Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  • Released Internationally on 20/11/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 21/11/13
Review (20/11/13)

3-word review: Even better sequel.

I think I’ll stop rushing to read books before they are made into films. It makes the films so much more enjoyable when I have no clue what’s coming next. I hadn’t read the Hunger Games books when the first film was released, and I enjoyed it so much I decided not to read the other two, despite itching to know what comes next. And here I am, hugely satisfied by the second film, and itching to know what happens in the third. But I’ll be patient.
Of course, the eternal debaters between the book and the film choices would point out that reading the books without having seen the films offers the same raw joy, but considering how many books I have lined up waiting to be read, I think I’ll be fine without delving into these particular  three.
So where were we?
But I digress. This second film definitely assumes you have watched the first, and picks up soon after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar winner) and Peeta (subtle but effective Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th edition of the infamous Hunger Games, in a dystopian world somewhere in the future. Their stirring victory and apparent love story has sent ripples of admiration and defiance through the twelve districts of Panem, and President Snow (a wonderfully malicious Donald Sutherland) rightly fears a revolution. He schemes with his new Head Gamesmaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to get them eliminated or at least have their image deflated, by hosting a 75th Hunger Games that involves participants selected from amongst past winners. So sort of like the Champions League, but instead of getting knocked out, you’re killed.
Deeply disturbing stuff
Much like the first film, the strength of this sequel is the worrying concept at its core, and the unsettling similarities to the world we live in, where TV and reality work together to manipulate audiences, and too much is done purely for show. The capital city’s thriving population feeds off the work and misery of the backward districts, and their celebrity TV presenter (a finely-tuned manic performance by Stanley Tucci) turns shocking and morbid news into sound bites for the cheering crowds. Death is reduced to a mere TV event, and lives are judged by their impact on TV audiences. It’s a far exaggerated version of the reality TV scenarios we have today, but so much of it rings eerily true. The helpless people on TV are instructed to merely be a distraction, so that the unwashed masses in the audience don’t have time to think about the real problems in their lives.
Making us accomplices
One of the impressive feats of the film, although I’m not sure whether intentionally or not, is that during the extensive build-up to the games, as we meet the eventual participants and see what is really at stake, the revulsion at the concept of the murderous games is mixed with a palpable anticipation for the games to start. I for one felt a rush when the countdown finally began and all hell broke loose. It’s hugely entertaining of course, and just like the manipulated workers of Panem I was eager to see the contest unfold. But of course, these are not straightforward games like we saw in the first film.
Cast and crew
The star-studded cast makes for quite an impressive list. Complementing Tucci as another well-executed fake is Elizabeth Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) as the District 12 escort, and trying to keep calm and grounded amidst all the craziness is celebrated designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Woody Harrelson also returns as the previous District 12 victor who mentors the new stars, and Liam Hemsworth (younger brother to Thor star Chris) resumes duties as Katniss’ close friend and hopefully more. The new participants in the games include a few familiar faces too - Jeffrey Wright (Syriana, Casino Royale), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction), Lynn Cohen (Munich) and Jena Malone (Donnie Darko). This sequel has a new director (Francis Lawrence, I Am Legend) and writers (Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire; Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine) but they do a remarkable job of continuing seamlessly where the first film left off, also thanks to the recurring musical themes of James Newton Howard (Batman Begins, The Sixth Sense).
In the end
This is extremely entertaining cinema, and it touches on a host of themes, from unrequited love to the power of the media, and all showcased in a post-apocalyptic world where excess and poverty feed off each other. The plot is taken up a notch in this second instalment, after the seeds of revolution were sown in the first, and I eagerly anticipate the next part of the story. The film also has that rare luxury only offered to second films in trilogies, which The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers made such excellent use of - the downer, cliff-hanger, ending.

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