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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Remember the slacker Pegg hilariously played in Shaun of the Dead? Dennis Doyle is just as much of a loser. But instead of fighting zombies Dennis’ engaged in a battle of the bulge. Five years after leaving a pregnant Libby (Thandie Newton) at the altar Dennis is out of shape out of money and out of his ex-fiancée’s good graces. Libby’s now dating Whit (Hank Azaria) an American businessman who’s everything Dennis isn’t. “He’s handsome well-off friendly ” we’re told several times. Threatened by Whit’s presence in the lives of Libby and son Jake (Matthew Fenton) Dennis finally gets his butt out of bed when he decides to compete against Whit in a charity marathon. Dennis can barely sprint to the bus stop and back and he’s only got a month to get fit. But he’s convinced running the marathon will allow him to win back Libby and make him look like a hero in Jake’s eyes. And so Dennis makes like every underdog we’ve come to know and love in his bid to drop the extra pounds run the marathon and recapture Libby’s heart. Too bad this takes him--and Run Fat Boy Run--down the marathon route well traveled. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz proved that Pegg’s damn funny whenever he’s spoofing all things Hollywood with director Edgar Wright. Unfortunately he doesn’t have what it takes to be the next Hugh Grant. Pegg’s mastered the art of slothfulness but he’s ill at ease trying to express genuine emotions or generate some sparks with Newton. Maybe his discomfort stems from the padding he wears around his waist. Still there’s some tenderness to be found in the interaction between Pegg and the affable Fenton. If Schwimmer wanted to distance himself from Friends’ nerdy Ross he should have cast himself as Whit. The problem with Azaria--who looks even more ripped than he did in Along Came Polly--is that he reveals just enough of a hint of insincerity when we first meet Whit to tips us off that will become the “arsehole” Dennis thinks he is from the start. Newton sadly doesn’t have much to do other than to look through Pegg and gaze longingly at Azaria. But Irish comic Dylan Moran as Libby’s scheming cousin and Jake’s pal pretty much runs away with Run Fat Boy Run with his biting wit devil-may-care attitude and frequent flashes of flesh. So Schwimmer’s the latest sitcom star to go all Rob Reiner on us. OK he did try directing during his Friends years. Luckily Run Fat Boy Run represents a significant improvement over 1998’s consigned-to-TV Since You’re Been Gone. Schwimmer keeps things light and breezy but he’s saddled with an uneven script by his Big Nothing co-star Pegg and The State’s Michael Ian Black. Things start off quite flat and unfunny but the film gains much comic impetus when Dennis begins training in earnest. Some of Schwimmer’s directorial touches do seem somewhat gimmicky. Do we really need to see Dennis attempt to crash through an imaginary brick wall when he runs out of energy miles from the marathon finish line? Still Schwimmer does good job of involving us in Dennis’ plight even if the outcome is never in doubt. Unfortunately Pegg and Black never strive to surprise us. How refreshing it would be to discover that Whit is the right man for Libby forcing her to choose between both suitors. But everything you suspect will happen does happen right down to the film’s Rocky-esque ending. Unfortunately like Dennis himself Run Fat Boy Run never tries hard enough until it’s do-or-die time.