Okay, first things first. Did I like it? Yes! This was a confident and assured movie from frame one. Of course, a sequel can’t feel as fresh as the first movie, and if you’ve read the series, you are going to know what happens – so no shocks or twists – but Catching Fire is not a movie by numbers far from it.
The story features teenager Katniss Everdeen, an unwilling freedom fighter thrown into the middle of a revolution she never sought to enter, forced to sacrifice family and friendship in order to overthrow a tyrannical dictator.
So what were the standouts?
The star here is the writing. Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael DeBruyn (Little Miss Sunshine), have created a tight, compelling script that is true to the novel and yet manages to repeat its themes in an evolving and fresh way.
The movie is in two parts – the first 80 minutes is all about the greyness of the districts, winter and snow filled skies…and the brutal oppression of a totalitarian government. It was an 80 minutes full of incident. Katniss and Peeta, the joint winners of the ‘Hunger Games’, tour the districts as ‘victors’ upon the luxury train seen in the first movie.
They make TV appearances in support of the regime – and the lives of their families depend on their success. But things do not go as planned from the start and they witness the beginnings of an uprising. Soldiers dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers execute civilians over minor transgressions, people are arrested and their belongings burnt in a violent crackdown.
Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the master designer of the Quarter Quel Games, comes up with a plan; send Katniss and Peeta back into the games, to battle it out with other past winners, whilst cracking down hard on those forced to into manual labour in the districts. Katniss has inspired a revolution and they seek to use her to end it.
The games take up the rest of the movie. I’ll be honest, I thought the running time of two hours and twenty minutes would drag, but the quality of the writing, ease of flow, story development and action meant that the time passed quickly.
Jennifer Lawrence is the other stand out star of this movie. I just can’t see anyone else playing Katniss. She has a stillness that the camera loves. She is a difficult character to always like, and yet, we are with her and on her side all of the way. We know she has emotion, it leeks out at certain parts of the movie, in moments that are genuinely moving.
Watch out for the scene with President Snow (an excellent and slime-ridden Donald Sutherland).
It seems like an unimportant note, but Jennifer Lawrence does not wear make-up for the most of the film – yet this gives her a natural authenticity. I simply didn’t see a movie star.
The only negative here, and it’s a minor one, is that the two male leads, cannot match Lawrence’s performance. Even though Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) grows in this movie, he does not have the emotional intensity expressed by Lawrence. And the same goes for Gale (Liam Hemsworth). They still seem like boys. They all have been though life-changing events, yet it is Katniss who is better drawn. Peeta and Gale flounder a little – moths around the bright light that is Jennifer Lawrence – as in the story. So maybe this was intentional.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee (I do sometimes find the character names somewhat distracting), lends a much-needed gravitas to the movie. In terms of new additions to the franchise, his role was the biggest and most important to cast. And how lucky were they to bag Hoffman? An actor we don’t normally see in blockbusters.
Of course, we have the acting heavy weight that is the marvellously odious Donald Sutherland, who is, as always, sublime, but Hoffman adds his own weight. There are extra scenes with Hoffman and Sutherland – scenes not in the book. I suspect that the director and writers did not want to waste such an excellent opportunity.
The other supporting roles were little more than cameos. Woody Harlson (Haymitch Abernathy) was underused. The ‘best of the rest award’ must go to Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), who has one of the more touching moments of the movie. She is all fluff and absurdity, but the dawning realisation of the horror she is a part of is expertly portrayed.
The other standout was English actor Sam Claflin, who plays the arrogant but charming, Finnick. All his scenes with Katniss were electrifying.
When Francis Lawrence was confimed as director, I was a little concerned. He was responsible for the truly awful ‘I am Legend’, but I digress. Some have said this is a ‘safe’ movie, serviceable to the original novel and nothing more. I disagree. His shooting style is solid and direct and yet I found I much preferred it to the rather jerky Hunger Games (which I also enjoyed, but not as much as this) – Jennifer Lawrence can act, Francis Lawrence lets her do that with no distraction.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It had an assured quality that knew what it was doing and where it was going from the start. Add to that a wonderful script, great performances and sympathetic direction and you have a winner.
A solid 5-Stars
Mockingjay, has been split into two parts, expected in November 2014 and 2015. My cynical side says this might be more about marketing than movie-making, but if they are of the same quality as Catching Fire, they will certainly be worth the wait.