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.
S2E6: The battle rounds picked right up where they had left off on The Voice; we find fierce competition and tough calls for coaches Adam, Christina, Cee Lo and Blake. It was a night of conflicting personalities and styles as a shy siren competed against a wild Jersey girl, and a gritty rocker went head to head with a folky, mellow performer. We also saw the two 50 year-olds get their first taste of single elimination. It was a solid show from start to finish, one that closed with some tears of joy for Jamar, an HIV positive contestant on a road to redemption. The teams for the live rounds are starting to fill up rapidly, so let’s get it on!
Emotion Vs. Power
“I tell you how I’m gonna choose it, whichever one of these two singers turns me on the most.” – Blake
Hold your horses, Blake; this was Christina’s choice for her team when Sera Hill faced off against 51-year-old Geoff McBride. Sera brought her flare for the dramatic and Geoff brought his strong vocal prowess. Lionel Richie had almost no critiques and literally had to jump up from his seat after hearing Geoff, while Jewel predicted that volume only goes so far. She told Sera to feel it. Even with the better voice, Geoff was out of his element with Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” and Christina took notice. Sera may have won the battle but rest assured the world will hear Geoff again.
Sera Wins! Meek Vs. Mouthy “I want to beat Lex so badly, I want to destroy her.” – Charlotte Tell us how you really feel. Up next, Charlotte Sometimes, the always outspoken Jersey girl, took on Lex Land, the shy introvert with a sultry, smoky sound. The two handled a new song, “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People. Who knew Blake - of all people - loved this song? While Lex was blushing, Charlotte was commenting on her boobs. Talk about opposite personalities. Kelly Clarkson saw Charlotte’s blind audition and said she is a fan of her fluttery tones, while Blake was concerned the young girl who battled a disintegrating jaw disease would try and entertain too much. In the end, we saw the first real “battle” as the two girls had aggression written all over their faces toward the end of the song, and Carson had to jump in to break up the melodic malay. Blake chose the gregarious Charlotte to move on. Charlotte Wins! Yodel Vs. Gravel “Sarah, you’re great but I’m not sure whether this song did your voice justice.” – Christina Yin and Yang was epitomized in our next battle. Folkie Sarah Golden couldn’t have been matched up against a more different opponent in raspy rocker Juliet Simms. It might have been a bit unfair that Cee Lo chose Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me” as their battle song, a tune tailor-made for Simms. Ne-Yo had some choice words for Juliet, telling her to save her raspy scream for later in the song to keep it special. Sarah on the other hand, was overshadowed from the start of the song and Cee Lo kept the rocker Juliet, who rinses her mouth out with Listerine and gravel. Juliet Wins! Youth Vs. Experience “Kim and I, we’re both quote on quote powerhouse singers although she definitely her house is bigger than my house” – Whitney “Whitney, you’re like my little sis, but it’s on and crackin’.” – Kim Earlier in the night, we saw one 50-year-old sent home, could all the elderly be gone from The Voice? Not so fast, as Kim Yarbrough was tasked with singing “No More Drama” against Whitney Myer. Alanis Morissette, a legendary powerhouse in her own right, warned Whitney against trying to overpower Kim but just hold her words longer. Robin Thicke wanted Kim to relate to and feel the pain in Mary J. Blige’s words. This was a great battle from the start, and went back and forth the entire time. It left Blake flabbergasted, all he could say was “that was awesome!” Blake picked Carson, but the vote that counted, Adam’s, went to Kim, who is not letting age stand n the way of her dreams. Kim Wins! Bizarre Vs. The Baker “I’m not quite ready to go back to the bakery.” – Lee It was an alternative battle that would have Kurt Cobain smiling as Lindsey Pavao faced Lee Koch by singing “Heart Shaped Box.” Lee was immediately at a disadvantage not knowing the words while Lindsey relished in the Nirvana song, one of her favorites. Even so, Lee actually came out smooth and this creepy, eerie battle was one for the books as it almost felt like a Cobain tribute with soft, saturnine sounds. It was over though when Christina gave Adam a knowing look during Lindsey’s verse that almost evinced a “She’s going all the way” feeling from Aguilera. Cee Lo compared Lee to Jesus but the big shock was Blake had never heard this song! Come on man! Christina was pleasantly surprised by Lee but still went with Lindsey. No fret, Lee said he is taking the family on tour and not going back to baking.
Lindsey Wins! Friend Vs. Frenemy “You Jamar, you owned it, you owned that whole stage.” – Adam The best story of the show Jamar Rogers, the former drug addict living with HIV, came next against his close friend Jamie Lono and this was probably the most lopsided battle of the night. Jamar had it from the start. The two sang “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner and Jamie almost lost it during rehearsal, his voice cracking twice. The song was all about emotion and Ne-Yo told Jamar to simply harness that raw energy and use it in a constructive way on battle night. It was tough for both competitors, good friends, who both sang their hearts out and bear hugged at the song’s conclusion. Cee picked Jamar but the emotion after could be felt for miles. Jamie, a true friend, said maybe his purpose on the show was to propel Jamar forward. Maybe indeed!
Jamar Wins! Yet another classic show from The Voice, the show quickly shaping up to be the best and take over for all other singing competitions. American Idol really has a formidable opponent in this show and better look because The Voice is nipping, if not gnawing, on its heels. Next week, we move one step closer to the live rounds and unfortunately will have to say goodbye to a few more contestants. Is it Monday yet? Who would have ever expected that question of excitement? Let us know what you thought. Did you think the right people won? Did you tear up after the last performance? Who do you think will win it all? Hit us up in the comments section below, or on Twitter @TheRealRothman.