Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

December 25, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

catchingfirekatniss

Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Book Review: ‘Catching Fire’ by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

As soon as I finished the first book, The Hunger Games, I moved straight into the second of the series, Catching Fire.

I said in my review of The Hunger Games that my impression of it may have been tainted by the fact that had watched the film version first and had also watched Japan’s Battle Royale, which has a similar premise.

Catching Fire didn’t have to face such problems. I was sceptical at first because the core of the story is the Hunger Games itself, and I wondered how Collins could possibly squeeze out two more books that didn’t simply repeat what happened in the first. After all (spoiler for the first book ahead), didn’t Katniss and Peter win the darn thing already?

Well, those concerns were unfounded. In fact, Catching Fire completely breaks free of the parameters set by the first book and takes the series to a whole new level.

How does Collins do this? Well, for starters, she ups the ante on just about everything that made the first book good. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, but Collins finds a clever way to make the games “fresh”, from the manner in which the tributes are selected to the fascinating new characters and the innovative new battleground. Even the returning characters are given new angles as more is gradually revealed about each of them.

Collins also intensifies the relationships Katniss has with the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale, adding more tension to the love triangle. It wasn’t my thing but could be appreciated my some readers.

The best part about it was how the story played out with a Harry Potter-esque mystery that does not get revealed until the very end. Some of it was rather predictable but I still came away impressed. The biggest compliment I can pay to the book is that it is not only better than The Hunger Games but also improves it by providing added context.

Of course, Collins still manages to infuse that addictive quality of her narrative style into the book as well. I breezed through this book by reading it any spare minute I had, and sometimes even when I’m not supposed to have the time. It’s not hard when every chapter ends on a mini cliffhanger and the writing is so easy to read.

I do, however, have two major complaints with Catching Fire. The first is that certain parts of the book felt a little drawn out, while others felt too condensed. Occasionally I got the feeling that there was an imbalance in the storytelling that needed to be addressed. The second complaint is how Collins botched the ending. After setting up the mystery so well all the way through, the book trips and falls flat on its face at the very end with an extremely rushed “unveil” and ends on a cliffhanger. The payoff after going through such an exhilarating ride turned out to be unexpectedly disappointing.

That said, it has forced me to jump immediately into the third and final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, which I hope to finish and review soon.

4 out of 5

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

April 7, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read any of the books yet.

I’ve seen all eight Harry Potters and all four Twilights, and none of the 12 films could compare with the experience I had with The Hunger Games. I suppose the only reason I’m comparing them are because they’re all based on bestselling young adult books that have crossed over to mainstream readers, but The Hunger Games was just so much more up my alley than the other two — dark, gritty, violent and bleak, and with no sappy romances in sight.

Set in a post-apolcalytpic dystopian society, The Hunger Games is a yearly reality TV contest where a boy and girl from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a kill-or-be-killed contest where there can only be one winner (don’t worry, there is a reason for it). The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough girl from District 12 who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is thrust into this nightmarish world where she must use all her skill and wit to survive. The premise is similar to the Japanese novel Battle Royale (which was also adapted into a film) — I’ve read the parts of the manga version — but I certainly wouldn’t call it a rip-off.

Despite its running time of 142 minutes, The Hunger Games didn’t feel nearly as long. The set up could have been shorter, but it was executed brilliantly, slowly peeling away the layers as the true nature of the games is revealed to the audience. The genuine action doesn’t really begin until halfway through, but the tension is maintained and built up right from the beginning, and when the brutal and bloody games finally start, the jolt of exhiliaration hits you like a kick to the stomach (at least it did for me).

The Hunger Games would not have been anywhere near as good without the outstanding performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Apparently Suzanne Collins, the author of the book who also adapted the screenplay, said Lawrence was the only actress out of the dozens that auditioned for the role that truly captured the character, no mean feat considering some of the other candidates included Hailee Steinfeld, Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz and Emily Browning. In the end, it was the right decision to go with the Academy Award nominated Lawrence, who chanelled the inner strength of her character from Winter’s Bone to give bring Katniss to life. She dominates just about every scene in the film and it’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Just compare that to the years of growing pains endured by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter before they became respectable actors, and the respectability that still eludes the likes of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in Twilight!

Lawrence is backed up by a strong supporting cast including Josh Hutcherson (you might remember him from Bridge to Terabithia or Journey to the Center of the Earth), Woody Harrelson (who was a little weird at first but eventually found his mark), Elizabeth Banks (freaky performance), Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley (remember him from American Beauty?), Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Hemsworth (in a surprisingly small role). And a special mention to Isabelle Fuhrman, who was horrifying in Orphan and is pretty scary in this one too.

If there are any complaints, it would have to be the shaky camera employed at times — though I must admit my annoyance was somewhat mitigated because it kind of served a purpose — and the lack of explanation for some of the mechanics of the games (such as how the “sponsorship” and “virtual reality” systems worked). The violence was  unfortunately not displayed very clearly on screen because it had to pass the censors, but I think director Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) did all that he could to maintain the raw brutality of the games under the restricting circumstances. The film also probably could have fleshed out the political themes strewn throughout a little more but I didn’t find it a big deal considering the target market.

On the whole, The Hunger Games is a compelling, thrilling and often terrifying action-drama that hit almost all the right notes. Given the impossible expectations it carried from the moment it was announced,  I think it did all right. Looking forward to reading the books and Catching Fire (the sequel) when it is hopefully released next year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Huge kudos for not releasing this film in 3D.