Monday, December 2, 2013

Hey! We Saw a Movie! - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Jonny Prophet and I finally succumbed to the newest hit teen movie franchise based on a book series Percy Jackson… oh wait, I meant Beautiful Creatures… sorry, I actually meant to say The Vampire’s Assistant… um, Eragon? The Mortal Instruments? Divergent? Bear with me here…

Warning: Spoilers… but seriously, who hasn’t seen this movie yet? It’s like the biggest November release ever. Plus, it’s a damn book! How much can I seriously give away?

(I have to warn everyone in advance. I have never read the books and probably never will. I am not that knowledgeable with the characters, so I am likely to just refer to them by the name of the actor or actress who portrayed them.)

Toaster’s Contribution - I liked Catching Fire; it was better than the first Hunger Games movie and really upped the ante in terms of the story. I did, however, have some problems with the film and many of my gripes apparently come from the source material itself. So I suppose at times I will be critical of just the movie and others I will have issues with the book itself. Most likely I will be unable to know the difference.

I’m going to back up slightly to last year when The Hunger Games premiered. Jonny Prophet and I were considering going to the theater and see it when we saw a Japanese cult flick with a similar premise called Battle Royale. We enjoyed that movie so much that we thought The Hunger Games would be a letdown, like a watered down version of the brutal film we saw. In some ways we were right. One of my biggest complaints about the first Hunger Games was that it didn’t seem like we focused enough on the psychological aspect of being forced to kill to survive. They did touch upon the after-effects in Catching Fire, but not as much during the first one. Now I will admit that Hunger Games has a better back-story than Battle Royale, the latter of which having a flimsy set-up of distrustful adults sending teens off to die in a last man standing competition. Yet I will contend that the background to Battle Royale didn’t matter as much to the story as the psychological ramifications of having to kill your peers to survive.

What got me interested in seeing Catching Fire was that the trailer looked really interesting. I liked the idea of how Katniss’ actions have led to a rising tide of rebellion and how the totalitarian regime tries to contain it by tightening the noose. So once I had decided to see the sequel, I watched the first film a week ago. Jonny went in mostly blind.

I love the world of The Hunger Games. It’s this sort of post-apocalyptic America mixed with a totalitarian government. I can see how The Capitol can overwhelm the various Districts through pure technological might. While it would seem difficult to control such a huge expanse of territory, the population of Panem may be dramatically smaller than our own United States after the devastating war (or wars) that brought the world to its state in the story. The contrasting societies are really well done. You have the materialistic, glamorous denizens of The Capitol juxtaposed (I love that word) with the poorer, oppressed peoples of the Districts who generations later still live in the shadow of the Dark Days War they lost to their masters.

Many of the characters are great and really add a flavor to the overall story. Katniss is a great protagonist, a strong female lead with a rebellious streak and a distrustful perspective that she uses as a defense mechanism. Peeta is interesting; he is strong but not strong enough to survive in the games, yet he provides an emotional stability to Katniss that she needs to survive society itself. I love Elizabeth Banks’ over-the-top character, easily one of the best in the series. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the Hunger Games victor of yesteryear, haunted to the point of near constant intoxication (insert Cheers joke here) provides a great mentor character as well as a great source of comic relief. And I absolutely must point out how amazing Jena Malone was a Johanna Mason, the feisty, rebel-rousing, and possibly a little psychotic past Victor of the Hunger Games.  Then again, I have loved Jena for years after seeing her in Donnie Darko, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Saved! Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is a unique villain. He is subtle and subdued. There is no maniacal laughter or yelling at his subordinates. He calmly discusses and in turn menacingly implies his wishes. He comes across like a wise old man, strong to the people and unafraid to do what it takes to preserve his people’s way of life.

Another of the best characters in the series is Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, the celebrity personality with the whitest teeth on Earth! Tucci portrays Flickerman with a mixture of a charming late-night talk show host and a glitzy game show host. He also helps give a voice to the people of The Capitol, a very important means of expressing a people that could easily be demonized. However, the Capitolites come across as more naïve and almost child-like; they seem like the bizarre evolution of our own pop culture obsessed society taken to such a degree as to be completely oblivious to the harm being done to those in the Districts. They treat the Hunger Games like the ultimate spectator sport, elevating the contestants to the height of demi-gods, not unlike our obsessive admiration of certain athletes. They seem almost apathetic to the plight of the children forced to kill each other for amusement, treating the death of their favorites with the “there’s always next year” attitude given to the local team being ousted from the play-offs.     

Not every character is well represented on film. (Again, I am unsure if they get more attention in print.) I would like to see more of Liam Hemsworth’s Gale in the films. He is an excellent young actor and I feel he is woefully underutilized. The head Peacekeeper given charge of District 12 in Catching Fire, the one who flogs Gale, comes across almost cartoonishly evil. It would have been nice to see what makes him tick. If he is just a sick violent bastard, show us why. Seneca Crane, AKA Wes Bentley with silly facial hair, really didn’t get that much time and as such just came across as generically evil. We know virtually nothing about Katniss’ own family, either. I imagine at the very least that the Everdeens get more time in the books and also wouldn’t be surprised if Gale does as well.  

The biggest complaint that I (and Jonny) had with the film was its abrupt ending. I am told it’s the same way in the book. Catching Fire didn’t really have an ending. It was more like a television show when the next to last episode airs and it isn’t so much an ending as a cliffhanger to set up next week’s finale.  Katniss destroys the 75th Hunger Games, gets taken up into an airship, she wakes up and finds out her home is destroyed, she’s now part of the rebellion and is on the way to the “lost” District 13 (which I need to add… really? 13 is the lost District? As long as we are running with clichés, is Katniss part of some ancient prophecy too?). We get no closure with the other characters, just that they were captured. Couldn’t we have seen that? How did the Peacekeepers capture these armed kids already on a survival kick? How did the rebel airship escape the Capitol forces? Couldn’t we have seen the destruction of District 12 or even Snow’s order to do so? How about showing Gale actually saving Katniss’ mother and sister? No? That’s just lazy story-writing.

If I were reading the book, I would have been pissed. As is, I will have to wait a year before we get part 1 of Mockingjay and another year before we get the ending. See, each Lord of the Rings film led to the next, but Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers each had their own climax. The first saw a battle with the Uruk-Hai, the death of Ned Stark and the splintering of the Fellowship and the second ended with a decisive victory against overwhelming odds. Even The Empire Strikes Back (a film that Catching Fire was compared to) saw Luke Skywalker forever changed and the capture of Han Solo. It wasn’t just a blatant cliffhanger.

Like I said, I did like Catching Fire and feel it was better than the previous film. I think that the 74th Games at the end of the first movie was a lot stronger than the Quarter Quell in the second. In my opinion the real strength of Catching Fire was the political plotlines and the building of impending uprising. Maybe if there was an actual ending of the Quarter Quell Games, I would feel differently. Will I see both the Mockingjay films? Most likely; it will be interesting to see how the revolution plays out in Panem. 

And now for the always perplexing response from Jonny Prophet…

Jonny’s Contribution - Sooo... let me get straight (for this first of film in series I saw) in the gay/drag queen future kids are force to kill one another, for amusement. This show is hosted by a Ryan Seacrest type guy played by Stanley Tucci (weird to see him with hair). The world is run by a Victorian era pimp who doesn't solve the world’s problems so much as sends in his gay storm troopers, all of which are horrible 2D bad guys. One girl playing what is basically Battle Royale (I still prefer that film more) sparks the idea we should have an uprising against the pimp and his gay stormtroopers, like no one ever thought of this before or wanted to really make a go of it. All of the uprising and plans were that of Woody Harrelson and The Master’s con on the pimp.  Yeah, ok then, thoughts... It’s fun seeing Smallville's Aquaman bite the dust… in water no less. For being a genius, Jeffery Wright's character didn't seem that smart. I too would rather have Liam over Josh, he's the better actor.  No really, the future is taken over by gay/ drag queens? I say Kazuo Kiriyama (of Battle Royale) takes all these kids within a day… and lastly, if you place exploding kill collars on the kids in these “last man standing” types of games (as they did in Battle Royale) you can control the game and not them.

You’re kind of disturbing, Jonny Prophet.

Until the Next Review… may the odds be ever in your favor Stay Strange.

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