‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ Review: All for a Children’s Crusade

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The middle film of a trilogy is always tough. It’s a pivot point, a film whose main task is setting up the final act. It’s usually a cliffhanger, because if things resolve neatly, there’s no real anticipation for the next film. “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” does a good job setting you up for the third film, but at times it is kind of a grim, joyless ride.

Now, don’t get us wrong. A big point of the film is that it is grim. When the film opens, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned, theoretically triumphant, from outsmarting the Hunger Games the previous year. But — their District is still desperately poor, a mining company town but without the food and security that normally come with your soul- and lung-killing job in the mines. Moreover, Katniss and Peeta are both utterly broken. They’re not yet to the point of adopting Haymitch’s (Woody Harrelson) coping mechanism of staying drunk literally all the time, but they are likely on their way. How do you live with being feted for having killed other kids? You don’t, really.

Katniss and Peeta are getting ready to go on their mandatory Victory Trip around all the Districts in the runup to the upcoming 75th Annual Hunger Games. After outsmarting the Games and defying the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta have become symbols of hope and strength. As they make their way around the bleak outer Districts, they see signs of hope, of revolution, sparking. They also see signs of that revolution being put down in an absolutely brutal and unforgiving way. Though this is still presumably marketed at a teen demographic, the regime brutalizes and murders people just like a grown-up film.

The tour, of course, brings Katniss and Peeta and Haymitch ever closer to the headquarters of this post-apocalyptic dystopian America. The film is at its best visually when it captures the disconnect between the hardscrabble deprivation of the Districts and the opulence of the Capitol, which is a veritable end-of-days spectacle. People eat as much as they can and then make themselves throw up so they can eat more. Every part of their body is modified, dyed, bejeweled, an orgy of excess. Effie Trinket (a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) is a particularly outrageous example of this, with hair and costumes that change in every scene.

'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Review: All for a Children's Crusade

Also great is the aggressively cheerful talk show host Caesar Flickerman, played with scenery-chewing glee by Stanley Tucci.

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Seriously, Caesar and Effie are both in the business of dressing up children in order to send them to their hellish deaths at the hands of other children, but somehow they’re so over-the-top, so much a product of their environment, that you kind of love them.

You do not, however, love President Snow, played with slithering grace and menace by Donald Sutherland. It is he who informs Katniss in an offhand manner that her only reason for existing is to promote the glory and greatness of the regime, and if she fails be sincere enough in doing so, he’ll have her family killed.

Serious question: who will play the Aging Handsomely, Yet Still Quietly Terrifying, roles that Anthony Hopkins and Sutherland clearly have on lock when they age out or pass away? One possibility is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who shows up here as the new GameMaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. Hoffman is world-weary, unkempt, and even more aggressively cynical about how to retain power than Snow is. He suggests to an all-too-willing Snow that the best way to deal with any dissatisfaction in the Districts is to increase floggings and public executions, to press the boots upon their necks even more.

These supporting characters are as strong — both in terms of the characters themselves and the actors portraying them — as the film could want. It never lags when these characters are around. Sadly, where it does lag is when the main characters are the focus. This is no fault of Lawrence or Hutchinson. They both turn in great performances, but the books themselves have saddled them with an impossible storyline whereby Katniss is Torn Between Two Lovers. Katniss and Peeta had to feign a romance for the ages to survive the first Games, but Peeta may or may not be feigning. Meanwhile, Katniss may or may not be in love with her best friend Gale, played with maximum plodding by Thor’s little brother, Liam Hemsworth. The whole back-and-forth of that storyline doesn’t work in the book and it doesn’t work here. There’s no rhyme or reason to the shift of her affections, save for whoever is physically nearest or whoever is being harmed at the moment automatically going to the front of the line. In addition, it undermines the entire concept of Katniss, who is supposed to be a lone wolf, a girl concerned only with the survival of her family, a girl so dedicated to that survival that she volunteered to go to the Games in her sister’s place. Lone wolves do not constantly need to date other wolves. The love scenes, such as they are, are joyless affairs that leave you wishing that Effie would just walk in with a dress made of butterflies and liven things up a bit.

In short, “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” works best as a chronicle of a near-future dystopia that seems plausible and at its worst when it tries to capture the complexity of human relationships. It is well worth seeing if you’ve already seen the first film. SPOILER ALERT: Don’t watch it if you haven’t seen that first film because very little of this will make sense otherwise. Just know that things will lag a bit in the middle when you’re supposed to care about the star-crossed-lovers and make sure you’re emotionally prepared to be stuck in cliffhanger land until the next movie comes out.

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