Sunday, November 24, 2013

Theatrical Review: The Hunger Games- Catching Fire

Date: November 23, 2013
Time: 1:15pm
Location: Pocono Movieplex
Party: 3 (my mom & fellow movie-going/book-reading aunt)
Duration: 146 minutes (+2 trailers)

Director: Francis Lawrence
Type: young adult, drama, book-to-movie adaptation, action, sci-fi


Returning Players
Katniss Everdeen- Jennifer Lawrence
Peeta Mellark- Josh Hutcherson
Gale- Liam Hemsworth
Haymitch- Woody Harrelson
Effie Trinket- Elizabeth Banks
Cinna- Lenny Kravitz
Prim Everdeen- Willow Shields
Caesar Flickerman- Stanley Tucci
President Snow- Donald Sutherland

Head Gamemaker Plutarach- Philip Seymour Hoffman
Finnick Odair (District 4)- Sam Claflin
Johanna Mason (District 7)- Jena Malone
Beetee (aka "Volts") (District 3)- Jeffrey Wright
Wirress (aka "Nuts") (District 3)- Amanda Plummer
Mags (District 4)- Lynn Cohen


There were two.

First was for yet another YA book series getting adapted to film.
"Divergent" by Veronica Roth is coming to theaters next March.

The book's down to $8 at Wal-Mart, but I have yet to pick up a copy. (But in my defense, I have five other books yet to read... and yeah, after seeing this trailer, now I gotta read it).

So far, I just know it takes place in the future where kids are classified as one of four personality types that go on to define their futures... but I didn't realize our heroine (played by Shailene Woodley) couldn't be classified by the system.

Then there was "I, Frankenstein," which looks like a modern take on the Mary Shelley story with a hint of "Underworld" folklore (seeing as it's done by the same people behind that franchise).

It was a decent crowd, roughly a dozen or so other people in addition to the three of us.


Just to save myself a little bit of typing, for those unfamiliar with the franchise, I'll provide the link to my "Hunger Games" review to recap.
Skip down to the "discussion" sub-heading for the basic premise

Spoilers from this point out... but again, I urge newbies to read the book or at least see the first movie before preceding with the second. Otherwise, it might be difficult to follow.

Aside from the addition of more characters and upping the dramatics with the plot, the biggest change is a brand new director.

Francis Lawrence only has a few movie credits to his name from the director's chair, getting his start with music videos for Green Day and Britney Spears. Gary Ross's directing for the previous installment drew a lot of criticism, particularly regarding the shaky camera angles. Based on the fact Lawrence has been signed for the rest of the series, the franchise has themselves a winner.
Kinda like David Yates with the Harry Potter franchise, but books five through seven had a similar feel, so that made sense.

(I'll try to keep up with the main points without giving away too much)

The story picks up from where the previous movie left off and could be broken into three parts.

The Aftermath & Victory Tour

Settings: District 12, Districts 1-11, The Capitol

Katniss and Peeta are back in District 12 after being crowned co-champions of the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss receives a not-so-cordial visit from President Snow. In a passive-aggressive manner, he gives Katniss a "task" to fulfill when she and Peeta are on the Victory Tour: Convince him that their plan of ingesting the poisonous berries in the Games wasn't to defy the Capitol, but because they'd rather die than be without each other. Along with their mentor, Haymitch and their PR person, Effie, Katniss and Peeta set off to visit the other districts with The Capitol as their last stop.

Their first stop: District 11, home to fallen Tributes, Rue and Thresh.
Because Rue was her ally and closest friend in the arena, Katniss decides to give a tearful speech about her. This pledge of good faith earns her the respect of District 11 and, unfortunately, leads to bloodshed. While not at the same magnitude, similar incidents happen throughout the districts, no matter how much Katniss and Peeta "stick to the script." They attempt to remedy the situation by getting engaged. 
Naturally, The Capitol was the most extravagant of the affairs. While there, Katniss makes the acquaintance of the new gamemaker, Plutarch.

Once back in District 12, things only seem to go from bad to worse when a new Head Peacekeeper is appointed. Meanwhile, Plutarch and Snow are scheming for a way to "eliminate" Katniss before uprsings start to happen again... and arrive at a brilliant, albeit horrifying solution.

Every 25 years, a special version of the Hunger Games known as the "Quarter Quell" is held. Notably, they come with their own set of rules and/or changes in protocol. This is to keep things interesting while serving as education for the newest "crop" of tributes.
For the 75th Hunger Games, the "crop" is made up of previous victors... seeing as District 12 has only produced three champions with Katniss being the only female, she has to return.

Preparing for the Quarter Quell

Setting: The Capitol

Regarding the male tribute, Haymitch was drawn out of the bowl, but Peeta volunteered to take his place...

Unlike the previous time around, Katniss and Peeta decide to train as if they were from District 1 or 2, i.e. "Careers." Throughout the trials, they size up the other victors to determine who the best allies would be.
Katniss is put off by the womanizing Finnick and overtly sexual Johanna, but finds kinship with the older, but intelligent, Beetee and Wiress from District 3. She also likes the older woman, Mags, who volunteered to come from District 4 alongside Finnick.

During the interview segment, Katniss shows off Cinna's latest creation: the wedding dress she would have wore to her wedding with Peeta. But when she does the "girl on fire" twirl, it reveals a mockingjay.
Unfortunately, this doesn't end well for Cinna and his demise is the last thing Katniss witnesses before re-entering the arena

Re-entering the Arena

Setting: Somewhere in the tropics

The tributes arrive, finding themselves surrounded by water, which is surrounded by jungle. Bloodshed ensues, Katniss grabs her favored weapon and finds herself with Finnick as an ally, along with Mags.

They quickly found there are multiple horrors waiting for them, both natural and man-made (or man-"taught"). Later on, they meet with Johanna who "retrieved" Wiress and Beetee (who she calls "Nuts" and "Volts") for Katniss. Wiress constantly repeats "tick, tock," something Johanna chalked up to PTSD, but Katniss realized it refers to a set pattern of "horrors" in the arena based on a clock.   

When the tributes come down to a small enough number (only a handful of Careers remaining in addition to Katniss's group), they concoct a plan to off them while sparing themselves direct confrontation.

But not all goes according to plan... and by the end of the movie (which is a cliff-hanger, by the way), Katniss comes to realize there was another plan in place and it puts her at the helm of it.
That plan being... REVOLUTION.

Book-to-Movie and Sequel Chatter

Now that the structured part of this review is over, I can work on the editorial portion.

For starters, the movie was AWESOME. Probably will go on to be in my top 3 theatrical outings this year (or maybe top 5, so I can make room for "Iron-Man 3" and "Now you see me" along with "Thor: The Dark World" and "Star Trek Into Darkness").

Like the "Hunger Games" before it, the adaptation from book to film was on-point. Although I read the book just once over a year ago, I felt like it hit on all the major points and didn't leave too much out. (At this length, they would have been in a lot of trouble if they left out anything huge because there'd simply be no excuse for it).

It's said so often in Hollywood that it's practically cliché by this point... to say that sequels are tricky because they rarely surpass the original. That's especially difficult in franchises like this one that's either adapted from a book series or derives from the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Having said that, "Catching Fire" is yet another successful sequel. In comparison to some of the other sequels I saw this year, most of which were done particularly well, it's probably the best.

The biggest issue I can draw is that the subject matter of the storyline might be so intense that it lessens the "re-watchability" factor,  just speaking as someone who loves to revisit movies several times :-P
If I were to chart the intensity level, "The Hunger Games" has an oscillating curve that has distinct peaks & troughs (highs and lows). With "Catching Fire," it'd be compare to something you'd find on a Richter scale on the west coast. As soon as the tension dies down, it comes back up within 5 minutes, opposed to having break periods lasting 10-15-20 minutes in its predecessor. Not to mention the violence is more graphic and "personal" this time around. The various dangers in the arena were well done, which made them borderline terrifying at times (I wasn't a fan of the poisonous smoke or the jabberjays that plays into the psychological side of things).

But in other aspects, I think it had a better storyline and the characterization was handled especially well.

Characters and Actors, Old & New

Katniss maintains the "reluctant heroine" archetype throughout the series, but does so in varying capacities.
She was very guarded going into the first movie, unwilling to trust and rely on other people. While trying to convince Snow she isn't out to defy The Capitol, she's become a better actor. This is especially noticeable when she's being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman, more at ease with being herself and playing to the audience the way Peeta had done so easily the last time around.
Even with an Oscar under her belt, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be on her game, living and breathing this role as if she is this character when the cameras aren't on.

Gale reminded me why I preferred him to Peeta going into this phenomenon. But then again, Liam Hemsworth looks so much cuter with dark hair (I don't care for him as a blonde). He continues to struggle with his feelings for Katniss, getting a few kisses in to make his feelings known, but it can't be easy for him sitting on the sidelines while she's forced to keep people believing she and Peeta are an item.

At the same time, though, I'm grown more fond of Peeta this time around.
Right now I'm recollecting how unhappy I was with him while reading the book. He spent the first few chapters in a mood after what Katniss said at the end of the previous book... how she thought this whole thing, including how he felt about her, was an act. The truth was that he meant everything he said and it hurt his feelings that she didn't reciprocate that, let alone believe him.
Not only did they downplay that drama to the point where it was non-existent, but I especially loved whatever relationship the two of them had here. There were a few scenes where Katniss had nightmares and Peeta was there to support her, being there as if he was the only friend she had in the world. Although it does help that they shared a lot of the same experiences.

Woody Harrelson continues to be one of my favorite supporting actors with this second outing as Haymitch, always on hand to provide much needed advice (and tough love) to our favorite District 12 denizens... but not nearly as present and impactful as I found him in the previous film.
Perhaps this was meant to make more room for Effie to shine. Die-hard Panem fans (and IMDB disciples like myself) would notice her character wasn't even referred to by name in "The Hunger Games". She not only ushers Katniss and Peeta throughout the districts for the Victory Tour, but she treats the audience to a myriad of amazing yet confounding outfits. And the fact she gets so close to them and loathes the fact they have to go back into the arena was something that grabbed me about her character this time around (yet I forgot to include it in this entry until a couple hours after I wrote it :-P )

On that particular note, I gotta give my props to the costume department... especially to the people behind the Mockingjay dress. They were careful to only show it from behind in the trailers, but it was spectacular enough to warrant an audible gasp... it doesn't make Cinna's demise any less painful, though :( that was one of the saddest moments in the series for me, up there with when Rue got killed.

Before getting to the other tributes (two in particular), I want to draw attention to Katniss's sister, Prim and how much she's matured. Fans of the series will note the significance, but since the latest Games, she rose to the role of being an assistant healer to her mom... especially notable in the scene where they need to take care of Gale after he receives corporal punishment from the new Head Peacekeeper. She's become a much stronger individual, something Katniss finds admirable, but at the same time, she loathes how the state of things has "hardened" her and taken away her child-like innocence.

One of my favorite aspects of this movie was how they spent more time getting to know the other tributes... how Katniss develops friendships with some of them and how she's uneasy about others. While other tributes kinda dismissed Beetee and Wiress as weirdos, Katniss gravitated towards them, perhaps feeling that their unconventional talents have equal warrant to combat.

I knew Sam Claflin previously as Snow White's Prince William in "Snow White & the Huntsman"... even though he was up against Chris Hemsworth, I thought he was the better looking man of the two.
My mom thought he looked exactly like Jake Abel of "Percy Jackson" fan... and I saw quite a bit of that as well... Finnick's character is very chauvinistic and a little self-absorbed so Katniss didn't care much for him at first, but he proved to be an excellent ally in the field.

Johanna was one character I really disliked in the book on the ground she seemed like a bitch and through Katniss's narration, you felt that she felt sexually threatened by her, in that Johanna was more at ease with showing off her figure in front of Peeta. To that effect, there's a scene in the movie where she strips off her "chariot" outfit in the elevator for Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch to see. (If any men saw this movie, I'll bet they were disappointed it was PG13 and didn't warrant any on-screen nudity here).
My attitude towards her changed in the latter chapters of the book when she became an ally and the announcement of Jena Malone playing her made her one to watch.

Actually, when Johanna wasn't being a flirt, she reminded me a lot of your typical "Real World" housemate, foul-mouthed and copping an attitude about sticking it to the man, which I thought was a cool "modern" twist they threw in. (I had actually never seen any of MTV's reality series, but I've heard things).

And to foreshadow a bit more, I am a week away from covering one of her movies (the one that made me fall in love with her as an actress).

Final Comments

I stayed through the credits to hear some of the songs that were playing. I guessed right that the first was Coldplay and loved the track by Of Monsters and Men... although I doubt that'll be enough to make me want to run out and get it :-P

On paper and on screen, as I previously stated, "Catching Fire" probably will go on to be in my top 5 theatrical features this year. It stays faithful to what made the original great and made it progressively better in all aspects (plot, characterization, conflict, etc.).

Grade: A

1 comment:

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