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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Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a big-spending but cash-poor shopaholic who has dreams of working for her favorite fashion magazine but ironically is given a job as a columnist for a financial magazine from the same publisher. Of course not being the perfect candidate to dole out advice on managing money she butts heads with her good-looking but work-obsessed editor (Hugh Dancy) until this being a romantic comedy the sparks start flying between them. Her efforts to conquer her addictions hit her fashion career goals and find love and contentment carry this lightweight concoction. Confessions is worth the ride if only to establish Fisher as a comic star in her own right. So good in supporting roles in movies like Wedding Crashers she gets to shine showing humor heart and chutzpah as a girl who never met a credit card she didn’t like. She turns a character who could have been gratingly annoying into someone even the non-shopaholics in the audience can easily identify with and root for. Dancy is a great foil and perfect opposite in the great tradition of romantic comedies going back to the ‘30s and ‘40s. A raft of familiar faces also turn up amusingly including John Lithgow as the magazine magnate John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Rebecca’s loopy parents and the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as a somewhat clueless French fashion editor. But pay special attention to newcomer Krysten Ritter as Fisher’s moneybags roommate. Australian P.J. Hogan certainly has shown a penchant for this kind of comedy first with the sleeper hit Muriel's Wedding and then the Julia Roberts smash My Best Friend's Wedding. He knows when to tone it down and go for heart which is key to making a broad comedy like this work overall. The film also makes New York terrific Technicolored bright and inviting. It helps that the bestselling books by Sophie Kinsella on which the script is based provide such smart core material. Whether timing in the current economic crisis is right for a movie about an upscale shopaholic is beside the point. Clearly this is more fantasy now than ever and that’s probably all good.
Plenty of worries mate. A third helping of this croc-out-of-the-Outback series is one too many. The difference between the delightful original and this plodding trek through Los Angeles is almost negligible. Once again crocodile hunter Mick (Paul Hogan) puts his survival skills to the test while roaming the wilds of a major metropolis. The Big Apple jaunt resulted in Mick falling in love with journalist Sue (Linda Kozlowski). In Los Angeles Mick grapples with making Sue an honest woman thanks to the prodding of their young son Mikey (Serge Cockburn). La La Land provides enough distractions to prevent Mick from popping the question. Lavish parties. Acting gigs. Monkey wrangling. And the strange business practices of Silvergate Pictures. Sue returns to the United States to temporarily oversee her newspaper magnate father's Los Angeles bureau. Her first assignment: expose Silvergate and its likely criminal activities. But who needs a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with N.Y.P.D Blue junkie Mick Dundee on the case.
Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles lacks bite but Mick remains the life and soul of the hunt. The leatheryHogan - now 61 but leaner and fitter than a certain real-life crocodile hunter half his age - is so affable fascinating and boyish that it's a pleasure to share his company. He's the same old Mick Dundee that audiences laughed at but mostly laughed with in the late 1980s. Hogan hints--though not very seriously--at the end of this adventure that it's time to call it quits. If so he would be wise to pass his croc-skinned vest and hunting knife on to Cockburn. He's a chip off the old block. Whether he's rescuing skunks or trapping rodents Cockburn manages to charm without being self-consciously cute or deliberately bratty. Too bad Kozlowski--Hogan's wife--has nothing better to do than lovingly raise her eyebrows at Mick's occasional blunders or pass herself off as a journalist.
Simon Wincer last worked with Hogan on 1994's Lightning Jack a not-so-wild Western that floundered in its bid to put any distance between Hogan and his Crocodile Dundee persona. In Wincer's hands Mick Dundee's latest urban jungle safari lacks any genuine surprises. Is Mick the only tourist to find himself confronted by a mugger each time he steps off the plane? In Australia Mick may call the Outback his workplace but he does seem to enjoy some modern amenities. So it's become something of a stretch to imagine that Mick doesn't watch TV and can't take a bath without fearing a crocodile attack. Much of the blame rests with the bland and trite cultural differences that writers Matthew Berry and Eric Abrams compel Mick to face continually. (Hogan contends that he deserves credit for writing the script but unless he needs the extra cash he should back down--it's nothing to be proud of.)