Monday, December 2, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Round two of one girl on fire vs. the world.

After surviving the Hunger Games with not only her own life, but against all unfavorable odds with that of her district partner's as well, Katniss Everdeen figures she's won, but the best anyone can do in the Games is only survive them -- and what she did to save their lives she saw as simply survival, but the people of the Capitol saw it as love, and, even worse, people of the Districts saw it as rebellion. To appease the President and calm the people, Katniss continues her charade with Peeta on their Victory Tour, but too little too late; the fire of rebellion has been lit, with Katniss unwillingly at the front. The 75th Hunger Games arrives, and this time they are going to be very different.

Ladies and gentlemen... the victors of the 74th Hunger Games!

With the new leader -- aka director Francis Lawrence -- and an obvious budget upgrade, the world of Panem was upgraded as well, and the franchise soars to new and extraordinary heights. The style of the Capitol and its people are the same, but much, much more richly done, and in the Districts there's more to be seen, plus we see more of the other Districts than is absolutely necessary, which was nice.

The special and digital effects have all jumped up to the highest quality, and fight scenes are cleanly choreographed and still very realistic feeling. The filming style was unobtrusive -- no more dizzying shaky-cam -- but not so much to be called generic. There were some very bold and memorable, and even beautiful shots, all adding a considerable amount to, but never overshadowing the dramatic impact of the story.

Here's an example for the effects and the filming artistry.

And that story is adapted flawlessly from its book source. Not word-for-word-precisely, but so impressively close to it that I could count on one hand the deviations from the book I noticed immediately, and all were only details. Few things were left out and even fewer were changed, and all, I believe, with the commendable reasons of creating a more concise storyline, a tolerable length for the movie, and a natural feel and flow -- as if it wasn't adapted from a book at all.

On the acting side, Jennifer Lawrence continues to blow me away. I have never before seen any actor leave so many consistently poignant performances in their wake, but for her there is no end in sight. As Katniss she is immaculate -- we see how Katniss' being tirelessly rash and cynical gets on other character's nerves, but she effortlessly wins our affection, and leads the movie with power and a huge, albeit masked heart.

She's Jennifer Lawrence -- of course she's going to blow us away.

But this time, and to their credit, the supporting cast is able to step out of Lawrence's talented shadow, and hold their own next to her.

Josh Hutcherson's Peeta gets more real attention a few minute tweaks and is a stronger and more compelling character this time around. Even though he's not a survivor-at-all-cost like Katniss, he has a strength (to quote Pippin) of a different kind, and here we begin to see his merits that make him the moral center of the franchise. And he is actually helpful in fights now as well. Hutcherson takes all the character improvement and deepening in stride and ups his game to match.

And Peeta is a pretty impressive actor himself. Also, Stanley Tucci returns as Caesar, complete with his over-the-top hair, teeth and personality.

Liam Hemsworth does the same for Gale; even though Gale still isn't as much of a main character as characters that are included throughout the plot, he still shows improvement from the first, feels more comfortable in the part, and is primed and ready for his giant role increase in Mockingjay.

He may be the lesser Hemsworth, but he's still pretty great. Katniss agrees.

As for the new characters, the only casting I was wary of was Sam Claflin as Finnick (which I'm sure you understand if you've seen Pirates 4 or Snow White and the Huntsman) but as soon as he spoke, all my worries flew away. He adopts a natural sounding American accent and displays the cool, sultry charm and hidden pain of Finnick perfectly. Turns out he's a fine actor, and completely deserves this beloved role that will likely help him land more parts that require slightly more than a pretty face.

Mags and Finnick. Does anything get more adorable than this? No, no it does not.

Jena Malone as Johanna, though, I knew would be great from the beginning, based on her being one of very few impressive things in the '05 Pride and Prejudice (as Lydia). She did not disappoint, and completely embodied the snide, rude, and angry character so well that I've already completely forgotten how I'd originally imagined her. Not that she was much removed from my imagination anyway.

Oh the intensity. Yikes.

All other new editions also hit their mark exceptionally -- Havensbee, Beetee, Wiress, Mags, etc. right down to the new head Peacekeeper were adapted, cast, and characterized with care and attention, and it shows. As for the returning supporting cast, still great, and still getting their share of development. I was especially impressed with Donald Sutherland's President Snow, who could not have been creepier.

Newbie, Plutarch Havensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and returning old (but awesome) grump, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).

With the plot splitting so dramatically into two distinct sections, there was dangerous potential for uneven pacing, but even at two hours and twenty minutes, the pace never faltered, and the amount of details from the book that were packed in is amazing. Some of my favorites: firstly, Buttercup is actually orange. Cheers! The way they introduced Snow's... breath problem, was pretty genius too -- perfectly subtle. They also stepped up Prim's development, simply and effectively. Finnick and Mags' relationship was very, very sweet to see too. Katniss' speech at Eleven about Thresh and Rue was straight from the book (as were many lines) and doubly moving coming from Jennifer.

They even kept the drinks that make you sick in this scene. Also, as you can see, Effie's (Elizabeth Banks) style has been taken to the next level of flamboyancy.

But even with all the little details and fine performances, this movie could've still disappointed, if it hadn't kept the deep themes of the book. In a time where violence is more often than not played either for laughs, the "cool" factor, or tossed aside carelessly, it is wonderfully refreshing when death in entertainment is treated with weight. And I find it disturbing yet amazing seeing the similarities between the Capitol and our modern world and government. How this franchise is so equally good at being a sci-fi thriller, a "teen romance" and a thoughtful commentary on society is simply incredible. Catching Fire isn't as dramatically controversial as The Hunger Games, but it's still extremely thought-provoking, and a very far cry from anything that could possibly be considered mindless. It's so entertaining, but not hypocritical with its cautionary message. The deeper side is why I adore it, but as even as pure entertainment this movie is just about as thrilling as it can be, and astonishingly well-made.
 
In short, another victory for Katniss Everdeen.

For the entire two-and-a-half hours, I was completely immersed in the unique world, characters, and themes that make up this brilliant adaptation, and I didn't want it to end. The Hunger Games was a great movie, but its book was better; with Catching Fire, the film and book are equally great, and probably the best of the series. However, if the pattern and the movie's quality continues as it is, the Mockingjay movies will be even better than their book counterpart, and the idea of that is making me very, very excited. This franchise... is on fire.

10 comments:

  1. Great review! Just a a few things I'd like to add...

    - I was so pleasantly surprised by Francis Lawrence's direction! I loved Gary Ross's direction for The Hunger Games and I was really disappointed when I found out that he wasn't coming back for Catching Fire. But any doubts about Francis Lawrence were blown away within minutes :)

    - Jennifer Lawrence's performance in this movie IS the book's Katniss Everdeen brought to life. She's so wonderful! It's such a huge shame that movies like this can never be Oscar contenders because I truly believe that her performances in these movies are Oscar worthy.

    - I love Peeta! He's just so utterly adorable and sweet and strong (in his own way) that I can't understand how anyone could dislike him.

    - I was shocked by Sam Claflin as well! I thought he was extremely wooden and bland in Snow White and the Huntsman but he was great in this!

    - Jena Malone was also fantastic in this. I especially love the scene where she strips in the elevator because the expressions on Peeta, Haymitch and Katniss's faces were priceless!

    - Sadly though I fear that this movie is the last Hunger Games movie I'll love. As much as I adore Hunger Games & Catching Fire I dislike Mockingjay :( It's been a great ride so far though!

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    1. Thanks Hannah!

      Oh, yes, I was a little worried about a new director too, but by the time the trailer came out I was pretty confident in him. He did an amazing job, and I'm so glad he's staying on for Mockingjay!

      I agree, 100%. She's amazing, and always brings her a-game.

      Yes. I thought the first film made him seems weaker than he is in the book, but in this one, he turned out just right. :)

      I know, it was such a pleasant surprise! Finnick is one of my favorite characters, and I was so worried he couldn't act based on SWatH, but apparently, the awfulness of that role was not his fault, cause he can definitely act, and is perfect for Finnick.

      Oh yeah, that scene was brilliant. Just thinking about it makes me want to see the whole movie all over again!

      Aw, that's too bad! I think Mockingjay was the worst of the books, but I still think it's a worthy end, and with the movies being split in two, it shouldn't be so rushed, and that should be a big improvement. Of course that doesn't make any difference if you dislike it because of what happens.

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    2. I don't hate Mockingjay but I was disappointed with it - mainly because of the decision that Katniss makes towards the end of the book. I'm trying to be vague in case anyone's reading this that hasn't read the book yet but I think you'll know what I mean. I really, really loved and admired Katniss throughout the whole of the previous two books and the thought that she could say "Yes" to what was proposed - to something so evil - left me feeling genuinely sad and upset. I thought Katniss was a better person than that. It might sound like a really silly thing to say but I kind of felt personally let down. At least Peeta saw sense (oh how I love him!) IBut I still consider myself a massive Hunger Games fan because Hunger Games and Catching Fire are still two of my favourite books. And now they're two of my favourite movies. I think I'll probably love Mockingjay Part One as well. It's just the last one that I'm anxious about.

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    3. I do know what you're talking about, and I felt let down at that too, but by the character, not by the author, and that makes a big difference for me. If Collins had wrote it to try to convince you that was the right decision it would have been terrible, but she made it clear that Katniss was wrong, so that's good. Now, in Katniss' defense, I can certainly see a lot of temptation for her to say yes, and with her being so impulsive, I don't think it was out of character for her, especially with her emotional state. And she did change her mind later (indirectly, but still) when she makes another big decision, if you remember. Anyway, that's just my take on it -- how I justified it -- I'm not trying to change your opinion or anything. I'm glad it didn't ruin the whole series for you, and you can still love the first two! And who knows, maybe the movie will handle it in a way that you won't mind as much. :)

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  2. I loved this movie!
    I read the whole Hunger Games series like, 4 years ago, and I didnt like them. I didnt like the first movie much either. but this movie....WOW! The acting was phenomenal! Normally I dont notice things like that, but in the film, it was too good to miss!

    I hated Peeta and Johanna in the books but Josh Hutcherson and Jena Malone made me love them! (Especially Jena.) They blew me away!

    and Jennifer Lawrence is one of my favorite actresses and she never disappoints.

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    1. I loved the books and thought the first movie was great, you're right, this one was just a huge step up, especially in the acting. I was wowed too. I'm glad you liked it so much!

      That's great that you like Peeta and Johanna now too. I thought they were great as well, but I also liked them in the books. :) As for Jennifer Lawrence, you're right, she can do no wrong it seems -- she's brilliant, and everyone loves her!

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  3. Having not cared for the first movie and having not read the books, I had relatively low expectations going into Catching Fire but I was blown away! Not the best movie of the year, but certainly one of the best, and it certainly takes most surprisingly great movie of the year for me.
    Everything about Catching Fire was just better than the first. Also Josh Hutcherson actually learned how to act since the first film. I actually liked his character for the most part.
    Jena Malone was the best part of the movie for me. She so crazy but I loved the character because of it.
    Can't wait to see Mockingjay! I am so excited!
    Great review!

    -James

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    1. That's great! I was blown away too, but not surprised -- I knew it was going to be amazing ever since I saw the trailer. :D Even though I liked The Hunger Games as well, I definitely agree this one is a huge improvement. I'm also glad Hutcherson improved his acting skills, and oh my goodness.... Jena Malone was so brilliant! I know, it's gonna be a hard wait. Thanks!

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