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There's plenty to admire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire from its intense action sequences, to its thoughtful translation of Suzanne Collins' beloved YA novel, and the absolutely dazzling fashions sported by Katniss and her cohorts. But above all the best thing about this on fire sequel is the performances of its ensemble cast.
Of course Jennifer Lawrence is again captivating as the stern survivor Katniss Everdeen. Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth and Woody Harrelson once more lend her solid support as the two prongs of her love triangle, and her infuriating mentor. Plus, newcomers to the franchise are earning lots of well-deserved praise in their own right, including Jena Malone--who nailed every aspect of the fearless rebel Johanna Mason--and even Sam Claflin who we'd assumed would be a total dud as Finnick. (We're big enough to admit when we are wrong.)
With strong turns also being offered from such celebrated character actors as Lynn Cohen, Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, we're sort of spoiled for choice when it comes to contenders for a Catching Fire MVP. But for me it all comes down to Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks. It's not just for the fun and flare that Caesar Flickerman and Effie Trinket bring to the movie, it's for the way their carefully crafted characters subtly set up the larger world of Panem and its evolving politics.
WARNING: Catching Fire will be discussed in detail below, so spoilers lie ahead.
Both Effie and Caesar are fan favorites in the films and were when The Hunger Games was just a wildly popular book series. They brought levity to the deep darkness of the stories' themes, and their superficiality and silliness made fans love them, while hating what they represented (the tyrannical Capitol). In the first film, Effie and Caesar have some opportunities for fun, but mostly serve as vivid examples of how different the affluent and glamorous Capitol is from the impoverished outer lands like District 12, where dirt is practically a uniform and starvation is a fact of life. But in Catching Fire, Effie and Caesar's roles are a bit grander, revealing the Capitol as it was and as it could be.
As the annual emcee of the Hunger Games, Caesar is essentially the Ryan Seacrest of Panem, but taken to an absurd level that reflects the avant-garde fashion and devoted decadence of the Capitol. In Catching Fire, he has a big purple pompadour to match his larger than life screen presence, and Tucci brandishes big impossibly bright teeth as a weapon to curry audience favor and win applause. When things turn dour--like when Peeta laments going back into the games--the teeth are strategically tucked away behind a showy sympathetic expression, and the audience moans in sympathy as if following a cue.
Watching Tucci as he interviews one soon-to-be dead tribute after another, it's easy to see why the show is such a draw to the Capitol citizens. Yes, there's the obvious allure of carnage and competition, but it's also Caesar, who seems willfully oblivious of the politics at play behind the games while playing them up as the event of the year. Just a flash of Caesar's teeth had me giggling, and forgetting for a moment that his interview subject will soon be thrown into a deadly battle as part of this "show." And here's where Tucci gives us the gift of understanding Capitol complacency. How can the people of the Capitol notice the hells their lifestyle puts others in when there are so many lovely costumes and eye-catching choppers to catch their eyes?
Extending this façade to the outer districts is the job of Effie, assigned to Katniss and Peeta from District 12. In the first movie, Effie seemed either stupid or heartless, happily making the announcements at the Reaping with a big smile and the flourish of her dainty gloved hands. But when she returns to District 12 for the Quarter Quell, knowing full well she's sentencing Peeta and Katniss--who she has gotten to know and love--to probable death, we see her chipper exterior crack. Director Francis Lawrence stages what is a sharp farce of the former Reaping scene, forcing Effie to repeat the steps when her heart clearly is breaking in two.
She reaches first for the girls names, and of course, it's just Katniss's there on a silver platter. Her voice cracks as she reads out "Katniss Everdeen," and then she turns to another nearly empty bowl to repeat this cruel joke. Peeta and Katniss are trying to put on a brave face for each other and their families, so Effie's is the reaction that lands how heinous this mockery of tradition has become. Okay, it was always heinous to us. But now she--someone from the Capitol--is seeing, really seeing it as such. It's a powerful arc in the film that ends as she says her goodbyes, telling the pair "You both deserved so much better. I am truly sorry."
It's here in this moment that Effie faces what the Capitol comforts and the spectacle of the Hunger Games mean. Even with Flickerman flourishes and the glamorous galas, they mean the murder of her countrymen. She finally realizes it, and her awareness not only serves as a poignant moment in the film, but also a tip to the boundaries of "us versus them" breaking down. It's not just those in the far-flung districts that desire a revolution. There is rebellion growing in the heart of the Capitol too, and Effie could well join the fold of Cinna and Plutarch Heavensbee.
Without getting into spoilers for the next films, these now conflicting roles as Capitol propaganda MC and regretful PR rep could play out in a fascinating arena in the Mockingjay movies. Yes, this would be breaking from what the third book did, but frankly that narrative needs some serious revisions to make it suitably cinematic for what Catching Fire has set up. Besides, as adored as Tucci and Banks' interpretations of these fan favorites are, I suspect Lawrence will find a proper place for both in Mockingjay.