Monday, December 2, 2013

"Catching Fire" review

It's tough to be in a situation like this. I assume a lot of people watching The Hunger Games movies do so because they like the books. Since college, I have watched way more movies than books. If you want to watch as many movies as I do, while still allowing yourself time to go outside and have a normal life, some sacrifices must be made. So, no, I have not read any of the Hunger Games books, but as I have preached countless times on this site: a movie is a movie. A movie should work on its own. No matter how faithfully a movie follows a book, the movie ultimately has to make some sacrifices in order for the material to make cinematic sense. In summation, this review doesn't go beyond what the movie provides. If anything, it's better that I haven't read the books because I can evaluate the movie purely on its own terms.

And judging the first Hunger Games movie based on its own terms, I maintain that it's a disappointment. Despite Jennifer Lawrence's strong performance, the movie ultimately felt bland. It held your hand through every single action beat or major plot development. Everything felt too calculated for the film to be enjoyable. The film, for me, doesn't work by itself. It may enhance the book for those who love the books, but that doesn't make for much of a movie.

Now I note these things in my original "Hunger Games" review, where I go further into detail about all that stuff. The reason why I'm rehashing those details is due to how much I actually enjoyed "Catching Fire." There were a couple of things I noticed in the second film that were major improvements from the first: the overall look, tone, style, and feel of the film felt much more cinematic. This felt like a big movie, as blockbuster movies should feel. The stakes were raised to the appropriate amount, so despite my relative lack of enjoyment of the first film, I was able to get on board with the plot of "Catching Fire" for the most part. Jennifer Lawrence was even stronger in this film than in the first and the film allowed some time for humor. Woody Harrelson was able to do more, and newcomers to the series such as Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright added an extra dosage of energy to the proceedings. Josh Hutcherson still felt a little like a stick in the mud, a little wooden, but I enjoyed the way the movie explored the relationship dynamics between Peeta and Katniss. This is a couple that has to continue to put their "love" on display for all the districts and the capital and they struggle to make it look believable.

The events of the first film had consequences that I enjoyed watching unfold. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is now watching Katniss's every movie after she more-or-less defied the Hunger Games by forcing them to pick two winners. He knows the truth behind Katniss and Peeta, that they aren't really in love, and he threatens to expose Katniss for who she really is. He also threatens to kill her family. Overall, Snow seems rather unamused as to what had happened in the 74th Hunger Games and has decided to bring in someone new to run the 75th games: Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Together, they will run the Hunger Games' Quarter Quell. Every 25 years, a special version of the Hunger Games takes place. This time, all tributes are selected from the existing pool of victors from each district. Naturally, this means Katniss and Peeta will once again be fighting for their lives, but this version has them pitted against the best of the best.

It's a great way to up the ante, as it really puts Katniss's survival skills to the test. More than that, the film does a great job of making the Hunger Games look interesting, which was one of the problems I had with the last movie. Not only that, but we actually get legitimate surprises in these games. We don't find out why angry monkeys, tidal waves, and lightning is striking the games until the contestants figure it out themselves. There's real suspense here, and Katniss really seems to be outmatched and outwitted at times.

What also helps is how much we get to know of the other contestants. Aside from Katniss and Peeta, there's Beetee and Wiress, Mags and Finnick, and there's Johanna played by the aforementioned Jena Malone. Malone has a couple of scene-stealing moments in the film and is a welcome personality contrast to the often dour and grim Katniss. Katniss and Peeta form an alliance with these tributes, but Katniss begins to grow suspicious when everyone within the group is unusually helpful and kind to her.

The film does a great job of setting up the surprise that abruptly ends the film. I won't give away all the surprises, but suffice it to say, things take quite the left turn at the end when we realize that there's a lot more going on here than just the games taking place. Unfortunately, just when the film gets to its highest point dramatically, it ends. It just ends. From what I understand, the book pretty much ends on the same note, but the film takes so much time setting up the 75th Hunger Games that it's hard not to feel that the ending was rushed. It's such a halt in the action that it feels like merely one half of a whole story, and given that, it makes "Catching Fire" feel like half of an installment. The movie is 146 minutes long, and I guess the editing needs to be praised because it moves at a brisk pace. However, because the movie ends so abruptly, the ultimate experience felt a little underwhelming for me.

"Catching Fire," though, is such a marked improvement from the first film that I will eagerly await "Mockingjay Part 1" even though we all know the movie will end the same way. We also know that splitting up the final book is such a bullshit move and is a practice that needs to stop. When you split up a book, you're basically just making half of a movie. A movie needs some sense of emotional closure and "Catching Fire" does not offer that. "Catching Fire" is a series of great moments that does not add up to a complete whole. If this was a mini-series, it would be a great episode. But this is a movie, and every movie needs an ending of some sort. What we get in "Catching Fire" is not an ending, but merely a pause in the action.

Plus, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland felt very underused in the film. Sutherland doesn't get to do much other than offer some very ominous dialogue, as with PSH. These are two masterclass actors and if they're going to be the primary "villains" in the film, then we need more from them than what we get here. I also don't buy Sutherland's character, Snow, being so easily fooled the way he is here. For a threatening, potentially violent President, you would think he'd be a little smarter as well and know when someone's pulling a fast one over him.

One thing that really eats at me with this entire series is just the logic that is presented in regards to the districts vs. the oppressive government. Holding a hunger games every year to suppress the districts' citizens is a bit of a stretch in itself, you would think pitting the districts' heroes against each other would cause some serious ruckus. And guess what? It does. But what's the point of that then? Does the government want these districts to stay alive? Do they want them alive, but weak? What exactly do they want with them in the first place? If you want to keep them from uprising, it seems unlikely that you would be able to hold a hunger games every year in order to make an example out of them. What, they're going to destroy each district that rises against them? Ok, so why have them around in the first place if you're going to continually provoke them? Perhaps the book explains it better, but again, this is an aspect of the movies that isn't covered well enough. Too much of this world is "assumed." Despite the film successfully upping the ante, it became harder and harder to buy this world with each plot development that occurs.

It's a testament to the filmmakers and the excellent cast, which also includes Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and Liam Hemsworth who each have returned from the first film, that the film is still very entertaining in spite of its many shortcomings. I'm willing to cut "Catching Fire" some slack with its ending, after giving it some thought, but only if the subsequent films in the series can successfully carry over the stakes that were raised here. I'm giving this film a positive grade because it is a major improvement and is one of the better blockbusters to have come out this year. But, if the next two films falter, "Catching Fire" would no longer be worth watching. It's a good film, but needless to say, this series is on thin ice.

Grade: B

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