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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Novelist and college teacher Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a literary luminary on the strength of his smash first book but his follow-up is going nowhere after years of effort. Blocked emotionally as well as creatively this rumpled pot-smoking eccentric has driven away his wife and squandered another opportunity for love with his school's hubby-cheating chancellor (Frances McDormand). Then an exceptionally gifted young student (Tobey Maguire) triggers a series of misadventures that exceeds anything Grady ever dreamed up for his fiction.
In a performance that rivals his work in "Wall Street" as the best of his career Douglas grounds the film with effortless-looking naturalism and crusty charm. His knack for bringing sympathy to unsavory characters allows "Wonder Boys" to retain an edge while stealthily reaching for viewers' heartstrings. Playing a sensitive misfit coming of age for the umpteenth time is no stretch for Maguire ("The Cider House Rules") but he's touchingly effective nonetheless. The invaluable Robert Downey Jr. ("Chaplin") is delightful as Grady's stressed-out but loyal agent who hits town with a hulking transvestite on his arm.
Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") takes the fine screenplay adaptation by Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") and wrings it for every drop of humor and pathos. Wise and full of heart in its sly way "Wonder Boys" is the kind of deeply satisfying piece filmmakers must have in mind when they set out to make dramas. The obvious disparity between the film's wide critical acclaim and dismal box-office performance earlier this year led Paramount Pictures to give it a rare re-release as the holiday Oscar season gets underway.