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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.