The citizens of Panem are not going to take Snowbamacare lying down…

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark embark on their victory tour after becoming the first dual winners of The Hunger Games.  It soon becomes obvious that Katniss is not just the latest winner, but also a symbol of hope for the growing revolution against the corrupt President Snow and his evil ways.  Despite not asking for any of this responsibility, Katniss is now torn between keeping up the pretenses of love with Peeta that kept them both alive in the last games and is keeping her family alive now, her real love for another boy from her impoverished district, and her growing part in the rebellion against a government that she, too, would like to see overthrown.  All of this, and it would seem that she may be thrust into the middle of yet another Hunger Game (can that be singular?).  What’s a girl to do?

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by
Francis Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Release Date
22 November 2013
Jason’s Grade: B+

Full disclosure #1 – I have never read any of the books, so I have approached the movies as an audience member with no preconceived notions.  Full disclosure #2 – I enjoyed the first movie well enough, but was not overly impressed with it and have felt no need to revisit it.  Full disclosure #3 – I once risked possibly bruised shins in (and won) a particularly violent game of field hockey that was ALSO in an effort to overthrow a corrupt government.  You are welcome, world – I do care.

With my lack of knowledge of the series and my feelings on the first film out of the way, I can definitely say that Catching Fire is a marked improvement over it’s predecessor.  Whereas the first film dropped hints of the growing rebellion, this one tackles it head on and virtually every moment seems informed by the impending uprising.  Because of this, the stakes are raised considerably (as if kids killing each other did not already have the stakes at an appropriately upper level) and each decision that Katniss is forced to make comes with possible consequences that no one at her age should be in the position of having to face.  This makes for an altogether more interesting film.  As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence handles the majority of these conflictions rather well (a feat that I did not feel that she met quite as admirably in the first film) and has now fully embraced the character.  Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, has also stepped up to the challenge – we now understand his deeper motivations after coming across a bit milquetoast during his first go round.

Once we hit the halfway mark and the new Hunger Games begin, however, the film does lose a bit of it’s steam.  Sure, because we’re now, as in the first film, watching a group of 24 people attempt to kill each other in an attempt to be the last (wo)man standing, it’s bound to be inherently more exciting.  And, it definitely is, but, at this point, much of the revolutionary pretense is seemingly put on the backburner, and a lot of what makes the first half so interesting is lost with it.  The action is all well done (you certainly will not be bored) – in particular a race against fog and a battle against baboons are exciting.

What hurts this final act the most, however, and the one area in which this film cannot match the first one, is the lack of character development for the participants in the game.  We get to know and exclusively follow a core group of them here (besides Katniss and Peeta, of course), but the fate of many of the others are left to our imaginations, signified only by the sounding of a cannon and a projection of their image to alert us who has died.  The first film let us spend time with each of them, so that their deaths held more sway (even with the characters we are meant to dislike).  I realize that this is a bit of a misguided complaint as this was presumably a result of trying to fit in more of the first half that I enjoyed so much, but I did feel it was worth a mention.   The games do end rather abruptly without the resolution that newbies will be hoping to see, but other than this, the film is able to avoid most of the pitfalls that come with being the middle entry of a popular series.

Finally, on the acting front, the majority of the returning actors all continue to deliver and the first timers insert themselves into the already established world rather seamlessly.  Of particular note is the much needed levity brought by the continued hamminess of Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and especially Stanley Tucci, who, as in the first film, steals every scene that he is in.  Donald Sutherland’s President Snow does not make for a particularly compelling villain (even though I’ve only attempted to take over the world a mere couple of times in my life, I still feel that I have the capacity to make better decisions than he did on a few occasions here), but this feels a bit more of a fault with the writing than the performance, as Sutherland is in fine, slimy form.  I have been told that this problem fixes itself in the final book, so I look forward to seeing what he can do with the juicier material.  Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone also make great additions to the cast as former winners/current participants who may or may not be fighting on Katniss’s side.

Jason’s Final Thoughts

Despite the fact that Catching Fire is a much dreaded “middle entry”, it is an improvement over the first film in almost every respect.  The themes contained are much heavier with much more at stake, and the film is more compelling for it.  It is actually pretty telling when the, admittedly exciting, action sequences are the least interesting aspects in the film.  If I’m being honest, after the mediocre first film and having never read the books, if this one had not delivered, I would have been more than happy to check out of the adventures of Katniss and company after this midway point.  But I’m happy to report that this entry was more than enough to keep me in the (hunger) game and, in fact, has me looking forward to discovering how it’s going to end.  It has recently become political doctrine (damn you, President Snow!) that all movie series based on popular books must have the final entry divided into two films, and I only hope that decision pays off in this case.

Review by Jason Howard, Lead Entertainment Writer