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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Adapted from Augusten Burroughs’ bestselling 2002 memoir which redefined the notion of a dysfunctional upbringing—or f’d-upbringing in his case—Scissors initially follows the dynamic between sweet quirky Augusten (Joseph Cross) and his increasingly erratic and unstable mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) whose overwhelming combination of relentless self-pity artistic pretensions and attention-whoring torpedoes her marriage and throws Augusten’s youth into a morass of high-drama chaos. Deirdre seeks solace from—and becomes irretrievably dependent upon—her unconventional therapist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) a pseudo-intellectual upper--and downer--dispensing Santa Clause figure. But when Augusten is brought to live in the Finches’ home as part of his mother’s therapy he discovers a family in an equally extreme state of psychological disarray. There’s Finch’s long-suffering kibble-eating wife (Jill Clayburgh); devoted but uptight older daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow); rebellious Goth Girl younger daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); and the adopted son (Joseph Fiennes) perhaps the most dangerously damaged of the lot. The film follows Augusten’s journey to alternately connect and disconnect with his freakish foster family and especially his mother as she hurdles down a path toward complete mental breakdown. Bening is undeniably one of the finest most fearless actresses working in Hollywood having made a specialty of cracking the brittle facades of women on the brink--from American Beauty to Being Julia to Mrs. Harris. Deirdre’s high-strung starting point begins where most of these characters end though and Bening robustly charges unblinking into the abyss her performance powering the film—towering over it actually. The members of the A-list ensemble rises to her occasion without resorting to chewing the scenery: Fiennes fuels his part with pathos; Cox is refreshingly loopy yet utterly straight-faced as a highly rationalizing but very very bad therapist; Alec Baldwin as Augusten’s dad is as dry and stinging as a particularly stiff martini; Wood charges up an underwritten role; Clayburgh deftly sidesteps what might have been a caricature to provide the film’s most moving moment; and Paltrow makes even her barely-there character memorable. Least served in the crowd though is the otherwise well-cast newcomer Cross as the protagonist who too often gets lost when the film focuses on the showier side characters. Unfortunately acting excellence becomes the primary reason to follow the film to its conclusion. Director Ryan Murphy the driving force behind the TV drama Nip/Tuck has in his directorial debut delivered a film that is just as frustrating as that series serving up deliciously juicy individual sequences and potent moments of emotional truth and then just as quickly derailing them with pulpy contrived twists and an insistence on artificial eccentricity that echoes the worst impulses of say Wes Anderson. While the film adeptly depicts many of the serious hilarious and heartbreaking moments that defined Burroughs’ off-kilter youth it also indulges in a relentless subtlety-free quirkiness of style and setting—too often the only way to stay invested is to remind oneself that these things did indeed happen to the real Burroughs. Murphy’s over-stylized “Get it? They’re all CRAZY!” approach not only fails to match the dry detached and urbanely witty tone of Burroughs’ memoir it often undermines the intense clarity of his actors’ spot-on instincts. Ultimately it takes more than one of Murphy’s TV plastic surgeons to disguise the scars left from his cinematic sprint wielding scissors.