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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This weekend's new horror release, The Conjuring, has sold itself on the ever popular "based on a true story" ordeal. A spike in dose for the chill factor, this branding looks to differentiate the James Wan film from others of kind by saying, "Here's a movie you should really be scared of." But true story or not, there's very little that will set the film aside. Fortunately, The Conjuring does have a secret charm in its pocket, a unique turn of events that make for a highly inventive new element to the spooky genre. Less fortunately, it doesn't seem to be interested in this as much as it is in run-of-the-mill jump scares.
The central story: a family moves into a new house in the country, faces the wrath of a restless spirit. The side story: exorcists Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are hired to rid the house of this evil. But branching off from Wilson and Farmiga's contribution to The Conjuring is something that, while not given nearly enough time to shine or develop, could be its own horror movie altogether.
Wilson and Farmiga set up camp in the house along with their young, technologically savvy "intern" of sorts (Shannon Kook) and a local lawman (John Brotherton). While the Warrens (Wilson and Farmiga) represent long-suffering veterans in the haunting game, Kook's Drew is a newbie with a fresh passion for the lifestyle. Only along for litigious reasons, Brotherton's badge-flashing Brad is a good-natured skeptic whose job has him stationed amid a supernatural circumstance in which he hardly places any faith. Already, the politics of the "industry" are in play: Brad represents the almost comically mundane red tape that applies even to this strange underworld.
This element is expanded in the Catholic Church's role in the story. The Warrens must seek approval from the Church in order to perform exorcisms, so Wilson is forced to meet with and pledge cases to priests in order to get the Vatican's blessing. More politics, more bureaucracy, more dark comedy.
While Wilson is off having pitch meetings with men of the cloth and Kook and Brotherton bicker sardonically while stationed in a strange family's home, we see the best moments of The Conjuring. If only a film might be made with the "exorcism industry" at the center, rather than taking a backseat to the far more uninteresting and done-to-death family in peril motif... but hey, if it ain't broke...
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