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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Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and his partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) get into a car accident en route to investigate a murdered body found in a canyon overlooking Los Angeles. Ria is ready to snap necks but Graham explains "It's the sense of touch…I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something." He ain't kiddin'. Crash begins at the end after 24 hours that have not only irrevocably changed Graham's life but also the lives of several other L.A. denizens who have inadvertently collided with one another. We go back to the previous day and meet an angry Brentwood housewife (Sandra Bullock) and her D.A. husband (Brendan Fraser) who have their car stolen at gunpoint by two carjackers (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris"
Bridges); a paranoid Persian store owner (Shaun Toub) who tangles with a kindly Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena); a rookie LAPD cop (Ryan Phillippe) and his veteran partner (Matt Dillon) who harass an affluent black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie
Newton) and then later ironically save them in separate hair-raising incidents. Black and white victim and aggressor there doesn't seem to be a right or a wrong as things escalate and culminate. The only common thread is the fact that life is too short to be filled with fear and intolerance.
The all-star cast is nothing less than spectacular. Cheadle tops the list as the beleaguered detective who keeps people including his partner and sometimes lover Esposito at a distance making his inevitable speech about touch even more poignant. This Oscar-nominated actor has the unique gift of lifting a scene to a whole new level just by sitting in silence. Bullock steps out of her America's Sweetheart box for a little while and plays the bigoted but lonely housewife while Fraser plays her workaholic husband with stoic detachment. As the cops Dillon giving one of his better performance to date and Phillippe aptly represent the two sides of the same coin: the racist careworn veteran whose vulnerability is revealed in a subtle way and the idealistic newcomer whose anxiety-ridden day takes its toll in a tragic way. Howard and Newton also turn in superb performances as respectively a television director who hardly ever makes waves and his emotionally wounded wife who can't believe her husband won't fight for her. Most of the more comical moments if you can call them that are provided by Tate (A Man Apart) and Bridges who emerges as yet another rapper who can act. His diatribes about racial relations are spot on. And lastly Crash's most heartening moments come from Pena (TV's The Shield). One night to allay his young daughter's fears he creates an invisible cloak that will forever protect her from harm--only to see it put to the test. It just rips your heart right out of your chest.
Television writer Paul Haggis who makes his directorial feature debut with Crash says his "aim with this film is to explore how intolerance is a collective problem." He should know. Living in Los Angeles he and his wife were once carjacked at gunpoint. Luckily no one was hurt but that one fateful night forced him out of complacency. Suddenly he wasn't immune. But more importantly he began thinking about who these carjackers were what kind of lives they lead--and Crash was born. Los Angeles is the perfect setting as the characters move around independently in their cars and in their homes. This insulated atmosphere only heightens the tension in the film. Real danger lurks on every frame--even in the lighter moments--and it's so gut-wrenching at times it's hard to watch. But just when you are certain some tragedy is about to occur Crash switches gears and surprises you. Of course films of this nature--such as Grand Canyon and Boyz N The Hood which do everything possible to get you to think and react--can also come off a tad preachy at times. In Crash's case it's a sermon we ought to listen to. You'll be hard pressed not to recognize at least to some degree a small part of yourself up there on screen.