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Katniss and company hit their stride with 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Roaring fully into its story, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" brings the franchise into full flex and intensity, no doubt dazzling readers and bringing the rest of us in tow.

Stanley Tucci stirs the schadenfreude, but Jennifer Lawrence has other ideas
Lionsgate

Here we meet Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark as they embark upon a Victor’s Tour after prevailing in the 74th games. Unconvinced by their love affair, the nefarious President Snow demands that Katniss convince the populace of her veracity and distract it from the grievous inequities under which it struggles. Should she fail, her beloveds ~ including hometown secret sweetheart Gale ~ will suffer the consequences. Thus amid emboldening whispers of rebellion across the districts, Katniss struggles to free herself of the Capitol’s clutches, even as it weaves an ever-constricting plot against her very life.

At what point do social forces thrust upon one become responsibility to be assumed? Is one, in fact, somehow bound by a higher calling to fulfill such duty, or is one’s destiny always one’s own decision? Frodo Baggins asked the question, as did Harry Potter after him, as does Katniss Everdeen today. In the course of merely trying to stay alive, can one change a life trajectory, or are all bets off and what happens in battle stays in battle?

Katniss thinks she knows her mind (paraphrased, “Run. Now.”), until Heavensbee's cruel plan forces her hand, and gradually happenstance becomes purpose; rebellion moves from survival tactic into cause, and her awakening ability to fight the real enemy grows within… and without. Yet when Snow brings in experienced game designer Plutarch Heavensbee to seal her doom, Katniss has but one option: return to the survival skills which have served her so well.

Whereas the first installment seemed mainly concerned about presenting a solid base hit (aka not screwing up), "Catching Fire" hits a triple at the very least, depending on who you talk to. Executed in strong, broad stokes by director Francis Lawrence, the returning cast actualize their characters in even more vivid color (often literally, as with Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks). Where there was celebration, now is schadenfreude; where there was duty, now is devotion; where there was pomp and circumstance, now is the pageantry and hedonism of the Roman Empire in all its forms (PG style, that is). And where there was bravery, now is courage of the first order.

As well as heightened characterization and circumstance, "Catching Fire" graces us with additional new figures, including those portrayed by the stellar Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jena Malone. And to complete the experience are superior cinematography and visual effects that escalate methodically until the second hour, where they explode for the next ninety minutes; "Catching Fire" is nearly two and one-half hours long, and you’ll never feel it, not once. It’s vivid, it’s visceral, and once it kicks into fifth gear, it stays there. I was feeling intrigued yet quite comfortable early on, but then suddenly had an inkling to spit out my gum, and it was a good idea, boy.

It is worth noting, however, that "The Hunger Games" is a readers’ franchise. In both installments I, as a non-reader, felt a pervasive sense that much was being assumed; whether or not this is empirically true I can’t say, but with "The Hunger Games" I always feel as though I’m present with the proceedings but not part of them, however thrilling they may be. Rather than, for example, feeling as though I’m a resident of Middle Earth, I feel as though I’m more of a welcome exchange student in Panem, running with a group that shares a history to which I'm not privy.

Perhaps such history was never discussed (this is young adult fiction, after all); still, I can never help feeling that the actual horror of the situation isn't ever fully faced, and would love to have more of a sense of how the culture came to be. It’s one thing to know the facts intellectually; it’s another to know the emotions and effects, both immediate and long-term, of how these games came into being. Additionally, it’s often unclear as to precisely how much the tributes understand about the particulars of the games themselves, how much they understand of what it true, and what is fabricated. Is it a gruesome Truman show, or is it "Battle Royale"?

In the end it matters little enough; if you’re a non-reader there is much to appreciate, and you may well come away a true fan simply by way of enjoying the compelling and surprising story underway. But if you’re a reader, the likelihood is high indeed that "Catching Fire" will fulfill every hope. Either way, "Catching Fire" ignites genuine excitement for final chapter "Mockingjay" (being split into two films), and promises a glorious finish.

Story: Despite having emerged victorious and ostensibly secure for life, Katniss finds herself threatened by the vicious machinations of President Snow, bent on quelling the seeds of rebellion her actions foment throughout the districts.

Genre: Action/Adventure, Sci-fi

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Toby Jones

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 146 minutes

Official site: http://www.thehungergamesexplorer.com/us/epk/catching-fire/

Houston release date: November 22, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Nov 18th at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX