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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire improves on the first film in almost every way.  I have never read the books, so I am not evaluating these films based on any comparisons to the original novel.  I thought the first film, released two years ago, was perfectly adequate, a fine adventure story though not very memorable beyond that.  I didn’t find it to be particularly intense or emotional.  My favorite aspect of the film was the ending, which I felt was a wonderfully complex, enigmatic beat on which to end a big budget piece of Hollywood entertainment.  (Click here for my original review.)

With a new director, Francis Lawrence, at the helm, I am delighted to report that here in the sequel, the story of The Hunger Games has been elevated to the level they were clearly aiming for with the first film.  This is a film with wonderful visual effects and a riveting action/adventure story, but one that is grounded in compelling personal stories and, more intesting even than that, a larger story of a society ruled by the very top .001 percent, while the vast majority, the downtrodden, are on the verge of deciding that they are not going to take it anymore.  This story of a people’s revolution in a dystopian future is riveting (far more interesting to me than the Hunger Games competition itself in the film).  The very best sci-fi presents us with a warped but familiar version of a world that could be our own, and there is much about the story of Catching Fire that is extraordinarily of the moment.  Now, I don’t want to overstate things — Catching Fire is certainly not one of the best sci-fi films I have ever seen.  But I found it to be extremely rich and complex a piece of entertainment, with a depth that I wasn’t anticipating based on the first film.

The best decision made by the film-makers (and I assume this was the case with the original novel as well) is the amount of time spent in the first half exploring the repercussions of the events of the first film, both on Katniss Everdeen herself and on the society as a whole.  I loved the first half of this film.  I was hugely surprised by how long it took for Katniss and the other victors to wind up back in the Hunger Games competition.  That first half of the film sets the stakes, both for Katniss personally and for the world around her.  I like that Katniss is not presented as a super-hero.  She is scarred by the events of the first film, haunted by nightmares, and she is not eager to become a symbol or a leader to others.  The moment when she realizes that she will never be able to escape the fiction of her and Peeta’s love affair is a terrific moment in the film.  I remember commenting in my review of the first film that I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Katniss’ reunion with Gale at the end, nor his reaction to what happened to her in the Games and the fiction of her relationship with Peeta.  Thankfully, those issues are central to this film’s story, and the movie doesn’t waste any time diving into those complicated personal dynamics.

I love how the narrative device of Katniss and Peeta’s “victory tour” allows us the chance to explore the world of this story, expanding the canvas from what we glimpsed in the first film.  As Katniss and Peeta visit all the other districts, they and we get to see the clear reality of what is happening in this world.  I am always captivated by well thought-out and executed world-building in stories, be they novels or comic books or TV shows or movies, and I was pleased to see this development in the Hunger Games sequel.

As in the first film, the ensemble cast is strong. Jennifer Lawrence really shines in the lead role.  She shows us Katniss’ vulnerability while never for a moment allowing us to forget that this strong-willed girl can really kick ass.  Liam Hutcherson is still a little too movie-star pretty for the role, in my opinion, but he’s got great chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence and really sells their characters’ deep relationship.  Josh Hutcherson is also strong as Peeta, and I was pleased that his character got a little more fleshing out in this film (though I would’ve loved to have seen Peeta, Hunger Games survivor, seem a little tougher.  After his heroic act of volunteering to take the place of Haymitch, Peeta seems by far the wimpiest of all the Hunger Games victors).  Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz all return from the first film, and all get some great moments.  In particular, I absolutely adore Stanley Tucci in this film — such great casting — and I can’t get enough of the way he says “Katniss Everdeen.”

Once Katniss and Peeta find themselves roped back into the Hunger Games, we get introduced to a number of new characters in the form of the other victors/tributes from the other districts.  From what I have read, both Finnick (played by Sam Clafin) and Johanna (played by Jenna Malone) are fan-favorite characters, and I thought both Mr. Clafin and Ms. Cohen did fine work.  I was very taken by Jeffrey Wright as the intellectual Beetee.  He’s a great character, I only wish we’d seen more of him.  The great Philip Seymour Hoffman is my favorite addition to the cast.  I was pleased that his character survived the film’s events, and I hope to see a lot more of him in the next films.

There are a few story-telling weaknesses of the film in the second half, once all the goings-on of the 75th “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games begin.  First of all, I was confused by how all the tribute pairs from each district seemed to be connected or similar in some way.  That felt like a narrative shortcut (to allow the audience to more easily understand which pairs came from the same district) that was in contrast with the story — as surely, say, the male victor from one district might have won the Games years if not decades before/after the female, so not only might they not have known one another well, they certainly would be different personalities.  And yet, other than Finnick and the elderly Mags, all of the tribute “couples” from each district seemed almost like brother-and-sister, with similar body-types and personalities (especially Beetee and Wiress).  I was also surprised that, other than Mags and Beetee & Wiress, all of the victors/tributes seemed around the same age, in their early twenties.  I would have thought we should have seen a much greater age range.

In the first film, I wanted to see a little more of the mechanics of how the events of the Hunger Games were being filmed and broadcast to the watching world.  I wanted to see more about where the cameras were, how the participants reacted to being on camera 24-7 while struggling for their lives, and more of the people in their districts’ reactions to what went down in the games.  Sadly, this sequel gives us even LESS of those elements this time around.  There are one or two nods to the idea of people watching the Games, but other than that, for some reason that aspect is totally ignored.  I guess this already impressively lengthy film just had too much story and there wasn’t room for that stuff.

The revelations in the film’s final minutes threw me, in a way that I found both good and bad.  I loved being surprised by the ending — I certainly didn’t see that coming — though in thinking about things afterwards I found myself left with many questions.  For instance, if Finnick was in on Haymitch’s plan, then what was the deal with the whole sugar cube scene with Katniss earlier?  Why was he being such a prick to her, other than to keep the film’s audience in the dark as to what was really going on?  I’m also dubious that a nobody miner like Gale would have a connection to the high-profile figure revealed to be allied with him at the very end.  In the same way that this film helped address some concerns and questions I had about where the first film left off, I hope (and expect) that film three will flesh out the revelations given us at the end of this film.  I do love the final scene, and in particular the final shot of the film.  It’s awesome to have two such high-profile films this season, this and The Desolation of Smaug, end on such juicy cliffhangers.  I am certainly eager for the next installment.

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