Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fear And Loathing In Panem

Reel To Reel: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mostly bloodless gladiator-style competition, mild language, some mildly suggestive scenes including a woman stripping off her dress in an elevator in front of two people without you seeing the naughty bits, which begs that question, "Was this trip really necessary?"

Admit it. You want to see Effie Trinket (Banks), that handler whom taste forgot, thrown into the bloodsport death match of Suzanne Collins' novels instead of the innocent children who are "reaped" to serve the tradition of a corrupt regime. Let's see those frilly ruffles, styled hair, and lip gloss save her egregious bouffancy. Oh, but it's not to be, at least not yet.

The seeds are there, though, and that's primarily what the second edition of The Hunger Games trilogy is, seeds. The film is a continuation of its blockbuster prequel while planting for the conclusion. It's a two-hour, twenty-six minute transitory movie that plays like a loose remix of the original with a few new twists here and there.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are on a victory tour through the districts of Panem after winning the 74th Hunger Games in an unexpected display of love -- or is it defiance? President Snow (Sutherland) thinks its the latter, and he warns Everdeen that if she really loves Peeta, she better prove it or her family will pay. Katniss and Peeta go through with the charade, but Kat still has a thing for Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth). But all's fair in love and war. Riots are already breaking out in some districts. Katniss soon realizes she has touched off the start of a rebellion against the ruling elite when they go off-script in a speech and a man is beaten in front of her.

The Capitol rulers step up the heat against insurrection as only they know how to do. More beatings. More crackdowns. That'll solve everything. And still the games go on, with new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) stepping in for the man who, let us say, took a permanent leave of absence. Heavensbee has President Snow's ear, and he knows a few things about PR. He suggests a twist in the 75th games, known as the "quarter-quell:" instead of reaping tributes from the general citizenry, why not have an all-star competition drawn from previous winners? We immediately know what that means. Just when Katniss and Peeta thought they were out, they're sucked in again, back to the arena and the reality that they might not make it out.

I will say this again: My chief problem with the Hunger Games universe is understanding how the grossly hedonistic, tackily-dressed citizenry of the Capitol could've won the war that put them in charge. I gather the current generation didn't have to actually fight that war, but I think of that line from Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey And The Bandit: "There is no way, son, that you could've come from my genes." Consider, also, President Snow, who wouldn't have a lick of intimidatory power if he didn't control gangs of thugs. By himself, he has as much menace as a miniature Schnauzer.

Getting beyond that, Catching Fire is two fighters punching for range before mixing it up. Both the state and the germinating rebellion are figuring out what they can do, and we're watching them from both corners. This means the movie drags at times. You won't hear people complaining, though, because part of the Hunger Games' appeal is to get caught up in the universe and its parallels to the corruption in our own. While this second installment is not overtly political, we'll be snarking about one-percenters, elitism and the working class. And we'll come up with some ways we want to see Effie offed in the finale.

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