November 23, 2013

Movie Review: The Hunger Games - Catching Fire

To be honest, the fact that director Gary Ross declined to return for the sequel to the hit Hunger Games from last year made me happy. While I felt he acquitted himself well on the film, it was pretty clear he was not very good at handling action, especially when you need to disguise the level of violence for a PG-13 rating. In his place is Francis Lawrence, a former music video director who has done well with genre fare such as Constantine and I Am Legend. He does a far better job with Catching Fire than Ross did on the first. As an added bonus, Lawrence will be on hand for the two part finale.

Francis Lawrence brings a steady hand to the film, simultaneously keeping the pace moving, handling the violence, yet allowing the seriousness of the situations retain their importance. Granted, this outing seems to have less violence than the first, it is mostly free from the pointless and annoying use of shaky cam that plagued the first. We are allowed a better look at the world and the arena. I think it also helps that the cast is pretty solid from the ground up. On a side note, it was interesting to see names of other directors considered to replace Ross, including David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), and Duncan Jones (Moon). Interesting names in there.

Let's back up a little bit.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up nearly a year after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) managed to both survive the games. They are living in homes built for winners of the Games, of which the only other from there district is Hammich (Woody Harrelson). The world is changing around the young winners even if they do not realize it. The people of the other districts are taking Katniss' bravery and latching onto it. They are starting to fight back, revolting against the tyranny of the Capitol City. It is not something that Katniss wanted, but it is happening.

The two are sent on something of a victory tour through all of the districts. Katniss and Peeta witness the sadness of the loss of their tributes, not to mention the rampant poverty and public displays of oppression throughout the districts. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not happy with what he sees in Katniss. He wants an image of hope for the districts, one that keeps them calm and docile, not the fol hero inciting (on purpose or not) unrest and seeds of revolt. So, he uses the new games master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to create a special Hunger Games where they can get her back into the arena and be dealt with without turning her into a martyr.

Everything builds to these games which are populated from all of the previous winners from the districts. This is a game filled with skilled and veteran killers. It makes for a pretty exciting battle, as well as allowing the build up and execution to differ from those of the first games. Now, I won't give away what happens (for those who have not read the books, like me, or those who have not seen the film), but I liked how it played out. It cut at the right moment knowing we are getting another couple of films. It may not be the best hidden of secrets, but it remained effective throughout.

This second film steps up a lot of the subversiveness of the material. It has that fight the power vibe, but it also has a likable heroine who became the face of the rebellion by accident, an uncontrollable force fueled by emotion and compassion.

One thing that helps this movie (and its predecessor) stand up is a quality cast that helps make even the sillier moments work. There is an interesting world being built, one that is more than just a Battle Royale copy. Sure, the accusation can be made, but you would be shortchanging the product. You want to cheer for this cast. You want to love Jennifer Lawrence and Hutcherson, you want to hate Donald Sutherland.

Sure, the movie has a pop culture appeal to it, but it has some grimy undertones. It seems to be a movie cast against type. A Hollywood production to satisfy the young population while separating them from their money while depicting a world where the majority of people are oppressed and contemplating revolution while a game of death is played to remind of them of the generosity of the rich to the thankless poor.

I have no idea where this series will ultimately end up in the large scale of things. It is not exactly great cinema, but it does mix a lot of things together in very entertaining fashion. At the center of it is Jennifer Lawrence, a talented actress and hopefully a sign of a more mature young Hollywood. The young actress has class and skill that will hopefully provide her a long career. At the moment, she is doing a good job straddling the lines of a teen popularity with roles like this with a more adult side with roles like those in Silver Linings Playbook and the forthcoming American Hustle. Here she does a fine job of being a cultural lightning rod both within the film and in pop culture. She brings a humanity to the screen, a young woman dealing with the poverty of her past, the hypocrisy of those around her, and a desire to fight to make things better.

This is a good film. It is a real good film. It is a movie I have no qualms recommending and actually look forward to the next sequel. It may feel like a mash of ideas from other films, it manages to fold and mold them into something different, something eminently watchable, but still with its own ideas.

Highly Recommended.

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