Staff Reviews

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence in a bigger, somewhat better sequel.

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Another year, another prime-time slaughter in the sad land of Panem. You'll recall that in the first Hunger Games movie, our spunky protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), outfoxed government game-runners to emerge victorious at the end of the annual rite. This should have exempted her from further participation in these bloody extravaganzas; but Panem's evil dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), worried that Katniss was becoming a figurehead for mounting rebellion among his miserable subjects, has declared a special new edition of the Hunger Games that will pit past victors against one another in a new battle to the death. With any luck, he fervently hopes, Katniss will be among the corpses littering this year's arena.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is inevitably a rerun of the first film, to some extent—nearly two and a half hours of teen-bait action-romance. But it's a better movie. Well, in some ways. Once you get past wondering why the famously blonde Jennifer Lawrence has suddenly been given a dreadful flat-black dye job. And why the picture starts at a dead standstill and spends most of its first third trying to get moving. And why it then proceeds to go on so much longer than it has any right to.

Those who remember the first installment, however, will know that this one could have been much worse. But even though that picture grossed more than $680-million worldwide, the producers brought in a new creative team to punch things up. Their wisest hire was director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), who concentrates the story and whips it along as best he can—the movie sags in some stretches, but never breaks down completely. It's still a picture aimed at fans of Suzanne Collins' best-selling YA novels—and of Jennifer Lawrence, naturally—but even viewers dragged into it kicking and screaming are unlikely to be bored out of their minds. Well, not entirely.

Most of the key actors are back in harness: Elizabeth Banks as Katniss' fashion-victim chaperone, Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as her boozy coach, Haymitch Abernathy; and the great Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the government game-show host from Hell (with his blazing-white teeth and purple eyebrows, he's an icon of showbiz insincerity). And there are some welcome new additions, chief among them Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the weaselly government Gamemaker ("Fun is my business!"). Hoffman has never met a written character he can't improve upon, and he devises shadings of carefully ambiguous charm for this one. Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) brings punkette energy to the role of axe-wielding contestant Johanna Mason; and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer add a sweet emotional layer to the film as the brainiac contestants Beetee and Wiress, who discern a crucial flaw in Plutarch's insidious game design. Katniss is still saddled with mopey fake boyfriend Peeta Mellark (played by mopey Josh Hutcherson), but he's effectively crowded out this time by a more engaging hunk named Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, of Snow White and the Huntsman).

The movie advances the Hunger Games story in serviceable fashion. Katniss and her partner Peeta are compelled by Snow to leave their grim coal-mining town and embark on a promotional tour of Panem's other heavily oppressed districts. Snow also forces them to continue posing as girlfriend-boyfriend ("Our two lethal lovers!" Flickerman crows during a TV appearance) to add bogus romance to the grisly government narrative. Their ultimate destination is the Capitol, where Katniss' stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), once again decks her out in about half a pound of mascara and familiar fiery gowns (one of which unwisely announces his own rebel sympathies). After meeting their fellow contestants ("I want them all dead!" Snow hisses to Plutarch), they're off to the arena—this time a hot, thick jungle arranged around a big lagoon with a Tilt-A-Whirl-style "cornucopia" of weapons at its center. The Games begin.

Plutarch and Snow watch via video feed as the contestants are assaulted and knocked off by an unrelenting series of perils—an attack by giant baboons being the most fearsome. Director Lawrence stages some of this with relative economy, and he's skillful in balancing the movie's action with quieter interludes of plot-pushing conversation and even some chaste PG-13 nuzzling. Things grow dark at the end, as you know they must – until Katniss pulls one last arrow from her apparently bottomless quiver.

The movie was partly shot with IMAX cameras for maximum widescreen impact, and you may be very happy to know that it's not in 3D. It is the middle installment of this story (the concluding chapter, profit-stretchingly broken into two films, will be released over the next two years), but it stands fairly well on its own. Apart from Sutherland—who I think murmurs too much to be convincing as a really rotten guy—the performers are generally well-suited to their roles, and seem to be having fun with them.

The picture is tricked out with an expected component of digital and animatronic enhancements. But its most special effect, once again, is Jennifer Lawrence. Her deep talent as an actor is barely called upon here, leaving her serene beauty to anchor the film. She's required only to glow, and she does. For a movie like this, it's enough.

Buy The Hunger Games DVD.

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22 responses to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  1. For a movie like this, it’s enough.

    So it’s terrible.

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  2. Once you get past wondering why the famously blonde Jennifer Lawrence has suddenly been given a dreadful flat-black dye job.

    Well she had dark hair in that overrated Silver Linings movie, so at this point I tend to picture her as a brunette.

    I also saw her in The House at the End of the Street, but all I can remember about that was how the ending was very similar to a certain 1980s horror movie.

  3. The question is, why is she raven-haired in this movie, when she was blonde in the first one. Not that the fate of our nation hinges on the answer…

    1. She wasn’t blond in the first one and she isn’t a natural blond either. She has dark hair here to remain consistent with the character from the book.

      1. You’re right (I was wrong): She wasn’t blonde in the first film. Stills confirm she was brunette. But in “Catching Fire” her hair is inky black. This is unlikely to keep anyone up nights, I admit….

  4. I realize this ^ will be the #1 film in America, and worldwide, so I get that it’s relevant (at least this week), but I wish the talented KL had reviewed a film or films that i might possibly ever watch

  5. Apart from Sutherland?who I think murmurs too much to be convincing as a really rotten guy?the performers are generally well-suited to their roles, and seem to be having fun with them.

    Sutherland’s going for the quiet sinister type, which I’m presuming is how Snow is in the books (I haven’t bothered reading them), but the role really works a lot better, given the ham-fisted Roman allusions, if done in the manner of Jay Robinson’s Caligua in The Robe.

  6. The first movie was utterly, crushingly disappointing, so I’ll be missing this one as well.

    Thenks, Kurt, for confirming my pre-existing bias.

    1. “Utterly, crushingly disappointing” – wow, is the novel really so amazing that you were expecting the movie version to be some kind of masterpiece?

      I don’t remember that much about the first film, just that I went into it expecting “Battle Royale with (mostly) white people” and that’s basically what I got.

      1. Never read any of the books – it was just a really shitty movie. I was expecting much more from the hype.

        That is all.

  7. Wait, the bitch didn’t die in the first one?

    Now I don’t need to see that either.

  8. I didn’t think I’d be into the series until I watched the first one on Netflix a few months ago. Now I’ll either go to a drive-in or a $5.50 matinee to see this one, or maybe I’ll give it a few weeks and see it at the $2.50 place at the mall, which won’t be open very much longer, because its business model can’t pay for six new digital projection systems.

  9. I haven’t seen anybody mention that this is simply a remake of “Running Man”, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson.
    Oh, and Jesse the body Ventura.
    I haven’t seen “The Hunger Games”, nor will I see this.
    Man, everything is a remake these days.

  10. Tough crowd. I saw the first one, and I’ll watch this one as well at some point. Maybe wait until it gets to the cheap theater. Jennifer Lawrence is a beauty, and exudes such charm, she’s a joy to watch. Given how irritating teens can be, watching them slaughter each other can be cathartic.

    1. ” Given how irritating teens can be, watching them slaughter each other can be cathartic.”

      It would be, except (at least in the books) you see one or two deaths, and the rest of the time have to put up with a terrible love triangle between three teens that are such vapid wastes of neurons that the irritation vastly outstrips any catharsis.

    2. this is exactly how i feel.

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  12. The books were just about readable but the first movie was boring Hollywood schlock. Peeta, who is probably the strongest character in the books, was turned into some camp bastard son of Tom Cruise and George Takei.

  13. It wasn’t bad. Just keep the intended audience in mind.

    One thing is terribly unrealistic, though – Snow demands a previously winning male and female from every district – and more shockingly, he gets them.

    That is a total of 24 winners from 23 years of the games (Peeta and Katniss being the sole co-winners). Somehow, all but three seem to be in their teens or twenties. More shockingly – I don’t want to be sexist or anything, but does anyone really think that girls would win combat games at least one quarter of the time? I ask, because that is the minimum that would be required for this story to work, presuming that on average a winner lives 50 years after they win the games. What’s more, those female winners would have to be evenly distributed among the districts, despite the fact that we know that districts 1 and 2 win most of the games.

    I expect some fantastical elements in movies of this type, but this goes a bit too far.

  14. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a rerun of the first film and the government game-show host from Hell .Most of the key actors are back in harness. The Games will begin.

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