Sunday, December 1, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

 3 / 5 

The first Hunger Games movie was a slavish adaptation of the best-selling novel, which despite a horrifying premise of children mercilessly killing other children is technically a young-adult novel because its protagonist is a teenaged female.  The novel had clear ambitions of commenting on this twisted premise, and was aware of just how outlandish and even angering its premise was.

The movie had no such aspirations, and enjoyed showing the human hunt and the fear on the faces of children.  It was off-putting to see satirical violence played up as entertainment, and the film never found a way to reflect on what it was doing.

Unable to separate my views on the book with my experience watching the movie, I didn't read Catching Fire before seeing the film, and whether that affected my experience or whether this is just a superior film, I'm not sure.

For about half its running time, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not only a vastly better film than its predecessor, it is compelling, provocative and doesn't back away from some of the hard stuff.  This is mainstream entertainment, so it's not exactly hard-hitting, but Catching Fire is a genuinely intriguing movie for its first hour or so.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are the two victors of The Hunger Games, a sadistic, government-sponsored program that requires youngsters from around the country to participate in a bloodsport competition.  Through an implausible series of events, they became the joint champion, and have been returned to their impoverished, bleak hometown.

But Catching Fire turns out, at least at first, not to be a simple retread of the first story -- the sequel genuinely expands on the themes and deepens the story.  It's quickly established that the Katniss-Peeta duo, and especially Katniss herself, has fomented unrest and dissatisfaction with the government.  The very device used to keep the populace under control is leading to protest, because if a poor hick like Katniss can win against impossible odds, perhaps anyone can.

But the President (Donald Sutherland) and the mastermind of the games (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can't stand for this, so they devise a plan to get Katniss and Peeta back into the deadly arena in a way that will allow them to showcase the government's supreme authority.

Once again, though, there are problems.  Katniss is becoming more politically aware, and her growing conscience is rubbing off on those around her, even the line-towing Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).  Unwittingly, she's become a symbol of a growing uprising, and while it may be the case that the responsibility is the last thing Katniss wants, she's not left with much of a choice.

In many ways, then The Hunger Games: Catching Fire becomes a fascinating and insightful reflection on the way its own star, the undeniably talented but also seemingly staunchly independent Lawrence, is reacting to her world.  She may have only wanted to be an actress, but now she's a major celebrity -- a fact that brings with it some unpleasant realities.

Katniss is resistant, initially petulant, and confused.  She does what's demanded of her, but not happily. Her made-up relationship with her competitor threatens to overwhelm reality.

But then, just when the film is getting to its most interesting drama, it becomes another chase movie.  The involving Catching Fire becomes the ho-hum Hunger Games, in which a bunch of people who don't know each other are required to try to kill each other.

This version is like a Hunger Games All-Stars, bringing back victors from each of the past 25 years, which at least adds some delicious nuance -- most of them are tired of being celebrities just for killing more people than anyone else, and a great many are inspired by Katniss.  They're newly converted to a sort of pacifism, and they want to stop the games from happening.

Then, they don't.  They start throwing spears and knives, start drowning and stabbing and eviscerating each other, and the filmmakers actually seem to get bored with this, at one point throwing in a pack of wild baboons in a sequence that was so dark (at the theater we attended) to be rendered almost meaningless.

The latter half of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire just can't live up to the first.  Even the addition of a couple of intriguing new characters can't keep the movie from feeling a little worn around the edges for about an hour or so.

The final moments are certainly intriguing, and revisit the promise of the half.  The Hunger Games, it turns out, are the least interesting aspect of The Hunger Games.

Viewed Nov. 29, 2013 -- Laemmle North Hollywood


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