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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Yes that’s right. BFF’s Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are indeed endearing in their own pot-smoking crass totally inept way--and movie No. 2 continues to prove it. It starts a couple hours after they’ve successfully completed their White Castle quest with Harold’s vow to follow his lady love to Amsterdam. At the airport Kumar runs into his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris) and is shocked to discover she’s about to get married to a guy he considers a real “douche bag.” But once they make it onto the plane all manner of hell breaks loose: Mistaken for terrorists (yes it does have something to do with marijuana and a bong) the two end up escaping from Guantanamo Bay and embarking on one outrageous misadventure after another to clear their names--and wreck Vanessa’s wedding in the process. High times dude! It’s funny that this week’s new movies features two sets of Odd Couples: Baby Mama’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and the reteaming of Penn and Cho who simply click on all cylinders as the pot-smoking former college roommates who couldn’t be more different yet so connected. Even though you cringe at the ridiculous predicaments they find themselves in these two guys sell it lock stock and barrel. Supporting them is Daily Show’s Rob Corddry who overplays it as the hard-ass bigoted Homeland Security agent going after the boys. But it’s the weird characters they meet along the way that make the Harold & Kumar movies including The Office’s Ed Helms as an interpreter; Missi Pyle as a forward-thinking Southern hick; and of course Neil Patrick Harris once again playing himself as a debauched mushroom-taking unicorn-spotting moron. Harris’ appearance in the first Harold & Kumar showed everyone just how funny he is leading to his hilarious turn in the hit TV show How I Met Your Mother. This just solidifies it. Writer/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg probably never thought they’d be back again after their first Harold & Kumar Goes to White Castle effort. But here they are doing it all over again. Maybe it was a fluke the original touched a comical nerve in those Gen-X slackers who made H&K the new Cheech and Chong of the 21st Century but there’s something to be said for a good old-fashioned stoner movie. Unfortunately for Guantanamo Bay however Hurwitz and Schlossberg try to outdo themselves by making it even more raunchy (the “bottom-less” party is quite something) more offensive (the mongoloid cycloptic lovechild of hick incestuous parents) and more ridiculous (smoking out with President Bush?) than it should be. That simplicity of the original is lost. But don’t worry Guantanamo Bay isn’t a complete wash. You’ll still laugh plenty.