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Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (2013): Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and the Master himself, Donald Sutherland.  Running Time: 146 minutes.  Based on The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4 

            I’m really quite astonished at the difference in quality between Catching Fire and The Hunger Games.  Any of you who actually read my Top 10 list of 2012 last winter may recall that The Hunger Games was (in my opinion) the least well-made movie I happened to see that year, and nearly 12 months later, I stand by my initial opinion of the film- it’s characters and reality-show spin on the well-known Battle Royale formula interested me enough to get me to pick up the books (of which I am now a shameless fan), but I can’t call it a “good” movie by any stretch of the imagination.  The direction and screenplay were average at best, the acting was astonishingly wooden given the high-caliber cast they’d thrown together, the settings, designs, and effects were depressingly cheap, and the whole effect was further damaged by truly awful camerawork.  Thankfully, Catching Fire is a big step up from the first film on almost every level, and even if it falls shy of being a truly great film, it’s encouraging that the franchise seems to be picking up some much-needed steam heading into its second half. 

            We pick up where the first movie ended, with Katniss and Peeta returning “triumphantly” to District 12 after the Games, where they now live in stately, comfortable houses built solely for victors.  Nothing returns to normal though, because not only are they haunted by memories of the Games, they are also haunted by the “perfect love story” reality-TV ruse that got them out of it, because- as we learn in bits and pieces- most of the Districts never bought the love story, and are instead using Katniss as a symbol of resistance and rebellion. 

            For obvious reasons, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, who is still the best character being given the best performance in the entire series.  He shows up at Katniss’ house to lay down the gauntlet- either Katniss fully immerses herself in the innocent, love-struck girl she’s pretending to be, to the point where even he believes it, or her family will be killed, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  Oh, and Kale will be killed too.  Remember him?  No?  Well, no worries, you’ll never have any reason to.    

            Her trial-by-fire soon arrives in the form of the Victory Tour, visiting each District in turn to honor their dead, and her resolve is immediately tested when she arrives at 11 and finds a massive, holographic image of Rhue staring at her from the middle of the square.  Right away we’re off to a good start, as the tour gives Catching Fire a lot more time to flesh out the many economic and cultural features of the world meant as analogies and/or parodies of our own- massive structural inequality, the cult of celebrity, the vapid shallowness of reality TV and popular culture, etc. etc.  It’s a crucial bit of world-building that the first movie never took the time to dig into, and the psychological strain it puts on Katniss finally gives Jennifer Lawrence the chance to show off the acting skills that BOTH of her big movies from last year determinedly tried to hide. 

            She’s not the only one to make strides though- Josh Hutcherson was as blank a slate as it gets last time around, but here, he also gets to break out a bit of emotional variety for Peeta, and the movie takes a few tentative steps towards making the burgeoning relationship between him and Katniss somewhat believable.  And no, that’s not a spoiler- nothing involving the awfully unnecessary love triangle counts as a spoiler.  Also, Woody Harrelson deserves due credit for proving that, like Javier Bardem, he is one of the few actors skilled enough to work through a terrible haircut.    

            As I said though, this movie is still far from perfect.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is criminally underused as the new Gamemaker; for whatever reason, he seems to have mysteriously left his charisma at home the day they shot his scenes.  There are two excellent moments where Katniss and Peeta delve into the PTSD side of surviving a blood sport, but both are over in a heartbeat and are never revisited again.  Which is a real shame, because this whole series is a golden psychological playground, and a bit more focus on how brutally the whole scenario begins to warp Katniss’ psyche would have done wonders.  The movie also starts to repeat most of the first film when we inevitably return to the Games (that’s not a spoiler either, it was in the trailers), and nearly all of that is just another 10 rounds of Forest Tag.  However, both that and the love triangle are flaws directly carried over from the books, so it would be churlishly unfair to fault the movies for them. 

            There are also plot-holes out the sports arena, and the entire political system that supports the Games seems so hilariously flimsy that you can’t help but think, “It took them a whole 75 years to get a revolution off the ground, and even then it’s started by berries?”  Hell, President Snow even ADMITS how ridiculous it is that simple berries could unwind decades of oppression.  The books can be easily accused of this as well, but I tend to overlook this because it's ultimately secondary to the series’ primary purpose, i.e., to rail against economic inequality, and to deride how pop culture and celebrity cults can (and indeed are) used to distract people from noticing systematic injustice.  In a way, it’s similar to the many story issues with the Marvel movies- I can’t blame people for harping on them, but on the other hand, I think focusing on them mostly misses the point of the series. 

            I think what I appreciate most about Catching Fire is that it achieves a sense of bigness that the first film, once again, sorely lacked.  For all its aspirations to be a social and political commentary, The Hunger Games is also meant to be a sprawling, sci-fi epic, and this time around, the world of the films really starts to come into its own.  We don’t see nearly enough of any of the Districts, but we do get to see a LOT more of the Capital, and even though the second Games takes place in yet another forest, it’s shot far better than the first one, making it easier for the viewers to keep track of exactly where Katniss and her friends are within the maze. 

            It won’t crack my Top 10, but Catching Fire is a well-made, well-acted, and very engaging sequel, and if they manage to pull off the finale right, we’ll look back at this flick as the franchise’s key turning point.  It seems the odds are finally in this series’ favor. 

-Noah Franc

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