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The most tension filled moments, the ones crammed with the most conflict, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to, need we say it, but I guess, of course, we must, The Hunger Games pére, are not the violent back and forths in the reality TV series at the center of the story.  It’s actually watching accomplished and well respected actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lenni Kravitz (even Josh Hutcherson) trying desperately to find a personality for their characters.  
The winner of these particular games?  Donald Sutherland, perhaps our most underrated actor today, an old pro who has been with us since his first role as a switchboard operator in a TV drama on the omnibus series Studio 4 in 1962 and has since graced us with strong performances in such movies as MASH, Klute, 1990, Fellini’s Casanova, Ordinary People (I could go on and on).  While all the others are frantically floundering (and very dispiritingly from an audience point of view, as far as I’m concerned) in the competition here, Sutherland inhabits the role of the despot President Snow with all the ease and casualness of putting on a morning coat and going outside for his daily constitutional.  You almost feel sorry for all the others; once Sutherland enters the scene, none of his opponents really stand a chance.
Of course, Jennifer Lawrence does come in for a strong second.  She’s as committed to the role as she was in the first in the series and she plays the role of Katniss Everdeen as if her life depended upon it as much as her character’s does in the games themselves.  And there’s something satisfying about seeing a representative of the older and the younger generations meeting on the field of battle, striving valiantly against each other.
But the pitiful plight of Hoffman, et al., may not be entirely their faults.  The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt doesn’t really provide the actors much to work with and the direction by Francis Lawrence seems more devoted to making sure the freeways don’t get backed up and the traffic keeps moving.  Perhaps the real tragedy in this movie is not what happens to the inhabitants of Katniss’s District 12 (and it sure ain’t pretty, that’s for sure), but that writers like Beaufoy and Arndt, both of whom showed solid talent for penning above average middle-brow movies (The Fully Monty, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), may now be stuck writing below average tent pole blockbusters like this.  Once the games are over, will they be able to return to their roots, or will the President Snows of the studios trap them forever?  Only a sequel will tell.
The movie as a whole works a little less well than the earlier one.  Again, it all feels more outline than fully realized drama.  And gone is the bloom on the rose; there’s not really enough new here to warrant much excitement and the story drags too much of the time.  One reason for this is that the screenplay makes the same mistake as the earlier one; everyone involved seems to think that it’s what happens in the games themselves, who kills whom in what grotesque and savage way, that is the most interesting part of the conflict when, in reality, it’s the manipulation behind the scenes, the way the people watching the show can control events, the ratings, the efforts of Harrelson’s Haymitch and other mentors to try to win support for their favorites and determine the outcome, etc., that is the real source of suspense.  But alas, almost all of this happens off screen.  
And the authors have been trapped so to speak by the character of Katniss and what they need to do with her.  President Snow, along with Plutarch, the designer of the games (the aforementioned floundering Hoffman), need to turn her into a lean, mean fighting machine, someone so merciless in killing, the viewers watching the show will turn against this bastion of the newly fermenting rebellion.  But the only way to do that is to keep Katniss out of the action, make her incapable of killing someone because there’s no one around her to kill.  So in order to give her something to do, they throw arbitrary, non-human antagonists at her (a poisonous gas here, a few baboons there, a tidal wave or two for good measure, etc.).  The forward momentum really stops here as everything is on the same level of tension and the plot just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  And all anyone in the audience is really interested in at this point is the outcome.
And not just the outcome.  Everyone is also waiting, and more so, for the big twist.  Or to be more accurate, to find out if they are right about the big twist, which is not that much of a surprise since the whole thing is given away when Plutarch gives Snow some advice that is so ludicrously bad and Snow, completely out of character, actually goes for it.  The screenplay tries to finesse this by having the advice, like all the other interesting stuff, given off screen.  But if one wanted the rebellion to grow, Snow did the one thing that would insure it (take two former winners of the games from each district, people who have been promised they will never have to enter the games again, two people who are heroes and icons of their districts, people who everyone looks up to and worships, and kill them in front of everybody—it’s genius, I tells you,  genius; what could possibly go wrong with this scenario). 
I’m not sure that The Hunger Games ever made a lot of sense in the first place (and one could argue whether it’s really important that it needs to).   Where it is strongest is in its metaphors, the modern day referencing of current problems, especially the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and our Greek and Romanesque obsession with reality shows.   And when it does introduce something new, the rebellion itself with people willing to sacrifice themselves and bravely stand up to authority by holding up their three fingers as a symbol of the mockingjay, the movie is at its most emotional, even causing a fleeting catch in the throat and a near tear to fall at times. 
And the technical aspects are impressive and often steal the whole mess of a movie.   The production design (Philip Messina), art direction (John Collins, Adam Davis, Robert Fechtman) and set direction (Larry Dias) is everything one could hope for and often says more than the screenplay and characters do about their situation.  But I’m not sure anything can beat the wonderful costumes of Trish Summerville, with men’s designs influenced by Edwardian England and the women’s by Lady Gaga. 
In the end, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is probably a bit too critic proof at the moment.  Telling kids not to like it is like telling kids to not get a tattoo or not like Twilight (shudder); it just ain’t gonna happen.  Whether I think the movie works or not, or whether I even think it’s any good or not, seems pretty irrelevant in the great scheme of things.  And if I was honest, even after all the sub-standard comic book sturm and drang on the screen, I still want to know what’s going to happen in the third and fourth installment as they go Harry Potter on the final entry and split the final confrontation into two movies.    

BOYS AND THEIR TOYS: Reviews of Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3

After leaving Iron Man 2, I think my friend Jim summed it up best when he said that you know you’re in trouble when the only scene in an Iron Man film (a movie filled, well, overwhelmed really, with big technical set pieces), the only one that really makes the audience sit up and take real notice, is a relatively small and contained fight scene in a hallway headed by Scarlet Johansson, a set up for her role in upcoming Nick Fury films. She changes her hair (into strands that look like whips, making her into a beautiful Medusa), puts on a body tight uniform and gets to quiet work taking out an army of men with more ease and style than even Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel did in The Avengers television show. No mean feat as fans of that series can tell you. It’s not that Iron Man 2 is without any pleasures. Robert Downey, Jr. is back and he’s still fun and his Nick and Nora Charles type banter with his assistant Gwyneth Paltrow still has some wit to it. But the biggest plus to this Marvel comic book brought to celluloid life is the villain, the snarling, sociopathic meany Ivan Vanko inhabited with tattooed viciousness by Mickey Rourke. Playing a Russian scientist who believes Tony Stark (Iron Man’s alter ego) did his father a foul turn, Rourke marches down a race track in all his steroid glory throwing power driven whips that can slice metal in half with a flick of the wrist. Beyond this, though, there isn’t much to see. There is a rather frightening set piece where Stark’s arch nemesis Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) has stolen the Iron Man technology and has Iron Man like robots appear on stage to the theme songs of the four branches of the military, showing how easily fascism can worm its way inside the military industrial complex. But it’s also a movie where the robots start shooting up everything in sight and just never manage to hit a person (kind of makes you wonder why Hammer even bothered if they were such poor shots). The casting doesn’t always help. Though Sam Rockwell and Don Cheadle (who took over for Terence Howard from the first movie in the role of Rhodey) are good actors, they never seem like they really belong. And the script is a bit clunky. Justin Theroux is the only one credited as screenwriter, but it feels a bit like it was written by committee. There’s a set piece where Cheadle dresses in an Iron Man suit and he and Downey, Jr., have it out at Stark’s palatial mansion for no apparent reason but to see a lot of things blow up and to set up a plot turn later on. The funniest moment probably has to be when Clark Gregg as Coulson (one of Nick Fury’s agents) tells Stark not to leave the premises or suffer dire consequences and they’ll be watching; Stark leaves the premises, comes back, and Coulson (who for some reason wasn’t watching), slaps him on the wrist like an ineffectual nun and says not to do it again (wow, when they mean dire, they mean dire). That’s probably how the studio is going to treat the next installment of the franchise.
I also went to Toy Story 3 with my friend Jim and Jim’s initial reaction was surprise at how dark it was. Yeah, it is, at least darker than the other two. I don’t know if that’s why I liked it the best of the three, but my friends probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear it (that there was only one Randy Neuman song certainly had to help). There does seem to be something here that is deeper, more richly emotional, and therefore, inevitably much darker than in the other two. Toy Story 3 begins when Andy, who when he was a child spoke as a child and played as a child, but now that he’s leaving for college, puts away childish things, planning to assign Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, the Potato Heads, etc. to the attic while taking Woody with him (after all, would you want to wake up every morning in college without your Woody with you). Through a series of misunderstandings, the toys end up at a daycare run like a prison from one of those chain gang movies in the 1960’s (I believe there is a specific reference to Cool Hand Luke). Not only must the toys escape their day care penitentiary, they must also escape the prison of disbelief—that Andy really wanted to get rid of them and never see them again. What would a Toy Story movie be without new toy characters and this one comes with a metrosexual Ken doll who likes to try on clothes, doesn’t understand why no one else does, and finds his perfect mate in Barbie. There’s also a psychotic teddy bear (hard to believe, huh?); a monstrous baby doll that becomes more sympathetically pathetic as the story continues; and perhaps most delightful of all, a Buzz Lightyear that gets stuck on Spanish mode and becomes a Latin lover straight out of a Ricardo Montalban film. The story itself (screenplay by Michael Little Miss Sunshine Arndt) is perhaps the most exciting of the three (one of the odd things is that nobody I know can even remember the plot of the second film) and it has one of these plots that paints everyone into an impossible corner, only to be saved, of course, at the last minute. Jim thought I probably saw the rescue coming since I’m a writer and usually do, but this time I had no idea, possibly because I was too caught up in the story to even think about it. My friends hate it when I deconstruct popular entertainment, but I can’t help it (you should hear my take on Air Force One). So one of the reasons I liked Toy Story 3 is because of what it had to say about how important toys are to a child’s development in the way that it encourages imagination and teaches them to create. I know. I have a bad habit of taking the fun out of fun, but still, it works for me.