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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013 12:01 am

Catching Fire a welcome improvement in Hunger series


A vast improvement over Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games, part two in this series, Catching Fire, comes to the screen with style and purpose, both of which were sorely lacking in the first, which looks more and more like a slipshod affair when held up to Francis Lawrence’s work here. There also seems to be more at stake here. There’s a timeliness to this entry. Its theme of a disconnected government lording over an ignored populace resonates more deeply. The fissure between the Obama presidency and the United States’ populace widens while overall dissatisfaction with the government increases.

There are very few spoils for Katniss (a fierce Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (a bland Josh Hutcherson), the first dual winners of Panem’s annual sacrificial contest known as the Hunger Games. They’ve unwittingly become symbols of defiance and a revolution is brewing as they’ve shown that the government can be undercut by bending the rules of the contest to their advantage. The breadth of the unrest becomes evident when the two visit each of the 12 districts on a “victory tour” and see crowds openly support their rebellious nature despite the presence of heavily armed government troops. Fearing control slipping away, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides to put Katniss, Peeta and other newly empowered former winners in their place by conducting a special Hunger Games in which two former winners from each district must compete to the death.

What with all of the groundwork laid out in the first film, Lawrence is able to hit the ground running and quickly builds a sense of momentum that never falters. He also adopts a less-is-more philosophy in telling the story, never calling attention to his technique (no constantly moving, hand-held shots this time, thank you very much) and instead concentrates on delivering the decadence of Panem, the poverty of the 12 districts and the danger of the games in a direct manner that allows the viewer to become immersed in this world.

Having not read Suzanne Collins’ novel on which this is based, I cannot speak to any changes that may have been made from page to screen. However, the story itself corrects some of the things that I objected to in the first episode. The other participants in this version of the Hunger Games are more fully drawn and intriguing, chief among them the fiery Johanna (a fun Jenna Malone), the too-smart-for-his-own-good Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and the dynamic Finnick (Sam Claflin – who was born to play Aquaman). These are all worthy additions to the cast who we come to be just as invested in as we have Katniss. And while the violence in these games is just as cruel as the first time out, it’s bit easier to witness now that none of the victims are children.

While Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Gale continue to compete for the title of “Blandest Boyfriend in Waiting,” Lawrence impresses throughout. Her contribution to these films cannot be overstated. She’s fully invested in the character and story, helping sell this premise even in its most ridiculous moments. Tough yet vulnerable, fierce yet compassionate, the actress invests Katniss’ every mood with a degree of honesty that’s fun to watch. She almost single-handedly makes this obvious parable watchable with her very presence.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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