Jennifer Lawrence has blossomed into a charismatic screen presence in her gala return as Katniss, the beloved bow-and-arrow heroine of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” She’s far better than the first time around, and so is the Francis Lawrence-directed film, a superior sequel.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence. At cinemas throughout New England.
By Gerald Peary
Some very shrewd talent scout in LaLaLand checked out Jennifer Lawrence, age 20, in Winter’s Bone (2010), that icebound downer of an American indie, and projected an international movie star. Before you knew it, she was signed on for the lead in The Hunger Games (2012) (Fuse commentary), where, a decent choice in the coveted role of Katniss Everdeen, she seemed a bit overwhelmed to be in such a blockbuster, a might stiff. But then Lawrence broke through as the zany lead in the screwball comedy, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), grabbing, at 22, a Best Actress Academy Award. In interviews, she felt the freedom to be herself: loose, smart, uninhibited, unpretentious, very funny, and totally endearing. For now, fame and riches have made her winningly confident. Lawrence has blossomed into a charismatic screen presence in her gala return as Katniss, the beloved bow-and-arrow heroine of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. She’s far better than the first time around, and so is the Francis Lawrence-directed film, a superior sequel.
You might recall that Katniss and her pretend boyfriend, Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson) were, in The Hunger Games, joint winners of the 74th competition, killing off all their opposition. And now: a mirror of Jennifer Lawrence’s free spirit in corporate Hollywood? In Catching Fire, Katniss’s loyalty is suspect to the government of Panem, which created the Hunger Games as a mass entertainment diversion, so that the people would not notice a totalitarian regime. The vain, ruthless President (a white-haired Donald Sutherland) makes a surprise visit to Katniss’s house. He threatens harm to her family, including the little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), whom she adores, unless Katniss cooperates fully on a “Victory Tour.” She and Peeta must make a whistle-stop visit to each of Panem’s 12 districts and, as Hunger Games celebs, give platitudinous speeches about how honored they are to be representing their country.
But Katniss is not one to toe the line, when arriving, horrfied, in the downtrodden, apartheid-like black district. Her speeches hover dangerously close to sedition, especially in the eyes of the paranoid, spiteful, Nixonian government. That’s when a J. Edgar Hoover-like Gamesmaster is brought aboard: Plutarch Heavensbee (a deliciously creepy Philip Seymour Hoffman). Urged on by the president, he’s to concoct a Dirty Tricks plan to stop Katniss, who has become far too popular in Panem. His heinous scheme: yet another Hunger Game for their 75th anniversary, ex-winners against each other. Meaning, so much for Katniss’s and Peeta’s one-year retirement from the killing fields.
I’m one of those who said “No” to Ring movies after the first of the trilogy left me maddeningly bored. And one Harry Potter movie more than sufficed. Strangely, I’m a fan of The Hunger Games saga, including the one book I’ve read by Suzanne Collins: intelligent, imaginative, and decidedly well written. So, I’m psyched when, in Catching Fire, the story really gets going with another Roman gladiator-like super-contest. As before, this global media event is lorded over by the toothy, tanned Caesar Flickerman, played stupendously by Stanley Tucci with a jackass laugh and the unctuous excitement of the late Bert Parks hosting the Miss America pageants.
It’s very Survivor, as all the contestants are catapulted to an alien tropical island (filmed in Hawaii), actually a simulacrum of an island, with video surveillance everywhere and horrors programmed by the hour: floods, poison gas, flesh-eating, monkeys. And, of course, the contestants pitted against each other.
And here is where Catching Fire really gets subversive.
Many have noticed a strange trend in movies this year, capped by Gravity, Captain Phillips, and All is Lost, individual heroes battling adversity. To me, old-fashioned, middle-American, WASP self-reliance with elite protagonists. Moderate Republicanism? Well, Catching Fire becomes a “screw you” to the “everyone for yourself” battles programmed for the Hunger Games by the rightist, racist government. On the island, Katniss and Peeta find themselves bonding in alliance with those whom the power people branded as their enemies. Let me proclaim it: a Blue State coalition of women—vigorous young (Katniss), hippy old (Megs), and brash punk (Johanna) — and computer geeks (Wiress), including an enterprising, educated African-American (Beetee), plus several liberated white males (Finnick, Peeta). Brains definitely over brawn—and could Peeta, I wonder, be closeted gay?
There are some cool James Bondian battles on the island with, somehow, a minimum of violence; and the only sex is Katniss’s conflicted smooching, with both pal Peeta and, when she can find him, her poster macho-boy, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). So Catching Fire is swell for 14-year-olds, who have swarmed to it, and also a rare mass-media, tentpole pleasure for oldsters like me.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.