movies: Hunger Games sequel ups spills and thrills ...
ANYONE who felt that the workmanlike adaptation of the first Hunger Games missed the bull’s-eye, take heart. Catching Fire is the new The Empire Strikes Back, a smashing sci-fi sequel that takes its blockbuster franchise into deeper, smarter, more dramatically engaging territory. New director Francis Lawrence has a solid grasp of science fiction (as demonstrated in Constantine and I Am Legend) and romance ( Water for Elephants). The conflicts are clear, the characters fully fleshed, the lethal adventure urgent and the tender interludes poignant. Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers, set in a fascist North America after a civil war and the extinction of the middle class, are a potent socio-political allegory. In dystopian Panem (Latin for bread, a nod to the Roman Empire’s policy of distracting citizens with food and circuses) young warriors must kill each other to survive. The battles are packaged as gladiatorial reality shows designed to keep the populace disengaged and submissive. The spectacle is undeniably impressive. An attack against players on a tropical island by a troop of ferocious mandrills tops anything I’ve seen this year for sheer get-me-out-of-here chills. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a stoic rural teenager who entered the Games in the first film to save her younger sister from certain death in combat. The role showcases Lawrence’s uncanny ability to make a tiny, apprehensive furrow of the brow speak volumes, and to tackle bigger-than-life scenes without going over the top. Having survived the first round of reality-TV carnage, Katniss is a national celebrity. Her public life is scripted as a romantic fantasy and played out for countless TV viewers. Katniss, a coal miner’s daughter, hates the pretense. Fearing she could become the figurehead for an uprising, President Snow (evil Donald Sutherland) orders his games designer to create a competition to eliminate her and ruin her heroic reputation in the process. Plutarch Heavensbee (inscrutable, calculating Philip Seymour Hoffman) proposes an All-Stars Game featuring the survivors of earlier combats which reveals unexpected alliances and hidden agendas. Director Lawrence leavens this fundamentally serious movie with bleak, caustic satire.
– COLIN COVERT
Willow Shields and Jennifer Lawrence play sisters