The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIt’s rare when part 2 of a trilogy can not only live up to expectations, but surpass them.  The second entry isn’t the exciting setup, nor the epic conclusion. There are examples, but second installments are often a holding pattern for the final and third climatic entry. Attack of the Clones, anyone? My feeling about Part 1 are a matter of public record. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I even felt that it jettisoned superfluous aspects of the book in service of an improved cinematic experience. Now we come to Catching Fire. I appreciated the novel, but it was hampered by the law of diminishing returns. The plot begins when the people of Panem greet Katniss as she tours the 12 districts with Peeta on her victorious return from the Hunger Games. The two arrive as heroes. But President Snow is not happy with the outcome. The seeds of revolt have been planted. The leader seeks to contain the building restlessness of the populace. His solution will affect the lives of many former winners. Catching Fire violates a commonly held belief that sequels are inferior. This shouldn’t have happened, but Catching Fire actually surpasses The Hunger Games. The film does the impossible. It presents a 2 ½ hour movie that is thrilling from beginning to end and leaves the audience breathlessly waiting for the next installment.

What makes Catching Fire so effective is the utter believability of the narrative. Credit an ensemble cast that delivers without exception. These days, we’re lucky to get one performance that captivates our emotion in a typical big budget fantasy like this. Here I could cite 10 actors that impress with their contributions. However any reasonable discussion must acknowledge the lead. Jennifer Lawrence is a talent of the highest magnitude. Let’s face it. A dystopian future where the state maintains egregious control, is nothing new. We’ve seen this subject before in literary masterpieces such as 1984 and Brave New World to celluloid classics like Brazil and The Matrix. Here the tyrannical state punishes its citizens by making them fight to the death, and then presents the ordeal to the masses as entertainment. The deterioration of society is a prevalent theme in fiction (and in the real world to be quite honest). Yet there still remains an inherent skepticism. In each frame, Jennifer Lawrence expressive portrayal engenders our sympathy. Study her countenance as she takes her National Victory Tour. As she stares out to the faces of the districts whose tributes she has defeated, she reveals pain, often without speaking. Her expressions speak more than a thousand pages. Her tortured soul in full view of a nation. You too might feel sorrow. Miss Lawrence renders a flawless achievement. She treats the role as if she were acting in a biographical drama. Her sincere performance has the gravitas required to engage our passion.

Studio Lionsgate Entertainment increased the budget from the first film by over 60% and it shows. Catching Fire dazzles the senses in almost every scene. The tale is particularly amusing when sending up the frivolous facade of disposable entertainment. The first half detailing the increasing uneasiness, is actually more compelling than the standard-issue combat of the second half. Some of the climactic resolutions will be a bit murky to people unfamiliar with the text. The critique of our media based culture is rather engaging. The actors embody the residents of a despotic state that feels as genuine as any historical saga. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket coordinates our protagonists’ personal appearances. Sporting false eyelashes that extend out like tendrils from her eyes, she is a glittering Christmas tree of changing outfits. She remains just as intellectually superficial, but her character registers a knowing sadness this time around. Her discontent with the process is barely there, but it is perceptible.  Her ever-so-subtle dissatisfaction mirrors the mood of the citizenry. The depiction is masterful in its nuance. Later, Katniss is on stage with host Caesar Flickerman in her pre-games interview show. The glitzy neon, “Hollywood” production is a humorous parallel to American Idol, although the stakes are admittedly much higher. Stanley Tucci is the preening, purple haired, showman with bright white capped teeth. His flashy persona rivals Ryan Seacrest.

Catching Fire does a brilliant job of taking a beloved work and turning it into a cinematic event. You’ve heard the adage “show don’t tell.” In scene after scene, director Francis Lawrence invigorates the words of Suzanne Collins’ novel into a fully realized picture that exploits the possibilities of the visual medium. The evils of living in Panem are explored with an enlightened depth. The actors personify the victims of a single-party totalitarian dictatorship in the saga of an oppressive government. The anguish is authentic, at times heartbreaking. There is a scene in Catching Fire where Katniss takes a TV stage resplendent in a white wedding gown. She is unveiling the dress she was supposed to have worn in her upcoming marriage ceremony to Peeta. As the live studio spectators watch in rapt attention, she begins spinning. The outfit catches fire, engulfed in flames transformed like a phoenix. Her costume grows wings, becoming a mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion against the capital. The galvanizing spectacle will have grave repercussions later, but it’s a heady display – an instant to share in the power of the collective experience. We’re witnessing the manifestation of a star right before our very eyes – in the movie, but also real life. The fame of Katniss Everdeen parallels Jennifer Lawrence’s own soaring career trajectory. Indeed life imitates art.

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44 Responses to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

  1. Good review Mark. Wasn’t on the same boat with everybody when they said it was better than the first, but it still has its moments nonetheless. Also, it does a fine job at keeping everything moving and still interesting, without anybody getting lost in the shuffle.

    • I loved the first because it sets the whole story up, so for me it’s kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other. Still I was surprised how entertaining this was.

  2. Wonderful to see you gush about this as well. Just saw the comment on my post as well . . . . getting to the books is my next priority!! My goodness. I just want to spend more time with these characters and in this world. It’s ingenious (though one could make an argument that it is alarmingly similar to the Japanese Battle Royal, but hey, who’s counting?) Nice work Mark.

    • Yes I’ve heard this comparison, but they can both co-exist. I mean The Magnificent Seven was an actual remake of Seven Samurai and it didn’t suffer by comparison.

  3. Part of me expected 4.5 stars. Part of me thought there’s no way in hell you’d give this 4.5 stars. That and a perfect score are such high praise on your blog (not that that’s a bad thing, of course).

    I enjoyed Catching Fire, a lot. I thought it was definitely better than the first one. But I wouldn’t give it a near-perfect score. I thought it dragged…a lot.

    Though maybe it’s because of the theater I went to. The seats are so uncomfortable, that I’ve found my self on multiple occasions caring about the condition of my numb ass instead of the story.

    Good review–actually, great review. I completely agree with you on the 1984 and Brazil comparisons (even if I hated the latter). I think I even compared it to 1984 myself, except I said “1984 meets Desperately Seeking Susan” because of how much the style of the movie goes hand in hand with the government in this movie.

  4. Great review! I completely agree. This film is fantastic, largely because of Lawrence. And it is better than the first.

    • Jennifer Lawrence is indeed extraordinary. The whole cast is great actually. Her fellow tributes Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, and Josh Hutcherson stood out, as well as returning supporting players including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland.

  5. “Humph”. I don’t know whether this gets 4 1/2 or 5 stars. I again, read the book right before seeing this, so everything was fresh in my head. A few things missing from the book, but you know what? It didn’t matter. I loved it. Jennifer Lawrence is so good. I thought Elizabeth Banks was very good too. 4 1/2 stars.

  6. Great review! Really enjoyed this film – a very faithful adaptation. And Lawrence is perfect. 🙂

    • She can do no wrong in my eyes. Can’t wait for American hustle.

      • I think Lawrence will be fine in American Hustle, but I fully expect to get a disappointed review for you about the film. I just think the film is going to disappoint a lot of people. I’m not going to bother with it. It looks bad to me.

      • Lately David O. Russell is on a career high. I loved The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. I’m very much looking forward to American Hustle.

        It’s currently at 95% at RT and 8.2 on imdb.com so it definitely isn’t disappointing the critics at least.

      • GaryLee828 Says:

        I liked those movies, too. I just have a feeling AH is gonna be a dud. It looks to me like it’s trying too hard. I will be looking forward to your review to see what you think about it.

  7. Good Review 😀

    It was a great film, really liked it a lot. Thought it was a fantastic improvement over the first, and I cannot wait for the next one, especially after that ending 😀

  8. Great review. Love how you highlighted Lawrence. She’s just an incredible talent.

  9. So nice to see Jenna in films again. I always forget she was in Stepmom haha. She definitely stole the film for me, I loved her.
    Film was good, my favourite book out of the three.
    Nice review!

  10. Like your blog– I enjoyed this second film although I wasn’t all that impressed with Harrelson- seemed like he mailed this one in. But these movies depict a novel better than any other I have seen.

    • That’s interesting because Woody Harrelson’s character was greatly expanded from the first film. He seemed like a much more integral part of the story this time.

  11. ****** SPOILERS ******

    I didn’t read the book but yes, Elizabeth Banks really stood out. In fact, I expected her, not the Gamemaster, to be the leader of the resistance.

  12. I found the first Hunger Games film to be utterly boring and couldn’t get into the characters at all. However I know that some of that has to do with the fact that I haven’t read any of the books. That said, I’m really glad to read all the great reviews like yours, that Catching Fire has been getting. To hear that this movie is leaps and bounds above the first has me feeling encouraged that I can actually get into the series. Looking forward to checking this film out.

    • I’m of the school of thought that a movie should stand on its own regardless of whether you’ve read the book or not. I loved the first Hunger Games. However if it didn’t work for you, then the filmmaker failed you. It’s NOT your responsibility to read the book to enjoy a film. 🙂

  13. GaryLee828 Says:

    Finally saw this a couple days ago, so wanted to come back and read your review. I didn’t like it quite as much as you, but I did like it and am looking forward to the conclusion. I actually liked the first one a little more than this, but really you could watch parts 1 & 2 back to back and it’d be like watching the same movie, so no real difference (aside from a bigger budget in the latter) in quality.

    Didn’t they shoot parts 2 & 3 together? If so, part 3 should be released fairly soon, shouldn’t it? It will be cool once 3 is released on DVD and you can watch the trilogy in a day. I like this trilogy much better than “Lord of the Rings”.

    • The third installment of The Hunger Games film series has been divided into 2 parts: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Mockingjay – Part 2. They have not been filmed yet. Part 1 is set to be released November 2014, a year from now.

      You’re the first person I’ve heard say they liked Catching Fire less than Hunger Games. What didn’t you enjoy?

      • For me, I felt like she was bailed out of the game before it ended, and that took away from it. I know that it leaves you with a cliffhanger going into the next installment, but it felt incomplete to me. In the first one she saw the game until the end; in the sequel she was bailed out. Also, in the first one she fought against more humans and in this one was up against a lot more CGI. Takes away from the intimacy of going head-to-head with another soul. CGI just isn’t intriguing. Plus I thought it was a little far-fetched when her arrow actually reached the top of the dome. Those criticisms are not major enough to affect how I felt about the movie overall, but I didn’t have many of those issues with the first. And I admit, in the first one, they did a good job of creating a villain b/c I really wanted to see that little bitch who played “Orphan” to get killed in the games. There was no one in the second I felt that strongly about. Certainly no one I wanted to die. And there was no moment in the second part that made my heart sink as the first one did when the games began and you started seeing the brutality for the first time. The quick flash images were brilliant to keep the PG-13 rating and minimize actual blood, but yet still getting the message across. I thought that moment was just extremely intense and I didn’t feel quite as much intensity in this one.

        With that in mind, I did like the second one. I just liked the first one a little more.

        I think Dan the Man said he liked the first one better, as well; the post near the top of this message board.

        Okay, I must have heard the last 2 parts were filming simultaneously, and thought they were referring to parts 2 & 3, but were referring to the last 2 parts of the conclusion. So, there will be 4 movies. Awesome! Definitely looking forward to them, and am hoping for an epic conclusion. I have not read the books, so no idea what to expect, and that’s how I like it.

        And lastly, how awesome is Jeffrey Wright? Such an underrated and tremendous actor. His voice is perfect. He should do narration work.

      • These movies are more about the drama of human interaction than the actual physical fight in the games. The central villain was President Snow in this film and I thought he was even better.

        Jeffrey Wright is indeed a good actor. His appearances in Basquiat (1996) and Angels in America (2003) show how great he can be.

      • GaryLee828 Says:

        Also, he is phenomenal in “Cadillac Records” in case you haven’t seen that; it’s really good. Lot of memorable performances in that one.

        Yes, President Snow was a great villain. I just meant there weren’t really any villains in the actual Hunger Game this time around, but I think that was done intentionally as they continued to say “Remember who the real enemy is” referring that the government were the enemy more-so than their opponents in the games.

        One thing I did question though, what did the 3 fingers symbolize when certain districts would raise them and then were punished? Judged by the reactions I can see it’s some kind of rebellion, but I was wondering what the 3 fingers represented?

      • It was a salute originally used in District 12 out of respect to honor the passing of a loved one. District 11 does this when Katniss visits to remember Rue.

      • Yeah, that’s when I saw it, when the old guy first did it, and I thought it was in remembrance of Rue – but then when the guards attacked the crowd I thought it must be some kind of act of rebellion. I was a little thrown. So, the government won’t allow them to salute their fallen residents of the districts? I thought it was innocent.

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