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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Matt Reeves' magnificent Let Me In is an Americanized adaptation of Let the Right One In a Swedish horror film which itself is based on an acclaimed novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (also Swedish). As such its setting has been moved from frigid Scandinavia to the more familiar but no less frigid Los Alamos New Mexico a town depicted as so bleak and uninviting as to provoke a lawsuit from the state’s tourism commission. Its atmosphere is particularly inhospitable to timid loners like 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a spindly late-bloomer who suffers regular humiliations at school courtesy of a trio of pubescent sadists.
Owen’s home life isn’t much better: Dad’s gone for good pending a divorce from mom who’s an aspiring wino and something of a religious nut. He seeks refuge nightly in the solitary confines of his apartment complex courtyard where he meets and befriends Abby (Chloe Moretz) a new neighbor and apparent kindred spirit whose quirks include a penchant for walking barefoot through the snow. That along with her professed inability to recall her exact age provides Owen with the first clues that his new friend may not be entirely normal.
She is in fact a vampire. And like any vampire Abby requires blood for sustenance. But since the sight of a little girl chomping on the necks of locals is certain to raise eyebrows at Child Protective Services she entrusts the duty of procuring nourishment to her haggard elder companion (Richard Jenkins). First believed to be Abby’s father but later revealed as otherwise he (his name is never stated) trots out wearily on occasion to find a fresh young body to drain of its blood. His skills appear to be slipping in his old age (like Owen he is a mere mortal) and his sloppiness soon attracts the attention of a grizzled local cop (Elias Koteas) who has no idea how far in over his head he is. (The film is set in 1983 when the vampire-detection tools available to law enforcement officials were woefully inadequate.)
Meanwhile Abby and Owen’s relationship blossoms and notwithstanding the inevitable complications that arise in every human-vampire relationship they develop a profound and sweetly innocent bond. Still lurking in the back of our minds is the knowledge that Abby at her core is a remorseless bloodsucker and one significantly older than her pre-teen visage would have us believe. Is her affection for Owen sincere or is she merely grooming him to assume the role of her caretaker once her current one exceeds his usefulness?
There’s a great deal of manipulation at work in Let Me In both on the part of Abby and director Reeves who alternates between tugging on our heart-strings and butchering them. Abby is one of the truly great horror villains — so great in fact that I suspect many audience members won’t view her as one even as her list of mutilated victims grows. Reeves does well to preserve an element of ambiguity resisting the urge to proffer a Usual Suspects-esque denouement inviting us instead to connect the story’s dots ourselves. The film’s unique and affecting juxtaposition of tenderness and savagery combined with a slew of stellar performances makes for an experience unlike any other in recent horror-movie memory one whose effects will linger long after the closing credits have rolled.
While Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road could hardly be deemed unfilmable the way it conveys its primary themes of survival moral responsibility and fierce paternal love through evocative prose and a decidedly minimalist narrative makes it a risky candidate for cinematic adaptation. And considering that the slender story follows an unnamed father and son trekking across a ravaged post-apocalyptic landscape and trying their best to ward off starvation suicidal urges and other survivors who have resorted to theft and cannibalism any film made from the material would need to retain McCarthy’s underlying message of hope lest the whole experience become too oppressively bleak.
Director John Hillcoat’s last film the overrated Australian Western The Proposition was such an aggressive wallow in gratuitous sadism that he would seem a disastrous choice to bring The Road to the screen. And the opening passages of his adaptation — which are marred by a choppy uncertain rhythm and an overreliance on pointless incessant voiceover narration recited by Viggo Mortensen (playing the father AKA The Man) — only confirm that hunch.
But luckily after those uneven first 30 minutes or so the film finds its footing and slows down to the leisurely tempo that this contemplative story requires. On a couple of occasions Hillcoat again indulges in his penchant for gruesome overstatement — when The Man tends to a wound in his leg it’s not with a needle and thread as in the book but with staples hastily used as stitches — and aside from a decent amount of striking painterly wide shots of the film's gray desolate landscape and a few genuinely poetic moments Hillcoat’s touch as a director remains more functional than inspired (which can’t be said of Joel and Ethan Coen who masterfully adapted McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men). Yet he’s intuitive enough to realize that what any film adaptation of McCarthy’s best seller would need to do first and foremost is get the central father-son dynamic exactly right and he and screenwriter Joe Penhall wisely trust in the primal emotional connection between The Man and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to carry the film.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee who was 11 years old when the film was shot form an organic achingly tender bond. Both actors have shed enough body weight to appear appropriately skeletal as these malnourished characters — there are a few gasp-inducing shots of their ribcages bulging out of their bare torsos — but what’s even more impressive than that physical transformation is the way the two of them find small emotional details that give their characters’ relationship an authentically lived-in feel whether it’s Mortensen’s affectionate laugh at Smit-McPhee’s use of the word "Cheetos" or the contented noise Smit-McPhee makes when Mortensen tucks him in at night. With his effortless ability to convey deep feeling through the lines in his face and through his sad expressive eyes Mortensen would be a challenge for any child actor to keep up with but Smit-McPhee who previously showed promise in the mostly disposable Australian drama Romulus My Father gives a thoughtful nuanced performance that impressively matches Mortensen’s haunted work. It’s within the intimacy between these two actors that McCarthy’s message of staying alive for the person you love the most — even when death seems a tempting escape from hell on earth — is most vividly illustrated onscreen.
A few recognizable faces pop up in extended cameos including Charlize Theron who plays The Man’s now-deceased wife in flashbacks but the only actor who manages to dwarf the two leads is screen legend Robert Duvall. Playing an elderly fellow traveler who The Man and The Boy come across in their exhausting journey toward some kind of hope Duvall movingly captures the tangle of emotions one experiences when reconnecting with humanity after a long spell of loneliness in under 10 minutes of screen time. His pivotal scene is the rare bit that works better in the film than in McCarthy’s book and it’s also a reminder that there are a few actors out there capable of blowing Mortensen the mighty Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy right off the screen. In a solid film that has a lingering effect nothing stays with you longer than Duvall’s pure emotional rawness.