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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Dizzy (DJ Qualls) is already what you could call the epitome of pathos at his school but his reputation as a loser and social misfit is cemented when the aging school librarian breaks his penis--in front of the entire school. He thinks there is no hope until a prank lands him in jail overnight and his cellmate Luther (Eddie Griffin) teaches him a few tricks that will guarantee him popularity. The only problem is he needs to start with a clean slate which basically means switching schools. Dizzy eventually gets his wish and enrolls at East Highland High School. He changes his name to Gil Harris and religiously follows Luther's rules which include making a grand entrance (which he does Dr. Hannibal Lecter style) and beating up the biggest guy in school. Although the entire geeks-vs.-popular crowd theme has been done countless times before scribe David Kendall manages to supply a few good lines making it a bit more entertaining to watch.
DJ Qualls who was drop dead funny in Road Trip carries on the tradition in The New Guy mostly due to his reactions and gut-busting facial expressions. For example when he tosses away a lighter he's playing with to look cool and inadvertently sets a statue on fire he displays this expression of pure shock as he walks away calm and collected. (And in case you are wondering he's not a deejay: his initials are short for Daniel Joseph.) As the inmate Luther Eddie Griffin (John Q) is also pretty funny thanks in part to some great lines such as: "High school is a lot like prison. The sex you want you ain't gettin'. The sex you gettin' you don't want." He also does the buggy-eye thing eerily well. Lyle Lovett has a small role as Dizzy's father and is mostly the butt of the joke in all his scenes including when he gets hit in the eye with a flaming marshmallow. Keep your eyes peeled for a multitude of cameo appearances including former Black Flag frontman-turned-poet/actor Henry Rollins former "Ice Ice Baby" rapper Vanilla Ice and the commercially successful skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Ed Decter makes his directorial debut here but he's no stranger to comedy: he helped pen the 1998 comedy There's Something About Mary and last year's Head Over Heels. The New Guy is nothing to boast of visually. It's ugly and sloppily pieced together. There's a great soundtrack to the film that includes The Offspring Mystikal Cypress Hill and Outkast but the tracks are loud and overpowering (I am still convinced that Qualls' character mumbles something about chili before he kisses the film's heroine towards the end of the film.) Qualls' performance however turns the film into a more enjoyable experience than it otherwise would have been with his shooting-daggers stares--complete with whipping sound effects--and his "radical" transformation which consists basically of a haircut. Considering the film is already a cliché some of the laughs might have gone over better had Decter avoided the crass toilet bowl humor and midget jokes that have become so antiquated.