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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Is Diane Sawyer further honing in on the turf of Barbara Walters?
Probably, as the name game of ABC's venerable television magazine "20/20" continues.
USA Today reported Tuesday that head honchos over at ABC news are once again thinking of renaming the Wednesday's edition of 20/20 (it was changed from "PrimeTime" just last season to reflect the network's decision to consolidate all its news magazines under one unifying brand name) to "20/20/Primetime."
The name might change but the anchors will apparently remain the same. The future "20/20/Primetime" will continue to be hosted by Sawyer and Charles Gibson. But unlike its former "20/20" incarnation, it will air live (like "PrimeTime" once did) and feature correspondents Chris Wallace, Jay Schadler and John Quinones ... (all from "PrimeTime") and a distinctive editorial style that is more reminiscent of ... "PrimeTime."
TELEVISION AWARDS: The Alfred I. Du Pont-Columbia University Awards for excellence in television reporting were handed out Tuesday.
The top honor went to Bill Moyers' "Public Affaires Television" for its documentary on the post-apartheid South Africa. The Silver Batons were shared by Diane Sawyer's "20/20" report on unwanted children in Russia; Bob Simon's "60 Minutes II" report on the Serbs massacre in 1995; "Frontline's" story on the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda; and CNN's Candy Crowley for her coverage of the Clinton impeachment process.
FOX TALKS: Michael J. Fox came out of the woodwork on "Access Hollywood" on Tuesday to discuss his decision to leave "Spin City."
In the two-part interview (the second part will air today), Fox asserted that his current health condition hasn't deteriorated to the point where it prevents him from performing and that his exit is solely based on his preference to spend time on things other than acting.
"Certainly, it is a progressive disease, it doesn't get better," Fox told host Pat O'Brien. "But it hasn't debilitated me. So I thought, 'If that time comes, if it comes when my ability to do things is severely impaired more than it is now, if I'm in the middle of a show or a season, then I have no choices.'"
Fox continued, "So I wanted to make the choice while I could. It wasn't about taking a turn, I didn't suddenly take a turn, it wasn't like I hit a wall. I feel good and I'm happy and I have energy and there's stuff to do."
Fox went on to say that he supports ABC's decision, whether the network decides to continue "Spin City" or not, and will work with the show's producer to come up with the best way for his character's exit.
CAMEO: James Garner will come out of TV retirement to guest star on CBS's "Chicago Hope" this spring. Garner is slated to appear in the drama's last four episodes as a millionaire who takes over the hospital. The actor was last seen on the tube in "Rockford Files" 20 years ago.
WHAM, BAM: "The Sopranos" continues to make television history, as it became the most-watched original drama ever on cable with its season premiere Sunday night. The same episode is predicted to pull in a total of 11.5 million viewers for its four repeated airings this week on HBO.