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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Tom Ripley is about to strike again, albeit under a completely different guise. How so? Think John Malkovich and "Mission: Impossible 2's" Dougray Scott instead of Matt Damon, for instance.
Daily Variety reports that Malkovich and Scott are in talks to star in "Ripley's Game," a sort of a follow-up to last year's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (with Damon as the titled character).
The new project, which is based on the third novel in author Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series, follows an older, married Ripley who is looking for an assassin to rid two rivals.
Shooting of the film is set to begin in Venice in January.
DOWN WITH 'SMOOCHY': The Hollywood Reporter says that Edward Norton and Catherine Keener ("Being John Malkovich") will join the cast of "Death to Smoochy." Directed by Danny DeVito, the film follows Smoochy (Norton), a children's TV show character, as he plots sweet revenge when he is kicked off the air. Keener will play a network top brass and Smoochy's real-life ex-lover.
VICTORY 'DANCE': Cuba Gooding Jr., who will be seen next as a Navy diver in "Men of Honor," is in talks to star in a drama titled "Winterdance," Variety says. The actor is slated to play a father who's reunited with his son during a dog-sled race in Alaska.
'X' MARKS THE SPOT: Variety also says that Lisa Kudrow might star in "Marci X," wherein a Jewish-American princess is forced to take control of a hard-core hip-hop record label or something like that.
'AVENGING' SLY: The Reporter says that Sylvester Stallone will star in "Avenging Angelo," a black comedy about a woman (not Stallone) who discovers that she is the daughter of a Mafia boss. If you're wondering about Sly's involvement, he'll be playing the titular Mafia boss's bodyguard.
'CENTRAL' RESERVATION: Lastly, Variety reports that director Mike Figgis, who brought us the experimental flick "Timecode," will helm the project "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept." Based on the autobiographical novel by Elizabeth Smart, the story revolves around the love affair between Smart, a Canadian poet, and George Barker, a fellow writer.