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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We Bought a Zoo opens with the voice of Dylan Mee (Colin Ford) narrating glimpses of his journalist father Benjamin's (Matt Damon) worldly adventures. Ben's been embedded with violent dictators covered with killer bees and flown through the eye of a hurricane but as Dylan explicitly states "nothing prepared him for this one"—the "this one" being the titular purchasing of a zoo on the brink of closure. Director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire Almost Famous) has never been one for subtly but that's never been the goal. We Bought a Zoo drops the cynicism wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn't mind laying it on thick in an effort to move you which it does—whether you like it or not.
Six months after his wife's death Ben still doesn't have a grasp on how to be a good parent. He struggles to throw together bagged lunches for his daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) watches Dylan downward spiral into school expulsion reluctantly accepts lasagnas from the sympathetic family friends and grieves over iPhoto montages of a life that once was. Every corner of his home conjures up familial memories prompting Ben to hightail it out of town. After a desperate house hunt Ben sets his sights on a stunning country home that comes with one twist: it's the home to lions and tiger and bears (oh my!).
Along with its diverse collection of fauna Ben's new zoo sports a colorful cast of staff members including Peter MacCready the temperamental Scottish maintenance man Robin the laid-back handyman with a monkey on his shoulder and Kelly the young committed animal handler (Scarlett Johansson). Ben inspires his team with motivational speeches (and signed checks) and together they work to rebuild and reopen the park.
We Bought a Zoo explores its themes of loss and renewal on the surface with cartoony characters hammy dialogue and a score by Jónsi of Sigur Rós that steers you towards an emotional destination. But it all works thanks in large part to Matt Damon's charm and a general air of niceness to the whole package. Damon is one of the few stars capable of playing a Regular Joe. Watching him have his butt kicked by zoo chores is delightful while he adds true gravity to the dramatic moments. Whether he's butting heads with his morose son in a screaming match or tearing up over his inescapable past Damon digs deeper than Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's (The Devil Wears Prada 27 Dresses) screenplay. The rest of the cast manages to elevate the material too—Johansson keeps herself down to Earth; Thomas Haden Church as Ben's skeptical brother Duncan knocks every joke out of the park; And the young Elle Fanning inspires once again as Kelly's bubbly tween cousin who falls for the disgruntled Dylan (although no one seems to have a problem with a 12-year-old spending her days working/living at a zoo; her parents are completely out of the picture).
The movie doesn't take unexpected turns or make profound statements but it succeeds in its goal of tugging the audience's heartstrings. The world of We Bought a Zoo is one where everything works out if you persevere have hope and open yourself up to love. That's not reality but rather inspirational thinking. Perfect for the holiday season.