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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Finally, some good news. Richard Engel, NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent, and two of his production team members — cameraman John Kooistra and producer Ghazi Balkiz — were freed from their abductors in Syria on Monday after being held in captivity for five days. The team was abducted on Thursday, and NBC did not hear from them until Monday, when the team was discovered in the back of a captors' van at a Syrian rebel checkpoint. Tuesday morning the freed crew conducted a special interview from Antakya, Turkey with the Today show to disclose the details of their capture, which included psychological torture. "It is good to be here,” Engel said. “I’m very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning.”
The capture occurred when Engel and his crew were traveling with Syrian rebels from Turkey to Northeast Syria. 15 armed men jumped from a bush and grabbed them, and one of the escorted rebels was killed on the spot. During their captivity, the three men were psychologically tortured, as their captors pretended to execute the other men while they were blindfolded and tied up. "We weren't physically beaten or tortured," Engel said. "[But] it was a lot of psychological torture — threats of being killed."
So who were Engel's captors? Engel believes that they were loyalists to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and possibly members of the "Shabiha" militia (the militia is "trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and allied with Lebanon-based group Hezbollah," according to NBC News). It is believed that the loyalists planned to use Engel's group as a negotiation tool to get the rebels to free some of their captives.
Luckily, on Monday, Engel's captors' plans went awry when they were caught at a Syrian rebel checkpoint, trying to move the NBC crew. At the checkpoint, a gunfight occurred — two of the captors were killed, and an uncounted number of them escaped.
Engel, Kooistra, and Balkiz were not physically harmed by the incident. As of Tuesday morning, they remain in Turkey.
Watch the crew's interview with Today below:
Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy
Follow Lindsey on Twitter @LDiMat.
[Photo Credit: NBC NEWS/AP Photo]
'The Voice' Recap: The Final Countdown, Plus a Touching Sandy Hook Tribute
'How I Met Your Mother' Recap: BIG TWIST... That We Already Knew About
OMG! Gossip Girl Is...
From Our Partners:
’Jack Reacher’: The Beginner’s Guide To The New Tom Cruise Movie
25 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Aladdin’ (Moviefone)