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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland

After watching female led, would be young adult franchises like Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments crash and burn this year, it's good to be back in the company of Katniss Everdeen, one of the best and most active female characters to emerge in the past decade. Building on the momentum created by last year's The Hunger Games, Catching Fire raises the stakes, creating even more spectacular action sequences that its predecessor, even while it makes the "games" themselves secondary to the politics of revolution. Though the series has seen a change in directors from one film to the next, it hasn't missed a beat and the praise Catching Fire has received for being even better than The Hunger Games is well deserved.

As Catching Fire opens, we learn that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Though Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) successfully subverted the rules of the 74th Hunger Games, not much has changed in District 12, where life remains bleak and the line between death and survival remains razor thin. Called on to take a victory tour of the other 11 districts, the impact of their win begins to sink in for Katniss and Peeta, whose act of rebellion has inspired hope throughout - but, also, an increase in the government's brutal suppression of the masses. Desperate to destroy Katniss as a symbol, President Snow (a delightfully sinister Donald Sutherland) decides that for the third Quarter Quell (a special version of the Hunger Games which occurs every 25 years) the tributes will be selected from the existing victors in each district - which means that Katniss, as the only living female victor from District 12, will be forced to participate. Though she makes a deal with mentor and fellow District 12 victor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) that he'll volunteer if Peeta's name is selected, Peeta instead volunteers when Haymitch is chosen. They join the other returning victors, including Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), who was the youngest Hunger Games winner when he took the title at 14, Mags (Lynn Cohen), the oldest Hunger Games competitor, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), a pair of inventors from District 3, and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) who feels free to speak her mind because there's "no one left" that she loves and, thus, the government can no longer hurt her.

Plunged into a game designed by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss and Peeta form an alliance with Finnick and Mags, which goes on to include Beetee, Wiress, and Johanna. Facing the threat of both the "career tributes" from Districts 1 and 2 as well as the various surprises of the game, which includes poison fog, bloodthirsty apes, tsunami-like waves, and blood rain, Mags and Wiress fall, along with various other competitors in the game not aligned with our heroes. After the pattern to the game is figured out, Beettee comes up with a plan to use it to take out the remaining careers, a plan which Katniss and Peeta agree to go along with while intending to split from the group as soon as the plan is complete. Despite their efforts to stay together, Katniss and Peeta end up separated and Katniss, seeing her opportunity to physically destroy the game, takes it - and starts a proper rebellion in the process.

Although the final third of Catching Fire is very much an action movie, the first two focus more on the politics which put the action into a larger context and that's a large part of why Catching Fire works so well. The symbolic value of Katniss and Peeta, and Katniss in particular, is thoroughly explored here, both in terms of what her existence means to the Capitol and the masses in the districts, but also in terms of what it means to her to be a symbol for something greater than herself. Katniss does not want to be a symbol, she wants to live a quiet life in safety with her family, and she fights against the notion of being the face of revolution, inspiring hope in her people, but also putting a target firmly on her own back. The weight of her responsibility as the face of hope sits heavily on her shoulders, both in terms of the decisions that she makes (during the "victory tour" she makes a speech in District 11 which results in a man making the District 12 sign and then being executed for it), and her growing awareness that others will sacrifice themselves for her sake because of what she represents. There are, thus, three versions of Katniss which she must find a way to balance throughout the story - the person she is, the person she needs to pretend to be in public so that Snow and other people in power won't harm the people she cares about, and the symbol which makes the coming revolution possible. It's a complicated proposition and one of the best things about the film is how willing it is to make Katniss reluctant to take up the burden, underscoring how much she longs to be a regular person instead of an extraordinary one.

Lawrence is, of course, very good, displaying both a deep anguish for the things she's lost as well as a steely resolve to keep going. Although she doesn't necessarily want to be the "hero," she's compelled towards heroism at nearly every turn by the simple fact that she refuses to allow herself to be "broken" by the Capitol's machinations. It's that unwillingness to break, the unwillingness to surrender her humanity in inhumane circumstances during the first film, that sowed the seeds for revolution in the first place, and the strength and intelligence that Lawrence brings to her role is crucial to its success. The actors in the supporting ranks also acquit themselves well, with returning members like Sutherland, Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks all finding new edges to their characters (Banks, in particular, is impressive here for her ability to push the growing humanity of her character out through seemingly impossible layers of makeup, styling, and Capitol affectation), and new cast members bringing new life and energy into the story. There's been a big push over the course of this year for the Oscars to begin recognizing the contributions of casting directors to the industry and I think that The Hunger Games is an excellent example of why such recognition is deserved. This is one of the best cast series I've ever seen, with even the most minor roles being filled to pitch perfection.

Although running to 146 minutes, Catching Fire is a little bit longer than it needs to be, the pace is brisk and the film never stops gathering momentum. Francis Lawrence's direction is a little sleeker than that of The Hunger Games director Gary Ross, and the film does an excellent job at building from the previous film and building towards the next one, while also being wholly entertaining in and of itself. It'll be a year before we see the next installment, Mockingjay - Part 1, but it's safe to say that we can expect good things.

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