Skip to main content

She has become a beacon of hope for them. She has to be eliminated.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
(2013)

The sequel to 2012’s “next Twilight” is turning out to be just the kind of follow up the moneymen wet themselves over (despite wholesale studio plundering of potential “next big things”, The Hunger Games is so far the only adaptation of a “Young Adult” series of novels to repeat the success of those mostly risible vampire pictures). The original’s positive word of mouth has snowballed into an even more sizeable hit (likely to end up second or third for the year). Having a literary pedigree doesn’t mean a sequel benefits from an author’s desire to advance plot and character, however. This is merely a bigger, more expensive retread of the first film. It distinguishes itself by featuring noticeably less handheld camera and perhaps slightly more engaging political intrigue, but any aspirations to strike out in a forward direction are kept firmly in check.


I enjoyed the first installment but I couldn’t swallow the conceit of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian, totalitarian world. I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence takes the reins from Gary Ross, and one of his aims was to show us more this regime and how it ticks. Unfortunately, expanding the canvas only makes the concept seem less likely. Lawrence ensures this installment looks more polished (eschewing Ross’ shakycam is a significant part of this) but it also seems more bloated (it isn’t; it’s only four minutes longer) and less affecting. There’s nothing here that has the impact of the violent melee when Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) arrives in the first Games. And the picture misses the contribution of Ross as co-writer of the screenplay.  He is replaced by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (author Suzanne Collins nor Billy Ray, the other credited writers of the first movie, are absent) neither of whom have a history of subtlety. Accordingly, Catching Fire is awash with thick-eared or excruciatinly corny dialogue and sloppy, obvious sentiment. I'm glad the kids are wowing at an even vaguely pro-revolution picture but this one manages to be both hugely derivative and not especially sharp.


Catching Fire also takes an enormous amount of time to get going, but the grander glimpses into this world are mostly routine. The best element of the film’s first half is the for-the-crowds pretence at romance between the profoundly disaffected Katniss and Peeta (the rather drippy Josh Hutcherson), particularly as the love triangle itself (the other corner being Liam Hemsworth’s Gale) is resoundingly torpid. When feelings for Peeta are eventually rekindled, we struggle to understand why (even less obvious is how the desperately unskilled titch survives for more than five minutes in the arena). Katniss’ growing awareness of the brutality of the districts and the seeds of rebellion that are taking place is quite clumsy, unfortunately. The oppressed are very oppressed, the fascist peacekeepers are very fascist, and Katniss is very upset at what she sees. Repeatedly.


The build up to the 75th Games is expanded without being hugely engrossing; only the shallow showmanship really hits the mark, with Stanley Tucci’s returning Caesar, all perma-tan and whitened teeth, consistently stealing the the proceedings. It’s a shame this wit doesn’t extend to the surrounding material. Katniss’ shows of defiance are all very well, but we want to get on to the killing! Jennifer Lawrence is as reliable a centre as before, the glue that holds the film together. She brings a weight and emotional depth Catching Fire would otherwise lack. And an assortment of knitwear. But this time, for plot reasons, Katnip is obliged to come across as unobservant and lacking insight. And it’s one of those pictures that wears its process on its sleeve; you can be sure that the writers will always finds excuses to avoid our heroes doing anything really nasty; the series has a vicious premise but can only render it in a highly sanitised form.


When the games begin things pick up, and Lawrence makes the most of his (mostly night shoot) location filming. There are some decent ideas here (the dome) and some not so decent ones (angry mandrills) but I question the idea that 75 years of the Games could have gone by without there ever once being a contest between past winners (it’s the same issue the first film has; the idea of the Games going on for so long is designed to add substance to this society, but it actually diminishes the practicality of the concept). 


Lawrence dutifully introduces all the challengers, but only those who eventually team up together make an impression. We remember being introduced to the woman with pointy teeth (it must smart if she gets her tongue in the way) but you’d be hard put to place her during the tournament proper. So the opponents remain mostly faceless; perhaps Lawrence has a “been there done that” attitude; it would certainly explain why the Games seem to be over before they’ve really started. But take out the Games and you remove Collins’ one arresting concept (flawed as it is). I don’t know how the third book is structured (however, I’m quite sure there’s a really good reason to turn it into two more movies…), but the end of this movie is closer to The Matrix Reloaded than The Empire Strikes Back.


The broad strokes of the plotting extend to the new contestants. We’re told that they are experienced killers, but why would they be any more experienced than Katniss and Peeta; they aren’t continually engaging with new enemies, are they? Some of them are more successfully established than others, just as some of the latest challenges are more inventive than others. The killer baboons are a bit shit, although it’s always fun to see wholesale slaughter of CGI animals (did Katniss go round extracting all her arrows from their carcasses, I wonder?) There is also an attack by jabberjays, which probably looked better on paper, and an attack by a pustulous poison that very conveniently washes off with water (it wouldn’t do for our young protagonist to go around looking unsightly for any length of time).


I was disappointed not to see a filthy fucking prawn as one of the tributes from District 9, but I guess you can’t have everything. Last time around a child was compelled to compete, so this time there’s a very old woman. Wisely, she prevented from uttering a word. No such luck for Amanda Plummer, who is saddled with playing a textbook fruit loop (she even speaks in nursery rhymes). Sam Claflin, who was the best thing in last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman, is fine as the ridiculously buffed Finnick, but the stand out is Jena Malone as pissed-off kick-ass former winner Johanna (when she’s on screen Katniss becomes rather forgettable, particularly during the scene where she disrobes in a lift). Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be picking up the cheque as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new planner of the Games (replacing Wes Bentley). Poor Toby Jones returns but only gets one scene. Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie) are consistently good value.


Meanwhile, Donald Sutherland is typically superb but there’s no texture to his malignancy; part of making a world come alive is adding nuance to the villainy. He has a token granddaughter to suggest he isn’t all-monster, but she’s responsible for the body blow of the film’s cheesiest line (even given the “fake” romance between Katniss and Peeta); "When I grow up, I want to love someone that much".


So this is a typical sequel, stock in construction and lavishly packaged. Maybe the fetid romance and unfiltered social commentary works better on the page, but it holds little lasting impact in translation. It becomes a mishmash of other tales and a all rather self-evident “oppression is bad, the rich feeding off the poor is bad” position. And, after 75 years of Hunger Games with the sheep-like populace still watching, we know this cannot be a commentary on today’s society; we’d have got bored of it and switched off in a tenth of that time.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You can have it. Make the edits.

Little Women (2019)
(SPOILERS) It could be argued, given Little Women’s evergreen popularity, not least as a go-to text for Hollywood adaptations, that Greta Gerwig isn’t exactly stretching herself or giving us a better idea of the kind of directorial career she envisages. Hers is a likeable, intelligent, well-rendered sophomore picture. As such, the awards plaudits are probably no more or less deserving than for your average prestige period piece. Which is to say that Little Women is handsomely mounted and consummately performed (at least, by some of the cast), but it doesn’t absolutely feel like this umpteenth version of Louise May Alcott’s novel demanded to be told, even with the Gerwig’s innovations of experimentation with time frame and metatextual use of its author.

We need somebody to walk the clones.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
(SPOILERS) Not so much the banality of evil as of taking pot-shots at easy targets, Taika Waititi’s typically insubstantial, broad-brush, sketch-comedy approach isn’t the best of fits for the formulation of this self-styled “anti-hate satire”. The issue isn’t so much that it’s inappropriate or insensitive to broach material of Nazi persecution of the Jews comedically as that the manner in which it has been done here is so obvious as to be redundant. Waititi said his inspiration for making the movie was partly the statistics on those Americans who had never heard of Auschwitz; Jojo Rabbit is as cack-handed a way of going about informing them as Life is Beautiful.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.