Much is riding on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire when it hits theaters on November 22. All signs are pointing towards a sure-fire hit. Estimates project a weekend box office of $175 million domestically. But is incoming director Francis Lawrence able to please fans and a wider audience after Gary Ross’ excellent Hunger Games?

The answer, in short, is yes. The story follows Katniss as she embarks on the Victory Tour where she notices signs of a rebellion slowing taking shape. After President Show requests she help calm the Districts down, our hero learns that she and Peeta will be heading back into the Games for the Quarter Quell where they’ll face off against other “all-experienced killers.”

If you ask readers how they would rank The Hunger Games book trilogy, the vast majority who we talk to say the first was best, the second was second best, and third was the worst. That must be a daunting fact for producer Nina Jacobsen and Francis Lawrence who will be carrying the four-part film series to the end. They’ll have to keep the story interesting and clean up mistakes that Collins made in her books. Namely, the pacing of the story and the messiness of Mockingjay’s final battle.

Fans and the producers can rest easy until next year, at least. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a leaner, meaner version of its source material.

catching-fire-full-page-katniss-caesar

Leaner: Numerous chapters in the book are not in the movie. Like in The Hunger Games, Madge is completely absent from Catching Fire. Darius, Maysilee, Bonnie, and Twill are gone too. It’s only at the very end that Katniss learns of District 13’s existence. Specifically, chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the book are completely removed. Most of chapter 12 is out except for the very end where we see the Quarter Quell announcement.

Instead of this (arguably) slow area of the book, we jump straight from Gale’s whipping to his recovery and then the Quarter Quell announcement. Another example of a cut: There’s no scene where Katniss and Peeta watch Haymitch’s Games.

Meaner: In some areas, the film’s story is more gruesome than what you see in the book. A pre-Games scene depicts Peacekeepers entering District 12 and causing havoc for no apparent reason. This leads Gale to attack one of the Peacekeepers which is why he gets whipped (in the book, he gets whippings for poaching). In addition, Katniss’ goodbye to District 12 is very dramatic in the film whereas in the book she departs without making any commotion. Scenes like these emphasize the danger of the Capitol. During the presentation to the Gamemakers, Katniss actually sees Peeta’s painting of Rue (in the book she does not), which appears to set her off and inspire the hanging of Seneca Crane.

By making the story leaner and meaner, the story becomes a Hollywood epic. Clocking in at 2 hours and 26 minutes, we were actually surprised by how fast the story moves when you consider that it’s one of the longest movies you’ll see this year.

Acting with the heat turned up

Havensbee and Haymitch in 'Catching Fire' Catching Fire’s quick pace can be credited to the aforementioned plot cuts as well as stellar acting from a wide variety of cast members. The two standout roles in this film are from returning stars: Stanley Tucci who plays Caesar Flickerman and Woody Harrelson who plays Haymitch Abernathy. The two bring unique performances that make you think about how lucky producers were to snag both of these stars in the first place. Tucci in particular seems to have brought his portrayal of the tribute interviewer to a new level. His timing, dialogue, passion, and body language deliver some of the most pleasing acting you’ll see in the entire film. Meanwhile, Harrelson uses Haymitch’s drunkenness to bring comic relief into moments where you may least expect it even though his reason for drinking is quite depressing.

All around, the cast is stellar. Donald Sutherland’s President Snow has a cool temper as he winds down the Districts and gets into Katniss’ head. New roles have equally excellent actors. Sam Claflin’s Finnick surprised us with his charm and smooth attitude. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee matches the stern and professional atmosphere Snow brings. Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason is exactly as she reads in the books.

The roles of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale have been brought to a new level thanks to the darker story and a second opportunity for stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth to portray their characters. Lawrence in particular has become completely engulfed in Katniss and belts out raw emotion during several scenes like the attack by the peacekeepers on Cinna.

Line-by-line, a loyal transformation

Several lines that you hear in the movie are word-for-word what you’ll find in the book if you go back and compare like we did after watching.

Cinna in 'Catching Fire'Examples of Collins’ words being brought to the screenplay:
– Gale after kissing Katniss: “I had to do that. At least once.”
– Haymitch to Katniss about Peeta: “You can live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him, you know.”
– Katniss to Finnick: “I don’t like jewels and I have more money than I need,” and Finnick’s “I haven’t dealt in anything as common as money for years.”
– Cinna: “I just want you to look straight ahead, as if the entire audience is beneath your notice,” and Katniss’ “Finally something I’ll be good at.”
– Johanna: “Make him pay for it” to Katniss in regards to making her wear the wedding dress.
– Cinna to Katniss: “Remember Girl on Fire, I’m still betting on you.”

If things weren’t word for word, the transfer of scenes from book to screen worked in most cases. For example, Effie drives hard the “team” theme between her, Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch as seen in the books and you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of their group. Another example: Plutarch and Katniss have a talk at the Capitol party, but the Gamemakers’ watch with the mockingjay is not seen. Instead, he drops a verbal hint to Katniss about where his loyalties lie. For a wider audience it may be a better hint and less confusing than a glimpse at his watch.

Additions to the film further enhance Catching Fire in unexpected ways. Effie makes a reference to mahogany which isn’t found in the book but will please fans who loved the line in the first book and movie. President Snow’s granddaughter is introduced and she takes a liking to Katniss which naturally must enrage the Capitol leader. And in one of the funniest moments in the movie, Haymitch is present while Johanna strips in front of Katniss and Peeta in the elevator (in the book, the mentor is not there). While the boys ogle at what’s happening right before them, Jennifer Lawrence offers perhaps one of her most JLaw-esque reaction faces that you’ve come to love her for on red carpets.

A whole new world thanks to IMAX

Our Catching Fire screening took place in an IMAX theater. The Games were shot using IMAX cameras, and as soon as the tournament starts, the screen in your IMAX theater will open to reveal a taller picture. This unique feature lends itself to the scope of the jungle and the gorgeous beach (Hawaii). You really feel like you’ve entered the jungle with Katniss and company. When the Games end, the screen shrinks back down to “normal” size and it’s almost jarring after getting accustomed to the larger view.

A sense of ‘Mockingjay, Part 0’

The final shot in 'Catching Fire'We think there’s an issue with how this film plays into the four-part series on a whole. The climax arrives at the same time as it does in the book when Katniss shoots the arrow at the forcefield and breaks down the system (By the way, Finnick feeds her the “Remember who the enemy is” line. She hears it earlier from Haymitch, but she needs a reminder from someone else.).

The end of the story moves at a pace that is quicker than what you’ll find in the book, and it’s because of this faster rate of motion that we were left feeling like Catching Fire is one big introduction to Mockingjay.

Why is this a problem? Mockingjay is being split into two movies, and by the end of this series we’re going to have essentially two prequels to the grand Mockingjay, Part 2 finale. To us, it felt like the story needed a bigger climax and some resolution so that we’re not left hanging for two movies in a row.

We are not letting this affect our overall impression of the film because it’s loyal to the original story. Put simply: The sudden ending of the Games and then the cut to black a few minutes later – coupled with how quick this film moves – made us crave more.

Conclusion

It’s not easy for a film franchise to keep the momentum going from one film to the next. We can say with confidence that Francis Lawrence has pulled off an amazingly worthy follow-up to The Hunger Games. The 20-month wait between the two films is made worth it thanks to the speed, action, dialogue, and acting you’ll encounter while diving deeper into a rebellion with Katniss. All we can do now is be happy that we only have a 12-month wait between the remaining two films.

Grade: A-

The good: Fast-paced storytelling, dialogue fans will eat up, and beautiful visuals thanks to better special effects when compared to The Hunger Games.

The bad: Little sense of resolution, some romantic moments that only YA-lit lovers will appreciate.

Rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens in theaters on November 22, 2013. Purchase your tickets now!

Look forward to our exclusive interview with Jeffrey Wright (Beetee) next week.

It. Is. Here. The long-awaited first trailer for Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast starring Dan Stevens and Emma Watson is available to watch now!

Disney invites us to be their guest in this first tantalizing teaser for Beauty and the Beast, one of the most highly anticipated live-action remakes on their slate:

Anticipation has been high for Disney’s live-action retelling of their animated classic, and by all accounts the trailer suggests that the new Beauty and the Beast, hitting theaters in 2017, won’t disappoint.

The trailer does a lot to up the excitement factor, playing on our existing knowledge of the classic story, and teasing the arrival of Emma Watson’s Belle (damn you Disney, you know what we want!).

It opens with the castle (very Hogwarts-looking, no?), as we see iconic imagery from the Disney movie. We hear the voices of Ian McKellen and Ewan McGregor (Cogsworth and Lumiere), see the portrait of the prince, and finally, the rose — and Belle, barely visible, watching it in nervous anticipation. It looks like it still has all its petals, so we’d guess that this might be the first time she sees it.

We imagine the full reveal of Belle in the dress will be huge — we’ll keep you posted, as we’re sure that bombshell is dropping soon.

Beauty and the Beast opens March 2017 and stars Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Luke Evans as Gaston, Josh Gad as LeFou, Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, Kevin Kline as Maurice, Audra McDonald as the Wardrobe, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, and Sir Ian McKellen as Cogsworth.

What did you think about our first look at the Beauty and the Beast live-action movie? Did it live up to your expectations?! Or was there just not enough Belle? Share your thoughts in the comments!

‘Adventures of Supergirl’ #9: The Facet mystery deepens

And Kara hates mysteries.

2:00 pm EDT, May 22, 2016

Adventures of Supergirl #9 gives us our first look at Facet but inspires more questions than gives answers.

Adventures of Supergirl #9 keeps its creative team and picks up where the previous issue left off, with Kara and Alex underground and facing off against bots from Fort Rozz. While the sisters fight off attacks, Kara muses about hating mysteries. She reflects that Clark likes them because they taught him to reveal the hidden truths about others while Kara doesn’t like them because she wants things — and people — to be straightforward.

The mystery is, of course, who is behind everything that has led Kara to this moment. The mastermind? Facet. While Kara and Alex are fighting, Alex is grabbed to serve as bait, bringing Kara face to face with Facet. Though Facet speaks a language Kara doesn’t understand, she does recognize Facet’s uniform as belonging to a guard on Fort Rozz.

Adventures of Supergirl #9 page 1

Kara attacks Facet but breaks her hand. Uh oh. She tries to use her heat vision, but Facet deflects it. Kara is overwhelmed by Facet’s counterattacks, and Facet has the bots grab Kara. When Facet removes her mask, she reveals a reflective silver face and says she wants to begin Kara’s training to make her Krypton’s finest, like Facet herself. Facet tells Kara to ask her mother about her, but the conversation is interrupted when Alex sets off an explosion.

In the chaos, Kara grabs Alex and flees. They reach the surface, mostly still in tact, and Kara says they should go speak to Alura, so I assume she’s going to speak to the Alura AI at the DEO. The mystery that Kara hates has come around to not only encompass Facet but also her mother, which frustrates Kara to no end.

A good portion of this issue is action, as Kara and Alex fight the Fort Rozz robots and Kara faces off against Facet. Both Kara and Alex are left the worse for wear after the encounter. While we know there won’t be anything too serious happening to our main characters since the comic ties into the television series, the action sequences were still quite engaging, particularly in terms of the art.

Adventures of Supergirl #9 page 2

As with the previous issue, we see a fair amount of Kryptonian as the Fort Rozz robots and Facet speak. However, Facet also speaks a language that Kara didn’t recognize that was represented by squiggly lines. This only enhances Kara’s frustration with the mystery that underlies the entire issue — and the comic as a whole, as we learn that everything ties together after all.

With four issues left, I assume Kara will get some answers from the Alura AI about Facet. This new villain tying into the life of Alura makes a lot of sense considering the television series spent quite a lot of time exploring the consequences of Alura’s actions on Krypton. As her daughter, Kara has had to face many who held grudges against Alura for sentencing them to Fort Rozz so thematically, this issue of Adventures of Supergirl ties in nicely with the series in that way.

Reading Adventures of Supergirl every other week is like catching up with a good friend you only see every now and then — especially now that Supergirl is on break for the summer. I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here and finding out just who Facet is and why she’s taken such an interest in Kara.

Adventures of Supergirl #10 will be released on Monday, May 30.

Fred Armisen hosted the season 41 finale of SNL with musical guest Courtney Barnett. He also brought along a couple of familiar friends as well.

SNL kicked off its season finale with a bang using Kate McKinnon and Larry David as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In what was maybe the best cold open of the season, Hillary and Bernie bickered back and forth about Hillary’s insurmountable delegate lead in the Democratic primary race. The sketch was particularly enjoyable as the two of them danced through the halls of Studio 8H before throwing to the credits with the entire cast.

Fred Armisen’s opening monologue was also one of the best opening monologues of the season. Fred performed a part of his fictional one-man show, and exaggerated just about every single thing you could imagine. The monologue was not only hilarious but one of the most unique monologues ever given on SNL.

The first sketch of the night featured a couple of breaks of character as Cecily Strong, Fred Armisen and Kyle Mooney played Native American explorers who take things a little bit too far.

To the delight of the audience, SNL brought back a Digital Sketch with none other than Andy Samberg himself. Samberg is set to star in the new movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

Maya Rudolph, who has an upcoming variety show with Martin Short, stopped by Weekend Update to play the recent ousted President of Brazil. Maya can do no wrong, and this sketch was yet another example of her many hilarious accents.

The funniest sketch of the night had to go to Fred Armisen’s character Regine. Regine and her boyfriend played by SNL alum Jason Sudeikis are outlandish, rude and inconsiderate: the perfect recipe for tons of character breaks. This is a must-see sketch!

SNL will return for its 42nd season this fall. There is no word yet as of which cast members may be leaving the show. Details around casting usually happens throughout the summer months as the show gears up for its fall premiere.

What did you think of Fred Armisen hosting SNL?