There’s a line in Suzanne Collins’ irrefutably well-known tweens-with-sharp-instruments hit ”Hunger Games : Catching Fire that goes “Aim higher in case you fall short”.
Aim higher director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”, “Water for Elephants”) most definitely does, shooting his prickly projectile towards those glitchy clouds of greatness, with one of those rare Hollywood sequels that outdoes the original.
And yet, like ”Terminator 2”, ”Godfather II”, ”Empire Strikes Back” (of which many are comparing this film with -tonally and structurally there are definitely similarities) and “The Dark Knight”, the method used to achieve such results is a fairly straight-forward one : Film what’s on the page, but add on that – so as to engage the widest audience possible.
As an optimistic green grocer would agree, it’s all about addition, not subtraction.
“The Hunger Catching Fire” is a much-beloved book that’s swimming in so much emotion, tension and character detail, that it’d be a shame to let a filmmaker or screenwriter riff on the source and come up with his own ‘interpretation’. And not once does Lawrence bring his alter-ego DJ Jazzy Frank onto the stage – he plays the thing as it’s meant to be played; not a scratch mat in sight. Lawrence films near everything Collins has on the page, but then he adds to it, resulting in a film that’s engaging and thrilling for all audiences – not just those who know the way to Angus & Robertson.
Gary Ross, likely because of the pressure but also because the first chapter of any film series is usually the hardest, seemed to struggle with the notion that the ”Hunger Games” movies could engage beyond their already built-in audience. His 2012 film, though widely accepted by the book’s many fans, and quite an achievement on a production level, didn’t latch on with many who weren’t already fans because it neglected to consider them. If fans of the book were giving out Oscars, “Hunger Games” would’ve won every one, but it’s victory would’ve left most of the room confused.
The heavy detail and character traits that were left out of that first film, and the many reasons book lovers have fell for these characters, is right there in Lawrence’s film. He’s managed to put on screen what Ross hadn’t – the richness and wonderfulness of these characters (particularly the supporting characters), a reason to care (and root for the ‘girl on fire’) and especially, the same rapid tension felt in the book. Just as Collins plonks you right into the middle of the ‘clock’ game, so does Lawrence – with a little help from an award-deserving design team.
Big Brother this ain’t. You actually give a tick (see, because it’s about a game that’s made up of a ‘clock’… forgeddaboutit)
Having conquered the deadly ‘Hunger Games’ (a game of literal life and death where poor folks are forced to play ‘put you in the ground’ first), Katniss (Lawrence) and fellow competitor/love interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are now celebrities. And, by all accounts, that’s what they’ll do for the rest of their days now – celebrate their celebrity.
Nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has other ideas though, and it isn’t long before the duo are plonked back into another Battle Royale. And Katniss isn’t happy.
Once the contestants are dropped off onto kill-each-other-island, Lawrence pulls down hard on that tension lever… and never lets it up.
The second of the four (ask the studio) proposed “Hunger Games” films is just a much more universally appealing and engaging picture, and one that won’t leave the unserved with as many questions as they had walking out of the first film (though some might still question the Katniss/Peeta relationship, it’s definitely a rushed coupling more believable than the one we were forced to swallow from ”Twilight”). On the whole, it’ll be enjoyed by most; no greatly unbalanced scale this time.
As much as Lawrence, writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, and the abovesaid production designers deserve a heap of the praise for the film turning out as well as it did, there’s no denying that this series has one thing the others haven’t – an actress so good, so clearly ‘of the people’, she demands your attention. Not to fault any of the other young actresses that have headlined youth-skewed book-turned-films over the past couple of years, but Jennifer Lawrence – if the Oscar she’s carrying under her arm isn’t the tip-off – is in another league. As Katniss, she’s not just playing ‘generic action heroine #1′ (something you might see in a Resident Evil movie, for example) she’s playing a fleshed-out, really relatable ‘good girl’ that’s caught up in a god-awful situation that, thanks to a powerful, highly-emotive performance, we want to see her get out of. In another actresses hands, we mightn’t feel as magnetized towards the performance; for every minute she’s on screen, Lawrence demands attention – and gets it.
Lawrence is so good in this part that – unfortunately for the boys- she overshadows any moment she shares with leading man Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. There were moments where both lads dissolved into the background like a Lucasfilm wipe, or you forgot they were there – like a nailed-down prop. Hutcherson, especially, comes across as considerably weaker in the chops than Lawrence – but that also be the fact that his character is represented as such. Or.. it is that that ‘Girl on Fire’ is just so damn blazing amazing!?
As the 2012 film proved, the franchise has captured itself a richly diverse and excellent assortment of actors (all clearly having a great time) and most of them return for this second instalment. Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson may argue the proclamation (and if they do, they should know I give good ‘bitch’ over email), and their managers might also cry croc, but their parts here are some of the best they’ve ever given life to. Their performances? some of the best they’ve given. Banks, as the torn spokesperson of the games, and Tucci, as the wickedly over-the-top TV host, are (here we go, Clint – again with the conflagration analogy) on fire. These are the roles – despite their bumper back catalog – that they’ll be remembered for by many.
And there’s some great newcomers to the ‘Hunger Games’ world this time, including Jena Malone, whose fun as the spitfire Joanna, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the curious game maker Plutarch , the always-dependable (and very diverse) Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, Sam Claflin, suitably charming as Finnick, and Amanda Plummer, trademarkly kooky as Wiress.
Lawrence pours his casting from the chalice of a Golden Globe it seems because the thing is packed with ‘stars’, but stars that actually deserve their designation.
146 minutes of intensity, coupled with a really enjoyable and kick-ass heroine – the likes we haven’t seen in a while, and a pace that just keeps on punching? I think you’ll agree that’s something well worth the price of an expensive jumbo coke and an unfortunate caress of the leg from the uggo sitting next to you.
If Warner Bros ever decides to make a “We’re the Millers” sequel, they couldn’t go wrong with “We’re the Lawrence’s” – damn guaranteed a good movie.
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