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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Roland Sharp (Tommy Lee Jones) a dedicated Texas Ranger tracks down a key informant with the help of an ex-con turned preacher Percy Stevens (Cedric the Entertainer). But when the informant is unexpectedly murdered the hardheaded Sharp is assigned to protect the only witnesses to the crime--a quintet of University of Texas cheerleaders (Christina Milian Paula Garces Monica Keena Kelli Garner and Vanessa Ferlito). Roland has to go undercover moving in with the five uncontrollable co-eds while they await a trial date. Soon the contentious Sharp clashes with the bubbly outgoing cheerleaders getting in the way of their love lives and social agendas. But while Sharp gets on the girls' nerves he has even more difficulties getting close to his own teenage daughter Emma (Shannon Marie Woodward). Still through his experiences he learns a few lessons about how to gain her trust and love and finding something else he didn't expect--love.
Jones just can't quite pull off the hokey story. The actor continues to exhibit his same hard-nosed surly attitude that seems to follow him from film to film. But this time he is surrounded by elements that just don't complement his unsociability. While he is comical in some parts the words "cute" and "heartwarming" don't really apply to him especially when the vivacious and spirited girls are hovering around him trying very hard to make it work. Cedric the Entertainer (Barbershop) is hilarious and entertaining as always but with a movie this trite he can't be expected to save the whole film now can he?
When there are five credited writers on a film you know you're in trouble. Along with being over-the-top feel-good family mush Man of the House also doesn't add up. You're often left scratching your head over the plot and just when it starts to make sense it quickly loses you again. While movies often asks you to suspend your disbelief House almost goes unbearably too far. To top it off director Stephen Herek (Life or Something Like It) makes only a mediocre attempt at helming the proceedings. It's as if he too understands what kind of muck House truly is.