Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Sam Caflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer
Running Time: 146 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 
Having never read The Hunger Games series on which the films are based, the big question I had going into its first sequel, Catching Fire, was exactly how Hunger Games co-champions Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) would end up competing again. I mean, they won, right? Isn't it over? This installment spends the good part of an hour explaining how that's possible, setting up the circumstances surrounding her forced return and giving much needed attention to fleshing out the dystopian society mostly ignored in the preceding installment.

After seeing the original, I remember having a conversation with someone more familiar with the franchise and asking what was up with all those ridiculous costumes. "It was in the book." "It's the future." Those answers sum up my problems with the first film in a nutshell. This one has a scene where a female tribute, sick of all the pageantry, just strips naked in an elevator. That's the difference. All I asked of the first film was that it take seriously its premise of a reality game where contestants are fighting for their lives and that it not take concessions to get a PG-13, needlessly sanitizing the material so it plays better for the masses.

While this still certainly isn't a bloodbath, it's a big improvement that actually contains some ideas. For all I know they could still be watering everything down, but at least it doesn't FEEL that way this time and those compromises aren't as noticeable on screen. There's a concerted effort to explore the moral implications and fallout from the first film to reach beyond the usual YA audience. Francis Lawrence takes over for Gary Ross as director and while he's a workmanlike filmmaker without a particularly distinctive cinematic voice or visual style (probably a plus for tackling a tentpole franchise), he nonetheless does a excellent job bringing this world to life, proving himself worthy of an encore.  

A year removed from being declared co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games, District 12 golden girl Katniss and baker's son Peeta must now embark on the victor's tour across Panem's districts, as per the orders of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), still enraged over the fact they both outsmarted him, escaping the games with their lives. But now Katniss' job is simpler: Show the world her staged romance with Peeta wasn't a televised ruse to defy the Capitol, but real relationship that will continue long after the games have ended. For him, that's clearly true. For her, it's a little more complicated, as her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is patiently waiting for her back home, even as both their families' lives continue to be threatened by President Snow.

With Katniss and Peeta joined again by dissheveled mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and kabuki-like chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) on their victory lap, the one thing they can't do on this tour is give the districts hope, which could rally the already disgruntled citizens into rebelling against the Capitol. Fearing that's exactly what's happening, Snow enlists newly appointed Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to destroy Katniss. His master plan: Hold another Hunger Games.

The idea that there would be an "All-Star Edition" of the games that include previous winners from all the districts just so Katniss and Peeta could be thrown to the wolves (or in this case, killer baboons) in the arena again is inspired. Why they're being forced to compete again and how it ties into their influence as celebrities inciting a social rebellion is certainly more compelling than anything in the first film, where it seemed as if there was no danger or stakes at all. Much more than before, they're targets that Snow wants killed or at least made into examples to crush the public's spirits.

It helps that this time there's an hour of build-up getting to know this world and dealing with the fact that these two competed on a reality show where kids killed each other for entertainment. They must have opinions and feelings on that, so it was nice to finally get them. And see legitimate threatening danger in the form of Peacekeepers (basically stormtroopers with flamethrowers) led by a scary Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) baring down on the districts to "keep order." We even see a public lashing. The actual Hunger Games mean nothing without context or a sense of why they're happening. In the first 60 minutes the material finally earns its popular comparisons to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" while strangely invoking new ones like Fahrenheit 451 in its depiction of a politically oppressive dystopia. Too much set-up? Maybe, but it's time well spent considering how little we got in the first film.

That the possibility exists that Woody Harrelson's drunken Haymitch, a former winner, could again be competing if called as tribute speaks to the unpredictability surrounding this outing. A key difference this time around is that they're not battling each other, but a government forcing them to go at it again despite promises to the contrary. Some new faces include the cocky Finnick (Sam Caflin) and District 7's outspoken, but dangerous Johanna Mason (Jena Malone). And due to the new format there are middle-aged tributes (played by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) and even a senior citizen (Lynn Cohen) competing, all of whom have every right to be more furious than before at being there.

While the games itself was the highlight of the last film, but they're improved upon here with crisper CGI and the absence of a shaky cam that previously defined the action sequences, making many of them difficult to decipher as Ross went out of his way to avoid showing any kind of graphic violence. And considering this outing isn't helmed by a director known for visual wizardry, everything still looks much better than its predecessor, as the booby trapped tropical setting for the arena is staged well, but more importantly, feels dangerous. Katniss and Peeta have no idea who they can trust or what's lurking around the corner and that the screenplay (co-written by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy) has some thematic meat on its bones this time around only bolsters the suspense.

Now entering this installment with the "Academy Award Winner" title in front of her name, Jennifer Lawrence manages to give a performance that far surpasses her stellar work in the previous entry, only this time doing it in a really good movie. Freed from the shackles of having to carry sub-par material on her back, she now shows us what she can do with Katniss when she's written well and a meaningful story surrounds her. Unsurprisingly, the results are astounding, especially in that opening hour as she experiences a painful internal struggle about what she's done and its implications for Panem. If Lawrence is this good now and the franchise many worried would imprison her career and waste her talent has just turned the corner creatively, how much better can she get? It's almost a scary thought. Here there's much less to elevate, and yet, she still elevates it.

In the face of Lawrence's acting dominance, it's almost a backhanded compliment to say Hutcherson seems more assured as Peeta with each passing minute in the franchise, but he is. That they're taking a slow burn approach to his relationship with Katniss is a relief to those worried that narrative aspect would move to the forefront. It's even more subtle and restrained this time, carrying none of the YA baggage you'd associate with movies of a similar ilk and permanently killing all comparisons to garbage like Twilight. Liam Hemsworth still feels like the third wheel as Gale, but the cliffhanger ending hints that's soon about to change. More impressive is newcomer Caflin as Finnick, whose allegiance to Katniss and Peeta is constantly in doubt, even when his bravado isn't. Jena Malone, makes a tough, sexy Johanna, with the aforementioned elevator introduction perfectly setting the stage for a bold character whose intentions are also up in the air.

That The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2 will be the final listed screen credit of Philip Seymour Hofffman no longer feels like the travesty many have feared, as he gives a smart, subtle performance as Gamemaker Plutarch that's obviously a major upgrade from Wes Bentley's Seneca Crane from the previous installment. What's funny is how it seems like he just rolled out of bed and is put in no effort at all, until you realize it was a very deliberate choice for him to play it this calm and collected, further solidifying his ability to invisibly slide into any character. What was initially deemed a "sellout" role is instead revealed as an opportunity to appreciate whatever screen time remains of our greatest actor.

Elizabeth Banks still annoys as Effie, as I've come to terms with the fact that I'll just never care for this character or the actress's over-the-top approach to her, especially sticking out as a nuisance in this more serious entry. The opposite is true of Stanley Tucci's manic TV host Caesar Flickerman, who again is a highlight and a comic diversion that works because Tucci makes sure something twisted and sadistic breaks through. The script should also be credited for finding pupose for Lenny Kravitz's Cinna this time out, making his brief role count for something that reflects the themes of the story.

The first film may have been a slight misfire but it was never dull and a joy to assess because of its potential. And now that potential comes much closer to being completely fulfilled here. In an era where big money franchises don't have to creatively deliver to make bank, this one does and has ideas to go along with its action.  Movies are only getting unjustifiably longer and more bloated, so the fact this one is 146 minutes and doesn't waste any of them shouldn't be taken lightly. I'm still curious what would happen if the creative handcuffs were totally removed but they go as far as they can within the confines of a PG-13, recognizing and correcting nearly all of the previous film's problems. The only remaining concern is that movies like this tend to have a ceiling of quality and this may have hit it. Let's hope not. That it's been called The Empire Strikes Back of the series may be slightly overstating matters, but I get it. Catching Fire leaves us hanging and wanting more.


Greg Johnson said...

I don't think Catching Fire will be the apex of the film series' quality. Francis Lawrence said that Mockingjay was his favorite book and that it, so he'll definitely put a lot of passion and energy into it. I don't know how they'll make two films out of Mockingjay, though. It's surprisingly bleak and violent for a YA novel.

jeremythecritic said...

I keep hearing it only gets better from here, which is good news. It'll be interesting to see just how bleak and violent the sequels will be since I thought this darker installment was a big step up.