Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Run Time: 2 hours, 26 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright
Directed by Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend, Constantine)
No mere movie review will stop legions of fans from flocking to theaters this weekend to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(opening today). It's the second chapter in the movie series based on the second book, but it feels a lot like the first film. Structurally, it is nearly an exact template, with the wearisome first hour or so slowly building into an exciting finish, with an ending that leaves you longing for the next installment.
But Catching Fire is a much more even and focused film throughout. Where the first movie felt a bit rushed in spots - and a bit drawn-out in others - this one feels like a complete film, not just an introduction. Many of the characters that were stuffed into the first film have a bit more breathing room and ample time to develop. And although it follows the same pattern as the previous movie, here the stakes are much higher, making way for much more excitement and drama.
As the story goes, Katniss and Peta are coming off of their winning performance following the events of the first film. Of course, they are the first pair to win The Hunger Games and this defiance has not sat well with the ice-cold President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He can't just go off and kill a fan-favorite to the people like Katniss, so instead he needs to control her. In the off-season between Hunger Games, Katniss and Peta are transported around the 12 Districts to wave at the impoverished people and to distract them from the suppression from the rich, evil Capitol.
But something has changed following the last Hunger Games. Katniss has given people hope...not exactly the emotion President Snow wants them to have. So how can he exact his revenge on Katniss and press his foot a bit harder on the neck of his populace? He recruits the Game Master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to come up with an idea. The idea he decides upon is a good one: For the upcoming 75th Hunger Games, it would feature all returning players - past winners/survivors - in a best of the best competition. Yes, that means that Katniss and Peta will have little peace, being thrust right back into a life or death competition where this time, only one will survive.
In the first, slow hour of the film, we follow Katniss as these plots against her develop. She finds herself in a love triangle of sorts between her District 12 friend Kale and her faux, on-air boyfriend Peta, but staying true to her character, there is no room for romantic love in Katniss's heart while she is struggling to find a way to lift her family out of despair. The film smartly side-steps going into Twilight-territory, but doesn't dismiss the realities of the characters.
Once the games begin, things get interesting. We are introduced to several former winners of the Games, each with their unique abilities. As Katniss begins her journey within the Games, we start to pick up on some signs that not all is what it appears to be.
To explain my gripes would be to spoil the very interesting but inexplicable plot twists that come late in the film. Let's just say that Katniss deals with a lot of stuff in the film, much of it a bit reckless and unexplainable, if you think back on it, considering where the story goes.
As mentioned, the supporting characters all rise up, so that this franchise is no longer carried solely by the powerful performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch and even Elizabeth Banks's Effie get room to grow. Stanley Tucci, as TV host Ceasar Flickerman, was memorable in the first film, but here, he chews his scenes wholly, in what can only be labeled as a stand-out supporting performance in a film chock-full of them.
Fans of the books and those that started following Katniss with the first film will both be pleased with Catching Fire. Where it leaves us at the end is a cliff-hanger as exciting as any Marvel stinger scene. Yes, there will be two more Hunger Games movies - the final book, Mockingjay, being divided into two films - that will land each of the next two Novembers.
This movie, despite its flaws, has only built momentum for the series. Sharing a sentiment with the citizens of the 12 Districts, there is now a strong sense of hope for what is to come.
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