Review: ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

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The second installment of The Hunger Games saga finds heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in a distant dystopian future again faking romance and wielding her trusty bow and arrow in the Capitol’s arena.

Ryan: In my experience, there are two elements any sequel needs to have to be successful. The first is escalation—in other words, whatever’s at stake in the sequel should ideally be of greater importance than its predecessor. The second is subversion—a conscious effort to take the circumstances of the original film and somehow confound any expectations an audience might have based on their previous experience. Good sequels generally strike some balance between these elements: movies that don’t use them enough (i.e. Ghostbusters II, and yes that IS a Ghostbusters II reference, your eyes are not deceiving you) or use them too much (i.e. Ocean’s Twelve) tend to leave people unfulfilled and/or alienated.

By this metric, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a successful sequel. It’s made very clear from the beginning that the events of this movie carry much greater importance than those of The Hunger Games: Subtitle Not Included, as Donald Sutherland’s cartoon supervillain President Snow attempts to deal with the consequences of that first film’s events. As the overarching story’s themes begin to manifest (remember, this is the second part of a trilogy…or maybe a quadrilogy, since the final installment will be released in two parts), plot points that are outwardly familiar to anyone who saw the first movie feel different, whether it’s because of a new context or a clever twist. The result is a very well-balanced sequel—fresh enough to avoid being a re-tread but familiar enough to avoid feeling foreign.

When Hunger Games director Gary Ross elected not to return, many were concerned that his replacement ‑ Constantine and I Am Legend‘s Francis Lawrence ‑ would produce a vastly different-looking and feeling sequel. However, whereas Ross is more of an auteur, Lawrence is a chameleon. Lawrence might not come to a project with as strong a vision, but he’s incredibly versatile. To that end, he’s preserved an impressive amount of visual consistency. The appearance of his name in the end credits is probably the first time most people would realize someone else was behind the helm.

The uniformly high quality of the performances contributes to this consistency as well; everyone who was good in the first film is just as good ‑ if not better ‑ here. It’s almost rote at this point to praise Jennifer Lawrence, but here she is again, doing great work and making it look effortless. Series newcomers like Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin or Jena Malone are all natural fits and hold their own admirably. But the real standouts to me are Sutherland and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, neither of whom would look out of place twirling a mustache (though Hoffman would need to grow a mustache to do so) as they hatch a series of Machiavellian schemes to crush their enemies. Are they a little one-note? Sure. But when they’re doing it this well, I don’t care.

As the overarching story’s themes begin to manifest, plot points that are outwardly familiar to anyone who saw the first movie feel different, whether it’s because of a new context or a clever twist. The result is a very well-balanced sequel—fresh enough to avoid being a re-tread but familiar enough to avoid feeling foreign.

Rebecca: The Hunger Games trilogy is so often labeled by the media by what it’s like — it’s like Twilight in that it’s got a requisite love triangle! Its child-death game premise is a rip off of Battle Royale! Like Harry Potter, big-name actors show up for bit parts either for fun or for a hefty paycheck! And it’s like Star Wars in that it pits attractive youth against an evil authoritarian regime in a sci-fi world!

So, what sets The Hunger Games book series apart and makes it more than its derivative parts? The answer is its no-nonsense heroine Katniss Everdeen, and as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, this is true in the films as well. Rote as it might be, without Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games would be just another YA adaptation, regardless of the director. I doubt many other young actresses could have played the part without the character coming off on film as abrasive or unlikeable, a pouty, lovesick, conventional sex symbol masquerading as a noble she-warrior. Sure, the film around Lawrence is competent, and I agree that the new director does a great job both creating continuity with the first film and expanding the world so it feels richer and better realized … also, I didn’t have a shaky-cam migraine afterward, which is always a bonus. But really, it’s Lawrence who does the heavy lifting throughout, elevating scenes that might have been tedious with a look (in a memorable elevator scene with Peeta, Haymitch and Joanna, her shock face alone made the entire audience in my theater crack up).

Like in the book, which was my least favorite of the three, the first half of the movie lags with set up, with maybe one too many lovelorn glances. Unlike a lot of Hunger Games fans terrified of Twilight comparisons, I’m not opposed to the romance angle being explored in the films, since it heightens tension and raises the stakes, and who doesn’t like a good love triangle? Before we learned Luke and Lea were brother and sister, Star Wars had a Luke-Lea-Han Solo triangle going, and no one complained. (That is, until the big reveal contextualized that infamous kiss. Ew. But moving on …)

Anyone who’s read the last book in the series, Mockingjay, knows the love triangle is also representative of Katniss’ philosophical dilemma — pacificsm (Peeta) vs. aggression (Gale). So, larger themes are at play than which dreamboat has better eyes. My beef with the romance is the lack of chemistry between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Excluding one excellent scene with Stanley Tucci’s Cesar Flickerman, Hutcherson isn’t on the same level as Jennifer Lawrence. In the book, Peeta’s intellect is his major asset, and Hutcherson’s appeal is more all-American kid than sensitive genius — he just doesn’t convey a deep inner world (sorry Josh!).

So, to sum up this point, I agree with this review posted by the Onion:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/lyapalater/the-onions-review-of-the-hunger-games-catching-fire-is-the-o.

I doubt many other young actresses could have played the part without the character coming off on film as abrasive or unlikeable, a pouty, lovesick, conventional sex symbol masquerading as a noble she-warrior.

Ryan: Poor Josh Hutcherson. I thought he did a perfectly fine job, even if The Onion‘s super-creepy film critic doesn’t think he’s all that fine. Is it HIS fault that he has an unnaturally square head? Like, a head the shape of a six-sided die? Seriously, his head is really square … this is what I’m trying to say here. Anyway, I think at worst he’s the “least-good” actor in a movie full of exceptional performances. The relationship between Peeta and Katniss is pretty awkward, but I guess I felt like that was the point to some extent. You’ve read the entire series, however (whereas I’ve only read the first book) so you’d know better than me how that dynamic is supposed to feel.

But most of his scenes are alongside Lawrence, which will make anyone look particularly poor by comparison. She elevates the material, moreso than in the first installment. Since the cast around her hasn’t changed dramatically, this says to me that she’s still improving as a performer. That’s a crazy thought when you consider that her first Oscar nomination came when she’d only been appearing in films for two years, followed by her first win two years hence (for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook). Early buzz on her performance in David O. Russel’s American Hustle – which we’re both excited to review in a few weeks – is so positive that she might win another, even though that kind of year-to-year award success is almost unheard of these days.

At the same time, Lawrence is contractually attached to not one but two major franchises. Besides The Hunger Games series, she’s also appearing in next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. If that film is successful, I would fully expect 20th Century Fox to offer her literally all of the dollars to appear in further installments. Lawrence’s career represents a pretty interesting intersection of commercial and critical success. Few actors achieve such heights in both regards simultaneously. I’m really curious to see what she does once she’s free of some of these contractual obligations. Would she find new franchises to appear in, or stick more to prestige pictures? If she’s elevating mainstream fare, does that also imply such films are beneath her?

Lawrence’s career represents a pretty interesting intersection of commercial and critical success.

Rebecca: Lawrence doesn’t seem like the type to look down on too many projects, but who knows? Maybe her charm offensive in press junkets and award circuits is an elaborate ruse. Maybe she was trained from infancy Chinese-Olympics style to be the perfect combination of easy-going beauty, sound-bite friendly wit and self-effacing over-sharer. Maybe she’s a robot. Whatever the reason, Lawrence has definitely become a movie star.

But let’s give the source material, derivative or not, some credit. The final book was my favorite, in that it didn’t enjoy the benefit of retreading what already transpired in the first. It will be interesting to see whether director Francis Lawrence is able to reign in the all-over-the-place plot of this final book in two films while staying true to what captured readers in the first place — the characters, and the burden they carry in their attempts to enact revolution. To me, this is really the emotional center to the novels. They might be categorized as Young Adult fiction, but like other “works for children” that get belittled by the literati and yet manage to capture the zeitgeist, The Hunger Games is a sugary confection of science fiction, adventure and romance that shows how self sacrifice is an important component to changing the world for the better. No doubt we’ll all be sick of Katniss references by the time the final film comes out, but in the meantime, I’m glad this theme still has some cultural appeal.

They might be categorized as Young Adult fiction, but like other “works for children” that get belittled by the literati and yet manage to capture the zeitgeist, The Hunger Games is a sugary confection of fantasy, adventure and romance that shows how self sacrifice is an important component to changing the world for the better.

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