The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Posted by Michael Parsons on November 22, 2013 in / 1 Comment


Note: There are a few spoilers from the first “Hunger Games” film in this review, so if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so before watching “Catching Fire”.

Last year’s “The Hunger Games”, which was based on the first novel in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, was bound to be a huge hit – not just because of the hordes of teens and young adults flocking to the theaters to see Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson fleshing out their new favorite fantasy characters on-screen, but because it was, for the most part, a pretty good movie. And though it was only moderately stimulating to this critic, it was, at the very least, a solid foreshadowing of its three planned successors – the first of which, “Catching Fire” (which hits theaters tomorrow), is a far more mature, violent, complex, and interesting movie.

107996_galThe autocratic dystopia of Panem is not a great place for the majority of its citizens. As established in the first film, a controlling entity called the Capitol has mandated an annual bloodletting  – a televised, commercially sponsored event in which one unlucky teenage boy and girl are selected from each of its twelve industrial districts in a lottery known as “The Reaping”. They are then expected to fight to the death until only one person remains.

When Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) emerge from the 74th Hunger Games as the first ever surviving couple, having threatened to kill themselves in front of the entire country on live television and appearing to be deeply in love, it is seen as an act of defiance by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). However, to avoid a rebellion, he’s forced to let them both live, all the while knowing that the Romeo and Juliet act was only a ploy to keep themselves alive.

107992_gal“Catching Fire” picks up during a virtual PR nightmare in the wake of the games as Katniss and Peeta, now a beacon of hope for their mostly destitute countrymen as well as a threat to the infrastructure of the Capitol, are on the “post game” tour as all the tributes are expected to do, beginning a new life with the promise of fame, riches and non-stop media attention. Along for the ride are fellow games veteran, mentor and heavy drinker Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss’s faithful stylist and confidant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the effervescent Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).

But things are far from well and good as their happiness is a ruse, and President Snow, who’s essentially running damage control through his aristocratic channels, threatens to kill Katniss’s younger sister Prim (Willow Shields), mom (Paula Malcomson) and close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) if she isn’t cooperative during the media frenzy. Basically, she’s to smile and nod for the cameras and publicly show her respects for the generosity of the Capitol.

97801_galWhen the victory tour goes afoul after a heartfelt speech from Katniss creates an uproar in one of the districts, a massive revolt seems imminent.  As a countermeasure, Snow re-inserts Katniss and Peeta  into the running for the 75th, and biggest ever, Hunger Games, in which only seasoned victors – the most dangerous fighters from all twelve districts – are eligible. This is where the story really reaches a new level of excitement, as the hazards created by newly appointed game master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), which are set in a massive bio-dome where the third “Quarter Quell” is to take place, are essentially non-stop.  As several new characters are introduced, including an aging techie named Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and a cocky but gifted fighter named Finnick (Sam Clafin), and alliances are formed, the film becomes a totally immersive action/fantasy experience.

“Catching Fire” is like the “Empire Strikes Back” of the “Hunger Games” series. Director Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”) gives us something smarter, edgier and far less predictable than the original film, and the script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt leaves us with a terrific cliffhanger. This film also shows a massive evolution of both its concept and its characters – a combination that is kind of rare with these contemporary multi-part epics. Lawrence, as always, is a blast to watch, and Hutcherson’s Peeta grows leaps and bounds from the first film. Not only are the action sequences more extensive and creative, but the pacing of this installment – which runs a good 2 hours and 20 minutes – is almost perfect. It’s a taut, extremely sure-footed adventure story that defines what movie-going is all about. “The Hunger Games” has unexepectedly become a series that I’m seriously invested in.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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