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22nd March 2014 20:30:00
Posted by Geoff Dearth

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Blu-Ray Review

The Movie

Six months have passed since Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark survived their turn in the Hunger Games, a cruel method of subjugation designed by the Capitol city of Panem to keep its 12 unruly districts in check after a bitter civil war long ago. A boy and a girl are randomly chosen as tribute from each region so that they may all fight to the death in a specially designed arena. Only one person is supposed to leave the battlefield alive, showered with fortune and glory for the rest of their lives, but Katniss’ prior intervention with some poison berries has changed all of that. She and Peeta were both willing to die rather than murdering each other for the entertainment of the Capitol, but they were stopped from completing their act of noble sacrifice and were both crowned as winners. In the process, they’ve unwittingly struck a spark of dissension which proves that the vainglorious Capitol and the malignant President Snow can be defied - if people have the strength of will to see it through.

Every 25 years there is a special ‘Quarter Quell’ to remind the districts of the anniversary of their uprising by putting a barbarous new spin on the Games, like making the people vote to select their own tributes, or doubling up the number of participants. For the 75th anniversary of the Games it is decreed that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors (who are normally exempt from re-selection), which guarantees a spot for Katniss as District 12’s only female winner, and one of Haymitch or Peeta. Peeta volunteers out of his love for Katniss and desire to protect her, and having only just completed their Victory Tour they will soon face the neo-gladiatorial horrors of the arena all over again.

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But Katniss has become more than a mere victor, she’s become the Mockingjay, the face of the rebellion, and so she finds herself being manipulated by both factions, Snow and his new Gamemaker on one side and the covert rebels on the other. However, having the drunken Haymitch as her and Peeta's mentor does have its advantages, as he’s familiar – friendly, even – with many of the former winners, and he manages to round up a few allies who have one objective in the arena: protect Katniss and Peeta at all costs, as President Snow aims to stop the rebellion from Catching Fire.

As the other studios’ attempts at ‘young adult’ franchises continue to stumble out of the starting gate, Lionsgate's Hunger Games series powers on with this sequel, which topped Iron Man 3 as the highest grossing movie at the US box office in 2013. Francis Lawrence took up the directorial reins, Gary Ross having declined the opportunity to return. Suzanne Collins, the writer of the novels upon which these movies are based, didn’t get a screenplay credit this time around (having collaborated closely with Ross on the first movie) but was still involved in the process, and the writing duties were assumed first by Simon Beaufoy (who apparently departed when Ross did) and then Michael Arndt.

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As before, certain things have been removed or compressed to fit the demands of the running time, not least because they’ve opened up the world beyond the first-person narrative device of the books. The biggest casualty is probably the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which has been dialled back in favour of a more overt emphasis on the Capitol's jack-booted attempts to quash the rebellion. On the one hand, Katniss is a little less relatable because unlike the book we no longer know every waking thought that she has, but on the other it means that we get more scenes with the malevolent Snow as he plots the downfall of the Mockingjay.

I do however feel that the sequel doesn’t quite juggle those demands as convincingly as the first film did. The Hunger Games had its share of narrative short cuts but it didn’t seem as abrupt as some of Catching Fire’s choices. It’s as if the filmmakers are only too aware that only real fans of the series would’ve made it this far, so they’re happy to skimp on certain parts of connective tissue because they know that true believers will be filling in the blanks anyway. Such a complaint might seem a bit churlish, having read the books several times, but that knowledge doesn’t make the film seem any less disjointed as a cinematic event in and of itself.

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Admittedly, Catching Fire is very much the middle chapter of the series, and such franchises usually tend to feel somewhat disconnected as this point in their cycle. That’s why I feel the first movie was a more satisfying experience because it works well as a standalone piece, with a beginning, a middle and an end and stronger emotional beats inbetween, whereas Catching Fire is simply the middle, stuck in an emotionally unfulfilling no-man's-land. In time it may be regarded as the Empire Strikes Back of the series - heck, the movie starts with District 12 covered in snow and ends with a major character in the hands of the enemy, and the book actually has an '"I love you", "I know"' exchange between Gale and Katniss! - but even that legendary film was originally greeted with a certain amount of critical dismay when people realised that the overarching story had yet to end. What was groundbreaking then is simply par for the course these days, so I guess I'll just have to wait!

There are other facets to the film aside from the main plot, though. Suzanne Collins’ metaphorical parallels with war and its cost are once again in evidence. If The Hunger Games was a commentary on military recruitment – that of officers being bred for war, while the rank and file are populated by citizens from the poorest regions – then Catching Fire is an essay on the human wreckage left behind once the fighting stops. Katniss suffers from flashbacks and nightmares and survivor’s guilt, but instead of being given help she is thrust back into the fray. She and Peeta are forced to go on a literal ‘tour of duty’ for the sole benefit of the Capitol, and then they must go back into the arena once more.

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The principals do their jobs well. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson return as Katniss and Peeta, as does Woody Harrelson’s slovenly Haymitch and Liam Hemsworth's moody Gale. Katniss is clearly suffering from her experiences, yet I can't help but feel she's a bit too flakey compared to the hardier iteration in the book. We get a bit too much screaming and shrieking for my liking, which comes as a major turnaround from the almost-catatonic Katniss of the first film. Peeta, by contrast, is a sturdier, stronger presence than before, which I suppose was the point. Instead of him following Katniss around like a lovesick puppy, the situation has been reversed which sets up the next movies nicely.

President Snow's chilling malice is conveyed by Donald Sutherland once more, and Stanley Tucci dons the false teeth and fake tan again as talkshow host Caesar Flickerman, the Capitol's preening mouthpiece. Lenny Kravitz and Elizabeth Banks are also back as cool, calm Cinna and fashion victim Effie respectively, and so is Willow Shields as Katniss' sister Prim. Newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, a tech geek from District 3, Sam Claflin as the ridiculously good-looking Finnick Odair from District 4, and Jena Malone is Johanna Mason, an angry axe-wielding exhibitionist from District 7. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman joined the ensemble with a curiously understated turn as the new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee.

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Francis Lawrence doesn’t veer too far from the basic imagery established in Gary Ross’ film, retaining the gloomy pall of District 12 (though the earthen tones have been supplanted with an icy blue tinge) and he expands upon the gleaming, brutalist vistas of the Capitol itself - though Lawrence drew the line at replicating Ross' seasick camera work and fractured editing style. But there was method in Ross' madness on the first film: he didn't want the audience to enjoy the film for the sake of it, i.e. he didn't want shiny, well-choreographed visuals and expansive sound to distract from the core message of teens being sent off to die, and I still think it's a brilliantly intelligent use of what has become an over-used aesthetic.

That aspect has been jettisoned for Catching Fire, the near-doubling of the budget bringing in classy anamorphic photography and even more ostentatious IMAX footage which, to me, glorifies the action and makes it seem like more of a typical event movie rather than the grittier, dirtier, faux documentary style of the first movie. It's like we're watching Katniss from an artful distance - not unlike the residents of the Capitol, irony alert! - rather than being right there with her, and so I just can't connect with this film like I can with the first movie. James Newton Howard’s score is similarly grander in scope and I was similarly ambivalent about it at first. But after repeated listenings I've warmed to its mournful, melancholy quality, and so it's eminently suitable for this darker instalment. It's a shame that Howard's ditched some of his more optimistic themes from the first film though, because I really miss that simple mandolin motif which re-occurs throughout The Hunger Games, and I hope it returns in the later movies. It'd be a perfect fit for the final scene of Mockingjay.

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However, none of this is to say that I think it's a bad film, but I've revised my initial score downwards from 8 to 7. It's still a well crafted piece of entertainment, and even though it's not as self-aware as the first movie was, my concerns about story and plot and themes went out of the window once Katniss enters the arena. It’s an intense 48 minutes of struggle and survival and, ultimately, betrayal as her immediate world comes crashing down around her, both literally and metaphorically. I have already bemoaned how choppy I think the film is, but the cold open (no title cards, nothing) and the hasty ending are almost beat-for-beat as they are in the book, so no complaints on those fronts. In any case, the stage is now set for Katniss' role as the figurehead of the rebellion, and Haymitch's final words to her before entering the arena are just as apropos for the upcoming Mockingjay movies: "Remember who the real enemy is"...

The Disc

Lionsgate present the movie on a region B locked Blu-ray disc. Unlike the first film, which was a 2-disc release, the movie and extras are on one disc. There is a UK retailer exclusive which includes an additional 45 minutes of content seen on the US Target edition, but it costs a whopping £59 at amazon.co.uk and comes bundled with an assortment of superfluous tat (including a cut 12-rated barebones Blu-ray of the first film; you can never have too many coasters, I suppose). For this review I’ll be using the standard UK release which comes with a gorgeous embossed slipcase, a DVD (fixed 2.40 aspect, excellent PQ, Dolby Digital 5.1) and an Ultraviolet copy.

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Catching Fire was shot on a combination of 35mm anamorphic and 65mm IMAX, both of which were a departure from the Super 35 origination of the first film (though they did sneak in some S35 for arena shots which were too hectic to be captured with IMAX). It was also finished at 4K, befitting not only the larger budget but also the fact that it'd be criminal to finish an IMAX show at anything less. What does this mean to you and me? Well, the photography has a smoother, glossier look and is replete with the classically shallow depth of field which characterises anamorphic glass. DP Jo Willems used decades-old Panavision lenses for an organic film-like sheen, and it's been faithfully translated to Blu-ray.

The movie doesn't have the raw vérité-style immediacy of the first instalment, but when we get to the IMAX footage it’s undeniably spectacular despite my thematic misgivings, as director Lawrence uses the full expanse of the frame to thrilling effect. While the height of the 1.43 IMAX prints has not been translated entirely to the Blu-ray – it’s been trimmed down to 1.78 – and will always lose some of that 'big screen' intensity in the home regardless, the shifting aspect ratio is still a most welcome move by Lionsgate. Certain other studios would do well to take note. *cough* Paramount *cough*

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The Blu-ray is encoded with AVC and framed at 2.40 widescreen for the bulk of the movie and 1.78 for the scenes in the actual Games, switching over with a smooth transition as Katniss is raised into the arena. Once it’s changed it stays that way until the action in the arena comes to a halt, and it snaps back to 2.40 for the epilogue. Fine detail is excellent with no undue sharpening and a very light dusting of grain, and the colour ably handles the steely blue hue of District 12 and the candy-coloured excess of the Capitol.

The greenery of the jungle arena is rendered in all its humid, sweaty glory, and skin tones display a pleasing sense of accuracy dependent on the surroundings. There’s lots of shadow detail, which is essential if we're to see what's going in the murk of the jungle in the arena, but the blacks themselves occasionally have a flat, featureless appearance which doesn’t do the contrast any favours, so the image sometimes looks a little bit thin. The source is spotless in terms of dirt and marks.

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The encoding itself is fairly robust considering that a 146 minute HD movie with lossless audio and a 145 minute HD documentary have both been squeezed onto this disc, although I did spot some instances of banding here and there, like when Katniss awakes to find the fog creeping near her. (Even though the screen grab above has been reduced in resolution and has been compressed which exacerbates the banding, it's not too far off of what I'm seeing). But I don't think it's purely a bitrate issue because the video encode has a respectable enough average of about 20Mb/s, and such banding seems to be endemic to recent UK releases that aren't issued by the major studios, like eOne's Riddick, or StudioCanal's Rush which is particularly bad.

The audio is, quite simply, excellent. Presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Catching Fire possesses a cohesive sound field, with deep bass and clear dialogue. An undercurrent of music is piped through the rears, and the mix in general is constantly engaging the listener, ranging from subtle atmospherics to precise spot effects. A particular highlight was the attack of the jabberjays in the arena, as the distressed ‘voices’ of Prim, Gale, Annie etc swoop in and out of every speaker, front and back. It’s a startling scene and a great test of how well matched your speakers are, to see if/how the voices change in timbre as they swirl around the room.

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Extra features are comprised of deleted scenes, a commentary and a documentary. The deleted scenes consist of about four minutes of brief expository moments, like Snow explaining what a mockingjay is, or a certain character switching out the sealed Quarter Quell envelopes so as to get Katniss into the arena again. The commentary by director Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobsen is a touch soporific as they're not the most excitable speakers and have a tendency to just narrate what's going on, though Lawrence regularly chips in with some technical titbits about the production.

The documentary runs for 145 minutes and features comments from all the main players. It's not particularly incisive because everyone continually gushes about how amazing everything is, but it's still well worth a viewing. Each aspect of the filmmaking process is covered in turn, starting off with directorial departures and arrivals and how they approached the adaptation. We move on to pre-production and then get some words from the actors, both the old hands and the newcomers. An examination of the costume/hair/makeup design is followed by overviews of the various stages of the shoot, from the Atlanta locations to the Hawaiian jungle. We get a quick peek at the IMAX cameras and then move on to the creation of the VFX and the mixing of the sound, with a final wrap-up of what everyone's expecting from the third film.

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Overall

Having watched it a few times, Catching Fire still feels slightly incomplete to me, and it lacks the deeper emotional and thematic resonances of the first film. But it's a good movie nonetheless and hindsight is a wonderful thing, so once the Hunger Games series is finished I'm sure I'll look upon it more fondly. This Blu-ray disc edition is presented with superb audio, but the video quality just falls short of greatness, and the extras are headlined by that lengthy documentary.
Details and Specifications
Blu-Ray Review

Region: B

Certificate: 12

Distributor:
Lionsgate

Running Time:
146 mins approx
Soundtracks:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, English Dolby Digital 2.0 (optimised for late night listening), English Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio Descriptive

Subtitles:
English

Director:
Francis Lawrence

Main cast:
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson
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Ratings
Film
7
Video
8
Audio
9
Extras
8
8


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About Geoff De'arth
Geoff has been a movie nut for about 25 years, working through all the major video formats and buying certain films more times than he's had hot dinners. He has a serious case of upgrade-itis, the most recent symptom being the purchase of a 4K TV. Poor fella.


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