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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

‘Catching Fire’ Burns Down The Competition (Movie Review)



The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:  4 out of 5

President Snow:  You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Everdeen. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war? Imagine thousands of your people, dead. Your loved ones, gone.
Katniss:  What do I need to do? 

With Twilight having ended and The Hobbit being something of a different beast, there is little that The Hunger Games franchise currently has to compete with, in terms of popular book series being adapted into films.  Several others have come out recently (The Host, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments, etc.), but none have found the same sort of success.  We are on the second of four Hunger Games films and the kind of event releases these films seem show that it will be one of the biggest franchises ever, among these types of films.  Keeping all of that in mind, how are the actual films?  Well, I was a big fan of the first movie in the way it both complimented the book and worked on its own and I found the sequel to be following the same pattern, while also strengthening certain elements this time around.  It helps that I also like the second book more than the first, but this second film is nonetheless a triumph in carrying on with a storyline that still has a lot of ground to cover.




It is important to note that there are not many favors done to those who have not caught up on the first film.  One can maybe understand the basic ideas, but the setup for this film is all provided in the first, as Catching Fire picks up right after the events of The Hunger Games.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to their home in District 12 of Panem, following their victory, together, in The Hunger Games.  The mood has changed, as rumors of revolution are spreading, given the dangerous game Katniss and Peeta have played in an effort to survive, making President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the governing body look foolish.  This becomes more evident to Katniss and Peeta as they tour across the different districts of Panem, providing their thoughts on those that have fallen in the other districts.

While director Gary Ross has moved away from the series to pursue other projects, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) has taken the reigns and has done a fine job of pushing the series forward and retaining certain aspects of the visual aesthetic setup in the first film, while also adding his own touches and improving on others.  Something I admired the first time around was the mix of the grit seen in the lesser districts and the colorful, yet somewhat empty nature of the capital.  Given that Catching Fire is a darker sequel (yep, dark and gritty, I know…), the mood feels appropriate here throughout, as you get a sense of how poor these other districts are, even in the wake of Katniss now living in the ‘Victor’s Village’ with her family, along with the dirtiness of some of the other areas we visit, before heading back to the capital.  Once there, all the florid and colorful outfits do not take away from the idea that Katniss is basically under a lot of scrutiny from those that are more in on what is really going on.


We learn in the film that President Snow is basically forcing Katniss to hold up the act that she and Peeta created, making the people believe that they truly are in love and need each other to survive.  Snow will put that to the ultimate test with his eventual solution with regards to the next Hunger Games, which happens to be the 75th anniversary of the games.  Through shady means, this special event leads to two winners from every district being chosen to compete, with the ultimate goal of taking out Katniss, thus silencing the notion of revolution that her victory has sparked in several districts.

It is the way that these stories are structured that really works for me.  While the ideas of revolution, conspiracy, and social commentary to an extent, are all present in these first two parts, the story puts this all in the perspective of Katniss.  These themes have an impact for the viewer, but it does not have to get bogged down in too many details, compared to the way it has to provide us a story for the lead character that moves forward and evolves throughout.  Given that these books are ideally for a ‘young adult’ crowd (though they work for adults, just as easily), I would not expect too much in the way of heavy thematic material that really delves into the despair of these poor districts and government corruption, mixed with the heavy violence that comes with revolution (I also have not read the third book yet), but am not averse to seeing how these books and films handle those aspects to the degree in which they do.  The fact that these elements serve as a heavier undercurrent in Catching Fire only go on to strengthen the nature of these films, let alone allow the characters to grow.

Gale Hawthorne:  People are looking to you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.


I would like to think that casting played a good role in the success of the first film.  Along with Jennifer Lawrence, who provided a strong performance for her leading turn as Katniss, the several adult actors here:  Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and Stanley Tucci, among others, all made an impact.  This time around, the cast is expanded even further, but the actors all seem to have just enough time to feel appropriately utilized.  While Harrelson may have been a standout last time around, the fact that he is relied on less makes for stronger support from Banks, who takes a very lively and colorful character like Effie (essentially the public relations support for Katniss and Peeta) and really grounds her.  While Effie was established in the first film, you really see how that relationship has evolved this time around, as the severity of the situation increases dramatically (which is saying something, given that kids were fighting to the death in the first film).

The others do their part as well.  Kravitz is still a reliable character of comfort for Katniss, as he both designs her outfits and speaks to her in a way that keeps her mind at bay, before she has to deal with the games and events surrounding them.  Stanely Tucci is a master at playing the conniving talk show host, in an effort to keep up appearances at the capital, with teeth to spare.  Donald Sutherland has the perfect amount of calm menace, as he quietly threatens Katniss.  Not to leave out Josh Hutcherson or Liam Hemsworth either, as they both seem to be doing their job.  Admittedly, given that there are much more interesting characters, to me, in this story, I do not really pay them much attention, but I do appreciate what they bring to this series and how good Lawrence can be with them (Hutcherson especially, though I assume there will be less mopey Gale in the next film).



The notable additions this time around are Jeffrey Wright, Jenna Malone, and Sam Caflin as previous champions, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new game maker, Plutarch, who does not need a wild beard or colorful hair, because he already has the name “Plutarch”.  Hoffman certainly does well to fit in as another quiet menace that seems to admire Katniss, but I expect more from him next time around.  As for the other champions, Malone does fine job of being feisty, Caflin shows that he has more layers than ego-driven champ, and Wright seems to be having fun with a character designed to both provide in-game exposition and have a life at risk, during these deadly activities.

Much like the film, I will speak of the games last, which happens to be now.  I guess the best thing I can say is that they do not feel rushed this time around, which was my biggest gripe with the first film, but at the same time, it plays out in basically the same manner as the book.  While I have done my best to write about these things as separate entities, it does help to know that there is a much quicker pace to the actual games in both the second book and this film.  It helps that having allies allows for new dynamics to take place this time around and allows for less time lingering on how these games work as a new experience, with more time placed on how these characters can survive this ordeal.


Francis Lawrence excels here as well.  The main joy of having someone like Lawrence involved is that he is a proven visual stylist when it comes to his direction (with experience at action as well).  While I have not loved his previous films, I can acknowledge his strengths as a visual storyteller and that holds true in Catching Fire.  Shooting the games portion of the film entirely with IMAX cameras, you get a clear sense of the action and what is taking place.  While it was not a problem for me in the last film, as it fit the themes accordingly, the shakiness is gone this time around, which emphasizes the confidence on display, with the contestants all being people that have previously been in this sort of scenario.  Overall, even while establishing new rules in regards to the world that makes up the design of this game, it is quite effective for an extended action/chase set piece.

I will close with talking about the other Lawrence, JLaw.  A series like The Hunger Games can live or die based on the quality of the lead.  Even with the success of something like Twilight, Kristen Stewart did not walk away without just as much hate being thrown her way, as there was support.  Lawrence is something else.  She is beautiful and physically equipped for this type of film, sure, but adds a lot to her performance, given various choices she makes as an actor.  It lends the film a level of confidence, when you can see the lead really give it her all and that seems evident here.  Given that we leave the film with a long look at Lawrence, the film is certainly confident in its success based largely upon her and that is how I left the film – confident that this series has been successful so far and that Jennifer Lawrence is a great central presence in it.

Haymitch:  Remember who the real enemy is.





Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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