27 November 2013

Filmbook: "Catching Fire" (2013)

I went to see "Catching Fire" out of duty and left catching my breath.

The second adaptation of Suzanne Collins' blockbuster YA series, featuring teenagers fighting to the death in a televised spectacle in a totalitarian country, had a lot riding on it, including a not so stellar opening entry. While "The Hunger Games" plodded, new director Francis Lawrence, who you surely know as the director of the "Bad Romance" music video, pushes the tempo on "Catching Fire" such that even its quiet, still moments remind us of the pressures Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a former champion of the Games, is forced to live under every second.

Looking back on my spoilerrific review of the series, I think CATCHING FIRE ended up as my favorite book, because of the combination of the conceit of the first book (teenagers fighting to the death) with the gradual awakening of Katniss, and others in the Games, to the extent to which they are political pawns. At first, it was only about each of them staying alive; now, with the Quarter Quell (an Extra-Special Anniversary Hunger Games), Katniss goes in to fight not only to keep herself alive but to make sure, as the country's President (an excellent Donald Sutherland) has threatened, that she won't face retaliation upon her return.

Another great thing about CATCHING FIRE, and Collins' series as a whole, is how it reflects the ambient culture without sinking to catchphrases or specific references. The reality-show style presentation of the contestants and their treatment outside of the arena was very evocative for me, and hopefully won't look too dated. A lot of great actors in small part stuff the pre-Games scenes with meaning (my standouts were Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and surprisingly Lenny Kravitz) and the first few minutes of the Quell have a stark loneliness to them. Then the action starts. Gone is the shakycam pursuit of the previous movie; now we get shots that would be gorgeous if they weren't so terrifying, of fog and lightning and crashing waves.

More than ever in this installment I noticed how Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, has to tamp down her natural likeability and charm to play a character who is naturally guarded, and now suspicious about letting anyone see her real emotions. I don't know that the performance itself was different from her in "The Hunger Games," but now Lawrence is a star, with an appropriately-sized paycheck and an Oscar*. It's strange that a sub-theme of this movie is how Katniss struggles to keep up with her Capitol PR-related activities, when Lawrence has been charming the pants off the world this week on talk shows and in interviews -- always smiling, revealing just a little to humanize her. She's not just cashing it here, though; there's a tight shot on her face where we see Lawrence go through several emotions all in the space of a few seconds, and she pulls it off expertly.

Can you get into this series if you aren't a traditional YA fan? Yes, and I think you should, because this is one of the year's best action movies and the kind of heart-pounder that doesn't get distracted from its business of horrifying you. (One effect in particular visited upon Lawrence and some of her fellow competitors was so gruesome I'm going to have to pause this blog post to get up and wash my hands again.) It maddens me a little that coverage of this movie has been framed as "OMG, who will Katniss end up with, Gale or Peeta?" when there's only the skeleton of a love triangle happening. (Plus, for a movie in which many people run around in wetsuits, the framing of this movie is meticulously chaste.) This isn't Forks, Washington where you have time to moon over a vampire and a werewolf. Love is a luxury Katniss does not permit herself

Filmbook verdict: Read the book first. Then see "The Hunger Games" and this movie, and feel superior to the bozos in the audience who were shocked at its ending.

*For a role and a movie I think were overrated, although she was just fine in them! Sic semper Hollywoodis.


Dan O. said...

Great review Ellen. A good addition to the franchise, and one that also has you expecting the worst for these characters, but the best for you and your eyes.

jess said...

I thought Catching Fire was so excellent. It really underlined what a throwaway waste the h.g. movie was.