Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Jena Malone, Lynn Cohen, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin
Written by: Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language
Running Time: 146
Date: 11/22/2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Underwhelming 'Fire'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's not enough for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to have simply survived her first Hunger Games. She also has to be the "chosen one," and lead a revolution against the evil and corrupt President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his followers. Too bad that doesn't actually happen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. That event will be saved for the sequel(s) to come. What happens here instead seems to be just a stopover, or a holding pattern. This movie cooks up a ridiculous excuse to get Katniss and her pals to play the game again, even though they were supposed to be finished.

As the movie begins Katniss is a wealthy celebrity, although she's still miserable. She loves Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but must pretend to be in love with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her co-victor from the previous The Hunger Games. She's also experiencing terrible post-traumatic stress, envisioning invisible warriors out to kill her (which, actually, only happens once). And, as always, she's still worried about the safety of her sister Prim (Willow Shields) and mother. Snow (Donald Sutherland) shows up at Katniss's house and threatens her: if she doesn't make a good show of her celebrity and support her president, he will harm her family.

Katniss and Peeta are sent on a tour of the twelve districts, to give speeches and distract the poor citizens from their terrible lives. They are not happy about this, and soon their appearances begin to generate unrest and rebellion. Behind the scenes, Snow and the gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) begin to cook up plans to ruin her public image and take away her power to inspire.

One of their brilliant plans is to change the rules of the games; the next round will be played entirely by previous winners. This of course leads to lines like "Forget everything you think you know about the games. Last year was child's play." But, since most of the contestants are outraged about their government, couldn't they use the games -- and the subsequent television coverage -- to sabotage them and start their revolution? It's not clear what purpose these second games serve in the narrative, other than to simply make the sequel "bigger."

A lot of things aren't clear. There's a larger plan behind all of this that is kept from Katniss, and from the audience, for no clear reason other than it will be a "surprise" at the end. There's no reason Katniss should have been kept in the dark. It's just a cheap dramatic device.

Also unclear is Katniss's relationship with Peeta. At some point, she suddenly decides that she cares about him, a great deal. She sobs over him, makes threats to protect him, and kisses him passionately. Where did this come from? Is it an organic extension of the storytelling, or -- as I suspect -- is it another cheap device?

Where does the title come in, by the way? When Katniss "caught fire" in the last movie, it was pretty cool and shocking. She does the same thing again here, prompting smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) to shout, "There it is again!" Yep. Mind you, two Oscar-winning screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), adapted this stuff.

The director of the last movie, Gary Ross, seemed mostly out of his league. Though it eventually succeeded more than it failed, it was unwieldy, and downright sloppy in places. This time we get director Francis Lawrence, a former music video director with three previous features under his belt. To date, I have not seen I Am Legend (2007) or Water for Elephants (2011), but I have seen -- and did not like -- Constantine (2005). That movie was dreary and pretentious, and those qualities merge over to Catching Fire.

The last movie, despite its length, was fairly simple. This one attempts to expand the franchise into an entire universe of ideas, but it doesn't show enough. The movie's contradicting concepts suggest that it hasn't been fully imagined yet. There's enough action and excitement and romance here to almost make up an entertainment, but the movie's heavy seriousness all but kills it.

As I'm working on my review, I see that the third book in Suzanne Collins' trilogy has been split into two movies, to be released in 2014 and 2015. This, again, seems like a callous marketing ploy rather than an artistic choice. (The idea made tons of money for Harry Potter and Twilight, didn't it?) And I'm beginning to believe that the minds behind The Hunger Games franchise are closer in spirit to President Snow and his sinister, heartless showmanship than to Katniss and her bravery and passion.

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