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
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.
This week on Dancing with the Stars was classical week, which meant the orchestra doubled in size and rock violinist David Garrett and mezzo-soprano, Katherine Jenkins performed, while the dancers and their celebrities continued to bear their midriffs and dress like mobsters and bobcats.
Romeo and Chelsie Hightower danced the Paso Doble, which is a notably aggressive dance. And since Romeo’s biggest challenge on the dance floor is embodying the character of the dance, Chelsie asked him when in his life he has been particularly tough. Romeo answered that whenever he plays basketball he becomes “a beast,” and Chelsie explained that his passion for shoving his crotch in dudes’ faces in the name of obtaining two points was exactly what she wanted to see come out of him when he danced this week. Their dance was very good, even though it ended with Romeo taking his shirt open blazer off and pouncing on Chelsie’s body that lay on the floor. Len Goodman told Romeo to have a bit more decorum, and that even though the dance was passionate and aggressive, he needed to work on his precision. The judges gave them 23 points.
Ralph Macchio and Karina Smirnoff danced the Waltz to the theme of Romeo and Juliet, and Karina went into practice knowing she had to work harder at making Ralph sexier and helping him lose what the judges refer to as his “spatula” hands. Their dance wasn’t outstanding, but the judges commended them for the dance’s believability. The judges gave them 25 points.
Petra Nemcova and Dmitri Chaplin were assigned the Paso Doble as well, and again, the aggression in the dance proved to be difficult for Petra to convey. So to help her, Dmitri arranged a photo shoot for her, where she could practice some Paso poses with mean faces and develop a character to bring out during the dance. Their dance was pretty fun to watch, even though Petra looked pretty rigid throughout it. The judges gave them 23 points.
Chris Jericho’s wrestling background meant he had very little trouble portraying the dominance of the Paso Doble. Although during rehearsals, Cheryl Burke criticized his tiny steps and the fact that his chest wasn’t far out enough because it made him not look masculine enough. Thankfully by dance time, Chris had grown a mustache and found his courage to whip Cheryl around the way he needed to. Len was correct in pointing out, however, that the music conquered their routine. The judges gave them 23 points.
Kendra Wilkinson and Louis van Amstel danced the Viennese Waltz to Conte Partiro. Louis explained their routine included three big tricks because he wanted to show the judges that Kendra was a really big contender. But upon hearing the song, Kendra said she was bored of these kinds of dances, but was only going to do a routine because the song reminded her of Al Capone, and she was excited to dress up like a guy in the mob. So clearly they’re equally dedicated to the competition. It was a bit sloppy, lacked elegance, and Kendra’s moves did not convey the heartbreak or lost love of the song. The judges gave them 18 points.
Hines Ward was assigned the Paso Doble this week, but was upset that he didn’t have as much time to practice as everyone else because he had several events to attend that week. As usual, their dance was great and Hines remains one of the male dancers in this season. The judges gave them 25 points.
Sugar Ray and Anna danced the Viennese Waltz, and Anna tried to prepare Sugar Ray for it by enrolling him in a ballet class. The dance didn’t require a lot from him, and there was no evidence that his dancing skills had improved since week one. The judges liked it anyway, because it was entertaining.
Kirstie Alley and Maks danced the Waltz, and they were determined to make it better than last week’s dance, where both of them fell to the floor. As they were rehearsing, Kirstie’s hip began giving her problems, but she remained determined to dance choreography that would be given to a 25 year-old. When it came time for their actual dance, Kirstie’s shoe fell off in the middle of the routine, and it’s confusing how in all 12 seasons of this show’s history (not including the British version or any other country’s version), she’s the only one to have experienced mishaps. The judges criticized her for not looking present throughout the choreography and gave her 22 points
Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas danced the Viennese Waltz TO THE THEME FROM HARRY POTTER. They both moved very well and the dance was very youthful, which Len didn’t appreciate because the dance is 300 years old and their job was to interpret it, rather than make fun of it. Carrie Ann and Bruno, however appreciated their energy, but I have to agree with Len in that very little of what they did was waltz. The judges liked it anyway and gave them 26 points.