Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Lionsgate has truly crafted the next big film franchise with Hunger Games. I realized this when all the music, sound effects, and special effects died down and a particularly tender moment between Katniss (the astounding Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was allowed to take center stage with only the sounds of their dialogue, accentuated by their intake of breath for emotional punctuation, as they barreled along in a hover train to their destination at Panem's Capitol. The scene showcased more emotion and raw talent than I've seen in a blockbuster in quite a long time. These are characters that I cared deeply for, and I teared up more than once at the trials their government puts them through.

If you're a fan, this film will definitely not disappoint. It has everything I loved from the book packaged in some of the tightest screenwriting and editing I've seen all year. The film is visually gorgeous, at first noticed in the cinematography. The characters are staged in such a way that they draw your eye around the screen. I knew I was in skilled hands. The costumes were the next thing that I marveled at, and if you enjoyed the first film's flamboyant world contrasted with the gritty pallet of District 12, then you get to see a lot more this time around. The world is so completely realized. I wanted to stay just to see what these people in the Capitol did in their daily lives. But, alas, we all know where this movie is headed, and it isn't going to be a cake walk.

Katniss and Peeta are forced to live a romantic lie at the demand of President Snow (Donald Sutherland, menacing as ever, but with a vulnerable streak). The reason? As the winning tributes from the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are paraded around to each District to give speeches and cause unrest in the lower parts of the country. Needless to say, these two actors bring their all to the roles, and they pour out so much compassion in the first fifteen minutes that the weight of the games is brought front and center. This is a country where teenagers are forced to fight to the death until one is left out of 24. Luckily for Katniss and Peeta, they only have to struggle with their PTSD and putting up a false front for everyone. Liam Hemsworth plays the object of Katniss's desires this time around with more bravado that I found myself worried about how she could keep up the farce with Peeta when she so clearly loves Gale? This was the part that had me torn.

That is, until it's announced that the 75th Hunger Games will be a Quarter Quell in which the tributes are drawn from the existing tributes of all the past games. The games are designed this time by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the twists (literally) are fantastic. I won't spoil any of them here, but if you read the book, you know just what these tributes of all ages have in store.

What is visually and emotionally different this time around is that the tributes are from all walks of life. Mags (Lynn Cohen) was immediately my favorite, besides the dashing Finnick Odair (the coveted role played by Sam Claflin, famously turned down by the career-suicidal Garrett Hedlund) who you want to trust, but you don't know if you should. Katniss says right off the bat what I was initially thinking: "Peeta, how can we kill these people?"

The show must go on, however, and there is plenty of scene stealing by the perfectly cast and tear-inducing (both comically and sentimentally) Elizabeth Banks, who once again plays Effie Trinket, a fan favorite from the first movie. Here she is allowed to be more fleshed out and reveals that she does have a heart despite the gaudy display she puts on for the Capitol. Woody Harrelson once again plays Haymitch with the brutality that the character requires, and he is integral at instilling the fear of the games into the audience before we are lifted into the mysterious arena with Katniss and the other tributes before the horn blows and the fight for survival begins.

There are so many things I could talk about, but they all need to be experienced to be fully appreciated. I saw this film in IMAX and was stunned by their usage of the format. Only the actual game is filmed in true IMAX aspect ratio, and it was wonderful to see all the detail in such a large frame. The team behind this film had such respect for the source material that there was never a hint of hesitation in what they were creating on screen. Everyone, from the lighting designers, to the actors, to the direction - all of it - they knew that what they were creating was something special and important to fans around the globe and the end product is something to be proud of. This is a film about trust, and how fitting could it be that the author of these superb, thought-provoking books trusted Lionsgate to do her work justice, and they proved the first time around that they could do it. Now, the studio is trusting that the fans will come along for the ride as they bring us through this world and into the middle of a much larger story that will play out on screens in two more films. Do I trust that they know what they're doing?

Absolutely. Give me more of this dystopian future.