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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The other day, we got a look at the list of competitors in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. But we've also got ourselves a fair share of promising premieres, with a slew of stars and directors alike that we're sure to get excited over.
Some of the big names we'll be seeing at this year's Sundance include Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde and Jeremy Irons in The Words, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Lay the Favorite, Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in Bachelorette, Julie Delpy and Chris Rock in the Delpy-directed 2 Days in New York, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg and Elijah Wood in Celeste and Jesse Forever (co-written by Jones) and Josh Radnor, starring against Elizabeth Olsen, in Liberal Arts, which he wrote and directed.
2 Days in New York / France (Director: Julie Delpy, Screenwriters: Julie Delpy, Alexia Landeau) — Marion has broken up with Jack and now lives in New York with their child. A visit from her family, the different cultural background of her new boyfriend, her sister’s ex-boyfriend, and her upcoming photo exhibition make for an explosive mix. Cast: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Alex Nahon.
Arbitrage / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Nicholas Jarecki) — A hedge-fund magnate is in over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his trading empire before the depths of his fraud are revealed. An unexpected, bloody error forces him to turn to the most unlikely corner for help. Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta.
Bachelorette / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Leslye Headland) — Unresolved issues between four high school friends come roaring back to life when the least popular of them gets engaged to one of the most eligible bachelors in New York City and asks the others to be bridesmaids in her wedding. Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer.
Celeste and Jesse Forever / U.S.A. (Director: Lee Toland Krieger, Screenwriters: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack) — Celeste and Jesse met in high school, married young, and at 30, decide to get divorced but remain best friends while pursuing other relationships. Cast: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts.
For A Good Time, Call... / U.S.A. (Director: Jamie Travis, Screenwriters: Katie Anne Naylon & Lauren Anne Miller) — Lauren and Katie move in together after a loss of a relationship and a loss of a rent controlled home, respectively. When Lauren learns what Katie does for a living the two enter into a wildly unconventional business venture. Cast: Ari Graynor, Lauren Anne Miller, Justin Long, Mark Webber, James Wolk.
GOATS / U.S.A. (Director: Christopher Neil, Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier) — Ellis leaves his unconventional desert home to attend the disciplined and structured Gates Academy. There, he re-connects with his estranged father and for the first time questions the family dynamics. Cast: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Ty Burrell.
Lay The Favorite / U.S.A. (Director: Stephen Frears, Screenwriter: D.V. Devincintis) — An adventurous young woman gets involved with a group of geeky older men who have found a way to work the sportsbook system in Las Vegas to their advantage. Cast: Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rebecca Hall.
Liberal Arts / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Josh Radnor) — When 30-something Jesse is invited back to his alma mater, he falls for a 19-year-old college student and is faced with the powerful attraction that springs up between them. Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser.
Price Check / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Michael Walker) — Pete is having trouble resolving a happy marriage and family life with rising debt and a job he hates. When his new boss pulls him into the maelstrom that is her life, money and opportunities come his way, but at what price? Cast: Parker Posey, Eric Mabius, Annie Parisse, Josh Pais, Cheyenne Jackson.
Red Hook Summer / U.S.A. (Director: Spike Lee, Screenwriters: James McBride, Spike Lee) — A young Atlanta boy spends his summer in Brooklyn with his grandfather, who he's never seen before. Cast: Clark Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, James Ransone, Thomas Jefferson Byrd.
Robot and Frank / U.S.A. (Director: Jake Schreier, Screenwriter: Christopher Ford) — A curmudgeonly older dad’s grown kids install a robot as his caretaker. Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler. SALT LAKE CITY GALA FILM
Shadow Dancer / United Kingdom (Director: James Marsh, Screenwriter: Tom Brady) — Widowed mother-turned-terrorist Colette McVeigh has high-ranking brothers in the IRA. When she’s arrested in an aborted bomb plot she must make hard choices, testing family loyalties. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, with Gillian Anderson and Clive Owen.
The Words / U.S.A. (Directors and screenwriters: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal) — Aspiring writer Rory Jansen finds another man's haunting memories in a collection of lost stories and claims them as his own, propelling him to literary stardom. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde with Zoe Saldana. CLOSING NIGHT FILM
13 Notes: Paul Simon's Graceland Journey / U.S.A. (Director: Joe Berlinger) — Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end Apartheid.
About Face / U.S.A. (Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders) — An exploration of beauty and aging through the stories of the original supermodels. Participants including Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Paulina Porizkova, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington weigh in on the fashion industry and how they reassess and redefine their own sense of beauty as their careers progress.
A Fierce Green Fire / U.S.A. (Director: Mark Kitchell) — A definitive history of one of the most important movements of the 20th century, A Fierce Green Fire chronicles the environmental movement’s fascinating evolution from the 1960s to the present.
Bones Brigade / U.S.A. (Director: Stacy Peralta) — When six teenage boys came together as a skateboarding team in the 1980s, they reinvented not only their chosen sport but themselves too – as they evolved from insecure outsiders to the most influential athletes in the field.
The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia / U.S.A. (Director: James Redford) — While following a Dyslexic high school senior struggling to achieve his dream of getting into a competitive college, The D Word exposes myths about Dyslexia and reveals cutting edge research to elucidate this widely misunderstood condition.
Ethel / U.S.A. (Director: Rory Kennedy) — This intimate, surprising portrait of Ethel Kennedy provides an insider's view of a political dynasty, including Ethel’s life with Robert F. Kennedy and the years following his death when she raised their eleven children on her own.
Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap / United Kingdom (Director: Ice-T, Co-Director: Andy Baybutt) — Through conversations with Rap’s most influential artists – among them Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, MC Lyte, Mos Def, and Kanye West – Ice-T explores the roots and history of Rap and reveals the creative process behind this now dominant art form.
West of Memphis / U.S.A. (Director: Amy Berg) — Three teenage boys are incarcerated for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. 19 years later, new evidence calls into question the convictions and raises issues of judicial, prosecutorial and jury misconduct – showing that the first casualty of a corrupt justice system is the truth.