Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire / ***½ (PG-13)

Katniss Everdeen: Jennifer Lawrence
Peeta Mellark: Josh Hutcherson
President Snow: Donald Sutherland
Haymitch Abernathy: Woody Harrelson
Gale Hawthorne: Liam Hemsworth
Plutarch Heavensbee: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Finnick Odair: Sam Claflin
Effie Trinket: Elizabeth Banks
Beetee: Jeffery Wright
Johanna Mason: Jena Malone
Cinna: Lenny Kravitz
Caesar Flickerman: Stanley Tucci

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn. Based on the novel “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins. Running time: 146 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language).

When I was in high school, the last year I ever went to a bus stop to be picked up for school, I witnessed a gruesome accident. We were waiting for the bus in the morning. It was one of those sunny but crisp New England fall mornings. We could see the bus coming in the distance and two of the kids weren’t yet there. Whenever someone was running late, everyone at the stop would get nervous for them. So just about everybody at the bus stop looked back down the road from which they were coming at that very moment we saw the bus in the distance.

There they were coming around the corner, still quite far away from the bus stop. The bus would beat them. You could sense everyone about ready to yell to our companions to hurry up when the squealing tires of rubber on asphalt rang out before the pickup truck was even in view. Every person at that bus stop witnessed the accident because of the sequence of events. We watched as our acquaintances were struck by the truck and sprawled across the road below. Immediately, everyone ran in the direction of the accident, except for me. I had the same intention and yet I froze for just a second, and in that moment I realized someone needed to stay at the bus stop because the driver’s radio was the quickest way of communicating what had happened to emergency responders.

What does any of this have to do with the second installment of the popular “Hunger Games” film franchise? It’s an example of how events that define us, while generally out of our control, will roll on beyond our control; and who we are on the other end, while shaped by our actions and inner core, is not necessarily the person we were or even intended to be before they began. This is where the film’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, finds herself in the events depicted in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”. Following the events of the first film, Katniss and her co-winner Peeta, find themselves returned to their depressed homeland of District 12 in the post-apocalyptic North American nation of Panem. Katniss struggles with the notion of being seen as a hero when it involved participating in a game that involved killing other people, including children.

What is hard for her to see is the hope she’s given the people of Panem because of the act of defiance shown by her and Peeta by forcing the game master to name them co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games. Their victory required a deception that the two were in love, which leaves her with guilt because her hometown love Gale is stuck in the depressed area while she now must live the posh life of a victor of the games. Her guilt is probably more rooted in the fact that not all of her feelings for Peeta were invented. Now, she and Peeta are required to continue their deception on a publicity tour of all the districts. She has been pressured by the President of Panem, to remain “in line” on the tour so as not to progress the notions of revolution that float in the air because of the hope she’s inspired in his citizens. If she continues to incite the revolutionary behavior, her loved ones will suffer.

When Katniss and Peeta fail to restrain their sympathetic natures toward the citizens of Panem, the state finds itself in a tough spot and must come up with a solution to the Katniss problem. President Snow brings in a new Maters of Games for the 75th Hunger Games and the two hatch a plan to rid themselves of Katniss and her hope. Instead of a traditional games where citizens are randomly chosen for a battle to the death in a rigged area, the Quarter Quell will see a selection from the remaining pool of past games victors, meaning Katniss will have to play the games again. Since Katniss is the reason all the contestants find themselves placed in harms way a second time when they were promised never to have to play again, the Game Master is hoping she will become the primary target of everyone in the arena.

That’s a bit of an over simplification of the real set up of this new set of games, which is one of the reasons I continue to like the series so much. It’s always a little more complicated than it seems, and in a few ways a little less. Much is made about the potential love triangle here with Katniss, Gale and Peeta, and yet the focus of the story is clearly on Katniss and her role as a revolutionary inspiration and leader. She doesn’t think of herself as a revolutionary. She’s only trying to survive her situation. Yet, she inherits the role through her survival instincts; and despite her resistance, can’t help but play the defiant one. She doesn’t choose the role of revolutionary leader but has it thrust upon her by her own obstinacy.

The screenwriters do a wonderful job here painting Katniss into the corners that determine her fate. While the first film was about the choices Katniss makes to survive, “Catching Fire” is more about the choices others make to trap her like a wild animal, forcing her deadly hand. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brought in as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Games Master, who designs both the PR tour and the game arena to push Katniss this way and that. His endgame may not be what you expect, but his method is clear—place an animal in the corner and its nature will take over. But just how dark is that nature, or is Katniss really the leader this revolution needs? Kudos must also be given to director Francis Lawrence for allowing the story all the time it needs to develop without rushing to the action of the games.

I still wonder if my hesitation on that day of the accident was brains or the frozen cowardice of fear. It was most certainly my own nature to hesitate, even in an emergency situation. Did staying at the bus stop to inform the driver exactly what I saw help those kids that day? I don’t know. I don’t see how running to them with the other kids could’ve helped. I’m definitely no Katniss Everdeen. I’d have been slaughtered in the first 30 seconds of my first Hunger Games, but Katniss was meant for more, whether she knows it or not. It’s kind of necessary when you’re the protagonist in a science fiction story.

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