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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CANNES, May 15, 2000 -- There are two sides (at least) to everything, right? For example, at the exact same time you want to keep dancing at the tres late rooftop party, you also want to fall asleep for the next 18 hours. At the same time you want to do yoga, you long for a warm chocolate crepe. Marlon Wayans wants to be here to celebrate his role in Darren Aronofsky's (his post-"Pi" flick) new movie, "Requiem for a Dream" at the same time he has to be in Los Angeles for the birth of his new baby. But that's the Cannes Film Festival. The French keep the eternal paradox alive and well.
Other festival tidbits:
-- "A wise man once said everyone would be famous for 15 minutes..." mumbles a voice as Griffin Dunne's new movie, "Famous" starts. Okay, so we all know about that 15 minutes thing, but what co-writing co-stars Laura Kirk and Nat DeWolf and Griffin, who plays a documentarian, want to know is, what happens the five minutes before that fabulous quarter hour.
Mira Sorvino This dead-on hilarious and painful story (the two go together don't they?) follows Lisa Picard, a 29-year-old struggling actress in New York City. Adding to the fun in this terrific comedy is a mix of uncredited celeb cameos (Carrie Fisher, Spike Lee, Penelope Ann Miller, Charlie Sheen, Melissa Gilbert and Sandra Bullock). "Famous" also marks Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino's producing debut.
-- Once you have your 15 minutes of fame you can always book a room and swim in the famous azure pool built into the cliff that flows into the sea. But they only take cash, which is a slight problem this year since the French franc suppliers are on strike and most of the ATM's are dry as a bone.
-- Two films by cinematic royalty, presented Sunday night with glittering fanfare -- "The Golden Bowl," a costume drama presented by Merchant Ivory and featuring Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Angelica Houston; and, "Faithless" written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann. Both films were more pewter than gold. To be more specific (and OK, meaner) in "The Leaden Bowl" not only do you already know what's going to happen, nobody gets around to doing it for over two hours. And as for Liv Ullmann, she tells us everything and then proceeds to show us everything, twice managing to skip the good parts.
-- Sunday was no day of rest here. It's one thing to enjoy the spectacle of our most popular stars floating up those traditional red steps but it's quite another to turn a corner in the busy corridors of the Carlton Hotel and run into the very friendly and sweet Chris Rock along with that girl-next-door Renee Zellweger and their talented director Neil LaBute. Even here, stars "take meetings." Their movie, "Nurse Betty" has a great shot at actually winning the Palme d'Or (although merit never guarantees victory, don't we know?)
-- Let's face it. The French and their famous Cannes Film Festival have "Un Certain Reputation" for major style and just as major attitude. This means, no matter what's planned, you never really know what's going to happen next which is definitely part of the fun and excitement. But only the French could have a quiet security alert (read: bomb threat) in just a small part of the Palais (yes, it's one huge building complex) as the totally unaware paparazzi continue to bellow as the fans howl into the night. It happened here on Saturday. Happily not a sequin was disturbed and everything was okay.
-- It's just these kind of eccentric idiosyncrasies that artists and brothers, Ethan and Joel Coen revel in. Their latest film, "O Brother, Where Art Though?" stars the usual suspects, John Turturro, Holly Hunter and John Goodman with the classy addition of George Clooney. This twisted and funny (but, of course) jailbreak story is in the competition. We'll see if the Coens shake the Golden Palm one more time. (In 1991, they won the award for "Barton Fink.")
Hopefully this will be a festival where there are no bombs of any kind. (Yeah, right.)