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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The two films, which have already picked up early awards, will compete for the Best Picture at the 17th annual Critics' Choice Awards, as selected by the Broadcast Film Critics Association in America.
They will be up against Midnight in Paris, Drive, The Help, Moneyball, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Tree of Life and War Horse.
George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Ryan Gosling (Drive), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) will compete for the Best Actor prize.
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Viola Davis (The Help), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Charlize Theron (Young Adult) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) make up the Best Actress category.
Christopher Plummer, Albert Brooks, Kenneth Branagh, Nick Nolte, Patton Oswalt, Andy Serkis, Octavia Spencer, Shailene Woodley, Berenice Bejo, Melissa McCarthy, Jessica Chastain and Carey Mulligan will compete for the supporting actor and actress prizes.
Meanwhile, Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive), Steven Spielberg (War Horse), Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) will fight it out for Best Director.
The Critics' Choice Awards take place on 12 January (12).
With the unveiling of the official competition and Un Certain Regard lineups for the Cannes Film Festival Thursday morning in Paris came the news that Mel Gibson will be striding up the red carpet next month.
The actor will be out to support Jodie Foster’s The Beaver which has an out-of-competition berth. That news, which was imparted by the festival’s general delegate Thierry Fremaux ahead of announcing the films in official competition, was just one bit of info which appeared to get the assembled journalists all a-Twitter.
The rest of the announcements, while somewhat anticipated, make for a Cannes festival that will be heavy on art house bigwigs and newcomers alike.
The roster of returning talent includes such powerhouse auteurs as Lars von Trier with Melancholia, Pedro Almodovar with The Skin I Live In, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne with Le Gamin au Velo, Aki Kaurismaki with Le Havre, Radu Milhaileanu with La Source des Femmes, Nanni Moretti with We Have a Pope, Paolo Sorrentino with This Must Be the Place and, of course, Terrence Malick with Tree of Life. That film had actually been expected to be in competition last year but was not ready in time. Malick won the directing prize for Days of Heaven when he was last in competition in 1979.
Sean Penn stars in the English-language Sorrentino film and in Tree of Life which also has Brad Pitt – a near-certain bet to make an appearance in Cannes – and Jessica Chastain. Other stars potentially gracing the red carpet in support of their films include Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland who star in Melancholia while Pitt’s partner Angelina Jolie is a likely attendee for the Kung Fu Panda sequel, although that film is not among the official selections.
The cast of Woody Allen’s opening night film, Midnight in Paris includes Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and model/singer-turned-first-lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy while Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is screening out of competition which can only mean that Johnny Depp and French partner Vanessa Paradis will be on hand on the Riviera.
But, while a major element of Cannes is the glitz and glamour, the most important component is the films.
Along with the big name auteurs this year will be new talent like Australian Julia Leigh whose first film Sleeping Beauty has scored a competition berth. There are 19 films in competition and 19 in the complementary Un Certain Regard sidebar. All told, there are six female directors with films across the two sections which marks a first for the festival.
Austrian Markus Schleinzer is no stranger to Cannes having acted as casting director for many of the films of Palme d’Or winner Michael Haneke, but this time he’ll be on the Croisette with his directorial debut, Michael.
Making his first trip to Cannes is cult favorite Nicolas Winding Refn. The Pusher director will be on hand with competition entry Drive which stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.
Other English-language titles include Sean Durkin’s feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene which originally premiered in Sundance and stars Elizabeth Olsen. That film will run in Un Certain Regard. Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly is in competition.
In introducing the selection, which has some notable absences (Dominik Moll’s The Monk and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method among them), Fremaux remarked that although he and his committees chose 49 films for the official selection, “there were a lot more than 49 films that we liked.”
Cannes runs from May 11-22 with Robert De Niro overseeing the main jury as president. Keep an eye out for Hollywood.com’s Cannes blog which will run down the daily festivities direct from the Riviera and the red carpet.
Full list of official selection films:
Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen
The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodovar
House of Tolerance - Bertrand Bonello
Pater - Alain Cavalier
Footnote - Joseph Cedar
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Le Gamin au Velo - Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Le Havre - Aki Kaurismaki
Hanezu No Tsuki - Naomi Kawase
Sleeping Beauty - Julia Leigh
Poliss - Maiwenn
The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick
La Source des Femmes - Radu Mihaileanu
Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai - Takashi Miike
We Have a Pope - Nanni Moretti
We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lynne Ramsay
Michael - Markus Schleinzer
This Must Be the Place - Paolo Sorrentino
Melancholia - Lars Von Trier
Drive - Nicolas Winding Refn
Out of Competition
The Conquest - Xavier Durringer
The Beaver - Jodie Foster
The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Rob Marshall
Un Certain Regard
Restless - Gus Van Sant (opening film)
The Hunter “ Bakur Bakuradeze
Halt auf freier Strecke - Andreas Dresen
Hors Satan - Bruno Dumont
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Sean Durkin
The Snows of Kilamanjaro - Robert Guedeguian
Skoonheid - Oliver Hermanus
The Day He Arrives - Hong Sang-soo
Bonsai - Cristian Jimenez
Tatsumi - Eric Koo
Arirang - Kim Ki-duk
Where Do We Go Now? - Nadine Labaki
Loverboy - Catalin Mitulescu
Yellow Sea - Na Hong-jin
Miss Bala – Gerardo Naranjo
Trabalhar Cansa - Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra
L’Exercice de l’Etat - Pierre Schoeller
Toomelah - Ivan Sen
Oslo, August 31 - Joachim Trier
Wu Xia - Chan Peter Ho-Sun
Dias de Gracia - dir. Tekla Taidelli
Labrador - Frederikke Aspock
Le Maitre des Forges de l’Enfer - Rithy Panh
Michel Petrucciani - Michael Radford
Tous Au Larzac - Christian Rouaud