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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A perfect husband a devoted father a loyal friend a successful architect—yes Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is the kind of flawless family man we only encounter in hankie-soaking Hollywood melodramas. He exists solely to be killed off just so his friends and family can become better people through their loss. So it comes as no surprise that Steven dies a Good Samaritan's death while on his way home—of course—from buying ice cream for his two kids. If that won’t get you crying nothing will. Steven’s death leaves his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) a mess. She can’t look after herself let alone her daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and son Dory (Micah Berry). Instead Audrey turns to Steven’s best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) for help. Not really the smartest choice—Audrey despises Jerry for squandering his life and career on drugs. But Audrey’s desperate for a shoulder to cry on so she inexplicably invites Jerry to stay at her home while he tries to clean up his act. Quicker than you can say “rest in peace ” Jerry’s dispensing words of wisdom to Steven’s kids and in a moment of unintentional hilarity spooning with the lonely Audrey in her bed. Audrey naturally comes to believe that Jerry isn’t the strung-out leech she’s considered him all these years. Still we can’t help but count down the minutes until Jerry slips back into his old habits. Or wonder how long it will take for Audrey to kick Jerry out of her house when the inevitable happens. Things We Lost in the Fire serves an important purpose: to make clear that Halle Berry’s performance in Monster's Ball wasn’t a happy accident. As a widow unable to function without her soul mate Berry shakes up the otherwise maudlin proceedings with a rage and intensity that’s honest and fearless. Never afraid to present Audrey as occasionally cold and unsympathetic especially in regards to her treatment of Jerry and her children Berry nevertheless always makes us feel Audrey’s burning love for Steven without resorting to Joan Crawford-like histrionics. Too bad Audrey is defined only by her role as a wife and mother—Berry never receives the chance to show that Audrey has a life outside her family. She does share a good rapport with the typically brooding Benicio Del Toro whose ravaged face reveals more about Jerry’s lifetime of self-inflicted pain and suffering than words ever could. But there is a slight spark to be found in Del Toro’s sleepy eyes which gives us the impression that Jerry has what it takes to live one day at time with the support of his new friends. David Duchovny doesn’t do much beyond smiling like he’s just been named Father of the Year for the 10th time. Not that Duchovny needs to exert himself to make Steven charming and likeable—Steven is as happy and uncomplicated as Duchovny’s Californication philanderer is as sad and screwed up. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry (no relation to his onscreen mother) nail the anguish confusion and profound sense of loss that comes with grieving for a dead parent without being annoyingly precocious. How disappointing it is to discover that not even the usually calm and collected Susanne Bier can turn Things... into something more than the standard Lifetime TV weepy of the week. The Danish director’s Hollywood debut is very much like her earlier character-driven dramas in that it is preoccupied with how established family dynamics shift in the wake of a life-altering event. After the Wedding and Brothers managed to be poignant without getting too gushy but Bier cannot keep Things... from drowning in its own sentimentality. The problem clearly lies with screenwriter Allan Loeb’s emotionally manipulative script which fails from the start to convince us Audrey would open her house to her late husband’s drug buddy. Ignoring Loeb’s hard-to-swallow premise Bier does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Audrey and Jerry. Theirs is a well-presented study in co-dependency which results in an insightful—though occasionally obvious—exploration of drug addiction the grieving process and the pursuit of personal redemption. Things... smartly avoids making much of its interracial marriage—it would only overcomplicate matters—or taking Audrey and Jerry down a path that would led to an ill-advised romance. If only Bier and Loeb showed some guts in the way they portray Steven. Surely he had at least one skeleton in his closet to make him seem more human. Everything we learn about Steven—especially about the fire referenced in the seemingly cryptic title—merely reinforces the notion that he was too good for this world. Or at least the world Hollywood thinks we live in.