(I’m trying to mark the biggest spoilers as usual, but be careful with this one if you don’t want anything given away)
You remember back when THE HUNGER GAMES came out I avoided it. I know this makes me a weirdo, but it wasn’t until Francis Lawrence signed on to direct the sequels that I got interested. The conventional wisdom was that part 1’s Gary Ross (PLEASANTVILLE, SEABISCUIT) was a classy director and this was a step down to replace him with the guy who did CONSTANTINE and I AM LEGEND. But I’m a fan of Mr. Lawrence, I see some genius behind the admittedly large flaws of those movies. As pretty good as THE HUNGER GAMES is I’m way more impressed by Lawrence’s depiction of post-human-New-York-City and Will Smith’s performance as the lonely omega-scientist. Yeah, we all know that there are some problems when the vampires turn out to be leaping computer animated beasts, but shit, they’re better than the animated dogs in HUNGER GAMES. Scarier and with more personality and meaning. Let’s not pretend either of these is flawless, but I know which one I like better.
Now Lawrence’s first HUNGER GAMES chapter has hit, and virtually ever review I’ve seen says what I predicted, that he made a better movie than the first one. See you guys, I know shit.
I AM LEGEND and CONSTANTINE are pretty liberal adaptations of their source material. I hear CATCHING FIRE is more of the literal Harry Potter approach to adaptation, pretty close to the book by Suzanne Collins except that it shows us discussions between the president (Donald Sutherland) and another dude (P.S. Hoffman) that you figure were going on behind the scenes but didn’t see because the book was all in the perspective of the heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Actually that kinda sounds better.
For the most part CATCHING FIRE feels more like a “hey that was popular, let’s make another one” than a middle chapter of a planned trilogy. It’s largely a rehash where arrow-shooting death game survivor Katniss has to get pampered and smile for the cameras and then finds out she has to train again and then hunger game again. But bigger and better!
You know how American Idol has their yearly competition and then after it’s over they take the contestants on an arena tour and make more money off of them? That’s kinda what they do here:
They put Katniss and Peeta on a train to go around and make speeches on the “Victory Tour.” This is really fucked up because #1 the government is deliberately rubbing the deaths of the other contestants in the noses of the residents of their districts, and forcing our heroes to turn it into propaganda. #2, you can’t fucking reclaim the term “Victory Tour,” you bastards. Everybody knows there is one and only one meaning to that phrase:
Anyway, second time’s the charm (or maybe Frances Lawrence is the charm), so I believe the hunger game part of part 2 is more exciting than the one in part 1. If you’re wondering, there’s less of the first movie’s notorious shake-o-vision. The filmatism is much more confident, with planned camera moves and no reliance on handheld cameras to symbolize realism. Ross was accused of wiggling the camera around so you couldn’t really see the violence and that would keep it from getting an R-rating. Lawrence does it smarter and gets more bang for his buck. For example there’s a scene where a soldier is about to shoot a civilian in the head as Katniss is dragged inside and a door is closing. The way we lose sight of the old man just before the gun goes off doesn’t tone it down, it makes it more upsetting. But the MPAA just doesn’t want to see blood or tits, so they’re okay with it.
There’s not enough straight up action to require an ACR. If I gave it one it would definitely be higher than the first one, but to be frankly honest there was one important action scene that was shaky and I was confused about who did what exactly and which character was dead. So Mr. Lawrence is not without his sins.
By the way I noticed UNDISPUTED 3 fight choreographer Larnell Stovall listed as a stuntman. I guess he was in the first one too. In case that comes up at your trivia night or something, I thought you should know.
So anyway there’s some improvement, but it’s not about style. The first movie has a big problem that it sets up this dramatic conflict (the only way for her to survive is to murder a bunch of innocent victims like herself) but it’s a PG-13 movie based on a book for tweens so it has to cheat its way out (she only has to self-defense kill a couple assholes and she makes them change the rules so she and her friend can both live). Part 2 wisely ditches that problem altogether. Now some of the players team up and she just has to worry about who she can trust. And she’s gone in planning to die. She never gets to a point where it pretends she has to make a hard decision that you know she’ll just loophole her way out of.
The game itself has more going on. Like before there are weird dangers they have to face (poisonous fog that gives them genuinely disturbing piles of boils on their skin, like a Gremlin in the sunlight), but they figure out a pattern and structure to it. It’s a puzzle. Usually the Hunger Games drafts random young people from each district, but this is a special 75th anniversary edition where they choose between the winners of previous games. That’s how the same shit happens to the same Katniss and Peeta twice. It’s kinda like The Ultimate Ultimate, where the winners and runners up of previous UFC tournaments were entered into a super tournament.
In fact if I made this movie I would’ve had Ultimate Ultimate winner (SPOILER FOR THE ULTIMATE ULTIMATE) Dan “The Beast” Severn play one of the hunger gamers, out of respect. But I guess nobody would believe him not winning. He’s retired, but this is what he looked like as recently as 2010:
It’d be pretty funny to see a tough bastard like that make a big entrance and then the next thing you hear he’s dead. Yeah, I can’t picture how but I guess some kid got him. That’s what happens to most of the characters here, they get killed off screen before we even saw them on the battlefield. It’s a pretty long movie, but like the first one they spend so much time on the setup that the games have to be kinda rushed.
Because this is The Hunger Hunger there’s a wider age range on the contestants. There’s a team that I thought of as Basquiat and Honey Bunny (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer), two middle aged science geniuses. Also an old lady named Mags (Lynn Cohen, who played Golda Meir in MUNICH). But even the grownups have to wear wetsuits that are supposed to be cool looking, we got the home viewers to think about. I was hoping Mags would get a 300-style slo-mo-running-at-the-camera-chopping-motherfuckers-up-with-an-ax type of moment, but no dice, she’s just a sad old lady in inappropriate clothing. SUCKER PUNCH’s Jena Malone does get to use an ax though.
Because all the contestants have been double jeopardied some of them give up on the kayfabe and make public statements in defiance of their oppressors. The title “catching fire” refers to Katniss’s trademark actually-literally-on-fire formal gowns but also the idea that her spirit of rebellion is spreading to the cities. Their symbolic gestures at her promotional appearances lead to riots and executions, and now the other contestants are speaking out in interviews and yelling at the cameras during the games. Her girl power spirit is even spreading to toy commercials:
The Hunger Games competitors were supposed to distract the people from how bad the government treats them, not call attention to it. The president is so worried about it that he shows up at Katniss’s house and threatens her family. He can tell she’s going to inspire an uprising. He wants to put out this fire by killing her character off in this convoluted plot twist of having to play again.
These are stories about a society where the decadent rich are completely indifferent to the suffering of the impoverished majority, and where shitty reality entertainment keeps the masses in line. Of course I like these types of themes, but I wish they had faith in the ideas coming across without the characters having to spell the shit out in plain English. I’d love to just get in there and cut out some of this dialogue. Woody Harrelson doesn’t have to say that they’re on TV to be a distraction to keep the people from rebelling. If it was up to me all those lines would go in the incinerator with that scene from the HILLS HAVE EYES remake where “Big Brain” makes a speech explaining why the mutants hate the vacationers.
The worst one is in a scene where we find out that the Grey-Poupon-commercial-living-motherfuckers in the capitol have champagne glasses full of Ipecac or something so they can binge and purge. I loved that idea and then they feel they have to have Peeta point out that this is horrible when people in district 12 are starving. Yeah, thanks buddy, I never could’ve put two and two together even though “Hunger” is in the damn title.
A little more subtlety here and there could do wonders. This President Snow character is scary, but in a movie bad guy way, not in an accurate way. A scarier villain would be one that seemed to have no idea he was the bad guy. Like real politicians. This guy is pretty open about being an evil dictator who will do anything to hold onto his power.
Not all of it is that clumsy though. There are some really powerful moments, like when SPOILER Katniss is in the tube elevator about to enter the competition and suddenly the masked stormtroopers of Hungerland storm in and start beating the shit out of her fashion designer, pal and confidant Lenny Kravitz. She screams and cries from inside the tube and at exactly that moment hey, let the games begin and she rises up into the battlefield. It’s a truly cruel way to fuck her up. And then you gotta wonder if they did something like that to all the other players too.
I like the scene where Hemsworth’s been flogged and they bring him back to their little house. Everybody knows what to do. Katniss’s little sister (Perriwinkle?), who would’ve died in the first movie if Katniss hadn’t entered the games in her place, knows how to make a salve with snow and herbs. It tells us two important things: this is a shitty world where little kids are experienced at aiding the wounded, and Katniss’s family can take care of themselves.
Another good one where they resisted the urge to underline everything is the part where Katniss and Mags discuss that Mags is in the competition because she volunteered in place of a child. You can read between the lines that she was inspired by what Katniss did for her sister. They look at each other and there’s all kinds of unspoken emotion in their eyes. That’s how I like it.
At one point Katniss and Peeta’s overly fashionable handler Effy (Elizabeth Banks) makes a sweet gesture to unite them as a team. It’s a nice moment but it also maxed out my bullshit meter, because this is a lady who remorselessly sends kids off to kill each other. And seems to enjoy it. And now they act like we’re supposed to love her because she’s goofy and wears a dress made out of butterflies. I guess it’ll turn out in the next one that she’s changed her ways and is in on the uprising, but as it plays at this point in the story we’re supposed to be all “ahhh, what a sweetheart” for the nice slavemaster. ‘Cause she bought them some jewelry before sending them to die.
Jennifer Lawrence is still good. For those keeping track she does hunt a rabbit, but not a squirrel. I hope this doesn’t mean she’s turning into a sellout.
I like seeing her be defiant and shoot arrows and shit, and also she’s a good actress so she can show us her true feelings behind empty for-the-cameras smiles. Katniss is a fun character but I think maybe her reputation as a great female role model is exaggerated. Ripley and Sarah Connor never had to do the choose-between-two-cute-boys bit. She has her real boyfriend back at home (EXPENDABLES 2 expendee Liam Hemsworth) and then Peeta is her Hunger Games beard who she pretends to love on TV and seems to start having real feelings for, romantic comedy style. I mean that’s fine but it’s the same shit little girls get in all their other entertainment that’s supposedly bad for them.
I forgive Katniss for crying in multiple scenes and waking up screaming from nightmares. She’s only human. And at what turns out to be the climax she does a really smart and badass maneuver that earned a round of applause from the (largely young and female) audience at the Cinerama. But in retrospect when you know what’s going on there (SPOILER) it’s not even clear if that was really her brilliant inspiration to do that or if it was what the men were setting her up to do. (If not, what were they trying to do? And was Jeffrey Wright not in on it and really did want to electrocute all the other players? I doubt that but it’s possible.)
Another thing that occurred to me only after the fact: Katniss actually might’ve slowed them down. She figures out the whole thing about the island being a clock, but remember the first time they saw the lightning strike the tree? They count twelve times and Jena Malone says “Midnight.” I believe it’s Katniss who incorrects her, saying it’s 12 strikes for the 12 districts. But Jena was right! It was a clock! You shouldn’t brush her off like that. She’s observant and she has an ax.
These problems I’m bringing up are mostly small ones, important enough to be worth discussing but not enough to ruin the movie for me. The biggest problem I had, actually, must come completely from the material and the fact that it’s a book that was designed to be book #2 and then you would buy book #3 which would be split into movies #3 and #4. This feels like the structure of a big exciting movie but then, nope, they’re just stringing you along until the next one.
In a surprise twist, Wes Bentley’s character must’ve died in the last one and I forgot about it, or maybe he died in between movies in a goatee-lasering accident. His replacement as official dungeon master of the hunger gaming is Gator Purify or whatever (P.S. Hoffman). In his first scene he heavily implies that he’s planning to subvert the hunger games and SPOILER at the end Katniss escapes the arena and he’s there and he reveals that yes, it is true what I heavily implied earlier and let’s get those motherfuckers!
YES, I thought, now we’re getting to the good shit. Big ol’ smile on my face, I couldn’t help it. The movie had me.
Then the animated bird logo appeared on the screen and I got that dreaded “wait, that’s it?” heart-sinking feeling. LATER we’re getting to the good shit. It might not even be until two movies from now, because if they split the book in two doesn’t that mean all the good shit is in the second half?
It makes me almost miss the old days when Hollywood even wanted to squoosh the Lord of the Rings trilogy into one or two movies. In that case it would’ve been a mistake, but this installments approach to movies is not cuttin it for me. Sometimes it works on TV because there’s another one next week, but if we gotta wait a year or three to get to the next part you better tell a complete story. It’s cool to leave some loose threads and throw in some epilogical curveballs to propel us into the next one, but give us a full movie’s worth first. In STAR WARS they didn’t leave you hanging when they’re about to attack the Death Star. And don’t give me no lip about EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. There’s a huge climax before the cliffhanger: Luke fights Darth and finds out a big secret. This is like if he got knocked out before fighting Vader, then when he wakes up they tell him that Han was frozen in carbonite off screen and that Vader said he was his father and then it’s over and we assume he’s gonna go fight Vader in the next one.
The movie kinda acts like the people starting an uprising at the end is a surprise, even though it’s been anticipated throughout the movie. Katniss has been seeing these brutal acts, trying to stand up against them, getting shut down. When she pulls a Pocahontas and stands in between her boyfriend and a soldier with a whip the soldier doesn’t stop, he pulls a gun out and has to have two men talk him out of executing her on the spot.
The president has been talking about we have to stop her from sparking an uprising. Multiple people remind her multiple times to “remember who the real enemy is,” meaning to focus on stopping the evil government and not shooting arrows into her fellow victims.
She wants to be able to take a stand and fight against the real enemy, but her enemy is too powerful. She has to bide her time, she has to play along. Unbeknownst to her there’s a secret plan going on to make that happen. And it all leads up to this moment where she sees an opportunity, and she has this idea, and she uses her unique skills, she does something crazy, something that turns her from imprisoned troublemaker to active rebel. (Or Rebelle.) With one single motion she says fuck you, fires a shot across the bow, throws the garbage can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria…
…and then she wakes up and they tell her her town got blown up. Tune in next year everybody! What the fuck is this? The whole thing has been will she or won’t she spark an uprising, but that’s just a front because not one single adult or child in that audience thinks there’s a possibility of nah, let’s pass on the uprising. They’re not even giving us what we expect… they’re telling us they’re gonna give us what we expect at a later date. At the risk of sounding like a Filmcrit Hulkamaniac: build something throughout the movie so you can deliver on it. Don’t build it so you can promise it will be in the next one.
(pause for peaceful reflection)
Okay, don’t worry, I’m almost done. Sorry about this guys. One more paragraph about this.
Hopefully it’s just me. Alot of people are familiar with the books, so they won’t think it’s weird where it ends. But I think this is on the way to being a real good one and then it fails to seal the deal. It uses an “oh shit it’s on” moment as a cliffhanger instead of its god-given purpose as the anticipatory pause before the best part of the movie. If this was a truly great popcorn movie they would bust out of that arena and have their first battle before we’d get a cliffhanger. But I guess after I re-orient myself I can settle for a pretty good popcorn movie.
Oh jesus, I just looked it up and actually Hoffman’s character is named “Plutarch Heavensbee.” That is not a joke because I would not joke about something like that. How am I even getting around to any other criticisms when I have “Plutarch Heavensbee” to deal with? I should take the movie’s advice and remember who the real enemy is.
“Plutarch Heavensbee.” For crying out loud.
No, you know what? Strike that. Now that I think about it I believe I used to work with a Plutarch Heavensbee. I think this guy spelled it with three e’s at the end though, Heavensbeee. This was back when I worked for Mr. Magorium. So anyway it’s not that shitty of a name. Nice job with the naming, Suzululu Collinsbane.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.