Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Film Review: Hunger Games - Catching Fire

When I saw the first Hunger Games movie, I had not read the book.  As a result, I found the tension to be wonderfully unbearable and the plot twists fresh.  After that movie I quickly read the two sequel books.

When you have a movie built on suspense, knowing what is going to happen becomes problematic.  The experience of watching the sequel The Hunger Games - Catching Fire was quite different than watching the first movie.

That is not to say that it was worse, but only different.  Knowing what was to come, tension is replaced with foreshadowing and irony.  For those who have not read the books, the plot revolves around the returning characters from the last Hunger Games


Less than a year has gone by since Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) survived the Hunger Games together.  They posed as lovers who would rather die together than kill each other.  That act is the spark that lights the film's plot.  Katniss is caught in a love triangle between Gale, her tall and handsome best friend, and Peeta, the kind and sensitive soul who went through the games with her.  But the real problem is that President Snow (a deliciously evil Donald Sutherland), the dictatorial ruler of Panem, saw their lovers' ruse as an act of defiance that might spark a rebellion.  Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on a victory tour to convince the other 11 districts that they are really in love and not in any way defiant of the Capitol.  More plot twists ensue which I will not spoil here, but it involves a return to the Hunger Games by some of our returning characters.

Director Francis Lawrence is an improvement from Gary Ross, particularly in the more moderate use of  shakey-cam.  I paid for a bit extra to see the movie in IMAX, because I had heard that Lawrence wanted to exploit the medium as best as possible.  And I have to say I love how when the characters are brought up into the Hunger Games Arena, the IMAX screen widens out to fill up more of your vision.

He also does a great job of getting you into Katniss mindset.  Early on in the film, Katniss has a jarring flashback that helps you realize how scarred she is by the events of the previous film.  Lawrence also does a good job of subtly toning down some of the more outrageous elements of the last movie.  Effie's (Elizabeth Banks) makeup is not as kabuki-like, the new game maker Plutarch does not have a crazy beard like his predecessor, etc.  There is still some outrageous pageantry, but it feels more grounded than last time.

Lead actress Jennifer Lawrence is a great as ever.  In the last film, Katniss was much more in control of her emotions.  In this movie, Jennifer Lawrence allows herself to become more vulnerable.  Her pain, both physical and emotional, is palpable on the screen and it draws you in at every moment.  She is the emotional anchor that tethers you to this fantastic story with killer baboons and poison fog.  And Jennifer Lawrence shows us Katniss agony as every choice that she makes and that others make about her, lead to suffering and death.  She carries the burden of unwanted heroism.  The moments just before the games start might be the most heartbreaking and Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel it.  It is another exceptional performance from one of the best young actresses today.

In general, the performances are better.  Hutchenson plays Peeta much more mature.  In fact, the entire cast feels more grown up than last time.  There are also some fantastic new additions.  Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) brings a swagger to the role that is at one time charming, but creates a sense of distrust.  Joanna (Jenna Malone)  is a wonderful foil to Katniss.  Where Katniss is guarded and reluctant, Joanna is open with all of her emotions and unapologetically violent.

The special effects are fantastic in this movie and makes a welcome change to the last film.  The horrors of the arena feel like something out of a horror movie.  The baboons feel a bit too animated, but they are used in a way that makes fairly scary.

The movie is not without its flaws.  Catching Fire adds a sizable cast, but it never gets very deep with them, even in the midst of the games.  We have to be content with what Haymitch tells us about them and their motivations are.  I would have like to have gotten to know most of them as full, three-dimensional characters.  There are some exceptions.  The movie does a good job of showing the slow awakening of conscience in people like Effie Trinket and other inhabitants of the Capitol.

Another problem is that much of the story beats feel repetitive from the first movie.  This is not a flaw of director as much as it is of the story itself.  Catching Fire tries to recapture a lot of the same feeling that were found in the original story.  Thankfully, however, there are enough twists to keep the story fresh.

A final flaw is that the movie is truly a transitional movie.  Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, a chapter in the Star Wars saga that felt epic and momentous in itself, despite ending on a cliffhanger, Catching Fire is more like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a movie that mostly serves as a bridge between the beginning of the story and its resolution.  That isn't to say that Catching Fire or The Two Towers are bad films.  But they float in a limbo, completely dependent on what comes before and after.

But my favorite part of the movie, especially as a Catholic, is the theme of moral character.  Snow does not want to simply kill Katniss. That would be too dangerous.  Katniss is placed in a position where she either has to give into fear and become a murderer or she has to have faith in others and put them before herself.  None of the characters with whom she is allied seem totally trustworthy, thus making her decision all the more difficult.  What I loved about this aspect of the story was that the movie captures the idea that moral evil is worse than physical evil.  Katniss might save or lose her life.  But the more important question was will she save or lose her soul?

Catching Fire is worth successor to The Huger Games, and it makes very excited to see the Mockingjay

4 out of 5 stars.

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