December 1, 2013
by Derek Defoe
Since we're talking about The Hunger Games here, I'd like to begin this review with a cooking tip: it's an old trick but it's tried and tried and true. When cooking Spaghetti, or any other "strand-like" noodles, and you need to know when it's cooked just right, take out a noodle from your pot (make sure, please, for the love of God, it's not still boiling), and throw it against the wall. If it sticks to the wall, you're good. The stickiness means the starch has been drawn out, indicating a well-cooked noodle. If it fails to stick, there's still starch remaining, and you should try boiling it a little longer. This method does not work for Rigatoni or Penne noodles. Believe me, I tried it.
Hollywood has several pots on several burners cooking and they oh-so-hastily are reaching in and throwing noodles against the wall. A lot of these pots are labelled YOUNG ADULT FICTION. Starch volumes may vary. Last year, they took a chance on adapting The Hunger Games series of novels by Suzanne Collins. Somehow it stuck. The books and the movies are now a worldwide phenomenon. Its star, Jennifer Lawrence, is now America’s Sweetheart and has an Oscar attached to her name. The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, and the story of Panem, the games, the insidious President Snow, the rebellion of the 12 Districts, and the symbolism of the Mockingjay are cemented in our popular culture. This was not so 2 years ago. So much can change so quickly. No one knows this better than Katniss Everdeen. Other noodles lay limp on the floor.
The key to The Hunger Games' success as a series is the fact that the source material is legitimately good, and Collins' novels are very well written. Brilliant, provocative dystopia, it is not. High art, it is not. But the story is tremendously entertaining and the characterization is very good. For example, yes, like you'd see in a million other YA series, there is a love triangle here. This one is between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. Isn't it interesting though, how cleverly it plays into the grander scheme of things and who Katniss loves, or doesn't love, has a crucial bearing on the fate of her entire country? Now that's some serious conflict. And I think the prelude to the actual Hunger Games in the first half, the subtle chess match played between Katniss and President Snow, is just as interesting, if not more so, than the actual big action set piece of the latter half. Donald Sutherland has a lot more to do here as Snow than he did in the previous movies. Like all great villains he offers an understanding of where he’s coming from. To him, it's very simple: in the first movie, the Hunger Games declared two winners instead of one in an unprecedented act because Katniss and Peeta decide they would rather eat poisonous berries and die than have one kill another. The spin: they're so in love they couldn't stand the thought of one killing the other and would rather die. The reality: this was an act of defiance, and a trick to bend the rules of the Games. If Snow can get the masses to believe the spin, all is well. If not, then the reality seeps in, and sparks of a revolution catch fire, bringing his entire system to a crash: "It must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down."
Snow isn't convinced so Plan B: make up some bullshit about the honorable 75th Anniversary of The Hunger Games and pit previous winners of the previous Games in a super duper special edition. This includes Katniss, so a year later, she's back in the game. It’s far from a retread though, every game is different so it didn't feel repetitive of the first movie in the slightest. The real challenge this time lies not with the opponents but with the arena itself, designed with malicious intricacy to kill the games' participants, operating like a clock, unleashing a new threat every hour, like biblical plagues. The arena architect this time around is Plutarch Heavensbee, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman - a huge step up from Wes Bentley if I’ve ever seen one. Heavensbee may not be exactly what he seems though. Nothing is, this time around, including some nice additions to the cast with Sam Clafin playing Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna, two other previous winners competing in this 75th Anniversary tournament. The movie does a good job in continuing character arcs with the likes of Katniss, Peeta, Gale, President Snow, Effie, Cinna, Caesar, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson- always great), and introducing the new ones. Maybe the only one I felt was a little short-changed was Jeffrey Wright, playing a new addition, Beetee. Could have used a little more of him. But oh well.
I've heard some praise of this movie equating it to levels of The Empire Strikes Back in terms of sequels that up the ante. Ehhh, I probably wouldn't go THAT far, but Catching Fire was damn good. Whether or not I like it better than the first is hard to say. Both have different qualities to them that I liked, and to this sequel's credit, I think they were able to make certain improvements to problems that affected the first movie, namely there is a significant tone-down in the Shaky Cam, which was a very, very annoying factor of part one. The production is much more lavish with more elaborate set and costume designs, which I really liked. Both films have also proven to be very faithful to their novel counterparts, and a big advantage has to be that since the books are fairly short, the filmmakers are allowed to follow the story as closely as possible. One disadvantage though: they're releasing Mockingjay, the third book in the series, as two parts. How the hell they're going to stretch out the story, I don’t know, but I’m sure they’ll find a way. I can't say I blame them though. Only in its second week of release, Catching Fire is dominating the box office and it's looking like it will reach a billion dollars in no time. As a consumer, I guess I can't complain too much, it's just more of a good thing. That's twice as much Jennifer Lawrence on the big screen. It's an embarrassment of riches, really. I won't mind over-indulging. Fill my bowl with more of these delicious noodles, please!
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Philip Seymour Hoffman
James Newton Howard
Alan Edward Bell