Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Alternate Title:  The Evil Overlord List

One sentence synopsis:  Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark must compete in a champions league edition of the Hunger Games, even as the flames of rebellion begin to spread across the land.

Things Havoc liked:  Last year's Hunger Games was a complete surprise to me, to the rest of the viewing public, and probably to the film's distributors, who chose to dump it in the middle of the Doldrums like a known bomb. Rather than the would-be Twilight ripoff that many (including me) were expecting, Hunger Games was a flawed but fundamentally strong film, one that inserted a breath of fresh air into the YA film market, and left me at least anticipating the sequel with something akin to optimism. While I'm as aware as any of how dangerous unfettered optimism can be when walking into a new film, there are occasions when hope is rewarded, and it is my pleasure to report that Catching Fire, a film that is superior to its predecessor in largely every respect, is one such occasion.

A year has passed since Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) vanquished all opposition in the 74th Hunger Games, and against all odds, both survived to return home. In that year, conditions in their Appalachian (I assume) home have deteriorated from bad to worse, with ever-more brutal acts of repression from the central authorities. Their families cared for by virtue of their status as victors, Katness and Peeta are forced to play along with the cover story from the previous movie of being star-crossed lovers, despite the increasing brittleness of the lie in question and of Panem's control over its impoverished provinces. The film wisely takes its time establishing the tense circumstances that Panem finds itself in, in order to properly give weight to the decision by the central government to pull together a special edition of the Games starring only previous winners. The complex subtleties of the central authority's control, from broadcast propaganda to calculated brutality are explored in detail, as well as the thinking behind the arbitrary-seeming decisions concerning the games themselves and the traps and designs that go into them. What emerges is a picture of a real society, built upon the basis of what was established in the previous film, but granted this time a patina of verisimilitude as we begin to understand just what makes Panem tick.

It feels like I've spent pages and pages of these reviews praising Jennifer Lawrence, but once more isn't going to kill me. Her performance in the last film was very good, and this one is simply better, an older and more embittered Katniss than the girl we saw in the last film, whose capacity to tolerate the horrific atrocities she witnesses around her as she is forced to go on tour for the central authorities and recite sterile speeches and propaganda to enmiserated serfs being crushed under the same oppression that placed her in the previous games. Her relationships with everyone from Peeta to Haymich (Woody Harrelson) to the rest of her competitors to the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to her still-wonderfully campy stylist Effie (Elizabeth Banks) is everywhere more complex, more mature, more real than it was in the previous film, and yet never feels random. She plays everything from desperate fear to boiling anger to contemptuous professionalism with an ease that actresses thrice her age would struggle to adopt, and absolutely inhabits Katniss from start to finish. Yet the big surprise to me was that, unlike the last movie, the same can be said of Josh Hutcherson's Peeta, previously a pining boy-next-door type whose role was effectively to play damsel in distress for Katniss, now a seasoned killer in his own right, who still carries the torch for Katniss, but never in the cheesy, mopey, teenage-angst way that so many movies do. Hutcherson doesn't so much amp up his performance as deepen it, never pushy, never insistent, never given to raging tirades about why someone doesn't love him, simply trying to ensure that he and Katniss survive yet another horrific ordeal. I've never cared for Hutcherson, not as a child actor nor as an adult, but he is miles better this time round, and acquits himself in excellent company with aplomb.

And what company it is. The most interesting elements of the previous Hunger Games were the decadent and fascinating world of Panem, a world I felt we did not get enough time with, and which was filled with interesting characters portrayed by excellent actors. All of them (save for the occasional casualty) return in this film, and are joined by newcomers such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee (those names!), gamemaster for the special edition of the Hunger Games. Hoffman and I are not always on the best of terms, but this is a case where his signature understated performance is spot-on. The character is no shrieking maniac, nor a pastiche of evil, rubbing his hands together over the glories of wickedness, but a master manipulator, psychological and calculating as he seemingly effortlessly prepares the "moves and countermoves" that are the tools of his trade. Recognizing the fundamental immorality of his profession, he alone in Panem seems to disdain the vain decadence of the society around him even as he exploits it ruthlessly to political ends.

But by far, the most refreshing addition to this top-notch cast is not Hoffman nor any other member of Panem elite, but the group of returning, veteran Tributes that Katniss and Peeta are pitted against. So easy it would have been for this film to turn into a repetition of its sequel, as Katniss is forced to kill a fresh crop of "designated evil" Tributes in reverse order of total screentime, but rather than do this, the film turns itself to the question of just who the rest of these people are, and what they might think of being dragged out of a comfortable retirement to massacre one another at the behest of President Snow. All of these characters, from the Capitol-pretty-boy-turned-ally Finnick (Snow White's Sam Claflin) to the fiery and vicious (and extremely bitter) Johanna (Suckerpunch's Jena Malone), to the mad scientist-turned-contestant Beetee (Casino Royale's Jeffery Wright). In every case, the movie establishes the sort of character (hulking brute, evil sexpot vamp, bitter nerd) that we've seen in dozens of these movies before, and then pulls the rug out from under them by giving them complex motives, goals, and character points that we are allowed only to glimpse, as the simple premise of the Hunger Games is twisted on its head by the boiling stew of character machinations that the movie has unleashed.

With a budget twice the size of the original film (something that's prone to happen when your first installment makes three quarters of a billion), much of the pacing and cinematographic issues, such as they were, in the first movie are absent here. No more shakeycam, no more hyper-frenetic action required to soften the fact that we were (then) watching kids killing kids, just a well-shot, gorgeously-vibrant movie, from the cold, sterile landscapes of District 12's slag mounds, to the glittering, degenerate capital city of Panem, to a weird, crater-like tropical bowl complete with inland sea that serves as the setting for the Games themselves. As before, we spend a fair amount of time within the game arena (which I suppose is only to be expected), but unlike last time, when I had issues with that fact, this time there's actually plot and character development occurring within the Games themselves, giving us an actual reason to be there other than the mechanical act of watching 22 opponents be reduced to none. As such my complaints about the time spent therein, ones predicated on the notion that Panem was inherently more interesting than the Games themselves, no longer applies.

Things Havoc disliked:  There do remain a few sticking points I wasn't overly keen on. Liam Hemsworth (brother of Thor) plays Gale Hawthorne, the love interest (?) of Katniss when she's not pretending to be madly in love with Peeta. His role would appear to be important, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it was, as he mostly serves to occasionally complain to Katniss about the fact that she's required to pretend to be madly in love with Peeta. I understand the situation is awkward, but the reasons for this charade are perfectly obvious to literally everyone else in the movie, including the villains, and other than this complaint, he basically here takes over Peeta's role as designated whipping boy who must be saved by Katniss whenever convenient for the plot. I suppose he was in the book, but in the film his character just comes across as being placed on ice, revealed to remind us who he is until he actually gets to do something in movie three.

There is, also, the ending to the film, which I will try not to spoil, but like Ender's Game before it (although to a much lesser degree) feels inordinately rushed. I don't mind it when a movie sets up its sequel, and such behavior is almost mandatory for the second part of a trilogy nowadays (thank you Star Wars), but the establishment of this sequel takes place in less than a couple of minutes, and in what might as well be voiceover narration, as a character we've barely seen appears and explains sudden and tremendous plot revelations to our main characters, revelations it would have been far more interesting to actually see. The revelations themselves aren't the problem, as they make sense given everything and establish the premise for the next film well. But film, as always, is a visual medium, and these things don't have the required weight when we're sitting in a room just talking to one another about the terrible events that have occurred.

Final thoughts:   In case I somehow haven't been clear, Catching Fire is a superb film, from beginning to (nearly) end, one that surpasses the achievements of its predecessor with effortless grace, giving us more of the things we enjoyed from the original and replacing all of the things we did not. YA fare like Twilight, The Host, or next year's Deviation remain anathema to me, yet the Hunger Games is the exception that proves the rule, a film so rich in character and premise and plot and story as to render all such comparisons obsolete. Despite having been caught off-guard by the original's release date and subject matter, I was once more caught off guard for the sequel, this time by the sheer quality of storytelling and filmmaking on offer, and with the year nearly over, I unhesitatingly pronounce it one of the finest movies I've seen all year.

After the first Hunger Games, my desire to see another film was founded on my curiosity as to whether lightning could strike twice. After the second, my desire to see the third is based on the fact that with a movie this good, all I can ask for is more.

Final Score:  8/10

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