Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: This Is As Perfect As A Book-Into-Movie Adaptation As It Can Get

I am a huge huge fan of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and while I did somewhat enjoyed The Hunger Games (2012) directed by Gary Ross, I didn't agree with his vision of the book; some of the changes made from book to movie seemed to serve no purpose and were at times, just frankly baffling because they didn't add to the story or helped to tighten it in any way.

Cue my relief when it was reported that he would not be returning to direct the sequel, Catching Fire and that Francis Lawrence, the director of the post-apocalyptic movie I am Legend and the romance drama Water for Elephants, would be stepping in instead. While I had not been overly impressed by I am Legend myself, I did enjoy the underrated Water For Elephants, and felt that Lawrence's directing credentials would better equip him to direct a thoughtful action movie rather than Ross, director of such small and intimate movies like Pleasantville and Seabiscuit.

And he is. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is about as perfect as a book-into-movie adaptation can get. It is the best book-into-movie adaptation I have ever watched, and that includes the Harry Potter series and even The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Sorry Legolas!). All the changes made from the book to the movie made sense, either to tighten the story or to create a better narrative flow. Also, gone are the annoying shaky camera techniques so liberally employed by Ross in the previous movie. Under Lawrence's guidance, and with a tight screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael DeBruyn (pseudonym for Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) the movie excels as both an action blockbuster and emotional drama while still successfully bringing the political and social undertones of the book into the forefront and adding to the movie's depth.

The movie is also helped by a doubling of budget. Whereas in the previous film the special effects were apparently done in-house and at times looked pretty hokey, here the movie employs the excellent digital wizardry of Weta Digital, the company responsible for the special effects on the Lord of The Rings movie trilogy. Plus, whereas, the palette of the clothing worn by the people in the Capitol in The Hunger Games made them all look like they all went and shopped from the same department stores, in Catching Fire, new costumer designer Trish Summerville (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo) has created a myriad of unique and eye-catching looks worn by the cast and extras alike. All these and more help to ramp up the visuals and make for an seamless viewing experience that is a veritable feast for the eyes.

If there was one thing Ross did right, it was his casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Here in Catching Fire as in The Hunger Games, She remains the heart and soul of the movie. As her emotions writ large, raw and wrenching across her face, you can't help by feel for her and fear for her as she continues to try to overcome the ever increasing odds that are never in her favor.

Lawrence is supported by an ever growing and immensely talented cast. Elizabeth Bank as Effie Trinket is finally allowed to act as a real, albeit still ditzy person here, as opposed to her one-dimensional caricature in The Hunger Games. The rest of the original cast are all great in their own ways, but it is the new cast who are a revelation. Fans who have been wringing their hands at the casting of Sam Clafin (Snow White and the Huntsman, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) as Finnick Odair can finally relax; Clafin is cheekily charismatic as Finnick, and plays his part of cocky playboy with mighty aplomb. Jena Malone (Pride & Prejudice, Sucker Punch) also does a great job as the loose canon Johanna Mason, while Philip Seymour Hoffman brings a certain gravitas as the new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee.

A lot of times, what happens with young adult book-to-movie adaptations is that the actors do not seem to really bother to take their roles seriously and are just merely happy to coast through them. Not so in Catching Fire. Everyone brings their A game here, and this is one of the main reasons why the movie truly does shine. Despite having read the books and knowing all the fates of the characters, I got emotionally close to tears at some moving scenes, covered my mouth involuntarily at what some of the horrors our beloved characters had to go through, and at one point, my hands grabbed ineffectually towards the screen of their own accord to try and prevent some of the characters from getting themselves into yet even more danger and heartache. For someone who has read the books and know what the characters are in for, I consider that no mean feat.

A lot of critics have been whingeing at the 146-minute running time as overlong, but trust me, there are no dead spots in the movie and it never drags. As the final scene unfolds and the credits roll out, you would be caught by surprise to find that it has ended much too soon, and will be counting the days till the next installments come out. Following the recent penchant by movie studios today to break the last book into two parts so as to milk the franchise for all it's worth, that'll be Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) and Mockingjay Part 2 (2015) In director Lawrence's very capable hands, and with the superb cast led by the amazingly talented Jennifer Lawrence, I have to say for once I will be happy to let them milk me twice for my movie money.

4 1/2 stars out of 5 stars for me. Everyone who loves movies owes it to themselves to go see it.

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