[Screen It]

"THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE"
(2013) (Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama: In a post-apocalyptic world, the teenage winner of a televised battle to the death competition must contend with the ramifications of that, as well as her nation's president's concern that she might have become the face of a budding revolution against him and his totalitarian government.
PLOT:
In the undetermined, post-apocalyptic future, the government has long controlled the populace of Panem by dividing them into twelve districts. Each year, there's a televised event known as the Hunger Games where one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 are selected to compete in a battle to the death. It's designed as entertainment for the masses, but really to show the people that resistance against the government would be futile.

The latest winner was Katniss Everdeen (JENNIFER LAWRENCE) from District 12 who broke the rules by not killing the last competitor or "tribute," Peeta Mellark (JOSH HUTCHERSON), also from her district. While that won her a legion of fans among the everyday people, it doesn't sit well with President Coriolanus Snow (DONALD SUTHERLAND). He's concerned that she might become a figurehead for a resistance against him and thus wants the new head game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), to do something about that.

While Katniss and Peeta are out on their cross-district victory tour along with their representative, Effie Trinket (ELIZABETH BANKS), and mentor and former Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (WOODY HARRELSON), Plutarch comes up with the idea that the 75th Hunger Games should be comprised of former winners as the next tributes, all to whittle any such potential symbolic leaders down to just one. Saying good-bye to her boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (LIAM HEMSWORTH), and fitted with the latest fashion statement by stylist Cinna (LENNY KRAVITZ) for her appearance on Caesar Flickerman's (STANLEY TUCCI) TV show, Katniss and Peeta size up their competition.

While the motives of Finnick Odair (SAM CLAFLIN) seem unclear, Beetee (JEFFREY WRIGHT) and Wiress (AMANDA PLUMMER) come off as nice older nerds, while Mags (LYNN COHEN) is even higher up in age and about as unlikely a tribute as one could imagine. Among the remaining twenty competitors, there's Johanna Mason (JENA MALONE), a former Hunger Games winner who's clearly angry that her promised peaceful future has been taken away from her.

With all deposited into some tropical environ with a host of dangers beyond the other competitors, Katniss and Peeta do what they can to survive, including making some likely and unlikely alliances with others.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
For every "Harry Potter" there's a "Percy Jackson," and for all of the "Twilight" flicks, there's "Eragon," "The Golden Compass," "Beautiful Creatures," "The Mortal Instruments" and "Ender's Game." Yes, I'm referring to both successful and unsuccessful cinematic adaptations of popular and so-called young adult novels. While the "Potter" and "Twilight" flicks have cleaned up at the box office, the others have been mediocre to outright disastrous duds. And some, like the "The Chronicles of Narnia" series, start off strong but then taper off quickly.

Accordingly, when "The Hunger Games" (based on Suzanne Collins' 2008 novel of the same name) came out, no one knew for sure which path it would follow, especially since so many other "sure fire" hits fizzled out. Much to the delight of the folks at releasing studio Lionsgate, the pic opened to a late March 2012 weekend take of $152 million on its way to a domestic gross of $408 million and a nearly $700 million worldwide tally. And unlike the critically maligned "Twilight" movies, writer/director Gary Ross and co-writer Billy Ray's adaptation was liked, for the most part, by a vast majority of critics.

Methinks the box office and critical love will likely continue with the quickly executed sequel, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," that not surprisingly is based on Collins' 2009 literary follow-up of the same name. This time around, Francis Lawrence is in the director's seat working from an adapted screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt.

As was the case with the first novel, I haven't read the sequel either, so there will be no discussions of how the film compares to the literary work. And that's how it really should be as the two mediums are different and movies should be able to stand on their own without relying on the original material. That said, if you're unfamiliar with the novels or the first film, you'll probably have a hard time understanding what's occurring here as this is a simple continuation of the plot without any "in our last episode" recap reminders.

That said, the film suffers a bit but also benefits from being the follow-up. Part of the fun of movies that take place out of normalcy is learning about the set-up and rules of the particular given "universe" and then seeing how the hero reacts to being thrown into that. Sequels don't have that luxury, but they do get to play off already established characters and relationships (much like any TV series that usually gets better with a little "get to know" you time), and that's the case here.

Katniss Everdeen is a fascinating and sympathetic character set in a dystopian world, and Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of her is nearly pitch perfect, just like last time around. This time, she's suffering from angst and depression regarding her newfound fame stemming from her (and fellow District 12 competitor Peeta Mellark -- again played by Josh Hutcherson) surviving the titular event in the last film where 22 other kids perished, sometimes at their hands.

Now, she and Peeta are supposed to go on a victory tour to the various and less-than-welcoming districts to "celebrate" having killed the juvenile representatives of those places. Yes, the government is mean, nasty and manipulative like before, with Donald Sutherland reprising his role as the president while being joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new mastermind behind the games.

They believe that Katniss might be turning into a figurehead for a budding anti-government movement and thus throw her, Peeta and 22 other past winners back into the ring for the 75th annual Hunger Games. Like before, their sponsor (Elizabeth Banks), past victor turned mentor (Woody Harrelson) and fashion stylist (Lenny Kravitz) are along for the ride, all while Stanley Tucci purposefully chews up the scenery as the over-the-top emcee of the televised broadcast.

And as was the case the first time around, it takes a lot of time -- roughly 90 minutes or so here -- before the titular action kicks in. Thankfully that's not a complete retread of what we witnessed in the original pic, and double thankfully we're not subjected to Ross' shaky-cam presentation of the mayhem. Yet, it similarly could have used a change in locales and settings to shake things up a bit and demand the need for a change in survival and/or hunting techniques.

With the new round featuring adults rather than kids, you'd also expect those tactics to be more advanced and perilous for our heroine, but there isn't as much interaction with or screen time for most of the opponents. Instead, we're introduced to an initial team of allies ranging from a young man (Sam Claflin) whose behavior is dubious at best; a middle-aged couple (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) who are grown-up nerds; and an angry former winner (Jena Malone) who's more than a little irked that she's been thrown back into the ring when she had been promised the life of Riley for surviving.

Despite the missed opportunities, a somewhat overlong running time (around two and a half hours) and more than a casual borrowing of elements from "Star Wars" (the unlikely hero becoming the figurehead for a resistance movement against a totalitarian government that wants to squash the rebels and uses storm trooper like soldiers in, yes, white shelled armor and helmets), the film nonetheless works. And much of that stems from Lawrence who apparently can do no wrong in terms of creating interesting characters that mesmerize and pull us into their plight.

With a lesser performer, this offering -- and its predecessor -- likely would not work as well as it does. Despite somewhat abruptly stopping midstream as many a second film in a series often does, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" engaged and kept me interested to see how things ultimately play out.

All of which means the releasing studio -- that's hoping to continue this series as another example of young adult literature that's successfully transitioned from print to moving images -- likely has little to worry about in such regards. Like its predecessor, it's good but not great and thus rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed November 18, 2013 / Posted November 22, 2013


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