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Monday, November 25, 2013

Review - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Up until this past week, I've been completely ignorant of the world that is The Hunger Games. The books caught my attention, peripherally, but I felt they'd come out too late to interest me as an adult (whereas Harry Potter managed to hook me at a young enough age to keep up with it into adulthood). When the first film hit theaters, I was curious, but not enough so to pay the price of admission. 

Fast-forward to this week: I watched the first film on Netflix, caught the second on opening night, and read the third novel in one day. I skipped the first two books, assuming there was enough overlap in the movies to get the gist. If you have somehow managed to escape it, here's an incredibly short synopsis: the Hunger Games is a series about Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who participates in an arena-death-match competition called "The Hunger Games" in order to save her sister from participating. Though the first and second movies spend time in the fighting arena, the series is about, more broadly, Katniss's involvement in the publicity and media war surrounding a potential uprising against the controlling government.

I'm happy to report that the second movie was a significant upgrade from the first. I didn't hate the first movie; it was interesting enough to get me going to the theater to catch the second. But the first movie was one-half interesting and then one-half really boring. Catching Fire clocks in around 2 1/2 hours, but it feels shorter. The production quality is higher (thanks to a bigger budget), we get a lot more character development in the main characters, and some interesting turns keeps the movie from being a photocopy of the first. Another huge improvement in this film is the camera style. The first film uses "shakey cam" that gets really hard to ignore once you notice it, and that style is abandoned in Catching Fire. Francis Lawrence, the director, takes a lot of credit for the visual improvements and for giving us tighter, more focused storytelling. 

It's hard not to subconsciously compare this movie to one of the Harry Potter films. From what I've read, I think Harry Potter has a more rich world and a better book series to draw from, but Catching Fire has one distinct advantage - Jennifer Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence carries the movie, breathing likability into a character who could easily come across otherwise. She also manages to communicate wordlessly throughout the film, replacing Katniss's inner monologues with simple glances and gestures, in a way that most of the leads in Harry Potter never really could. I'd have expected Phillip Seymour Hoffman's role in this movie to steal the show, but he fell flat in comparison. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks also stand out as excellent supporting roles. 

I'll also admit that in the first Hunger Games film, I wasn't a huge fan of the character Peeta, one of Katniss's love interests. By the end of Catching Fire I found myself a big fan of both Peeta and the actor behind him, Josh Hutcherson. In spite of their performances, though, I still feel that the lead actors lack any sort of natural chemistry, and the romance can feel a little forced. The ending of the Catching Fire also feels rushed and forced. There was the potential for a lot of action in the ending, but I think it was sacrificed to spend more time focusing on the survival game. I'd have preferred more time spent on showing the details of what happens in the end of the novel, and a little less time revisiting the actual games and the death traps they contain, which feels a little too similar to the first movie. 

Ultimately this is a fun film, and I found myself pleasantly surprised, but at the end of the day it's also a fairly straight forward fantasy/adventure movie. If you think this kind of movie isn't for you, it probably isn't. But if you have a predilection for these types of films, it's one that's done fairly well. I give it a B. 
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