Friday, November 22, 2013

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

It still baffles me as to why The Hunger Games is so successful.  I love it, but why do so many others?  These aren't escapist stories, these aren't entertainment, and yet there is something about these stories that appeals to me in a deep way that I can't quite explain.  Perhaps it's because I love the characters and identify with them?  Or perhaps it's because I find the thematic ideas of oppression and rebellion so striking?  Irregardless to what it is that draws me to the material, I love The Hunger Games, and I absolutely enjoyed the first film in the franchise.  The sequel, Catching Fire, does what every good cinematic sequel should do, and goes above and beyond.

We start the film shortly after the end of The Hunger Games.  Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is back in her home of District 12, but things have only gotten worse for her since she left the arena.  The entire country of Panem is on the brink of a revolution, all sparked by her defiant act at the end of the Games.  The malicious President Snow wishes to extinguish the flames that Katniss ignited, and how does he plan on doing that?  By showing he's still boss, forcing the previous victors of the Hunger Games to once more fight for their lives in the special, 75th edition of the Hunger Games.

First and foremost, I must applaud new director, Francis Lawrence, for applying an if it isn't broke, don't fix it mentality to the material.  Rather than recreate everything that the first film's director, Gary Ross, did, Lawrence merely expands on all of Ross's ideas and makes them clearer and more concise.  There is an obvious continuity that this film has, and it's because of this filmmaking approach.  Too many sequels often change the worlds of the films too much, especially when there is a change in directors, and it can be offputting and alienating if you were a fan of everything the predecessor did right.  Lawrence avoids this pratfall and only makes things even more cinematic than before.  A large part of the reason the continuity also works is because James Newton Howard was brought back to do the music a second time around, and he utilizes all of his prior thematical material to bring you back into the world.  With Howard's score, and Lawrence's direction, it makes the film feel familiar both aurally, and visually, which is simply what makes this film a phenomenal sequel that bests its predecessor.

Everything that worked the first go around works once more, due to the careful attention in maintaining continuity, so if you were a fan of the first film, then buckle up and just enjoy the ride.  Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen.  Her performance as Katniss in The Hunger Games was the best performance she ever gave, and I think was more deserving of the Oscar than her role in Silver Linings Playbook, and once more she proves why this is the role of a lifetime for her.  She plays Katniss with such a raw, brutal honesty.  There is nothing that feels faked about her portrayal, it simply feels like Jennifer, just baring her soul for all to see, and that is the most adventurous and awesome kind of acting there is.

Other returning favorites to the cast all grow further in their roles and excel, but I was most pleased to see Donald Sutherland with even more screentime as President Snow.  He relishes in this role, and it's clear that he is enjoying himself being the bad guy, but by having an actor of his caliber in his role, it lends a third dimension that would not come had he just been played by a mustache twirling character actor.  Then there are the new cast additions.  Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, and most importantly, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee.  Malone in particular sets into this role that is so eccentric, so over-the-top, and manages to make Johanna somewhat relatable and real.  Simply put, I could not find a weak performance in this film, and that's how I like it.

All in all, I loved Catching Fire.  The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, is given even more prominence this go around, and is peppered which much more complexity that the first film.  You understand each and every person's feelings better, and their reasonings for why they feel that way.  By the time Katniss finally kisses Peeta and you know it wasn't for show, you can't help but be moved by the moment.  The sad thing is, while there is a romantic component to these stories, that is all anyone usually talks about.

I think in some ways, these movies have created the kind of false pageantry that the Capitol forces on the people of the Districts.  Sure, filmmaking is a business, even still, I truly believe that the writers, directors, and producers, for these films, have all understood what Suzanne Collins' novels were about.  With that said, I have serious doubts that many, in particular of the teenage crowd, as well as the studio, see these works as anything other than another night on the town, and I think that's sad.  

It's sad that something so thematically important, and so emotionally rich, has essentially been turned into another cashcow.  It's not because of the books, because the books are phenomenal works of literature, and it's not because of the films, because as I've already said, Catching Fire wisely doesn't ever lose sight of the book's themes and never traipses into blockbuster territory.  So why have we turned this into a blockbuster franchise akin to Star Wars or Harry Potter?  

These aren't simple good versus evil stories, and yet I think that's all most are seeing these as.  It's why we're carting the cast off to premieres and mall appearances to turn them into teen heartthrobs.  It's why the studio is constantly tracking the box office performance like it's a baseball game.  It's why people are not looking at these books and films the right way.  These are stories about real emotions, real relationships, and eerily familiar situations.  I just wish the target audience would understand this, but it's not a fault against the films, because no matter how other people perceive Catching Fire, I know how I perceive it, and I am blown away once more by The Hunger Games.

I give The Hunger Games: Catching Fire an A+!

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