Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
And so we find ourselves a year later in the North American police state called Panem, where our current winners of the Hunger Games--Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of District 12--are set to move on as mentors to the next batch of unwilling "tributes" to be chosen in lotteries all over the nation.
Back is old geezer President Snow (Donald Sutherland) from the Capitol, adding injury to insult twice this time around. First, in a visit with Katniss before she and Peeta embark on a full 12-district tour, he makes it clear she's to project a cheerful image to the public even if she's not in love with Peeta. The second comes at the conclusion of the tour at the Capitol, where Snow reveals that since the upcoming Hunger Games are in their 75th year, a Quarter Quell will take place, meaning all tributes of this edition will be former winners pitted against each other.
And there you have the plot of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in a franchise that after two movies and five hours is, in my assessment, a triumph of marketing over real ideas. I sat patiently awaiting this movie to proverbially catch fire, but its title lied to me as the story plods along and ends up waterlogged.
It's always challenging when an entire cast of actors are having to play "We don't really want to be here doing this right now because the world we live in sucks and somebody should really do something about that". Not a reader of the books that came before, I was under the impression this was the movie where people began to do something about the tyranny they live under, only to be greeted by a rehash where characters feel even more glum and sorry for themselves.
Even Capitol chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) loses her shining effervescence in a superfluous and maddening scene where she fishes Katniss' name out of the bowl at District 12's lottery. Katniss of course is the only female in the district so she'll represent her people by default. It's just another example of this franchise drawing things out far beyond the point of good reason.
The tour of the districts provides us still with very little flavor for these places and the people who live there. Sure, the high-speed rail is seen barreling into town, but every scene is reduced to the same shot of a big stage where Peeta and Katniss say a few scripted words to a crowd of changing but never less than glum faces.
Out is Hunger Games producer Seneca Crane and in his place, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Returning as the HG tv host is the ever annoying Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) whose Perez Hilton-crossed-with-Sygfried & Roy act I've had just about enough of. Also back in action are Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) as Katniss and Peeta's mentor, as well as Gale (Liam Hemsworth) the District 12 miner and Katniss' love interest.
The character I feel most sorry for is Peeta, who's given nothing interesting to play, a prisoner of the friend-zone he is by Katniss, who is made to feel sorry for him even more here. He's got a couple of moments near the beginning that are promising, but by the end he's just a tool again.
Gone is the kids-killing-kids angle and in its place are 24 adults, one of whom an old woman named Mags (Lynne Cohen) who enters the HG as a kind of sacrifice to her district, while other notables include Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as Beetee and Wiress, who Katniss and Peeta form an alliance with during the games, and Jena Malone, effective as the deadpan, sexy Johanna. The movie's big climax hinges on them MacGyvering their amazonian arena with a plan that includes a great big tree, a bolt of lightning, and wire from Beetee that is so long, I wondered why they didn't show us the scene of him buying it at the Home Depot store that must've been onsite in the jungle somewhere.
The budget is nearly twice the amount of the first movie, and it is indeed a fine looking piece of derivative sci-fi, although, try admitting to me with a straight face that the wild monkeys in this movie are any more convincing than the ones we saw in "After Earth" from earlier this year.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" takes almost two full hours to really get going, only to tease us with a cliffhanger that appears to reduce the size and scope of our heroine. So much for a feminist icon; she's less a full-fledged heroine in this movie as she is a "symbol" while boys in backrooms get to play villains and revolutionaries. That's disappointing to me since Jennifer Lawrence is the most purely dynamic movie star to have emerged in the last couple years. She's the only reason to watch this series. In closeup shots on a huge screen, her face is able to suggest thoughts and feelings in a less-is-more kind of way about as good as any working actor today.
Director Gary Ross is out and Francis Lawrence is in. I couldn't tell any difference except for a somewhat less shakier cam. What they feel like to me are hired guns for the kinds of people who give us less potato chips in bigger bags and hope we won't notice.
Hunger Games, get on with it already.