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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Trouble Every Day takes nearly an hour to get going but it ultimately tells the very choppy story of afflicted American researcher Shane Brown's journey to Paris to unravel the murky circumstances surrounding a former colleague's experiments which have resulted in blood-soaked cannibalistic tragedies. First though we meet young Parisienne Core who appears stranded on a road. She stops a trucker who later turns up hidden in the high grass off the highway dead and horribly deformed. Later two punks are skulking around back at the boarded up house where Core's husband Leo usually keeps her locked up. The punks will eventually break into Leo's house where one of them will have a sexual encounter with Core who turns the tryst into a cannibalistic bloodbath. Meanwhile in Paris Dr. Shane Brown and his wife June arrive at their hotel to begin their honeymoon. Shane is mysteriously troubled by incidents that might have begun in Guyana and involve his pilfering of Leo's research. Shane embarks upon secretive inquiries into Leo's whereabouts. Shane learns of Leo's whereabouts but has his own messy encounter with the hotel maid who he nibbles to death. An adorable puppy that Shane buys during his wanderings suggests a ray of hope for Shane's marriage although some telltale blood in Shane's shower might arouse June's suspicions. Sound convoluted? It is. The going's rough and murky in this far-from-type-A wannabe horror shockfest of arty pretentiousness erotic content and self-delusion--this latter referring to the filmmakers' notions that Trouble Every Day might provide any appeal to filmgoers.
Vincent Gallo is appropriately creepy and sinister-looking as the twisted tormented Shane and Beatrice Dalle ably carries the burden of lethally lusty captive Core afflicted by unslaked cannibalism. Tricia Vessey isn't given much more to do than be Shane's cute and clueless new wife just as Alex Descas as doctor Leo is hardly challenged. Although his Leo is relatively passive the script or direction should have burdened him with the angst of a conflicted and tormented Dr. Frankenstein whose afflicted wife craves Big Macs dressed in pants not Thousand Island dressing. The supporting cast is fine and everyone in this Paris-based story wins points by delivering most of their lines in English.
Points also go to blood 'n' guts director Claire Denis for guts if not all the icky-drippy blood on display here. The guts have to do with the boldness required to take so much time to get to the story--almost an hour--by first introducing bites er bits and pieces of an array of seemingly unconnected characters and situations. Such frustrating unfolding of plot creates the er appetite for the story and er feeds the question--what is going on here? Denis favors montages slow and sensual pans unusual camera angles and snippets of graphic footage depicting frontal nudity sexual encounters bloodbaths. But as Shakespeare might have put it--the play's the thing not the foreplay.