by Ken B.
A vast improvement over an underwhelming predecessor, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire works because it is darker and deeper and more thorough and engrossing. With new director Francis Lawrence, the manic, shaky, and generally incoherent cinematography of Gary Ross is left in the dust. It is a fuller look at the political underworkings and sociopolitical satire only mentioned in passing (or not at all) in The Hunger Games, with captivating second and third acts, leading up to a startlingly effective final fifteen minutes.
Following the 74th Hunger Games, victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are sent on a victory tour. In participating in this tradition, they head across Panem (a geographic area comprising mainly of real world North America), visiting all twelve districts and making speeches – an arrogant practice, considering that these are the winners of the competition in which members of eleven of these twelve districts saw two children from their homeland die. It is also around then when we see that the dystopian government under President Snow (Donald Sutherland), has grown even more militaristic and fascist, not hesitating to publicly flog or execute any political dissenters.
Now it is time for the seventy-fifth installment of the games. Snow and Hunger Games game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (one of the last major roles of Philip Seymour Hoffman) see Katniss as a threat, a possible spark for a revolution, and conclude that she must die. As a result, different rules for the year’s games are invoked where the field of competitors must be chosen from previous victors from the twelve districts. A new arena has been designed, with new and unique lethal challenges. Now, more importantly than ever, Katniss and Peeta realize the importance of forming alliances with other competitors. By far, the one with the most screen time is Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), a self-assured and adept winner from not too long ago. Others include the mysterious Johanna (Jena Malone), the elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen), and the savvy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright).
The games, when they start, are regularly absorbing. While the 146 minute film has the tendency to drag every now and then, especially in the first act, it’s never for very long, and deemed even more insignificant by the great acting present. Of course there are good things to be expected by Sutherland, Hoffman, and Lawrence, but even the supporting actors leave a solid impression. I had never been previously very impressed by Josh Hutcherson as an actor, but he ups his game a bit here, as does Liam Hemsworth as Gale, in a smaller but important role. Relative newcomer Sam Clafin is quite good as Finnick.
The technical level of Catching Fire is exceptional. We’re finally allowed to see it now that the camera has stopped shaking. The set design of the decadent and corrupt capital of Panem is garish and eye-popping, matching the satirical nature of the costumes and hairstyles of its residents. The obstacles in the arena, from rabid monkeys to a vesicant in the form of fog, are eerie and well done. Early in the film, when the districts are toured as part of the victory tour, we see hundreds of nameless faces looking at Katniss and Peeta, symbols of the tyrannical nation they live in. This is benefited by atmospheric cinematography from Jo Willems, proving immersive in all of the vast places the movie takes us. While this is not a perfect film, with the aforementioned occasional sluggish pacing and minor plot quibbles (such as Katniss having a seemingly never ending supply of arrows), it is still efficient in its own right.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an absorbing middle entry in the popular franchise, not only working for the fans, but viewers in general. Too often filmmakers focus on adapting young adult novels for their supporters, and forgetting about the success and gratification that arises from making it an accessible film. The cast and crew under the leadership of Francis Lawrence have clearly not fallen under this trap, and with the knowledge that Lawrence will be helming the (unfortunately) two-part finale, we can rest assured that it will most likely be handled with similar amounts of the quality and skill on display here.
by Ken B.
If you read my review of The Hunger Games, I point out many flaws, including Gary Ross being nearly completely inept when it came to positioning shots and learning to take it easy on the shaky camera. The script was kind of thin and the pacing was quite off – thank goodness they had Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role.
Well, now The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a trailer out, and may I say that with new director Francis Lawrence in, at least the issue with the camera seems to be fixed. Looking through the video, I see some talented people, like Jennifer Lawrence, of course, along with Donald Sutherland (hopefully a more substantial role) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is the second film based off Suzanne Collins’ bestselling series, and looking much more promising as a movie. When you look at the trailer for its predecessor, the near-lethal overdose of handheld quick cuts is terribly obvious. If that happened to capture the mood of that film, Catching Fire will most likely be shot in a steadier rate giving the movie the ability to focus on their strong points.
by Ken B.
Some visual details in The Hunger Games will most likely always be questioned in my mind, particularly due to director Gary Ross’ (Pleasentville, Seabiscuit) constant use of what I affectionately refer to as “San-Andreas vision”, or the employment of an extremely shaky camera during action sequences. And when I say “extremely”, I do mean that.
But first, let’s start with the backstory. By what I can tell (the first thirty minutes were a cinematic nightmare, more on that later though), this is the story of Katniss Everdeen (JENNIFER LAWRENCE), a sixteen year old girl who lives in Panem, the remains of North America in the distant future, a now “united” multi-district supernation headed up by a mysterious capital.
Katniss lives in District Twelve, the dirt-poor district, the industrial district, the Hollywood-version-of-Detroit-and-an-off-forest district. She has a little sister named Primrose (WILLOW SHIELDS), and life is somewhat normal, although that’s about to change.
Every year, for the past 74, Panem has held something called “The Hunger Games”. This is where, chosen at random, is one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district is sent to fight to the death against each other, until there’s one left. That’s a 23 to 1 chance of survival, for those of you who aren’t good at math.
Surprise, surprise, Primrose is chosen as the District 12 girl, and as a result, Katniss believing she won’t stand a chance, volunteers to take her place. The male tribune is a boy roughly the same age as Katniss, the son of a baker called Peeta Mellark (JOSH HUTCHERSON). This is about the time where I start complaining.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that I hated the first half hour of this film. And rightly so. Unfortunately, it is necessary. Without the first thirty minutes, you would have no clue who the good guys and bad guys were. They’re interchangeable and you don’t feel for anyone, really.
I assume this is because the screenplay assumes that most viewers will be familiar with the book it’s based from. However, I have not read the books, and if you have to read a novel to understand a film, it is clear that the film has not accomplished what it should do.
When the titular Hunger Games kick off, the shaky camera is almost all we know. I assume this is to reduce the impact of the violence (despite that, Lionsgate decided to cut a few seconds to avoid a restricted rating in the US (“R”) and the UK (“15”). However, for the viewers who can handle the harsher stuff, it comes off as an irritating mess. If I had seen this film when it was in theaters instead of on home media, the excess of intentionally shaky and blurry imagery would have caused me to erroneously report to the manager that the projector was out of focus. Really, it’s a problem.
Now, let me talk about acting. A later example in this film (AMANDLA STENBERG) showed me under 18s are capable of good acting, and unfortunately, Shields as Primrose Everdeen is hit-or-miss. All the script gives her is a squeal and scream here or there and a bit of dialogue. The dialogue, however, is not delivered, you know, without being in a state of the period right before bursting into tears. (And it usually isn’t in context).
Jennifer Lawrence is a talented actress, and past roles have revealed that. She plays a strong female lead here, and she does very well as usual. But I had that feeling that the script was limited her potential. It was nothing that could have been prevented, that’s just a sidenote.
Among the supporting cast is Donald Sutherland who plays the barely on screen president. he’s the senior member and the best, he says so much with so little. However, it’s still quite inexcusable to underuse Donald Sutherland in your movie.
Is it safe to say that I had no emotional investment in anyone? The script takes the story and twists it into something reduced, just for the hardcore fans. Who said this was acceptable?
If there is one compliment I have, it’s the experience. The Hunger Games is a unique experience, filled with a sense of importance and harm, not unto itself, but into itself. My best guess is that this film was supposed to be deep, dark, painful, and lingering. However, you feel no pain for the characters, and it’s easily forgettable.