Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"Sequel" is a dirty word in some parts, but not for me.

Often ("Back to the Future," "Die Hard," the recent "Sherlock Holmes") knowing that the first film was a hit frees the writers to construct ingenious plots and the cast to inhabit their characters with comfort and ease. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is not so much a sequel as an installment, clearly (and crassly) conceptualized not as a stand-alone feature of its own merit but as a way station between the original and the already-in-production Part 3. 

As the new picture opens, Catnip and Pita are being shuttled around Panem on a Victory Tour the likes of which we haven't seen since the Jackson 5. Trouble is, as they stop to speechify in each District, several or a great many spectators flash them the revolutionary salute, often leading their cyborg chaperones to shoot the agitators on sight. President Snow (Donald Sutherland, back for more dinero) hates Katniss and, knowing she loves District 12 countryman Gale (Liam Hemsworth), insists that she and Peeta put on a big and convincing show of young love. Meanwhile, he and new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) connive to ensure her demise in the quadranscentennial "Quarter Quell," adding the wrinkle that these 75th Hunger Games will feature past champions.

I may be out on a limb here, but it's a comfortable limb: I don't get Jennifer Lawrence. She doesn't smolder with sex appeal, her performances have gone steadily downhill since "Winter's Bone," and here she just stares straight ahead the whole time. This is not a performance of depth or nuance; it's almost catatonia. Josh Hutcherson barely registers; he looks more like J-Law's kid brother than a love interest. Hemsworth doesn't even have poses to strike as in the first film. And Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket is like fingernails on a blackboard. The only fun comes from Stanley Tucci as emcee Caesar Flickerman, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy (God, the names are just awful), and Hoffman, who's pretty much playing himself here (and looks like he was filmed in whatever he came to the set wearing). 

This second installment runs for two and a half hours, at least 60% excruciatingly paced build-up and the rest a double-the-budget Games that, if anything, looks and feels cheaper and less interesting than last year's. Basically, they encounter some CGI howler monkeys, a poisonous fog that makes your skin look like the walls of Providence restaurant (and of which they and their allies stay magically one step ahead), and a wire contraption that coils around a tall tree that, when struck by lightning, breaks the domed ceiling over the arena. The whole thing comes off very YA, not smart and not satisfying.

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