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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It’s not as if Spider-Man and his neurotic alter ego Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) haven’t seen a fair share of gloomy corners in the first two films but the third installment wisely – and literally – darkens his life with a new black costume and a bad attitude to go with it. OK much of our hero’s turn in temperament comes courtesy of said black threads--which are in reality a malevolent force from outer space. But like all of Spidey’s greatest Marvel Comics melodramas his always-problematic personal life delivers some curveballs to sharpen his edge. Even as the public embraces Spider-Man Peter has to deal with: The splintering romance with his lady love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst); a smarmy rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who threatens to snatch his job at the Daily Bugle; the true killer of his beloved Uncle Ben revealed to be an escaped ex-con (Thomas Haden Church) who via a scientific mishap turns into the shape-shifting Sandman; and oh yeah his best friend Harry Osborne (James Franco) who is trying to kill Peter believing Spider-Man responsible for the death of his evil dad the original Green Goblin. Vengeance blood feuds broken hearts and an alien symbiote feeding on anger--dark enough for you? Don’t worry. The film deftly mixes the pathos with plenty of action adventure and some of the funniest moments yet in the superhero saga. Maguire in particular really lets himself go this time around and embraces everything the story provides him to play with aplomb. The actor plays everything from angst-driven avenger to wounded romantic to cocky tango partner in perfect pitch. Among Maguire’s fellow returnees Dunst is less well-served by the ambitious story but makes the most of her emotional beats when not pressed to play MJ Girl Hostage. Franco’s turn is his most nuanced in the trilogy yet. And Rosemary Harris as Aunt May and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson deliver ably as always on sage wisdom and blowhard buffoonery respectively. Church demonstrates that the dramatic range he evinced in Sideways was no fluke adding dimensional shades to his monstrous Sandman without the benefit of much dialogue. Grace with his snarky Eddie Haskell-on-crack riffs specializes in stealing scenes though he might have upped the menace when the plot goes pitch-black. And as the dishy girl-next-door-ish Gwen Stacy Bryce Dallas Howard not only captures the iconic look of the iconic ice cream blonde she makes her a genuinely appealing alternative to MJ in Peter’s love life Simply put Sam Raimi knows how to make Spider-Man movies. As a student of the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko-John Romita school of storytelling which helped revolutionize comic book superheroes four decades ago Raimi continues to understand that unlike Superman’s awesome powers or Batman’s intense obsession it’s Spidey’s Everyman humanity underneath his mask that makes him an engrossing character. And Raimi not only extends his reach beyond the ‘60s-‘70s era he grew up on to include more contemporary characters like Venom he – along with brother/writing partner Ivan and acclaimed screenwriter Alvin Sargent – does it in ways that cleverly serve the story advance the themes and broaden the relationships. Here’s hoping this isn’t Raimi ’s final outing as his is one web to enjoy being ensnared in. Even with its lengthy running time and packed-to-the-gills story the film is certainly a webbed wonder to behold.