Saturday, November 23, 2013

Movie Review: Catching Fire

First let's clear up one thing:  I did not cry during this film.  Okay, I didn't cry a lot.  Okay fine, I at least didn't cry quite as much as the young woman behind me, who from the sound of things was in tears from beginning to end.  I'm not sure even she understood why she was having this reaction, but I can say that I don't blame her a bit.

That's just the kind of movie Catching Fire is--it takes your emotions and tugs them up through your throat, wraps them around your neck, and then asks you to try and breathe through the choke-hold.  This review is itself being delayed for several hours after my initial viewing because I needed that time to process everything I thought about during and after this film, and to figure out how to best put it into words.

With a new director at the helm, Catching Fire could easily have felt choppy or jarringly desperate to stand out from its predecessor (think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), but it just didn't.  Francis Lawrence understands the importance of maintaining and escalating the unique tone of the first movie, and his vision is executed beautifully onscreen without feeling like too sharp a departure from the universe established for us in The Hunger Games.  Improvements were made in the few places they were needed, and while a few tidbits from the book were omitted, the film was admirably and almost completely true to its source material.  The few instances where creative license is taken with scenes or characters feel organic and fit smoothly into the existing plot, and I find myself hard-pressed to think of one that ought to have been changed.

If memory serves I said this about the first film, but it feels doubly true now:  looking at the directors, the screenwriters, the performers, I can't find a weak link in the bunch.  It's almost as though they've all conspired to turn in some of the best work of their careers in the name of making this movie a success.  I fully expected Jennifer Lawrence to be brilliant, as she so reliably is.  What I didn't expect was for Jena Malone and Sam Claflin to so skillfully embody their fan-favorite characters.  What I didn't expect was for Phillip Seymour-Hoffman to portray an intriguing new gamemaker with a cleverness I haven't seen since Alan Rickman humanized Severus Snape on the big screen.  I didn't expect (though I hoped) that Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth would overcome the heartthrob status assigned to them and bring better performances than anticipated, showing that though neither of them will ever outshine J-Law, they are at least entitled to play on the same field.  Further praise goes deservedly to Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland for preventing their characters from becoming caricatures, and for bringing some of the most punch-in-the-gut emotional moments of the film.

When I initially read the book series back in late 2010, devouring all three within a week's time, I viewed Catching Fire as a hinge, a bridge between the initial horrors of The Hunger Games and the roaring conclusion of Mockingjay.  Seeing the film, however, helped me appreciate the tight narrative it is in its own right.  Catching Fire provides the most character development of the three novels, and the film fully rises to that task.  One can seen the tone, as well as Katniss herself, travel from fear to anger to violence, inciting the revolution that will make or break the districts of Panem.  Francis Lawrence has depicted it just about flawlessly, and the intensity of the film's proverbial call to action makes the audience want to join the rebellion themselves, or at the very least set some shit on fire.

As with many great films, there are a number of little things that really enhance the experience, making the film stand out not just as good, but great.  Catching Fire incorporates the musical score from the previous film, using familiar refrains as callbacks to critical events which unfolded in The Hunger Games.  It is also careful to re-establish certain visual elements as important, so that we feel re-immersed in Katniss' world rather than like we're being introduced to something brand new.  The pacing is fairly remarkable as well-- this film approaches the 2.5 hour mark, and yet it feels smooth and free of those restless moments in which most viewers might feel tempted to check the time.

It is also worth noting just how well this film serves as the middle piece of the puzzle:  it hearkens back to The Hunger Games without tediously recapping, and it foreshadows what is to come without forgetting itself as a standalone plot.  The final scenes do feel ever so slightly rushed (one of my few complaints about the film) but in them we get a very clear preview of what to expect in Mockingjay, which rumor has it will be split into two parts.  Questions of staggering significance lay on the table unanswered, and Katniss herself is in a state of visible turmoil, both anxious and afraid but also enraged and thirsting for revenge.  Moviegoers will leave the theater feeling similarly, and eagerly awaiting the final installment.