Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Catching Fire" Takes "The Hunger Games" Series to the Next Level

No that's not a scene from Black Swan. It's the latest Hunger Games.
Notice the guy in the corner with the purple hair?
In my review of The Hunger Games I called it “a solid double that, with exposition largely dispatched with, paves the way for an even better second outing.” The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the latest entry in the series, lives up to that prediction, deepening and improving what the first film did well, while simultaneously correcting its most problematic elements.

The film picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in district 12, living in the Victor’s Village alongside drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). She’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and she barely even looks Peeta’s way following the events of the first film, but things are mostly going OK – her mom and sister are safe and living in luxury with her, and she’s getting pretty cozy with long-time friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

But, her defiant gestures from her time in the arena have bred hope of uprising within many of the districts. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) isn’t happy with her, and now she has to go on her victor’s tour during which she’ll have to confront the emotional fallout of her time in the arena with Peeta. Even worse, Snow threatens the lives of Katniss’s loved ones, implying he’ll do some pretty nasty things unless she sells the love story rouse believably enough to discredits herself as an instigator and symbol of rebellion.

Needless to say, that doesn’t go over well, causing President Snow to be all “I’m going to kill this chick.” But “Hey, not so fast,” says Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, brining the same icy calm and confidence he displayed in Mission Impossible 3), the man who took over as Gamesmaker after the last one was killed for getting Snow into this predicament in the first place. Heavensbee argues killing her outright would only make Katniss a martyr; instead, he suggests a plot that would have her return to the arena in a sort of Hunger Games: All-Stars Edition, pitting her against 23 former winners. He promises her death in a way that will invalidate her as symbol, while also offering the added bonus of eliminating 22 other victors, all of whom now pose a threat due to the hope they instill within the districts of Panem.

There’s plenty of interesting metaphorical subtext in all of this, particularly related to the way our society disenfranchises the lower class while placating them with false hopes and trivial preoccupations. I get that it’s easy to label all sorts of movies as allegories for the Occupy Movement, especially those with dystopian futures (Elysium, In Time, etc.) but there’s something that feels almost fresh about the way this series focuses specifically on “hope” as a weapon used for both oppression and revolution. 

Katniss's defiance has inspired revolt throughout the other districts.
Twilight has been an obvious comparison for this series since it was first announced, but as The Hunger Games continues to distinguish itself as one of the higher quality franchises of the moment, it seems clear that the more apt comparison may be the Harry Potter films. As with Potter, The Hunger Games is working from legitimately solid source material, and it is being treated with dignity by its filmmakers who have put a premium on talent and quality. Superb actor after superb actor populates these films (and will continue to do so as  Julianne Moore is set to join the final two installments), and the behind-the-scenes players are impressive across the board. Look no further than the screenwriters for proof – this episode has been adapted by Oscar winners Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours).

As with Harry Potter’s Christopher Columbus before him, writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has been unfairly maligned for his stewardship of the franchise’s first film, with most detractors focusing on the negatives (most specifically, his decision to go all shaky cam). But, it’s worth noting that launching a franchise like this is nearly impossible. Occasionally a bad one succeeds (Twilight) or a promising one fails (The Golden Compass), but young adult literature adaptations usually tend to be gross miscalculations along the lines of Eragon, I Am Number Four and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

The fact that Ross delivered a hit, clearly established the world in an accessible manner and nailed the tone and casting is a pretty spectacular feat, and accomplishing all of that did a great deal of the heavy lifting for this second outing. For my Phillies fans out there, he’s basically what Ed Wade was to the 2008 championship – hamstrung by budgetary concerns and remembered for his miscues, despite planting the seeds for greater achievement.

But just as Pat Gillick deserves a great deal of credit for bringing a World Series trophy to Philadelphia, Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend) deserves his fair share for Catching Fire. A singular success along the lines of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is rare enough, but even rarer is a franchise like Harry Potter – one that not only maintains a level of quality but continues to improve. Regardless of what you think of his previous output overall, Lawrence is experienced with the genre and a far more established visual stylist than Ross, and I think that makes a world of difference. He wisely abandons the shaky cam, opting instead for longer takes that make geographical sense of what’s happening while also allowing the camera to linger on actor reactions and the improved aesthetic of Panem.

Having most of the exposition out of the way is, as predicted, a major boon for the film. With the world established, screen time can instead be devoted to defining character moments. By necessity, the first film is laser-focused on establishing Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rules of the Games. The rest of cast did nice work, but all in support of establishing the lead. Here, they are far more prominent.

To be clear, Katniss is still the undisputed focus of the picture, and, Jennifer Lawrence remains the greatest asset this franchise has going. As Katniss, she manages to be difficult, uncompromising and closed-off, while still coming across as relatable, likable and desirable. It’s a great role and an even more impressive performance, and at this point in her career, Jennifer Lawrence is Hollywood’s Girl On Fire.

The bond between Katniss and Peeta is way better realized this time out.
But the world around Katniss begins to open up in Catching Fire, resulting in a greater sense that the supporting characters are living their own lives and that there’s vastly more at stake than the fate of 24 tributes. Returning costars like Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson are given more notes to play, and they make the most of them. Meanwhile, new cast members like Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, and Sam Clafin all get a chance to make an impression. 

However, Hutcherson is probably the greatest beneficiary amongst the supporting cast. Dude’s practically playing a saint in these films, and that could become awfully annoying, but the script invests great effort into Peeta, and Hutcherson sells the character’s inherent decency and wealth of emotions. As opposed to the first film, which botched the presentation of the bond between Peeta and Katniss, this one gets it right by highlighting several moments that emphasize why this woman might fall for the meek, unassuming baker’s boy when she has a big, brooding coal miner/hunter waiting at home for her.

Twilight has shown this “Who will the girl choose?” crap can be the worst, but this is a very thoughtful take on love triangles, one in which obligation, affection and empathy take the place of sneering and petty possessiveness. Peeta’s not the type a movie of this magnitude would normally pair with its heroine (as The Onion hilariously explored and NPR thoughtfully analyzed), but he has the capacity to comfort and understand her, and, perhaps more importantly, to surprise her. One particular moment of inspiration – having Katniss (and thus the viewer) actually see the picture Peeta painted of Rue, and not just hear about it later on as she did in the novel.

As far as other changes between the book and the film, I’d say the filmmakers make a lot of smart decisions here. It’s a shame to lose out on the stuff related to Haymitch’s victory in the 50th Hunger Games and the early scenes with Twill and Bonnie, two runaways that hint at District 13 still existing as a place of refuge, but neither was all that necessary.

Just like in the first film, the biggest alteration involves repeated cutaways to Snow and his Gamemaker. Adding a granddaughter for Snow is a simple way to humanize the guy and further establish the fragile system he operates, but more important are the scenes showing Heavensbee convincing Snow to keep Katniss alive until the time is right to kill her.

One of my biggest problems with the book was the hard-to-shake feeling that Snow’s plan seemed a little over complicated, that a guy like him would probably just kill her, or, at the very least, her family. This is especially true given the way he treats others in Panem and the way Haymitch’s loved ones were dispatched with after his victory in the Games. These scenes do a nice job offering explanation for this decision, while also providing a bit more insight into the twist involving the rebellion’s daring plan to extract Katniss from the arena unbeknownst to her (another thing that annoyed me in the book, but that makes sense here).

Donald Sutherland and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are both so good
at acting.
Although I like that, and enjoy how the film shows Heavensbee conning Snow with misdirection, the twist is a great deal more confusing on film. In the book, the ultimate implication is that Heavensbee volunteers as Gamemaker to help carry out the plot to save Katniss after Snow has already decided to do Hunger Games All-Stars. The goal seemed to be saving the symbol of freedom at all cost, so as to save the revolution.

In the film, Heavensbee is shown to be a master puppet master, pulling strings from the very beginning with designs to embarrass Snow on live television and thus further spark rebellion. He’s the one who comes up with the idea of doing a Hunger Games with past victors, and although you could argue he only does that to buy Katniss time, I think there’s a lot more to it than that (after all, the rebels could’ve just picked her up earlier in the film if they were worried Snow would kill her).

Part of me likes this aspect – it implies that even the good guys are ruthless in pursuit of their goals since they are willing to put previous victors in harm’s way to galvanize the public – but part of me hates it because of how densely elaborate the con turns out to be. It’s hard to believe anyone could ever convince Snow to do all these things in this way, at least not if we're supposed to believe Snow is a cunning and worthy adversary.

Additionally, I imagine nonreaders were very confused by the way the end is handled, specifically related to what the plan actually involved. Obviously confusion is part of the point during the events within the arena, but I think more work could’ve been put into explaining what exactly happened once the film transitions to its denouement. A full on, Ocean’s 11 style reveal isn't necessary, but a few throwaway lines when Katniss busts in on Heavensbee, Finnick and Haymitch would’ve gone a long way toward providing clarification for the uninitiated.

Despite these hiccups, Catching Fire is a great time at the movies. It’s long, but it moves; it’s big budget popcorn, but it has some substance to it. I’m skeptical about splitting Mockingjay, the final book in the series, into two films, but the filmmakers have earned some good faith.  I’m genuinely excited to see the next entry, and in a world where so many sequels seem like inevitable chores, that’s something. B+