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The Best & The Worst Of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 25, 2013 at 1:40PM

Now officially the all-time November opening record holder, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was always a fairly sure thing in terms of box office. But what's more impressive is the advance word on the film (our own included), and the buzz around it, which has been so positive, with it being touted as the rare sequel that improves on the original, and with many going so far as to compare it to "The Empire Strikes Back." (Though, to be honest, we think that comparison is more to do with how open-ended it feels, with the good guys separated and some of them still imperiled, at the film's close.) Some of us might not go quite that far, but certainly director Francis Lawrence has made good on delivering a broader, more nuanced and more layered film than the first, which is fitting considering he was adapting what we'd consider the best of the three books, by quite some distance.
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Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Occasional Loss of Clarity
In general, the action scenes in 'Catching Fire' are well staged and the intelligent script usually provides us with enough information that we understand who or what is at stake in each scene. However sometimes the film loses its normally sure-footed balance, especially during the climactic scene around the lightning tree. Having read the books, we're aware of who's on which side and hazily remember how it all went down, but the film feels fractured there and anyone coming in cold (there must be one or two people in the universe who haven't read the books, after all) will likely spend the last few scenes of the film distracted as they try to piece together what exactly happened to Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and why is Finnick there and was Peeta in on the plan or not etc, etc. Which means the full import of Gale's revelation that District 12 has been obliterated loses some of its power, purely because there's still some lingering confusion over what's just happened, which in turn makes the necessarily mid-air ending (it's roughly the same endpoint as the book, if we recall correctly) even more unsatisfying. A second, lesser example is when Katniss goes in after Peeta to present her "special skill" and there's a painting of Rue on the ground. Again, in the book, it's Peeta who has drawn Rue (using the same artistic skill that had him so amusingly camouflage himself in the first film), which affects the judges deeply so they mark him high, but none of this is alluded to in the film and so it's really not clear how or why the Rue painting is there and why it's significant. The film obviously wants to ally us very closely with Katniss, so for the most part we don't know a huge amount more than she does, but in these two instances anyway, we kind of don't even know as much as she does, and it makes her decisions, and the motivations for her actions (shooting the electrified arrow into the dome; creating the Seneca Crane dummy) a little unclear.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Poorly Developed Adversary Tributes
The film is long enough as it is, and certainly the cast is already populous, but the cursory speed with which the "bad" tributes are glancingly introduced and then dispatched is a bit of a shame. We understand that we need to spend more time with Joanna, Beetee, Wiress and Finnick, but reducing their human opponents to "the brother and sister team" and "the one with the sharpened teeth" among a cavalcade of undifferentiated others feels like a trick missed. And so when those endless faces flash up on the sky each evening, in most cases it feels like it's the first time we've seen them.

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Philip Seymour Hoffman Phoning It In
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s casting as Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (he replaces Wes Bentley’s creatively bearded Seneca Crane, who we are to assume met a not-so-happy ending after the whole poison berries/double winner fiasco) was much reported throughout the blogosphere. That an actor of his taste and stature was stooping to a blockbuster YA adaptation reeked of paycheck motivation, but this series has always attracted top-tier talent. However, from the first glimpse of PSH in 'Catching Fire' it’s clear that dude is just trying to make a quick buck by phoning it in, hard. He didn’t even have the decency to sport a Capitol-style goofy haircut or colorful thingamabob! Not even a swish of eyeliner. Nope, he’s literally just swanning about in some weird waistcoat as himself, chatting with Donald Sutherland, who seems positively lively by comparison, and tossing absurd statements at his white-suited team of gamers. Even though Hoffman is always eminently watchable and a forceful presence, he puts no effort into this part, and it shows, since everyone else on screen is on their A-game.

The... hmmm?

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Mags’ Stunt Double
For a film that looks like all of its budget was left on the screen, there were just a few “huh?” moments that managed to slip through, one of them being the incredibly obvious stunt double sitting in for elderly Mags in the piggyback jungle scenes with Finnick. Of course, you can only do what you can with what you’ve got, and if Suzanne Collins says Finnick flings an old woman on his back to run through the jungle, that’s what you’ve got to do. But it was so obviously a petite stuntwoman in a granny wig keeping her head down the entire time. We know you have to do it, but is there anyway to make it not so obvious?

catching Fire Sutherland

Snow's Granddaughter
One of the more pointless alterations from the way things appear in the books was to introduce President Snow's bright-eyed, Katniss-idolizing moppet granddaughter (who is not really mentioned by Suzanne Collins until "Mockingjay"). We know she serves a certain purpose in helping Snow better judge Katniss' worrisome growing popularity, but as mentioned above, we kind of wish that function was fulfilled by some more time spent out in the wider world. As it is, it seems she's been added into the mix to also humanize Snow somewhat, and perhaps is a small attempt to address the dimensionality issues that we mention above with regards to this character. But we don't really think this cosmetic change works to elevate him out of being the kind of pantomime baddie he has been till now, and so it feels underdeveloped at best and at worst, unnecessary.

So if, as the numbers suggest is likely, you saw 'Catching Fire' over the weekend, what did you think? Agree or disagree with our points? Sound off below.

--Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez & Kimber Myers

This article is related to: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Features, Feature, Jennifer Lawrence, Francis Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland


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