The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (3-Disc Target Exclusive Blu-Ray) Review
Posted by Michael Weyer on 03.10.2014
The second movie in the blockbuster series is truly a case of a sequel better than the first in every way with an amazing cast and story.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
3-Disc Target Special Edition Blu-Ray
A lot has been written over how, in the wake of the massive success of The Hunger Games, many Hollywood studios have attempted to ride the wave of YA novel adaptations. However, in the last year, this supposed boom has turned into a bust with numerous failed movies such as Beautiful Creatures, the Mortal Instruments and most recently Vampire Academy. There’s concern over the genre failing (a test with the upcoming Divergent) but the real reason behind this slump is that very few of these projects can possibly match the skill of Hunger Games with its great themes of battle against odds and a society obsessed with power over the masses. There’s also the fantastic cast, led by an actress who’s exploded into a true star and the care taken to make these films work so well. All of these are on full display in the sequel, Catching Fire which elevates the property from a blockbuster into a truly fantastic movie experience that only gets better on Blu-Ray and a fine example of how to make a sequel better than the original.
It has been half a year since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) survived the horrific competition of the Hunger Games. The two are back in their home of District 12, haunted by the experience but trying to move on, Katniss still close to Gale (Liam Hemsworth) as she lives in a new home with her mother and sister, not far from drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The outlandish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) arrives to prep them for their Victory Tour but more important is a visit from President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is not happy about how Katniss defied the Capitol and makes it clear she has to continue her fake love for Peeta if she wants her family to be safe. On the tour, Katniss starts to see signs of how the other Districts are rising up with rebellion and her own efforts making it worse. At a party, she meets Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the new Gamesmaster, who works with Snow on plans to contain and control Katniss, including pushing her and Peeta to get married, much to the pleasure of television host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).
When Capitol troops start cracking down on District 12, Katniss stops a whipping of Gale on camera. Snow realizes this is too much and has a plan to handle not just Katniss but the rest of her “species.” He announces that the 75th Hunger Games (a “Quarter Quell”) will be made of completely of previous victors, Katniss chosen and Peeta volunteering to take the place of Haymitch. They find themselves going up against a much stronger field of competitors that include the arrogant Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin); his aged mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen); the fiery Johanna Mason (Jena Malone); tech wizard Beetee (Jeffrey Wright); quirky Wiress (Amanda Plummer); and the brutal Gloss (Alan Richson) and Cashmere (Stephanie Leigh Schlund). As she tries to survive these brutal new Games, Katniss doesn’t understand events happening behind the scenes to shake the Capitol up big-time.
The power of Suzanne Collins’ best-seller is clear on the screen as it taps into an idea that sadly isn’t as far-fetched as it might once be: How a rich realm uses televised violence to placate its populace so it won’t see the real problems around them. The first movie had the framework but this sequel just amps it up, showing how Katniss has changed so much, a touch of hope against the Capitol’s power that is infectious. The Games themselves are bigger and different, the “All-Star” shape of it meaning that this time Katniss and Peeta are against men and women who know exactly how to overcome their moral issues and kill to survive. Yet you also get a touch of bitterness from them. A good bit is when Haymitch talks of the other Victors and makes it clear that while he may not like all of them, they share a bond of this experience and how it’s not right they’re forced to once more endure this hell. Again, the decision to break away from the first-person narration of the books allows us to see more of the world like Snow troubled when his granddaughter tells him of how everyone at school wears their hair like Katniss and his work with Plutarch. The build of the movie is great as it takes an hour to get back to the arena but that set-up just amps things up to enjoy when it bursts. We get a totally different feel for this thanks to director Francis Lawrence, editing some stuff out of the books but keeping to the heart of the text which is needed.
It’s funny now to remember the outrage when Lawrence was cast as Katniss, so many convinced she was wrong and now you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. It’s obvious the actress is using her own rise to Oscar-winning A-list star for this performance, Katniss unsure around these cameras and the fame, obviously loathing being at parties where the Capitol people binge on food while her District starves. She still ably shows how much of a reluctant heroine, Katniss is, openly terrified in her meeting with Snow and hating being in this situation. The moment where Haymitch point blank tells her that she has to keep the act with Peeta going forever is heartbreaking as is her realization she may have to train other Tributes to their deaths one day. Her horror when she learns she’s going back to the Arena is gripping and Lawrence sells every moment of it. She doesn’t coast on her Oscar but it really seems to have improved her acting more, delving into new facets of the character. The first time, she was convinced she was going to die, this time she’s determined to save Peeta no matter what. In every scene, Lawrence dominates and proves this as a fantastic role that she makes come alive like no one else could, ably capturing the essence of the book, which is how Katniss honestly doesn’t understand how she’s become a symbol of rebellion, she just wants to live.
The rest of the returning cast are just as good, Hutcherson also haunted by his arena experience and clear how he truly does love Katniss but knows she doesn’t feel the same. Harrelson has great stuff as Haymitch, trying to educate Katniss on the realities of her situation. A great bit is when he hears of the announcement of the Quarter Quell, raging at how people like him, who spent years recovering from the Games, have to deal with it all over again. Hemsworth still remains a bit quiet and subdued but the promise of breaking out more with a great bit of Katniss telling them they should run off together and he points out that just leaves everyone else in danger. Sutherland is even more chilling as Snow, coldly telling Katniss that her family’s lives depend on her convincing him she and Peeta are in love, loving the cold power he holds and that he’ll do anything to keep that control going. Tucci continues the great showcase of Caesar as the ultimate emcee, putting a bright grin on this slaughter and showing how the Capitol populace ignores the truth of the horror they’re watching. Lenny Kravitz may still be in the background as designer Cinna but gets a key moment that rocks Katniss hard. The best improved character is Effie who at first comes in still so chipper and bright about the Tour, seemingly unable to accept the reality of how District 12 views the Games and the Capitol as she saunters in those horrendous outfits. But Banks is able to show new facets like the scene where Effie draws only three names from a bowl, choking and tearful and showing how, after all these years, it’s finally hitting her that this is no “honor,” that she’s sending kids to die and her tearful talk of how “we’re one team” actually wins over Katniss, a major improvement over her earlier actions.
In what would sadly turn out to be one of his final roles, Hoffman brings his usual skill to Plutarch, laid-back, seemingly quiet and unassuming but also shows how the man’s mind is always working. That comes up big time in the movie’s conclusion that casts his actions in a new light and Hoffman makes you see how it was all planned out without being obvious about it. Claflin is good as Finnick, a cocky man who enjoys flaunting his handsome looks and banter with Katniss but shows his own edge in the Arena with a good chemistry with the elder Mags. Without saying a word, Cohen brings some great gravitas to this woman who knows she has no chance but won’t go quietly despite herself. Wright and Plummer are both terrific as the pairing nicknamed “Nuts and Volts,” both geniuses but clearly not playing with a full deck thanks to their Games experiences, Plummer capably showing Wiress going more and more crazy as it goes on. Malone is the true scene-stealer, however, starting with her entrance as she saunters into an elevator with Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch and strips naked in front of them without a care. More than other Tributes, she shows the outrage of being forced into this as with her explosive interview, cursing at the unfairness of having to endure this again. But she truly comes alive in the Arena, snarling and wild, blood covering her face, a true vision and Malone makes the most of a role that should make her a star.
With a bigger budget, the world of Panem comes much more to life from views of different Districts to the more lavish Capitol and Lawrence is able to show the grit and darkness of this world. You get the feeling of how Katniss has sparked something long lost, a resistance and the fact she doesn’t want any part of it is genius. Once we get to the Arena, a jungle area surrounding a clock-shaped lake, the movie really takes off with nightmares like poison fog, killer monkeys and more. Yet we also get quiet moments like Katniss climbing a tree, enjoying a brief moment of peace before the attacks start once more, the fighting more brutal thanks to the veterans and is sold well. It’s a wild ride with twists as you feel the deaths of several characters hard and are right there with Katniss trying to navigate this harsh realm and keep her friend alive. Jennifer Lawrence is of course the dominant aspect but everyone has stepped up their game, making the movie’s conclusion (which sets up the two-part Mockingjay finale) all the more effective. Truly a step-up from both its predecessor and its own source material, Catching Fire shows why The Hunger Games is more than just a mere franchise but a truly powerful bit of filmmaking that deserves to be watched over and over.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10.0
AVC Encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1 for the Arena sequence and 2.40:1 for the rest of the film. As this is a darker movie, the picture is appropriately shadowed and the picture captures that perfectly, even the daytime sunlight sequences have a dim view at times but the colors are still great with a grainy edge. The District 12 scenes are bathed in cold blue or gray while the Capitol ones are lavish and gaudy bright, cinematographer Jo Willems doing a great job showcasing it all. The detail is lush, especially for the great costumes in Capitol scenes and the Arena sequences are sharp and bright to showcase the key part of the movie. All in all, it pops wonderfully to immerse you into this world and make you feel part of the incredible action.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 with subtitles in English and Spanish. The audio is just as great as the picture, mixing in things like the hokey music and sound for Caesar’s show to the chill and rough times of District 12 to a great fireworks display. The background sounds are terrific, especially in the Arena with every rustle of leaves, dripping water and howl of animals, not to mention the clash of battle and lightning, pulling you into the film in a great package to enjoy fully along with James Newton Howard’s fine score.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
Most places sell the simple Blu-Ray/DVD package but Target has a special edition with a handsome cardboard package featuring a different image of Katniss. Opening it up, you get the three discs: The Blu-Ray containing the movie and bonus features; the DVD with movie and some features; and a bonus disc of extra material alongside nice photos of Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Be warned, this edition is DVD-sized so may not line up right on your shelf with the previous film’s Blu-Ray. As with the first movie, the Blu-Ray's menu is fun starting with a fanfare of Tribute flags and notes on "Previews for your mandatory viewing."
The terrific extras start with an audio commentary by Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson. This is a great piece filling in a lot of pieces of the film and the story background with notes on how the opening shot was done in New Jersey to capture the proper moody cold setting. They laugh about how they had to recast Katniss’ cat and worried about fan reaction and take on why they had to cut out and rework parts of the book as stuff that was good on the page didn’t translate as they hoped for the film (like Plutarch’s watch bit). They faced challenges like shooting a winter District 12 in a hot Atlanta summer and a funny bit where, in the infamous “Johanna strips” elevator scene, the elevator opened on the wrong floor to give guests waiting a look at a topless Malone. They do give some mild spoilers for the final book/movie but it’s great as Lawrence talks of how he wanted a different feel than the first film but not stray too far from what was established, a very tricky balancing act but one he thinks worked out well. Obviously, spoilers for the movie, particularly the Arena and ending scene and it’s great the read the passion and respect Lawrence and Jacobson had for the material that elevated the film so well for fans and critics alike.
Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire (2:24:55) is one of those wonderful pieces of “making of” documentaries I adore. Running nearly two and a half hours, this nine-part documentary kicks off talking of how the first movie was a success beyond anyone’s dreams and thus they knew the stakes would be so much higher for the second film. A New Kind of Hunger: Continuing the Saga kicks off with Nina Jacobson and John Kilik discussing how Gary Ross decided not to direct the sequel and the search for a new director was on. They didn’t want a huge A-list guy but someone who could handle the material well and Francis Lawrence was hired quickly after coming up with a good concept for how to work the film. He personally worked with Suzanne Collins (who once again does not appear in the documentary) on the story, expanding beyond Katniss’ point-of-view of the books. Visual Vocabulary: Building a World has Phillip Messina saying the idea was “not to change anything, just push it in other directions.” Jo Willems found a goat farm in Atlanta to use for District 12, showing it off more and ideas like designing the Victor’s Village after English country houses. Set Director Larry Dias was able to use places like a parking garage for the Tributes training area, a Marriott for the apartment building (with stages built for special apartments) and the famed Swan House for the lavish mansion party. A key bit was finding a water park outside Atlanta to use for the Arena’s centerpiece with special effects coordinator Steve Cremin laughing at how he was asked how long it would take to empty a two million galleon water tank in order to dig it lower for swimming. A key bit was how Lawrence decided to film in anamorphic as digital was “too clean” for the gritty feel they wanted. In Stirring Things Up: The Cast, Jennifer Lawrence is far more comfortable than on the first film, put over quite well by her co-stars on how she’s older than she seems, so capable yet down to Earth, as shown by how she laughs at not recognizing Willow Shields (Prim) as having grown since the first film. We get talks on how each was cast and what they brought to the film with Hutcherson showing off a Katniss doll he’d just won in a contest. It’s more than a bit bittersweet to see Hoffman talking of his role with notes on continuing in the sequels and everyone saying it was such an honor to work with him and the entire cast getting along well, a key for the movie. Fashion Forward: Costume, Hair and Make-up puts the focus on make-up designer Ve Neill, costume designer Trish Summerville and hair designer Linda Flowers as they talk of creating the look for characters, lavish and gaudy for the Capitol folks while more down-to-earth for others. They touch on how Katniss’ braid is now iconic so they had to keep it no matter what and Tex Saverio talks about designing the gorgeous wedding gown she wears in the movie. A brilliant bit is Elizabeth Banks saying that Effie’s entire look of painful heels, horrible make-up, hair and outfits are all meant to be a subconscious penance for her part in the Games, a terrific character touch.
Let It Fly: Production in Atlanta actually has pre-production, such as pre-visualization for the chariot scene and Lawrence laughing over having to learn to dance for the party number. A big focus is on the water park, which closed on Labor Day so they couldn’t start filming until mid-November as a chill set over the state. Everyone complains about it, several people getting ear infections having to constantly dive into the water over and over and so cold that some days they had to wait for ice to thaw in order to film it. Malone pretty much speaks for everyone saying that she’s “blocked that whole two-week bit out of my mind” and she and Lawrence keeping themselves sane scarfing on candy in trailers. Moves and Countermoves: Stunts & Weapons has stunt coordinators Chad Stahleski and Sam Hargrave noting that the combat had to be different than the first film with experienced Tributes. While most of the archery in the first film was CGI, Lawrence had to learn to fire arrows for real in order for it to look right with a good spotlight on the various bows used and Lawrence pointing out that it’s nowhere near as easy as people think. Alan Ritchson (Gloss) laughs over how he thought he was in good shape for this but “they destroyed me” and Claflin says Francis Lawrence was better using Finnick’s trident than he was. We also touch on the building of the massive wheel in the water park and how the cast had to handle the battle against monkeys that would be added in later. Tick Tock: Production in Hawaii has everyone happy to be working there although not as much time to enjoy with the intense shoot. We see the challenges of shooting in IMAX with wider cameras being used and how, on set, they made a much louder noise that had to be edited out later, Malone summing up how the actors kept shouting to be heard and told they had to quiet down. Threading the Needle: Post-Production gets technical as we see Francis Lawrence in the room with editors Alan Edward Bell and Jeremy Perison, working to make sure the movie flows like the book. Double Negative were the big CGI people used and their various artists go in-depth on stuff from the chariot scene to the tidal waves for the clock, the monkeys and more. We also get to see James Newton Howard at work creating the movie’s score that everyone loved. The Revolution Lives: Reflections and Moving Forward wraps it all up as everyone talks of loving being part of this movie although again sadness when Hoffman says how much he’s looking forward to reprising his role in the sequels. Overall, a magnificent look at how this amazing production all came together.
We get about five minutes of deleted scenes, one notable one of Plutarch and Snow discussing the history of the mockingjay and another confirming what fans have always suspected, which was that the whole “Quarter Quell rules created decades ago” bit was a lie by Snow.
Finally, a look at Divergent, the upcoming Lionsgate adaptation that is hoping to ride on Games’ success.
The Target third disc has a trio of features that appear to be expansions off the main making-of doc. While some repeat stuff from that doc, there are some good touches to make them worth the extra buy. The Alliance: Returning Cast (14:27) has Willow Shields talking of coming back taller and a bigger role and Harrelson fun talking of how “I relate to Haymitch, probably a bit more than I should.” A big focus here is on everyone giving huge props to Jennifer Lawrence, still so down to earth despite her massive fame. Friend or Foe: New Cast (18:24) has casting director Debra Zane discussing the challenge of finding the right people but Hoffman was always their first choice for Plutarch. Hoffman himself was busy but finally got around to watching the first film, then reading the books to take part. Jeffrey Wright is put over as vanishing into roles so deep and Claflin on taking on such a notable character. Malone gets more spotlight here as it’s pointed out she doesn’t resemble the book version of Johanna but her audition just took everyone by storm that they had to cast her. Malone herself says it was tough on her first days with Lawrence and Hoffman as “Johanna would not be fan-girling out.” One Vision: A Faithful Adaptation (12:37) is mostly talked over by Scholastic publisher David Leviathan who points out how for years, fans would “cast” the movies in their mind but now new readers see Lawrence as Katniss. It talks on the themes and how some see our own society not that far off from this world but it’s always about the consequences of war and why it remains so popular. Not as long as some might hope but still a good addition for insight to the film.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
The 411: From start to finish, Catching Fire elevates The Hunger Games from just a mere franchise to a truly fantastic film series. Jennifer Lawrence continues as the amazing lead but is aided by a terrific cast and compelling storyline that shows the horrors of this war and the start of a rebellion against it. The extras just make it better by focusing on nearly every part of production and how actors, old and new, work together to make this movie so magic. As stunning as it was in theaters, even better at home as the Girl on Fire continues to dominate both on and off screen.