England Patriots.)
Kicking things off with a surprisingly funny cold open that poked fun at Fox & Friends and Rupert Murdoch (of course, anything in comparison to yet another bland Mitt Romney sketch seems downright hilarious) first-time host Eli soon took the stage of Studio 8H and looked poised to take New York City by storm...again.
The relaxed Manning performed a solid, though not particularly daring opening monologue about being a "real New Yorker," in which he suggested that tourists do things like see Cats on Broadway and go to New Jersey for some authentic Italian food at the Olive Garden. Which is completely ridiculous because all real New Yorkers know there's an Olive Garden in Times Square.
After a faux commercial for Amazon shopping on Mother's Day, which served as a horribly embarassing reminder to not get our moms a Kindle or Fifty Shades of Grey, Manning got his first real shot at showing off his comedic chops during the motion-capture Madden video game sketch. Taran Killam made a brief, but welcome return as Tim Tebow and Jay Pharoah shimmied into his Victor Cruuuuuuuz impression, but it was Eli who ran away with the whole thing playing himself. While SNL tapped into the aw-shucks quarterback's vanilla charms, that didn't make them any less funny. Case in point: Eli not being able to come up with a cool end zone dance and instead mimed drinking water, brushing flowing hair, hugging himself, nervously throwing a grenade, and the big winner, eating a sandwich. One can only hope that by next season Manning actually does some of these on the field. Check it out: Good guy Eli took the backseat for the next sketch in which he played a man on trial who was only truly guilty of mass sexting (a nice little jab at some of his NFL cohorts, eh?) and sketchy internet history searches. The football star easily kept up with the comedic pacing of the sketch and his faces for text message emoticons were the things gifs were made for. But it was his turn as the butt-kicking superhero for little brothers everywhere that followed that solidified his spot as one of this season's best and one of the best athlete hosts. Rivaling Peyton's classic United Way sketch, an ad for Eli's "Little Brothers" program, which consisted of the sports star helping younger brothers everywhere get revenge on their torturous older siblings ("I'm your worst f***ing nightmare," he warns one) was the surefire crowd-pleaser SNL has needed all season. Watch it below, and "learn to treat your brother with respect, Peyton": : Of course, Eli couldn't save the day all night. Manning played an Occupy Wall Street organizer in Bill Hader's rare misfire, the frequently used, but infrequently funny Herb Welch bit (sorry, but Drunk Uncle is the only crotchety voice of reason on SNL) and later as a guy trapped in a game show nightmare for the unnervingly outdated 'What Is This' sketch. (Women are clingy! Get it?!) Worst though came when Lil' Manning ignored our warning to NOT wear a dress for a sketch when he donned a gaudy yellow frock and a huge wig for an eye roll-worthy sketch about a drag competition. A drag, indeed. Still, they were the rare blips for an episode that was packed with highlights, including a short, but touching tribute to the late Adam Yauch. Much like how they paid tribute to Whitney Houston earlier this season, SNL paid their respects to The Beastie Boys member by showing a snippet of their visit to the show when they performed their classic "Sure Shot." Then there was the surprise cameos during Weekend Update from Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as General Aladeen, as well as Martin Scorsese as himself, being held hostage in order to talk about The Dictator. While Cohen's General Aladeen stunts felt dated by the time he dumped "ashes" on Ryan Seacrest at the Oscars, it's always fun to watch a legendary director poke fun at themselves and their work ("You think this is torture? I had to sit through Aviator") which SNL has done for the past two episodes, first with Steven Spielberg and last night with an equally game Scorsese. See it here: For whatever reason SNL opted not to use Rihanna for any sketches, despite her previous turn in the viral favorite "Shy Ronnie." Instead, the songstress sang two songs (or, as appearances would have it, lip-synched) during her turn as last night's musical guest. While there wasn't anything terribly memorable from Rihanna's performances of "Birthday Cake" or "Where Have You Been", aside from the pop star's enviable bod or those incredibly over-the-top set pieces, it was refreshing to see a musical guest who wasn't afraid to show how much fun they were having. Rihanna cracked smiles during both of her performances, which was more infectious than either of those songs. The latter half of the show, as is so often the case with SNL, took a turn for the weird with the polarizing Helga Lately sketch. Twitter seemed to be split straight down the middle with folks who found the Swedish version of E!'s Chelsea Lately inspired or grating (while Eli's Swedish football player and the idea of "Jersey Fjord" made me chuckle, I found myself leaning towards the latter.) The host ended the night on a high note, er, so to speak, with a Cheech & Chong sketch in which Eli played an "all-American wet blanket" who tries to put an end to the weed-smoking duo's fun. Don't worry Eli, the last thing you did last night was put an end to anyone's fun. In fact, viewers should have been awfully proud of you, baby bro. This one was a real winner. Do you agree that Eli Manning did a solid job as a surprisingly impressive host who was willing to poke fun at his gee-whiz persona? Or were you underwhelmed by him? What was your favorite part of the night? Least favorite? What did you think of Rihanna's performances? Was it all about Martin Scorsese for you or Kristen Wiig's take on the New Jersey tanning mom? Sound off in the comments section below! [Photo credit: NBC] More:
Watch Eli Manning's Saturday Night Live Promo: 'He's Like a Tree!'
Rihanna Channels Wild Things in 'Where Have You Been' Video
Mick Jagger To Host SNL Season Finale: Predicting the Sketches
SNL Eli Manning
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.