Thursday, December 19, 2013

Another Belated Movie Review: A Series Catches Fire

Spoilers abound for this story that was released 4 years ago.  If you don’t know what’s coming in the movie, then you are officially culturally malnourished and have some serious catch-up to do on contemporary literature.

After my severe disappointment at the first cinematic third (or fourth – because the whole “arbitrarily bifurcate a book and make twice the money” scheme has regrettably become a trend) of the renowned Hunger Games trilogy, I didn’t feel that desperate to run out and see the following installment, but the opportunity to witness Katniss Everdeen’s continued resistance against the tyrannical Capitol of Panem from within the similarly tyrannical Capital of North America’s pre-Panem was a temptation too alluring to suppress.  Much to my surprise, succumbing to that temptation was a most rewarding endeavor, as Catching Fire is immeasurably superior to the poorly handled and sometimes ironically sadistic mess that preceded it.  While The Hunger Games succeeded only in so far that Suzanne Collins wrote a really compelling story, the script faithfully adapted it, and the actors understood their characters, Catching Fire actually succeeds as a movie in its own right, whether one sees it in or outside the Capitol; rarely does such a film roll along that offers such a delight for the senses and the thinking mind, that dazzles the eyes with magnificent and horrifying wonders while carefully raising themes of politics and individual ethics.

Catching Fire commences almost a year after Panem’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark cleverly seized an unprecedented double victory in the 74th Hunger Games.  Their survival, however, was not won without great cost, for their status as Victors and effective national celebrities forces them to stand eternally in the public spotlight and to maintain the façade of unfailing love that drove the since ‘retired’ gamemaker Seneca Crane to spare them both in the arena.  “I went and spoke with the game mainframe.  He won’t be, well, living anymore.”  Sorry, that’s a GLaDOS quip.  Though Seneca’s trial by nightlock berries seems as morbid as anything else, Katniss and Peeta are fast discovering that their own fates are to be no less grim, condemned to fuel a machine of state propaganda and control that decays with every passing day she continues to survive.  Remarks their mentor and former District 12 champion Haymitch, “You never get off this train.”  In the lead up to the next year’s games, the young heroes travel across Panem on a victory tour, during which Katniss strives to appease the malicious President Snow, who suspects that her suicidal stunt was a treacherous act of defiance, and learns that this same stunt has transformed her into an emblem of hope for resistance factions mobilizing throughout the 12 Districts.  This leads her to a dilemma of pivotal consequence: will she perpetuate a lie and submit as a servant to the state in order to protect herself and her family, or will she do her civic duty in denouncing injustice and leading a revolution against the tyrannical forces that hold the districts in perpetual fear and slavery?

Snow, as it plays out, is determined to grant the rising star neither of these choices, observing that riots sparked by her image are swiftly escalating beyond both his and her own ability to suppress.  To keep his increasingly unstable vassals in line, he not only ratchets up the brutal “peacekeeping” demonstrations of his police forces but also prepares a shocking twist to the games for the event’s third “quarter-quell”: the tributes for this game will be reaped from each district’s pool of living victors, which effectively delivers an automatic sentence for District 12’s lone female survivor, Katniss.  Shuttled abruptly back to the Capitol along with Peeta, she will be challenged once again to save not just her life but her very identity, to preserve her innocence in the midst of all-consuming chaos against forces bent on the full annihilation of any morality she yet retains – and not by their wrongdoing, but by her own.  “Remember who the real enemy is,” advises Haymitch before she dives into the fray.  Whether she does is a question I’ll let the film answer itself.

The most obvious improvement that Catching Fire makes over the original Hunger Games simply lies in its production values.  Whereas the first movie irked me considerably because its cinematography and technical artistry looked like the result of entrusting a few ungainly teenagers with too much money and reserving absolutely none of it for proper camera mounts or effects software, the sequel actually resembles a legitimate, made-for-big-screen blockbuster with awe-inspiring visuals and a budget that was clearly put to good use.  After inducing an epidemic of headaches and nausea throughout the theater stalls, former director Gary Ross was thankfully given the boot and succeeded by a guy I’ve somehow never heard of named Francis Lawrence, who can hold a camera steady at the very least and knows how to stage action scenes such that the viewer can reasonably follow who’s winning, losing, or lost.  One of the more damning faults I found with The Hunger Games was that it Disneyized the violence so much as to render it weightless or even comical.  Good guys and bad guys were clearly drawn in the sand and the bad guys generally died so cleanly and pleasantly that many moviegoers gladly overlooked that human blood was being needlessly shed for their own sick amusement.  That the sequel neatly sidesteps many of its antecedent’s moral quandaries can be attributed largely to conveniences of the plot, as neither Katniss nor her companions directly kill much anybody the second time in the arena, but credit is also due to smart changes in the film’s direction.  Catching Fire retains the PG-13 rating that will be the series’ custom but wisely turns it from a handicap into a license; without adding buckets of gore or dwelling on graphic imagery, the movie nevertheless ratchets up the intensity of its action significantly through claustrophobic camera-work and incredibly lifelike effects.

Whereas the setting of the first movie’s bloodbath was little more than a generic and unevocative forest that could inexplicably burn up in places when appropriate and was later infested with the saddest CG hounds to ever appear on screen, the arena that the Capitol conceives for the 75th Hunger Games is a brilliantly imagined, downright disturbing reflection of the despair and madness that wrack the gladiators within it.  Unlike many movies masquerading as action pictures which portray cheery, tropical ‘rain forests’ as the director idealizes them, with soft sunlight beaming through a treetop canopy and the tranquil calls of wildlife reverberating across the floor (I’m looking at you, Predator), Catching Fire portrays a jungle that feels as a jungle ought: dark, oppressive, savage, and inhospitable to all but the most resilient of humanity.  This is the jungle of Heart of Darkness, of Lord of the Flies, and of King Kong, and the cinematography masterfully imparts both its sheer majestic scope from above the trees and its ruthless violence from beneath them.  Midway through the picture, Katniss and her company are surrounded and assailed by a pack of vicious baboons that could have been ripped right out of a Peter Jackson movie, which makes sense as the New Zealand company Weta Digital, veteran of LOTRKong, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, presides over the effects design for this chapter.  The tributes and animals blend almost seamlessly in the scene, so convincingly that the viewer can tremble at the beasts’ menacing hisses and recoil at every one downed by the heroes’ arrows or spears.  Without disclosing all of the surprises one will encounter in this massive dome of a Coliseum, the monkey episode is only one of many technically astounding sequences squeezed into a rotating circle of horrors, including a carnivorous blanket of fog that coats one’s skin in boils upon contact.  The sequel also expands on the vision of the Capitol which The Hunger Games only briefly teased in comparison; a dazzling complex of futuristic yet classically inspired architecture, flamboyant and hedonistic elites, and hovering jets that swoop overheard with an ominous thrumming sound, the Capitol is a spectacular and vibrant intersection of ancient Rome and several regions of the Star Wars universe.

All the actors from the original return in top form minus 22 who weren’t allowed to do anything meaningful anyway and 1 who was just a bureaucrat.  Jennifer Lawrence has rightly been showered with praise for her sophisticated embodiment of Katniss and Josh Hutcherson appears to understand Peeta’s character more this second time, even if the writers don’t and lazily persist in synthesizing him down to eye candy.  The same goes for Liam Hemsworth, whose Gale is once again barely in the film even with all the extra time it passes in District 12 prior to the games.  Those who’ve read the series to its end might recognize his constant absence as a subtle and effective ploy by lazy writers (one of which happens to be Collins) to simplify Katniss’ ultimate decision, but that’s in no way the actor’s fault.  Stanley Tucci is both familiar and detestable in the part of charismatic TV host Caesar Flickerman, perfectly fusing all the most irritating aspects of Fallon, Seacreast, Leno, and their imitators, and Woody Harrelson, whom I initially thought a bad choice for Haymitch, successfully delivers many a funny line while simultaneously wearing a mantle of cynical realism.  “I’ve come to drink.”  “Now there’s something I can help you with.”  Donald Sutherland, idiot though he is, exudes pure malice and iron-fisted pragmatism as Snow, solidifying him as one of the more hateful and believable villains written in recent years.  Elizabeth Banks is given a rather short hand as the eccentric Effie, who kind of fulfills the comic relief slot within the movie, but nevertheless manages to show a large range of emotion from behind numerous layers of possibly the ugliest makeup that Covergirl ever tried selling to real people (in all seriousness, what are they thinking?).  All the new characters are exceedingly well cast, with Sam Claflin lending an endearing pluck, elusiveness, and dashing heroism to Katniss’ eventual ally Finnick Odair and Phillip Seymour Hoffman subtly conveying Plutarch’s deft hand in diplomacy and manipulation, which surpasses even that of President Snow.

Most of the flaws in the picture are related to poor time management decisions in the editing room.  As with the first movie, Catching Fire is split fairly evenly into two major acts: the plodding anticipation of and preparation for the games and then the televised brawl itself.  While The Hunger Games generally allowed itself enough time in the first act to cover each of the key plot points, from Katniss’ reaping to her past relationship with the bread boy to her frustration at Haymitch to her interview by Caesar and so on and so forth, this following movie essentially tries to incorporate a third act through the victory tour on top of the other two and feels especially rushed as a result.  Major events in the book, such as Peeta’s feigned proposal, Haymitch’s background, and Katniss’ discovery that her personal rebellion has ignited a national revolution, are either omitted entirely or so thoroughly trimmed as to fit within a 10-second blurb on state-controlled TV reports that are broadcast across Panem.  Rather than focusing on these developments, which Katniss and the reader by extension would actually have descried first-hand, the filmmakers instead attempt to exhaustively show the delicate partnership that President Snow builds with his Head Gamemaker/Propagandist-In-Chief Plutarch.  While this is understandable given Hoffman’s standing within the industry, the scenes between him and Sutherland felt to me like an unnecessary diversion from the main narrative that served no purpose other than to a) emphasize that Snow is a really bad guy, which we already know, and b) artificially make the twist conspiracy at the end all the more surprising by implanting the supposition that Plutarch is someone he’s really not.

Director Lawrence’s use of IMAX cameras is also strange, as the format goes completely unused for the first 1.5 hours, including for several aerial landscape shots that might have benefited from its application, and then is used solely from the moment that Katniss rises into the arena onward, even for cutaway shots to President Snow that give us a closer view of his face than we would ever want.  In this sense, the large-screen is less of a tool to enhance the cinematography in certain places and more of a means to signal a change in the mood of the film, which is a clever trick but hardly exploits the technology to its fullest potential, as The Dark Knight Rises did in 2012.

Regardless, these quibbles are far overshadowed by a powerful story about tyranny, media, the nature of the celebrity, and the courage to risk one’s comfort, reputation, or very existence for a greater cause.  While the first movie was only mildly dystopic in tone, showing us government elites who were vain, childlike, and completely insulated against the costs of violence, Catching Fire shows us a politiclass that is evil and depraved beyond measure, that knows no justice, fears no God, and answers to no authority but raw power and force of arms.  The Capitol that marches through Katniss’ town, razing private property to dust and publicly lashing or executing all who dare resist, is one that we can recognize throughout history and around the world, from the mass executions occurring in present-day North Korea to home invasions by the Red Guards in Mao’s Communist China.  More than anything else, though, the movie is a resounding ode to doing what is right in the face of terrifying opposition, even if that action puts your own life at risk or appears to turn the whole world against you.  In a major example of this point, Peeta and Katniss are instructed on the victory tour to read from written cards, i.e. ’prompters, so that they don’t inadvertently say something ‘incorrect’ and make political targets of themselves; when they address an audience from District 11 off the cuff, their speech is bold, sincere, and meaningful, but when they conform to delivering prepared, state-sanctioned sound bites, their voices are empty, bleak, and soulless.  In the ultimate act of symbolic defiance, Cinna garbs his tribute in a wedding dress that blazes into the glorious semblance of a mockingjay – its wings extended in an adamantine challenge to Snow’s despotic rule.  On the very next day, he gives his life for this offense, but wins immortality in return; his sacrifice will kindle a revolution, his work be enshrined forever in the minds of those he died to liberate (or at least of those he died to show one of the movie’s coolest special effects).

The producers of Catching Fire could easily have taken the low road and churned out another no-budget, haphazardly composed, Twilight-esque cash-in to take advantage of undiscriminating teenage girls, but instead they gave us a stunning and uncommonly thought-provoking sci-fi drama that appeals to multiple demographics and has intelligent direction, writing, and performances.  This is a genuine blockbuster worthy to stand beside such titans as The Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight trilogies.  Henceforth from this film, the odds are ever in the series’ favor.

Grade rating: A-

Trailer Reviews
The Coca Cola Polar Bear Movie – I thought of pinching myself while watching this, but then I remembered that sleeping men can’t pinch themselves.  This sounds like something that George Stefano Pallas would invent.  Or write that someone else had invented, because he doesn’t make the news – he reports the news.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – How does one go about critiquing that which he cannot understand?  I haven’t the foggiest idea what this movie is about other than that Ben Stiller directs and stars in it.
Robocop – My first thought on seeing this was, “Oh great, another Samuel L. Jackson movie,” and my second thought was, “Oh great, another cheap and gratuitous sci-fi remake that some greedy studio green-lit because the original apparently didn’t have enough explosions or CG crap in it.  Those seem to be doing really well between Carrie, Spiderman, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.”  But then I listened and thought that this sounds like an interesting, post-9/11 (to use one of the most cliché words in the blogger’s lexicon) update of the original Robocop.  There are some obvious subtexts on drone warfare just within the trailer and the action looks polished enough even if that theme doesn’t figure prominently into the overall production.
Noah – You wouldn’t know it from the ad, but this film is the love labor of several Atheist earth-worshippers who contend that the reason God flooded the earth, thereby destroying whole expanses of it, was because man was destroying the earth himself and thus committing the unforgivable sin of environmental exploitation.  In any case, the special effects look terrible and Noah appears to have firebending magic or some other superpowers.
I, Frankenstein – In which Frankenstein’s monster, or an ugly, vampire-like guy whom we’ll arbitrarily associate with Mary Shelley’s most famous book in order to make more money, fights hordes of mindless gargoyles without any discernible plot or motive guiding his actions.  This probably has a higher CGIPerSecond rate than any other trailer that I’ve seen.
Divergent – I’m predisposed to hate this just because it’s a trend-follower, and the trailer did little to alleviate that hatred.  The premise is stupid and unoriginal (um, Harry Potter Houses anybody?), the action looks bland, and a dude had to take his shirt off for the trailer.  There’s an immediate tip-off to garbage if ever there was one.

* An invective unrelated to the movie itself: The only theater in the near vicinity of the hotel at which my family harbored was a member of the AMC chain and it marks both the first and definitely the last time I will ever support said company with my presence.  After being bombarded with the customary slew of cringing-worthy ads, some of them repeated multiple times, that competitor Regal also foists on early customers, the ass of an operator in the projection room played the company’s dumb logo animation and the obnoxious tune that accompanies it not once, but twice, before proceeding to show a blaringly loud, overlong, and totally humorless introductory video that says nothing more than “keep track of your stuff and turn off your cell phone”, which we had already been advised through a number of ads and other ineffectual “how to watch a movie politely” videos that almost nobody heeds anyway.  From there it segued into the obligatory assault of ear-shattering trailers, which were intermixed with a multitude of AMC clips bragging about their IMAX screens’ unique capabilities as if everyone in the theater had not yet paid to watch the film in that format.

Finally, after nearly a half-hour of excruciating self-promotion videos and condescending instructions on how to enjoy the show, the movie began to play, and all was good from that point forward.  Up until the credits, that is, when Coldplay’s much-hyped new single Atlas, which was produced exclusively for the movie, rang out in all its haunting glory from the speakers, then abruptly cut out roughly two minutes in to be replaced with whatever generic playlist AMC designed to make noise in an empty room while people walk by it.  When I and numerous others cough up $15 to watch a movie at a cinema, we expect to watch the whole movie, including the names crawl at the end and including the songs by Coldplay, The Lumineers, and Imagine Dragons that were written and performed specially for those few who like to sit through the whole picture.

If ever there was a just cause for instituting such a savage offense against God and man as the Hunger Games, the utilitarian commanding officers and idiotic grunts at AMC would provide such a cause.  To quote the great American Charlton Heston, um, “Darn you!  Gah darn you all...”  The next time you want my money, you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

** Another invective unrelated to the movie itself: I am now firmly decided that, come Mockingjay Part 1 or 2, or any other popular movie for that matter, I will avoid the opening and maybe second weekend crowds like the plague.  Between the audiences of Catching Fire and The Hunger Games, I’ve inductively concluded that many moviegoers and particularly those of teen girl-oriented features are either startlingly ignorant of basic public etiquette, incapable of interpreting visual cues correctly and responding with the appropriate emotions, amoral hero-worshippers, or a combination of all those characters.  Whether Katniss’ fans are breaking into laughter when she brings down the arena dome with a lightning-infused arrow, a scene that should inspire awe, snickering when she faints following a drug injection and the realization that she’s been deceived and manipulated, a scene that should move them to shock or tears, or cheering as in the original film when the bad guys get killed in cold blood, a misfortune that should evoke furious remorse, I’m constantly persuaded of a bleakly ironic truth: so many Americans echo the intellectual deformity and moral depravity of Panem’s elite class that it’s only a matter of time before the one people morphs into the other.

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