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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Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) was the Hollywood producer and creator of the hit ABC shows The Dating Game The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show--and what some call the innovator of reality TV. In 1984 Barris wrote Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Biography in which he claims to have moonlighted as a hit man for the CIA. He even goes so far as to say the trips awarded to winning couples on The Dating Game were covers for covert missions. Why else he sustains would the show have sent an interracial newlywed couple to West Berlin in 1970? Riiiiggghht. Barris claims to have killed 33 people but the only thing critics accuse him of killing is American culture. For better or for worse there is no arguing that Barris through perseverance luck and lots of audacity changed the face of television. But instead of balancing the two conflicting sides of Barris' life the film delves into his absurd accounts of assassinations from Helsinki to Berlin and getting presidential citations under the table while critics ripped into him for his dumbing-down of American TV.
As the film opens Rockwell's Barris is sitting in a grimy hotel room explaining through narration that his salvation is to tell his life story. He spent a lifetime chasing women for sex you see but what he really wanted was to be loved. The problem with Rockwell's performance is that we never get to see that side of Barris' character. While Rockwell is able to express Barris' smuttier side he fails to carry the role through to show his character's more vulnerable side which results in a very unlikable main character. His love interest in the film is the free-spirited Penny played by Drew Barrymore. Barrymore brings a sweet authenticity to the role and depicts her character's love for Barris in a convincing manner. But since Barris is portrayed as such a despicable guy it's hard to empathize with her as she takes him back one infidelity after another. Julia Roberts who normally commands up to $20 million a pic for Hollywood schlock makes an appearance here as Patricia Watson a fellow CIA operative. The part is a frivolous one; probably a figment of Barris' imagination and Roberts plays it tauntingly.
George Clooney makes his directorial debut here from scribe Charlie Kaufman's (Adaptation) screenplay. The project was greenlighted and then shelved again several times before Clooney came on board as director and he assembled talent with enough clout to finally get the movie made. If you like overly stylized films chances are you will enjoy this film; Clooney showcases some heavy-handed direction and proves he pored laboriously over every shot. But while the film is visually discriminating the story is not all that compelling. The film glazes over Barris' days in the TV biz and dedicates only about 10 minutes of screen time to each show even though they played such a significant role in his life. Former Gong Show panelist Jaye P. Morgan and former Dating Game host Jim Lange offer interesting testimonies about Barris but these are too short to have the impact and credibility the film needs. Clooney instead chooses to sprinkle it with a few re-creations from the show including one segment featuring The Unknown Comic and one from The Dating Game which featured cameos from his clique of acting buddies Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.