Monday, November 25, 2013

Review Double Feature: The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

I've been slow on the reviews lately -- seriously, is there that little coming out in theaters? But then, I have a huge DVD collection, so that's no excuse. To make up for it, a double feature of the first two Hunger Games films.

The Hunger Games (2012)

If there's one good thing we can salvage from the reign of terror that Twilight left in theaters, it's this: it proved to Hollywood that young women could be reliable box-office money-makers just as much as young men are, and that young women wanted a lot more than just love stories on the big screen. Sure, Twilight was a love story first and foremost (a hackneyed, mind-rotting one with all manner of creepy stalker and pedophilia undertones, but let's not get ahead of ourselves), but it also dipped into the urban fantasy genre and went a lot darker than many romance films tend to go, even if it's still highly sanitized compared to many of the works that it drew inspiration from and which followed in its wake (such as the films I'm reviewing today). It broke the geek taboo on female-oriented pop culture just as the Lord of the Rings movies and the boom in comic book adaptations did on male-oriented pop culture. After Twilight, fantasy and science fiction were things that women could proudly read, watch, and partake in, rather than hide from their BFFs out of shame at enjoying such "trash". It allowed a lot of women to admit their geekery without fear of scorn, and as they became a part of geek culture, they in turn forced it to come to terms with a number of its more sexist elements -- a process that has not been easy, but which has no doubt been helped by the fact that a lot of these same women later led the backlash against Twilight for its own unfortunate implications.

And most importantly, that backlash showed that women could be just as picky and demanding as the men were when it came to quality. The fruits of that can be seen in The Hunger Games, a film that, much like the book it is based on, far outclasses the entire Twilight saga put together in almost every respect. It's not a perfect film, suffering from some poorly-shot action in the second half and a couple of omissions from the book that I wish had remained in the story, but it still manages to be both fun and thought-provoking whether or not you've read the book.

I won't spend long on the setup, because it's already pretty well-embedded in pop culture as a result of these books' and films' success, but if you've been under a rock the last five years, here goes. Every year, the nation of Panem, built from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic America, selects two tributes, one boy and girl, from each of its twelve districts to fight to the death in an event called the Hunger Games. This is done a) as punishment for a past rebellion, meant to prevent the districts from rising up again, and b) for the enjoyment of the Capitol, a wealthy, decadent city-state that runs Panem with an iron fist and ruthlessly exploits the districts like colonies. For the 74th Games, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence, and yes, get used to the weird names because they only get stranger from here), a wise-beyond-her-years teenage girl from District 12, gets pulled into the Games after volunteering to take the place of her little sister Primrose after she is selected. Together with the baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the two get caught up in the lifestyle of the Capitol and the media circus surrounding the Games as they are made up for the cameras and trained to fight before being thrust into the arena against 22 other hungry tributes, some of whom have been preparing for this event all their lives.

Comparisons to the Japanese dystopian novel (and later cult action film) Battle Royale are inevitable, given the fact that both stories are about teenagers being forced to fight to the death by a tyrannical government. Having read both books and seen both movies, I can tell you that, aside from the basic setup, the two works are dramatically different in their themes and presentation. Whereas Battle Royale critiqued the Japanese education system and is infamous for its graphic violence, The Hunger Games satirizes reality TV and American foreign policy, and is very much a teen film in terms of its comparative lack of bloodshed (a lot of the most brutal kills are offscreen, portrayed with a cutaway followed by a scream in the distance). Both works stand on their own, so this really shouldn't be a point of contention between fans.

The best thing that The Hunger Games has going for it is a fantastic cast, led by future Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Lawrence is the polar opposite of the infamously bland Kristen Stewart from the Twilight films; she's not only emotive, but downright powerful in the film's most important scenes, often to the point of incinerating the rest of the cast in her sheer wattage. She not only looks tough, but she made me feel that she was tough, kicking ass with her bow and arrow, yet at the same time her Katniss held a certain tenderness that sold me on the love triangle. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Peeta and Gale make up the other two corners of that triangle, and not only did they make me believe in the characters, but the film refreshingly avoids spending too much of its time on the romantic angle while, at the same time, making it integral to how things play out. The love between Katniss and Peeta is phony (at least on Katniss' end), done just so that they could impress the viewers in the Capitol and win sponsors, who send them vital food, tools, medicine, and other items during the Games. However, Gale, Katniss' hunting partner and real boyfriend back in District 12, doesn't know this, being naive to the nature of the Capitol's media culture. Here, Hemsworth doesn't get to do much beyond grimace at the TV screen whenever Katniss and Peeta are cuddling, with most of the consequences of such being left for later books. One change that I think the film could have made for the better would have been to have a scene of Gale discussing with friends or family just why this relationship is disturbing him, setting things up for future films. This would be akin to the scene we do get of the people in District 11 rioting after the tragic death of one of their tributes, a scene that is not in the book but becomes important in the context of establishing the seeds of the rebellion that the later films will revolve around.

What we do get of the general story, however, is truly gripping stuff. For the first half of the film, I was completely sold on the banal evil of Panem's world, with most people in the Capitol, even those in positions of political and cultural authority, being too vapid and self-absorbed to grasp the evil of the Games. Panem is like a high-tech version of ancien regime France shortly before the Revolution, with the flamboyant fashions of the Capitol's residents serving as a stark contrast to the Great Depression-style poverty of the districts. The comparisons become apparent the moment we see the TV presenter Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, playing a hilarious hybrid of Lady Gaga and Joan Rivers) giving her routine in front of the dirt-poor coal miners' children of District 12, and continues with Katniss' clumsy, awkward appearance on the talk show hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Woody Harrelson's world-weary, alcoholic Hunger Games veteran Haymitch Abernathy provides not only comic relief, but also a glimpse into Capitol life from an "immigrant" to it, somebody who grew up hard and was thrust into the lap of luxury after winning the Games -- and still gets no respect, having blown his winnings on booze to try and forget what happened. Gary Ross' direction is great at capturing these moments, bringing to life both the hard living of the districts and the decadence of the Capitol.

Ross' direction falters, however, when it comes time for the centerpiece of the film: the Hunger Games themselves. While he's a solid dramatic director, and indeed he still shoots the Games' slower moments very well (as well as a cool hallucination scene), the actual fights leave a lot to be desired, with some of the worst shaky-cam ever on display. Before I saw Catching Fire, I attributed some of this to the need to keep the rating PG-13, but that film's thrilling third act drove that thought out of my head. These films need good dramatic directors, yes, but they also need directors who can prevent the action scenes from descending into an incoherent mess like they did here. This is especially apparent with the fight that opens the Games, known as the "bloodbath". This should have been absolutely brutal (just watch a Christopher Nolan film if you don't think it can be done with a PG-13 rating) in order to sell viewers on the horror of the Games, yet instead stands as one of the film's worst moments.

Score: 4 out of 5

Aside from poorly-shot action scenes and a couple of smaller details that should have been filled in, The Hunger Games works both as an adaptation and as a dystopian sci-fi film. The book is still better, but this film comes close.


And now, for the sequel...

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire fixes the biggest problems of its predecessor, dodging the curse of "the book is always better" to the point where the only things I can seriously fault it for are also problems that I had with the book. The cast, both returning and new, is once more astounding, and this time they got a director who can shoot both drama and action with equal finesse. The result is a film that's been pumped up over the last one, yet never loses sight of what made it work.

In the wake of the first film, Katniss and Peeta are the first double winners of the Hunger Games, thanks to a ratings stunt and a giant middle finger to the Capitol from the two of them in the form of a threatened Romeo and Juliet-esque suicide pact. Their "romance" has made them the toast of the Capitol, much to the chagrin of Gale, who Katniss has been forced to hide her relationship with for the sake of the cameras, and President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who resents their act of defiance and fears that it could lead to rebellion in the districts. Said fears are very well-founded, as a number of districts have been put under martial law due to growing unrest. As Katniss and Peeta go on their Capitol-mandated, image-obsessed "Victory Tour" of the twelve districts, Snow, together with the new game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), plot to destroy Katniss' public image, and eventually Katniss herself, in order to defuse the rebellion and take away their symbol of resistance.

Once more, the excellent cast they picked out for these films is one of its greatest strengths. Jennifer Lawrence is still as badass as ever as Katniss, but this time, she's weary and shell-shocked, suffering nightmares and flashbacks to her experience in the Games. The look of shock and despair on her face when she learns the big twist of the Third Quarter Quell, the 75th Hunger Games -- that it will be an All-Stars match composed entirely of former victors -- demonstrates just why she's so highly regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation. This is her show, and she shines. The rest of the returning cast does just as well as they did, give or take depending on how much bigger or smaller their roles have gotten, though special mention goes to Donald Sutherland as President Snow, in a much larger role than the background figure of the first film. Sutherland not only brings some class to the trashy Capitol, but manages to convey menace without looking like a mustache-twirling villain (even though he has a hell of a beard), instead coming off as someone who genuinely believes that the Capitol's brutality is necessary for Panem to function. He's seriously freaked out by Katniss' popularity, especially as it creeps into his own home, with his granddaughter and her friends wearing their hair like Katniss. He manages to be complex while still remaining a clear, unambiguous bad guy.

And then we get into the new characters, the victors of past Games forced back into the arena. While some were quite different from how I imagined them in the book, the ones that the film spends its time with are all intensely charismatic and enjoyable to watch. The standout among them is easily Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, the hot-headed lumberjack's daughter from District 7, playing an awesome riot grrrl mirror of Katniss who absolutely resents the setup of the Third Quarter Quell and the fact that she's being forced back into the arena. In a film with no lack of cool moments, her F-bomb-laden outburst on Flickerman's show and her clothes-optional introduction in the elevator easily stand out as among the most memorable. Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, the handsome fisherman from District 4, lacks the smug asshole demeanor that he had in the book, but still gave off a certain charm and swagger that allowed me to buy into him as a hunky celebrity who every woman in the Capitol wants to sleep with.

While the film shines in its setup, that was also the first film's greatest strength; it notably faltered in the action during the second half. Catching Fire, however, has no such problems with wicked action. While the Games are notably shorter in length this time around (we've already seen what they look like), here they are far more thrilling, with the choppy action of the first film replaced by awesome, creative, effects-driven set pieces that evoke films like The Fog and The Birds. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) proves himself to be a much better action director than Gary Ross was, rarely flinching from the book's more messed-up scenes without going overboard on graphic violence. Not only are the special effects vastly improved this time around (they'd better be with almost double the budget), but Lawrence's experience shooting action movies like Constantine and I Am Legend shows through here, providing a steady hand that both builds tension and knocked my ass into my seat on several occasions.

I only had one real problem with this film, but it was a big one -- the ending. Both book and film end on much the same cliffhanger, but while in the book explaining to Katniss/the reader what happened is pretty much the only way to do things, in film doing that is considered lazy and poor form when you could be showing it instead. The end of Catching Fire the movie is guilty of telling rather than showing, with a lot of pivotal events setting up the finale, Mockingjay, happening in the background and being told to Katniss. These events constitute the opening shots of the rebellion against the Capitol, the event that the entire film had been building up to, so showing such moments would not only have made for some more great action scenes, but would have left viewers clamping at the bit to see Mockingjay. Instead, Catching Fire ends on an anti-climax that had me leaving the theater with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth -- a damn shame, given that the other 90% of it was such gripping viewing.

Score: 4 out of 5

It could have, and should have, ended on a note that wasn't as slavishly faithful to the letter of the book, but that was just about the only black mark on what was otherwise a terrific film that topped the original in almost every other way. Even if you haven't read the books, these movies are worth watching.

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