EVEN those who haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers can appreciate Catching Fire as a compilation of teen fantasies and nightmares, with access to a devoted make-up team plus a Pretty Woman-sized wardrobe, balanced against the burden of constant fame, a government that is keen to bump you off, and having to fight a gang of grown-up killers, including a woman who has had her teeth filed into points to tear human flesh.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Running time: 146 minutes
Star rating: * * * *
I wasn’t a fan of the first The Hunger Games, a mournful plod which was reluctant to engage with its bigger ideas, but Catching Fire aptly sees the franchise starting to warm up. Nigh on two-and-a-half hours of screen time is a big ask, and the movie is more than half over before the Games begin again; yet the drama this time feels more satisfying and substantial.
As any teenager can tell you the action is set in a future dystopia where the government punishes the populace by forcing its sub-states to supply a boy and a girl to compete in a cross between Big Brother and Gladiator. The last person standing wins, although the real victor is the oppressive regime with a spectacle that is both a threat and a distraction.
At the end of the first film stoic backwoods hunter Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) not only managed to outwit the gamesmasters, but kept her district partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) alive too. The sequel picks up some months after her victory, trying to cope with constant scrutiny. There’s a fake romance with Peeta to maintain, and a state-sponsored victory tour designed to remind the other 11 districts of their losses. However, she has also been appropriated by the resistance movement as a symbol of defiance, so President Snow (Donald Sutherland) finagles the system to send her back into the arena for a souped-up edition of the Games that requires her to fight alongside Peeta and park her feeling for Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the handsome boy back home.
No matter that the Katniss love triangle has all the heat of a Scottish Power pamphlet, because Lawrence remains a commanding heroine: resourceful, capable and a bit more reactive in this outing. New writers Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) have located a grim sense of humour in Catching Fire, and the discomfort caused by a rival competitor stripping off in a lift is nicely done.
Apart from the two dreamboats without sails, most of the cast seem to have found their groove in this chapter, with Stanley Tucci as a state-sponsored Davina McCall, enjoying a complaisant repartee in the Hunger Games commentary box with Toby Jones – both men primped and ready for a Duran Duran video. I would have liked more time with them, but the film has a propulsive trajectory that hurtles on towards fights with baboons, Amanda Plummer as a distracted babbling savant and Jeffrey Wright as a brainiac physicist nicknamed “Nuts ’n’ Volts” and Sutherland sending stock in snake-eyed treachery to an all-time high.
What’s disappointing is that the film doesn’t so much end, as cut off at a cliffhanger. Professionally, I’d condemn this as terribly clumsy filmmaking – but really, I just want to see the Games continue.
• On general release from Friday
Star rating: * * *
Journalist turned director Peter Landesman dramatises the days following the death of John F Kennedy in Parkland Hospital, Dallas from the point of view of the rookie doctor treating him (Zac Efron), Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) who unwittingly filmed the assassination, an unnerved secret service and the Oswald family. It’s an uneven film: a scene where Jackie Kennedy drops bits of the president’s brain into a doctor’s hands should have been left on the cutting room floor, but there’s also a remarkable portrait of dazed decency from James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother.
• On general release from Friday
Vivan Las Antipodas! (U)
Star rating; * * *
Director Victor Kossakovsky’s contemplative documentary captures images of four pairs of places directly opposite each other on the globe, including New Zealand and Shanghai in China. Stunning sumptuous images elevate a rather thin conceit.
• Filmhouse, Friday; Glasgow Film Theatre, 16-19 December
Mister John (15)
Star rating: * * *
Aidan Gillen stars as a man who goes to Asia to wind up his dead brother’s affairs, falls for his sister-in-law and gradually takes on his sibling’s life. Gillen anchors this slow-moving drama with a performance that is more compelling than the film’s wafty psychology.
• Belmont, Aberdeen, and Cameo, Edinburgh, Tuesday only
Korean Film Festival
Highlights from the London-based festival arrive in St Andrews, with chances to see Jang Cheol-soo’s spirited comedy spy drama Secretly, Greatly, an intriguing critique of the country’s notoriously competitive education system (Pluto) and Rough Play, an excessive drama about an actor (K-pop star Lee Joon) who finds sudden success and promptly presses the self-destruct button. Also showing, and getting a wider theatrical release in Scotland, is Kim Sung-su’s airborne virus thriller The Flu, where a deadly epidemic causes chaos. A huge hit in its home country, and an itchy companion piece to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
• New Picture House, St Andrews, Thursday and Friday