There are plenty of perks to being the middle installment of a giant trilogy. Whether you've read the books or not I think it goes without saying that Catching Fire, the film, is a much bigger and more impressive exercise than what the first film was able to deliver after it finished setting up the world all of this would be taking place in. This, coming from the benefit of being that middle child. It has always been the case though (Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United, Spider-Man 2) that without having to deal in exposition and not having to worry itself with how to wrap everything up nicely, that the second chapter of a larger story is the one where we get to dig in, where we are able to see the meat of the conflict, and get to really know the characters and what drives them, what makes them different and why we remain interested in their plight past the unbelievable circumstances they were thrown into the first time around. All of this remains true in director Francis Lawrence's follow-up to Gary Ross's faithful and fervent opening chapter. Yes, it is important to note that I am a fan of the books, all three of them, but that Catching Fire was by far my favorite and for all the reasons I've listed above I desperately hoped the film turned out the same way. As we reach the final shot of this film it became all the more clear that we'd just witnessed something rather special. It may not have been a game-changer like The Dark Knight or as exceptional as X2, but it has some clear moments and techniques that are more than impressive and more than intriguing that lead us to becoming intensely wrapped up in the world of Panem and the brewing revolution. The scope and scale, the performances all-around, the more confident hand behind the execution; it all adds up to a film that knows what it is, what its message and main themes are, and where it is going because there is a driving force behind the narrative that makes the briskly paced film (not a bad thing with a run time of two and a half hours) feel like a consistently mounting piece of music that perfectly staggers its force and intensity until hitting that crescendo. This is only one passage though, and that perfectly timed climax of this specific progression only leaves us wanting more which can only mean part two has done its job and done it well.

Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is taken off by Capital guards after standing up to their Commander.
Picking up about a year after the events of the first film Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) now live in Victor's Village with their families and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who has been there for quite some time. They are preparing to board the Victory Tour where they will travel and visit a district a day paying their respects to the fallen tributes from each, but there are rumblings in the districts about the true intention of Katniss's defiant actions at the end of the 74th annual Hunger Games. Those who prosper in District one and two think nothing more of it than a love story for the ages while the outliers only see a symbol of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel and someone who is going to spearhead the campaign to do away with the Capital and its barbaric traditions once and for all. Catching Fire keeps things interesting story-wise because it likes to add on layers of complexity and not just from the adolescent girl perspective that pits Hutcherson's earnest and humble Peeta against Liam Hemsworth's darker, more brooding Gale Hawthorne. What is slightly ironic about these films though are that the satirical elements are meant to shine a light on our own pop culture/reality show obsessions and yet they have become a product of that environment themselves. Still, there is real sentiment here and it helps that at its center they have the one young actress in Hollywood who is seen as a legitimate and genuine person rather than a manufactured pawn of a bigger industry. The way in which Lawrence's public persona mimics the defining characteristic of Katniss is ever so slight, but it is there and it is important otherwise it would be hard to take the idea of this young starlet heading up a revolution. This is what Katniss was destined for though, from the time she stepped up to volunteer she allowed those rumblings to finally turn into cries and screams. President Snow (a menacing Donald Sutherland) is at odds with the threat of an uprising that will remove him from his comfortable seat as ruler of Panem though and he sees Ms. Everdeen as public enemy number one. In order to rectify this situation he puts the fear of God in her by threatening her family, forcing her to convince him and the rest of the world that her love for Peeta is real, and then pushing her over the edge when he arranges the Quarter Quell (an edition of the games every twenty-five years that mark the anniversary of the districts' defeat by the Capital that involve some sort of twist that make the games more disastrous or difficult to compete in) as an all-star game of sorts by using reaping victors from the previous hunger games as contestants in the latest fight to the death.

Where the first film had the daunting task of introducing us to the sprawling cast of characters and more than that establishing the world where these kinds of brutal games are looked upon as sport the second film takes advantage of not having to divulge all of the information in order to make sense, but it also sets up the context for everything going on and why it is happening this way with much better measure. We see the inner workings of President Snow's thought process and when he wants things done and how, but more importantly we see those desires debated and thought out with new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in delicate conversations where we realize the power of one person in the Capital and how it can so easily decide the fate of those that seem to matter little in district 12. For a little more than the first hour of the film we are thrown head first into the politics not only of Katniss and what is going on in her world, but given how the bigger picture relates and influences her issues. It is in Lawrence's performance that we are given a window into just how demanding and emotionally exhausting all of this has to be for a teenager who wants nothing more than the simplicity of doing the right thing, but is held back and beat into submission time and time again so that she can protect what is important to her in her life. Lawrence is able to not necessarily shift, but present a duality of how this young girl can at once be broken-hearted and lost and the next put on the face that will symbolize the revolution. She is someone who brings those nuances to the role in a subtle manner where you don't even realize the complexities of the performance she is giving simply because it is so naturalistic in nature and gut reaction tells you this is how she would react and so naturally that is what she does, but to translate all of that into a performance where we don't necessarily see the inner-workings of those decisions being made only helps to elevate the material and the level of credibility at which we accept this world. Of course, she has plenty of help in that task as everyone from the original returns including Elizabeth Banks as Effie who we begin to see suffer from the fact she is being forced to face a certain reality as well as Stanley Tucci's over-the-top Caesar Flickerman who makes us laugh and cringe at the same time, but not for the performance but in what he stands for and how proud he is to be the face of the hunger games. Besides Hoffman, we also have a slew of new characters joining the ranks in the form of a charming Sam Claflin as fellow tribute Finnick Odair who clearly hides more under his playboy facade than he is letting on. There is his mentor and mother figure Mags (Lynn Cohen), fellow tributes Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) who each make an indelible impression upon first coming into contact with Katniss and her team and not to mention, the audience.

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence)
 ready themselves for the Quarter Quell.
It goes without saying that Catching Fire is kind of a big deal in that it will only catapult it's stars further into stardom and indefinitely carve out a place on the walls of tweens everywhere that rip the posters out of their latest magazines, but even as the antithesis of what the film stands for fuels the entire reason it is reaching such a wide audience there is something to be said for the fact that this particular message has struck a chord with the young audiences, but also has the power and concept to entrance the older members of the crowds that will flock to see this and that it demands the attention of such a wide variety of spectators that they might just actually take something more away from it than pure entertainment. That the films stand for something and function not only as a product but as a thought-provoking piece make them on many levels, true art. It is hard to swallow those ideas when operating on as large a scale as Suzanne Collins novels and these adaptations now do, but all of it began somewhere and it is hard to ignore the fact that this all began with the kernel of an idea about our reality show culture and how if we continually move in the direction at turning anything into entertainment it wouldn't be long before we were broadcasting live footage of a war and then moving on to manufacturing war ourselves and coming up with some flimsy, silly justification for it that would allow the masses to feel better about continuing to consume this junk wrapped up in professional packaging. At the core of The Hunger Games series, that is what they are operating on: turning a magnified mirror on its own audience that hints at a future that feels unlikely but hits closer to home than we'd like to admit.

We laugh at people making a fool of themselves on singing talent shows, but there is no doubt many of them who have genuine dreams of becoming more than just complacent and average, but they are wiped out in a matter of seconds with the harsh words and dismissive attitudes of those who think of themselves better than the common man. It is the sacrificing of human integrity for higher ratings and though I realize that is a far cry from making children murder one another, it certainly says something about the human spirit and how flexible it can be. All of that is to say that Catching Fire captures the heart of what Collins was writing about. There is spectacle galore with large action set pieces and glorious costumes and premium production value that will keep us entranced, but what had me really into the film and loving it were the small moments where Peeta reassures Katniss as the sound drowns out and the atmosphere crushes us, where Gale sleeps on a table and Katniss lightly kisses him, and where Caesar looks back at the tributes all holding hands and his demeanor changes from the bright-white smile he usually carries to a look of anxiety and concern that hints even the most artificial of Capital slime realize all is not well. It is all in the details and director Lawrence has crafted a film that appeals to the masses while speaking to the conscience of each person in a very specific and affecting way that will make for interesting discussions among every set but will also have you clamoring for the next installment.


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