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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Catching Fire

Or: Slow Burn

Sometimes our heroes are just too dumb to live. Let you a question dearest reader. If you are wondering through a jungle (a minutely engineered jungle where everything is deigned to kill/maim/torture/physiologically scar you), and a sinister fog, accompanied by an equally sinister soundtrack, comes gliding toward you, do you wait around with your hand extended to see if its benign or not? No? Didn’t think so.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not so swift on the uptake. To be fair she never has seemed to have grasped the “burned hand teaches best” rule, in the gladiatorial, social-political, or emotional arenas. Having lasted (barely) through her first Hunger Games, along with her too-pure-for-this-sordid-world companion and one-sided lover Peeta Mellark (Jush Hutcherson), Everdeen finds herself in the black books of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) ruler absolute of LadyGagadom, (erm-that is say-The Capital). Her unintentional defiance to the Powers That Be have sparked rebellion across the land and Snow is unimpressed both by her protestations of innocence and her indifference to Peeta’s affections. Despite Everdeen’s best efforts to carry on a public romance and assure the people of the fruitlessness of their revolt, Snow rigs the next Hunger Games to send our young unrequited lovers back to the arena, now to be the playthings of Plutarch Heavensby (Phillip Seymore Hoffman) who has more than one surprise up his sleeve. Catching Fire never had a hope of being as good as its predecessor.

It was simply not in the print. The Hunger Games is a fast paced, cinematic book, covering perhaps a month of time from reaping, to training, to the Games themselves. Catching Fire burns on a slower fuse, spanning a whole winter and spring, with plenty of time for doubt, discovery, and festering anxiety as well as mutant fuzzies and impailings galore. To transfer the book onto the screen means squeezing a whole bunch of the buildup before we get to the boom. It doesn’t help that the current script (Beaufoy and deBruyn) lacks the zest and passion of the former (Ross, Ray, and Collins herself, who wrote the book and knows anguish when she writes it). Still, the film does fall into its own pace when we are released into the arena where one entertaining danger after another await us with bared fangs.

Though the film is just as beautiful and sad and terrifying as before, the performances leave a great deal to be desired. Lawrence is an amazingly honest actress. When she screams in pain or wails in desolation, she’s really giving it all that an tormented teen and/or war veteran would give. Sadly, like the film itself, she has more difficulty tackling the nuances of the Capital society then the terrors of the Games. Ditto for Hutcherson, who does a find plumb playing the sweetest, selfless, quietly daring and chivalrous hero ever named after a piece of bread. Like his co-star. Hutcherson is very believable (as much as a saint like Peeta can be believed in a world like ours, to say nothing of a world like theirs) but he never quite manages the final hurdle of giving his character an inner struggle. On the opposite team Sutherland’s Snow is well placed as evil American Dumbledore (all smooth sophistication and probing glances but no sign of real power) while Hoffman toys with the ambivalence of Heavensby, who concocts and executes diabolical plans with no more relish than if he had filed a amusing report at the office.

More exciting, and where the book and the novel lower the pail deep, is in the depictions of the lesser characters: those sent in to die without the protection of a sequel. There are some sound ringers here: Jeffery Wright as the somber technician Beetee, Sam Claflin as the charming, well-suffering and never quite trust worthy Finnic Odair, and Jena Malone as the brightly bitter Joanna Mason, an example of who Katniss might have become without Peeta’s influence or Snow’s Damoclesian Doom (and whose elevator scene, while testing the very atmosphere decency, does provide us with a much needed moment of levity). Though mixed in with deft touches like Harrelson and Banks as the loveable/loathsome Abernathy and Tinket (so fitted to their roles they would be good no matter what), when all is tallied we find the vast majority of the performances to be wooden. But we hasten to point out that at least its mahogany.

I don’t know how Mocking Jay, the last installment (which, I have just learned will be split into two parts, “Palm, meet Face”) is going to turn out on film. That is Collins’s real corker, where all the nasties and all the heartbreak and all the horror really come into play. But I am given hope of a wrenching success by the last shot of this current film: Lawrence facing the camera, finally taking responsibility for her power as a woman and a symbol; at long last letting some of the fire she has sparked kindle in her.

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