This week's SNL kicked off with a spoof of NBC's live broadcast of The Sound of Music. This cold open was what the show does best. Featuring a reprisal of Kristen Wiig's creepy character Dooneese, it was enjoyably self-indulgent and cameo crazy (Fred Armisen even stopped by). Cast favorites Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam capitalized on their chemistry as Maria and Captain Von Trapp. Opening with a piece this strong is a no-brainer. This sketch gets two tiny thumbs up.
When actor Paul Rudd was slated to host with musical guest One Direction, it raised two questions: Will One Direction play a comedic role on SNL? And how will the upcoming release of Anchorman 2 influence the show? These questions were immediately answered with One Direction already on stage with Rudd for his opening monologue. Having a history of being upstaged by SNL's musical guests, Rudd wasn't going to let a boy band keep him down. Instead he unveils his man band, composed of Anchorman 2 costars Will Ferrell, David Koechner, and Steve Carell. This builds to Rudd, his man band and One Direction all killing it with a heavily harmonized rendition of the classic "Afternoon Delight." Are we crying tears of joy yet?
The first 10 minutes of SNL featured appearances from five comedic giants, not including the host. This felt like the start of the best episode yet, that is, until it wasn't. Such an exciting start created a gap between the opener/monologue and subsequent sketches that could not compete. Instead of setting the tone for a great show, SNL shot their wad. Rudd is amusing to watch do almost anything, but instead of capitalizing on this they relied on it to carry weaker sketches like one where Rudd plays a soon to be divorcee who can't escape his song. The sketch was one of the few to not be released online (you can find it on the full episode), but it had a lot of angry chair-dancing as the only joke. Rudd's charm was more effective in the sketches "Michelangelo Unveils David," and the movie trailer parody "White Christmas," the most well-written pieces of the night.
Weekend Update would have been a stronger point if it wasn't for the character "Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy" amounting to almost no comedic gain. The short segment affected the momentum but did not totally derail the Update desk. Jebediah Atkinson (Taran Killam) returned, a hilarious critic character from the 1800s who debuted three weeks ago, to rip apart seasonal Christmas classics ("Charlie Brown, there's a pube on your forehead!"). This character is so enjoyable it makes sense to bring him back, even when the original appearance had more topical context (a retraction from that week from a Penn. newspaper).
This week's SNL ultimately amounted to an above average episode that could've been amazing. With Wiig, Armisen, Ferrell, Koechner, and Carell, along with Rudd and an already excellent cast, this episode had so much to work with that was not fully realized. Even when the Anchorman gang returned for the "Bill Brasky" sketch, the piece only landed because the people performing are so inarguably hilarious. Without that there wasn't much beyond four to five for the same character performing side by side. Comedy is the most impressive when a lot is accomplished with very little, but unfortunately the week's SNL did the opposite. Still, the cameos and high points alone make this episode worth watching.
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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