The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Movie review

The Hunger Games Catching Fire
First things first: Jennifer Lawrence is amazing and brilliant (and my future best friend, so back off everyone please). So of course she is amazing and brilliant reprising her role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire. Lawrence is so effortlessly charming and charismatic in real life it’s easy to forget she is just as effortlessly charming and charismatic onscreen: Her Katniss is angry and strong but vulnerable, her line readings are surprising, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing this character. Catching Fire would not be as good as it is without her.

(Some spoilers lie ahead.)

But! Even putting Lawrence aside, this is a good movie – better than its predecessor. The stakes are higher, the plot is bleaker, and the horror of the world Katniss lives in isn’t just confined to an arena where teenagers murder each other for sport.  Fresh from her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss is closely watched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless leader of the oppressive Capitol. He suspects – rightly – that she’s growing into a symbol of hope for the downtrodden masses out in the districts. Pissed off that Katniss outfoxed him when she tricked her way out of killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in her first games, Snow orders her to act as a tool for his regime.

Katniss, furious but terrified of what Snow will do to her loved ones if she acts out, obeys. But that hope she offers is too potent for even her to call back, so Snow invents a way to get rid of her: He’ll serve up her and her fellow victors to compete in the 75th Hunger Games, a “Quarter Quell” that promises to be even more cruel and brutal than usual.

The resulting spectacle gets a lot of things right. The games don’t even kick off until well into the film – after we’re on board with what a desperate and horrible Katniss situation has been thrown into. When they begin, the action is brisk and thrilling and dangerous. Deadly fog! Deadly monkeys! Deadly lightning!

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

But Catching Fire inherits a lot of problems from both its cinema predecessor and the book it’s based on. Like the first Hunger Games movie, the violence is blunted and brushed aside – characters are gruesomely dispatched without much of an impact – and Liam Hemsworth, as the third point of Katniss’s love triangle, is still given barely anything to do. (I think he’s unfairly criticised for his wooden presence in the Hunger Games movies, when it’d be a struggle for any actor to make much out of such a brief, nothing-y character.)

And, like the book, the film’s ending is something of a letdown. The big twist feels unearned, the plot machinations muddled and never properly explained*, and the climactic cliffhanger – which in the book at least had a bit of heft – is pretty limp, especially coming so soon after the spectacular, fiery destruction of the Games’ tropical arena.

(*I still have no idea exactly what Beetee, played by Jeffrey Wright, was planning to do with that loop of wire.)

The Hunger Games Catching Fire poster

But everything that comes before it is so well executed (no pun intended, I swear). Lawrence deserves kudos for elevating the film well above its script, but she’s helped out on the heavy lifting by returning supporting cast members Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. (Banks’s Capitol publicist Effie Trinkett has a lot going on behind her veneer of make-up, while Tucci deserves a specially created Oscar for Best Performance as a Campy Beady-Eyed TV Host.)

Of the new cast, Sam Claflin is a much better choice than I thought he’d be to play Games victor Finnick Odair – his smug, elfin face suits that character perfectly. (On the downside he is only shirtless in one scene. One! For only like 15 seconds! What even is the point!) And Jenna Malone is a standout as Johanna Mason, who’s unafraid to declare how pissed off she is that she’s been called back for another Games.

It’s possible Catching Fire will be the last good Hunger Games movie: The third instalment, Mockingjay, is by far (by far) the weakest of the books, and it’s impossible to say yet whether needlessly splitting it into two films will make it even worse. But, it’s possible the movies will iron out the book’s kinks into a clearer (and even grimmer) story than the novel. If they can pull that off, it’s really going to be something to see.


Movie review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

I read Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games two years ago (way before it was cool, may I smugly point out), and since then I’ve loudly insisted the movie adaptation will be way better than the book. I enjoy being right!

But it’s a pretty good book, with a simple and disturbing idea at its core. By now The Hunger Games (more accurately, The Hunger Games‘ marketing team) has penetrated pop culture deep enough that everyone knows the plot basics, but here they are again: the overlords of a cruel post-apocalyptic dystopia force teenage “tributes” to battle to the death in an annual spectacle called the Hunger Games.

It’s a story that demands to be told visually, and it becomes much more powerful after its freed from the first-person-narrative trappings of Collins’ book. It’s counter-intuitive to say so but our heroine Katniss really is much more evocative, much more badass, when we only see her from the outside – which is largely down to a fuck-off-amazing performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She owns this film. Her Katniss is strong and brave and mature, and sympathetic and believable and feminine, and lots of other wonderful things.

The other great advantage of tossing aside the book’s first-person perspective is that it allows director Gary Ross to take us behind the scenes of the Hunger Games – and even in this far-flung post-global-warming post-nuclear-apocalypse future, reality TV is still heavily manipulated. Watching Head Gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley – who seems to have been in a lot of movies lately? Maybe he got a new agent) and his team plot so casually to destroy the Tributes for the entertainment of the Capitol’s extravagantly dressed residents makes the entire pageant even more sadistic.

The Hunger Games takes a while – at least an hour – to get to its actual Hunger Games. But the suspense and tension of that build-up is important in capturing what a monstrous event Katniss is participating in. The Games are horrible. But… also morbidly voyeuristic. I mean, c’mon: if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you were super-impatient for the Games to get started so you could get to the killin’, right? You are as awful as everyone in the Capitol (though maybe better dressed).

Much has been made – in Australia, at least – of Liam Hemsworth’s role as Katniss’s District 12 squeeze Gale. He’s hardly in the film. The supporting cast’s shining stars are Elizabeth Banks, who’s grotesquely made-up and just terrific as Katniss’s fussy chaperone Effie, who insists on good manners as she prepares her Tributes for a battle royale; and Woody Harrelson, playing drunkard-with-a-heart-of-gold Haymitch, a former Games winner tasked with guiding Katniss and her fellow District 12-er Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to victory.

The pace sags in the lead-up to the bloody climax, and the plot relies too heavily on sloppy exposition from Games commentators Caesar and Claudius (Stanley Tucci, who’s brilliant, FYI, and Toby Jones), who drop in every now and again to helpfully explain something to us dummies in the audience, then just eject out again.

But the bigger weakness is that The Hunger Games is too light – and I’m not talking about the teenagers-murdering-each-other violence, which is pretty skilfully handled. Plot-wise, this is an edgy film; thematically, it should have been edgier. The satire of media machinations needed more sting (sadly, Katniss’s memorable makeover scene from the book lasts barely 10 seconds in the film), and the exploration of the politics of the Capitol and the Districts needed more depth. Perhaps they will in the inevitable sequel. “It’s aimed at young adults” isn’t a convincing-enough excuse.

Previously: Book review: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins; Book review: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins


Book review: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Don’t pick up Mockingjay if you’re feeling down, because: sheesh. I don’t mind my books bleak, but this one punches through “bleak” and into the depths of some cold, hopeless void on the other side. (Spoilers ahead, for all three instalments of The Hunger Games trilogy.)

This is probably why, when I finished Mockingjay, I thought: “I did not like that.” A little later: “No, I did. Kind of. For a certain definition of ‘like’.” It’s a pretty brutal read, much more so than the previous two instalments – and that’s saying something, given they were about children forced into a sickening battle to the death.

So, as the book opens, life is pretty shitty for heroine Katniss Everdeen: her home in District 12 has been vaporised, she’s living with the rebels in the militarised District 13, and she must decide whether she actually wants to become the Mockingjay – the face of the revolution to overthrown the Capitol and the nefarious President Snow.

Katniss spends a lot of a time faffing over whether she really wants to be the Mockingjay. Boy, does she spend a lot of time faffing: when it’s not about the Mockingjay thing, it’s whether she prefers Gale or Peeta (who, by the way, has been tortured to insanity. Told you it was a cheery book). Much of the first two thirds of the book aren’t especially memorable, plot-wise, though the ever-increasing cynicism is sometimes shocking. Katniss, it transpires, is not a hero – no matter how much she’s told she’s vital to the revolution, she’s really just a pawn to be manipulated, by political leaders, by the media, and even by her nearest and dearest. Mockingjay is not a straight-up goodies vs. baddies book, because most of the characters fall square into “grey”; it’s a step beyond the black-and-white morality of Harry Potter, though not as complex as Chaos Rising.

The story builds to a climax as Katniss and her friends invade the heart of the Capitol (which is conveniently laden with traps reminiscent of the morbidly compelling horrors in the Hunger Games’ arenas), and honestly, it’s this part of the book that really brought Mockingjay down for me. I’m about to totally, explicitly spoil it, so quit reading this review now if you ever plan on reading the series.

Seriously, last chance to get out. … 


Book review: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesOh boy. Talk about un-put-down-able.

There’s a reason every YA blog on the internet raves about The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire: they’re cracking reads with an unstoppable narrative thrust. I gobbled both up inside a week.

It’s heart-pounding stuff. Allow me to steal a synopsis from Stephen King:

The yearly highlight in this nightmare world is the Hunger Games, a bloodthirsty reality TV show in which 24 teenagers chosen by lottery fight each other in a desolate environment called the ”arena.” The winner gets a life of ease; the losers get death. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen (lame name, cool kid), [who] lives in a desperately poor mining community called the Seam, and when her little sister’s name is chosen as one of the contestants in the upcoming Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Catching FireWhile teenagers battling each other to death has been done to death, Hunger Games proves that a not-so-original premise can nevertheless turn out an original book. I had no idea how the first book would turn out, while the second book has an unexpected twist (spoiler: Katniss and Peeta are forced back in the arena – eek!) that made my insides twist.

Quibbles: Katniss sometimes comes dangerously close to becoming one of those annoyingly perfect heroines who doesn’t realise how perfect she is – she’s great at everything she does, admired by all, has suitors literally willing to die for her, et cetera. The books are saved, I think, by her first-person narration. We’re right inside her head, experiencing the Games with her, and she’s such a trustworthy, capable companion that you can’t help liking her.

And while author Suzanne Collinns’ sparse pose is often employed to brutal effect, she has a tendency to write great action scenes then rush through the links between them. The very worst example of this comes right at the end of Catching Fire (spoiler: when the crux of the rebels’ plan to sabotage the Quell is revealed in a single paragraph of passive speech), and it’s so on-the-nose it might’ve spoiled the whole book if it weren’t for that epic cliffhanger.

If you haven’t read Hunger Games, do so – but wait till August, when the third and final instalment in the trilogy is released. Then you won’t have to wait months and months waiting to find out what happens. Like I will. Aargh.