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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Without question, the biggest release at the multiplex this weekend will be Disney’s John Carter, the big screen, 3D adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic sci-fi novel series John Carter of Mars. The epic scale of the film is matched only by its immense and diverse cast. Along with a number of recognizable acting veterans, John Carter also features a plethora of stars on the rise. Here are a few notables…
Why not start with the star of the film, eh? Taylor Kitsch, who plays our planet-hopping hero, gleans a lot of attention amongst Austin film and TV geeks for his work on the series Friday Night Lights; based on the 2004 film by Peter Berg. Though born in British Colombia, Kitsch perfectly captures the personality and mannerisms of Texas high school football player Tim Riggins with an added, fascinating edge. The series is filmed here in town. Kitsch has also made his mark on the superhero genre by appearing in Marvel’s 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While I won’t defend the merits of the film itself, Thor knows it was far from Marvel’s best, I would like to see Kitsch’s Gambit character fleshed out a bit more. Rémy LeBeau was easily my favorite X-Men, and it was unfortunate that the only attention paid to him by the franchise was Kitsch’s brief cameo in this less-than-stellar entry.
From a Texas adoptee to a true Texas native, the gorgeous Lynn Collins plays the love interest in John Carter. She plays a Martian princess called Dejah Thoris whose beauty, grace, and adeptness with a sword will not leave your consciousness even long after you leave the theater. Coincidentally, Collins also appeared in Marvel’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine; playing Logan’s girlfriend Kayla Silverfox. More likely however, you’ll probably recognize Lynn Collins from her five-episode stint as the unfortunate Dawn in the first season of HBO’s sexalicious vampire series True Blood. She also appeared in 2009’s Blood Creek with Michael Fassbender and 2006’s Bug alongside Ashley Judd; two films we highly recommend.
John Carter runs into many strange and interesting characters during his time on the red planet. One such character is the very sympathetic Sola, a female member of the Tharks (a bizarre, green, four-armed race). Though her name may not immediately ring any bells or recall a face, Samantha Morton, who elegantly voices Sola, has been lending her impressive talents to movies and television since the early 90s. After some television work in her native England, including an appearance on the popular BBC series Cracker, Morton appeared in the 1999 Woody Allen comedy Sweet and Lowdown. But arguably her biggest break came when she co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report alongside Tom Cruise. Morton played the female telepath Agatha who becomes the key to helping Cruise’s hero solve a decades-old mystery. Morton has since appeared in films such as In America, The Libertine, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
When one is facing all manner of aliens, beasts, and humanoid aggressors, it pays to have a skilled warrior by one’s side. Luckily, John Carter allied himself with the skilful and cunning Kantos Kan; a captain of the army of Helium. Portraying Kan is the very talented British actor James Purefoy. Purefoy appeared in several films, among them A Knight’s Tale, Resident Evil, and Vanity Fair, before landing the role of Mark Anthony in HBO’s celebrated series Rome. But if you only seek out one project on Purefoy’s resume, I highly recommend his 2009 actioner Solomon Kane. In the film, based on a comic book by >Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, Purefoy plays the titular antihero who sells his soul to the devil and then lives his life trying to win it back through various acts of valor. The film is every bit as exciting and spectacular as a major Hollywood superhero film on a budget a fraction of the size.
Rounding out our list of John Carter’s talent pool is the stunning Polly Walker. Walker lends her voice and movements to the treacherous Sarkoja, another member of the Thark race. A native of Cheshire, England, Walker is a seasoned veteran of some of the most notable television series on both sides of the pond. Walker appeared in the 2003 British political thriller series State of Play, which was re-imagined as a film in 2009 starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, as well as HBO’s Rome and SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica spinoff Caprica. In addition, Walker appeared as the lovely Cassiopeia in 2010’s Clash of the Titans.