The Hungers Games: Catching Fire has arrived in theaters as the most anticipated studio film probably since The Avengers last year, and with Christopher Nolan‘s Batman series wrapped up, The Hunger Games may now be the most popular active movie franchise in America. In the U.S. at least, it’s bigger than any of Marvel’s individual franchises (including Iron Man). It’s bigger than Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s bigger than The Hobbit. It’s bigger than Transformers. It’s bigger than Bond or Star Trek or X-Men or Spider-Man or anything from Pixar. In fact, the first Hunger Games grossed more in the U.S. than any of the Harry Potter movies. And it’s outgrossed these movies without the use of 3D surcharges. Remarkable. I don’t pretend to know why any of this is true, but as Bill Belichick would say, it is what it is.
I came away from the first Hunger Games feeling kind of “meh” about the franchise. In my review last year (my previous Hunger Games-related posts are linked at the end of this review), I said that while I enjoyed the movie and thought it featured several interesting (if unoriginal) concepts, it had a lot of glaring flaws, due in large part, I surmised, to the inexperience of director Gary Ross with this kind of big budget action movie. It was good enough that I wanted to see Catching Fire in theaters, but not good enough that I was excited about doing so.
I actually watched The Hunger Games for just the second time (via Netflix streaming) a day after seeing Catching Fire on opening night. I meant to watch it before the second movie came out (which, you know, would have made sense), but unfortunately my superpower is procrastination. I came away from my second viewing with a slightly improved opinion of it, but my criticisms still stand. However, whatever my reservations were last March, even then I said there was real potential with this story going forward. I’m thrilled to say that potential has been fully realized in Catching Fire. Under the stewardship of a new director (Francis Lawrence, no relation to Jennifer), one who has experience with big effects movies and with good drama, the series climbs to new heights in all aspects of its storytelling. I can’t think of a single way in which Catching Fire is inferior to The Hunger Games, and that probably hasn’t been true of any sequel since The Dark Knight in 2008.
I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this movie. I dare say I loved it. I’ve always said nothing is better than liking a movie more than you thought you would, because so few movies MEET your expectations, let alone exceed them. This one exceeded mine. After two viewings, I’m confident in saying that Catching Fire is my second-favorite movie of 2013. I liked it more than Iron Man 3. I liked it more than Star Trek Into Darkness. I liked it better than anything 2013 has had to offer except 12 Years a Slave. Now, there are better movies this year (Gravity, Captain Phillips), but we’re talking favorites here. Two different things.
Bearing in mind that I haven’t done a full review since tearing The Lone Ranger apart in July, here goes nothin…
WHAT I LIKED
–Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Duh. The more I see of her mastery of Katniss, the more I like this character. I believe the reluctant hero is the best kind (and the most realistic kind), and Katniss is one of the strongest cinematic examples of that in a long time, even moreso here than in the first movie. And to have a strong, well-written female hero? Well, that only happens about once a decade in the movies. I believe Lawrence’s work in this film is worthy of Best Actress consideration. Now, she probably won’t get nominated because there’s a lot of good competition this year, but I bring it up to tell you that’s how good she is here. I believed every second of Katniss’ development thru Lawrence’s performance, and even without having read a single page of these books, I feel as though I understand this character. I can’t wait to find out what’s in store for her going forward.
Can I also say how impressed I am with Lawrence just as a person? She has handled her rapid ascension into superstardom better than any young actor I’ve ever seen, which is made even more incredible given the 24/7 internet and social media celebrity judgment machine that now operates year-round in this country. It’s obvious how much talent she has (she may actually live up to the title of “The Next Meryl Streep“), but I’ve been equally amazed by how comfortable and poised she is in the spotlight. Read or watch any interview with her and you can tell what a cool chick she is. Totally gets it. Totally grounded. Totally self-aware. Totally understands the position she is in. And she’s still only 23.
The closest comparison I can come up with is how well Leonardo DiCaprio handled his career after Titanic made him basically the most famous person on Earth. That kind of attention might have literally killed a lesser person, but DiCaprio keeps his private life private and in my view has not made a single bad movie in the 16 years since the Titanic juggernaut (J. Edgar was mediocre, but not bad). Of course, it helps that people like DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence get to see all the best scripts before anybody else, but it’s not as easy as they make it look, I promise you. In fact, let’s get the two of them in the same movie sometime soon, eh? Scorsese, get on that, brah.
Since I posted a pic of Lawrence at the premiere on my review for the first film, I guess I have to do it again. How will I ever find a photo of her looking good in a dress?
Owning the new short hair. Dee-lish.
–Francis Lawrence, director. In my view, he is the one most directly responsible for the massive uptick in the quality of this franchise. Most people had no clue who Francis Lawrence was prior to this film coming out, but I’ve been a big fan of his since he was one of most popular music video directors in the industry in the late 90’s/early 2000’s (check out his impressive music video filmography HERE). You know, back when music videos were still a thing on MTV. I remember thinking back then that he was one of those music video directors who had real potential to successfully cross over into movies. He finally got his shot on the Keanu Reeves flick Constantine in 2005, which I thought was better than it could have been. Then he directed Will Smith‘s I Am Legend, and he last made Water for Elephants in 2011, which was grossly underrated and underseen. He’s been getting better and better each time out. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I am not surprised in the least that when paired with strong material, Francis Lawrence made one hell of a good movie.
Catching Fire is completely and utterly superior to Hunger Games in every aspect of its visual storytelling. Gone is the annoying shaky cam that made most of the action in the first movie indecipherable. In are much better visual effects (which, granted, should be partially attributed to the increased budget), smoother editing, and large-scale cinematography. There are still a few too many extreme closeups of people’s faces, but some of the wide shots in this movie had me drooling. Lawrence also made the decision to shoot the entire Hunger Games sequence with IMAX cameras; a total of almost 50 uninterrupted minutes in the large format, the most IMAX footage in a feature film outside of The Dark Knight Rises. But even TDKR was never in IMAX for that length of time continuously. I can’t say Lawrence got noticeably better performances out of his actors, because that wasn’t an issue on the first film. I will say the script is better this time, giving most of the actors more interesting things to do. I do like the performances in this film better, but that’s more attributable to the better script (this time adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, both Oscar winners) and the actors being more comfortable in their roles.
For the curious, yes, Francis Lawrence is also directing Mockingjay (filming right now, actually), which will of course be split into two films, one each for November 2014 and 2015. Because your wallet, that’s why.
Since there was a change in the director’s chair, much of the key crew is different this time around, too. The composer (the great James Newton Howard, putting in some fine work once again), production designer and art department heads are retained, but we’ve got a new editor (Alan Edward Bell), new cinematographer (Jo Willems), and a new costume designer (Trish Summerville, who did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for David Fincher). This probably bores most of you, but I find it interesting. The fact that they were able to maintain the basic visual aesthetic of the first film while improving on many design elements with just a few months of pre-production is very impressive. Of course, much of the essential look of Panem remains the same, but I felt the world-building was much better this time out, and I was definitely more impressed by the costumes here as well. I already mentioned how much I appreciate the more restrained editing and stabilized photography.
–Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. O-M-G. This guy is easily my favorite non-Katniss character in these movies. I’d love to give Tucci some serious Supporting Actor consideration for this performance, but unfortunately the character is kinda one-note. But that one note is fucking awesome. I joked on Facebook the other day that I want to see Stanley Tucci host the Oscars in character as Caesar Flickerman this year. How amazing would that be? The hell with Ellen DeGeneres! I don’t know how much we’ll get to see of this character going forward in the story, but I NEED more of him. The scene in this film where he interviews the contestants is pure gold. Simply put, Caesar Flickerman is one of my favorite movie characters of the past 10-15 years.
“The girl on fire, so cheeky!”
Also, Caesar Flickerman needs to be a popular Halloween costume/cosplay character, PRONTO.
Sidebar: Stanley Tucci is rising quickly on my list of favorite actors. This man has no clue how to deliver a subpar performance. Whenever I get around to reconsidering my official list of favorite actors, Stanley Tucci may appear in the top 10.
–The rest of the cast. I’m still not a big fan of Josh Hutcherson, and I still can’t get over how stupid a name Peeta is for a male, but he was much more tolerable this time than in the first film, where he was basically a male damsel in distress. Hutcherson is competent in the role, and there’s real growth in the character.
It was wonderful to see Elizabeth Banks‘ Effie Trinket get some character depth as well. Banks is again fantastic in one of the most colorful (literally and figuratively) roles in the series. I don’t know if such a scene exists in the books, but I would absolutely love to have just one scene where somebody walks in on Effie completely out of costume, with no makeup or anything. I dunno, I just think that would be really cool.
Woody Harrelson is again solid, but I suspect he’ll get his best material in the forthcoming story. I’m also liking young Willow Shields‘ development as both a character and as a young actress in the Primrose Everdeen role. Prim looks up to her sister in a big way, and you really feel that in her performance.
Even Donald Sutherland seemed to try harder this time around, after totally mailing in his performance in the first film. That was nice to see. I’m sure it helped that he played most of his scenes here against Philip Seymour Hoffman instead of Wes Bentley. As much as I enjoyed Bentley and his epic beard trimming in the first film, Philip Seymour Hoffman > Wes Bentley as the new games master (or gamemaker or whatever the hell they call em- everything in Suzanne Collins‘ world has a goofy name). Hoffman didn’t have a whole lot to do here, but he’s still Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Among the newcomers, I loved Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as the eccentric past winners Beetee & Wiress, and Sam Claflin does a nice job as the noble hunk, Finnick. Jeffrey Wright is another actor who can do no wrong in my eyes. Did you see this past season of Boardwalk Empire?
Most notable amongst the new cast, though, was the incredible Jena Malone as District 7’s past winner, Johanna Mason. I wasn’t really following the development of this project over the past year, so I was completely unaware she was even in the film, but she was the best kind of surprise. Her anger and bitterness were palpable. That scene in the elevator is perfection; one of the best individual scenes in any movie this year. I adored Malone in Sucker Punch (one of the few highlights of that film), and she was great again here. Why is this girl not getting more prominent work? I would happily pay to see a spinoff prequel starring Jena Malone about the backstory of Johanna Mason prior to the events of Catching Fire. Is there more information about her background in the books? If so, I’d definitely like to look it up, but I don’t want to see any Mockingjay spoilers.
–The non-human obstacles in the arena were much cooler this time. In fact, pretty much the entire way these Hunger Games played out was cooler than what we saw in the first movie. I love the whole spinning island/clock concept and there being a new calamity within a specific area once an hour. Very cool. I liked the poison fog (and the cringe-inducing boiling effect it had on the characters’ skin), the crazy baboons, and the Jabberjays scaring the shit out of Katniss. To me, this stuff was much better than wasps, a wall of fire and the goofy looking dogs from the first movie.
–The soundtrack. The first film had a more folksy, country soundtrack, where this one verges more into indie rock and anthems. The highlights for me are Coldplay‘s “Atlas”, the first original song they’ve contributed to a movie. It’s pretty good, but not their best work. It’s growing on me. I’ll consider it for Best Original Song, but it’s got some stiff competition this year. Easily my favorite track on the album is a new original from Of Monsters and Men called “Silhouettes”. I haven’t listened to the whole album yet, but both films now have solid soundtracks, which is an increasingly rare occurrence. Catching Fire also features songs from The National, Christina Aguilera, Sia, and new “it girl” Lorde. Check it out.
–No 3D post-conversion! Nobody will have to pay extra to see this movie in completely unnecessary 3D! Bravo! Standing O!
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
-Once again, we didn’t get to spend any real time with most of the other rival tributes. They do a good job showing off the other contestants in the training sequence, and I especially thought the chick with the fangs was cool, but we don’t see her again basically at all for the rest of the movie. There were only a couple of moments where our main characters and their friends face off against the other tributes, but none of them become good villains. For the most part, they’re only temporary obstacles while the good guys fight against the environment. I know you can only show so much of the other people due to time constraints, but give me something. It also wasn’t clear to me even after two viewings which of them were genuinely out to kill Katniss & Co., and which of them were in on the escape plan. I dunno, maybe I’m stupid.
-Once again, Toby Jones goes to waste. His Claudius Templesmith character was grossly underused in the first film, and here he appears in literally one scene. Boo! Either have the courage to remove the character from the movies entirely, or don’t cast someone so recognizable or accomplished in such an inconsequential role. It’s distracting. Toby Jones is a great actor, not an extra. Use him as such or don’t use him at all.
-Just one little nitpick here, but Katniss’ infinite arrows. I know it’s the tiniest of tiny issues, but this kind of glaring continuity error always bugs the shit out of me. No, really. I think I sharted in the theater when I noticed the following: after the group escapes the crazy monkeys, Katniss has maybe 4 arrows left in her quiver. And that’s fine, because she just shot a bunch of crazy monkeys. But then, minutes later when the group is resting on the beach, she has 7 or 8 arrows, and by the end of the beach scene she’s only missing one or 2 arrows in the entire quiver. I iz confoozed. Do they respawn?
And that’s about it, ladies and gentlemen. There was nothing I actively hated about this movie. In a perfect cinematic world, Catching Fire would have been close to 3 hours long and rated R, but we don’t live in a perfect world, real or imagined.
The creative success of Catching Fire has forced me to actually look forward to Mockingjay instead of seeing it just to see it, which is how I approached the first two flicks. I’m glad about that. If Hollywood is going to insist on the majority of its releases being franchise movies, it’d be nice if a few of them were actually good, or god forbid, better than good. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – it’s better than good!” There. That’s my official blurb. Somebody from Lionsgate’s marketing department better put that in a TV commercial.
Now, I’ve already made my case for why I believe Mockingjay should not have been turned into two movies, but that ship has sailed. But don’t worry Hunger Games fans, you only have to wait a year to see the first part of the conclusion to the story, and then a year AFTER THAT for the actual finale. Thanks, Lionsgate! The only thing that discourages me going forward (other than Lionsgate’s greed) is the fact that from I can tell, Catching Fire is widely considered the best book in the series. The only positive I can come up with is that Mockingjay will have more time to flesh out certain characters and scenarios where the first two movies did not. Again, I’ll remind you that the Mockingjay book is only 9 pages longer than Catching Fire. We got 146 minutes of Catching Fire, but we’ll get a combined 270-300 minutes of Mockingjay. Something has to give here.
I’ll tell you one more thing: during my search for interesting articles about Catching Fire, I came across a post on EW.com called How Will They Make Mockingjay PG-13? I didn’t read it of course in avoidance of potential spoilers, but I like that the final part of the story is intense enough that this will be an issue. *rubs hands together* Yessssssss…
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – PG-13 – 146 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8/10
Biggies Consideration: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Ensemble Performance, Actress, Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Score, Original Song x2, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing
Recommendation: A MUST-SEE in theaters, and preferably in IMAX if you have one near you. Do it. Caesar will thank you…
See also: iO9’s How Catching Fire Fixed All the Terrible Mistakes The Hunger Games Made, The Playlist’s The Best & Worst of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (I don’t agree with all of it, but it expands on some of the things I brought up briefly here)