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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Like the depression-era brass-and-bass pop hits that its wiry protagonist covets Meet Monica Velour is a pleasant little ditty that plays smoothly and entertains from start to finish. Anchored by a refreshing turn from Kim Cattrall as the title character Keith Bearden’s feature debut is a firm freshman effort one that will undoubtedly grant the film journalist-turned-filmmaker a crack at something bigger.
A high-concept coming-of-age story with a significant social message the movie centers on seventeen-year-old Tobe Hulbert (Dustin Ingram) – an innocent and awkward recent high school graduate on the verge of a breakdown from boredom. The only solace he finds in his mundane existence comes from collecting assorted pop-culture items: vintage records from the 1930s comic books from the ‘40s and most interestingly pornography from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. When he hears about a rare appearance by his lifelong porn star crush at a sleazy strip club four states away Tobe leaves his drunken grandfather’s home and heads to Indiana to finally meet Monica Velour.
Of course after thirty years of professional wear and tear and marital and substance abuse Ms. Velour is nothing more than a decaying façade of the glimmering beauty she once was. Spiteful and world-weary Cattrall shines through the runny make-up and cheap outfits her character has become accustomed to and delivers an authentic portrayal of a woman who walked on the wild side and came through a marvelous mess. Her performance along with the nostalgic reminiscence of porno’s home-video heyday offers a loving nod to the skin-flick industry while poking fun at its ludicrous unnecessary plot lines and C-rate production values.
While Ms. Cattrall will help sell tickets young Dustin Ingram steals the show as the nebbish Tobe. Looking and acting like the bastard child of Napoleon Dynamite and Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka the twenty-year-old actor taps into the misery of America’s disaffected youth and turns it into enjoyably wry comedy that shares its tone with the picture as a whole. Writer/director Bearden brightens his character’s bleak outlook on life with vibrant colors that convey the magic of Americana that fuels the film as well as his protagonist’s quest.
Though the movie may be likened to popular teen comedies like The Girl Next Door Porky’s or Fast Times at Ridgemont High underneath the crude humor and sex jokes is a poignant story of an unlikely friendship between a faded star and her number one fan. There is a great deal of emotional depth to both the characters and the narrative and though the relationship between Monica and Tobe is mostly comedic Bearden allows the mold to be broken at times to reveal a genuine connection between these two lost souls. Furthermore the picture attacks the hegemonic perspective of the aging woman in a society that worships youth and beauty and is quick to dispose of one who is past her prime. It has more in common with Juno and Little Miss Sunshine than the aforementioned mainstream studio movies and like both of those critical darlings deserves to be picked up for wide distribution where it will surely prosper.