Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Still Hungry? 'Catching Fire' Sates

I can't imagine there was anyone happier than myself when it was announced that Gary Ross would not be returning to film the sequels to The Hunger Games, his highly-successful adaptation of Suzanne Collins' epic young adult book series of the same name. Despite being a solid movie in its own right, Ross' vision was damaged by unnecessary shaky-cam (one of Hollywood's true evils), an uneven narrative that didn't take advantage of the excellent casting, and a failure to understand and/or retain many of the book's essential themes. Though Francis Lawrence didn't come into the franchise with experience in young adult adventure (his previous works include Constantine and Water for Elephants), fans of the novels and movie lovers overall ought not be disappointed in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sequel that is superior in every way to the original.

Picking up a few months after the end of The Hunger Games, we see the PTSD-afflicted winner of the recent games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), trying to readjust to her life in the remote, criminally poor, coal-mining District 12. But her actions in the previous Games - which saved not only her life but that of the unrequitedly-smitten Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) - have been seen as a beacon of hope by the other Districts, and rumors spread of unrest targeted at the Capital and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Soon, the amoral dictator urges Katniss under punishment of death upon her family to do what she can to quell the masses on her and Peeta's upcoming victory tour. But when this only serves to fan the flames of revolution, Katniss and Peeta find themselves back in the Games, as Snow and new gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) add a new wrinkle, pitting former victors against one another to show that they are not immune to the power and strength of the government. The two most recent winners find themselves squaring off against seasoned killers, unsure of whom they can trust and how they can possibly survive another impossible situation.
CGI fire is much more effective this time around.
If one thing is for certain, Catching Fire definitely benefits from both the change in director and the substantially larger budget the success of the original allowed. The Hunger Games was no cheaply-made motion picture, but at times it FELT like it. What was supposed to be an epic, sprawling movie felt quite claustrophobic, limited in both scope and vision. Lawrence (no relation to the main star) succeeds in making the postapocalyptic land of Panem a visual spectacle, but also manages to capture the cultural aspects of the land as well, whereas Ross' version would simply throw different costumes out as something to distinguish characters. It also helps that Lawrence the director skews much closer to the source material, making the movie less about surviving impossible odds and more about the political landscape and the ramifications of one's actions. He shows an amazing understanding of Collins' vision of this world, and that understanding means that he does a better job of keeping in the bits from the book that are actually important. Ross, meanwhile, simplified the whole first book to the Hunger Games themselves and the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who returns). This new director does a great job taking the important parts of the source material and condensing it into a full-length motion picture, and even though clocking in over two hours for a movie that is mainly targeted to young adults is usually considered a no-no, Catching Fire never feels long thanks to a strong approach to filmmaking and a story that never feels uninteresting or trite.
The costumes possess the same vibrant flare as the original.
He is also assisted by a returning cast that has so many more interesting things to present the audience. One of The Hunger Games' biggest disappointments was that there wasn't nearly enough for its supremely talented actors to do. Catching Fire is absolutely a character-driven affair, however, and it's refreshing to see true artists given actual material with which to ply their trade. Lawrence certainly stands out, putting forth an even greater performance here than her Oscar-winning appearance in Silver Linings Playbook. Lawrence the actor is a revelation, a talent well beyond her years, and as long as she remains in the business, she'll be among the very best at any given time. She has the ability to carry every scene, sometimes without dialogue, but the biggest improvement over her performance in the original has to be her chemistry with co-star Hutcherson, another burgeoning star. Though Hutcherson's Peeta was bland before, his rising talent (not to mention some healthy character development) make for heady improvements, and after two films we're finally buying into the idea that the relationship between our two romantic leads is actually going somewhere.
She's not listening to those House at the End of the Street reviews...
And they're not alone, as Lawrence the director and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, credited here as Michael deBruyn) parcel out much activity to Panem's supporting characters. Again, with such a strong cast, this should have been a no-brainer, and the creative minds don't disappoint. There are the obvious stand-outs, such as Woody Harrelson as our heroes' alcoholic, emotionally disturbed mentor, Stanley Tucci's perfectly flamboyant game show host, and Donald Sutherland's stand-in for the evil Emperor Palpatine (I especially loved how Lawrence added scenes of President Snow with his granddaughter, who absolutely adores his arch-nemesis Katniss). Some are even a little unexpected, such as Elizabeth Banks, who was strong in The Hunger Games but whose character goes through such a personal and emotional transformation that you are shocked by the strength of her performance. But Catching Fire introduces a whole slew of new characters, and strong performances come from Sam Claflin as a mysterious charmer and warrior, Jeffrey Wright as an enigmatic tech genius, and Hoffman as a wily strategist. You even have to love Lynn Cohen (Magda from Sex and the City) as a mute, elderly volunteer for the new Games. But my absolute favorite of the new entries (and I imagine for most others) has to be Jena Malone as a feisty, unapologetically abrasive tribute who drops not one, but two f-bombs (censored, of course) in a fit worthy of her character. It's thanks to these strong performances that this sequel stands above the bland, emotionless material it was forced to work with the first time around.
Well, at least hydration shouldn't be a problem.
Not that Catching Fire is a perfect movie. Acting-wise, some performances don't live up to the others. Given more to work with, Hemsworth proves he's nowhere near the talent that big brother Chris has become, remaining as dull and emotionless as he was the first time around, and exposed as a performer all the more. With this, his painful-to-the-senses work in Paranoia, and the designation of his latest film, Empire State, to direct-to-video status, we may be seeing the end of Liam Hemsworth as a viable movie star. Another disappointment was Lenny Kravitz, who charmed many in his role as clothing designer Cinna the first time around. Though his role was certainly lessened, it looks like he's frustrated just being on set. Though Kravitz has been good in the past (Precious is a good example), the fact that he's not principally an actor really becomes apparent at moments like this, when he can't disguise that he wishes he was doing something more. Finally, while Lawrence the director does add a few scenes to build the world a bit more from the books, his adaptation is sadly slavish to Collins' original novel. Much as I enjoyed reading the books, Catching Fire was NOT particularly well-written, and Lawrence maintains many of Collins' missteps, from introducing potentially game-changing characters and promptly doing nothing with them, to adjusting the rules of a situation to suit the story's purposes, rather than letting things happen organically. Because it is an adaptation, I'm not suggesting MAJOR adjustments needed to be made, but polishing the edges a bit more would have been a good idea.
They actually kinda like one another this time around!
Gary Ross' Hunger Games was a good, solid, adaptation of a young adult novel. As standards go, that's probably closer to the middle of the pack than most fans of the franchise or Suzanne Collins enthusiasts might be willing to admit. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in comparison is a MAJOR step up, with Francis Lawrence's sequel matching the tone of the original, but improving the product in every single possible way. Catching Fire isn't just a great YA adaptation, but a great overall MOVIE, and potentially one of the year's best. Granted, it hasn't been an overall superb year for the cinema, but that shouldn't take away from the success this film makes in walking that delicate tightrope most adaptations have to execute. I'm certain most people with any interest in seeing this have already done so (November box office records, and all that), but if you're taking a wait-and-see approach to this franchise because you're comparing it mentally to other young adult titles like Twilight or Beautiful Creatures or Warm Bodies or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, then you're truly missing out.

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Undeniably darker than the first film, which says something considering the idea of kids killing each other for entertainment purposes is dark enough. Good review.