Thursday, December 4, 2014

Film Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"Hunger Games: Catching Fire"  *** (out of ****)

Things are heating up in "Catching Fire" (2013), the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy.

As I began to watch "Catching Fire" I quickly realized, in the time between seeing "The Hunger Games" (2012) and this movie, I had forgotten much. My mind had to play a lot of catch up. I couldn't remember crucial moments of that movie. All I could remember was my over all feeling. I found the image of young children savagely killing each other disturbing. I also remember thinking there was room for a social and economic commentary with this story of young, working class people, killing each other in a game for the amusement of the rich.

Unfortunately I couldn't remember the moments "Catching Fire" required me to remember. Normally, I suppose, that would be the fault of the critic, the individual. Just because I can't remember the first movie, that doesn't mean you don't remember it. True enough. But, may I suggest another perspective? Shouldn't "Catching Fire" have been a stand alone movie?

What I mean by "stand alone" is, shouldn't the movie have succeeded on it own merits? Shouldn't the movie simply tell its own story and not rely so heavily on what was done previously? The story should be moving forward. Not looking backwards. I saw the first movie but I just don't remember it. It didn't make a lasting impression. However, don't you think it is entirely possible that people who never saw the first movie may have seen this movie first? Given all the media attention, I'm willing to bet there were "casual" movie fans who entered a movie theatre not knowing what "The Hunger Games" were about or saw the first movie.

Fans of the book, which was written by Suzanne Collins, may object and say it doesn't matter. This movie is not for people who have never read the books, never seen the first movie and people who can't remember the first movie. All I can say is, you go right on believing what you want even though you are wrong. Hollywood wants to make money. They want everyone  to see this movie. People who never read the book. People who never saw the movie or can't remember it even. Hollywood isn't interested in your feelings of whether or not the movie was faithfully adapted. Or if the "wrong" audience goes to see this movie. Any audience that goes to see it is the right audience because they bought a ticket. So, get over yourself.

But, as I sat watching "Catching Fire" I just kept feeling this movie couldn't exist without a first one being made. It relies so heavily on the viewer's knowledge of the first movie. It cannot stand on its own as a great movie. And, by the time we get to the end of the movie, it offers no conclusion. No satisfaction. It merely sets it self up as a starting point for a third movie, which is now in theatres, "Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" (2014). They even had to divide the movie into two parts to cash in and make even more money, just as they did with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, though I did enjoy part two of that series quite a bit. The entire movie feels like a sell out. It feels hollow and shallow.

After I saw the first movie and I explained to people how I felt there was an opportunity to engage in a political and social message that the movie did not take. People who saw the movie agreed with me and assured me, because they had read the books, this theme would be picked up in part two and three. There is no great social message, well not really, in "Catching Fire". Its attempts at offering a deeper message are half-baked at best. I actually think "Divergent" (2014) had a smarter screenplay. Even "The Giver" (2014) had better ideas but it turned into a mishmash of "The Hunger Games", "Divergent" and "Pleasantville" (1998).

One thing however that I do like about this movie is the violence has been toned down and we are no longer dealing with children killing each other. That was a welcomed turn of events. "Catching Fire" wants to be more about characters. This dystopian world has already been established in the first movie and we understand what the "hunger games" are so now that everything is out of the way, more focus can be given to the growth of the characters and their continuation of this journey.

In "Catching Fire" we once again follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the winners of the 74th Hunger Games, who caught the attention of the world with their love story, when in reality they do not even like each other. Now, they must go on a winning tour and convince the world they are madly in love.

Brewing beneath the surface however is talk of a revolution. People at the Capital, including President Snow (Donald Sutherland) are worried of a revolution. The public looks to Katniss as a figure of hope. Katniss is afraid President Snow will kill her and her family, including her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and her true love, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whom she can never be with, as the world is under the impression she is in love with Peeta.

The remaining moments of the movie are a psychological cat and mouse game between President Snow and Katniss. At first Katniss wants to convince the President she is not part of a rebellion and the President wants her dead, before a rebellion becomes wide spread.

The sheep (movie critics) actually threw a lot of praise at the movie claiming it was a better movie than the first and that Jennifer Lawrence brings a great intensity to the character. Lawrence and the cast, consisting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are quite good.

Mainly I've mentioned what I didn't like about the movie and yet I've given it three out of four stars. After my initial reaction to feeling I had to play catch up, once the movie settles, somewhat, into its plot, I was interested and found some sequences enjoyable and interesting. This is a well made, slick Hollywood product. The director of the film, Francis Lawrence, who did not direct the first movie, has worked on other big budget science fiction films before; "Constantine" (2005) and "I Am Legend" (2007).

"Catching Fire" is not a great movie. It is not a personal movie. It is not a movie with much to say, other than to hint at larger issues concerning poverty, the theatrics of politics, and class-warfare, but it doesn't take a strong stance. The movie is not about ideas but action.

Perhaps in the third installment all of these social issues will arise more strongly and directly, maybe not. "Catching Fire" almost feels like a bridge to nowhere, with its ending, but perhaps it will lead us to something important.