Catching Fire Review–This is What Movie Making Should Be!

Catching Fire, the movie, was very good–everyone agrees. The first half is the best as Panem descends into a police state (or moreso) with endless Peacekeepers, public whippings, and the ominous lines of trucks driving in. Gale and Katniss’s transgressions are made more sudden and dramatic, but worked well in the film. All around them are bits of graffiti alerting the public to the Mockingjay.

Scenes from President Snow’s point of view seemed briefer than in the previous movie (though this might be an illusion) and could have been more nuanced as he and Plutarch summarize their plans in what feels like mildly colorless exposition. His granddaughter, only mentioned in the books, is shown here, with a braid like Katniss’s as she mimics the world’s heroine. She’s one of several excellent bits of foreshadowing not present in the second book as Katniss and Johanna allude to Annie Cresta as “the one that…” or there’s an early threat of bombing District 12 into ashes like 13. In fact, as a little girl tells Katniss she wants to volunteer for the Games and Prim tells Katniss she can handle herself now, a theme of this next generation and their place in Panem is cautiously cropping up.

Some fans were wondering if the plot of poor Seneca Crane, martyred gamemaker, would continue through the sequel, perhaps with soppy memorials to the poor “filmmaker” who was sacrificed for his art. (See John Granger’s “Gamesmakers Hijack Story: Capitol Wins Hunger Games Again” at http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com for more on this).

To my relief, it didn’t. Nonetheless, as Snow watches Peeta and Katniss’s love story and discusses it with his little granddaughter, they’ve turned into the audience…passive helpless audience by the end. Katniss and Peeta are performers on multiple levels, though they seem sincere within the games–their pretense for the camera dies when they’re flung inside. (And in fact, the spile is all the sponsors give them…perhaps Haymitch and company have bigger things on their minds). Katniss’s Seneca Crane dummy, compete with her perfect curtsy from the previous film was a perfect giant middle finger to the gamemakers, only surpasses by Johanna’s dirty mouth. Ever Caesar had trouble putting a lid on her.

She shines as one of the beloved book characters brought to life. Mags and Wiress, the show’s sad victims were well done, but I adored Johanna’s snark and Finnick’s terribly sincere range. Whether preening in his outfit or offering Katniss her sugar cube, he’s the right mix of defensive, pragmatic and charming. “What about you, girl on fire? Any secrets?” he smirks. In the Games, he’s panicked, desperate, but also self-willed enough to charm Katniss with only the force of his personality…and us along with him. He, like Haymitch in the first movie, is the Katniss character, defensive and traumatized. Both characters struggle to protect a loved one under their flippancy, both are tortured by the jabberjays. Seeing them side by side emphasizes that Prim is Katniss’s truest love as Annie is Finnick’s, that both characters are emotionally wounded. When Finnick loses Mags, it foreshadows Katniss’s loss to come.

The film compensated well for losing the first person point of view–Katniss and her friends have three kinds of mortified expression when Johanna strips in front of them (with perfect comic timing, just after Haymitch claims the Victors aren’t so strange). In her first scene of the movie, Katniss’s PTSD comes out clearly as she freezes before a crowd of turkeys. Even frivolous Effie comes out devastated when she must choose Katniss in the reaping and bid her goodbye in her wedding gown. Scenes like the Tributes’ fighting to end the games during their interviews, or Katniss finally, sweetly making friends, are brought to life beautifully, with stunning emotion.

In many ways, this one’s closer to its original than movie one was (movies 3 and 4 have me wondering if we’ll suffer from Harry Potter 7 syndrome with all the good stuff ending up in one of the two films). We see the terrible prison camp of District Eleven and the brighter, prettier Career Districts. Katniss’s Appalachian home is stark and cold with winter, like her feelings at the start. And for those disappointed about minutiae the last time (as I was, admittedly), Buttercup the cat was recast with an animal the right color (obviously, this still works in the story, as Prim could have gotten a new pet). Director Francis Lawrence notes:

That was a request from Nina the producer and Suzanne the author. That they thought the cat from the first movie was not the way he was described in the book. And that had annoyed a bunch of fans, and things like that. But it also just kind of bothered them that Buttercup was not a black and white cat. So I was happy to get one that felt like the Buttercup of the book…That was, quite honestly, the only simple thing, the Buttercup situation. http://io9.com/the-hunger-games-author-insisted-the-cat-be-recast-in-c-1462912646

This show offers a believable love relationship with Peeta and also Gale…as Katniss remarks in both book three and this movie, she’s trying to survive, not obsess over boys. Nonetheless, she, Peeta, and Haymitch have become a family as seen in the previous movie…though complete with their sass and teasing (“Take a bath, Haymitch” after Katniss has pelted him with water “I just did”). By contrast, Katniss meets with Snow while the holo of her act with the berries is playing right on the table, both reminding/warning the audience what she did and compelling her to watch along with them as her guilt is played out in front of her.

Capitol fashions are more disturbing than ever, with Effie’s devotedly cheerful butterfly dress that might even be constructed from real ones. The Capitol citizens celebrate in front of the President’s horrid pink and blue mansion with multicolored fireworks, and as he toasts, in a sinister moment, his drink turns red. Of course, much of the costuming was an acknowledgement that it was a reestablishment of moments seen in the previous film–she’s the girl on fire again in the parade, Effie dresses horribly as do the Capitol citizens again as well. Finnick and Johanna’s parade outfits were impressive, but once again, not strikingly unique. There was little surprise there until the beauty of the Mockingjay gown.

This long-awaited moment was impressive–the original gown is designer but with a metal winglike structure suggesting her own strength and the Capitol’s artificial cage. As she twirls, the metal vanishes, and for a moment, she breaks free. “The metal pieces rising up from the bodice are meant to signify fire and flames, while laser-cut feathers at the waist and shoulder hint at Katniss eventual transition into a Mockingjay.” EW reports.

Katniss’s gown for the Capitol party is reminiscent of a mockingjay, dramatic in red and black as she prepares for battle. I thought the reaction to the food wasting should have been bigger–Katniss obsesses over it so in the book, and it’s part of the central message. The Avoxes once again are basically cut, as is the suffering of people in District 12.

I was surprised Plutarch had lost his watch but the movie did a delightful job of keeping new viewers guessing. He’s excellent as a self-serving gamester using other as Snow dies…until it’s time for the Game to end. Katniss’s final shot, now seen in the Gamemakers’ lair, is wonderful, though on the practical side I must be concerned over the rescuers nearly smashing her with fallen debris. She rises into the air with a messianic glow, the Mockingjay, flying at last.

Fans will miss a few other moments–Cinna’s famous line that he’ll risk his own neck through his art but not anyone else’s, the teens’ discovery of how Haymitch won his Game. The sponsor gifts to encourage the new team. However, Haymitch’s snarky notes are back, or at least one.

Many fans likely admire the movie’s incredible similarity to the book, but I would have preferred a different ending – with the new medium, graphics, and point of view, the camera could have stretched over the revolutions and war-torn Panem instead of focusing on Katniss’s immediate world. All in all, Haymitch’s line brings the point of all war stories home – “No one ever wins the games, period. There’s survivors…there’s no winners.” As Collins’ saga of the torments of war and its afterefffects, this seems the standout moral of the story.

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