“THE HUNGER GAMES: Catching Fire” is a significant improvement on its anemic predecessor. The change from the middle-of-the-road, plain-vanilla Gary Ross (with such heart-warmers to his credit as “Seabiscuit” and “Pleasantville”) to Francis Lawrence (“I am Legend”) was a major upgrade. The tone of “PG/let’s offend-no-one” that neutered any real dense of danger and edge in HG1 has been replaced by a darker, dirtier, bloodier mood. Though we know Katniss Evergreen (Jennifer Lawrence) the badass female protagonist, will of course survive, Lawrence’s direction and Lawrence’s grittiness really do deliver the kind of edge of the seat excitement that the books offered and the first one failed at.
“HG: Catching Fire” has no doubt been helped considerably by the fact that there is no need to tamper down the adrenaline by long, dull back-story explanations (which was one of the factors that bogged down the original). Most of the viewers I imagine come to the movie with some sense of its back-story: The games are the annual live entertainment sport in which a team of (mainly) young persons chosen from their districts, fight for their lives, to the delight and enjoyment of all. It’s the way the government of the Districts of Panem keeps the population compliant and entertained, even as they suffer and starve. Katniss and her partner, Peeta Mellark (a bland Josh Hutcherson who looks like a computer animation that wandered in from “Grand Theft Auto”) are the previous year’s winners. This is an accolade that has lifted them out of the grinding poverty in which almost all of the inhabitants of Panem live, and has permitted them to join its 1%: the indolent, sybaritic rich. Frankly, even if you’ve been unaware of this basic plot, it’s not hard to catch up on, since we all seem to live in Panem these days.
“HG: Catching Fire” focuses on the aftermath of Katniss’ victory; and in particular, the spunk and rebelliousness she displayed in securing this victory – which she did on her’s and not on the Government’s terms. Her rebelliousness has clearly caught a spark and there’s revolution in the air.
These new games are the sinister plan of President Snow (a white maned, silkily malevolent Donald Sutherland) and his games master, Plutarch Heavensbee (a smug, cocky Philip Seymour Hoffman) who intend to show-up Katniss as a typical, callous, take-no-winners survivalist, and thereby end her populism. As they say, little do they know.
It took the Harry Potter franchise several movies before it could swing into the kind of self-assured confidence that this movie exudes. Francis Lawrence focuses on breathlessly driving the plot forward; he doesn’t dwell on the movie’s art direction (the first one spent more time gawking on its set décor than on its characters) and gives us enough of the key characters to generate the hiss and ooh factors. Stanley is back as the unctuous MC Caesar Flickerman, all fake tan, fake smiles, fake whitened teeth and fake bonhomie.
Lennie Kravitz gives us a nice cameo as Katness’ dress and image-maker, Cinna; Woody Harrelson remains her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, but fortunately there’s less of him hamming it up. And we’re also introduced to the ever mercurial, understated Jeffrey Wright as one of the contenders, Beetee.
But really this is Jennifer Lawrence’s movie. She’s in virtually ever scene. She’s totally convincing (I’d even rate her the winner should there ever be an archery fight off between her and Legolas) and, especially when she’s interacting with Katniss’ male admirers (Hutcherson’s Meelark and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorne), she shines as the only pro in the room. She’s also grown up in the last year. Here America’s new sweet-heart (replacing the once talented Jennifer Aniston) is more sophisticated, elegant, mature.
Can’t wait for the two-part finale of the series, “The Hunger Games, Mockingjay”, Parts 1 and 2 in 2014 and 2015.