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'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is an exciting follow up to a poor first film

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (film review)

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At the conclusion of the 74th Hunger Games there were two victors, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). This unprecedented turn of events has created unrest in the Capitol as the 12 districts of Panem see their victory as an act of defiance against President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In an attempt to silence this rebellion before it begins, Snow enlists the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new gamesman, who devises a new Hunger Games that puts both Katniss and Peeta back in the arena to fend for their lives once again.

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So many franchise upstarts have stumbled out the gate and have either disappeared into obscurity or are given the chance to redeem themselves with a sequel and completely squander it. In as unlikely a situation as any could have guessed (and most likely due to an over 600 million worldwide gross), we find ourselves presented with a sequel that fixes nearly every issue with the first film and somehow makes that first film even worse by comparison. It's difficult to even know where to start since there is so much to go over with the many improvements this film has over the first. But regardless of how it did it, the impossible happened by turning a previous detractor of the franchise into a true believer.

The first, and arguably most important, area this new film outclasses the first is by making the actual hunger games more of the backdrop to a much larger story instead of as the main attraction. The games in that first film were uninteresting, didn't make very much sense and due to some really poor editing choices were a nightmare whenever an action sequence would kick in. Director Frances Lawrence wisely decided to focus on the much more intriguing, if not a bit cliche, story of a struggle between an oppressed people and their somewhat reluctant chosen one, the beacon of hope for the people of Panem, Katniss.

It didn't hurt that the games themselves this time were much better realized and entertaining as well. The games in that first film had zero energy and a total lack of danger despite the possibility of death lurking around every corner. In Catching Fire however, the games are much more complex in their design and how they are weaved into the ever increasingly elaborate plans by President Snow makes them much more than just another gladiatorial games ripoff. Even the arena becomes a character in and of itself with how it is used by the new gamesman whom ultimately makes this mysterious arena more dangerous than any of the tributes participating in the games (plus Peeta doesn't try to disguise himself as a rock this time).

Although the games take more of a back seat this time around (they only consist about 30% of the film), it would be neglectful not mention the differences to the original and what a marked improvement this is. The way in which the film finds a way to re-write the rules and not only bring Katniss and Peeta back into the fold, but also make the games feel fresh and new is a true stroke of genius on the writers part. It brings a whole new vibe to the film when we are introduced to this years tributes, all of whom are past victors that had originally been promised lives of luxury and now must deal with the possibility of going back into the arena where they are expected to fight to the death...AGAIN (which predictably they are not happy about).

Aside from the obvious dangers inherent with facing off against experienced tributes, the differences between this years group of seasoned (and very soured) tributes compared to the young crop of kids from the previous games is startling and invigorating. When Caesar (Stanley Tucci, who refuses to let his ridiculous wardrobe and hair get in the way of yet another scene stealing performance) interviews each of the tributes just before the games begin, their reactions to what has happened to them are diverse to say the least (Johanna's reaction is pure gold), which lends a lot of unpredictability to the games that wasn't there in the previous film.

Speaking of the tributes, probably the biggest area that first film dropped the ball in the realm of building sympathy for its many characters and their fates was how little we knew about any of them. Aside from Katniss and Peeta, everyone else seemed shoved off to the side. This wasn't done in favor of introducing us to the world of Panem or the 12 districts that made up the world. No, this was so that we understood more about the games and how they were played which in hindsight was the wrong way to go. This was more than just counter productive for getting us invested in this world and these characters, it was downright detrimental to the entire experience.

This time around though both Katniss and Peeta aren't the only characters with something at stake. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' mother (Paula Malcomson) and sister (Willow Shields), heck the entirety of the 12 districts hangs in the balance as they all put themselves on the line. Even with the stakes raised so high, none of it would matter if we weren't given a reason to care for them, which is the biggest and most significant alteration from that first film other than the games themselves. Whether it was the material from the second book, a new director (or even perhaps bigger paychecks), everyone seems to have upped their game here and become real three dimensional characters.

Likewise for the new tributes of whom we get to actually meet this time around. The self-assured Finnick (Sam Clafin) who seems to know more than he lets on, the mute and elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen) who sacrificed herself to be in the games to save Finnick's true love, the genius Beebee (Jeffrey Wright) whose awareness of the tech behind the games makes him a danger to both those in the arena and those running the arena. Then there is quite possibly the best new character introduced, Johanna (Jenna Malone), whose rage towards being a part of yet another hunger games makes her completely unstable and completely awesome. Unlike before, there is an attachment made to each of them that was sorely lacking that first time around.

The one exception to this however is that there are still a number of tributes that are in the background that get introduced but nothing beyond that. With the large cast of characters that we have though, it was a sacrifice that needed to be made in order to create an attachment to our core group of characters. As already mentioned, the games aren't as important this time other than the reason behind them, so if there are some tributes that get knocked off that we never got to form a bond with, it is a sacrifice that had to happen or even needed to happen when all the secrets begin to reveal themselves during the final moments of the film.

As for the villain of the film, instead of giving us some cookie cutter bad guys in the arena (which we do have but we barely ever see them), the film transforms the character of President Snow, who in the previous film felt more like a diplomat, into a full on evil son of a bitch. The scene where he lays out for Katniss what her options are is just oozing with an evil presence not seen since the Emperor from the Star Wars prequels. Then later when he begins scheming with Plutarch on how to take Katniss out without making her a martyr hits all the right notes making them an appropriately evil duo for Katniss and her friends to have a battle of wits against. Katniss versus Snow is gonna be a showdown for the ages.

Then there is Katniss herself, who was the only bright spot in the previous film (due mostly to Lawrence's heartfelt performance). Here she is no longer the girl who is scared of dying in the arena. Here she is the beacon of light for the people in the 12 districts of Panem, which means she has an immense amount of pressure put upon her by both sides which she doesn't particularly care for. President Snow clearly sees her and her influence as a threat and wants to control her to calm down the districts before an all out rebellion begins. But others, such as Peeta and Gale, the two men in her life that she loves for completely different reasons, know that she is the one person who can change the world they live in for the better. This film has set Katniss up perfectly to become a true cinematic heroine whose plight feels real and whose cause feels just.

The cinematic love triangle dynamic has been laughable ever since Bella, Edward and Jacob began emoting teenage fantasy driven feelings for one another, but Katniss, Peeta and Gale threaten to bring legitimacy back to the formula.What's different exactly? What makes their situation any more legit than that other trifecta? There are real circumstances keeping them together and/or apart. Katniss is put into a situation that is out of her control and unlike Bella, who put herself in that situation, she develops feelings for Peeta, someone she otherwise wouldn't (and didn't) consort with until she was forced to fight along side him.

The other part that makes this work is that we see this triangle from all three sides and each has a legitimate reason for feeling the way they do. They aren't inherently selfish (Bella), they don't say they love someone just because they can't have her (Edward) and more importantly, none harbor any ill-will towards one another making their lives a living hell since none of them are able to have what they want (Jacob). Then with Katniss' role in the eventual rebellion becoming more of a factor, her feelings towards both Peeta and Gale have a real chance of becoming her undoing. This is how you set up a love triangle people, right here.

There are of course a few flaws to be found despite the many improvements that have been made over the original. First and foremost is once again we barely see the other districts. Granted, we get to see a whole lot more of them this time, but it still isn't enough to inform us on what makes each district different and unique. Also, the Capitol city is once again given very little screen time. There is always mention of the state of poverty that each district are in and the juxtaposition of the immense wealth of the Capitol, but aside from a very informative (and outright hilarious) scene involving a Capitol resident who informs us that vomiting is the best way to create a larger appetite to eat more is the only time we get even a hint of the hypocrisy happening in Panem.

The final, and most glaring hiccup of the entire film is the flimsy finale. While the twists and turns the plot takes during its final 5 to 10 minutes are certainly a surprise and very exciting, the logistics of how anyone could plan for the random events that occur is nearly impossible. So many things happen in the arena that are out of everyones control that the idea of anyone being able to properly predict where and when anyone will be in order to launch this scheme makes very little sense and does detract from the up-til-then solid and plothole-free story.

Is Catching Fire a great film? Almost. Is Catching Fire a better film than the first? Most definitely. But that doesn't mean everyone who saw that first film and felt cheated will warm up to this mostly successful sequel. This isn't a reboot, this is a second chapter in a story that has a very weak and problematic first chapter. If you saw some potential with that first film and want to see how it should have been done right out the gate, then Catching Fire is proof that a spark can indeed instill hope.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Considering all the variables, a weak first chapter, an enormous cast of both new and old characters, the dreaded love triangle formula and the major hook of the hunger games themselves being somewhat underwhelming, this movie should not have worked out nearly as well as it did. While sitting in that theater watching the events unfold one after another, it was quite the epiphany to realize that I was indeed enjoying myself and surprisingly, on more than just one occasion, found myself getting emotionally drawn into a world that just two years ago I had written off. Sometimes a second chance can be an eye opening and very pleasant experience, such as was the case with watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

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