Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci
Director
Francis Lawrence

As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original. It’s like the “Evil Dead 2” of YA literature – a sort of ‘take two’ on the first novel that’s bigger and better, but not profoundly different. My lukewarm reaction to the second installment in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy is almost completely due to that reason alone, because the concept feels more like a lazy rehash than a continuation of the story, although curiously, that isn’t the case with the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence (stepping in for the departing Gary Ross), “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Collins’ book, but the first movie as well.

After returning home as joint victor of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds it difficult readapting to her life in District 12, haunted by the events that took place inside the Arena. While on a victory tour across Panem, Katniss witnesses the unrest that’s begun to spread across the districts as a result of her highly publicized stunt, and recognizing the danger that a potential rebellion poses, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enlists the help of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a plan to eliminate Katniss once and for all. So when it comes time for the 75th edition of the Games (a quarter century celebration that adds a special twist to the normal rules), Snow announces that this year’s tributes will be selected from the pool of previous victors. As the only female survivor from District 12, Katniss is forced to participate in the Hunger Games once again along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who volunteers in place of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), only to discover that they have some unlikely allies watching their backs.

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Blu Tuesday: Death, Death and More Death

With the fall TV season just around the corner, the end of August is typically inundated with TV-on-DVD releases, but there aren’t many shows being released on Blu-ray this week. Luckily, there are several quality films hitting stores, including the usual barrage of catalog titles from Disney, the latest from director Richard Linklater, and the third highest-grossing movie of the year after “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“The Hunger Games”

Though the movie was technically released last Friday (mimicking the business model used by Summit with the “Twilight” franchise), I’ve decided to include it in my column this week because it warrants discussion. For starters, it’s that rare case of a film being better than the book it’s based on, because for all the things that Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular novel does well, “The Hunger Games” improves upon it in almost every way – from the pacing, to the character development, to the execution of the Games itself. Part of that comes down to the smart and economic script by Collins, Billy Ray and director Gary Ross, which doesn’t waste any time in getting to the titular event, but it’s the cast that really elevates the story beyond its mediocre source material. Jennifer Lawrence displays remarkable poise in the lead role, Josh Hutcherson shows signs that he’s maturing as a performer, and the adult actors (particularly Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz) nail the essence of their larger than life characters in ways that fans of the book probably never imagined possible. Granted, I’d still choose “Battle Royale” over “The Hunger Games” any day of the week, but it’s really no surprise why the film performed as well as it did.

Blu-ray Highlight: As you’d expect from a high-profile film like “The Hunger Games,” Lionsgate has loaded the two-disc set with a ton of great bonus material. Although some might lament the lack of an audio commentary by director Gary Ross and the cast, the ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette “The World is Watching” (which runs just over two hours long) more than makes up for it, covering an array of topics like adapting the script, production and costume design, stunts, special effects and more.

“The Dictator”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest comedy is a bit of a departure from his previous starring vehicles in that it’s scripted as opposed to the more free-from style that was employed in “Borat” and “Brüno,” but just because it takes a more conventional route doesn’t mean that it’s lacking the comedian’s trademark brand of outrageous and grossly offensive humor. After all, when a film opens with a dedication to the late Kim Jong-il, that’s a pretty good indicator of just how silly it’s going to be, and credit to Cohen for completely embracing that silliness. The script strikes a great balance between the obscene and shocking bits and the more clever gags, and although it adopts a kitchen sink mentality that results in almost as many bad jokes as good ones, when the movie is funny, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. “The Dictator” doesn’t have quite as much of a sociopolitical agenda as Cohen’s other collaborations with director Larry Charles, but it does land a few jabs that resonate, particularly in a closing monologue that exposes America as a closet dictatorship. The film still pales in comparison to “Borat,” but after the massive disappointment of “Brüno,” it’s nice to know that Sacha Baron Cohen hasn’t totally lost his flair for making audiences laugh.

Blu-ray Highlight: There’s not much to get excited about beyond a handful of deleted and extended scenes, many of which are less effective variations of the same joke.

“Bernie”

Based on the true story of a wealthy oil widow who was murdered by her only friend – an assistant funeral director in the small East Texas town of Carthage and the nicest guy around – “Bernie” is a pretty unconventional crime comedy by most accounts. In fact, how much you enjoy the film will depend largely on how you feel about its mockumentary format, which uses real East Texas citizens in fictional roles doing on-camera interviews about the events leading up to the murder. Though it provides a handful of comedic moments, it’s a stylistic choice that never really pays off, since you’d rather just watch the narrative unfold in real time. Jack Black delivers some of his best work to date as the title character, and Shirley MacLaine is great as the tight-fisted old lady, but the long-awaited reunion between director Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey is a pretty big letdown, because the actor’s talents are wasted in a throwaway role. “Bernie” isn’t a bad film by any means, but it is an incredibly average and forgettable one, and sometimes that’s even worse.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are three short featurettes included on the disc, and “True Story to Film” is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth talk about following the case back in the late 90s, while Jack Black discusses how he got involved in the film and his preparation for playing Bernie Tiede.

  

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