Darke Reviews | The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

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.
This.
Movie.

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.

Darke Reviews | The Hunger Games (2012)

I thought I would take a page from folks like CinemaSins and do a review on an earlier movie when its sequel or remake is coming out. With a viewing tomorrow at 8:30 of Catching Fire, I thought I would review the first of the films. There will be spoilers – the statute of limitations is long since gone by and while I have read the book I thought it was close enough to not need a comparison. I read the book after the movie, much like I plan to do with Catching Fire. Also I got some feedback on the fact I don’t talk as much about the actors and such because of my desire to avoid spoilers in my newer reviews. I want to try something a little different if I can ( and you notice). Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Let’s talk Story:

The movie takes place in a dystopian future in the land of Panem. Roughly 74 years ago a war ended between the Capitol and its 13 districts. One was wiped out entirely leaving the twelve, but in case that wasn’t enough the lovely individuals who run the government decided as a lesson we are going to make each of the 12 districts that are left sacrifice one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year. It’s a Thunderdome like battle, where only one child lives after slaughtering the others. If you win though, you get to live a life of luxury, so they say. To add to the fun Capitol broadcasts it across all of Panem for the districts to watch on a nearly mandatory basis – and the people of Capitol really think nothing is wrong with it. In the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to be her districts “Tribute” to save the life of her sister. She and the son of a baker, Peeta Mellark, are shipped away to Capitol to prepare for all the glitz and glamour of the Hunger Games before an almost certain death. The build-up includes full make overs by stylist Cinna, training by a former victor from their district named Haymitch, and the joy of talk show appearances with host Ceasar Flickman. When it’s all said and done Katniss must enter the Games and do what she must to survive.

Suzanne Collins, the author of the books, is actually listed as a screenplay credit and it doesn’t hurt that the book was written to be easily translated into a screenplay from novel, which is more rare than you would think. The forethought in writing shows in the final product that makes it to screen. Writers Billy Ray and Gary Ross (who also directed) have some credits as well and if I had to guess they were responsible for some necessary adaptations and final on screen changes to dialogue and sets. I really want to talk about this as per the normal rules I have to watch a film prior to the review. People have been complimenting Enders Game on it’s realistic portrayal of children put in danger and in high tension situations pushed on them by the adults and how both deal with it. While the books for Enders did this a long time ago and the movie did it well, I have to say I think Hunger Games does it a bit better in film. Hold on, hold on.

Look at the execution of the characters, the performances of which I will get to soon enough. Katniss, a young girl forced to adulthood by a nigh catatonic mother, a deceased father and a sister to take care of. She has skills as a hunter, a survivalist and generally is a rebel but quiet about it. She volunteers to be part of a thing that she mocks and loathes to protect her sister. This is a death sentence, but its worth it to her for her family. She resigns herself to death and only plays the game of popularity begrudgingly. In a conversation with Peeta, who has also resigned himself, he is willing to die but doesn’t want to change who he is to survive the games. Katniss’s reply – “I can’t afford to think like that.” There is a tremendous amount of weight in that line and the actors delivery. You have a sixteen year old girl who knows she must and will do anything to survive no matter what it takes with the odds so very much not in her favor. Then as the Games progress she never loses the vulnerability of being human, despite competitors who barely are. The film allows us those quiet moments of pain (which some mock, but I enjoy), grief and loss as a beautiful counterpoint to the action, the romance (faked or not), and manipulations of those around her. The story is not gentle on the characters and it really does not pull punches either. Haymitch even remarks when someone threatens Kat with punishment – “They already have been. What else are they going to do them?” I think that in Enders some of those quiet elements were lost in the spectacle and the pacing where Hunger Games took the time needed to show the characters breaking and being reforged.

Those decisions likely game from director Gary Ross, probably best known for emotionally deep films such as Big, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. With Pleasantville especially he manages to draw some incredibly emotional performances from his cast and does so in black and white. It has both heart and humor. Hunger Games lacks a lot of humor aside from a snark here or there for your consideration, but has the heart. Matched with it is a profound visual style and orchestration of this dystopian future and a type of horror that comes with putting children in peril. Sadly some of his choices are not perfect and many complain about the shaky cam throughout the film. On my first five watching’s of the movie, I only noticed it back in District 12. This time I did notice that it was throughout the majority of the film with the intent to show the instability of Katniss’s emotions as she’s put through the events. It doesn’t work. It actually made me nauseous the first time I saw it. It’s probably the single most complained about element of the film and hopefully director Francis Lawrence learns from that in Catching Fire. I doubt it, but a girl can dream.
One other visual effect fails in such a spectacular way I must reference the “million dollar wolves” of The Day After Tomorrow. The director of that film laments in the commentary about the “wolves” that attack the protagonists at the end of the film whilst they run from the cold. The dogs at the end of this film are atrocious. That is being generous. I know what was in the book was even worse by description and Collins herself regrets it. This creation though surprises me that someone on a VFX team thought “these look good enough, if we make it night, no one will notice how bad they look.” The problem is you bothered to use the wire frames for the dogs as another establishing shot so we could see how bad the design is before you added the skins and texture mapping; which was botched. Quite literally every other effect I love. The Girl on fire sequence, the dress, the hover train, the dome, the fire in the woods are all good. Even the distortion of her perceptions after the Tracker Jackers was well done.

Now for the acting.

Nearly the entire movie rests on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She is the perfect young (21 at the time) actress to carry that burden. She had very few major acting roles prior. True X-Men First Class and her try at Mystique came out the year prior, so some geeks already knew her, but this movie made her a household name, an icon, and role model to quite a few girls out there, myself included. She does so much with her body language through the film to keep Katniss from being a two dimensional bad ass. She IS bad ass, but she’s made relatable by Lawrences performance. You can identify with her when she mourns Rue and can be just as amazed a few minutes prior when she reflexively and naturally fires a bow. She makes it look natural and effortless. The closest comparison I can think of is how Ryan Reynolds performed in Smokin’ Aces with a level of complexity to the character and ability to shift between Snark, Pain and someone who WILL Survive. She even makes the romance between Katniss and Peeta something that, if you didn’t have the books as a guide, you could believe to be true until the moment that she makes it uncertain. This is all the actresses’ ability to deliver and she succeeds.

Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terrabithia, Vampires Assistant) lets a male lead be more vulnerable than the female, which is nice. He doesn’t really have much of a personal driving arc in this one and instead plays second fiddle to Katniss and the wallflower who watches his desire from afar. If anything he succeeds at seeming genuine and charming rather than creepy in his adoration of the girl of his dreams (I’m looking at you Twilight). Liam Hemsworth, Chris’s younger brother is flat as Gale Hawthorne, pretty but not much too him. He could stand on screen and that’s enough. When he opens his mouth he’s really kind of a jock jerk if you really listen to the characters lines. Stanley Tucci is absolutely scenery chewing as Caesar Flickman the talk show host with the insane hair; that is not too insane for the people of Capitol. Singer Lenny Kravitz turns in a sublime performance as designer Cinna and brings some of the movies more heartfelt quiet moments with him. Everyone else is passable in their roles, even Donald Sutherland as Satanic Santa, er President Snow; save one.

Woody Harrelson, whom I normally don’t enjoy, plays one of the former victors of the games Haymitch Abernathy. He has the responsibility to teach Peeta and Katniss what it takes to survive, to be likeable so the viewing public may sponsor them and send them emergency gifts and pass on whatever else he may know to give them the best odds. Aside from Katniss, he actually shows a character with one of the most in depth and subtle character arcs in the movie. He starts as a drunkard, bitter, lost and alone; tired of watching children from his district die year after year when he alone lived. As Katniss grows into the symbol she is to become, he begins to grow as well. There are subtle things like him covering a drink cup to avoid additional alcohol that are in the background but still there. He really brought something to this character that I want to see more of in the movie tomorrow.

It’s worth mentioning quite a few folks complained about how this film seems a lot like the Japanese film Battle Royale. It has some elements in common this is true: Dystopian Future, Corrupt Amoral government, children in peril to teach a lesson. There are other aspects which bear similarity as well, but there’s a concept out there where writers at a similar time will write similar stories. I think that is what happened here. Some get more famous than others, but there are always those threads that can be looked at and compared to. While Battle Royale is a good film (sequel not so much) where the two films go and how they focus are two wildly different things and that is all on the writers themselves. I seriously doubt that Suzanne Collins watched BR and thought “Hey let me make a teen friendly, Americanized version of this.” What’s possible, and more likely, is in a conversation someone went “what if” and that someone may have known someone who talked about it based on someone who had seen it. The two films are different and should not be compared and Collins did not rip off BR no matter how much some folks would like to say so.

So at nearly 2100 words so far, and trust me I could keep going I think we’ve hit:

TL;DR

Hunger Games is in my mind an iconic film. It’s this generations Superman (Reeves version folks). Katniss is a character for now that we can let our children want to be. Loyal, loving, and strong. She and the movie are a fantastic modern fairy tale and one I cannot recommend enough.

I have to admit writing that seems odd, but when I really think about it and all I’ve written here I believe it. This is the modern mythology of the 2000s and the new Perseus is a girl named Katniss Everdeen.

Now, I sleep and prepare for tomorrow night and it’s review. Did you like this new more in depth and longer format?