Friday, November 29, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Shit Just Got Real...

Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland

Strap in ladies and gentlemen. 
I have written about The Hunger Games a few times in the past, if you want to catch up on what I've already said, check out The Hunger Games: Girls Rule and Hunger Games Trailer.

If you read this blog with any regularity you'll know that I am a huge Hunger Games fan and was extremely excited for the release of this film. So excited in fact, even my job couldn't supersede my desire to see this film and I left a pretty fancy event a bit early in order to make it to the theater.

The excitement and buzz in the theater was palpable and my eagerness was mirrored back in the faces and jittering of those around me. My friends and I talked about how great it feels to have something to help fill the vacuum left by the end of Harry Potter. While the Hunger Games is certainly no Harry Potter, this franchise film has a ton of power behind it and gives us a reason to go to the theater on a weekday.

There will obviously be those who say that the Hunger Games is pulpy young adult fiction without much substance, but I am not so quick to dismiss it. Currently, young adult books and the movies they spawn are huge. They are reaching audiences of all ages and resonating with people from many diverse demographics. I have discussed my dislike of the books in past reviews, so I am not going to compare the two at length. But the movies are strong and stand quite well on their own. It is not worth reading the books before you see the movie. This story plays much better on screen than it does in print.

Right out of the gate, Catching Fire has a bit of a different metabolism and a different tone than the first film. There is a marked sense of change which can only be the result of Gary Ross being replaced by Francis Lawrence in the directors chair. Besides capturing the theme more successfully than the first film, Catching Fire was far more cinematic in its execution, and more believable as a not too distant future universe.

Austrian director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence), is far less experienced than Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Pleasantville), and 15 years his junior. But Lawrence comes from a different, more pop-culture perspective with films such as, Water for Elephants, Constantine, I am Legend as well as a decent collection of music videos for artists like Green Day, Britney Spears and OK Go. His sensibility works well with grandeur of this franchise whereas Gary Ross's more classical techniques were lost on a younger generation of viewers.

Catching Fire opens on the shore of an icy lake with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) crouched in silhouette against the silvery-blue forest landscape, her bow and arrows draped across her back. It was quite memorable, it's one of my favorite frames in the entire film. Katniss is unique in the current high grossing film climate, a female heroine is rare gem in a sea of male leading roles, though I see the trend changing. Opening with Katniss in such a powerful and stoic position really set the pace for this film.

It is easy to get drawn into the story whether or not you're a hardcore fan. We get a much closer look at District 12 and the nation of Panem which sets the stage for the rest of the series. In the beginning of the film Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel throughout the other 11 districts on a post-games 'Victory Tour.' Upon arriving in District 11, the nation of Panem, beyond Katniss's home district of 12, begins to come into focus. We see that widespread poverty, and militaristic security isn't limited to 12 and the inequality between the Capital and everywhere else is put in stark contrast.

This is perhaps one of the greatest strength of this film. Previously, we didn't get a chance to see the system that created the districts, the circumstances that lead to the inception of the Hunger Games or the political overtones entrenched in the theme of the story. However, much of that comes through in the first several scenes of Catching Fire. The source of these story elements come mostly from the dialogue scenes between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Philip Seymour Hoffman is arguably the most significant addition to the cast. As head game maker he is vast in his talent, but he plays his character with great subtlety. While he has few scenes, with only a handful of lines, he leaves an impression. His scenes with Donald Sutherland are like watching two wise sages casually talk over glass of fine scotch. There is a calm, thoughtfulness that comes through in their scenes that balances the hysteria seen throughout the rest of the film.

I don't want to spoil too much because I am sure some of you who are reading this are waffling on whether or not it's worth the time and money to see this film. While this might not be the best movie of the year, and suffers from strange pacing and a less than inspiring Hollywood venire, it still has plenty of redeeming qualities. The biggest draw is clearly the cast. The long list of top actors and actresses from different eras is incredible and gives a significant amount of credibility to the film over all.

We are all very familiar with the leading lady Jennifer Lawrence as she is currently America's sweetheart, and my favorite person. The Kentucky born star won her first Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook last year and has been on a very unique trajectory for an actress of her age. She is not only capable of carrying a massive franchise on her back with grace and a sense of humor, she is also a truly great actress with no fear.

I was satisfied with Lawrence's performance, but it's far from her best work. Most of that comes down to the writing. I feel as if the writers were working to instill some humanity into Katniss's rather stoic personality and ended up making her look overly weepy. I hope to see the writers resist that urge moving forward as we can expect two more Hunger Games films.

One of my favorite scenes is when Katniss and Peeta arrive in Rue and Thresh's district, District 11. We see the families of both fallen tributes standing above the crowd in tears as Peeta expresses his heartfelt thanks to Rue and Thresh for their bravery and kindness. However, it is when Katniss steps up to the microphone and talks about her 'friend' Rue, and the unfairness of her death that may reduce fans to quiet sobs. Rue's face and name are used as motifs throughout Catching Fire as a symbol of deep, systemic injustice.

We also get great performances from Josh Hutcherson, who is perfect for the role of Peeta, Sam Claflin who plays Finnick Odair, and Lynn Cohen who plays Mags. I won't spoil too much about Mags because her scenes were some of my favorites and she really gives this movie the character depth it needed. Mags is mute and elderly but she volunteers herself for the Hunger Games in place of a young woman who was driven crazy. Mags is sweet and kind, and bravely saves Finnick, Peeta and Katniss in the arena and just like with Rue's death, it was such an unfair way to go.

However, the most exciting addition to the cast for me is Jena Malone, who despite tons of talent and an impressive indie resume, hasn't been involved in major studio films for the past few years. Some of her most notable films include the cult classics Saved!, Sucker Punch, Into the Wild, and Donnie Darko. Each of these films have a special place in my heart. Malone is rather underrated in my opinion and I think her role in Catching Fire is perfect.

Malone plays Johanna Mason, a previous winner of the Hunger Games who secretly teams up with other tributes to take on the Capital. Johanna is a badass, perhaps even more badass than Katniss. She is cut throat yet seductive. She is a blood thirsty killer, but compassionate. She is also angry, but uses her anger to propll herself and those around her forward. Malone is so much fun to watch and I was glad that she was used to the extent that she was. She was the unconventional choice and it paid off.

Even though I am a fan, that doesn't keep me from noticing the glaring flaws in this film. The most obvious is the writing. Although the film followed the books almost to the letter, there was very little interpretation on the part of the director which gives the film a humdrum by the book formula that isn't as much fun to watch.  The dialogue was also sloppy, unbalanced and far from effortless. The actors seemed like their mouths were full or words that weren't necessary to move the story forward. There are many scenes, especially early in the film involving Gale and Katniss that I felt the film could have done without in favor of more character development, especially for Peeta and Heavensbee.

The cinematography is unremarkable with its overly glossy Hollywood veneer. I was disappointed but not surprised, though it still took a bit of soul out of the film. There was a lost opportunity to do something unexpected, gritty, and dark especially within the arena. However the entire film was one dimensional and didn't seem to culminate into anything substantial. The film felt too perfect, too steril. The imagery lacked depth, landscapes disappeared into nothing, the technology lacked intricacy, and the people looked and moved like plastic dolls. The futuristic interpretation was a bit of an uninspired Bauhaus that lacked visual detail.

The film was focused too heavily on the overly bloated script and runs about two and a half hours. That isn't unusual for a film of this magnitude, but I didn't feel like it was necessary. They could have told the same story in two hours and cut out several scenes of dialogue if they had instead focused on the type of detail that allows audiences to draw inferences.

Overall, the film is great if you're a fan. Even if you're not a fan you'll probably enjoy at least some aspects of the film. The actors performances are good, and fun to watch. The cinematography isn't terrible and there are a few beautifully crafted scenes. But the film does feel a little bit like the middle child. Francis Lawrence is slated to finish out the rest of the franchise as director, so it feels like he paid less attention to Catching Fire and is hoping to make some real impressions with Mockingjay Part 1 & 2. I hope that's the case.

B- : Great for fans, fun to watch, good acting, but the writing is bloated, cinematography is stale, the film lacked depth.

What did you think of the second installment of the Hunger Games series? Comment Below!