Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" isn't any worse than the smash hit from last year, but that isn't really saying very much. This overly faithful adaption of the super-popular young adult novels by Suzanne Collins returns brave heroine Katniss Everdeen for another go-around that plays in large part like a broken record.

The tearful selection to the Games, in which champions from a dystopian America's 12 districts must fight gladiator-style for all the world to watch? It's here. The blunt tutoring by burnt-out former victor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson)? Ditto. Costumed pageantry and a gleeful skewering of our celebrity-obsessed media? Loved ones in peril? Sneering resentment by other, pampered, champions? Here, here, here.

And of course, the actual games themselves, which take up the latter half of the film. Once the action starts things pick up well, but it's a long, long slog until the arrows start flying.

The only real difference here is that the stirrings of rebellion against evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) have blossomed after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her district partner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), managed to defy all expectations and win the last Games together. Snow believes she's the face of the rebellion, and would snuff her out if he didn't fear that would stoke unrest even more.

He recruits a new Games Master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to come up with a devilishly sadistic scenario for the 75th annual games centered around bringing back past victors. It's all just an excuse to put Katniss in peril.

We get the familiar scenes of the champions at practice, making threats and showing off their killer muscle definition. There's a pair of Aryan siblings, some older scientist types, a gal who files her teeth to jagged points, a mentally unhinged chick with an axe, an anonymous big bald dude, and a scattering of others who are quickly forgotten or killed off.

Chief among the new arrivals is Finnick (Sam Claflin), a golden boy who seems to absolutely smack his lips at the prospect of going up against Katniss and Peeta.

The love triangle from the last film continues, again without much resolution. Katniss loves Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a stolid miner from back home, while Peeta is hopelessly smitten by her. They continue their supposed romance for the benefit of the cameras, even concocting up a planned wedding. It's taken its toll on Peeta, though, who wants to sacrifice himself to save his unrequited lady love.

New director Francis Lawrence has a good eye for the action scenes, but anytime the characters have to just stand there and talk to each other, it's pure death. It's a turgid, curiously emotionless affair -- something you'd think would be difficult, given all the death and ardor being flung around.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" will likely please its molten core of fans, mostly teen girls. But I found it to be a fantasy-adventure soap opera, where clothes and media gossip get just as much play as the battles to the death.

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