21 November 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE- Review

The Hunger Games was the biggest sleeper hit in cinemas last year, riding the wave of the hugely popular novels by Suzanne Collins. Since then, the series has undergone a change in director, and a financially rewarding but no less rubbish decision to split the poorly received final book into two separate films, a la Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn.

Respectively, these two developments have meant that Catching Fire is a visually and narratively superior sequel, but one which should probably be quicker on its feet in the run-up to the finale than it actually is. Since we last saw her, Katniss Everdeen has been moved into a slightly less shitty house in District 12, right across the way from Peeta Mallark, her fellow victor in the previous year's Hunger Games, and her on-camera love interest. Their defiant victory has led to stirrings of rebellion across Panem, and the danger isn't over yet for either of them.

Having read Collins' novels since seeing the first film, my first impression after seeing this was that it's a remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel. To my mind, Catching Fire is the best of the three books, but after effectively escalating the stakes, it becomes a structural retread of its predecessor, and reaps its only major surprises from sticking to a third person perspective on Katniss, while other characters work around her and without her (or our) knowledge. As you can imagine, Catching Fire the movie both benefits from, and suffers accordingly for its reverence for the source material.

The atmosphere of the thing is even more oppressive and frightening than in the previous film, partly as a result of the increased stakes, but mostly because the script does a better job of establishing the mood from the outset. Although the first film grabbed a lot of attention for its depiction of children violently killing other children, the violence feels even more brutal and disturbing here, most affectingly when an old man is executed for saluting Katniss early on.

Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt both worked on the script, and their big success is in immediately establishing that the cruelty of the Capitol's regime in Panem, with a dangerous and dastardly Donald Sutherland at its head as President Snow, extends beyond the Hunger Games. There's also a circumstantial stroke of genius in having so much of the film centre on having a character played by Jennifer Lawrence having to curtail to the media's agenda, when the real-life, unfiltered J-Larry has the best interview banter in the business.

On the other hand, it makes the sequel seem funnier than the first film, because the moments of levity seem that much lighter next to the effectively cultivated misery about this nasty little dystopia. There's a typically overstated but no less harrowing party scene, which serves to show how ghastly things really are- it's straight from the page, and brought to sick-making life by the lovely and ostentatious production design. Even Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket seems a little bit queasier at what she's doing to these kids, while Stanley Tucci's chat show ringmaster rolls with it even better, by actually playing it more unctuously than ever before.

The problem with the film, in terms of its running time, is similar to the problem I had with the story on the page. Beaufoy and Arndt bring out so much of the pathos and tension out of the sequences leading up to the inevitable return to the Hunger Games, that it feels like there's little left to say once the arena sequence begins. To be fair, the games are better in this film because they're shot better, and there's a clearer sense of storytelling. The budget is higher, the shakycam has been made still, and by the time the games begin, we've been properly introduced to the new tributes, including a career-best turn for former franchise-hunk-for-hire Sam Claflin, and a performance from Jena Malone that actually gives our leading lady a run for her money in the piss-and-vinegar stakes.

At its worst, the film makes a foray into the sitting-in-fields love triangle-ing that made the Twilight saga so interminable. As incredible as Lawrence is in the lead role, and as wonderful as it is to see a film with these gender politics being so popular and successful, it can't get everything right, and Katniss' District 12 paramours, Peeta and Gale, continue to be slightly bland characters. It's no fault of either Josh Hutcherson or Liam Hemsworth- it's just another thing that comes right off the page. You've gotta be Team Peeta, because he's just a better guy all around, (and not just because of the funny ship name) but the character as written doesn't give us much to go on.

The main point that I'm driving at is that the film does a great job of bringing almost everything over from the book to the screen, and making it all seem vital, but there's a sense that it only avoids derailing by moving with trepidation. Francis Lawrence is the new hand at the helm, and he keeps things chugging along in a mostly entertaining way, but on the strength of the tighter first half, this might have made it onto my top 10 list of the year if it were shorter and sharper. As it turns out, that 146 minute running time makes all the difference, but I'll still take a complex and meaningful dystopia flick over a thoughtless tentpole any day.

Catching Fire is not a film you want to double-bill with the first instalment, but repetitions aside, it has many of the hallmarks of a superior sequel. For the most part, it carries its extra weight like a much leaner movie. It's better looking than part one, and it boasts a terrific script and improved performances all around from the cast. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss remains the main draw, and she levels up into iconic heroine status somewhere around the halfway mark. The haunting final shot of the film is a testament to the power of her performance, and it turns what could've been a frustrating, anti-climactic cliffhanger, into an ending that leaves you clamouring for Mockingjay. Well, Mockingjay Part 1. Sigh...

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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