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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As the end of January approaches, that New Year’s resolution you were so adamant about just a few weeks earlier is already starting to fall by the wayside. Suddenly, the gym seems farther away, cigarettes call your name, and you haven’t even taken the cellophane off that scrapbook you bought. While we can’t do much to help you with those fading pledges, there is one resolution to which we can assist you in remaining faithful.
If you made it your charge to watch a more diverse assortment of films in 2013, in essence to become a more well-rounded cinephile, we're here to keep you on track. Here is our comprehensive guide to help you begin to branch out:
Bronson vs. Marvin
The '70s were a great time for action films, and the two biggest names of the era were Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. Here’s a sampling of their best.
The Mechanic: Bronson takes a young Jan-Michael Vincent under his wing; showing him the ropes of contract killing. The complex relationship between the two characters, the slow, methodic storytelling, and the dramatic ending make this one of ol’ Charlie’s finest.
Point Blank:Lee Marvin inhabits Donald E. Westlake’s Parker in this gripping, deliberate crime thriller from John Boorman. Why anyone would want to mess with a guy like Lee Marvin is beyond the limits of reason.
Death Hunt: Can’t decide which actor to watch first? Why not watch them both in this early '80s wilderness actioner. Violent, well-constructed, and featuring one of the decade’s most interesting games of cat-and-mouse.
Asian Fists and Firearms
Whether it’s martial arts or automatic weapons, the action cinema of the East tends to be more brutal and bombastic than Hollywood fare. If you liked The Raid: Redemption, do yourself a favor and track down…
Tiger Cage: Legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping expertly directs this unsung cops vs. criminals actioner. The opening sequence, an unfettered gauntlet of carnage, alone is well worth the price of admission; an unfettered gauntlet of carnage.
Ip Man: Donnie Yen brings to life one of China’s most beloved historical figures, and does so with some of the fastest and most impressive kung fu in recent memory.
Hard Boiled: John Woo earned his reputation working in Hong Kong, and Hard Boiled may be his masterpiece. Chow Yun-fat eloquently dances through Woo’s gorgeous bullet ballet.
Contemporary Foreign Action
Sleepless Night: France may not be the first country one associates with action cinema, but they’ve made huge strides in recent years. Sleepless Night is a single-night nonstop crime story that rages through a nightclub like a force of nature. The cinematography, pacing, and exceptional performances create an organic sense of tension.
Man From Nowhere: Nobody, but nobody, does revenge movies like Korea. The Man from Nowehere is a savage, uncompromising descent into the darkest recesses of the soul of someone we still, despite everything, herald as a hero.
Solomon Kane: It took a French/British/Czech co-production to finally bring Robert E. Howard’s puritanical superhero to the big screen, but it was worth the wait. Solomon Kane combines horror, fantasy, and superhero conventions to create a truly unique filmic experience. James Purefory broodingly and perfectly inhabits the titular antihero.
These aren’t your granddad’s horse operas.
Dudes: A cross-country road trip turns tragic for a trio of rockers in this outstanding '80s gem from Penelope Spheeris. She uses punk rock to breathe new life into an age-old genre. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea has a prominent role in the film.
Sukiyaki Western Django: A wild mashup of Yojimbo and Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Sukiyaki Western Django is somehow still unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Comin’ At Ya!: Of this group, Comin’ At Ya! most closely resembles a traditional spaghetti western, but the filmmakers behind it were keen to bring back the then-languishing 3D technology. If you thought the recent spate of 3D films in theaters were gimmicky, just wait until you see the prolific and hilarious instances in which Comin’ At Ya! finds ways to, well, make things come at ya.
The Long Goodbye: Possibly the best film on this entire list. Elliot Gould, as Philip Marlowe, wafts through a seedy, almost dream-like Los Angeles. Gould’s effortlessly charming performance is enhanced by Robert Altman’s superb direction and a marvelous, if slightly unusual John Williams score. An absolutely masterful film that, incidentally, makes a great double feature with The Big Lebowski.
Elevator to the Gallows: Film noir is sprinkled with traces of Hitchcock in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. A fledgling criminal murders his boss while their office building is empty, but his escape is hindered by a busted elevator. Tense, engaging, and given a pulse by a smoky cool Miles Davis score.
The Killing: An early Stanley Kubrick film hits upon the director’s substantial talent for storytelling. A flawless racetrack heist gives way to squabbling and conniving between a team of crooks. Its great cast anchored by Sterling Hayden, The Killing is gorgeously shot and harrowing to the last frame.
Buddy Cop Movies
Freebie and the Bean: It’s hard to do buddy cop films better than Freebie and the Bean. James Caan and Alan Arkin set the standard for unlikely law enforcement duos, constantly at each other’s throats as they do all in their power to get the better of crooks and thugs. Their banter is among the film’s greatest strengths.
Nighthawks: Sylvester Stallone doesn’t get a lot of credit as an actor, and maybe rightfully so, but in 1981’s Nighthawks, he and Billy Dee Williams are a formidable team. The perpetually fuming pair take on an international terrorist played to icy perfection by Rutger Hauer.
Busting: Elliot Gould returns to the list, this time working alongside Robert Blake to bring down a crime boss in Peter Hyams’ Busting. These two are laughably bad at their jobs at the onset, and that is meant as a compliment, but their ability to get serious when it really counts gives the movie a great deal of charm.