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
Previously on Harry Potter: Big bad Voldemort steals the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's grave while Harry mourns the loss of his wee elf friend Dobby and begins his search for the remaining Horcruxes.
If that recap leaves you with hazy memories of last year's Deathly Hallows - Part 1 you may want to pop in the DVD before taking on the Harry Potter franchise's grand finale Deathly Hallows - Part 2. The eighth film in the series doesn't pull any punches demanding your knowledge of the saga's previous events and crescendoing off a foundation of character and connection built over a decade of cinematic excursions. That's not a fault -- Deathly Hallows - Part 2 serves hardcore fans and dedicated patrons of the franchise alike bouncing elegantly back and forth between explosive action and emotional conclusions. At this point that's what matters.
Whereas Deathly Hallows - Part 1 took Harry Hermione and Ron on a gritty race through the real world Part 2 brings the trio back to their home base Hogwarts School of Magic and Child Death where their colleagues and professors find themselves defending it against the empowered Voldemort and his band of Death Eaters. Similarly to Transformers: Dark of the Moon Deathly Hallows - Part 2 spends most of its run time following various established characters as they navigate the epic battle. Unlike the clunky erratic action of TF3 director David Yates manages to execute the sequences in Potter with bravado making sure we give a damn every time Potter discovers a secret from the past blows a Death Eater out a window or glances upon one of his closest friends lying dead on the floor.
For all its otherworldliness Potter is and always has been a human story one that puts its characters before spectacle. But when Yates and his team of FX wizards do unleash their bag of spells on the screen they do it with a very BIG bang. Deathly Hallows - Part 2's scope is on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy bringing everything from trolls to spiders to animate statues into the wizards' massive assault. The franchise hasn't seen action on this scale before but Yates never misses a beat or opportunity to dazzle with visual eye candy. Turning the crumbling of Hogwarts castle into a riveting poignant experience -- true magic.
Once again Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert Grint and a cast of veteran British thespians deliver the necessary gravitas to anchor Potter's fantastical elements in reality. With everything finally on the line in Deathly Hallows - Part 2 each performance is at its best and Radcliffe steps up to the plate to make his final showdown with Voldemort one to remember. He spends most of the movie covered in dirt encrusted blood on his face and a harrowing sense of death behind his eyes. Heavy material but Radcliffe pulls it off.
Few franchises have the chance that Harry Potter has been fortunate enough to receive to follow the same familiar faces through years of ever-complicating story. Thankfully Deathly Hallows - Part 2 doesn't squander the opportunity. The saga swells with a triumphant final act one that never forgets why people love the movies in the first place. The adventure the awe the comedy the thrills the people the places the things -- those are the elements that make Harry Potter grand and they return in perfect form once more to say good-bye.