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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Stranded in a desolate windswept corner of the New Mexico desert after a losing encounter with a pothole glib flooring salesman Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce) decides to kill some time by getting his fortune told. It's all fun and games until some of what the sad-eyed psychic (J.K. Simmons) predicted starts to come true--and leaves Jimmy wondering whether the man's presentiment of death is in the cards as well. As Jimmy's paranoia escalates he discovers that childhood friend/former business partner Vincent (Shea Whigham) is out of jail and may be after him bent on retribution for a long-ago falling out. His job and relationship in jeopardy his life falling apart around him Jimmy has to decide what he believes--and what he'll do in the face of a destiny he just might have brought upon himself. Sharp-cheekboned Aussie star Pearce is nothing if not adept at playing conflicted complex Americans embroiled in noir-ish circumstances (see: Memento L.A. Confidential) and in First Snow he makes Jimmy's journey through the hellish valley of fear and suspicion seem inevitable. Jimmy is all slick swagger until he runs smack into a situation he can't talk his way out of and his insecurity and guilt gradually snowball until he's a trembling wreck of a man. In the supporting cast the often over-the-top Simmons turns in a nicely understated performance as the catalyst of Jimmy's breakdown--his fortune teller is a man who's looked fate in the eye and made his peace. And as Jimmy's baffled best friend and girlfriend respectively William Fichtner and Piper Perabo do the best they can with small relatively thankless parts. But in the end this is Jimmy's--and Pearce's--show. First Snow takes some pretty big questions: Do we determine our own destinies? Can we alter the path that fate has chosen for us?--and wraps them in the trappings of a tense psychological thriller. Of course most of that tension is generated by the film's stark desert setting moody lighting and sometimes overbearing soundtrack. Very little actually happens to justify Jimmy's ever-increasing panic which might be writer/director Mark Fergus' point. Nothing is a greater threat to a person's happiness than that person's own fears. But unfortunately the movie is a little too bleak and meandering to make that point as effectively as it could have leaving viewers as adrift as a salesman with car trouble in the desert with winter just around the corner.