Sunday, November 24, 2013

Catching Fire is Still Fast and Fierce

     It's becoming harder and harder to not take film adaptations of Young Adult books seriously. Though cinemagoers still see plenty of less inspiring works (like The Golden Compass or Beautiful Creatures), the success of the solid Harry Potter films and a resurgence of great Young Adult literature has caused a chain reaction in Hollywood: with the treasure trove of recent books to adapt, no one (of any age) should feel ashamed to be caught reading Ender's Game or The Fault in our Stars in public. Looking at last year, two adaptations particularly come to mind: the completely wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the entertaining first part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Flash forward to now, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in which Katniss Everdeen faces other major challenges, has stormed into theaters. It's even better than the first. Showcasing surprisingly strong direction from series newcomer Francis Lawrence (director of Constantine and I Am Legend), updated special effects, and a running thread of tension for the entire run time, Catching Fire turns out to be a great adaptation--and a great movie in general.
     Since winning the Games in the last film, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) are back in District 12, but they're not in love anymore (if they ever were). Katniss still has feelings for Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but when the annual Victory Tour date inches closer and closer, Katniss and Peeta must put on a kissy face to please the public and especially President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who feels particularly pissed off about how the last Games ended and how Katniss is starting to become a symbol of hope throughout the government-controlled districts. If this all sounds a little Twilight love-triangle-ish, don't fear: these scenes speed by and aren't cheesy like Bella and Edward's vampire tryst.
     The winners of last year's games--trailed by a previous District 12 winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, clearly relishing his booze-soaked role)--go from district to district, pretending that they are in love to please President Snow, but then something interesting starts happening: the crowds, becoming more and more unruly, begin to clash with the Capital-issued troops, and Katniss incites a growing rebellion. Snow has other plans: you see, this year's games is a Quarter Quell; which means that it is a once-in-every-25-years version of the games that encompasses something more special than normal. This year (to quash any uprising), new head-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), working with President Snow, comes up with a crazy idea: the 75th annual Hunger Games will be between a pool of all of the previous victors, all but ensuring that Peeta and Katniss are thrown back into the deadly mix.
     At this point, there's no denying Jennifer Lawrence's talent. Though the Hunger Games films--at least the first two--don't allow her to showcase her range like in some of her other roles (notably Silver Linings Playbook or Winter's Bone), you would be hard-pressed to fulfill the role of Katniss Everdeen with a better actress. This new arena, primarily water-and-jungle based, poses many new threats for our heroine: forming alliances with a new cast of characters, most notably Finnick (Sam Claflin), an expert warrior in water, Katniss fights off the other victors and a revolving set of dangerous conditions set up by gamemaker Plutarch. Since we know that Katniss must survive this edition of the games in order to truly become a powerful symbol for the men and women of the rebellion, it adds a tension to the proceedings that surpasses the first film's battles. Instead of Katniss Vs. the other tributes, it's more Katniss Vs. the government (specifically President Snow), and it makes every gasp for air and near death all the more intense.
     Director Frances Lawrence really surprised me with Catching Fire. His two other major films, Constantine and I Am Legend, showcased his ability to tell a story involving special effects, but neither of those films match the skill in which this Hunger Games incarnation was created. Though the audience realizes that this film is only the second in a trilogy (though Mockingjay will be split into two films, with a typical studio money grab), the two Lawrence's--Jennifer and Frances--showcase an innate ability to creature tension during the entire run time. Sure, you could take some of the plot points of Catching Fire and turn them into metaphors that pertain to a seemingly more-possible future America. But there's no need to: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is stellar blockbuster entertainment, a film that's made with a passion to the source material and enough excitement to make the 2.5 hour run time fly by as fast as one of Katniss's arrows.      (A-)

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