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'Catching Fire' breaks new ground

All young adult fiction is not created equally.
It shouldn't have to be said, since it's true in just about every other genre, but after seeing so many people write off "The Hunger Games" as just another YA lit film, it bears repeating.
"The Hunger Games" series, the latest of which "Catching Fire," is out in theaters now, seems like its ready to challenge the reigning champion of the craze, "Harry Potter."
Certainly these first two films are leaps and bounds better than anything the first two "Potters" have to offer. Perhaps by the time the series has run its course, Katniss will be the benchmark with which to measure these films' successes.
As a relatively recent convert to the franchise - I first saw "The Hunger Games" last week - I have been continually surprised by just how delightful, subversive and surprisingly brutal these films are considering Hollywood's track record of dealing with the target audience of pre-teen girls.
"Catching Fire," directed by Francis Lawrence, begins close to where "The Hunger Games" left off, and structurally the film follows many of the same beats as the original.
Where that would normally be a sign of a sequel's fear of departing too far from a formula that works, here the repetition is used intentionally to highlight the character growth that Katniss and Peeta have undergone due to their experiences in the first film.
The structure may be the same, but the characters aren't, and it's a brilliant way to show the audience changing nature of the world.
While the first film's director Gary Ross succeeded in portraying the oppressiveness of this society more strongly than Francis Lawrence did in the sequel, Catching Fire comes out of the gate angry, bold and with a glimmer of hope for change.
Just like in the first film, these first acts in the Capitol, are full of their camp pleasures, largely due to the adult cast, featuring a who's-who of delightful character actors from Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz.
Each of these actors is an absolute delight, though they pale in comparison to the new addition of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who strolls into frame as if he was walking in from another movie entirely.
The political commentary of these early scenes is on-the-nose, but the obviousness is part of what lends the film its strength and subversiveness. It acts as a guidebook for using the mechanisms of the media to bring about social change, an important message for young audiences, and one that would be lost with any greater subtlety.
Once the Hunger Games begin, Lawrence shows off with a second-half that feels action packed, versus the largely suggested fervor of Ross' games. While the action-movie flavor is enjoyable, it does add a sheen that lessens the brutality of the games. By allowing us to enjoy the Hunger Games, we implicitly become the viewers of the Capitol, and it is our blood-lust that is critiqued.
I think in a couple of years, we going to realize just how important "The Hunger Games" is in Hollywood - we finally have an action franchise where the male characters are broadly sketched two-dimensional supports for a female lead.
Dismissing the film as just another YA flick, does it a great injustice. This is a great film, that becomes even more important given its subject matter and target audience.

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