Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

December 6, 2013

'Catching Fire' delves into darker, somewhat redundant territory

By Rob Cox Daily News
Greensburg Daily News

---- — FROM THE DEN AT WOLF THEATRES — In reviewing last year’s “The Hunger Games,” I was impressed with the film’s ability to reach beyond its young-adult target audience and appeal to “anyone who enjoys suspenseful, challenging, morally-ambivalent entertainment.”

“Games” was dark, complicated and rife with violence, hitting movie screens like a kind of antidote to anyone sick of overly-packaged, excessively CGI-processed, cloying teen wizards or contrived, teenage-vampire melodrama.

Now comes the “Games” sequel, “Catching Fire,” based on the second novel in Author Suzanne Collins’ Young Adult “Hunger Games Trilogy.”

The above descriptions fit “Fire” just as aptly as the first film, but “Fire” adds superior visual effects, as well as improved set and costume design, making for a futuristic, dystopic vision that’s even more immersive and engaging. “Fire” is darker than its predecessor, too – no small feat.

When we left Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the hopelessly love-struck Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the pair had turned the tables on evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his minions in the Capitol of Panem by winning the 74th annual Hunger Games as a team, with both players surviving. Before the pair’s shenanigans, only a single victor had been allowed in previous games.

President Snow isn’t happy about the dual victory, as it has sown seeds of rebellion in Panem’s 12 impoverished, demoralized and subjugated districts. As a result, he commands Katniss and Peeta to hit the road and play up their feigned love to the masses, in the hope the romance will ease the waves of rebellious discontent roiling across the land.

It doesn’t work, though, and Snow and his new minion, Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decide to hold a “Quarter Quell,” a special edition Hunger Games that pits past winners against each other in yet another battle to the death in an artificial “outdoor” arena.

That means the 12-to-18-year-old age range of normal Hunger Games competitions is nullified; it also means Katniss and Peeta are drafted back into the arena representing District 12, proving the government’s promise they’d never again be forced to compete is a lie.

“Fire’s” greatest and most glaring weakness lies in it similarities to “Games.” It sometimes feels as if director Francis Lawrence (“I am Legend” – assuming the reigns from Gary Ross) used the first film as a blueprint, transforming its story, plot, directorial style and other elements into a formula, which he adheres to a little too closely.

By the same token, however, the continuity between films 1 and 2 is impressive, with Director Lawrence managing to make the transition between the two more seamless than might otherwise be expected. In other words, these two films feel like they belong together, like they’re part of the same universe and world.

Helping in that regard is lead Jennifer Lawrence, who again brings her considerable presence to Katniss. She has a subtle, yet powerful combination of vulnerability, toughness and poise, and her chemistry with Hutcherson has improved since the first film, making their dynamic more compelling. Does she love him? Does she not? After all the pair has survived together, we’d like to see Katniss choose Peeta over the vapid Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

Of course, there’s not much time for romance when you’re trudging through the jungle, running for your life from flesh-devouring poisonous fog, rabid mandrills, blood rain, lightening and a horde of seasoned killers out to murder you before you can murder them. Indeed, that’s how Katniss and Peeta spend most of the second half of this film.

And although that’s how they spent much of the first film, “Fire” certainly differentiates itself with a twist ending that both leaves the viewer “hungering” for more, and foreshadows the series’ direction moving into 2014’s “Mockingjay – Part 1.”

If “Fire’s” ending is to be trusted, “Mockingjay” should prove a marked departure from the first two films. Having not read the books, I can’t wait to see where the story’s headed.

“Catching Fire” also stars Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Amanda Plummer and Stanley Tucci. It was written by accomplished screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt.

Rating: Lone-wolf howl

Score: 90/100

Runtime: 146 minutes

Rated PG-13 for intense, gory violence and language; not suitable for the pups

Rating System Explained: Rabies = 0; Yip = *; Bark = **; Howl = ***; Lone-wolf howl = ****; Leader of the pack = ***** - See more at: http://www.greensburgdailynews.com/entertainment/x520092191/-Carrie-a-relatable-technological-update-of-teen-angst-cruelty/?state=taberU#sthash.izkVURc0.dpuf

Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; robert.cox@greensburgdailynews.com