It seemed I was one of few who admired director Gary Ross' vision for Suzanne Collins bleak, totalitarian-run, classist future, as well as Ross' ability to focus on the humanity that is both lost and found by the participants in a fight to the death, last-man-standing competition. I said at the end of my review "A second and third chapter aren't wholly necessary, but at this point they'll be welcome (unless they get too... Hollywood)".
Well, with Ross being cited by so many as the weakest element of the first chapter, he was out and in his stead, Francis Lawrence, director of such astounding mediocrity such as I Am Legend, Water For Elephants, and Constantine, was in. It's not that Lawrence can't put a movie together, as the stories of those films all flow just fine (and truth told, miscasting of Keanu aside, I kinda liked Constantine a little), but there's little to nothing exceptional or daring about them... they're totally Hollywood productions, competently told to appeal to the masses.
If I have a problem with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it's exactly that the story is merely competently told. From the onset, the film plays out like episodic television, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) having an exceptional amount of tension over her "on screen" relationship Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta still harbors romantic feelings for her, but she doesn't reciprocate, and the drama over it is beaten into the ground.
in his review covers well the turmoil Katniss has to face (major PTSD), since she has become a darling resident of the 12 Districts, a champion and a hero, but the pressure is often too much, and her awareness of the potency of her symbolism, of a champion who beat the system, is beyond her comprehension. When the masses start to, in small ways, rebel against the Capital, they do so in her name, which frightens her more than it inspires her. It also frightens the people in charge, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) particularly. He looks to his new gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (GODDAMN THESE NAMES ARE FUCKING AWFUL!!! I can kind of ignore them when just spoken, but I couldn't imagine reading three novels with names like these without feeling nauseated...anyway, he's played by the late, amazing Philip Seymore Hoffman) to help him squash the looming uprising before it begins. The answer is a tournament of champions, so to speak, in honour of the 75th anniversary of the last failed uprising. Katniss and Peeta are sent back into the fray along with a male and female former champion from each other district (I find it interesting that each of the 12 districts has both a male and female champion and that so many are so young).
This leads to a whole repeat of the process of the first movie, only accelerated and with more poignant flourishes. The last act of the film is the game itself, which again, is competently handled by director Lawrence, but far too often I could see the actors acting, as they flailed around to imaginary pains and fought imaginary apes and birds. It was kind of laughable actually, and Finnick O'dair's Aquaman schtick twirling around a trident was quite cheeky. The quick pace at which the tournament claimed its victims was disappointing, especially since we got very little time with most of the 24 contestants save for a half dozen or so who proved useful in the film's climax, which leaves with a cliffhanger-ish ending that feels more like a "see you next week" ending to a TV show than a cliffhanger proper. That Lawrence has been twiddling around in TV in recent years with Touch and Kings makes sense.
The performances in this film are all fine. It's got a great cast with Lawrence, Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and a most delightful Elizabeth Banks all returning, with Hoffman, Amanda Plummer in typical full-crazies, and Jeffrey Wright all excellent additions to the cast. Star Lawrence is, unfortunately, welled up with tears for about half the film, screaming at someone for doing something bad, or crying over someone dying or who has died, or just in a perennial state of being upset. The look on her face as the tube goes up into the battlefield is completely "FML". But the payoff I guess, is the final scene, which hearkens back to Gary Ross' style of the first film (SPOILERS). It's a full close-up of Katniss' face, rescued but injured, laying on a table, sedated, staring at the ceiling, in a ship on its way to the resistance headquarters in District 13, she's just been told by Gale that her entire District 12 has been firebombed as penance for her in-game revolt. Lawrence once again profusely extrudes tears, her face torn with regret, but the emotions run the gamut, fear, regret, remorse, sorrow, anger, rage, and ultimately resolve. The tears stop and that face, the attitude say she's ready to take control and change the world, symbol or martyr or whatever it needs. It's literally the best moment in the film.
Again, it's an interesting movie, but drawn out, overlong at nearly two and a half hours, needlessly so. If director Lawrence could handle the breathier moments better, with better cinematography or more intense focus on the characters, it would have helped the film along, but again it's competent storytelling and little else. I'm interested to see the finale play out, but decompressed over two films, it feels like it's going to be a nightmarish slog.