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

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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 don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Don’t you break into like, a billion homes a year?

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

A machine planet, sending a machine to Earth, looking for its creator. It’s absolutely incredible.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
(SPOILERS) Most of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek: The Motion Picture are legitimate. It puts spectacle above plot, one that’s so derivative it might be classed as the clichéd Star Trek plot. It’s bloated and slow moving. For every superior redesign of the original series’ visuals and concepts, there’s an inferior example. But… it’s also endlessly fascinating. It stands alone among the big screen chapters of series as an attempted reimagining of the TV show as a grand adult, serious-minded “experience”, taking its cues more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the success of which got The Motion Picture (TMP) a green light, execs sufficiently convinced that Lucas’ hit wasn’t a one-off). It’s a film (a motion picture, not a mere movie) that recognises the passage of time (albeit clumsily at points) and gives a firm sense of space and place to its characters universe. It’s hugely flawed, but it bot…