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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
SPOILER ALERT: 2012 is nearly over and will go down in history as one of the most twisty turny years for movies in recent memory. It felt like every week played host to a new blockbuster we lived in fear of having spoiled for us. When we finally caught them, they blew our minds with a big third act reveal or a death we just weren't ready to handle. Then there was the week after: were we allowed to talk about it? Who didn't see it already? Who doesn't know?!?
Looking back, here are the juicy tidbits from 2012 that had our heads spinning and our mouths zipped, to ensure that no one out-of-the-know was spoiled:
The Devil Inside: No Ending, Just a Website
January's first movie and modest horror hit The Devil Inside was met with a reasonable backlash when it attempted to continue the spiritual madness on the web. The film concluded with a nightmarish car attack, the invisible ghost jumping from human to human in a fury of violence. Then it just stops, cutting to black and flashing a URL: www.therossifiles.com. 2012 started with an enormous "WTF" moment that people couldn't wait to spoil.
The Grey: The Big Wolf Fight (or Not?)
The trailers for The Grey promised the ass-kicking Liam Neeson we are now familiar with, courtesy of Taken, fighting off a pack of wolves. That rules! But the big spoiler for The Grey is actually what isn't there. Joe Carnahan's film was really an introspective drama about man vs. nature, and the conclusion ended before the epic wolf punching fight even began. Suitable for the tale Carnahan was telling, but anyone looking for a canine brawl who found out the real story beforehand may have had the movie spoiled for them.
Chronicle: Steve Bites the Dust
When Steve (Michael B. Jordan) quite literally takes to the skies to check in on his troubled pal Andrew (Dane DeHaan) he finds out the hard way that his powers don't include the ability to not get struck by lightning. His jarring, shocking death alters the course of the movie, and sends a guilt-ridden Andrew down a very dark path.
Mirror Mirror: Sean Bean Actually Survived a Movie!
Sean Bean dies in everything. There's even video proof. So when the British actor bites the dust in the beginning of Mirror, Mirror, it was business as usual. Color us shocked when the evil dragon plaguing the kingdom and secretly controlled by the Evil Queen turns out to be the King. http://youtu.be/zEhtsgu6bJg
The Cabin in the Woods: The Entire Conceit of the Film
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's latest creation was sold as your typical horror movie. A few kids head to the family cabin, stumble upon a room full of suspicious artifacts, and without too much delay, are attacked by a family of undead rednecks. But from frame one, it's apparent Cabin in the Woods is anything but. Behind the scenes of the gruesome events are a team of technicians who… well, maybe it's best to just see this one.
The Raven: The Fanboy Did It
When he's not screaming "EMMMMILLYYY!" at the top of his lungs, The Raven's Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) uses his literary knowledge to hunt down a serial killer who has kidnapped his one true love. When the mystery is finally solved, the "big reveal" is more a surprise that the exhausting thriller is finally coming to an end. Turns out, the guy who imitated Poe's stories to kill of his victims was just one of Poe's co-workers who was really into reading. An autograph wasn't enough?
Men in Black 3: Oh, So That's What Happened to Will Smith's Dad
Time travel allowed Men in Black 3 to call back the colorful, kooky alien designs of '60s era sci-fi, but it also allowed them to answer the question no one was wondering: whatever happened to J's dad? Turns out the former military man was murdered by the alien who J pursued back in time to the first Apollo launch. During his escape, he murders J's dad, a young J left behind to be comforted by — you got it — young K.
Prometheus: Weyland Is on Board and Vickers Is His Daughter for Some Reason
One of the major complaints against Prometheus was that Ridley Scott's Alien prequel didn't answer any of the big questions it set out to uncover. Who were the Engineers? Why did they create human life? What was that whole black goo thing about? Prometheus leaves it ambiguous, but it does throw in some twists for those clinging for "answers." For instance, it turns out David the Android was actually following the orders of Peter Weyland, the super old founder of Weyland Corp. who joined the crew in hopes of finding eternal life. And Vickers (Charlize Theron) is revealed to be his daughter! Why? C'mon, do you want everything to be so clear cut?!
That's My Boy: Leighton Meister Is Screwing Her Brother
No one walked into Adam Sandler's R-rated comedy expecting a revelation, but That's My Boy packed a surprise gag that knowing in advance would certainly lessen the blow. Suspecting that his son's fiancée Jamie (Leighton Meister) is cheating, Donny (Sandler) follows her during a routine night out. What he discovers is shocking even for the foul-minded: Jamie is sleeping with her brother Chad.
Brave: The Plot of the Movie… Revealed!
A well-constructed mid-movie twist or a bait and switch? Brave's big twist halfway through Pixar's Scottish fairy tale feels like an entirely different beast: Merida is a princess desperate to live a life in opposition to her overbearing parents, full of adventure. Then Brave takes a literal turn when her Mom actually becomes a bear. The filmmakers behind Brave insisted it was a big spoiler, but in the end, what couldn't be revealed was enough of a twist to deserve a stand alone movie.
Savages: No, It Actually Happened This Way
Oliver Stone has never shied away from a hefty injection of style, but the finale of his latest nearly ODs. A frantic shootout between a drug cartel and the duo of hunky growers and their shared girlfriend (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively) ends in a blood bath — just like it did in the book. And then, through the magic of voice over, it undoes it all. Lively's narration reverts the action back to the beginning, with the feds arriving just in the nick of time. WHAT?!?!
The Dark Knight Rises: Comic Book Name-Dropping Out the Wazoo
Christopher Nolan never felt an obligation to the comic book origins of Batman, taking liberties with character origins and picking bits and pieces to suit his needs, but this year's The Dark Knight Rises was a cornucopia of fan service, all working to various degrees of success. The revival of Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul, Marion Cotillard as his daughter Talia (who was actually the kid in the pit prison!), and the reigning champ of 2012 fan service, the reveal that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake character is actually named "Robin." Three heart attacks later, we can go back and assess, but in the moment, it was a spoiler lover's heaven.
ParaNorman: A Little Dead Girl Controls the Zombies, Who Hanged Her For Being a Witch
Yes, this is the spoilery conclusion of a stop-motion animated film aimed at children. Which is what makes ParaNorman great. After outrunning a hoard of zombies, Norman takes a second to figure out why the zombies are attacking. Turns out the undead Puritans aren't trying to hurt people, they just want Norman to read their controller, the ghost of a little girl who they sentenced to death way back when. Agatha was a medium, so she was sentenced to death. You could see how that would make a gal a little upset. ParaNorman ends with an emotionally complex conclusion and one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Looper: The Angsty Kid Has Superpowers and Might Be an Evil Crime Lord from the Future
Old Joe kicked and punched his way back in time in hopes of killing off future crime lord "The Rainmaker." Turns out — surprise! — his own murderous rampage may have actually been the cause of The Rainmaker (oh, the wonders of time travel logic). We spent a good deal of time wrestling with this idea, but the kid Young Joe encounters when he takes refuge on a local farm turns out to be telekinetic (double spoiler!) and very, very irritable.
Skyfall: The Bond Universe Resets Itself
When Casino Royale stripped Bond of its recognizable parts and took the path of a dark, gritty reboot, audiences thought the 007 series would never look back. Not so thanks to the crafty works of Skyfall director Sam Mendes, whose love for the old days of Bond ushered in a reintroduction of the early movies' ensemble. We got Q back, but the big spoiler was the death of Judi Dench's M and the reinstatement of a male headmaster, along with the reveal that Mi6 agent Eve is the beloved Moneypenny. Familiar faces with modern twists.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2: Lots of Familiar Faces Die, But It's OK Because It's Only a Vision!
Similar to Savages (and better yet, the little seen Nic Cage film Next), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 sent Twihards into a twizzy when it changed up the established ending, substituting the novel's anticlimax for an all out war. The Cullens and the Volturi launch into a violent battle and characters that survived the book were suddenly being decapitated. And then in a flash — courtesy of Alice's psychic visions — the action snaps back to before the fight, Aro having witnessed the battle in a premonition. It took until the final ten minutes of the movie for audiences to actually catch their breath.
Lincoln: He Dies at the End
If only you had paid attention in History.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate; Warner Bros.]
'Skyfall' Star Naomie Harris Talks Her Character's Big Reveal — SPOILERS
'Looper': A Spoiler-Filled Look at the Film's Ending
'Prometheus' Theories: Greek Mythology Offers Answers (SPOILERS)
You Might Also Like:
’Friday Night Lights’ Movie Not Likely, Says Zach Gilford — EXCLUSIVE
’Les Mis,’ ‘Dark Knight,’ and More: The Best Trailers of 2012