“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” Movie Review

    After viewing the second film in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, “Catching Fire”, I found myself questioning the intent of both the filmmakers as well as the author of the books the series is based on, Suzanne Collins.  With their depiction of a grim dystopian future combined with a story of harsh government oppression, do they envision this series becoming a statement on today’s issues for the younger generation?  As if Collins’ books, now visually realized as epic feature films, exist in a parallel universe meant to mirror the lingering issue in our society with a widening gap between classes and the perception the police, an extension of the government, are there to create fear amongst the poor?  I really hope the masses watching this film over the next several weeks do not come to this conclusion, since as a fictional work, “Catching Fire” is a top rate, well thought out exercise in event filmmaking.  Stepping in for “The Hunger Games” director Gary Ross, “I Am Legend” director Francis Lawrence guides the sequel capably while working from a solid adaptation by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt.

     One year after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) became controversial victors of the 74th Hunger Games, the duo is summoned for a tour of the districts by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  Lawrence  sets a melancholy tone throughout the tour, which invokes quite an emotional response from the film’s lead characters, and for good reason.  Snow’s initial visit with Katniss instructs her to play her part as not only a willing participant, but as a symbol of power the government wants to exude in order to maintain allegiance from the people.  When the tour is met instead with civil unrest, the government security forces accompanying the group, react swiftly with excessive deadly force intended to strike fear in those who witness it.  If you step up and say or do anything deemed antigovernment, the cost is your life.

     Lawrence stages these scenes injecting an almost always present feeling of despair and hopelessness with the majority of the districts doused earth tones combined with various shades of black and grey.  Scenes of Snow’s security forces surrounding and beating helpless people with batons hark back to the Rodney King incident and some sequences even evoke the punishment of choice during slavery where some characters are tied up and whipped in public.  Ultimately, the tour is a political disaster and our protagonists are left reeling to come up with a way to salvage what is left before Snow makes good on his promise to kill them and their families.

     “Catching Fire” introduces a new character into the proceedings with Plutarch Heavensbee, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Charged with advising Snow on matters ranging from political propaganda to creating ways of ensuring the capitol remains an entity people fear, Plutarch envisions a new competition in which past victors of The Hunger Games will compete against one another in what is now the 75th anniversary of the event.  Once told they would be paid for their victory for the rest of their lives, Katniss, Peeta, and a collection of hand picked past victors from several other districts are now thrust into intense circumstances, yet again, as one character exclaims “There are no winners, only survivors.”  Snow clearly intends on making a statement that even victors are expendable.

     Fans of the series will love the performances of both Elizabeth Banks, returning as Effie, and Stanley Tucci, returning as the capitol’s mouthpiece Caesar.  Effie literally changes elaborate costumes every different scene she’s in, quite like Cher does in an average two hour concert.  Effie functions as the official District 12 victor’s chaperone and continually hams it up with every line she speaks.  Likewise, Caesar is a flamboyant  show host for the capitol run television network, who is typically charged with the on camera interviews before major events.  Think Craig Sager from TNT, but add really white teeth, purple hair, and a massive dose of overacting within the role.  Both characters are important simply because they bring a colorful and positive life to the story, even when the situation is clearly bleak for all involved.

     An abrupt ending will leave audiences clamoring for more as the third act only brings to light new questions, rather than answers.  As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence has thoroughly settled into her character and seems ready to catapult our heroine to enormous heights for the final chapter, “Mockingjay”, which will be divided into two films premiering November, 2014 and November, 2015 respectively.  “Catching Fire” inevitably functions as the necessary middle part of the series, but easily holds it’s own as a rousing and epic entertainment, chalk full of several notable twists and an always present flair for the creative.  For all the hype, these talented filmmakers have succeeded in delivering a solid entry, while ensuring audiences will have plenty to debate before the next installment.  GRADE: B+