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THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013) review

December 2, 2013

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written by: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

produced by: Nina Jacobson and John Kilik

directed by: Francis Lawrence

rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)

runtime: 146 min.

U.S. release date: November 22, 2013

 

Last year, the first book in the popular near-future dystopian young adult series by Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games” made its jump to the big-screen. Most fans of the books embraced the movie, while a solid cast carried newcomers through abundant exposition, PG-13 rated death Games and an ending that seemingly brought closure to the story. Well, “Catching Fire” is here now with some intriguing angles, interesting twists and a new director. There’s still unanswered questions and plot holes here, but if you’re not asking too much out of the source material’s prose, than you may be able to relax and be reminded Katnis Everdeen is quite a complex reluctant heroine and she is lucky to have Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence play her.

We return to the impoverished District 12 to find tributes, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), living across the street from each other in nice houses located in “Victor’s Village”, next door to their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), due to their success at the 74th Hunger Games. She lives with her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), while he lives – well, it’s unclear who Peeta lives with (he does mention a family, but it’s not supposed to matter whether or not we see them). Although the two came home winners and have unintentionally inspired the rest of the Districts of Panem as a defiant symbol of hope.

But, no one is happy. Things are still traumatic and confusing for Katniss, with the scar tissue of having to kill fellow tributes as well as playing the part of starry-eyed lovers with Peeta in order to stay alive and earn viewer support, making things with her soulmate, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), quite awkward. As for nice-guy Peeta, he has to live across the street from someone who only reciprocates his love in public. How’s that for being “winners”?

 

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Well, regardless how they feel, the couple must partake in a victory tour, where they’ll be paraded around to each District, reciting scripted speeches by garish chaperone Effie (Elizabeth Banks), thanking everyone for their tributes own, um, sacrifice. More awkwardness. But before the gala romp begins, the fascist President Snow (a superbly sneering Donald Sutherland) visits Katniss in her own home and informs her that she and Peeta must convince the oppressed people in each District (and especially himself) that they are in love. Snow is threatened by the symbol of hope Katniss has become, which has caused several eruptions by revolutionaries and now he now must threaten the lives of those close to her to convince everyone that their final act in the last Games was out of love not rebellion.

Tensions rise during the Victory Tour, with stormtroopers cracking down on the hostile crowds, flogging and executing as they see fit. This leads Snow to announce a special Hunger Games called the Quarter Quell, which occurs every 25 years, consisting of previous winners pulled back into the arena for an All-Star deathmatch. Needless to say, none of the winners are happy about the latest Game, which is being overseen by new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a superbly smug Philip Seymour Hoffman) and set in a new tropical location. As Katniss and Peeta determine who to ally themselves with, certain revelations are slowly hinted at with each new threat the face, setting a movement forward that will propel Katniss to the forefront of a revolution, whether she wants it or not.

“Catching Fire” is a step-up from the first of the four-movie series (that’s right, the third book Mockingjay will be split into two movies), but I can’t really get myself to rate it any higher than I did “The Hunger Games”. It’s a better movie because it’s being adapted from the second book, which is generally considered to be the climax of a series. We’re now done with introductions and can catch-up with familiar characters, the oppressive world they live in and the affluent, detached world they are exposed to. Screenwriters Simon Beaufroy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) have a meatier story to work from, with the world of our protagonist becoming more complicated and the stakes  more complex, making the sequel more interesting for viewers.

Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) takes over where Gary Ross (who did a fine job) left off and benefits from getting to show us more of the district environments, spending a good hour catching up with the repercussions of the last Games, because honestly – the Games themselves are not all that compelling. Sure, the intensity is still there, as we see what life-threatening challenges (poisonous gas, vicious baboons and spinning islands) are programmed to thin out the tributes, but we all know you-know-who will survive these Games. Director Lawrence has a more confidant handle on the action, making the Games easier to follow with some nice editing by Alan Edward Bell, yet the melodramatic score by veteran James Newton Howard can be kind of distracting a times. Still, the series is in good hands with Lawrence taking on the next two sequels.

 

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The Games themselves are still kind of lightweight to me. They’re just not offering the kind of horror and anxiety I would imagine. It’s not that I crave more blood, it’s just that it would seem like anyone participating would be forced to behave in ways that contradict their own values and morals, in order to survive. But the only savage or murderous character we see in these movies are the ones who are already characterized as: obnoxious, unhinged or crazy. We never see Peeta or Katniss kill someone just to eliminate them in order to increase their own chances at survival, it’s always in defense or by accident or an aggressive action that backfires for “a bad guy”. I understand why  that is, we can’t see “our heroes” behave in such a way, but it would certainly add more realism for me.

At least the Games in “Catching Fire” added a different angle of diversity to the mix by having these past winners differ in age as opposed to all of them being culled from the youth of each district. It makes sense and offers a new dimension to the movie. There’s the elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen), eccentric middle-aged pair, Beetee (a welcome Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) – all three provide a nice balance to the requisite good-looking blondies: brother and sister Gloss (Alan Ritchson, who played Aquaman on CW’s “Smallville”) and Cashmere (Stephanie Leigh Schlund) and hunky Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, “Snow White and the Horseman”), who wields a trident like Aquaman. Those guys were all fine, but I particularly liked the mentally unstable, ax-weilding Johanna Mason (played with delightful crazy by Jena Malone) from District 7 and the emo Morphling (Megan Hayes) from District 6. Both of whom come in quite handy, one of which we are certain to see again. These two additions remind me that these movies thankfully feature more than one strong female characters. The only weak pair out of all these new characters is bald-headed Brutus (Bruno Gunn) and Enobaria (Meta Golding) with her razor-sharp teeth, both come across like silly American Gladiators. Still, seeing the variety here made it much more interesting, but the Games themselves felt a little too short-lived considering the movie’s over two-hour runtime.

Lawrence and Sutherland are the two actors that I continue to enjoy watching in this series. Watching Lawrence navigate through her conflicted emotions, the real ones she has for Gail and the forced ones she has for Peeta, is convincing and troubling. We feel for her and therefore Lawrence succeeds. No surprise there, this young actress hasn’t felt miscast or given a solid performance yet. She can evoke panic and agony immediately like no one else, as evidenced in the opening scene of “Catching Fire” where we see that PTSD is haunting Katniss and when the stormtroopers deal with her pal, Cynna (Lenny Kravitz) as she’s about to begin her Games. Lawrence plays that rare reluctant hero isn’t inclined to clever quips or one-liners, she is resourceful and tough, but she is also indignant and enraged and would like nothing else but to just walk away from it all. Lawrence carries all this in her eyes – and the last scene where the camera focuses on her face, as she goes from frighteningly confused to decidedly pissed off – well, that seals it.

As for the white-bearded Sutherland, he plays Snow as one who is losing hold of his power. He knows it and is trying everything he can to stretch it out as long as possible. Where we really see it is in his own home, where we see Katniss having more of an influence on his granddaughter (played by Erica Bierman) than he does. Showing Snow as a grandfather adds both humanity and motive to the character and gives us more Sutherland (and that’s always welcome).

At the end of the last movie, I wondered how and why we’d see Katniss return to the Games. “Catching Fire” makes answers logical and conflicting answers to that question.  It’s a movie that offers added complexities and dimensions to characters on both sides and the world they live in. I appreciate that and feel that, so far, out of all the Young Adult books adapted to film in recent years, these four movies have the potential to be more rewarding than the rest – whether or not this sequel will be the best of four remains to be seen.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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