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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On Wednesday, CBS announced the names of the next set of contestants confined to Nuka Hiva, an island neighboring Tahiti in the South Pacific, for the next installment of Survivor.
The new group is, on average, the youngest thus far. Of the 16 contestants vying for the $1 million jackpot, all but four are under the age of 40, and six are in their twenties.
Two of the contestants, Robert DeCanio, a limo-driver from Queens, and Sean Rector, a Harlem-born schoolteacher, were introduced on yesterday's Early Show with Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson.
DeCanio, 38, was born and raised in Flushing and worked for the U.S. Postal Service before becoming a driver. Rector, 30, now lives in Los Angeles and acts as well as teaches. Rector has appeared in the Negro Ensembles Company's North 17th Street, The Absolution of Willie Mae and A Family Ever on the Verge of Emotion.
Other contestants include:
Gabriel Cade, 23, a bartender from North Carolina
John Carroll, 36, a nurse from Nebraska
Gina Crews, 28, a nature guide from Florida
Neleh Dennis, 21, a student from Utah
Hunter Ellis, 33, a pilot from California
Paschal English, 57, a judge from Georgia
Peter Harkey, 45, a bowling alley and wine shop owner from Massachusetts
Patricia Jackson, 49, a truck assembler from South Carolina
Sarah Jones, 24, an accounts manager from California
Tammy Leitner, 29, a reporter from Arizona
Rob Mariano, 26, a construction worker from Massachusetts
Vecepia "Vee" Towery, 36, an office manager from Oregon
Kathy Vavrick-O'Brien, 47, a real estate agent from Vermont
Zoe Zanidakis, 35, a fishing boat captain from Maine
The eight women and eight men will start the game in two tribes, called Maraamu and Rotu. The setting is similar to the original Survivor, which took place on Borneo with a tropical climate, white sandy beaches and aquamarine water.
The show's producers are trying to bring back the legions of loyal of fans that ditched the tribe after the first season. For the first time in the show's history, the contestants will begin the 40-day adventure with no rations.
Survivor: Marquesas premieres on Feb. 28.
In other Survivor news, Lex van den Berghe will make his first celebrity appearance since appearing on Survivor: Africa--at a polling booth.
Van den Berghe, one of the last three remaining players on the most recent edition of Survivor, will man one of the polling stations in California's Santa Cruz County in the state's upcoming election, Reuters reports.
Election officials however will not reveal where van den Berghe, a local resident, will be. Like all poll clerks, he will be responsible for issuing ballots to eligible voters and assisting them--and get paid $60 for his time.
Meanwhile, original Survivor winner Richard Hatch was found innocent on Tuesday of assaulting his ex-boyfriend in a ruling that overturns an earlier conviction.
Hatch won the $1 million grand prize on the inaugural edition of Survivor. In September, a judge found the 40-year-old Hatch guilty of domestic assault after he got into a fight with his former lover on the steps of Hatch's home in Middletown, R.I.