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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Because I Said So could be as a public service announcement to all those meddling mothers out there—but also to their complaining daughters. See Daphne Wilder (Diane Keaton) has raised her three daughters—Maggie (Lauren Graham) Mae (Piper Perabo) and Milly (Mandy Moore)—by herself so it’s only natural for her to butt in especially when she fears her youngest Milly will never find Mr. Right. Taking matters into her own hands Daphne runs an Internet ad to meet and evaluate potential suitors for Milly. The results are positively disastrous except for two possible matches: a guitarist Johnny (Gabriel Macht) in the band playing background music during the matchmaking session and a well-off architect named Jason (Tom Everett Scott). Daphne however only deems Jason “long-term” enough for her daughter writing off the tattooed Johnny as more of a fling. Luckily Johnny manages to get Milly’s phone number and before long Milly is forced to choose between the two men after being single for the longest time. But what she doesn’t know is that her mom is responsible—well at least for one of the guys. Okay it may be time for a chick-flick intervention for Keaton. The Oprah of romantic comedies Keaton has the talent and everything else necessary to steal some of Meryl Streep’s meaty dramatic roles but she seems to prefer the safe stuff. Her performance here is no different than those in her last two movies (The Family Stone Something's Gotta Give) and the movies are all somewhat similar too. Point is nice job yet again Diane—now give us an effin’ feel-bad movie! Keaton’s interplay with Moore is genuinely heartfelt even if it’s not physically or biologically credible. The latter is neither actress’s fault though and Moore trying to shed her teenybopper past actually displays the most growth of the two. But despite solid crying scenes and overall cutesiness Moore also should make this her last rom-com role—unless a halfway decent script happens to come along. The supporting gals (Perabo and Gilmore Girls’ Graham) fare better than the guys in the acting department but the likely all-female audience will fall hard for Macht (A Love Song for Bobby Long). Scott (TV's Saved) is badly miscast as an affluent Romeo only to be outdone by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale who would’ve lost less cred if his tiny role were reduced to a mere cameo. You have to start to think that director Michael Lehmann’s 1989 cult classic Heathers might have been a fluke because his career has been on a decline ever since culminating with Said So. This time around Lehmann should’ve stuck solely with the tender cheesy feel-good theme which is at times at least effective. But when the director tries to switch to comedy covering everything from female orgasms to Asian-masseuse gags fit for a Cedric the Entertainer movie the film goes so far south that it never recovers (and the masseuse bit comes early on). Unfortunately it’s not just the comedy that misfires. The male characters are barely there or even necessary making it seem like writers Karen Leigh Hopkins (Stepmom) and Jessie Nelson (the upcoming Fred Claus co-writer of Stepmom) merely exploited them to get to the predictable conclusion. Of course this is a by-the-book chick flick we’re talking about but the writers and director apparently didn’t want to push the envelope when it came to the supporting characters—or the main characters. Or any aspect of the movie whatsoever!