Knee-jerk review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

1. It'd be interesting to see some kind of study about what impact, if any, Katniss Everdeen has had on archery lessons among tween girls.
2. This sequel is much better than the first film.  This is due in part to the bigger scope and budget.  No more cheesy special effects from the late night SyFy movie-of-the-week bargain bin, not for a multi-million dollar tent-pole franchise.
3. But there's also a stronger emotional undercurrent to the story, whether it's Katniss dealing with a kind of PTSD from her experiences in the Games in the first movie or simply watching her evolve from a disinterested figurehead to a determined rebel leader.
4. Yes, we're one of those people who's read all of the books.  We liked the last book, Mockingjay, the least.  And the filmmakers are turning that one into two movies.  We'll see how that works out.  (The first book is the best one.)
5. We've seen Battle Royale.  It's worth a look if you're into this kind of dystopian story.  Similar plots, but it's got an entirely different tone than the Hunger Games stories.
6. All of this is fairly ridiculous, but the cast sells you.  They are fully committed.  How can you go wrong with Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Geoffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci?  That's a rhetorical question, people.
7. "Tick tock."
8. We really can't get behind the Gale-vs-Peeta thing.  Why is this such a torturous decision?  Gale just seems like a meathead.  The fact that we're even talking about this shows how this movie lays bare a Twilight-style romantic triangle and betrays the story's young-adult, female-skewing roots.
9. Donald Sutherland certainly seems to be having a good time.
10. The movie is way over the top with its depiction of the gap between the haves and have-nots, but there are certain similarities between Panem of the future and America of the present.
11. Brilliant name for the Capital's violent, brutal shock troops: Peacekeepers.
12. We're going to have to find a way to work the three-fingered salute into our everyday life.
13. The ending is rather abrupt, but it's very faithful to the book and clearly sets up Katniss as a jaded, determined hero who will spend the next two movies kicking ass and taking names.
14. And, oh yeah, Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star with real acting chops.  We'll be talking about her for years to come.  How can you not like her?  She's like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock.  But maybe with more range than them.


"Come on down, you're the next game theorist to play..."

This is the kind of OCD-driven exploration of meaningless pop culture that the Cheese Fry can get behind.  Ben Blatt at Slate.com recently created a detailed examination of how to use game theory to better contestant odds on "The Price is Right."

If you're a fan of the show, you simply have to take a look at the level of detail Blatt put into this thing.  He's not only offering broad strategies for the Big Wheel, Contestant's Row, and the Showcase Showdown, he is breaking down the rules and odds and theories for every single pricing game.  It is mind-boggling.


"Battle of the Network Stars 2013"

If it wasn't for finding proof at Wikipedia and YouTube, we might think that youthful memories of "Battle of the Network Stars" was just some sort of fever dream.  In what world would vain TV actors wear spandex bathing suits and compete in lame elementary-school P.E. sports like tug-of-war or participate in traveling circus gags like the dunk tank?  In what world would one network allow its top stars to appear on a rival network?  In what world would a collection of A-list talent draw just a small collection of spectators and fans on the rolling hills of Pepperdine University, treating this Hollywood showdown like some boring Division II volleyball game?  

It really happened, people.  

Twice a year on ABC in the late 80s and early 90s, viewers across America just like us bore witness to "Battle of the Network Stars."  It seems steeped in kitschy irony today, but at the time, this was mostly serious stuff.  Which is why it is so compelling.

Stuck in an Atlanta hotel room for a four-day conference, we recently stumbled onto a marathon of this show broadcast on some outer-fringe ESPN channel.  We couldn't look away.  Older actors like Ed Asner and William Devane inappropriately sporting Speedos; youthful actors like Melissa Gilbert and Scott Baio sporting terrycloth headbands; amazing displays of athleticism by ex-jocks like Gregory Harrison and Mark Harmon (we saw Luke Duke himself, Tom Wopat throw beautiful football spirals) side by side with humiliating displays of complete ineptitude by the likes of William Shatner (the dude could not figure out how to get into a kayak) and Charlene Tilton; actors we'd never heard of who likely popped champagne on getting their big network TV show gig only to vanish into the ether of history; and all of it covered by the one and only Howard Cosell who called these ridiculous events like he was covering some "Monday Night Football" contest with playoff implications.

It's genius.

And it got us to thinking.  

What if somehow the networks agreed to recreate this thing today?  If we stuck to the same scenarios and gimmicks of the old show, how would a 2013 edition look?  

First we'd have to assume two things.

1. That TV actors would be interested.  Back then, actors got big checks, yes, but not the kind of million-dollar contracts that are so regular now.  Financial incentives were apparently a big factor on "Battle of the Network Stars."  Ashton Kutcher today makes six figures per episode of "Two and  half Men."  And there's 22 episodes in a season.  We'll let you go do the math.  You might have to try and go the old "donations to charity" route, but that further assumes all of them have passion side projects.

2. That TV networks would allow such aggressive cross-promotion.  We live in a world where NBC's "The Today Show" does everything it can to avoid promoting an ABC show.  Back then, the networks seemed to see value in exposing their shows to a wide audience by any means necessary.  Now, outside of award shows or Jay Leno's couch, network talent just don't mingle.

But let's pretend that somehow you got the actors and networks to agree.  Then what?

* The host - You'd need someone with gravitas like Cosell.  But also someone who, like Cosell, was sort of in on the joke.  Who's our Howard Cosell?  A few years ago you might have said John Madden.  But he's long been retired, leaving us only one possibility.  Bob Costas.  (Though you just know Ryan Seacrest's agents will be pitching him for the job.)  Full of himself but articulate, somewhat brilliant, and sometimes - with that little smirk - a little aware of how goofy the whole thing is.  So we hire Bob to patrol the sidelines with a corded mike, maybe asking a sitcom actor about how he feels going into the next obstacle course sprint, how the team captain is strategizing about the next event, or maybe even uttering subtly creepy sexual innuendos as some attractive ingenue gets dunked in the tank.  In 2013, no host goes it alone so Costas probably needs some female sidekick.  We nominate "Extra's" Maria Menounos because why not.

* The location - Out of tradition, let's keep it at Pepperdine.  The green hills, the wide open spaces, the blue skies.  

* The spectators - This is going to be a whole lot different in our social-media-infused world.  No longer will the contest be witnessed by whoever seemingly happened to be driving through Malibu on the way to the beach.  No, in 2013, "Battle of the Network Stars" will be a mega-media event.  You've got to get coverage on all of those inane "Entertainment Tonight" shows, buzz on Twitter hype, multiple collector edition covers on Entertainment Weekly.  And so the bleachers at Pepperdine (and big giant ones will have to be constructed just for this show) will be filled not by random passersby but by ticket holders who paid top dollar for the privilege.  And just think of all the paparazzi swarming outside, feeding candid and embarrassing shots (sample cover headline: "Guess Who Almost Drowned?") to "Us Weekly" and "In Touch" and those rags.  We're not sure if there should be a red carpet, but our gut tells us there probably should be.

* The fourth network - We can't stick to the old three-network field.  It's probably possible to ignore the CW, but we can't keep out Fox.  So rather than a tug-of-war final pitting the top two networks (networks earn points at each competition) for a final, it may be better to do some kind of bye for the top team and let the second-place and third-place networks duke it out somehow to advance to the finals.  This may need some further review in the competition committee.

* The grizzled captain.  The pattern seems to be that some older male dramatic actor serves as a fatherly captain for his network team.  Think William Shatner, Willian Devane, Daniel J. Travanti, Gabe Kaplan, Robert Urich.  Today, that would be "SVU's" Dann Florek or "Dancing with the Stars's" Tom Bergeron or "CSI's" Ted Danson or, best of all, "Modern Family's" Ed O'Neil.  And if you include the network football shows, there's always Fox's Terry Bradshaw or CBS's Dan Marino.  You could also go full circle and bring in "NCIS's" Mark Harmon, who was just a youngster back when the original "Battle of the Network Stars" ran.  He's our legacy player!

* The hot young ingenue.  There's also a clear preference to get attractive young actresses on the show, mostly - it seems - to get them wet in their one-piece bathing suit when they get dunked in the dunk tank.  Full disclosure: we love seeing the actresses of our youth (Heather Thomas, Randi Oakes, Erin Gray) in this situation even as we hate ourselves for loving it.  In 2013, you'd have to consider "The Big Bang Theory's" Kaley Cuoco, "Two Broke Girls's" Kat Dennings, "Nashville's" Hayden Panetierre, "Revolution's" Tracy Spiridakos, "Modern Family's" Sarah Hyland, and maybe maybe "New Girl's" Zooey Deschanel.  We don't think even in this alternate universe the producers could ever get "The Voice's" Christina Aguilera, but how hilarious would that be?

* The ex-jock.  There's a lot of awkward displays of athleticism among most of the actors.  These aren't people gifted with speed or balance or stamina.  These are people who look good, can cry on cue, and  can remember lots of words at a time.  But each team at least one young buck actor, the strapping hunk who played ball in college.  And you can tell.  They are into this.  This is no joke.  For people like Mark Harmon, Greg Evigan, Tom Selleck, and Douglas Barr, this a return to the glory days.  Who do we have nowadays to fill that role?  Who are the 30-somethings with something to prove?  We can see "The Good Wife's" Josh Charles, "Bones's" David Boreanaz, "Person of Interest's" Jim Caveziel, "Revolution's" Billy Burke, "Survivor's" Jeff Probst, and most definitely "Hawaii Five-O's" preening Alex O'Loughlin.  A few years ago, this would be a slam dunk for "Two and Half Men's" Charlie Sheen.  If Maria's busy maybe Charlie could be the color man for Costas.

* The speedster youths.  We also noticed a trend of the really young actors displaying blazing speed, especially on the obstacle course.  There was apparently a whole slew of shows in which Kristy McNichol broke her own record again and again.  She could not be stopped.  There's a lot of potential for this kind of ringer in 2013.  The casts of "Parenthood" and "Modern Family" and "Glee" are filled with teenagers who are probably a lot more agile and spry than their older peers.

* The contests.  There's really no need to mess with perfection.  For students of this show, you know what we're talking about.  In the new edition, we'd want to keep the dunk tank, the flag football scrimmage, the kayaking, the tug of war, and - of course - the obstacle course with it's little pool swing and blue and red tires.  That's the show's signature, iconic event.  You may even want to somehow make the obstacle course as the final.  We'd suggest cutting the swimming and cycling because they're so ordinary and without the possibility of real humiliation.  Maybe add in a basketball event since the NBA is so huge and because lots of white guys mistakenly think they can ball which can be funny.  Maybe "horse" or 21.  Another possibility is some kind of wacky "Survivor" style puzzle gag or an endurance thing where everyone tries to hang onto a telephone pole or maybe even a gross-eating contest.  These could be a nice tip of the hat to the reality TV boom.  And please please... no "Simon Says" bit.  It's cute but it's more gag than game.

So what do you think?  Would you watch this kind of show?  We think it'd be a smash success, especially if you only ran it once a year.  Time it to coincide with the new fall season, drum up interest in the old returning shows and the new shows.  

And since TV loves franchises, spin this off into a "Battle of the Cable Stars" and include the cast of "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones."

We are genius.  Hollywood, you're welcome.