Monday, December 2, 2013

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Amanda Plummer (Wiress), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Paula Malcomson (Katniss' Mother), Lynn Cohen (Mags), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an improvement in almost every respect over the already quite good original movie from last year. Part of this is because of the increased budget – the first film was hardly a low budget affair, but the studio hedged their bets a little bit, just in case they misjudged the market, and The Hunger Games turned out to be more like The Golden Compass and less like Twilight in terms of widespread appeal. When the film became a huge hit, the budget for the sequel increased – and we see that extra money throughout the film – from even more elaborate costumes, and making the Capitol into an even greater shrine of excess, to casting better actors in new roles. There is a marked difference between what Philip Seymour Hoffman can bring to a role like Plutarch Heavensbee, head games maker, to what Wes Bentley brought to his role as the previous game maker in the original film – which was basically just crazy facial hair.

But there’s more to it than just extra money – it’s also the story itself. The first Hunger Games had to spend so much time setting everything and everyone up that it effected the pacing of the entire movie. This time, the movie jumps right into the plot – trusting that the audience knows what happened last time, so it doesn’t need to catch them up (it still does that, a few times, but it’s at least somewhat organic to the story and not just a “Previously on The Hunger Games style intro). In a few short scenes, the film establishes everything that has happened in the year since the last Hunger Games – especially how Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has dealt with it – which isn’t very well. She’s traumatized by the events, and still hasn’t resolved anything between herself and either of her love interests – Gale or Peeta. To make matters worse, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not all that happy with her – her stunt at the end of the last Games inspired discontent in the districts – and has given rise to an uprising of sorts. The Capitol is starting to lose a little bit of control – and Snow makes it clear to Katniss that this is not acceptable. They are about to embark on a “Victory Tour” of all 12 Districts and the Capital – and Snow makes it clear that if she doesn’t play nice, and help quell the rebellion, there will be repercussions – not just for her but everyone she loves. The tour doesn’t go well, the Capital responses harshly – and then Snow’s new gamekeeper Plutarch comes up with an idea. The next Hunger Games will be the Quarter Quell – something that happens once every 25 years, and always has a special twist. This time, the twist is that all the Contestants will be made up of one male and one female Victor from each district. Since Katniss is the only female winner ever from District 12 – she’s assured to go back into the Games. And this time, Snow is determined that she will not win.

In many ways, Catching Fire benefits from being the middle installment of the trilogy. I know some think that the middle chapters are always little more than a holding pattern, but I think they are often the most satisfying chapter onto themselves. The Empire Strikes Back is clearly the best Star Wars movie ever made for instance, and personally, I would argue the same thing about The Two Towers in Lord of the Rings. When you’re a middle chapter, you don’t have to waste your time setting everything up, or come up with a satisfying resolution – two things that often trip up movies. The story is free to exist unto itself. Catching Fire was the best of the three books by Suzanne Collins – and I have a feeling it will be the high water mark of the movie franchise as well – it’s already bested the original Hunger Games, and the studio has made the unnecessary, cash grab decision to split Mockingjay into two movies (something the story of that film clearly does not need).

As was true of the last film, Jennifer Lawrence is the anchor that grounds Catching Fire. I find her character of Katniss to be somewhat refreshing in terms of young adult fiction and movie heroines. Katniss is strong willed and resourceful, but not much of a planner – she reacts better than she thinks ahead. The movie also makes it clear that very few people actually care about Katniss herself – who she is as a person. To most, she is little more than a symbol – something to inspire the rebellion or something to squash without turning her into a martyr. Everyone simply wants to use her – which simply infuriates her even more.

The movie adds quite a few supporting players this time around – too many perhaps for them to all fit in a two and half hour movie, and some don’t leave much of an impact. That cannot be said about Jena Malone as Johanna – a pissed off victor who is pulled back into the Games, or Jeffrey Wright as a genius who won his games by outsmarting, not outfighting everyone else or Lynn Cohen, who somehow manages to deliver a complete performance as Mags – the oldest victor pulled back into the Games, despite the fact that she has little screen time, and never says a word. The best addition is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a very difficult role as Plutarch, but who pulls it off well. The best supporting performance in the film belongs to Donald Sutherland as President Snow – especially in the scenes between him and his granddaughter, who clearly idolizes Katniss. With little other than a look in his eye, and a subtle change in his voice, he maintains his sweet grandfather exterior, while letting the audience know just how pissed he is by every word of praise his granddaughter has for Katniss.

2013 has not been a great year for franchise movies – most have stumbled over themselves to be bigger and better than the previous installments – and while many have offered minor entertainment, none have really come close to greatness. Catching Fire is not a great movie – but it comes closer to being a great franchise movie than anything else I’ve seen this year.

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