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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Star Wars actor Richard LeParmentier, whose lack of faith Darth Vader found disturbing, has died at age 66 according to Reuters. He played the sneering admiral Conan Antonio Motti — named after Conan O'Brien — an Imperial Navy officer fiercely committed to the idea that his beloved Death Star was invulnerable and "the greatest power in the universe." Needless to say, Motti's overconfidence was his weakness.
In this Star Wars fan's unhumble opinion, LeParmentier contributed to the best scene of the best movie in the best franchise of all time, when he told Darth Vader that his "sorcerer's ways" and "sad devotion to that ancient religion" were no match for the technological supremacy of the Death Star.
First of all, it goes to show that in any galaxy you don't just haul off and insult someone's religion. In our world you'd rightly be fired. In that Galaxy Far, Far Away, you might get a crushed windpipe. Civility, people! But it's also the most critical exposition scene to that point in Star Wars. And, yes, I'm including Obi-Wan's discussion with Luke about the nature of the Force and his family legacy. That scene on Tatooine establishes background for the mythology of the whole series.
But the scene with Admiral Motti and Darth Vader goes even further, setting up the idea of the Death Star as the superweapon that needs to be destroyed before it can unleash unstoppable terror itself, not to mention the tension between technology and mysticism, and the idea that overconfidence is a weakness that can be very easily exploited — a theme that runs through the franchise. It's also just a damn funny, beautifully shot scene, with the actors filmed in a minimalist, monochromatic setting flooded with fluourescent light that sets up the idea of the Empire's spiritually arid industrial might.
Everybody remembers Darth Vader's reaction to Motti's curled-lipped contempt. The way he telekinetically choked the guy inspired countless 30 Rock jokes about Star Wars as a lesson for workplace civility. Even George Lucas realized the unusual popularity of that moment. In 2007, when he appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, Lucas decided, as a backhanded compliment to the host, to give a first name to the character previously known as "Admiral Motti": Conan.
LeParmentier, who died in Austin, Texas while visiting family, was well aware that Star Wars was his most memorable contribution to the big screen, though he also had bit parts in Octopussy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Superman II — at the time he was married to Sarah Douglas, who played evil Kryptonian Ursa. He made appearances at Star Wars conventions and once said of his spotlight moment, "I did the choking effect by flexing muscles in my neck. It set off a chain of events, that choking. I can't do it anymore because, oddly enough, I have had an operation on my neck and had some 21st century titanium joints put into it."
In a statement, his relatives Rhiannon, Stephanie, and Tyrone LeParmentier said, "Every time we find someone's lack of faith disturbing, we'll think of him... He has gone to the Stars, and he will be missed."
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
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