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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Left wide open to interpretation and maddening deadening effect INLAND EMPIRE (purposely in all caps) is an organic work of art that sparks thought and debate. It’s not a story of anyone or anything in particular—and the movie experience is as frustrating as that sounds. But we’ll attempt to explain anyway: Four or five unconnected plotlines revolve around Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) a troubled actress in love. Nikki is shooting a film costarring Devon (Justin Theroux) and directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Nikki’s schizophrenic tortured reality seems to blur her personal identity with that of her movie character Susan Blue. Dern screams she’s in love with her Billy the character Devon is playing in the movie while those around her seem confused. We too in the audience are left unaware of what world Dern is in. A psychedelic series of interludes focuses on a family of brown rabbits with upright ears (one voiced by Naomi Watts) framed coldly in a living room with a 1950’s-style TV laugh-track. Another recurrent series of images is a Polish subtitled film aborted when its stars are killed. With INLAND EMPIRE we’re left to guess what Lynch is thinking. Is it Nikki’s internal self--or could it be ourselves? Whatever it is it’s big and mysterious. INLAND EMPIRE is essentially a Dern marathon one-woman showing her ability to play grizzled upset crazy frightening smiling and folksy all with a tarnished luster. She’s a Lynch three-time collaborator after Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet. If INLAND EMPIRE were a better more logical movie Dern may have been touted for an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. But alas the performance is too parsed and incomplete to register an emotional resonance with most audiences. Dern has several powerful scenes in which she’s vulnerable wounded and pathologically driven for violence – and one of those all-important crying scenes. But under Lynch’s directing Nikki/Susan is like a photographic scrapbook of vignettes not a complete character. Numerous recognizable cameos (William H. Macy Mary Steenburgen Watts) add to Lynch’s credibility while Harry Dean Stanton (in his fourth Lynch film) has a funny befuddled turn as a director’s assistant. Irons is strong--if under-used--as director Kingsley. He chomps his scenes playing the Hollywood conventions of a larger-than-life helmer to delicious effect. INLAND EMPIRE is a baffling statement of artistic entitlement. Its Lynch’s first film since Mulholland Dr. which garnered the pop provocateur an Oscar nomination for Best Director but its a fussy follow-up a long-winded Terry Gilliam-like descent into dementia. At three hours confusion is the collective effect as though the film has been conceived on some kind of altered drug-induced state. The intention seems to evoke an emotional response instead of an intellectual one but it’s mostly one of distress. The audience’s only option is to follow along through black-and-brown-lighted visions of nothing. Lynch described in INLAND EMPIRE press materials as “Eagle Scout Missoula Montana ” financed this avant-garde film himself and plans to promote it in person with a live cow. If that makes sense to you buy a ticket.