Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

This review was originally posted at KPC Media Group's website and published in their three daily newspapers. You can read the original review here. Reprinted with permission.

There's a glorious phenomenon in fiction, when suddenly the reader or viewer realizes how much more there is going on in the world that these fictional characters inhabit.

For me at least, that's the moment that a piece of fiction in any form starts to take hold of my emotions, and I start to inhabit that world alongside that fictional character.

And that's what "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is all about. The franchise goes from the first movie, a tidy little story about a girl trying to survive a battle to the death in a dystopian future, to a sprawling tale of rebellion centering on that same girl, who discovers that she's still trying to survive a battle to the death - just against different opponents. It's an affecting tale, made especially emotional by a stunning performance by the young woman in the center of it all.

"Catching Fire" picks up where "The Hunger Games" left off - teenagers Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have won the annual teenage death battle the Hunger Games by manipulating those in power with their mostly-for-the-cameras romance. Katniss thinks she'll be able to settle down and live a relatively normal life, but she soon discovers she can't.

Because Katniss and Peeta made the authoritarian Capitol and its ruthless leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), look weak during their games, the pair - especially the fiery Katniss - inadvertantly spurred the downtrodden citizens into revolt. To save those they love - including Katniss' mother (Paula Malcomson), sister Prim (Willow Shields) and friend/sometimes love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) - Katniss and Peeta must try to calm tempers in the districts during their victory tour. When that doesn't work, Snow and the new head of the Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a new way to scare the districts into submission - hold a Hunger Games featuring former champions, including, of course, Katniss and Peeta, as tributes.

The scope of the story is just much bigger in "Catching Fire" than it was in "The Hunger Games." We got a sense in the first movie that there was unrest in one of the districts, partially sparked by Katniss' actions in the games, but in "Catching Fire," the scope of the actions by Katniss and Peeta take on a new weight. The audience discovers along with Katniss just how important the events of the first movie are, and the first half of the movie is a dizzying buildup of tension as the weight of her actions - and the realization of the trajectory of the rest of her life - settles on her shoulders. Add to that a nice big dose of PTSD for Katniss from her participation in the Hunger Games, and you have a recipe for a pretty big, emotional story.

Katniss is a lead character who often internalizes her feelings, though, so it's important that the actress playing her can show the audience the depths of her pain, rage and despair. That's where Jennifer Lawrence comes in. She was very good in the first "Hunger Games" movie, but Lawrence is nothing short of brilliant in "Catching Fire." Without her, this movie would pack a lot less of a punch. With Lawrence taking center stage, though, "Catching Fire" is a tense, scary, emotional roller-coaster of a movie.

"Catching Fire" is also just a better made, more streamlined movie. As much as I like the work of Gary Ross, who directed "The Hunger Games," Francis Lawrence clearly has a better handle on the themes of the material. Ross' biggest flaw was the same problem that happens with so many other book-to-movie adaptations - the director wants to be too faithful to the books, to the detriment of the film. It's not that Lawrence wasn't faithful too, because he was - if memory serves, he took several scenes straight from the books - but he also made the story his own. He wasn't as constrained by the source material, and it improved the flow of the movie immensely from the first movie.

The only real flaw with "Catching Fire" is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger that won't be resolved for another year. Even if you read the books like I have, it's fun, yet tough, to walk out of the theater with so much unresolved. Still, don't skip the movie just because of the ending - other than the big unknowns at the end, "Catching Fire" is a well-made, immensely entertaining, satsifying sequel that outshines its predecessor.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. Runs 146 minutes.)

No comments:

Post a Comment