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the hunger games

(Note: this review was previously in print in FIU’s The Beacon newspaper in a slightly less-edited form in late 2013 – JB)

I’ll be honest when I say that I remain, to the frustration of many friends, not all that impressed by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. This kind of reveal is far less shocking than anything the film throws in the way of its main characters, but people seem shocked nonetheless when I bring it up. Some may remember I was generous with the first film of the series, finding Gary Ross’ rather gritty presentation of the dystopian society in turmoil and danger in the arena to be a positive feature. It was raw and dirty, just the way it should have been. Catching Fire, however, has received a major makeover. No, it’s nothing like what Effie or the denizens of the Capitol wear all over their face, but it might as well be.

A good chunk of the film takes place in the upper class sections of Panem, as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) embark on the Victory Tour long after winning the Games. This is all, of course, before they and fellow victors are sentenced to yet another death match, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Hunger Games. There’s an all-too-notable difference between the style of Catching Fire and its predecessor in that it’s all glitz and glamour. Cinematographer Jo Willems sure knows how to make a pretty movie, and I can’t fault him for that, but director Francis Lawrence should know better than to keep the the slums looking as pristine as President Snow’s mansion. As gorgeous as it looks, though, it’s the film’s inability to spread out its acts evenly that make it less exciting than it could be.

It’s hard to judge Catching Fire without referencing the novel it’s based on, as writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn try as hard as they can to keep it as close to the book as possible. While it could have used an extra half hour, filling up a two-and-a-half-hour movie properly is no easy task and these men don’t do a half-bad job. The problem is, ultimately, the source material. If we’re being honest, the first act of Catching Fire isn’t all that interesting. Most of it works as a platform for Katniss to complain about her situation during the Victory Tour while she, Peeta, and Gale create the typical teen dream love triangle. It’s boring — and, frankly, it draws away from the more important aspects of furthering the turmoil in the districts and setting up the arena for the last half. The novel has an attention to detail in throwing out clues and bringing them back later, but the film just makes everything happen — only caring about prepping the world forMockingjay next year. Fingers crossed that writer Danny Strong has a good plan on how to spread that novel out properly.

It’s entirely possible that I sound too harsh, but as much as I complain, I still thinkCatching Fire is a good enough movie. There are a lot of things to be thankful for with this adaptation, but nothing is quite as great as some of the character performances. As much as I loathe the love triangle, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson aren’t nearly as frustrating on film as on paper, and even with Jennifer Lawrence losing most of her tan, she’s as enjoyable as usual to watch. But nobody steals the show like Jena Malone’s Johanna and Sam Claflin’s Finnick. Malone’s elevator scene and general snappiness was worth the ticket price alone.

Anyway, as a friend of mine says, Catching Fire is a “fandom movie,” made mostly for those hardcore fans of the books, but just as likely to please those who wanted more than what the first gave them. As critical as I am of it, the film’s a solid sequel, a definite crowd-pleaser and more than likely going to be a good fit in the series’ long run.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is currently available for purchase on Blu-ray/DVD Combo and through Amazon Instant Video.

Directed by Francis Lawrence; written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt; based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, and Jena Malone; 146 minutes.