Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Is Bigger, Better, But Still Lacking Some Spark


- There's a lot to like about THE HUNGER GAMES. Unlike some of its teen-lit inspired peers, this is a franchise that has a beating heart beneath its attractive leads and soap opera love triangles. This is a franchise that actually has an interesting sci-fi narrative, and that isn't afraid to mix in some legitimate social commentary between all the teen drama. On top of that, this is a franchise that has perhaps the single best young actress working today as its lead, and it can't be understated just how much star Jennifer Lawrence brings to these films, and how she shapes Katniss into a true female-empowerment icon, a direct middle finger to all those who say a female action hero can't carry a major Hollywood franchise. Lawrence, with her top-notch action chops, carries the weight of Catching Fire on her shoulders, although here the burden is slightly less than in the first film. Now, she's helped by great new cast additions like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone.

Still, as much as I want to get fully onboard the Hunger Games bandwagon, I just can't fully commit. Why? Because the movies have yet to be great. Lawrence alone gets them halfway there, and Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) brings some visual wow-factor to the table that wasn't present previously. A beefed-up supporting cast also helps this sequel feel like a notch above the first film. But a couple of problems prevent Catching Fire from being, in and of itself, an A-level movie.

One major issue: adaptation-itis. Yep, you heard me. This is yet another book-to-screen translation that feels jumpy, incomplete, and hyper-compressed. The hyper-compression factor is lessened by the fact that actors like Malone and Wright are able to do so much with such relatively miniscule screentime - making their characters feel fully realized by sheer presence and force of will. But what suffers is that, even as the movie seems to want to go big, to show us the larger effect that the Games are having on this world ... it still feels like a very narrowly-focused story, to the detriment of the narrative. THE HUNGER GAMES is all about Katniss' experience in the games - about a teen girl thrust into this kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial scenario. But CATCHING FIRE is about the aftermath - the seeds of revolution being planted. It's about, in theory, Katniss no longer being just a reactive contestant, but a proactive revolutionary. Cool? Yeah, very cool. But between the poorly thought-out plans of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) - whose schemes to make Katniss a symbol of the government's might seem doomed from the start - and the lack of visibility we get into the reactions of the average person-on-the-street in Pan Em, it feels like we're missing something here.

I'll first touch on the scheming that takes place between Snow and his new gamesmaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (Seymour Hoffman). They plan to create a sort of all-star version of The Hunger Games that would see still-alive past winners of the games compete in yet another every-man-for-himself (and every-woman-for-herself) deathmatch. This is the catalyst that forces Katniss and Peeta back into the fray, cutting short their extended good-will tour after the previous year's Games. While touring the various Districts, the two had to pose as a couple to match the expectations of Snow, and of the adoring populace - who sees them as symbols of a coming revolution. Even though Katniss and Peeta play their roles well, and don't do or say anything too incendiary, they still manage to show glimmers of rebellion, and also don't necessarily do anything to discourage the growing cult of personality developing around them. But here's where things get a little nonsensical ... basically, the movie makes Snow seem like a total moron. First, he keeps Katniss and Peeta in the public eye despite being revolutionary symbols. Then he and Plutarch plan to distract from the politics around the two by making them into tabloid celebrities, using their mouthpiece, talk show host Ceaser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to distract the populace. But then, Snow agrees to cut his own plan short in order to go ahead with the all-star Hunger Games, essentially condemning the world's two most popular celebrities to death, in addition to dozens of other past winners who were nearly as beloved. And the point of this is ... what, exactly? Yes, Snow wants to squash the hope of the people and show his strength ... but throwing Katniss and Peeta into another battle royale feels pretty half-baked. And you have to wonder - why doesn't every character follow the example of punk-rock Games entrant Johanna Mason and use the forum of Ceaser's talk show to give a hearty "f-you!" to Snow and his government?

And that leads me the second point, which is that it feels like we're watching all of this in a vacuum. The first part of the film does a nice job of showing us the rank-and-file residents of Pan Em, and their hopeful reactions towards the touring Katniss and Peeta. But once the Games start, we go dark. To be honest, I wasn't even sure if citizens were watching / were able to watch or follow the Games via Ceaser's show. The movie never really tells us. So all the build-up that's in the first half of the film - about the peoples' march towards revolution, is completely left by the wayside in the second hour.

As for the Games themselves, they are much more visually exciting this go-round, thanks to Francis Lawrence's more dynamic direction. But the fundamental problem is the same as in Part 1 - the way the Games play out lack the kind of tension and moral ambiguity that a battle-to-the-death should have. The whole point of these Games is to force the combatants to shed humanity and morality and kill in order to survive. But Katniss, and Peeta, and every other "good" character in the film never really does anything objectionable. In Part 1, okay, love conquers all. But the way the Games play out here, it might as well just be Team Good vs. Team Evil. I feel like the real truth at the heart of these Games - that ultimately, in theory at least, someone is going to have to murder many innocent people in order to win - is always sort of avoided. It's like the movie is hiding its own premise in the name of being a blockbuster-movie-for-the-masses.

All that being said, CATCHING FIRE is still a very entertaining yarn that hits the big, dramatic beats with much more aplomb than its predecessor. Katniss gets to be the badass action hero here thanks to some applause-worthy scenes, where Frances Lawrence really depicts her as a fully-formed action hero. A training sequence that shows off her archery skills against an onslaught of virtual opponents is one of the movie's best scenes. Later, Jennifer Lawrence gets a big hero moment, as she brings the Games to a climactic finish with a desperate arrow-to-the-sky moment that left my theater clapping hysterically. Basically, Lawrence makes this film feel much more effortlessly big and epic than the first. The Districts feel more populated, the sets feel bigger and better, and the stakes, also, feel much more elevated. Even though I complained about the movie often feeling like its story plays out in a vacuum, there's still a pervading sense of bigness to it all (or maybe it's partially just the knowledge that events here will segue directly into a presumably even *more* epic Part 3).

Again, Jennifer Lawrence is the anchor. The movie isn't Oscar caliber, but her acting is. She sells every moment to perfection, brilliantly depicting the horror and the agony of being forced back into these Games - and she transitions seamlessly from drama to action to romance to levity. Speaking of romance, this is where the movie does fall into some of the same traps as Part 1. Peeta is a little more tolerable here than before, and Josh Hutcherson does a decent job of making him seem a little more worthy of Katniss' affections. But he's still sort of a boring/bland character. Worse is Liam Hemsworth's Gale - devoid of much in the way of personality, he's a forgettable character seemingly only in the picture to give the story its requisite love-triangle.

But like I said, CATCHING FIRE is pretty stacked with talent, new and old. Jena Malone, as mentioned, is a huge highlight. Her character lends the movie a much-needed dosage of attitude, and the character's gritty, semi-nihilistic nature is a welcome change of pace (and seemingly, much more fitting to the story's violent premise) than the other more cartoonish goofballs who populate Pan Em. Jeffrey Wright is another guy who's always fantastic, and I liked the idea of his character, Beetee (for the love of god, is there any franchise out there with *worse* character names?!), lame name and all, as a man of science who thrives in the games via elaborately-constructed traps. Finally, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a guy whose mere presence lends gravitas to a film, and he makes Plutarch into probably a way better character than he's got any right to be. The movie doesn't give us much to go on in terms of what makes Plutarch tick, but it's okay, because Hoffman is good enough to fill in the gaps with his acting. Sam Claflin also makes a strong impression as a Games entrant who has more to him than meets the eye. Claflin is an MVP of many of the film's big set-piece action scenes, and is another welcome addition.

On the action scenes, Francis Lawrence directs some pretty intense sequences - a few in the Districts before the Games begin, and several that are part of the Games themselves. Highlights include killer mist and rabid killer monkeys (that's right) - each a suitably scary threat, and each useful as a way to distinguish these Games from the previous film's. 

CATCHING FIRE, on its own, is entertaining and action-packed. And the talent behind and in front of the camera is (mostly) good enough to elevate the material. But these movies are still just a bit frustrating, because they feel like they approach greatness, but don't quite knock it out of the park. The Hunger Games has a great, iconic hero in Katniss, and a strong central premise. But the details don't feel properly filled-in or thought out, and there's still too much that feels sandwiched into the story so as to properly conform to teen-lit convention (what, really, does Gale add to the story, for example?). CATCHING FIRE touches on some really cool big-ideas, the stuff of great speculative and science-fiction, the kind of stuff that comments and satirizes our own society. And there are glimpses of that social satire here that are actually pretty great (at the giant pre-Games feast in the Capitol, the elite down a drink that causes one to expunge the food in their system, thus allowing them to indulge in even more food - even as people just outside are starving). Perhaps what I'm getting at is that all of the movie's really cool, challenging, or even subversive impulses seem to get drowned out by the need to be a billion-dollar PG blockbuster. There's a dark heart at the core of THE HUNGER GAMES, but these movies seem unwilling or afraid to really go to that place, to go all the way. Maybe some of that is just lost in translation from the books, maybe some is just inevitable in the world of big-budget movies. But there's also a certain irony here. After all, isn't it the film's sinister President Snow who tries to distract the populace from the real issues via soap-opera romance and celebrity tabloid gossip? By this same token, CATCHING FIRE at times seems too distracted to fully explore the real-deal issues at its core.

My Grade: B

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