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

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
(SPOILERS) You see? Sometimes Oscar can get it right. Not that the backlash post-announcement would have you crediting any such. No, Saving Private Ryan had the rug unscrupulously pulled from under it by Harvey Weinstein essentially buying Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture through a lavish promotional campaign. So unfair! It is, of course, nothing of the sort. If the rest of Private Ryan were of the same quality as its opening sequence, the Spielberg camp might have had a reasonable beef, but Shakespeare in Love was simply in another league, quality wise, first and foremost thanks to a screenplay that sang like no other in recent memory. And secondly thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, so good and pure, before she showered us with goop.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

The Statue of Liberty is kaput.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
(SPOILERS) William Goldman said of Saving Private Ryan, referencing the film’s titular objective in Which Lie Did I Tell? that it “becomes, once he is found, a disgrace”. “Hollywood horseshit” he emphasised, lest you were in doubt as to his feelings. While I had my misgivings about the picture on first viewing, I was mostly, as many were, impacted by its visceral prowess (which is really what it is, brandishing it like only a director who’s just seen Starship Troopers but took away none of its intent could). So I thought, yeah Goldman’s onto something here, if possibly slightly exaggerating for effect. But no, he’s actually spot-on. If Saving Private Ryan had been a twenty-minute short, it would rightly muster all due praise for its war-porn aesthetic, but unfortunately there’s a phoney, sentimental, hokey tale attached to that opening, replete with clichéd characters, horribly earnest, honorific music and “exciting!” action to engage your interest. There are…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’m the spoiled toff who lives in the manor.

Robin Hood (2018)
(SPOILERS) Good grief. I took the disdain that greeted Otto Bathurst’s big screen debut with a pinch of salt, on the basis that Guy Ritchie’s similarly-inclined lads-in-duds retelling of King Arthur was also lambasted, and that one turned out to be pretty good fun for the most part. But a passing resemblance is as close as these two would-be franchises get (that, and both singularly failed to start their respective franchises). Robin Hood could, but it definitely didn’t.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…