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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Handsome James (Paul Dawson) is a bit depressed. In the opening scene he pees while taking a bath and then sets up his camera as he fellates himself while a stalker across the street (Peter Stickles) watches. Then James cries. He's miserable and his boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) doesn't know what to do. They go to a sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). She in turn has incredible sex--or at least finds incredible positions--with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) but she can't achieve an orgasm. They all end up at a wild club called Shortbus which looks like a room even Caligula would love and whose guests range from a former mayor of New York to a popular drag queen Justin Bond (playing his/herself). It's at Shortbus where James and Jamie meet young Ceth (Jay Brannan) and to try to add spice to their relationship while Sofia meets an angry dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish) who thinks she can help with Sofia's quest. The most amazing part of Shortbus comes from the performers who are as real as it gets. Mitchell tries to get the actors to play parts of themselves asking them to reenact their most bizarre sexual experiences and developing the storylines around them. With that Mitchell is quoted in the press notes as saying that every orgasm is genuine--except one and he's not saying which one. For this reason perhaps the cast is filled with virtual unknowns except for a few choice cameos (character actor/publicist Mickey Cottrell with a dead guy in a whirlpool is a particularly good one). But the players are all superb in their own individual ways especially Dawson as the sad-eyed stud and Lee as the desperate therapist. Beamish also shows quite an emotional range and looks like a modern-day Cyndi Lauper. Watch for her star to rise. John Cameron Mitchell best known for his searing little indie gem Hedwig and the Angry Inch apparently auditioned 100 people by throwing a rather sexually open party not unlike the parties shown in the film. But Mitchell has got more than an inch showing up in Shortbus. It's as if he has re-made The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a non-musical live NC-17 version. All the film’s sexual explicitness seems almost voyeuristic but dances around being pornographic or grotesque. In fact the scenes are often devoid of eroticism coming across as funny creepy and sad instead. Mitchell also paints an intriguing canvas mixing animation and art as the camera swoops into different neighborhoods around Manhattan. Ultimately the parade of sexuality and bizarre characters plays like a Federico Fellini film but it makes much more sense. Mitchell's picture is raw but heartfelt and it’s going to make audiences uncomfortable. But obviously that's the point.