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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Starting near the end of his short 24-year life and then told in flashback this film version of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s (Jamal Woolard) rapid rise from the streets of Brooklyn to fame is told in standard-issue Hollywood biopic style. We see this Catholic honors student (played by his real life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) become a teenage drug dealer and accidental father before a chance recording finds its way to Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who engineers an almost immediate rise to fame fortune -- and trouble. “Biggie” now must juggle his newfound recording career a marriage to fellow artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) his romantic encounters with female rap comer L’il Kim (Naturi Naughton) and a major East Coast/West Coast rivalry with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) that leads to tragedy for both. As Wallace Brooklyn rapper Woolard is almost indistinguishable from the real man himself. He’s completely convincing performing B.I.G’s biggie hits and proves himself to be a first-rate dramatic actor as well -- at least in a story like this that he can clearly relate to. As his mother Angela Bassett makes the most of limited screen time (despite top billing) and expertly conveys the angst of a parent fighting a losing battle for her son. Luke again shows why he is so promising playing Puffy with just the right amount of flash and supreme confidence. Unfortunately the “balanced” portrait of Combs and many others in B.I.G’s life is tainted by the fact this film was produced by some of the real life players including his managers mother and executive producer Combs. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) directs this by-the-numbers account of Biggie’s life in a style we have seen countless times before. Except for a couple of occasions he doesn’t even let the rap sequences play out to give us an idea of how this guy whose songs reflected his rough Brooklyn lifestyle could climb to the top so fast. Whatever was special is lost in what appears to be a brazen attempt to sell soundtrack albums.
Sylvia is based on notes released five years ago by the writer's husband British poet Ted Hughes after 30 years of silence (Hughes died of cancer in 1998). They chronicle Sylvia's painful battle with depression frustration over her writing career and jealousy of husband Ted's accomplishments and suspected infidelities. The movie takes up Sylvia's life in 1955 two years after she first attempted suicide; now a seemingly recovered Cambridge student and Fulbright scholar her well-bred all-American beauty and deep intellect attract the notice of aspiring poet Ted Hughes. The two begin a fervent obsessive relationship getting married and having two children while struggling with money and advancing their respective careers. The higher Ted's star rises in the publishing industry however the harder it is for Sylvia to find her voice--losing herself in the shadow of his success she grows increasingly bitter and neurotic about her failures as well as the affairs she believed handsome Ted to be having. Reality or self-fulfilling prophecy? Hard to say but in 1962 Sylvia discovers Ted having a very real affair with their mutual friend so she moves to an apartment in London with the kids. In this tiny flat during one of the coldest winters on record Sylvia Plath begins a frenzied writing period and produces the work that will finally secure her place in the annals of famous women writers: the novel The Bell Jar and the poem Ariel among others. Unfortunately it is in this flat too that Sylvia Plath takes her own life six months later.
In the eponymous role Gwyneth Paltrow (who startlingly resembles Plath) demonstrates a profound empathy with and understanding of the writer who if you're to believe this movie didn't fully understand herself. Essaying a real-life brilliant proto-feminist poet who happens also to be near catatonically depressed is no easy feat but Paltrow takes a deep breath and dives right in delivering an Oscar-caliber performance that may be her best to date. Watch as she almost gaily describes her suicide attempts to an alarmed Ted as their rowboat is being dangerously pulled out to sea or her bizarre and discomfiting reaction during a dinner party as she imagines Ted's lust for another woman at the table. Sylvia seems normal on the outside but Paltrow gives us the barest hint of the demons lurking beneath her polished erudite exterior. As womanizing Ted Hughes a suitably arrogant (and indeed attractive--someone call MGM here's your next Bond) Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) does what he can in a role limited mostly to reacting to Sylvia's idiosyncrasies until she drives him into another woman's arms; you do though get a sense that he loved her deeply and tolerated as much as he could.
Good as Paltrow is she's limited by director Christine Jeffs' (director of the New Zealand indie Rain) one-dimensional characterization of Sylvia that the writer's legacy of multilayered work belies. The love story takes a front seat to Sylvia's writing career and opinions on gender differences and family reducing Sylvia to a weepy morose soul whose overriding concern is where her husband is at all hours. While the beginning of the film gives you some hints as to Sylvia's mental state that plotline falls by the wayside except in terms of the effect her depression had on her feelings about Ted. Despite recurring scenes of her tortured writing there is scarce mention of Sylvia's work (her most well-known The Bell Jar gets fleeting reference) and regrettably very few lines of it are ever heard. By the end Jeffs seems to be veering toward the feminist opinion that Ted and his philandering created the mental state that drove Sylvia to kill herself. The director does a wonderful job though of setting the time and place with dreary grainy shots of rain-soaked 1960s England and a dead-on period look.