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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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
At his high school’s commencement ceremony socially awkward class valedictorian Denis Cooverman uses his graduation speech to declare his love for hottie head cheerleader Beth Cooper a girl with whom he’s never actually had a conversation. When Beth unexpectedly shows up at his graduation party — followed shortly by her sadistic coked-out Army cadet boyfriend -- Denis is swept up in a series of escapades he won’t soon forget. That is if he makes it through the night alive.
WHO’S IN IT?
Hayden Panettiere star of NBC’s Heroes goes bravely against type to play — you guessed it — a cheerleader. In the role of her geeky onscreen counterpart is relative newcomer Paul Rust.
Not much unfortunately. Teen comedies in the post-Superbad era — even the PG-13 ones — can’t survive on merely playing to tired high-school cinematic stereotypes which I Love You Beth Cooper does in spades. Panettiere is appealing as a bright-eyed cheerleader whose perky exterior hides a bad-girl streak but she doesn’t quite project that unattainable quality the role seems to call for. She’s more like the superhot girl-next-door who you think is attainable but probably isn’t. Rust meanwhile attempts to compensate for the flat material he’s given by overplaying virtually every joke — to the point at which you’ll actually root for his antagonists to pummel him without mercy.
With its promising opening scene Beth Cooper shows the potential to be something sly and clever -- a high-school comedy in the vein of Alexander Payne’s Election — but instead develops disappointingly into a bland turgid knock-off of an ‘80s John Hughes flick.
The opening valedictorian speech in which Denis cooks his own goose by singling out various dysfunctional classmates — including a bully an anorexic and his closeted best friend — for public acknowledgment is achingly funny.
A saucy shower scene later in the film in which a side view of Panettiere’s naked breast is briefly revealed should at least keep the boys around until the third act. Maybe.
On the one hand it’s a comedy. We meet Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) a thirtysomething knee deep in a pre-midlife crisis with a way too patient fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) and a nowhere job. Her anxiety is only exacerbated when she visits her picture perfect family in Pasadena CA a place she’s never felt like she belonged especially after her mother died. But then it gets weirder when Sarah finds out her family was the inspiration for The Graduate. It seems Sarah’s grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was the Mrs. Robinson and that her mother ran off with the same guy briefly right before she got married to Sarah’s dad. Sarah becomes obsessed with finding this “other” guy Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) believing he might be the key. He’s a key all right--to a night of drunken lust. But none of this is going to solve Sarah’s problems now is it? She’s got to find her own answers in her heart. Excuse me while I go throw up. Maybe Jennifer Aniston should just write this year off. Not only did she lose a husband to another woman she also hasn’t made very smart choices in her career. Derailed completely missed the track and now this comedy is no better suited to her talents. Aniston is much better playing sweet and quirky rather than messy and neurotic and honestly shines brighter when co-starring with strong comedic talents such as Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) or Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty). (That’s why we’re holding our breath for her next film The Break Up with [real-life boyfriend?] Vince Vaughn.) Shirley MacLaine making a habit out of being the best thing in an otherwise dull movie (In Her Shoes anyone?) is a hoot as grandma. Costner doesn’t look anything like Dustin Hoffman thank goodness but has zero chemistry with Aniston. And who knows what the hell Ruffalo is doing wasting his talents doing this romantic comedy crap. Just say no Mark. As a director Rob Reiner hasn’t had much luck lately either. This is the first movie he’s directed since 2003’s Alex & Emma--and we all remember what a success that was. To be fair Reiner apparently took over the reins from screenwriter Ted Griffin (Matchstick Men) who was making his feature film debut ten days into production and changed things quite a bit. That’s not surprising because Rumor quite simply lacks direction. It wants desperately to be a comedy with a hint of relationship drama but somehow misses the mark on both. Now the idea of a Graduate update is somewhat intriguing. Reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player in which The Graduate’s original screenwriter Buck Henry pitches a sequel of sorts to a studio development exec. It’s meant to be a joke of course but somewhere in the spoof there might’ve been a sliver of mad brilliance. Too bad Rumor ruins it.