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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I’ll admit it: I’m not a huge fan of the judges’ save. And that is coming from someone who named Jessica Sanchez’s incredible performance of “Stuttering” the best of Wednesday night. There’s something about a shocking elimination that makes for fantastic television — you immediately pick up your cell phones and computers and angrily text and type like the boyfriend you loved and trusted walked out on you without warning. (And, in a way, he did. Boy, this is how I’m beginning to think of Idol? They told me not to get this involved... )
But, with the judges’ save hovering over the entire competition on American Idol, it’s difficult to become truly invested in the competition from a week-to-week basis. Unless you’re, well, no one and are rooting for Erika Van Pelt, it’s safe to say your favorite front-runner is going to going to sail straight into the Top 5. Yes, our hearts fell when Michael Johns was cut after Top 8 night in Season 7. And, yes, we were all shocked and outraged when Jennifer Hudson was deemed by audiences less worthy than the crocodile rockin’ John Stevens. But last night, when Jessica was named the bottom vote-getter, I’m guessing America was as calm as Tommy Hilfiger seeing Phillip in a primary color.
Because we all knew what was about to happen: The judges only had one more week to use their save, and, unless Hollie was sent to go-lightly-away, J. Lo, Steven, and Randy were going to use it. And, lest you believe they had any plans otherwise, the Aerosmith rocker was sure to void the episode of any suspense whatsoever upon seeing the bottom three. “We’re going to use our card,” he told Ryan after seeing Jessica, Joshua, and Elise in the bottom three, as an angry Nigel Lythgoe growled, ran onstage, and tried to press Colton and Skylar’s faces together. So the second Jessica was named the lowest vote-getter, we all might as well have picked up our remotes and finally started watching Sunday’s Mad Men so we could stop running out of the room when friends and co-workers started talking about Joan and — la, la, la, la, la I can’t hear you!
Look, I’m ecstatic Jessica is sticking around at least another week. And, yes, I’m confused that the “contrived” Hollie (according to Jimmy… and myself) is still sticking around in the competition, no doubt thanks to a power-dialing bot named Tate. But what good TV we missed out on! Front-runner Jessica Sanchez, sent home with six weeks to go? That’s a water-cooler moment The Voice would envy. Instead, last night simply turned out to be the most predictable shocking evening in Idol history. (Right down to their annual Top 7 tradition that forces the competition’s nicest contestants to choose who he or she thinks is the top or bottom three. Ryan, we know exactly what’s going on, and it’s getting old.) And, sure, we can all be outraged to see that Jessica received the fewest votes, but it makes complete sense how she ended up there: Why would her fans pick up the phone to save her when they know she'd be saved by the judges?
In fact, I enjoyed the far less “suspenseful” moments of the show much more Thursday night. Colton’s adorable “strong maybe” response to the prom invitation. Ryan’s recognition that Colton has yet to receive a standing ovation while the contestant stood next to Joshua, who sees more standing ovations than Coke cans in CBS Television City. And James Durbin’s wedding story that featured Stefano Langone as the best man and Casey Abrams as the goofy late arrival, which is pretty much how I wrote it in the fan fiction screenplay I wrote during Season 10. That’s entertaining television. An annual Idol safety net? As much as I love Jessica and Casey Abrams (and tolerated Michael Lynche), with The Voice hot on its heels, it’s time that Idol start playing dangerously.
Were you shocked with the results? Or did you, like me, predict the judges’ save tonight? Who in the world does Hollie dazzle? Did you enjoy James Durbin? More importantly, did you enjoy James Durbin’s bleach-blonde hair? Do you wish you looked as good as Jennifer Hudson? (Hot damn, girl!) Do you love that this week is full of Idol callbacks? (Not only did we see James and Jennifer last night, but songs from Kellie Pickler and Kelly Clarkson were performed Wednesday night as well.) And were you surprised that when Elise received her mail, it wasn’t a brand-new copy of the heart-warming We Bought a Zoo, now on DVD?
Follow Kate on Twitter @HWKateWard
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