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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From his smooth, quiet manner to his seductive English accent to his seemingly genuine interest in everything you have to say, there's no doubt about it — James Purefoy would be a devastatingly effective serial killer. When I visited the Brooklyn set of Kevin Williamson's ambitious new thriller The Following last week, Purefoy was the ultimate gentleman; and a great sport when he took time off between filming scenes of cultish terror to speak with me in his dressing room. And after hearing what he had to say about his character, Joe Carroll, as well as serial killers in general, I would have been slightly afraid slash completely cultishly mesmerized if it weren't for Purefoy's little white dog (Marcel — a name Purefoy is not particularly fond of) adding some levity to the conversation.
"One of the things that people find interesting about serial killers in general [is that] they're human beings," Purefoy says. "They're not monsters. It's not always black and white, good and evil. How unnerving it is; that you can sit down and talk to them, and they can be rational and charming and interesting and likable on the one hand, and then do appalling things on their downtime on another. There's really just a cigarette paper between us."
Hopefully, there's more than just a cigarette paper separating the rest of us from Joe Carroll. Purefoy's vicious killer slaughtered more than a dozen young women in 2003, before Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) slept with his wife and put him behind bars. But prison bars didn't stop Carroll — the sexy, brilliant professor every female co-ed inappropriately dreamed of — from building a broad, sophisticated online network of killers who do his bidding while he does push-ups in the prison yard. Interestingly, Carroll's killings were largely inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe — particularly "The Black Cat," a short story in which the narrator tries to cut out the eyes of a cat. But in Carroll's world, that black cat has become young women.
"He becomes very obsessed with the world of Edgar Allen Poe, and he genuinely starts believing that there's nothing more beautiful than a dying woman," Purefoy says. "That goes back to when he was young — something very specific that happened when he was young. [But] I can't tell you [what that is]."
According to Purefoy, Carroll's obsession with the world created by Poe is linked to a common trait that serial killers possess. "One of the things I found out about serial killers is that they like to have an alternate reality around themselves, that they completely believe in," he says. "And he believes in [his vision] 100 percent. Even Ted Bundy in his final interview, the day before he was executed — he blamed it all on pornography. 1970's pornography as well, mind you, so we're talking pretty lame stuff. If he had been around today — can you imagine? That was his kind of alternate reality. When it comes down to it, all serial killers are people who have a desperate lack of self esteem, and a desire for control and power. Where does that all come from, is the question to ask yourself."
Carroll's resourceful brilliance and internal clarity make his belief in this "alternate reality" even more frightening — and by the end of episode four (the first four are available for press) viewers will see just how far Carroll's many followers are willing to go to please him and his vision. And even though Carroll seems like the perfect serial killer boss, working for him has some serious drawbacks. "Discipline is important," Purefoy explains. "Sometimes [the followers] take it very well. They're trained, and they come to me willingly. But then they also need to be deprived of certain things. It's an S&M thing. [But] the people that he's dealing with are, generally speaking, psychotic serial killers — they're not the most reliable of coworkers."
And these "coworkers" have to be in tip-top murderin' shape if they want to help Carroll achieve one of his ultimate goals: The psychological torture of Bacon's character, Hardy. "I think [Joe would] be very happy to put a crochet hook into Ryan's belly and tug on his entrails forever," Purefoy says. "I don't think he wants to kill him, he wants to cause him terrible pain for a very long time."
With that definitive statement, Purefoy and the remarkably well-behaved Marcel had to go. But the following night, at the show's Manhattan premiere, I was able to fit in the one vital question I'd forgotten to ask: Do Carroll's (American) followers only trust him due to his seductive English accent?
"Of course," Purefoy says. "It imbues us with really not deserved intelligence."
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[PHOTO CREDIT: Fox]
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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.