THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Lynn Cohen, Donald Sutherland

I have seen enough of these movies adapted from young adult books to know that the majority of them are crap. I love that The Hunger Games series has set a high bar which others in a post-Harry Potter era will have to compete with when it comes to gaining a wide audience base outside of screaming teen girls. The second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, kicks it into high gear in every possible way. Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are back as District 12 victors Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Malark, respectively. Their joint victory of the 74th Annual Hunger Games have defied the odds and broken the rules according to President Snow (Sutherland), the ruler of The Capitol and all of Panem.

With their victory, the two of them must go on a victory tour of the twelve districts of Panem to pay their respect to the fallen tributes that lost their lives in the Games. They are both sickened from killing innocent people as part of the Games and are now suffering night terrors. Their win came from a suicide pact between the two of them in an attempt to defy Snow and the Capitol. In an unannounced meeting, President Snow informs Katniss that the people of Panem are now rebelling just like their heroine has done. He threatens her that if the rebellion keeps up, he will harm her family and loved ones. She must convince the people and President Snow that their suicide pact was done as a romantic move between the two of them and that their love is “real” and all is well in the Capitol. Sounds like so many of the fake romances coming out of Hollywood. We all know that is not true as as Katniss’ heart belongs to childhood friend Gale (Hemsworth). To add another wrinkle in their lives, Snow and new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) announce the Third Quarter Quell. The Quarter Quell happens every twenty five years and brings back the surviving winners of past Hunger Games for an all-star version that is more challenging than anything they experienced the first time. Katniss and Peeta are both thrown into the competition knowing full well that only one of them will come out alive.

I was a bit leery at first when it was reported that Francis Lawrence would be taking over the directorial duties after Gary Ross stepped down after the first one. His last film was Water for Elephants which I loathed. Call me converted as he delivers a fast-paced, high octane thrill ride. Even though the third book “Mockingjay” will be released into two movies The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has the tone and feel of what the middle part in a trilogy should feel like. Lawrence knows how to carry out the fact that author Suzanne Collins has upped the ante and raised the stakes not just for Katniss, but for all of our characters. The rebellion and conflict within the districts and within the Capitol rises as we approach the Quarter Quell and the impacts it will have on our two victors are even more life threatening. For a two and a half hour run time, Lawrence keeps the pace up and the action flowing without comprising on the story, dialogue, and character development. You cannot help but notice the production design is more grandiose then its predecessor. The lush rich costume design by Trish Summerville (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) spans the spectrum from the gorgeous gowns worn by Katniss to the sports wear and hard military design of the Peacekeepers. Many of Effie Trinket’s designs are straight from the Alexander McQueen collection.

Credit should also be given to Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) who adapted the screenplay from the book by Collins, which many consider the best in the series. Both are new to the series but have penned a rich adaptation allowing the story to showcase not only Katniss and Peeta, but have given some more depth to the some of the supporting characters like Haymitch, Effie, and Caesar. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci are all fantastic character actors who start to peel off the layers of these larger than life characters to make them more than simple cartoonish figures of the Capitol. Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, and Lynn Cohen are all newcomers to this world as they play the former victors who must compete again in the Quarter Quell. Malone brings the sass and attitude that she is known for playing before. The only newcomer to the cast that seems a bit out of place is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. We have seen him play evil characters before, so it seems a bit like he is phoning it in at times here.

The anchors of the story are Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Hutcherson brings his charm and cuteness to Peeta that really makes you question why Katniss is still pining after Gale. It should not be too hard to fake a romance with Peeta. As you can tell, I am clearly Team Peeta. What is not to love about Jennifer Lawrence. Her rich and complex portrayal of Katniss puts her leagues above say Kristen Stewart in those darn Twilight movies. Katniss’ ferocious drive against the Capitol makes her one of the best action heroines since Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley slayed an alien or Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor battled a terminator. Her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook was no fluke. I think her down to earth personality shines through in each role and makes them each a little bit more believable and realistic, no matter if they are in an action/sci-fi flick or a heavy drama like the upcoming American Hustle.

I have seen the film twice now and I can easily say it is better than the first one. The two and a half hours goes by swiftly and culminates into a pulsating cliffhanger of an ending. Another amazing thing is the fact this is shown in regular 2D. No crappy post-production 3D baloney here that costs us an extra few bucks, and it still rang in some serious change at the box office. What a concept! I think more action/sci-fi films should take note.

RATING: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)

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