Catching Fire: A Franchise Betterment Program

jennifer-lawrence-catching-fire-poster-610x903The Hunger Games wasn’t terrible. When I reviewed it last year, I liked it well enough, though I did note that 1) it was too long and/or poorly paced and 2) director Gary Ross was more of a hindrance than a help. Well, the sequel, Catching Fire, fixed both of those problems. Ross is out and though the movie still clocks in at two hours, twenty minutes-plus, the pacing is so much better that it isn’t a grind to sit through. Replacing Ross this time out is Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend), and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3). The original cast is all back, headed up by America’s pretend girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, along with a few new, and very welcome, additions.

Catching Fire picks up as Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) return to their homes in District 12, the impoverished, vaguely Appalachian section of Panem, a dystopic, possibly post-apocalyptic version of America. The movie, to its great credit, does not waste time with an opening prologue (the folks at Marvel could stand to learn this lesson, as this remains a weak spot for them), but instead jumps right in, getting into the thick of the political drama that now faces Katniss and Peeta. Winning isn’t enough—now they’re part of the Capitol’s elaborate publicity machine, not-so-gently shepherded along by officious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and their consigliore, a former District 12 winner himself, the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Effie and Haymitch both feel much more fleshed out this time around as the script is much better and they get to have real, emotional beats. Effie, particularly, is less of a caricature.

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Everything about Catching Fire is a huge upgrade. The first movie didn’t look cheap, but it did look constrained. There was a flatness that came from trying to make the same section of whichever part of the American South where they filmed the movie (Georgia? North Carolina?) look like different locales, and the decadent Capitol was made of CGI. But this time out they nearly doubled the budget and were able to utilize multiple locations, so the whole look of the movie is much, much better. The Capitol is still a little squidgy around the edges, but it does look like more of a real place than it did before. And the actual Hunger Games arena is really impressive, with better effects and a more tangible presence than it had before. The arena takes on characteristics of its own and makes for some thrilling sequences.

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Another big up is the additional casting. Jena Malone and Sam Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) knock it out of the park as former winners Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee is spectacular. I haven’t read Catching Fire (I read The Hunger Games and didn’t love it, so I didn’t finish the series), so I didn’t know what Plutarch’s deal was and I audibly gasped during his reveal. The actual Hunger Games fell a little flat—this is a story about kids killing kids that doesn’t want to show kids killing kids—but the political aspects, the verbal and mental chess going on, made the movie for me. Katniss is largely reactive to the machinations surrounding her, but watching the adults try and predict what she will do, when she is quite unpredictable, was fun.

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Not everything works, though. Francis Lawrence handled the material better than Ross—and eliminated the fucking shaky cam, thank God—and the script clicked along at a better pace, but nothing can save the lack of chemistry between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). It works a little bit for Peeta because his relationship with Katniss is somewhat ambiguous—played up for the cameras and she isn’t sure if either of them really is all that into the other—but Hemsworth is stiff and wooden and despite his hunky exterior, he generates zero on-screen heat. Big bro Chris isn’t a great actor, but he isn’t terrible and he is very watchable, with a natural and charismatic on-screen presence. Liam, however, might actually be a tree.

Catching Fire is a big improvement on The Hunger Games and left me more enthusiastic about the franchise than the first installment did. Jennifer Lawrence is superb as Katniss and she’s surrounded by a great ensemble—I found myself thinking that this is the American Harry Potter, in terms of the cast being a large collection of good-to-great American actors. It’s not groundbreaking in any way, but it’s an enjoyable and exciting movie, starring an immensely likeable actress. It’s hard not to like Jennifer Lawrence and it’s hard not to get a kick out of Catching Fire.

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12 thoughts on “Catching Fire: A Franchise Betterment Program

  1. LR

    I was really blown away by Jennifer Lawrence. There was a lot of emotion in the movie and she never seemed false to me. I saw “Oscar winner” more here than in SLP.

    And I agree about Hemsworth which makes me afraid for the next movies where Gale has a much bigger role. The second book was definitely the best — I doubt the last 2 movies will be this good. Bummer.

    1. Kristin

      LR, I agree with you on most. I like Jennifer in these films (and Winter’s Bone) better than SLP. And Catching Fire the book and film were gang-busters. (Sarah, the second book is fantastic)

      But, I do feel the opposite about Hemsworth. He always seemed like an uncomfortable slab of human in photos, but on film he’s pretty hot. Just me? My take is that Josh and JLaw always kind of come off as… errr… not very sexual, either with one another or in anything else I’ve seen them.

      The whole cast was phenomenal. I think they’ll do well with Mockingjay so long as they have the same team though taking them out of the familiarity of the districts and arena(s) will be challenging.

      Also, I want Katniss’ knit scarf/sweater action from the opening.

      1. They’ve already shot Mockingjay (are still shooting?). Different writer, but same director and a lot of the same behind-camera talent. After this one, I’m more excited for it than I was after The Hunger Games.

      2. LR

        Hemsworth is definitely hot – physically, he’s the perfect Gale. Who knows, maybe he’ll step up the acting in Mockingjay. And I agree that Hutcherson and Lawrence have zero romantic chemistry, especially after seeing them on the promo tour, but it is okay for their characters. At least with this movie I was able to look past the physicality difference in a way I couldn’t in the first.

  2. Elizabeth M.

    I can’t wait to see Catching Fire!!!!!!! One question I have about the franchise is whether the first movie will stand out in a bad way, once all of Hunger Games has wrapped, since Francis Lawrence will have ended up directing 3/4s of the franchise. I found that when directors commit to a franchise, the quality becomes steadier. I just hate to think that the first Hunger Games movie will be seen as the black sheep of the franchise in comparison to the consistent quality and tone of the franchise’s following movies.

    1. I think it’s kind of like Harry Potter. The first couple were perfectly fine, but then Alfonso Cuaron came in and changed the game and raised the bar so high the following directors had a real standard to match. The Hunger Games is fine, but Catching Fire is, not a full-blown game changer, but a similar raising of the bar.

  3. Monika

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who is mystified by Liam Hemsworth’s “acting” ability (I feel the same way about Chris). Australian actors are usually stellar. I guess it goes to show that being hot and hunky is not always enough.

  4. Kristin

    I guess I need to reevaluate my stance on Liam? I had the bar set pretty low at “moving and enunciating.” He sure is pretty, though.

  5. nikki

    I think the ambiguity works for the dynamic of Peeta and Katniss. In the book, we know and are shown that he loves her desperately but she is a character who isn’t aware of her own feelings at all. She never was given the opportunity to be- her primary focus is survival which doesn’t naturally lend itself to self-awareness. I really like the reserved, indifferent way it was played. JLaw is amazing. I wasn’t sold on her casting despite my love of her but she really has done a good job.

    Liam Hemsworth is a terrible actor. Seriously, he has zero screen presence. And I can’t even find him that hot when you compare him to Chris.

    The rest of the cast is terrific though. I can’t wait to see what they do with the third and fourth movies given the source material. Mockingjay wasn’t my favourite book I thought it was all over the place. Plus the best parts of that book are violent and very dark and I don’t know how much they will show of that.

    As to Catching Fire, it is the best book of the whole series.

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