‘Catching Fire’ exciting sequel, but very grim

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman (left) and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a potent follow-up to the first Hunger Games film, good enough that — with the inevitable cliffhanger ending — I wished that we could immediately move on to the next film in the series.

It is also, in the first hour especially, a harrowing presentation that might be upsetting to the younger fans of the Suzanne Collins novels that inspired the films. While this is in keeping with Collins’ book, there is still a difference between reading a description and seeing incidents like the killing of a protester or a bloody flogging. So take that PG-13 rating seriously.

In Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence again plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman in a dystopian America who has become a star by winning the annual Hunger Games battle to the death with her friend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). She has also become a symbol of defiance to the regime of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who wants Katniss to defend the ruling system during a national tour by the most recent games’ champions. But Katniss and Peeta instead become even more powerful forces for change, and Snow must figure out a way to bring them down.

The solution is to use the next games — and their overseer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — to first disgrace and finally kill Katniss. The games are accordingly changed from a battle among new players to a competition among past champions from the various districts, making Katniss a target for especially lethal folks. In fighting them, she might also have to display a merciless bloodlust that will ruin her image with the public.

Fully an hour of the movie, which runs more than two, is taken up with setting the stage for the latest games. It is an especially tense hour, as it demonstrates the extent and brutality of Snow’s regime, and Katniss’ tattered conscience from what she had to do before. It also provides a way of including characters from the previous film, such as mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), social adviser Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), costume designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), the third part of an awkward triangle with Peeta and Katniss. And with the games come some new characters, sometimes surprising ones: Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, a pretty powerful acting pair, are one team, for example, and Jena Malone nearly steals the movie as the unpredictable competitor Johanna Mason. (Former Canton resident Bruno Gunn can be seen, briefly, as the competitor Brutus.)

The early going, in fact, is so effective and emotional that the movie loses a step when it gets into the actual games. Director Francis Lawrence paces those segments well. And, unlike the first Hunger Games movie, the second seems less challenged by the first-person narration of the books. Where the first film at times seemed to beg for a voiceover as it showed Katniss in thought, Catching Fire is content to keep things moving and letting the excellent Lawrence’s expressions clarify what she is thinking and feeling.

On the other hand, Catching Fire all but ignores that the games are being televised — a crucial element in the first book and film, since Katniss’ actions inspire dissenters in the nation at large. And there are points here when you would think a broadcast of the games would give away crucial secrets. Similarly, the actions in the actual games might puzzle audience members who have not read the books, while seeming a bit too predictable to Collins’ readers.

But for all that, and especially in the IMAX form that I saw Catching Fire, the movie is an exciting story that also manages to embrace most of its characters. Peeta, in the book and the movies, is more than a little boring, and Hutcherson’s performance matches that. But Lawrence brings all her Oscar-winning skills to bear as Katniss. Tucci still has hammy fun. Harrelson makes Haymitch’s drunken sorrow fully plausible and Sutherland conveys the corrupt menace of Snow. And, as I said, Malone is an acting force throughout.

It’s good entertainment, but with something to say not only about oppression — but also the price to be paid for resistance, and when people have to be willing to pay it,

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www,ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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