Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mad Men Season 7 premiere

If there's anything I've learned to expect about "Mad Men," it's not to expect too much of the season premiere. The show never begins with a bang; invariably, it starts off in a muted register and at a slow, contemplative pace, then gradually ramps up over the course of the season, often hitting its high point in the last few episodes. It's a show that rewards patience as it asks the viewer to settle into the rhythms of the characters' arcs.

That's what I've been telling myself for the last seven years, and I haven't stopped believing it. But dare I admit that in my heart of hearts I'm feeling a little wearied of said arcs, and a little glad that "Mad Men" is drawing to an end? (Even if that end is being nonsensically dragged out into two separate "halves" of an already-short season over two years, for apparently no better reason than that "Breaking Bad" did it?) Because after spending the better part of a decade - both in the show's time and our own - with these characters, I feel I've witnessed enough of their making themselves miserable. For better or for worse, that's been the key note of the series - the malaise of the '60s, as reflected in the malaise of a group of (for the most part) privileged individuals who are (for the most part) only dimly aware of the tension and fragility of their existence. And it continues with the Season 7(a) premiere, which despite splitting its time fairly evenly between sunny Los Angeles and wintry NYC, feels mostly mired in that peculiarly "Mad Men"-ish brand of quiet desperation.

Don is still on leave, though working after a fashion by using Freddie Rumsen, of all people, as his mouthpiece, and still going through the motions with Megan even though the distance between them (both literal and figurative) has grown enormous. Peggy, still recovering from her shabby treatment by Ted Chaough, finds herself forced to serve as underling to an unsympathetic new creative director and as equally reluctant landlady to fractious tenants. Roger's regularly drugged out and engaging in orgies but doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. Even Ken Cosgrove, Accounts, is no longer sweetly upbeat Ken of yore but a bitter, choleric manager, still blind in one eye and suffering from something like PTSD from his unfortunate relationship with Chevy. Pretty much a downer all around. But curiously not in a way that I found very affecting; at least not yet.

For me, there were only three lone bright spots in this characteristically glum episode:

1. That first, dreamlike, slo-mo shot of Megan emerging from her car at LAX, looking like a movie star in that gorgeous pale blue concoction.

2. California Pete Campbell in full douchey glory: sunglasses astride his receding hairline, plaid pants that hurt the eyes, sweater tied around his neck and a look of smug self-satisfaction - which is about as close as Pete generally gets to looking happy.

3. Joan schooling that little marketing guy at Butler Footwear (who looked about 15) and doing it beautifully. It is always a pleasure to watch Joan being competent - that is to say, being Joan.

It's telling that of those three moments, at least two of them were fleeting and ultimately false. Megan's not a movie star and most likely never will be; she and Don spend less of the weekend shagging than awkwardly failing to connect; and Pete probably (no, definitely) isn't as happy as he wants Don to think he is. Both Megan and Pete, in their different ways, were selling an image to Don - the image of an idyllic life that could be his in L.A., except Don knows perfectly well it's an illusion. No reason we should fall for it, either: after all, there's a long, fine tradition of noir that links that theme to Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler to "Sunset Boulevard" to "L.A. Confidential," "Mulholland Drive" and beyond. Whether Don's able to find something resembling true peace behind all the facades and imitations remains to be seen. He does, after all, have a longstanding emotional connection to California via poor, saintly, dead Anna. But via SC&P West, or his increasingly tenuous bond to Megan? I wouldn't bet on it.

Random notes:

-Was the deli where Pete met Don supposed to be Canter's? Didn't look quite right, but then I can't remember the last time I was at Canter's during the day.

-At one point in their awkward weekend together, Megan asks Don "How much time do we have?" Seems like a question for their entire relationship. Answer: not long.

-That blond L.A. realtor lady Pete dangled in front of Don and then childishly snatched back ("no, you CAN'T have her!") bore an uncanny resemblance to Don's ex-wife Betty. Coincidence? Doubtful.

-The woman sitting next to Don on the plane bore an uncanny resemblance to one-time '90s It Girl Neve Campbell. Oh wait, it WAS Neve Campbell. Where you been, Neve?

-Disneyland seems like a peculiar place to scatter ashes, but if ya gonna do it, Tom Sawyer's Island is the place. Though personally I'd have chosen It's a Small World.

-More seriously, I can't help feeling the Disneyland reference was shoehorned in to remind us of Don's own connection to the place where his own marriage (to Megan) began. How full of hope he was back then; he really thought he could make it work this time. He knows better now.

-Line of the week: Tenant kid to Peggy - "Why are you working on a SATURDAY?" Why, indeed, kid.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Oscars 2014: Long, few surprises, but good outcomes

Yes, the ceremony was painfully long - per usual. Yes, there were too many unnecessary montages. And yes, there weren't any real surprises among the winners.

But ya know what? I'm giving a thumbs up to the Oscars this year. Because, for once, I was satisfied with all the outcomes and absolutely delighted with some of them: "12 Years a Slave" winning the big prize; Lupita Nyong'o winning supporting actress; "Her" winning original screenplay; "The Great Beauty" winning foreign film. Even in the animated short category, my favorite ("Monsieur Hublot") beat out the predicted favorite (Disney's "Get a Horse").

In fact, the only beefs I had with any of the awards were incredibly mild ones: (1) "Moon Song" is an infinitely superior song to "Let It Go" (but the songwriters were so charming delivering their rhymed acceptance speech, I couldn't begrudge them their win); (2) even though I knew "20 Feet From Stardom" would win best documentary, I can't imagine it was a better or more powerful film than "The Square" (but then I didn't see "20 Feet," so I can't really make that judgment).

Ellen had an engaging presence and was funnier than I remember her being the first time she hosted the Oscars. The pizza bit went on a little too long, but the Twitter-breaking selfie bit was inspired. And in general, she just seemed more relaxed this time, perhaps because it wasn't her first rodeo.

Other random thoughts, a/k/a my personal Oscar ceremony awards:

Best Dressed: Lupita Nyong'o, looking like a perfect Cinderella, complete with headband and sweeping ice-blue gown. On anyone else the effect could have been treacly, but she made it work - maybe because she really did seem like a heroine in a fairy tale.

Worst Dressed: Pharrell Williams. I kinda dig the cheekiness of bringing back The Hat from the Grammys (in black this time!), but those shorts...no.

Most Moving Acceptance Speech: Lupita Nyong'o again. Classy, gracious, and heartfelt.

Most Awesome Acceptance Speech: Matthew McConaughey. All right, all right, all right...Consider the glorious contrast to his "Dallas Buyers Club" co-star and fellow winner, Jared Leto, who paid proper tribute to victims of AIDS and more generally, discrimination. Only McConaughey, on the other hand, would talk about his dad dancing in his underwear with a pot of gumbo (his idea of heaven, I guess) and about his own hero being...himself in 10 years. Classy and coherent it was not. But unadulterated McConaugheyness it was, which is what made it awesome.

Most Awesome Moment Not in a Speech: Lupita Nyong'o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams shimmying with Pharrell. GIFS, please! I know they're out there.

Most Face-palmy Moment: John Travolta butchering Idina Menzel's name. Seriously, dude, you have just a couple minutes on stage and only ONE thing you need to get right - and you can't even do that?

Most Random Pairing of Presenters (in a night chock-full of them): Gonna have to give this one to McConaughey and Kim Novak.

Most Gorgeous Pairing of Presenters: Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, god and goddess. You know half the audience was thinking what beautiful babies they would make. Too bad they're both with other people.

Most Superfluous Musical Performance: Bette Midler singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" after the conclusion of the Dead People Montage.

Most Annoying Returning Oscar Trend: Montages of random film clips that have NOTHING TO DO with the nominated films, cobbled together under a theme general enough to include nearly any and every movie the Academy feels like including ("heroes" this year, forget what it was last year but it was something equally lame).

Most Puzzling New Oscar Trend: The presenting of the best picture nominees in groups rather than individually. Could not figure out the reasoning behind why they put together the nominees as they did. Can anyone enlighten me?

Again, despite these nitpicks, this year was an Oscars to remember for all the right reasons (12 YEARS A SLAVE!), which is all that matters in the end. Occasionally, Hollywood does get it right. Not often enough - but we'll take it when we can get it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Oscars predix: It's a close race, folks

This is the first year in a while that I genuinely have NO IDEA what film is going to win best picture. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration - I have *some* idea of who's really in the running, but no idea which of the frontrunners is actually going to win. Not helping: the incredibly complicated system by which Oscar ballots are counted and the winner determined. With that said, here's my take on how the six major categories will play out.


Will win: This is soooo tough. It'll most likely be either 12 Years or Gravity, with American Hustle a potential spoiler. But the way the voting works, who knows. At this time, I'm going with Gravity, even though in my heart I'm pulling for 12 Years.

Rooting for: 12 Years a Slave


Will win: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Rooting for: Cuarón, unless Gravity wins Best Picture. Then Steve McQueen for 12 Years.


Will win: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, with Leonardo Di Caprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) as a possible spoiler and Bruce Dern (Nebraska) the dark horse.

Rooting for: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), though he's got no chance. Pity, really.


Will win: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine

Rooting for: Amy Adams for American Hustle. Didn't love the movie, but *she* was fantastic in it. Also, this is her fifth Oscar nomination - would be nice to give her a win some time. That said, Blanchett is also fantastic so I won't be sad if she wins.


Will win: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club. This one you can take to the bank.

Rooting for: Leto - his was a tour de force performance that also managed to be genuinely, heartbreakingly moving. In another year, though, I'd be rooting for Barkhad Abdi, who made an unforgettable debut in Captain Phillips.


Will win: It's down to the wire between Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) and Hollywood darling Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle). But I think Nyong'o will pull it out, partly because she's been a delight in her public appearances (which helps with the campaigning) but mostly because Lawrence won an Oscar last year for Silver Linings Playbook.

Rooting for: Sally Hawkins, who's not been in the conversation even though she's every bit as good as Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.


Will win: Another tough one, but I think American Hustle will edge out Her and Blue Jasmine.

Rooting for: Her, undoubtedly the most truly "original" and thought-provoking of this bunch.


Will win: 12 Years a Slave

Rooting for: 12 Years a Slave

Friday, February 07, 2014

Belated R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman

A combination of work, travel, and illness has prevented me from weighing in earlier on this very sad loss. I'm still buried under work and the remnants of the illness, so I'll keep it simple. Two main thoughts struck me when I heard the news:

1. This is the first time I can recall a truly great actor dying in my lifetime who was at the *height* of his career. (Heath Ledger was still ascending - a different kind of tragedy; so was James Gandolfini, albeit slightly later in life; the rest were largely in their twilight years.)

2. Fucking drugs.

Beyond that, I can't improve on Slate critic Dana Stevens' lovely, grieving tribute, so here it is for anyone who missed it.


On, if it's possible, an even sadder note, the other downer of a topic that seems to be dominating movie-related news these days is technically old news - but the kind that never dies, for a reason: Dylan Farrow's allegations that her stepfather, Woody Allen, molested her as a child. Much virtual ink and vitriol has been spilled anew on the subject in the wake of the Golden Globes and Dylan's "open letter" to the N.Y. Times. Too much. So much that I don't really feel like adding to it except to lament the fact that no matter what the truth is, it's fucking obscene and obscenely tragic. The most frustrating thing about it is that we'll probably never know for sure what the truth is. And that's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Top Ten Films of 2013

I’ve been having a really hard time choosing my top ten movies from 2013, and not for the usual reason. Rather than too few, there are just too many contenders in one of the strongest years for film in recent memory. The last time I had this—well, I’d hardly call it a problem, since it’s more of a pleasant conundrum—was at the end of 2007, another fantastic year that gave us everything from Pixar's best picture ("Ratatouille") to the epic good vs. evil allegories of “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Eastern Promises” to the very different musical charms of “Hairspray” and “Once” to the equally different but equally engrossing historical dramas of “Persepolis” and “Lust/Caution,” as well as a score of other movies I loved.

Well, it took a while to match, but the offerings of 2013 were just as high quality and richly varied. This was the year of movies about survival against impossible odds, movies more-or-less based on true stories, and movies that went to great lengths to show that greed is not good. It was also the rare year in which many of my favorite movies (in fact, over half of my final list, which has to be unprecedented) came not at the end but at the midpoint: summer, usually the time of flashy, splashy, ultimately hollow blockbusters, this year brought an unexpected bonanza of small, beautifully crafted indie films that left a deeper imprint on me than the fall and winter Oscar bait that arrived with considerably more fanfare. Which isn’t to say that the Oscar bait films weren’t good, because they were; only that the bar had already been set too high by the films that preceded them. I don’t expect this to become a regular pattern, but I certainly hope it isn’t the last time it happens.

Some big CAVEATS to the list that follows:
• I switched the order of #’s 2-5 and #8-10 multiple times, while “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “American Hustle” both slipped in and out of the top ten depending on my mood; so the final order is rather arbitrary.
• I meant to see but missed “Frances Ha” and “All is Lost” in theaters, and still need to see “Philomena” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
• Perhaps most significantly and shamefully, I saw no foreign films (other than “Blue is the Warmest Color”) or documentaries (other than “Stories We Tell,” which doesn’t really count) last year, though I wish I’d seen “The Grand Master,” “The Act of Killing,” “The Square,” and “Cutie and the Boxer,” among others, and I want to see “The Past” when it opens in D.C.

And with that, here were my favorite films of 2013:

1. Museum Hours

Few films make me look at the world and think about life and art in a genuinely different way. This was one of them. The casual viewer might complain that nothing “happens” in this quiet portrait of two strangers who meet in a Vienna museum and strike up a momentary friendship. It’s not that nothing happens; life happens, and is transmuted into art. And vice versa.

2. 12 Years a Slave

Utterly wrenching. Also utterly unforgettable.

3. Fruitvale Station

See description above for “12 Years a Slave.” No, seriously; even though they’re very different and “Fruitvale” is for the most part less punishing, the last few scenes felt like even more of a punch in the gut by comparison. The movie’s also a sobering (and necessary) reminder that notwithstanding how far this country has come since the time of “12 Years a Slave,” most young black men still can’t realistically expect to be treated exactly the same as other men. “Fruitvale” doesn’t moralize on the reasons why; it merely shows the consequences of that disparity, which speak plenty eloquently for themselves.

4. Short Term 12

Not a “true story” (as far as I know), but feels more like one than most of the many films this year that actually were based on a true story. Raw, emotionally honest, and beautifully acted; Brie Larson, in particular, deserves (but won’t get) an Oscar nomination as the troubled kids’ counselor whose compassion and competence can only partly conceal her own inner demons.

5. Her

The premise – man falls in love with his OS – sounds like the setup for a joke, and spurs the natural question: how can this be played for anything but laughs? Amazingly, it isn’t in the least: Spike Jonze, continuing his streak of wistful soul-searching via moody fantasy, manages to weave a strange yet deeply moving tale of human emotions and artificial intelligence, and the intersection between them that technology may be making inevitable. There are laughs, yes, but they’re laughs of recognition, not contempt.

6. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen's best film in years, if not decades. Yes, it’s a modern take on A Streetcar Named Desire; that’s precisely what makes it brilliant. That and Cate Blanchett as the self-deluding Jasmine (Blanche), who’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. And Sally Hawkins, who—like the character she plays, Jasmine’s more grounded (and put upon) sister—may be under the radar but is just as worth watching.

7. Much Ado About Nothing

Who knew that low-fi, low-budget DIY Shakespeare by non-classically trained actors, shot in B&W at Joss Whedon’s house, would be such a breezy delight? Well, the secret’s out now. It may not be not the most profound or polished Shakespearean production I’ve seen, but it’s definitely one of the most fun.

8. What Maisie Knew

Mostly forgotten or overlooked by critics, this little gem thoughtfully updates the Henry James novel and features not one but TWO sensational performances: one by the little girl (Onata Aprile) who plays Maisie, the other by Julianne Moore as her hapless mother. The film also does a great job capturing the perspective of a child who’s not quite old enough to understand exactly everything that’s going around her, but is sensitive and perceptive enough to pick up on their emotional essence.

9. Nebraska

I’ll admit it: Alexander Payne’s latest, about a stubbornly delusional old coot who thinks he’s won a million dollars and the son who tries alternately to dissuade and humor him, was both funnier and more poignant than I was expecting. Like “Sideways,” it’s basically a road trip movie about two unlikely traveling companions; unlike “Sideways” (and more like “The Descendants”), it’s also about the difficulties of communicating with one’s family and features much more sympathetic protagonists. It’s also, somewhat unexpectedly, the sweetest of Payne’s movies; his characteristic satirical edge is just a cover for a soft, pleasingly sentimental emotional center. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that.

10. Enough Said

It’s best known as a humorous, perceptive look at dating after 40 and a star vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as well as James Gandolfini’s last role, and it is all of these things, quite wonderfully. But it’s just as much—and even more successfully—about the way relationships between parents and children evolve as the latter mature, and in this respect is a perfect, if unlikely, companion piece to “Nebraska.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Gravity, Stories We Tell and Before Midnight all suffered from not meeting my impossibly high expectations, which prevented them from making my top 10. Captain Phillips also just narrowly missed the cut, and in a weaker year, even the flawed, too-long, but still-compelling The Wolf of Wall Street and Blue is the Warmest Color, as well as the gripping but preposterously plotted Prisoners and the memorable but too-muted The Bling Ring would all have probably made it into at least the bottom half of my top ten. But not this year. It was just that good a year.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In Memoriam: Peter O'Toole

It's been a bad December for losing people who made the world brighter - Nelson Mandela first and foremost, of course, but also movie stars who helped stir our imagination: Paul Walker, Eleanor Parker, most recently Joan Fontaine, and, of course, the incomparable Peter O'Toole.

One of the greatest actors of his generation, if not of all time, O'Toole - like so many of his British and Irish peers - started off his career in the theater, where he would undoubtedly have made his mark even if he'd never done a film in his life. But besides being a first-rate thespian with the most exquisite diction this side of Richard Burton, he had an extraordinary magnetism, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous looks, that pretty much destined him for the big screen. If the movies hadn't existed, they would have had to be invented for him.

His first big break, "Lawrence of Arabia," was also his best work: if you haven't seen it, do so immediately - preferably on as large a screen as you can find. It's not often that you get such a perfect intersection of a truly great film and a truly great performance, where each mutually enhance and elevate the other. Actually, the film's stacked with excellent performances, but O'Toole's, necessarily, was its beating heart. It's now hard to imagine anyone but him so completely embodying the contradictory, enigmatic figure that was T.E. Lawrence - the intellectual idealist with a streak of savagery, the ambitious eccentric with an impossibly grand vision of his own destiny, the brilliant strategist and charismatic leader who was ultimately tricked by his own ego and naivete into serving as a pawn of the British Empire. O'Toole captured all these facets of the character with both flair and depth, and director David Lean gave him the ideal backdrop to shine: an epic landscape that somehow didn't diminish Lawrence's larger-than-life presence, and complex political undercurrents among both the British and Arab forces that only underlined the sense that he at once belonged and didn't belong in their midst.

(O'Toole received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for "Lawrence," but lost that year to Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." I always thought it a pity they couldn't have tied and understand why the Academy gave it to Peck, but even as a Peck fan, I'd still give the clear edge to O'Toole.)

"Lawrence" was a once-in-a-lifetime-role that others might have found an impossible act to follow. Not O'Toole, who continued to deliver dynamite performances that earned him a record of 8 Oscar nominations and, sadly, zero wins, not counting the consolation-prize honorary Oscar the Academy finally handed to him in 2003. He didn't always make the best career choices, or life choices for that matter, and was almost as famous for being perpetually drunk (he was Irish, after all) and raising hell with fellow acting heavyweights Burton and Richard Harris (but what company to carouse with!) as he was for lighting up the screen. Nonetheless, light it up he did, most memorably as a succession of kings, madmen, and eccentrics; very seldom did he play an ordinary man. That didn't mean he couldn't. Two of my favorites among his performances were the dashing undercover cop who charms the pants off Audrey Hepburn in the underrated caper/art heist flick "How to Steal a Million" and, much later in life, the quietly sympathetic tutor to "The Last Emperor" of China.

I remember, at the time of the latter, my mother, who'd had a crush on O'Toole in her youth, bemoaning how old he'd gotten. I had the opposite reaction. Age, alcohol, and illness, including stomach cancer, had clearly taken their toll, yet I was struck by how much he still looked like the man I knew mainly as young "Orence": the same tall, spare figure, perhaps a little more stooped, a little more fragile, the same full mouth and hollow cheekbones, and, most of all, the same piercing blue eyes with the quietly meditative, contemplative look. Even more years later, I saw him again as Priam in the otherwise-laughable "Troy" (he and Eric Bana were the only good things about that movie) and that look was still there - the look of a poet, a dreamer, and a little bit of a madman. I'm confident that look was with him to the end.


I was also going to say a few words about Joan Fontaine (so memorable as the second Mrs. De Winter in my favorite Hitchcock film, "Rebecca"), but I'll leave that to the much more capable hands of the blogging queen of Old Hollywood, Self-Styled Siren.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Second "Hunger Games" keeps fire alive


Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games have returned, and this time they’re taking no prisoners. If there’s any safe bet for this winter holiday season, it’s the unlikely blockbuster franchise about a dystopian future society in which the Have-Nots are forced to send their children to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Haves. At the core of the “Games”’ appeal, of course, is the equally unlikely heroine who both dominates and defies them: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Girl on Fire, ace archer and family provider, reluctant warrior and even more reluctant celebrity following the last Hunger Games. (Spoiler for those who didn’t see the first movie, didn’t read the books, and have been living under a rock: she won.)

Faithfully adapted from the second book in the trilogy (apparently to become a tetralogy for movie purposes)*, “Catching Fire” hones in on Katniss’s new fame and the dangerous position in which it places her. For the Girl on Fire has unwittingly become not only a figure of public fascination but a symbol of hope to the oppressed—and thus a threat to the Capitol, embodied in the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The latter warns Katniss that her actions have stirred sparks of revolt in the districts, and that her only hope of saving herself and her family is to convince everyone that she’s no rebel but simply a girl so in love with her co-victor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) she was willing to break the rules and die rather than kill him. The reality of Katniss’s feelings towards Peeta, however, is a good deal more complicated, and somewhat refreshingly, not the main focus of either the book or the movie.

(*The third book, Mockingjay, is going to be split into two movies. Allow me to rage a moment about this new moneymaking ploy of splitting books that are perfectly capable of being captured in one film into two or more. Oh well, at least it isn’t The Hobbit.)

When Katniss’s best efforts to act madly in love fail to subdue the growing uprising, Snow and his new Gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) devise a new strategy. It just so happens that every 25 years there’s a deluxe version of the Games called the Quarter Quell, and this year is the 75th anniversary of the Games, or the third Quarter Quell. And every Quarter Quell has a special twist. The twist this year? The contestants for each district will be selected from past victors—an All-Star Hunger Games, if you will. Since the rules still require one male and one female contestant from each district, and Katniss is the only living female winner from her district…well, you get the picture. She’s going back in, whether she likes it or not, and so is Peeta.

Like the first “Hunger Games,” the first half of “Catching Fire” takes its time laying the groundwork for the games, giving a fuller context for just what kind of society would sustain such a barbaric ritual. This worked so well in the first movie that the games themselves felt a bit anticlimactic. Here, however, the preparatory/prefatory phase drags a little, partly because the novelty has worn off, partly because Katniss remains mostly passive and reactive to the phenomenon she’s spawned, partly because the idea that her victory tour and public love story would have any hope of preventing a rebellion seems so…silly. And while the movie could have made more hay out of the ridiculous reality-TV, celebrity-wedding aspect of her manufactured love affair with Peeta, director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), best known for the even more dystopian “I Am Legend,” sticks to an intensely serious tone that builds up the dramatic tension but largely sidelines the satire. That odd couple of counselors, permanent drunk Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and model-of-Capitol-mores Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), seem strangely, forlornly subdued, and even the TV ringmaster extraordinaire, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), gets a lot less screen time than he did in the first film.

The flip side is that the games themselves are a lot more engaging this time around, even if the mayhem continues to be constrained by the movie's PG-13 rating. It helps that the Quarter Quell features not only a more interesting set of physical obstacles but a much more intriguing cast of contestants, including a heartthrob (Sam Claflin), a hoyden (Jena Malone), a mad scientist (Jeffrey Wright, who’s starting to risk getting typecast as such), and a toothless, seemingly harmless crone (Lynn Cohen), any and all of whom might turn out to be allies, mortal enemies, or both, for Katniss and Peeta. The question of whom Katniss should throw her lot in with becomes a major theme of “Catching Fire,” ultimately implicating—and complicating—her relationships both with those she implicitly trusts and with those she instinctively distrusts. It’s a theme that will continue into the third and fourth installments, as set up by the wrenching cliffhanger of the final scene.

“Catching Fire” suffers some of the usual weaknesses of middle chapters and as such, probably won’t win any new fans - not that it needs any. The narrative in some ways feels like a retread of its predecessor, and in others like a transition to “Mockingjay.” And though the acting is solid across the board, the lack of access to the characters' internal lives can make them seem frustratingly opaque at times. Nevertheless, the film as a whole does a good job developing the central conflicts, fears, and attachments that hooked us in the first place, and in so doing keeps us in for the long haul.