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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What is it that makes a man a badass? Is it the make of his car? Is it the clothing he wears? No, more likely the prestigious badass moniker is bestowed on the basis of a man’s actions. With that in mind I ask you, what could possibly higher on the badass meter than battling a pack of hungry wolves mano y wolf…o? That is the gauntlet of mandom lain before Liam Neeson and his band of wayward travelers in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. While Neeson is the undisputed alpha badass of the team, one face we hope you won’t let go overlooked is that of Dermot Mulroney. Dylan McDermott? No, Dermot Mulroney. But we do understand your confusion so here are some standout titles featuring Mulroney that will hopefully help you forever create the appropriate distinction.
The story of Billy the Kid and his gang is given the full '80s treatment in Christopher Cain’s Young Guns. Billy (played by decade mainstay Emilio Estevez) is the latest addition to a group of former outlaws learning the ways of honest, upstanding citizenship under the tutelage of the kindly Mr. Tunstall (Terence Stamp), but a greedy land owner violently disrupts their way of life and sends the young team on a quest for vengeance. Mulroney plays “Dirty” Steve Stephens, the loveable goofball of the group and one of the two resident cutups,. His performance during the peyote scene is six different kinds of hilarious.
The Family Stone
Though not a huge fan of romantic comedies by and large, I do appreciate those that feature strong performances and weighty emotional subtext. When I saw 2005’s The Family Stone, I was taken aback by just how moving it was and how far the drama extended beyond the principal love story. Mulroney plays a young man bringing his new girlfriend to his family’s Christmas get-together. Unfortunately for her, the Stones rank among the world’s foremost dysfunctional clan. Mulroney does an outstanding job playing the emotionally centered sibling around which all the hysterical crazy revolves.
This film makes the list not necessarily for its exemplary quality. Not that 1988’s Survival Quest is a terrible movie, it’s just unrepentantly cheesy. But then, what should one expect from Don Coscarelli, the director of The Beastmaster? The reason Survival Quest earns a spot on this list is how perfectly the film would work as the opening act of a double feature with The Grey. It’s a movie about a group of people who go into the woods to be closer to nature, only to have a bloodthirsty paramilitary troupe attempt to track and kill them all. Mulroney, much like in The Grey, must use his wits and his newly acquired wilderness skills to survive being hunted. Get this, his character’s name in Surivival Quest…is Gray!
Yes, I know this isn’t a movie so it may seem a bit like cheating. But Friends, the TV series about six chums living in New York that ran from 1994-2004, is one of the best ensemble comedies of all time. Mulroney appeared on the show in a three-episode stint during their 9th season. He played Gavin, the guy who filled in for Rachel at her office while she was on maternity leave. The great thing about Mulroney’s performance is that he starts off as such a rude, obnoxious jerk constantly at odds with Rachel, and then slowly evolves to be wonderfully charming and someone she even considers dating. It’s an impressive transformation considering how masterfully he executes the turnabout within just three episodes.
My Best Friend’s Wedding
Ok, here again I am defying my own proclivities and choosing another rom-com for the list. In my defense, in the annals of romantic comedy 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding is considered to be something of a classic. It’s the story of a woman whose best friend of many years, someone for whom she has always harbored feelings, is getting married to another, seemingly perfect, woman (Cameron Diaz). Our heroine, played by Julia Roberts, must then enlist the aid of another of her male friends, who happens to be gay, to try and break up her true love’s wedding. Mulroney plays the aforementioned true love and does so with such genuine amiability and sizzle that it becomes easy to understand why both Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz fell for him. Huh, maybe I’m falling for him. Could you really blame me?
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.