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.


***

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.