MEEK AT THE MOVIES : HUNGER GAMES — CATCHING FIRE ( 3 stars )

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^ Jennifer Lawrence and josh Hutcherson as Katniss and Peeta in “Catching Fire” as sequel to “Hunger Games”

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The second time may be a charm, but hey, it’s all relative, as the first “Hunger Games,” written and directed by Garry Ross (“Sea Biscuit” and “Pleasantville”), felt paunchy, disingenuously deep and retro flimsy given the state of computer enhanced film-making these days. That cinematic first chapter of Suzanne Collins’s runaway YA hit was a tad muddled; then again, it had the burden of informing newbies of what they needed to know about the austere future-world of Panem and its kid-against-kid death matches without boring the stuffing out of its loyal readerships’ attention-challenged minds.

What made the first “Hunger Games” adaptation burn beyond its kinetic plot and high kitsch, was its star Jennifer Lawrence — already revered for her work in “Winter’s Bone,” and subsequently rewarded with an Oscar for her performance in “Silver Linings Playbook.” The actress, with her wide luminous face, aptly brought to the fore the deep disdain and skepticism imbedded in her can-do heroine, Katniss Everdeen. But living under the tyranny of a fattened plutocracy obsessed with power, control and hedonism while the masses slave and starve, tends to do that to anyone possessing faint embers of freedom and righteousness in their bellies.

Much has been made of the franchise’s lifting from the 1999 Japanese thriller, “Battle Royale” (also made into a movie). Both in their own right clearly borrow of “1984” and “Lord of the Flies,” and more to the point, do dumbed-down fusions of the two groundbreaking classics. In cinematic form, the series roils eerily with the grand cheesiness of “The Running Man,” “Logan’s Run” and even “Battle Star Galactica,” but where those vehicles were tongue-in-cheek, “Games” is either dead-on serious or wholly over-the-top spectacle. Both ends offer their rewards, but overall, it’s hard to consume the film’s higher reaching message–if there truly is one–with any respectable seriousness.

“Fire” picks up where “Hunger Games” left off : Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) taking the victors’ tour of the thirteen impoverished districts to pay honor to the fallen tributes (those who died in the last movie). The caveat injected by President Snow (Donald Sutherland oozing with megalomaniacal aspiration) is that the pair have to sell themselves as a romantic couple, a facade the Capitol wishes to project as an opiate to pacify the increasingly restless populace. It’s something Katniss, who has a secret lover (Liam Hemsworth), isn’t interested in doing, but when her family’s well-being is thrown into the mix, she plays nice–for a while.

That unrest grumbles with the nascent makings of a revolt (what took so long?) and bears Katniss as the reluctant face of the movement. Snow, none too pleased by this, invokes a double jeopardy clause of sorts and initiates a new Hunger Game, pitting the victors of the past against each other. It’s at this point that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wanders in from left field as the new game master orchestrating the deadly doings in the arena–which are far better imagined and more tautly rendered (by director Francis Lawrence, a vet of fantastical mayhem, with “Constantine” and “I am Legend” to his credits) this time around. The movie’s nearly halfway over by the time we arrive at the game, but the good news is that the steep preamble means plenty of raucous screen time for Woody Harrelson, back as the drunkard former victor, Haymitch Abernathy and Stanley Tucci as garish game show host Caesar Flickerman, who with his pompadour and false sincerity, is an entertaining rival to Richard Dawson’s indelible snake from the “The Running Man.”

If there’s one pebble-in-the-shoe issue I’ve had with the series, it’s the hokey grandiloquence about oppression and rebellion that postures some type of meaningful political statement. Simply living in such dire straits as those in the districts do, one can only imagine that it would be preferable to go out in a blaze of defiance than die a starving cur, beaten and broken. The script, bolstered by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy, doesn’t make true inroads here. Not yet anyhow. And in there too, Hoffman, the brilliant actor, feels inert and lost amongst the pomp. So too does Sutherland as the flat, cut-out dictator, little more than Ming the Merciless dropping in from Mongo. Places on our planet, less overt in their tyranny–Liberia and Libya, for example–have tossed dictators. Snow and his ilk have been in power for seventy-five years, and all that after a bloody revolution, which makes you wonder what kind of shit hole Panem was before. (Panem is purportedly some amalgam of North American countries).

In the end (again) it’s Lawrence and her resolve that carries “Games.” A star of less capability might have given a less nuanced performance and put the weight on Lawrence–the director. Once the games are on, the film flies like a deer through the woods. And it’s here too, that Jena Malone drops in as one of the victors, full of sass and verve, pulling off a loquacious costume change in an elevator before the eyes of other riders. Like Harrelson and Tucci she adds a well-timed shot of zest. The two men circling Katniss however don’t fare as well. Hutchinson and Hemsworth are often wooden idols enamored with Katniss, constantly dumbstruck and inert. Thankfully Lawrence is in the middle and capable of making the stilted eddy palatable.

Displeasingly, the film ends abruptly. Like the penultimate “Harry Potter” chapter it’s a hinge for the next installment, and while that’s obnoxious in the broad sense, it does leave one wanting in all the best ways possible. Once skeptical, I’m now hooked.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies