Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire illustrates one of the major truths of modern society:

Reality show producers are dicks.

The Flower and The Boy liked this movie as much as the original one, but I liked it a lot better, for a number of reasons. There's a lot less child murder, for example.

Ha, like that's a plus.

Seriously, though, the ephebocide is limited, since the "games" play a more peripheral role in this one and the candidates are former winners, Katniss and baker boy are the youngest involved. (But if you need more child murder, you can check out the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is really highly praised by critics an audiences. I think it so dumb as to actually cross into camp.)

So, yeah: A year of movie time has transpired since the events of the previous movie, and Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to their romance for the cameras—well, wait a tick, they were faking? What kind of ret-con bullhooey is this? Oh, right, Katniss is still in love with the guy back home, Gale, who's one of the Thor brothers (Chris, Liam, Luke—the Hemsworths...this one is...Liam!), leaving Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who was in Red Dawn with Chris Hemsworth, which could be really awkward if we were blending movies with meta-gossip-stories) to hold the bag. Of flour.

'cause remember? He could toss those bags of flour around last time.

Anyway, evil Prez-for-life Donald Sutherland wants Katniss dead, having already dispatched the evil, blundering Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and replaced him with even eviler, more blunderinger Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Where the original movie is preposterous in its premise (something I made allowances for, given that it was a young adult story, so by convention it had to focus on young adults) and technology, this one is largely just ridiculous in its technology.

That is to say, this advanced society can craft animals from holographs (or whatevs) and manipulate the weather but somehow can't edit a reality show in such a way as to turn Katniss into a traitor that all the people of the country hate, a feat which isn't beyond a multitude of hacks around today.

But we'll leave that aside.

The movie works partly because it's based on the premise that the whole thing is starting to unravel, which gives a lot more room for intrigue and mystery. Perhaps not coincidentally, the regime is 75 years old, which is about as long as the USSR lasted (if you include the first few years of the revolution), so maybe that's as long as a preposterous social order can last or something.

Meanwhile, the characterizations are given more depth. If Lawrence's Katniss was bottled up most of the first movie, she cuts loose here, with the final shot of the film (really an arbitrary stopping point than the resolution of the story) being basically a close shot of her face as she struggles with a variety of emotions.

I think it goes on for 15 or 20 minutes.

A bold choice for a 5 hour movie.

I kid. It's about two-and-a-half hours and it could've been longer. It doesn't have the feeling of being padded I sometimes got from the first one. It also isn't so darn self-conscious, which helps. It borrows shamelessly from Roman/Nazi imagery and less from campy '70s dystopias. I think I'd credit director Francis Lawrence for this; although I like Gary Ross (director of the first film and Seasbiscut and Pleasantivlle), I think Lawrence has more conviction in the quality of the source material.

But getting back to the characterizations, everyone introduced in the first film gets another spin against a backdrop of their world falling apart. Nobody makes better use of this than the previously insufferable Effie (Elizabeth Banks), who just wants everything to be perfect in her little world, but whose sense of fair play, however strained, is not infinitely flexible.

The only one seemingly completely untouched is the incomparable Stanley Tucci, as the smarmy MC of the games.

Hey, remember The Running Man? 1987 Schwarzenegger flick, Paul Michael-Glaser directed and Richard Dawson played the MC. Stronger premise (in that criminals were made to fight for their lives, which is less of a strain on the imagination than innocent children) but overall weaker movie, with Dawson being one of the weaker links.

And it wasn't really his fault, necessarily. It's just that he was drawing on a paradigm (game show host) which had limited emotional range. The beauty of Tucci's Caesar Flickerman is that he's able to guide the audience through a wide range of emotions, not entirely unlike that you'd see from Bob Costas at the Olympics and, of course, the reality show setting.

Just like the reality show setting, of course, these are all bullshit emotions. But the audience is shallow enough not to care.

Josh Hutcherson may have the hardest role, as the boy who may get the girl of his dreams even though she doesn't want him. That's tough. He's got to be appealing on some levels, but he can't be too obviously more appealing than the guy she really loves.

But even Lawrence's Katniss is interesting here. She's pretty much dragooned into every heroic thing. She'd rather split. She attempts to run and hide. It's the other characters that stop her. When she tries to sacrifice herself, it seems less heroic and more cowardice or exhaustion. She has PTSD (as do many survivors).

She's not awful, a la any given Kristen Stewart character, she's just kind of average in a lot of ways. Like, when she gets hit by a man, she ends up seriously hurt. How often do you see that in a movie?

Anyway, as much as I've tried, I don't find the first movie very re-watchable. This one may be. In any event, I think it's considerably better and look forward to the conclusion, even if they did split it into two more damn movies.

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