The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

From the looks of things, we've got an amazing franchise going on here. The Hunger Games very successfully translated Suzanne Collins' popular novel to the screen, and the first sequel, Catching Fire, is every bit as good. Both films are incredibly exciting, yet also contain larger ideas that give them impact beyond just entertainment value. Taking over for Gary Ross, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) picks up the ball and continues running with it, delivering a movie that exemplifies the ability of big, mainstream blockbusters to be smart and ambitious.

We find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation to the director) learning that winning the Hunger Games isn't all it's cracked up to be. She experiences traumatic flashbacks related to in-game murder, and the government - run by the devious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) - is making her go on a victory tour to all the other districts in Panem. Doing this requires maintaining the ruse that she and co-victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are really in love. But Snow is not happy. Katniss, it seems, has given the residents of Panem hope, and there is a rebellion brewing that he intends to quash. To achieve this, he knows he must make everyone turn on Katniss. A new game-maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is brought in to introduce "a new wrinkle" into things. Suddenly, Katniss and Peeta are thrust into another set of deadly games. To survive, their coach, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), suggests forming alliances with other competitors, including the shrewd Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and the angry Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the rare sequel to build on the events of the original rather than merely rehash them. Collins created an expansive backstory for the first installment, one that involved not only the games, but also a dictatorial government in a post-apocalyptic world. This sequel gives us more of that, showing in even greater detail how the games are used to repress the citizens of Panem and keep them in fear of the powers that be. That gives the new events Katniss must participate in increased weight; she's no longer fighting just for her own survival, but for everyone's survival. Adding to the depth is the idea that Katniss has just finished fighting in one of these competitions, making her emotionally and physically unready to repeat the experience. Catching Fire skillfully finds new layers to explore in her world.

The movie is also incredibly exciting. Heavensbee's design for the new games is wickedly ingenious, pitting Katniss against a variety of creative hazards, including (in the most intense sequence) a pack of angry monkeys. Such scenes are very well-staged, and thrilling on their own, but even more so because they fit into the story's theme of oppression. President Snow, it is clear, will go to any lengths to keep everyone under his thumb. Another intriguing factor is that, having already participated in a death match, Katniss has no desire to return to violence. She makes several surprising decisions in the course of the story. We can see her grapple with her knowledge of what she had to do before, and with the realization that, if she wants to survive a second time, she may need to tap into those primal instincts again. While the “kids killing kids” idea that fueled the original is no longer present, Catching Fire still manages to create both physical and mental challenges for our heroine to face.

Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic in the lead role. She has such a genuinely empathetic quality that's perfect for Katniss. In this sequel, the weight of the world is really on the character, as she finds herself unwittingly stuck in several uncomfortable positions: savior, inspiration, rebel, fighter, and government threat. Katniss is also a girlfriend, to Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and pseudo-girlfriend to Peeta. Lawrence nails these things, while also maintaining credibility as an action hero. All the performances are solid, but this is definitely her show.

Because it's the middle installment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends with an intriguing set-up for the next chapter. I read the first book, but have held off reading the second and third, thinking it would be better to see the movies first. Now I'm not so sure. Catching Fire is so much fun and does such a great job mounting the drama of the series' increasingly engrossing story that I don't think I can wait for the next sequel. The film just makes you want more.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.

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