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Catching Fire

Don’t call “Catching Fire” a sequel to “The Hunger Games.”  It isn’t.  Sequels, for the most part, are retreads, giving us a bigger, flashier version of what the studios thought we liked about the first film, but with diminishing returns (“Thor 2” is a perfect example.)  Instead, think of “Catching Fire” as the middle chapter in a trilogy — similar to “The Dark Knight” in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, or “The Two Towers” in Lord of the Rings, or — to risking sacrilege – “The Empire Strikes Back.”

All of these movies have several things in common: 1. They’re the best film in the series, 2. That’s largely because they don’t have to spend time establishing characters or setting (that was done in the first film) and they’re free to conclude before the big storyline is resolved (that’ll be done in the third film.)  Beginnings and endings seem like awfully important parts of storytelling, but movies like “Catching Fire” reminds us that when the storytellers don’t have to bother with them, they’re allowed to do some incredibly thrilling things.

We pick up Katniss and Peeta shortly after their victory in the Hunger Games arena, and both of them are suffering.  Katniss is experiencing some pretty terrible PTSD and survivor’s guilt, and Peeta seems crushed to realize that Katniss’ love for him was an act to get them out. The Capitol, and President Donald Sutherland, has no time for their sob stories, however, and sends them out on the road to keep the bread and circuses act up until the next round of kids can be sent to kill each other.

But things are changing in Panem, and nobody’s in control of the changes.  Sutherland blames Katniss for the unrest amongst the people, and threatens her family if she doesn’t get them under control.  But Katniss is a lightning rod, not a leader; she just wants to protect the people who are important to her, and acts before she thinks.  The people were inspired by the way she gamed the Games; they saw it as an act of defiance, but for Katniss, it was nothing more or less than an attempt to survive.

Jennifer Lawrence is once again excellent as Katniss, and I was reminded again that this is a young actress who drew attention for her acting chops (in “Winter’s Bone,”) not her looks or her figure (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with those, either.) She delivers a Katniss who is tough and vulnerable, smart but given to stupid acts of defiance, confused, tormented, and unsure of herself and everyone else.

Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, is harder to read, and/or better at putting up a front.  Quite frankly, by the end of “Catching Fire,” I’m not sure what to think of him.  He seems noble and selfless, innocent and even naive, but he’s capable of startlingly strategic and beguiling moves. One character observes, about halfway through the film, that the whole thing is a chess game – “moves and countermoves” – and nobody seems more aware of this than Peeta.  And so when he manages to rekindle Katniss’ feelings for him by acting like he’s perfectly fine just being her loyal sidekick/protector, is that innocence or stratagem?  I’ll guess I’ll have to watch the next movie to find out.

The President decides that Katniss is a threat he can’t control, and all the other victors are in danger of becoming a similar threat.  So the next edition of the Games is a special version, bringing together all the surviving killers to kill each other.  This is a colossal blunder, the kind shrewd politicians only make when their advisors aren’t quite what they seem. The victors have all seen firsthand the ugliness of the Games, so there’s no thrill or excitement for them in being dragged back into the Arena; they all know that nobody wins the Hunger Games; the best you can do is survive, and even that’s extremely unlikely.  The festivities leading up to the Games, are filled with grim looks and acts of defiance instead of flashy smiles and pledges to win.  Instead of being a suppressing distraction in service of the Establishment, become a platform for the rising resistance.

Katniss clearly has allies this time around, though they’re a collection of oddballs, including a mute old woman who rides on the back of a strapping young boy, the incoherently babbling Amanda Plummer, the brilliant but frail Jeffrey Wright, and, most notably, the scene-stealing Jenna Malone as a the devil-may-care, axe-wielding Johanna Mason.  I can only hope (since I haven’t read the books) that there’s more Johanna in the future of “The Hunger Games.”  Lots more.

The second half of the “Catching Fire” is, once again, set inside the Hunger Games arena, and they are not as thrilling as in the first film.  But I think that’s on purpose, and a gambit that works; if this were a typical sequel; it would be “more Games!  Bigger, better Games!”  But director Francis Lawrence is intent on convincing us that this series of movies isn’t about the Games anymore; it’s about resistance, and revolution, and the Games just distract from that.  At the end of the first film, I felt duped; I’d been entertained and pacified by the same thing that entertained and pacified the oppressed people of Panem; the film told me the Games were a vicious political tool and then invited me to watch and enjoy them anyway.  By the end of “Catching Fire,” the Games have been diminished; both the evil of the Capitol and struggle to resist it have been amplified.  And yet it’s still a massively entertaining film.  That’s quite a feat, and that makes “Catching Fire” a superior movie to “The Hunger Games” — as well as to most movies I’ve seen thus far this year.

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