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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire




"Did you see that?" Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) asks Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) when their victory train whisks by graffiti emblazoned on the walls of one of the Districts of Panem. Things are changing. The graffiti is evidence of this: the symbol of the Mockingjay, the gold pin worn by Katniss in The Hunger Games, is now appearing everywhere, marking a growing tide of unrest all over the nation.The people are resentful, increasingly hostile. Panem is a powderkeg waiting to explode. "The Odds Are Never In Our Favor!" is a feeling widespread by all of the people who've spent generations ground under the boot of the totalitarian Capitol. No one understands the odds not being in her favor more than Katniss Everdeen herself.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a furious juggernaut, a tome of palpable anger, heartache, and defiance. Taking over The Hunger Games franchise from Gary Ross, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) helms Catching Fire like a runner accepting the Olympic torch and going farther, faster and harder than his predecessor. Lawrence impressively expands the universe of Panem, redesigning the Capitol as much more of a futuristic megalopolis and designing new locales like the Pink House President Snow resides in. Catching Fire's costume design is stunning, especially the wedding dress that transforms into a Mockingjay worn by Katniss and the white and black jumpsuits worn by the Tributes in the Arena. Gone is the unsightly CGI of the creatures in the first Hunger Games; this time around the effects are seamlessly integrated, and the creatures, like the ferocious baboons Katniss and her allies battle are lifelike enough to make audience members jump in their seat.

Already blessed and privileged with Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence as his star and centerpiece, Francis Lawrence (no relation) surrounds his namesake with top tier thesps like Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new Games Master Plutarch Weatherby, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as fellow Victors forced to return to competition in the Hunger Games, and Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, a furious sparkplug who swings a mean axe. Returning as well are franchise stalwarts Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, the other devoted love interest in Katniss' life, Willow Shields as Katniss' young sister Prim, Elizabeth Banks as the ineffable Effie Trinkett, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' courageous stylist Cinna, Woody Harrelson as Katniss' loveable drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Stanley Tucci as the delightfully preening master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman, and Donald Sutherland as the malevolent President Snow. The supporting characters are given much more depth in Catching Fire. Young Prim emerges as a stronger, more competent potential doctor and Gale, relegated to the sidelines in The Hunger Games, shows sparks of the rebel leader he wishes to become. Malone's first encounter with Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, shamelessly stripping in front of them in an elevator, is the best comedy in the movie, especially thanks to Jennifer Lawrence's reactions.

A year after her "victory" in the Hunger Games ("There are no victors," Haymitch scolds Katniss. "Only survivors"), Katniss Everdeen is a world famous, wealthy celebrity and more miserable than ever, tormented by guilt and suffering from untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the horrors she endured in the Hunger Games. She's drinking more too. President Snow, who hates Katniss' guts more than anyone else on Panem, personally visits her in her Capitol-granted mansion just to bully her and force her to tow the line. Katniss fails to see the honor of being personally intimidated by the most powerful man in Panem. But Katniss is a problem for Snow; she has become an unwelcome symbol of dissidence to the Capitol and a figure of hope to the people of Panem, neither of which she wishes to be. Nor does Katniss wish to continue her feigned public love affair with Peeta. Snow makes it clear as day he'll kill her and everyone she cares about if she doesn't play ball. "I'll convince them," Katniss promises. "No," Snow retorts. "Convince me." Easier said than done, especially since, unlike the woman who portrays her, Katniss is a lousy actress.

Touring the Districts, Katniss unwittingly sparks unrest and rebellion, with the Capitol's white stormtroopers enforcing public executions to quell the rabble. Meanwhile, Snow and Weatherby plot strategems against the fire rising in their midst and savvy their master plan: The 75th Hunger Games, also known as the Quarter Quell, will be comprised of the surviving victors from each District, an unfair and complete betrayal of the promises made to everyone fortunate enough to survive the Hunger Games. The Reaping for District 12 is a mockery, with a forlorn Katniss' as the only woman on the female side and Peeta volunteering to replace Haymitch as the male Tribute. But perhaps even more angry are the other District Tribute Victors; collectively, they attempt to sabotage the Games, to no avail. Katniss' act of defiance, creating a hanged man mock up of the late Games Master Seneca Crane, is her best FU; a retaliation for the constant mindfucks inflicted on her by Snow like taunting her with the image of the dead Rue whenever they get the chance. Snow also makes sure Katniss is helpless to watch Cinna get beaten to a pulp in front of her.

Though quite a lot is thrown into the boiling pot of Catching Fire, everything builds to the Hunger Games fought in the Arena, the crucible Katniss must again survive. Unlike the previous Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell is fought by adults with Katniss and Peeta as the youngest combatants, secretly allied to help each other -- though there are no secrets within the Arena that can be kept from the omniscient Plutarch and Snow. Or are there? This time, the Arena is an ingenious concoction: a clock under a dome timed to attack the Tributes every hour. Killer baboons and poisonous, boil-inducing fog replace the mutant attack dogs and fire balls from the previous Hunger Games. Katniss doesn't realize until the very end, when she manages to crash the Arena's system with an electric arrow and bring the dome crashing down, just how much of a pawn she has been for each side in what is now officially a Rebellion. More important to Katniss is the survival of Peeta, the devoted baker's boy she must crouch down for so as not tower over him and who loves her unconditionally and defiantly.

Through it all, the focus of Catching Fire, as it must be, is on Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire. Once more, Jennifer Lawrence captures all of Katniss' emotions, flaws, torment, and that steely core of self-sacrificing heroism beneath it all, and projects it for all to see. Also returning are Katniss' snarls, the best snarls in the business, when she coils back the string on her bow and lets loose her arrows. Though Katniss shares a larger canvas now with her closest allies, Peeta, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Gale, and survives the Arena thanks to the other Tributes, Lawrence is the sole center of gravity of Catching Fire. She persuasively brings to even greater life probably the most complex female superhero-who-isn't-a-superhero to ever star in a billion-dollar franchise. Burly, rebellious, and incendiary, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes its place as one of the great second acts in motion picture franchise history, for real.