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Cinema Signal: A high concept sci-fi fantasy that suggests a new, evil ruling class. Green light. Go! MOBILE version |
. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

As futuristic, fantasy, action Event Films go, this series is the "Harry Potter" of 2013 and should capture the imaginations of a good portion of that broad fan base -- which isn't limited to teen or young adult audiences.

The kindling for this blaze is life-or-death action, visual mastery and the accellerant of symbolically evil political engineering of the new country of Panem (formerly known as Appalachia) after a nuclear disaster destroyed most of the population of the United States. You don't need to have the first weekend's grosses to predict a boxoffice inferno.

Picking up from "Hunger Games," the first part of the movie trilogy derived from author Suzanne Collins' best selling novels (over 26 million Hunger Games trilogy books in print), the winning "tributes" of the 74th Hunger Games in Part One, Katniss Everdeen (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook") and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson "The Kids Are All Right") are preparing to take off from District 12 on a victory tour.

But Katniss' popularity among the people of the country for having defied the upper class regime with an unheard of suicide pact that spared both of them in the last games has created murmurings of rebellion among the people who now see chinks in the armor of the rulers headed by the tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (impeccably bearded and attired Donald Sutherland, "Horrible Bosses.")

Foiled by the esteem in which Katniss is held by the populace, he's unable to simply eliminate her without setting off a rebellion among the unruly rabble who are close to starvation in low-paying jobs. Hunger is very much what it's all about for the impoverished lower class.

Snow comes to her to explain the role she must play if the masses, and in particular, her family, are going to go unharmed. She must convince the country, and Snow most of all, that the suicide pact wasn't a rebellious act but, rather, one that sprung from deep love between her and Peeta. Which is a problem, since the pair hasn't exactly been on loving terms since their return.

Let the play acting begin.

While Kitness's and Peeta's mentor Haymitch Abernathy (wizened Woody Harrelson, "Out of the Furnace") agrees with the need for role-playing, the people see it for what it is and, with a three-finger hand signal, they show their bond to the lady who survived, knowing that her true loyalties lie with them. Rebellion is simmering but Snow is not out of radical tricks to keep Katniss, and her followers, under his thumb.

Despite the rule that says game victors get to live in peace for the rest of their lives, Snow, ever bloodthirsty, is the man who sets and resets the rules at will. As a means to finally get rid of the thorn under his saddle, he announces the "3rd Quarter Quell," a game which is supposed to be played every 25 years. In the Reaping, the process by which the tributes are chosen for the games, the pool of choices is limited to prior victors only so as to give Katniss and Peeta the greatest disadvantage. Back to square one, and the subjugation continues.

Though the players are different, the grand, multi-scene arena, and the high-tech apparatus controlling it, are similar to the former competition, just with a new set of dangers. Katniss feels a special bond and responsibility toward Peeta which, as their relationship warms up, results in her exacting promises from Haymitch to pull every trick he can to ensure Peeta's survival. Not her's. Peeta's. Which is confusing emotionally in light of Katniss's undeclared feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), her hunting partner and, now, a mine worker.

Francis Lawrence (the tepid "Water for Elephants" and Will Smith's zombiefest, "I am Legend") takes the directorial reins, replacing the first episode director Gary Ross with a new set of writers (Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionairre" and Michael Arndt, "Toy Story 3," "Little Miss Sunshine"), puts his directorial capability in evidence.

I got the sense that he didn't move to the next setup until he got the most he could from each of his actors, who all were at their top levels. One of his most pronounced influences is in the performances at key moments when the principals reach conflict and emotion from their deepest level. Jennifer Lawrence is stronger and more assured. Hutcherson's intensity when the moment calls for it knocked me out, and I liked his character's attractive acceptance of his place in the scheme of things when the narrative called for that.

Among the many strengths of this series is the casting (Debra Zane) and character creation (author Suzanne Collins). Elizabeth Banks, a great beauty, plays the exquisite Effie Trinket, the gadfly chaperone/presenter of our tributes who is fortunate to get clothed in the most outrageously creative outfits. There's much to be praised in her presence and performance as a representative of the evil government who through style and adorability makes a death sentence amusing.

Hemsworth is handsomely ideal; Sutherland contains all the evil venom of the tyrant; Harrelson shows all the circuits of Haymitch's complex mind, turning in one of his strongest portrayals; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee is a henchman heavyweight par excellence; and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman is a wonder as the quick-witted grandmaster of the spectacular TV extravaganza introducing the tributes before the games begin.

And, then, there is the individuality of the game players, from strategist Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright) to Wiress (Amanda Plummer) to Sam Clafin as the mercurial and dangerous Finnick Odair to the wild Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) in a reprise of her character shenanigans in "Sucker Punch."

But the main movie star here is Lawrence (no relation to the director). Her naturalness throughout the fantasy creates a connection that never wavers. There's no moment in the film where you can detect anything coming from her that's artificial or not in the moment.

It would be remiss not to pay homage to the artistry of the craftsmanship, which is nothing less than a major source of the film's impact and socko spectacle. Philip Messina's production design, Jo Willems' cinematography, the vast makeup department and, incredibly, Trish Summervilles' costumes. Just the costumes designed for Effie are award calibre, but wait'll you see the fire suits which are, in turn, outdone by Katniss' wedding gown which becomes a major thematic statement!! And that doesn't even cover the burning mist effect.

Overall, this is high drama and spectacle in a grand package. The primary flaw would be for those who don't accept sci-fi fantasy in the first place, and this isn't for them. The millions of theatre patrons who respond to the play of heroes against evil will come away with many impressions, not the least being the lead actresses' balance of tough forthrightness and femininity, which is the embodiment, I should think, of Suzanne Collins' vision of her heroine. The film makes it evident that J.K. Rowlings isn't the only author who can write on that level.

"The Hunger Games" is asking the privileged class, "is this what you'd want for the future of The United States of America?" *P.S. [Do not be surprised if this leads to two more sequels. Both Lawrences are currently working on "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" (for 2014) and "Part 2" for 2015. You may be hearing about this imitation of Harry Potter's last book being split into two parts here first.]

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                                                                                                                         ~~  Jules Brenner  

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