This was probably the most anticipated movie of the fall. Yes, I know Thor 2 came out and Desolation of Smaug is coming, but based on overall buzz this movie was the one to watch and the one to beat. Thankfully, like I mentioned in a previous review theatres are giving “midnight” showings earlier and earlier. Tonight’s began at 8 in nearly every time zone. The usual new release rules apply, no spoilers and the book has not been read. There is an embargo in the comments on spoilers, so if you comment – NO SPOILING For those who need to see this. Granted, any comments I make about the first film are not subject to this.
Catching Fire picks up an indeterminate amount of time after Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark snubbed their nose at 74 years of tradition and survived The Hunger Games together. Things seemed to have settle down in an awkward norm for the Victors until the Tour of the Districts begins. Katniss and Peeta are once more thrust together in order to not only save their own lives but those they care about. President Snow already disturbed by their ability to inspire hope, with the assistance of his new Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee, decides that the 75th Hunger Games will be special. This Quarter Quell will star not innocent children but previous Victors from each district to end the threat of hope Katniss, Peeta and the other survivors can represent. Let the Hunger Games begin and may the odds be ever in your favor.
Yes, I know if you’ve read the story there’s more to it. “Spoilers” /end Riversong.
Let’s talk about the writing, unlike last time Suzanne Collins does not get a screenplay credit; merely the novelization. The writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and Michael Arndt (ToyStory 3, Little Miss Sunshine) clearly spent time studying the material and the nature of the characters. Their previous works show they have both an understanding of how to make a movie entertaining, gripping and really get into the head space of the mains. While I cannot speak to the adaptive nature of their work yet, I can say that this successfully continues the story. No line seems wasted and all the blocking and scenes work in rather stunning ways. Their script is not dumbed down and successfully builds the right tension in the right places. The storytelling kept me guessing in the right places and made me smile, clap and laugh with the audience in others. It also brought up tears in the right place which is just as important.
Some of that credit needs to go to the director on this project, Francis Lawrence. Probably best known for the critically acclaimed hit I Am Legend and the woefully underrated Constantine. In I Am Legend the director shows he grasps what it takes to take a charismatic actor and let them break down. Let them be strong, let them be vulnerable and show humanity in a world that wants to deny them that. He did apparently listen to the people who criticized the camera work of the first and did not make those mistakes. Actually, in this reviewers opinion he made no mistakes I can tell aside from a few weird pacing issues in the first half of the movie. It drags in a couple of places while rushed in others, but that may be due to the needs of the adaptation- hard to say. I do know that the shots were beautifully orchestrated and the performances of each cast member were perfectly nuanced to deliver the right emotions in the best way possible.
Granted you need talented actors for that and this movie has them. Between films Jennifer Lawrence went and got herself an Oscar for her work in Silver Linings Playbook. She clearly is one of the best new actresses in Hollywood and I am looking forward to watching her career grow. She leaves everything exposed and holds nothing back in this performance of Katniss. She redefines the bar for what it means to be the reluctant hero. She is still as bad ass as ever and never loses her humanity in the process or that vulnerability I loved in the first film. She is doing whatever it takes to survive and shows that she is both smart and attentive to the details. Her loyalty to her friends and family never truly gets diminished. All the while she uses her eyes and expressive face to the fullest and you know what she is feeling and thinking.
Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) is actually given a bit more meat to work with in his interactions with the heroine. Hutcherson makes you believe in Peeta and what he stands for, feels and even pity him at times. Its interesting to see a male character play the role traditionally ascribed to the female in other action pieces. I want to see more of this and other directors, producers and writers to look for Hutcherson to show them the way. All of the returning cast members turn out good performances with Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket actually showing some real character development and making you like someone you all but hated in the first.
The new cast fits in well with some familiar faces such as Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) and Amanda Plummer (The Prophecy) making memorable appearances. Sam Claflin (Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is a relatively new actor but is actually nearly instantly endearing as Finnick Odair; a man with motives of his own and secrets to keep. Jena Malone (Contact, Sucker Punch) as Johanna Mason brings some much needed levity to the film and is one of the more interesting characters to watch for all her brutality in both action and word. This review would not be complete without discussing another Oscar Winner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Moneyball, Pirate Radio) as Plutarch. There is an archetype in writing known as the magnificent bastard. Hoffmans Plutarch is such an archetype and even Donald Sutherland has trouble sharing the screen with him. Its a credit to the director and the actor that Hoffman doesn’t dominate more, because he easily could.
Much like the director and the camera work the team on Visual Effects learned as well. No single effect took me out and made me roll my eyes. Some things were clearly effects but really in the context of the Games that is almost acceptable.
Alright then TL;DR?
This movie is arguably one of my top 5 movies of the year, perhaps top 3. It handily beats everything from May of this year. It *is* better than Thor and really I have to tell everyone.
See it soon and if possible see it often. It has a great story, great acting, and honestly deserves the support we as the audience can give it. This series of movies is what we need to have made with characters like Katniss becoming the norm rather than a rarity.
May the odds be ever in our favor.