Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reviews: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' & 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Movies

2014 is now here, but before I post my end of the year entries, I have two more reviews from the end of 2013 to put up, so here they are...

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
(Photo Source: Lionsgate)
First up, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I was so looking forward to seeing the second installment. Unfortunately, I couldn't go see it right away because I was holed up inside working on NaNoWriMo. But once that was all over, I finally watched it at my local Regal theater (in IMAX, no less).

The first movie, The Hunger Games, is considered as one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. But with a new director, I was worried the sequel wouldn't claim that accolade as well. But I believe it did.

As we know, the book Catching Fire is essentially split into two parts (even though there are three sections labeled in the novel): there's everything before the games (most notably the Victory Tour) and then the Games themselves. One of the things I didn't like about the book was how the Games don't start until there's about eight chapters left or something like that. It's a very small window. For the adaptation, the filmmakers provided the right amount of screentime for both parts. Neither felt too long or too short.

The tone of the movie is one of the biggest things I noticed. Even though I already know the story really well from the book, a movie can capture elements that you just can't do with words on a page (the visuals, if you will), and vice versa. Catching Fire is an extremely intense film. And I think that even saying the word 'extremely' is a bit of an understatement.

During some of the more disturbing scenes and moments, my hands were literally clenched, and I was sitting there stunned by what I was seeing. Again, I'll make the point that I knew what I was going to be watching, but the level of brutality and horror, actually seeing it instead of just reading it, was quite an experience. You've got the Victory Tour where the citizens in the various districts are rebelling and the crackdowns begin. One of more intense scenes was when Gale was being whipped in the square. It's scenes like that that are really hard to watch. But they're no doubt powerfully captured on screen in a way that might have fallen short had there been different filmmakers in charge.

And then there's the Games themselves. All those feelings from the first half of the film are brought back to the fore, with how intense everything gets. The fog, the vicious monkeys, all of it. And I'm so glad that the budget was increased for the sequel because you can really tell how much more on a grand scale Catching Fire is than The Hunger Games.

It's hard for me to pick a favorite scene because it seems like almost every major scene could be in the running for best moment. But I'm still thinking about the ending when Katniss shot the arrow (that had the wire attached to it) up at the force field and the whole thing came crashing down. Talk about awesome. Again, a moment where the special effects blew me away. And while we're at this point, as a fan of the book series, it was exciting to see the movie end just as the book did, with Katniss being informed that there is no District 12. A great cliffhanger in the book, and just as great in the movie.

And as with the The Hunger Games, I don't have any complaints about the actors or their acting abilities. Katniss is now an Oscar winner, and even when she steps back in to a Young Adult franchise, she doesn't lose any of her strengths that snagged her two noms and one win. The addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman was a fantastic casting choice. I have to say, I'm always impressed, with each film, the level of talent they're able to secure.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a hard movie to watch at times, and not because it's bad--in fact, quite the opposite: it's because the filmmakers managed to not only create a top-notch adaptation, but also because they perfectly captured the tone and spirit on a level that I wasn't expecting. And for that, I have to applaud them. I gave the first film an A-, but I think for the sequel, it's time to hand out a perfect A.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(Photo Source: MGM/WB)
While The Hunger Games: Catching Fire received near-unanimous praise, the same couldn't be said for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Well before its release, Peter Jackson had already been criticized for splitting one book into three movies. And that uproar began all over again once the movie came out. (We get it already! Unfortunately, I know it's going to start up yet again when the third film comes out.)

For me, sure, maybe it would have been better had he stuck to doing just two movies. But I'm not one of those who has been piling on the critiques. When it comes to adaptations, the one I nitpicked the most was Harry Potter just because of how attached I was and am to that series. So when changes were made in The Lord of the Rings, I didn't mind, and I, like many others, consider that trilogy to be an epic masterpiece.

No, these three Hobbit films aren't going to be called masterpieces once all is said and done, but I want to be entertained by them. And I was. And I'm not one to complain when Jackson adds in scenes not in the book. Many (not all, of course) of those additions still happened anyway. And even with creating a whole new character not found anywhere--Tauriel--I found it to be refreshing. Most everything that was added to The Desolation of Smaug gave it a more grand feel.

Since this is going to be three movies in total, one of the things that the filmmakers have done is expand certain scenes. To take one example, the giant spiders in Mirkwood. Now, it has been over 10 years since I last read the book, but I'm sure this is a scene expanded for the movie. And it was one of my favorites, actually. Just when you thought Bilbo and the dwarves were safe, here come even more spiders to harass them.

Then there's the barrels scene, when Bilbo and the dwarves escaped down the river. Again, here's another favorite moment for me--mainly because of Legolas. We all remember the scenes from The Lord of the Rings when he'd have elaborate choreography like climbing up on that elephant. In this second Hobbit film, the barrels scene allowed him to have one of those moments again. Seeing him go across the barrels and going every which way fighting the orcs was fantastic. I found myself laughing at times because it was very humorous even though I don't think it was supposed to be a comedic scene. But some of the things that he did were just so over the top and maybe that's why it was funny.

Before we get to the dragon, I want to also mention Lake-town. The visuals of this town were beautiful. And I absolutely loved the music that played here. That is by far my favorite music theme from the entire movie.

And of course I can't end this without bringing up the dragon, Smaug. Leading up to the movie's release, I think it's safe to say we all got the sense that Peter Jackson wanted this dragon to be absolutely massive. And even though I knew that going on, I still was amazed at the size of him--truly unbelievable.

Here's another instance where a scene was greatly expanded. And I found myself looking at my watch a couple times because I was trying to figure out how the movie was going to end. I knew what time the movie would be over, and seeing how much time was left, I was trying to process what all would be happening here, story-wise, and how it would end. And I love all the additions to this climax. I can't wait for this movie to come out on DVD so I can watch especially this part again. Then of course Smaug escapes the mountain and heads toward Lake-town--and cue the credits.

I seriously didn't know how this second film was going to end, especially since I was calculating how much was left in the novel and figuring out how much would be left over for the third and final installment. But I thought it was a great move on their part to not only end it on a cliffhanger, but to have said cliffhanger be the dragon heading toward Lake-town.

I don't really want to get into nitpicky things. Yes, there were a few times in the middle where I started to realize just how long the movie was. And yes, it is long. But overall, I found myself really enjoying The Desolation of Smaug. It definitely has the feel of a middle film, almost in the same way that The Two Towers did. But that's not necessarily a detraction.

Out of the two Hobbit films so far, I'm not sure which one is better in my eyes. I might have to watch this one again to make a better assessment of that. But with the cliffhanger, I am looking forward to the final film, There and Back Again. Though I am wondering what all is going to be in that movie. While there's a battle to come, are there enough storylines to create a movie that's over two hours? I wonder. But that's a thought for another time. For now, my grade for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is B+ (maybe A- if I'm in a really good mood).

I Recommend: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire & The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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