Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens with a moment of reflection.  Earthy huntress Katniss Everdeen (again played with a wily grace by Jennifer Lawrence), the lethally clever co-victor of the teenage bloodbath of the last chapter, is seemingly lost, fragile and scarred.  Staring into a meadow with the demons of her past in a state of unease and terror.  The moment doesn't stick very long, but Lawrence, who has become a major movie star and won an Oscar in between the first two cycles of her massively successful YA franchise, manages to shade the smallest morsels of subtext and longing throughout the assembly line busy work of the sequel (there are basics that need to be covered and quickly), igniting the film with a conscience it doesn't necessarily earn nor deserve.  That the second installment of Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy rests solely on her mighty shoulders would be an understatement; Lawrence infuses a soul amidst the corporate branding and provides a reason to care.

Not that the film around her isn't arresting in it of itself.  Francis Lawrence (Water For Elephants, I Am Legend) inherits the reins to the franchise from first chapter director Gary Ross and the second film is overall more polished, brisk and shapely, even as it runs its charted course that's largely the same of the first film.  Clearly the budget has raised-- the special effects are a bit flashier, the make-up and hairstyling effects a bit more garish and the overall design of the picture is a bit more fluid and more fittingly epic in stature as for sure, the stakes have been raised.  Even within its by-design packaging, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ups the ante in an entertaining, if hardly surprising way-- the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt manages to be looser, funnier and meatier all at once, breathing glimmers of life, if not exactly insight, from the more stridently structured first outing.  Yet, and this isn't exactly a denouncement of the film as a whole, but a matter of fact-- Catching Fire is but a mere stepping stone to the next installment, the forthcoming two-part (oh brother) finale.  As such the generously plotted two-and-one-half-hour film can only be as good as its "to be continued" conclusion.
As such, Catching Fire gets down to business pretty quickly from the start.  Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games, now living somewhat less ninety-nine percent-like in dreary District 12 in this dystopian universe, are embarking on a victory lap.  The two, of course, went all Romeo & Juliet-tragic like for the cameras, playing the parts of star-crossed lovers to defeat the evil Capitol at the end of the first movie, and things seem ripe for an unsettling change in this world where teenagers kill one another for sport in order to maintain the dreary, fear-led status quo.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees the con right away, but he sees something far scarier in the public image of Katniss-- hope.  What's a fear mongerer to do but instill even more gruesome fear in Katniss to get her to behave and keep the flock in an eternal state of obedience.  Threatening the safety of her family and childhood crush Gale (Liam Hemsworth) appears to do the trick.  As does the special treat in store for the upcoming 75th Hunger Games-- an all-star, past winners-only selection.

Suddenly Katniss is headed back into the arena.  This time sparring against deadly killers in their own right, as well as the ensuing Capitol threats against her, oh, and of course the twinkly love triangle between herself and Peeta and Gale.  The first problem gets gently resolved and proves not nearly the challenge in of itself as Katniss finds allies within the majorly pissed former champions, including the studly Finnick (a charming Sam Claflin) and the vehement Johanna (Jena Malone) which is but a bit of a tease, as well, Catching Fire was always going to be.  The Games themselves, not unlike its predecessor prove the less interesting aspect of the film, despite some diabolical challenges set afoot including poisonous fog, blood rain and some really killer baboons.

As for the love story, of which it must of felt necessary to include as pre-determined by the rules of YA bestsellers, well, there's startlingly little there to begin with.  The first film cleverly designed the star-crossed romance of Katniss and Peeta as tool for survival, but Catching Fire moves into earnest terrain, playing their once ambiguous affections for one another straight to an affect that's neither involving nor hot.  The slightly added screen time a brooding Gale in the second go-around does even less to make it interesting.  In truth, Katniss as played by Lawrence in all her feminine Amazonian pride could never be believed as a girlie girl in boy crazy heat.  This is however a movie set within the confines of a culture that's struggling and starving and in constant fear of the corrupt one-percenters in charge-- there are bigger things to gloss over and the material strikes a chord with it's celebrity-obsession as societal numbing tool.

Thankfully, and not unlike the Harry Potter films, there are wonderful characters actors fluttering about all over the place to keep things moving when the plot lulls through its specifics.  Malone, for instance, spits her dialogue out with a peppery anger, while ace supporting players like Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lynn Cohen make pleasurably weird impressions with the littlest of character dimensions and Philip Seymour Hoffman glides in as the mysterious new gamesmaker and is chilling in his very ordinariness. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Sutherland all reprise their roles with a who-gives-a-damn sense of play.

And so, while the second installment is a solidly crafted piece of pulpy fiction, if not exactly deserving of all its endless hype and audience conditioning, there is still something to this franchise that keeps this viewer ready for the next round.  For while The Hunger Games, as a corporate exercise and brand sold (in rather tacky fashion) for endless bits of merchandising and lucrative sponsorships that read as ill-conceived and completely inappropriate for its subject matter, there's still a glimmer of a freckle of an idea and a web of richly layered themes within its well-oiled machine.  And while the political, socio-economic allegory and satire may get lost amidst or simply glossed over all the ado, Catching Fire still latches onto something a bit deeper and less fickle in our celebrity-obsessed culture than your average dumb tentpole film, and if nothing else, that should deservedly register a slight sigh of relief.  B

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Gets you all hyped-up and ready for what lies next in this story, and for these characters. Good review James.

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