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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“We’ve got a competition!” –Randy
S10E18: Well, I hate to be a contrarian right out of the gate, but while the judges were all abuzz about how great the Idol competition is and how fantastic everyone was, I can’t help but disagree. I truly think that these contestants – as a group – have taken a few steps backwards. I remember just a few weeks ago, we were all talking about amazing everyone was and wondering how the hell we would choose between them and while the unique qualities that made us fall in love with a lot of them are still there, they seem to be struggling under the pressure. Granted, they are pushing themselves out of their comfort zones and that’s not easy and a few folks have begun to stand out in the midst of all these fumbles, but after last night most of the contestants really need to bank on the strength of their previous performances to sway Idol voters.
Another issue is that the folks had to choose songs from the years of their births and I suspect many of them felt detached from the songs they were crooning.(Also, are you ready to feel old, because even this late 80s baby was feeling like an old lady when I found out when these folks were born. Casey Abrams was born in 1991! Thia was born in 1993! Mind blown.)
Here are the top 12 from loved-it to pull-that-sucker-off-the-stage-with-an-old-timey-cane.
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Simply Red
What?! Your eyes are not deceiving you. Not only is Casey not my number one, but the kid I said should have been booted over my beloved Robbie Rosen is suddenly the best of the bunch? No, I’m not on some weird substance that’s forcing me to see things upside down. Stefano is just blowing the competition out of the water. He’s still not my favorite overall, but I can’t ignore the fact that he rocked it last night.
Simon Says: I’ve got nothing bad to say about that.
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” by Whitney Houston
Now, I know a lot of folks are going to disagree with me on this one, but I think Haley was fantastic. I understand what Jennifer said about her learning to move her body more organically, but at heart this is a singing competition and this girl can sing. What I love about her is that she’s got that young girl/major voice dynamic going, but instead of using it to sing boring, cheesy standards like youngins before her (Katie Stevens, anyone?) she’s learned to play with it and use it in unexpected places. And this Whitney Houston song is not an easy one to take on, but not only did she rock it, it felt very Haley instead of just another cover on the shiny stage.
Simon Says: We’ve said this week in and week out. You are very young and it shows in your performances, but I like you.
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” by Whitney Houston
There was a whole lotta Whitney going on last night, but she kind of ruled that early 90s sweet spot when most of these folks were born so it makes sense. Pia finally broke out of her ballad box and gave as an upbeat song for once and while she didn’t do great with the upbeat songs during the audition process, it seems that she’s kept her fire going this time. She wasn’t as mind-blowing as she was on the first night of the competition, but it’s obvious that she belongs here and that she’ll be on that stage for a good long while.
Simon Says: It wasn’t your best performance. It’s obvious that you are a ballad singer, but I like that you tried this.
“I’m The Only One” by Melissa Etheridge
Again, I know I’ll have quite a few people on the other side of the fence with this one, but let me remind you Lauren had the flu and got up there and delivered one of my favorite performances I’ve seen her do thus far. Sure, she had a few vocal missteps (phlegm is killer when you’re sick and trying to perform), but what the flu forced her to do was to push herself in ways she wasn’t before. Yes, she’s got a great voice. Yes, she’s a natural born performer. But she wasn’t stoking the fire and with this little ailment, she’s forced to push herself and I think the result was fantastic.
Simon Says: It was alright. Yes, you’re sick but look, that happens and you have to work through it and you did, but it wasn’t your best performance vocally.
“Can I Trust You With My Heart” by Travis Tritt
Oh Scotty. He’s so good at what he does and this time was no different, but the problem is that “what he does” is the same thing every week. While other contestants are stretching themselves and trying on new genres and keeping it interesting, Scotty’s playing the same well-oiled note. He did try to change up his range this time around, which I appreciate, but it’s starting to feel a little monotonous for this competition. I have no doubt he’d do great on his own as a country singer, but here, it’s not universal enough.
Simon Says: You’re perfect for country music, but for this competition it’s getting a little stale.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
I know, Casey is so low on this list, but there is not something wrong with my head. I still adore the guy, I just think that this particular performance wasn’t quite at the same level as his others. On the up side, I like that he brought NIRVANA TO AMERICAN IDOL. That’s ballsy and I love it. I also love that he brought a bass onstage to perform said Nirvana song. I even like that he got really angry and raucous when he performed the song – you CANNOT croon “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and he gets that. I did think that he was a little to screamy (or "screamy-screetchy" as Jennifer said) and while the song definitely takes some serious ire to do it right, even Kurt Cobain kept control over his voice to evoke the right emotions instead of simply yelling. (Still love Casey though.)
Simon Says: I didn’t like it. You tried to be different and I appreciate it, but it just wasn’t likable.
“Alone” by Heart
This one is also going to anger some folks. Look, I like Jacob, I do. He’s talented and he can sing for days, but I don’t like him for pop music. I like him for Luther Vandross style ballads, but in other genres his voice seems out of place and with this Heart cover, that was the case. He seemed to feel a bit out place as well, evidenced by his vocal missteps in the middle.
Simon Says: You’re talented but it wasn’t great.
“I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues” by Elton John
Apparently Paul was sick too. Still, this performance was just a little wonky for my tastes. The good thing is that Paul’s style of performance is so reliant on his style and unique voice that it was still enjoyable to watch. I just hope voters love him as much as I do and he sticks around for a while.
Simon Says: I know you’re sick, but it just wasn’t there for me.
“I’ll Be There for You” by Bon Jovi
James is really starting to prove me right here. Yes, he’s got super stage presence. Yes, he can hit crazy high notes. But is the rest of his performance enjoyable? Not really. He really belongs as the front man of an 80s hair band. Unfortunately for him, the hair band craze died long before he started hitting those ear-piercing notes. I’m not really sure where to place him in the music world as we know it.
Simon Says: It was rather unpleasant.
“Colors of the Wind” by Vanessa Williams
Rule numero uno of American Idol: if a ballad was used in the end credits of a Disney movie, DON’T DO IT. I happen to love that Disney movie (Pocahontas) and I happened to perform that song in elementary school, but the only reason my parents were clapping is because they love me. The song is a total snooze. Thia has a really great voice, but her boring song choices are keeping it in a box and killing her chances. Where did jazzy, awesome Thia go?
Simon Says: I’m going to be honest. It was absolutely boring. I could not keep my eyes open.
“Love Will Lead You Back” by Taylor Dayne
Yes, Karen did better than she did last week. BUT LAST WEEK WAS TERRIBLE. This small victory means very little. The judges were all abuzz about how she’s "back," but they were just being nice. She’s like a lost little sheep in shiny clothing and a bun that would make Carrie Bradshaw jealous; she just doesn’t belong up there.
Simon Says: You have improved, but it’s not enough.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner
Why? Why does she insist on throwing vocals to the wind? This is a SINGING competition, you have to SING well and it’s like she’s forgotten how to do that. Sure she’s having fun, but I have fun when I get up in front of my friends and drunkenly try to sing Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” while promptly forgetting half of the words (this is actually on tape, sadly) but I’m not one of 12 finalists in a singing competition. There is a really great voice in there somewhere; Naima needs to step it up or go home.
Simon Says: What happened to you? Absolutely dreadful.