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.
It hasn't just been a weighty year in politics -- culminating with President Barack Obama's inauguration. It was also an issue-heavy year in snowy Park City.
At the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival, the issue-focused subject matter -- global and national -- spanned the gamut: from assassination-fearing, aspiring pop singers (Afghan Star) … to fastidious fashionistas on deadline (September Issue) ... to laid-off female factory workers in revolt (Louise-Michel) … to Chris Rock taking-on the politics of smooth vs. kinky hair (Good Hair).
And the big triple winner: Push, a story of survival, literacy and hope by Lee Daniels co-starring Mo'Nique, accomplished its own story-making feat with a captivating leading young lady (Gabourey Sidibe).
Out of the 118 features, 7 prestigious awards were won by a small group of buzz films we profiled in our "Sundance Preview Guide." Narrative winners: Push (Grand Jury Prize; Audience Award; Special Jury Prize for Acting for Mo'Nique) and Paper Heart (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award); Documentary winners: Afghan Star (World Cinema Audience Award); Good Hair (Special Jury Prize: U.S.); Big River Man (World Cinema Cinematography Award).
Not to mention the stars who created their own paparazzi avalanche -- some even splitting their time in D.C. -- on and off the slopes. This year's attendees included Spread's Ashton Kutcher canoodling with Demi; Twilight princess Kristen Stewart pushing Adventureland; Push's partying Mariah Carey and hubby Nick Cannon; Reporter producer Ben Affleck schmoozing at MySpace cafe; 50 Cent giving Phillip Morris' Jim Carrey a birthday shout out; Amy Poehler hangin' with Spring Breakdown co-star Parker Posey; Paper Heart's Michael Cera looking very Michael Cera; Kevin Bacon promoting Taking Chance, La Mission's Benjamin Brat adding to the hunk count; pink-hatted Emma Roberts on double-duty for Lymelife and The Winning Season, and Mr. Redford, himself -- and so on, and so on.
So on to the winners:
The Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary was presented to We Live in Public, directed by Ondi Timoner. The film portrays the story of the Internet's revolutionary impact on human interaction as told through the eyes of maverick web pioneer, Josh Harris, and his transgressive art project that shocked New York.
The Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, directed by Lee Daniels and written by Damien Paul. The film tells the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young girl in Harlem struggling to overcome tremendous obstacles and discover her own voice.
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Rough Aunties, directed by Kim Longinotto. Fearless, feisty and unwavering, the 'Rough Aunties' protect and care for the abused, neglected and forgotten children of Durban, South Africa. United Kingdom
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to The Maid (La Nana), directed by Sebastian Silva. When her mistress brings on another servant to help with the chores, a bitter and introverted maid wreaks havoc on the household. Chile
The Audience Award presented by Honda: U.S. Documentary was presented to The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos. The horrors of a secret cove nestled off a small, coastal village in Japan are revealed by a group of activists.
The Audience Award presented by Honda: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, directed by Lee Daniels and written by Damien Paul. The film tells the redemptive story of Precious Jones, a young girl in Harlem struggling to overcome tremendous obstacles and discover her own voice.
The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary was presented to Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking. After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Pop Idol has come to television in Afghanistan: millions are watching and voting for their favorite singer. Marking's film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk their lives to sing. Afghanistan/United Kingdom
The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic was presented to An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby. In the early 60s, a sharp 16-year-old with sights set on Oxford meets a handsome older man whose sophistication enraptures and sidetracks both her and her parents. United Kingdom
The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to El General and director Natalia Almada. As great-granddaughter of President Plutarco Eliás Calles, one of Mexico's most controversial revolutionary figures, the filmmaker paints an intimate portrait of Mexico.
The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sin Nombre, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Filmmaker Fukunaga's first-hand experiences with Mexican immigrants seeking the promise of the U.S. form the basis of this epic Spanish-language dramatic thriller.
The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary was presented to Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking. After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, Pop Idol has come to television in Afghanistan: millions are watching and voting for their favorite singer. Marking's film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk their lives to sing. Afghanistan/United Kingdom
The World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic was presented to Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Two men from the same town but from different sides of the Irish political divide discover that the past is never dead. United Kingdom/Ireland
The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award was presented to Nicholas Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi for Paper Heart. Even though performer Charlyne Yi doesn't believe in love, she bravely embarks on a quest to discover its true nature - a journey that takes on surprising urgency when she meets unlikely fellow traveler, actor Michael Cera.
The World Cinema Screenwriting Award was presented to Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Two men from the same town but from different sides of the Irish political divide discover that the past is never dead. United Kingdom/Ireland
The U.S. Documentary Editing Award was presented to Sergio. Directed by Greg Barker and edited by Karen Schmeer, the film examines the role of the United Nations and the international community through the life and experiences of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award was presented to Burma VJ. Directed by Anders Østergaard and edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros. The film takes place in September 2007 as Burmese journalists risk life imprisonment to report from inside their sealed-off country. Denmark
The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to The September Issue. With unprecedented access, director R.J. Cutler, cinematographer Bob Richman and their crew shot for nine months to capture editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her team preparing the 2007 Vogue September issue, widely accepted as the "fashion bible" for the year's trends.
The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sin Nombre, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Cinematographer: Adriano Goldman. Filmmaker Fukunaga's first-hand experiences with Mexican immigrants seeking the promise of the U.S. form the basis of this epic Spanish-language dramatic thriller.
The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary was presented to Big River Man, John Maringouin's documentary about at an overweight, wine-swilling Slovenian world-record-holding endurance swimmer who resolves to brave the mighty Amazon in nothing but a Speedo. U.S.A./United Kingdom
The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic was presented to An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay by Nick Hornby. Cinematographer: John De Borman. In the early 1960s, a sharp 16-year-old girl with sights set on Oxford meets a handsome older man whose sophistication enraptures and sidetracks both her and her parents. United Kingdom
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Originality was presented to Louise-Michel, directed by Benoit Delépine and Gustave de Kervern, about a group of disgruntled female French factory workers who, after the factory abruptly closes, pool their paltry compensation money to hire a hit man to knock off the corrupt executive behind the closure. France
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Tibet in Song directed by Ngawang Choephel. Through the story of Tibetan music, this film depicts the determined efforts of Tibetan people, both in Tibet and in exile, to preserve their unique cultural identity. Choephel served six years of an 18-year prison sentence for filming in Tibet. Tibet
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting was presented to Catalina Saavedra for her portrayal of a bitter and introverted maid in The Maid (La Nana). Chile
A Special Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary was presented to Good Hair, directed by Jeff Stilson, in which comedian Chris Rock travels the world to examine the culture of African-American hair and hairstyles.
A Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence was presented to Humpday, Lynn Shelton's farcical comedy about straight male bonding gone a little too far.
A Special Jury Prize for Acting was presented to Mo'Nique for her portrayal of a mentally ill mother who both emotionally and physically imprisons her daughter in Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.
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