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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The film follows the same tired action genre step by step. Ex-con and single dad O2 (Tyrese Gibson) is trying to go straight for the sake of his young son Junior. But when the kid is kidnapped in what seems to be a typical carjacking O2 has to pull out all the stops to get him back. Turns out O2 had some nefarious dealings with a gang overlord named Big Meat (The Game) who likes to hack off people’s body parts with a machete. And now Meat wants some payback taking for ransom the only thing O2 cares about in the entire world [sniffle]. So what’s a guy to do? Pit rival gang leaders against each other hook up with a beautiful street hustler (Meagan Good) rob safety deposit boxes and get caught in an extended car chase that’s what. "It's either all or nothing " realizes O2. Very prophetic. Waist Deep has got some great character names--Meat O2 Coco Lucky Junior. Too bad most of the performances can’t live up to them. Tyrese (Four Brothers) does try his best though as the hunky O2 making a convincing albeit a tad stiff attempt at playing a father who’s whole life is his son. Good (Roll Bounce) gets to wear tight sexy clothes and strut around as Coco O2’s accomplice and eventual love interest as they rob banks Bonnie and Clyde style. Larenz Tate (Crash) plays Lucky O2’s unreliable cousin who actually isn’t lucky at all caught between a rock and hard place. And then there’s Meat played by big-time rapper The Game in his feature debut. With a battered face and covered in tattoos The Game certainly looks like one mean badass wielding a mad machete. Thankfully he doesn’t have to do much more than that. Here’s a few words of advice to would-be actors who want to play effective bad guys: Less is more. It’s movies like these that really give South Central L.A. a bad rep—shoot-outs in the middle of the street in broad daylight the carjacks the depravity the sad stories of little kids getting shot. It’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy place. Of course actor-turned-director/co-writer Vondie Curtis-Hall (best known for his numerous TV guest spots) doesn’t want it to be showing the grit in all its glory and collecting a cast from the area who could lend some credibility to the surroundings. But Hall needs a few more lessons in how to craft a well-thought action movie. The script is hackneyed beyond the usual taking bits not only from Bonnie and Clyde but also Thelma and Louise Boyz N the Hood--and even a little Shawshank Redemption. Hall’s camerawork is also too frenetic at times almost dizzyingly so with unnecessary close ups and choppy sequences. That isn’t to say some of the gun play and car chases aren’t exciting enough. There just seems to be a lack of experience overall.
November 08, 2002 7:57am EST
In his feature film debut Eminem is Jimmy Smith Jr. a poor aspiring rapper living in a trailer park on Detroit's 8 Mile Rd.--the city's perimeter road which separates it from the 'burbs or more specifically the blacks from the whites. After breaking up with his girlfriend Janeane (Taryn Manning) Jimmy nicknamed "Rabbit " heads back to the trailer park to live with his mom (Kim Basinger) a lush with a penchant for bingo. He gets a day job in a factory so he can save enough money to get back on his feet but at night heads to the Shelter a hip-hop club where the city's best rappers "battle" each other in 45-second rounds of verbally abusive rhymes. Even though his friends including Shelter MC Future (Mekhi Phifer) believe in him Rabbit suffers stage fright and freezes like a deer in the headlights when it comes to competition time. But he realizes his entire future--and getting out of Detroit--rests on making it in the hip-hop world and cutting his own demo. To do so Rabbit must first find his voice and win a coveted battle. The battles whether you like hip-hop or not are worth the price of admission alone.
According to Eminem whose real name is Marshall Mathers III this film is part real and part made-up. But his character gets a complete Hollywood makeover here and it's glaringly easy to discern fact from fiction. 8 Mile's Rabbit for example is concerned with gun violence (Eminem was arrested twice in 2000 for weapons violations for which he received probation). And when a coworker starts harassing one of Rabbit's gay coworkers he breaks into a defensive rhyme: "Why you f***ing with the gay guy G? You're the one with the HIV." Audiences longing for a compassionate and caring version Eminem won't be disappointed. In his big screen debut Eminem is convincing and hardly afraid to show a soft and vulnerable side. He's a rapper and lyricist at heart however and his spiels often take on a cadence similar to his rap style. As Rabbit's buddy Future Phifer is solid and their relationship on screen is believable and endearing. Brittany Murphy is also great as the skanky Alex whose plan is to get out of Detroit by sleeping with all the wrong people. Basinger however delivers a bland performance as the drunk mom whining about her teen boyfriend's lack of sexual prowess.
Director Curtis Hanson scored Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Director and won Best Adapted Screenplay in 1997 for the drama L.A. Confidential which is one reason there is more than a bit of buzz surrounding 8 Mile. The film is good but it's not Oscar worthy. Hanson paints a gritty and realistic portrait of the Murder City circa 1995 but the film's problem lies with the story written by The Mod Squad scribe Scott Silver. For one week viewers get a voyeuristic peek into Rabbit's life: he beats people up works hard has sex gets beaten up and sometimes raps. It's a stagnant view that never seems to go anywhere. While we know what happens to his mom--she wins big at bingo washes her hair and does the groceries--we never find out what happens to Rabbit. We can't even assume the film leaves off where Eminem's career starts because it's not a biopic. But despite the weak story Hanson commands a strong performance from Eminem and showcases both the rapper's newfound acting abilities and his musical talent. Considering the film's strength lies in Eminem it's surprising there weren't more musical performances from the Grammy-winning rapper.