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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
In multicultural L.A. different households put their own spin on Turkey Day chaos: An African-American mom (Alfre Woodard) deals with her stubborn husband (Dennis Haysbert) nosy mother-in-law (Ann Weldon) and other irritants. Vietnamese immigrants (Joan Chen Francois Chau) worry that they've become alienated from their Americanized kids. A Latina matriarch (Mercedes Ruehl) faces the unwelcome return of her prodigal husband (Victor Rivers). Old-fashioned Jewish parents (Lainie Kazan Maury Chaykin) fret over a visit from their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) and her irreverent lesbian lover (Julianna Margulies).
With substantial parts for more than a dozen actors in its diverse cast "What's Cooking?" has first-class character players spilling out of the cupboards. Ruehl criminally underused by Hollywood since her Oscar for 1991's "The Fisher King " is a stand-out delight in the juiciest of the four central mom roles. The Kazan-Chaykin-Sedgwick-Margulies team is particularly on target working the comedy in the Jewish quarter of the story.
Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji on the Beach") pulls off the challenging feat of weaving her mostly unrelated plotlines together without losing narrative tension - a factor that has shot down many a similarly ambitious ensemble drama. At first the modest family-movie scenarios seem to be heading in a hopelessly feel-good Hallmark Hall of Fame direction but the script (by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges) starts to cook with some zinger plot twists in the second act. And the multistory format so often an arbitrary device in such films actually serves a thematic purpose in this case - though you'll have to wait for the cleverly set-up ending to find out what it is.
Billed as "a (mostly) true story," "Cradle Will Rock" is an interesting and vibrant look at American theater and art worlds facing adversity in 1930s New York played out as a cautionary tale against artistic censorship.
With an imaginative and informative original screenplay that seamlessly harmonizes true-life events and characters with fictionalized ones and acted with a labor-of-love energy by a cast of over a dozen well-respected actors from both film and stage, Tim Robbins' third directorial and writing effort employs a style that can be described as being both Altmanesque in scope and Sturgeslike in pacing and tone.
Although taking all this in can be a little too frantic and overpowering at times, "Cradle Will Rock" authentically re-creates the look and feel of the period admirably. With a highly charged theatricality that incorporates music and wit, viewing the film almost seems like experiencing live Broadway musical theater (that fact, combined with the subject matter at hand, should make the film a rare delight for theater aficionados yet a bit daunting for some mainstream moviegoers).
At the heart of the story is a production led by a young Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen, a bit out of control). The production is a controversial musical piece about unionism by a little-known composer named Marc Blitzstein (an intense Hank Azaria). Under the auspices of the government's Works Progress Administration, Welles and his partner, John Houseman (captured with an amusing pretentiousness by Cary Elwes), lead a unit under the Federal Theatre Project (a Depression-era relief agency) headed by purposeful Hallie Flanagan (Tony winner Cherry Jones). Headed for trouble because of its supposedly inflammatory content, the play is eventually shut down by the federal government right before the first performance.
Also dealing with the concept of censorship is renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera (spiritedly played by Ruben Blades), whose freedom of expression is denied after being commissioned by a controlling 24-year-old Nelson Rockefeller (a capable John Cusack) to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center.
Other figures of both the elite class, and struggling ones, are effectively played by diverse actors such as Joan Cusack, John Turturro, Emily Watson, Susan Sarandon, Jack Black, Paul Giamatti, John Carpenter and Bob Balaban.
Especially noteworthy are featured side stories involving Bill Murray as an alcoholic has-been ventriloquist and a breezy Kay Thompsonish performance by a delightful Vanessa Redgrave as the bohemian-spirited socialite wife of a fictional industrialist portrayed by the prolific Philip Baker Hall.
The coming together of all these tales is the climax of the piece, where the troupe of the ill-fated "The Cradle Will Rock" rally behind Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein to persevere in a show-must-go-on fashion (reminiscent of a popular theme in many musicals of the same time period). Extremely well-staged, this rousing finale captures an exciting yet fairly obscure moment in American musical-theater history and revels in it as a symbol of free expression triumphing over small-minded artistic oppression.
Outstanding technical expertise includes the work of esteemed French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, frequent Altman editor Geraldine Peroni and Robbins' regular production designer, 1999 Tony Award winner Richard Hoover. Production is greatly served by the detailed work of costume designer Ruth Meyers (whose period work in 'L.A. Confidential' also left an impressive mark) and the team of hair and makeup artists headed, respectively, by Kathe Swanson and Linda Grimes.
* MPAA rating: R, for some language and sexuality.
"Cradle Will Rock"
Hank Azaria: Marc Blitzstein Angus MacFadyen: Orson Welles John Cusack: Nelson Rockefeller Cary Elwes: John Houseman Susan Sarandon: Margherita Sarfatti Emily Watson: Olive Stanton Joan Cusack: Hazel Huffman John Turturro: Aldo Silvano
A Buena Vista presentation. Director Tim Robbins. Screenplay Tim Robbins. Producers Tim Robbins, Jon Kilik and Lydia Dean Pilcher. Director of photography Jean Yves Escoffier. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Music David Robbins. Production designer Richard Hoover. Costume designer Ruth Myers. Art directors Troy Sizemore and Peter Rogers. Set decorator Deborah Schutt. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.