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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Move over cupid; it’s time for the angel of death to play matchmaker in Life As We Know It a rom-com from director Greg Berlanti and first-time screenwriters Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson which proves the old adage that there’s no better catalyst for love — and comic hijinks — than the sudden tragic demise of loved ones.
Holly Berenson (Katherine Heigl) and Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel) could not be more different. He’s an aspiring television sports director and an unrepentant cad whose casual seat-of-your pants approach to life is best symbolized in the ratty baseball hat that perpetually adorns his dome (always worn backwards — classic movie shorthand for “slob”). She’s a successful caterer with a five-year plan and a strict intolerance for disorder of any kind. He has a penis; she a vagina. We’re talking Israel and Palestine here folks.
The mutual disdain between Holly and Messer is palpable and intense but the two are always able to put their differences aside when in the presence of their goddaughter Sophie the unbearably adorable spawn of his best friend Peter (Hayes MacArthur) and her best friend Alison (Christina Hendricks). When the youthful parents perish suddenly in a car accident (the tragedy of which is compounded by the loss of Mad Men star Hendricks on-screen for all of a few minutes and annoyingly clothed throughout that span) there’s little time to mourn before hilarity comes calling in the form of an estate lawyer who reveals that Peter and Alison mischievous rascals that they were mandated in their will that Sophie be raised by Holly and Messer in the event that the child is abruptly orphaned.
One’s heart really goes out to Duhamel’s character here: Not only does he lose his best friend but he’s saddled with both a helpless one-year-old and Katherine Heigl. What sort of mass-murdering past life is this guy being forced to atone for? Put this material in the hands of Clint Eastwood and it’s got Oscar potential. And yet not only does Messer not strangle Holly in her sleep he falls in love with her! And she for him! Their romantic bond flowers unexpectedly as they devote themselves to the task of caring for Sophie within whose many noxious emissions it seems is housed some sort of powerful aphrodisiac that renders even the most unappealing people somehow irresistible.
The effect spreads to the audience as Duhamel and Heigl conspire to win our affections establishing a keen romantic chemistry that almost makes Life As We Know It’s far-fetched (and occasionally bizarrely macabre) plot palpable. Duhamel hits that sweet spot between eye candy and everydude as well as any actor working today and his easy charm rubs off on Heigl whose trademark busybody antics aren't nearly as cloying as in the previous seven chapters of her “Men Are Pigs” rom-com decalogy. In fact she’s downright likable in this film. Maybe there's some truth to all that nonsense about babies being little miracles after all.
Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.