Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

I'm a huge fan of the Hunger Games series. I devoured all three books, and while I didn't see either of the movies on opening night (nor did I dress in costume), I did purchase my tickets for both films weeks in advance, and saw both during opening weekend.

I continue to be tremendously impressed with the quality of these movies, and their faithfulness to the books. (Author Suzanne Collins' involvement in the movies has certainly helped as well.) And while I questioned some of the casting choices in the first movie, by the time those actors appeared onscreen, I totally got the vision, and was hooked as completely by the movies as I was by the books. Catching Fire was definitely my favorite book in the trilogy, and I think I enjoyed this movie a bit more than the first, partially because I wasn't sitting through the movie with my mouth wide open, marveling at how closely what I pictured when reading the book was translated onto the screen.

Much to the surprise of everyone—including the leader of the Republic of Panem, the dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland)—there were two winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her teammate, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). There never have been two winners in the Games' history, but Katniss and Peeta's alleged love story bewitched viewers, and their willingness to sacrifice it all for their love left those in the charge of the Games no choice.

President Snow doesn't believe the love story, and thinks Katniss' manipulation of the situation (and Peeta) was an act of defiance. This act of defiance has made Katniss a symbol to the downtrodden citizens in the different districts, and Snow needs to preempt any rebellion before it takes hold. But as Katniss and Peeta travel through the districts on a "Victors' Tour," the citizens take their presence as a sign that they must strike back, no matter how closely to the government line the two try to hew.

His desire to destroy Katniss growing daily, Snow, in partnership with new head gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), creates the ultimate challenge for the Quarter Quell, the celebration of the Games' 75th anniversary—past winners will compete against each other (originally, all winners were set for life, living on their celebrity). Heavensbee assures Snow that once the audience sees Katniss' true colors, as she is forced to defend herself against seasoned former winners (or die), they will turn on her, and she will no longer be the lightning rod for rebellion among the districts. And at the same time, the government cracks down on the districts, particularly Katniss' own, District 12, leaving those she loves at great risk.

Katniss knows she needs to build alliances with her competitors, and most importantly, needs the support of Peeta. But as she struggles to clarify her feelings both for him and her childhood friend Gale (the stoic and barely-onscreen Liam Hemsworth), she realizes that her survival is going to depend upon outsmarting not only her competitors, but the games makers themselves—as well as her heart and her mind. And all have some tricks up their proverbial sleeves.

Jennifer Lawrence is a magnetic force when she is onscreen. Ever since I first saw her in Winter's Bone, I've been mesmerized by her talent, her charisma, and the sheer power of the characters she embodies, and this movie is no exception. As Katniss deals with her grief and her frightening memories of her first competition in the Games, she grows ever more conflicted about the path she should take, and who she should take it with. When she's onscreen, you can't take your eyes off of her, so it's good that she's in nearly every scene.

While this is a series about Katniss Everdeen, I felt as if Peeta had more of a presence in the books and in the first movie than he did in Catching Fire. Josh Hutcherson doesn't show much spark in this movie, and although you know that his feelings for Katniss were genuine as opposed to manufactured for the Games, he didn't appear to feel that way. But the movies' treatment of Gale as mostly an afterthought doesn't give you a strong reason that Katniss should want to be with Gale, either.

Sutherland glowers like only Sutherland can (I will always love that man's voice), and Hoffman appears shrewd and dastardly. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks, as Katniss and Peeta's mentor, former winner Haymitch, and their escort, the effervescent Effie Trinket, both bring charm and emotion to their smaller roles. Among her competitors, Jena Malone, as the tempestuous Johanna Mason; Sam Claflin, as the physically appealing and emotionally complicated Finnick Odair; the always-fantastic Jeffrey Wright, as electronics expert Beetee; and Amanda Plummer, doing her best Amanda Plummer as Beetee's fellow tribute, Wiress, have the meatiest roles.

If you take the Hunger Games series at its core, it's a disturbing concept—young people fight to the death at the pleasure of those watching, much as the ancient gladiators did for the Romans. But like its predecessor, Catching Fire is more than a dystopic take on Survivor—it's a powerful tale of deciding to do what is right versus what you want; a tale of survival—physical and emotional—and a tale about defeating the odds, no matter what the cost, because the alternative is too costly. I feel like this movie hit all of those targets quite well, and I can't wait to see what comes next, although inevitably, the closer we get to the end of the series, the sadder I'll be.

My advice: read the books AND see the movies. You'll be glad you did.

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