REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Sluggishly paced, taking few chances and not nearly as engaging as it should be, the second installment of the popular trilogy still maintains enough interest to be enjoyable, thanks in large part to interesting supporting characters and a more in-depth look at the world that can host such sport.


SYNOPSIS: Hunger Games survivors Katniss and Peeta find themselves once again in a battle to the death, this time with other Hunger Games winners.

PROS: Mostly good performances from leads Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, with solid secondary performances by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer; interesting glimpses of the world outside of District 12 and the Capitol.
CONS: Bland and uninteresting turns by many of the recurring characters, including hammy performances by villains Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman; sluggish, faltering beginning that never fully allows the movie to gain its footing; only fitfully suspenseful; routine screenplay and obvious direction; heavy-handed treatment of themes and ideas.

When last we left District 12 denizens Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they both “won” the Hunger Games (I’m assuming this is not a spoiler since it is where the first movie begins) by preparing to sacrifice themselves by eating poisonous berries, thus sparing themselves and the government of the Panem embarrassment.  But it creates problems for both themselves and the government led by the amusingly power-mad President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland, as obviously evil as Star Wars’s Emperor Palpatine, but lacking that character’s subtlety or nuance).  Oddly, it also poses a challenge to the viewer of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as well.  The first movie wallowed through its setup but finally found its footing once the games actually began.  And, unfortunately, this sequel, directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, follows the same pattern, only too much more so before the games begin, and far too little once the starting gun sounds.

Part of the problem posed is how to translate the novels themselves to the screen.  Suzanne Collins wrote her post-apocalyptic trilogy for a young adult audience, so an adaptation aimed at the readership of the series must not be too grim or dour, lest its subject matter alienate the very audience the books courted.  The screenplay must flense its subject matter and subtext of too much complexity so as not to lose those who might be turned off by a genuine dialogue of the nature of power, media, and revolution.  And the director must massage the medium to keep too much of the faux artistry he brought to Constantine and Water for Elephants at bay yet perhaps provide more visual interest than Gary Ross did in the first one.  It perhaps guarantees The Hunger Games: Catching Fire receives a warmer reception—somehow it strikes me as odd that parents would take their children to a picture about the Machiavellian, media-saturated future posited—but at the cost of what a genuinely gritty picture it could have been.

Consider the setup itself.  As the movie opens, Katniss, tired of living a life that requires her to shun her boyfriend Liam (Gale Hawthorne) in order to present to Panem the belief that she and Peeta have found true love on the battlefield, receives a visit from President Snow, who informs her that she must continue the fabrication or put her sister Prim’s (Willow Shields) life, and the life of her family, in danger.  She of course agrees, however reluctantly, but cannot help going off script during their victory lap.  As she and Peeta visit District 11, she puts aside the given script and voices what she genuinely feels, which causes one of District 11’s citizens to give her District 12’s three-fingered salute.  She screams as she is dragged off stage and Peacekeepers shoot dead the man who gave her the salute.  Lawrence puts everything she can into her performance here, yet the entire scene feels muted, as if wrapped in gauze.

Snow, of course, cannot abide such insubordination, so, in plan with gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee suggests a means of eliminating her once and for all, without the ugliness of merely shooting her in cold blood: change the rules of the 75th Hunger Games so that the contestants will be reaped from the existing pool of victors.  Naturally, Peeta and Katniss, whose betrothals meet with much audience interest but little government sympathy, are chosen for District 12, which means they must once again train for battle.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire introduces new characters.  There is District 7’s Johanna Mason, who takes great delight in stripping from her tree costume in front of Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) after the inauguration of the 75th Hunger Games.  Jena Malone plays her as a kind of self-knowing film noir vamp, just this side of camp.  There is Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, a tech wizard who helps the group figure out how best to sidestep the Games’s more lethal challenges.  And there is Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) from District 4, a cocky and self-assured young man who appears to offer additional romantic complication to Katniss’s already complicated love life.  They breathe much-needed life into the material—life that saps regulars Lenny Kravitz, Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci of the energy they brought to the first picture.

After the battles, the traps (one ingenious one involves a fog that burns the contestants’s skins), and the alliances, the movies screeches to a halt in true Empire Strikes Back and Matrix Reloaded fashion, making way for the inevitable conclusion, complete with revelations and reversals.  It means, though, that the movie is only partly finished, and does not stand on its own.  Here’s hoping the last installment (broken into two parts, I’m guessing) brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion—or at least that it genuinely catches the fire that this entry, unfortunately, quickly put out.

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