Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There may be plenty of hunger before we finally get to the games, but it’s more than worth the wait in this bigger, bolder and – yes – better sequel.

Even in spite of Lawrence's knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you'll be hungry for the next serving

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving

Despite being an international bestseller, nothing was written in stone to suggest Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult sci-fi adventure novels would make a convincing leap to the big screen.

However, paydirt was well and truly hit with the casting of star-in-waiting Jennifer Lawrence in the central role of Katniss Everdeen who, along with strong direction from Gary Ross and striking production design, turned 2012’s The Hunger Games into a mature and effective first chapter in the franchise.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow's hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow’s hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

With almost double the budget under his belt, new director Francis Lawrence (no relation) has turned in a follow-up that manages to avoid many of the symptoms of sequel-itis and builds on the foundations of the first movie to impressive effect.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and fellow 74th Hunger Games tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embarking on a victor’s tour of the impoverished districts of Panem out of fear for their families’ safety. Anxious to stamp out the unrest that’s been brewing following Katniss’ show of defiance in the last Games, despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th anniversary Quarter Quell will see former champions – Katniss and Peeta included – fight to the death in the most twisted and sickening Games yet.

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Just as in the first installment, Catching Fire spends a great deal of time building up to the gladiatorial spectacle of the Games themselves. However, unlike The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for example, you never get the sense the film is treading water and indulging itself. The slow, gradual wind up towards the horror of the Quarter Quell feels neccessary, as if the characters are pieces on a chessboard being carefully positioned.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

That this build up is as engaging as it is is largely down to the captivating performance of Lawrence, who commands the screen. Since her breakout turn in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s stature has grown with every film and here it’s as if the camera is magnetised to her. What makes Katniss so appealing – and so human – is that she remains a reluctant hero, someone who would much rather be out hunting with her friend/love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than be the face of the rebellion or a thorn in Snow’s side.

Catching Fire‘s supporting cast is an engaging mix of young and established talent, from Sutherland’s oily turn as the banally evil Snow, to Woody Harrelson’s colourful performance as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ nuanced portrayal of the garishly dressed Team Katniss cheerleader Effie Trinket, whose blind obidience to the Capitol gradually erodes as the veil is lifted.

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Special mention must go to Stanley Tucci, who’s even more over-the-top this time around as Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games talk show host with the impossibly white teeth and insincere laugh who peddles bread and circuses to the masses and stands alongside Snow as the face of Panem’s totalitarian regime. It’s the film’s creepiest character and Tucci’s performance is skin-crawlingly effective.

Just as in the first film, Catching Fire, well, catches fire when the Hunger Games finally commence. Although essentially the same set-up as the previous film (last person standing wins), this time around we get poisonous gas, electrified force fields, psychological warfare and, most disturbingly, flesh-eating monkeys thrown in. Each mini-set piece is striking in its own way and follow each other so quickly you’ll be left as exhausted as the tributes.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As is the way of modern day franchises, this second installment is darker than its predecessor and is much better for it. The social commentary and political subtext alluded to in the first film is more pronounced this time around (both visually and in the dialogue, most notably between Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Games Designer Plutarch Heavensbee) and the violence more reactionary and brutal. It’s pretty strong stuff for what’s supposed to be a film aimed at young adults.

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving.

Great Films You Need To See – Punishment Park (1971)

This is my second contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Peter Watkins’ controversial docudrama Punishment Park was written as part of The Big Picture’s self-explanatory Lost Classics section, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

The Boston Phoenix may have predicted Peter Watkins’ potent philippic on the frightening consequences of unchecked power was a “cult hit waiting to happen”, but 40 years after its controversial release it’s still twiddling its thumbs waiting for the world to catch on.

Peter Watkins' Punishment Park - "it's striking just how resonant the issues of the film still remain"

Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park – “it’s striking just how resonant the issues of the film still remain”

Watkins’ pioneering brand of radical pseudo-documentary filmmaking was always going to leave him shouting at the world from the sidelines.

His 1965 BBC nuclear war docudrama The War Game was judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” by Auntie and shelved for 20 years. Set in a dystopic America that Watkins could see on the horizon, Punishment Park never recovered from the hostile critical reaction it mostly received and sank without trace.

The 'prisoners' find the going tough in Punishment Park

The ‘prisoners’ find the going tough in Punishment Park

Dismissed at the time as nothing more than hyperbolic paranoia on the part of the director (The New York Times described it as “the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist”), seen today it’s striking just how resonant the issues of the film still remain.

With the Vietnam War escalating, Nixon invokes legislation authorising a police state wherein those deemed “a risk to internal security” can be arrested and tried by a civilian tribunal. Presumed guilty, the hippies, draft dodgers and seditious types arrested for “hindering the war effort” are offered long jail time or three gruelling days in Punishment Park (or the option of signing a Hitler oath-style pledge of loyalty).

They fought the law, the law won in Punishment Park

They fought the law, the law won in Punishment Park

Promised liberty if they evade the police and National Guard and make it across scorching hot desert to capture the US flag 53 miles away, the ‘subversives’ who choose this option little realise their blood-thirsty pursuers have no intention of letting them gain their freedom (or, in some cases, letting them live).

The screw is turned as the film, comprised of faux BBC news footage narrated by an increasingly splenetic Watkins, cuts between the one-sided kangaroo court (its chairman, a politician, gags a prisoner for getting on his nerves bringing to mind Bobby Seale), the terrified rebels in Punishment Park and law enforcement officers hungry for action. In a cruel irony one runner tells the camera crew “I don’t think they’re trying to kill us”, before Watkins cuts to a sheriff describing how best to shoot someone.

The spectre of Bobby Seale looms large in Punishment Park

The spectre of Bobby Seale looms large in Punishment Park

Interestingly, the non-professional actors were cast based on their own political beliefs and were told by Watkins to let rip against each other as if the situation were real. As a result the scenes within the tribunal tent crackle with tension as the prisoners and tribunal members have what might be called “a failure to communicate” and end up screaming at each other.

Echoes of Punishment Park (and Watkins’ previous diatribe The Gladiators) can be seen in such variable fare as The Running Man, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.

Filmed in the aftermath of and coloured by the Kent State massacre when the US was ripping itself apart over Vietnam, Watkins’ hellish vision of an America consumed by war and whose citizens are judged by their loyalty to the state may have been branded paranoia, but 40 years on looks pretty prescient when taking into account the War on Terror, Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay and lends credence to that old proverb ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.