November 22, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY FILM REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE:  Buy A Ticket – The Odds Remain in This Franchise’s Favor

Gary Ross did a fine, gritty job as director and co-writer of the first Hunger Games adaptation, one especially attuned to the emotional arc of its emblematic heroine.  But minutes into the follow-up, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, it becomes apparent how different things are when a director with real chops is in charge.  Francis Lawrence, no auteur but a very capable guy behind the camera (I Am Legend and Water For Elephants are among his credits) has, very literally, stepped up the game.  With the help, admittedly, of a more generous budget from Lionsgate this time around (now that megasuccess is assured), every visual aspect of Catching Fire is more epically conceived and realized than it was in Hunger Games–and without any loss to the franchise’s storytelling and acting strength.  (Lawrence will also direct the 2-part film of the final novel Mockingjay.)

A point-by-point comparison is especially obvious here, because as readers of Suzanne Collins’s book know, while the storyline is different, the general trajectory of Catching Fire follows the same line as The Hunger Games.  We meet the victorious Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her Appalachian-esque home of District 12 in the futuristic land of Panem, and then follow her to the resplendent Capital again for training and from there, of course, to the newest version of the Games.  It’s rather fascinating that there’s almost a meta quality to the narrative (minus the bloodshed, of course), when it comes to Jennifer Lawrence, who like her character was a mere up-and-comer 18 months ago, and is now a global superstar, her every move and utterance (and recently, hairstyle) a subject of scrutiny.  In Catching Fire, however, the consequences are more serious than some snarky blog entries, as evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) realizes that Katniss’s defeat of the system in forcing a rules change to save not just herself but Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and her open mourning for dead opponent Rue, have made her the symbol of rebellion throughout the districts.  This leads Snow, with the help of new head Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to devise an especially ugly tournament for the 75th edition, a so called Quarter Quell:  former Hunger Games victors will have to compete against each other.

This makes things more complicated not just for Katniss and Peeta, but for Catching Fire as a movie, because while oRue was the only developed character among the opponents in the first Hunger Games, here there are almost half a dozen new characters who have to be introduced and explored to some degree.  Screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) and “Michael deBruyn” (actually the pseudonyn of Little Miss Sunshine‘s Michael Arndt, who was replaced during development and doesn’t seem happy about it) do an excellent job of streamlining electronics genius Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his seemingly scattered companion Wiress (Amanda Plummer), elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen), flamboyant Finnick (Sam Claflin), and mean girl Johanna (Jena Malone) so that their characters make sense without slowing down the story.  All of those actors, along with Hoffman, are welcome additions to the saga.  Even before arriving at the Games, this script allows Effie (Elizabeth Banks) far more of a character than the live-action cartoon she was the first time around, and also retains the additional nuance the novel gave Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Katniss’s sister Prim (Willow Shields).  Stanley Tucci’s unctuous Caesar Flickerman, too, gets, well, a flicker of humanity.  Readers will recall that this Hunger Games is considerably more devious than the last version, in more ways than one, and the complicated arena and its challenges are beautifully realized both visually and narratively–although the last sequence features a great many confounding things happening very quickly, and I’m not sure if I hadn’t read the book that I would have fully understood the implications of what was going on.  (Those who haven’t read the books should also be aware that, like The Empire Strikes Back and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, this is a mid-franchise chapter that has a cliffhanger for an ending, so there’s no neat resolution to be had here.)

At the center of the Hunger Games franchise, of course, is its star.  You could plausibly make an argument that at the age of 23, Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest movie star of her generation right now, male or female, the only action star whose fame isn’t tied to a cape or a shield or some other piece of paraphernalia (and an Oscar-winning actress as well).  Catching Fire gives her a Katniss who’s more aggressive and confident than the girl of the first movie, and Lawrence continues to be incandescent in the role, a rocket ship of anger, vulnerability, petulance, fear and confusion.  The director knows full well what he’s got:  he ends his giant movie on a close-up of Lawrence that singlehandedly sets up the next two pictures in the series.  Catching Fire is stronger on the romantic side of the Hunger Games story than the first film was, although it continues to be unbalanced by the sheer amount of screen time Peeta gets as Katniss’s partner in the Games compared to Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who all but vanishes from the story after its first section.  Both men are fine, but neither holds a candle to their co-star.

Francis Lawrence has replaced much of the first film’s technical team, with Jo Willems in as cinematographer and costumes by Trish Summerville, although Philip Messina returns as production designer.  This is a franchise where visual choices distinctly matter, because it’s much more concerned with class and geographical distinctions than a Marvel movie would ever be (come on, think fast:  where does the finale of Thor: The Dark World take place?), and Lawrence team delivers not just sumptuous style but incisive detail.  Even the CG is strikingly better in Catching Fire, perhaps most notably in the giant pre-Games procession of the Tributes through the Capital, a rather tepid affair in Hunger Games but presented here with believable grandeur.  James Newton Howard returns as composer, although with a score that’s more traditionally symphonic than the sparer music he provided under Ross’s direction.  The editing, this time by Alan Edward Bell (he also did Water For Elephants for Lawrence) keeps the 146-minute running time hopping while retaining the emotional underpinnings of the story.

With the Harry Potter series done (although not J.K. Rowling’s movie career, as Warners is thrilled to know), The Hunger Games is the class of the franchise crowd, not just worthy of recognition for its trailblazing female hero, but for its intelligence and style.  Catching Fire admirably doesn’t rest on its predecessor’s laurels, but takes the series to an even higher championship level.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."