Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

For F*** Magazine


Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast:   Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Bruno Gunn, Alan Ritchson, E. Roger Mitchell, Maria Howell, Stephanie Leigh Schlund, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
Run Time: 146 mins
Opens: 21 November 2013
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)

2012 probably saw an uptick in the number of kids signing up for archery classes, characters like Merida from Brave and Hawkeye from The Avengers making a weapon dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic cool again. The figure who played the biggest part in this was Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the blockbuster adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series who returns in Catching Fire.

Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) come home triumphant from the 74th annual Hunger Games and embark on a victory tour throughout the twelve districts of Panem, leaving behind loved ones including Katniss’ sweetheart Gale (Hemsworth). The autocratic ruler of Panem, President Snow (Sutherland), sees that Katniss and Peeta have given the masses hope and might have sown the seeds for a revolution. Together with the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman), he plans for Katniss and Peeta to take the fall in as dramatic a way as possible. For the 75th Hunger Games, the tributes are reaped from existing winners – meaning Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into the lion’s den and pitted against experienced killers. The pair work to form an alliance with the other tributes, including the dashing Finnick (Claflin), the elderly Mags (Cohen), rebellious and unpredictable Johanna (Malone), and the tech-savvy duo of Beetee (Wright) and Wiress (Plummer). Mentor Haymitch (Harrelson) warns that “there are no winners, only survivors” – and Katniss and Peeta learn just how right he is.

Young adult novels and film adaptations of said novels have earned something of a bad reputation, often associated with shallow romance and the inane cries of “woe is me”. The Hunger Games is a series that is firmly about something, exploring the idea of violence as the opiate of the masses through the eyes of a strong, relatable heroine. This film delves deeper into the futuristic dystopia that is Panem, having established what the Hunger Games are and being able to spend more time further developing the characters of Katniss and Peeta. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer), known for films like Constantine, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants, takes the directorial baton from Gary Ross with an assured turn behind the camera, working from an eloquently-adapted screenplay by Oscar-winners Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (credited here as Michael DeBruyn).

The immense success of the first film allowed this one a bigger budget, $140 million in comparison to $78 million. While an excellent film, The Hunger Games did suffer a tad in its production values and this film is definitely an improvement in that regard. For example, the murderous mandrills look better than the wolf-like Muttations in the first film. However, the film is not spectacle-driven and it is a good one and half hours before the 75th Hunger Games actually begin. The focus of this one is the aftermath of the events of the previous film and the toll that that experience has had on Katniss and Peeta, Katniss in particular emerging as a shell-shocked veteran, haunted by the carnage she bore witness to first-hand. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that just because the games haven’t begun proper, it doesn’t mean the proceedings are boring. Moments that are equal parts intense and emotional, including a scene in which Gale is flogged in public by the totalitarian “peacekeepers”, are not in short supply.

Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar-winner for The Silver Linings Playbook, makes a confident return to the role that made her a superstar. The character doesn’t sit around moping and licking her wounds, Lawrence excelling at showing the conflict between Katniss’ true anguish and the public façade she has to don in the midst of this life-or-death situation. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta has not lost all of his idealism from the first film and learns to play to the cameras, though he wishes that the romance wasn’t all for show. Hutcherson ably supports the film’s leading lady alongside Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and Elizabeth Banks, all returning from the first film as the team who prepares Katniss and Peeta for the Games.

The casting in the first film was pitch-perfect, and that certainly continues in this film. Philip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly lends the picture gravitas as the sly master strategist Plutarch, sharing most of his scenes with Donald Sutherland – who is once again absolutely frightening without so much as lifting a finger. Also, since Toby Jones returns, this means there are two Truman Capotes in the same movie. The tributes who align themselves with Katniss and Peeta in the arena are all well-portrayed as well: Lynn Cohen bringing a warmth and sadness to the silent Mags, Jena Malone entertainingly spunky as Johanna, Sam Claflin suave and strapping as the sexy Finnick and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer eccentric but reliable as Beetee and Wiress respectively. This is a bunch we truly can root for and yet are never 100% sure if they won’t turn on each other.

While The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a solid film, it is very much a middle instalment in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back and viewers are advised to watch the first film beforehand. The events of this film are not cleanly resolved and it does end on a cliffhanger, but this does not feel like a lazy tactic and we are keenly looking forward to Mockingjay Part 1.

SUMMARY: This sequel sets the screen ablaze with an engrossing, masterfully-told follow-up to The Hunger Games. Now can we stop with the Twilight comparisons already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


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