Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

A lot of things have changed for Panem, the fictional world in The Hunger Games franchise, since we last visited it a year ago. I don't just mean within the realm of the story, either. The Hunger Games was an enormous box office hit, catapulting Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchinson, and to a somewhat lesser extent Liam Hemsworth into stardom. It was an all-out cultural sensation, not only for the amount of money it made but also because it was really good (it made my year-end top 10 list). Then, this past February, Lawrence became Best Actress Oscar Winner Jennifer Lawrence for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the final cap on a stellar year for her. All of this, coupled with the loss of original director Gary Ross, put a ton of new pressure on the follow-up, Catching Fire.

The film opens with Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutchinson) beginning their "victory tour" through the various districts of Panem. Katniss is not adjusting well to her new life in the spotlight, especially with word of rebellion against the Capital surfacing across the districts. In an effort to fight back, President Snow (a delightfully villainous Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th Annual Hunger Games - dubbed "the Quarter Quell" - will feature only previous winners. This all-star edition brings Katniss, Peeta, and others back into the Games, where they'll once again have to fight for their lives.

If franchise filmmaking had a DSM, "Second Chapter Syndrome" would surely be in it. Catching Fire has the blessing and burden of being the bridge between the beginning and the end of this saga. The blessing is that the characters and world they inhabit has now been firmly established; there's not a lot of time wasted on introductions here. It also means that the overarching plot can move forward, with the promise of some excitement and maybe some major twists. However, it also has to end ambiguously; things can't get too climactic, or else there's nothing for the final chapter (chapters, in this case, since Mockingjay is being split in two) to do. In other words, these films usually have the benefit of an accelerating plot, but it's usually all build-up to the conclusion.

Catching Fire is inflicted with this (there's no avoiding it), but handles it better than most. Much of the credit is to be given to the actors, who all-around do terrific work. Lawrence continues to find new levels to give Katniss, making her a hero still in touch with her humanity and uneasy with being the symbol for revolution. Woody Harrelson, as Katniss' alcoholic mentor Haymitch, continues to be a blast as well. The newcomers nearly steal the show, though. As Finnick, Sam Clafin ably handles the character's pretty-boy peacocking, but also finds the wounded soul underneath. Phillip Seymour Hoffman - not exactly someone you expect to show up in big-budget franchises - is cunning in his few scenes as new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, while Jeffrey Wright brings his wry intelligence to inventor/former champion Beetee. The MVP, though, is Jena Malone as Johanna. Her feisty performance gets at the heart of the former winner's rage, and every quip and outburst is absolutely stunning.

Bringing in Francis Lawrence, who is of no relation to Jennifer Lawrence, also gave the film a necessary boost. Lawrence utilizes his experience with blockbusters (I Am Legend) and outrageous fashion (Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video) to make a film that's a little looser and more fun than the original. Lawrence also wisely keeps most of the focus on the spectacle that the Capital makes of Katniss, Peeta, and the Games. These films have always worked best as a funhouse-mirror vision of our reality-TV culture and the pageantry we engage in when we're on-camera 24/7, and Catching Fire delivers fully in this regard. That the film's only real weaknesses are those inherent to being the middle edition makes its strengths all the more remarkable.

There have been plenty of blockbuster franchises and adaptations of young-adult novels lately, but The Hunger Games series has stood above them by building its characters and being smart as well as entertaining. Catching Fire only reinforces this fact. A

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