New ‘Hunger Games’ a winner

By Frank Ruggiero (frank@mountaintimes.com)



Article Published: Dec. 5 | Modified: Dec. 5
New ‘Hunger Games’ a winner

From left, Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks and Josh Hutcherson star in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.’



Rather appropriately, the new “Hunger Games” leaves viewers hungry for more.

And it’s no coincidence, as taut direction, an A-list cast and fantastic production design make “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” much more than a balanced, gluten-free breakfast. It’s a veritable cornucopia of sci-fi action and intrigue, improving considerably upon the first and whetting the appetite for what’s to come.

It’s also more accessible than its 2012 predecessor, especially for those, like yours truly, who haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ insanely popular books on which this series is based. While the first film relied too heavily on character development from the page, “Catching Fire” stands well on its own — more like a movie than an adaptation.

With the groundwork established in the first film, director Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”) and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael deBruyn (“Little Miss Sunshine”) are able to better explore the characters and themes permeating the story’s nightmarish setting.

Set in the dystopian, the-man-bringing-you-downocracy of Panem, “Catching Fire” opens almost a year after the events of the first film, in which protagonists Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”) barely survived the Hunger Games, a sadistic, government-sanctioned gladiatorial match in which children from the dystopian nation’s 12 districts are forced to fight each other to the death.

As victors, Katniss and Peeta — who managed to survive as a duo by feigning their love for each other — are to annually tour the districts as celebrities. But President Snow (Donald Sutherland, “M*A*S*H”) is wise to their ploy, which he sees as an act of defiance — one that could create a spark within the huddled masses and possibly incite a revolution.

As such, he announces new rules for the 75th annual Hunger Games, otherwise known as the Quarter Quell. Rather than draw tributes from the entire populace, the Quell’s contestants are to be previous victors — essentially voiding their victory prize of immunity. Needless to say, Katniss is one of those selected.

But it may already be too late. While touring, Katniss, Peeta and their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland”), have noticed dissent in the districts and, in turn, a dramatic increase in military presence. It would seem that the impoverished people of Panem are being pushed to the brink of rebellion, and the tributes’ outspoken bitterness about the Quell — all broadcast on the national media — isn’t helping Snow’s case either.

However, the Hunger Games’ new overseer, game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Big Lebowski”), assures the president there’s a plan in motion that will rectify the situation.

This grows increasingly apparent, as Katniss and her counterparts face a series of horrific challenges — both physical and mental — in a newly designed and exceptionally perilous arena. As competing victors vie to be the sole survivor, Katniss must remember who the true enemy is (and no, it’s not herself).

It’s obvious director Francis and company have a lot of ground to cover, but tight direction and a steady pace make the film’s two-and-a-half-hour run time almost unnoticeable. The spared-no-expense production design helps immerse viewers in the setting, while actual stunt work, as opposed to typical computer-generated effects, actually helps audiences invest in the action on screen.

Its stellar cast is also to thank, with Lawrence continuing to grow in a role she’s made her own. It’s the supporting cast, however, that nearly steals the show.

Like so, Stanley Tucci (“Easy A”) has a blast as TV personality Caesar Flickerman, delivering a gleefully over-the-top performance reminiscent of comedian Martin Short’s talk show-hosting alter ego, Jiminy Glick.

Like a bottle in a brown bag, Harrelson fills his role perfectly, his performance feeling both genuine and naturally off-the-cuff. Elizabeth Banks (“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) is superb as victor handler Effie Trinket, adding depth to a character draped in superficiality, and the always-enjoyable Hoffman makes a more than welcome addition to the series.

And speaking of series, “Catching Fire’s” effectively abrupt ending sets the table for the next course, “Mockingjay – Part 1,” slated for release Nov. 21, 2014. Coincidentally, that happens to be exactly one week before our real-life Hunger Games, otherwise known as Black Friday.

In other words, may the odds and discount electronics be ever in your favor.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

Additional Images

From left, Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks and Josh Hutcherson star in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.’

From left, Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence star in ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.’


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