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On Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

December 6, 2013

Editor's Note: This monthly installment of movie reviews by Spirit and Jefferson County Neighbors' reporters Matt Triponey and Dan Long rates the the second film based on the popular "Hunger Games" books by Suzanne Collins.

Plot Recap: Having survived the trials of the arena in the first film,
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) now find themselves the unintentional figureheads of a budding resistance against their oppressive government.

* * *
Now, here’s a rarity: a sequel that’s better than the original and a literary adaptation that’s better than the book, all in one. To be fair, the extent to which I think it is superior is marginal in both cases. But it’s better nonetheless.

The book has two main problems, in my estimation: firstly, the pacing, which starts out slow and then rushes the entire third act; and secondly, it’s mostly set-up for the third novel. The film adaptation corrects, at least partially, both of those problems.

The script here is almost a how-to on book-to-movie adaptations. It manages to capture the basic story, themes and tone without having to precisely convey every last detail (*cough* The Hobbit *cough*).

Catching Fire is two and a half hours long, but it feels significantly shorter. It is extremely efficient, using as little time as possible to set up its characters, connect the audience with them and outline the necessary information going forward.

In large part, the movie’s still set up for the third act, and that’s inevitable. Nevertheless, Catching Fire is determined to function as its own entity to an extent that the book doesn’t quite. The media satire is much more on point in this installment. The theme was certainly present in the book, but the movie better builds the prospect of rebellion into the emotional structure of the story.

There’s more of it — or at least, its recurrences aren’t as far apart due to the story having been cut down to size — and the movie finds ways to insert it in less overt, quieter, more visual ways, in addition to the larger, more explosive moments. And it gets frighteningly easy to apply it to the real world. Say, for example, politics.

Catching Fire is also a significant technical improvement over its predecessor. The first film seemed to have been shot exclusively in close-ups and shaky-cam. Both are limited in this new adaptation. The pacing puts it a cut above the original as well; the first film moved in lurches and leaps and sudden stops.

If Catching Fire is only marginally better than both its predecessor and its source material, it’s because that pacing, for all the good it does, is a double-edged sword.

The film is not exhausting, but I do feel it loses something in translation, particularly with its characters. Here’s an oddity — the book is the version of this story that is limited exclusively to its protagonist’s perspective, and yet, it’s the movie that leaves every single other character feeling like a bit player in The Tale of Katniss Everdeen.

For its long run-time, Catching Fire is nevertheless a movie that’s over before it begins and one that isn’t quite as memorable as you’d expect, given the emotional intensity inherent to it.

And of course, I retain my central problem with this series as a whole. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, as books, were not courageous enough to see their themes the entire way through.

Neither are the movies, which are even more sanitized in order to get the PG-13 rating. If you’re writing something and your two thoughts are, “We need to find a way to make this an incisive anti-war movie/media satire,” and, “We need to make sure people aren’t too uncomfortable during this scene,” you’re doing it wrong.

But on the whole, it’s effective. However muted it is, I like that ideas like this are sneaking into popular films. And Catching Fire is an efficient and sure-footed popular film.

Rating out of 5: 3.5

— Matt Triponey

* * *
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, odds are, you’ll like it. The highly anticipated Hunger Games sequel, in many ways, improves upon the impressive opening chapter of the series.

The second installment in the popular franchise does an excellent job of upping the ante from the dramatic first chapter. Catching Fire wastes little time building tension and keeps you locked in for its 146-minute run time. Even at a lengthy 146 minutes, the film never feels drawn out and maintains a pace as steady as one of Katniss Everdeen's arrows.

A film like Catching Fire hinges on its leading actress, and Jennifer
Lawrence more than delivers with her follow-up performance as Everdeen. If you weren’t quite sold on Lawrence’s acting chops yet, Catching Fire will make a believer out of you.

Lawrence's second outing as Everdeen is one of her best, if not the best performance out of the young actress that has already captured an academy award (Best Actress - Silver Linings Playbook). Whether Lawrence is firing her bow, interacting with the male leads or having an emotional breakdown, she steals every scene with a pathos that few actresses can rival at her age (23).

The film does a stellar job showing how Katniss is an ordinary person
forced into an extraordinary situation.The audience feels an emotional weight as Katniss suffers from PTS from the first games and displays that she struggles with handling the limelight of being a heroine.

Once again, Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark) have real chemistry on screen, and some of their early scenes are entertaining because they show the fabricated and exaggerated nature of celebrity relationships.

Catching Fire brilliantly dives into many societal issues. The Hunger
Games sequel hits the mark when it shows the disconnection and tension between the upper and lower classes. Through use of make-up and stunning set pieces, Catching Fire makes the upper class look both outlandish and distinct once again.

Catching Fire is a success, mostly, because of the strong performances of all involved. However, the action scenes and special effects are no slouch, though, either. Once the 75th Hunger Games finally begin, the tension reaches critical level almost immediately and as soon as the audience feels the characters are safe, they are quickly reminded that Katniss and company are anything but.

One minor issue I had with the first installment that was prevalent in the second as well, is that Katniss is in this predicament to save her sister and mother, but she spends so little time with them in both films. It's a little more forgivable in the sequel that she spends limited time with them, but it makes it increasingly more difficult to feel a connection with the family members that have seen minimal screen time through two films.

The supporting characters, however, were well represented in the sequel and even more time was taken to dive into each one of them. Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) all took on bigger and more important roles in the sequel.

Whether it's Effie tearing up when Katniss and Peeta head off to the games or Haymitch using his wits to keep Katniss and Gale from getting killed, the supporting characters provided pivotal roles in the film's plot.

The new characters were a welcome addition as well, with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Johanna Mason (Jena
Malone) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) all helping the story move along.

All in all, Catching Fire does exactly what a middle chapter (technically 2 of 4) should do. It provides a compelling story, upped the ante from the original and left the audience wanting more.

Rating out of 5: 4.5

— Dan Long

Average Rating: 4

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