dir: Francis Lawrence
I don’t think anyone is surprised that Catching Fire is a better flick than the first one. Almost every single reviewer mentions it in the first few sentences of their reviews. It’s almost like there’s a groupthink – overmind controlling us all. Of course I’m totally immune to it, but, you know, watch out for it. Or, at least that’s what I’m being told to type.
The thing is, though, as much as I enjoyed it while I was watching it, I had the nagging impression that someone who hadn’t read the books would be hard pressed figuring out what was going on and why, and also why they should care.
Perhaps I’m underestimating people, and underestimating the power of Jennifer Lawrence’s acting abilities as the central character Katniss Everdeen. I’m not going to be surprising anyone by praising her as an actor and a human being: she’s great! She might have received an Academy Award for her role in Silver Linings Playbook, which is still a pretty ordinary film, but she deserves it for her work in these somewhat pulpy and grandiloquent films. Her acting is superb, no matter how absurd the situation or the moment.
As proof of her tremendous abilities as an actor, I submit the following moment: it occurs at the absolute end of the film, though this isn’t a spoiler. She has just received some terrible, terrible news. The news upsets her greatly, for it is indeed horrifying news. She cries, anyone would in that moment, no matter how heroic she is. Her sorrow brings tears, but her sobs change, over the course of about ten seconds, from sorrow into a kind of grim fury, and the screen cuts to black. It’s not the starting state, or the end state that are incredible: it’s the transition between them that’s incredible.
I am a fan, I have to say. Both of the character as written by Suzanne Collins, and the way Lawrence assays the role, I’m a tremendous fan. She’s magnetic on the screen, and perversely always seems believable and relatable. The reason why this is so bizarre is that Katniss as written and played is such an internal, dour, anxious, fearful, insecure character. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could even call her a depressed neurotic with both a deathwish and martyr complex, which are almost the same thing, I guess.
But that’s the most uncharitable way to look at her. The more generous interpretation, since, in the books, we’re constantly hearing her voice and her thoughts about stuff, and then the contradiction between that and how she appears on the outside, or the difference between her words and her thoughts, is that she’s a complicated character in a simple story. Or, she’s a simple character (a self-reliant woman who fights endlessly for the people she cares about, and for all people) in a story garishly complicated in its attempts to undo her and ruin everyone around her.
What Lawrence does with the character is to find the way to show us, in the audience, that contradiction, that tension between the difference between what she has to do and say, and how she feels about it, on display on her face, but subtly enough so that it doesn’t unbalance the portrayal, or make it overwrought.
How do you even do that? What would you even ask for as a director?
“So, in the next scene, your motivation is that you’re pretending to be serene and happy, so that it looks totally genuine to the people who don’t know you, but also show that you’re actually feeling the complete opposite of that, but you can’t show any of that at all, because otherwise they’d kill your character and everyone your character’s ever bumped in to. Got it?”
- “Sure, let’s go!”
And she does it, somehow, or maybe I’m just projecting what I know about the character from the book onto Jennifer Lawrence. Whichever it is, it works for me, because both only work because of the two levels that the story has to work on.
I’m not talking about text and subtext, because it’s not the subtextual level that really matters here (I’m sure you can deconstruct the flicks so that the whole thing becomes an allegory about US imperialism or menstruation or the effect of EPA regulations on West Virginia’s coal miners’ wives: Welcome to the world where anything can mean everything!).
It does operate on a metatextual level, but that’s a different argument altogether, since that makes it more of a direct critique of our actual huddled masses in this world who oo and ahh at celebs on our screens and magazine covers and whatever monstrosities they’re wearing on the red carpet, ignoring the fact that their freedoms aren’t as abundant as they once thought.
No, what I mean is that the characters in this story, in this film, like President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and like most people who aren’t Katniss, know that there is the primary game afoot (maintaining a brutal totalitarian dictatorship) which is played through the secondary game (the control of the masses through the media), whose purest manifestation is this third game, being the actual Hunger Games themselves. It’s really well done, like I keep saying, and yet I don’t know if that’s because of my familiarity with the books, or whether a newbie would get it just from watching this flick.
The second instalment in a series can’t really be faulted for not working entirely as a stand alone movie, can it? Is it unfair to say that? Are second instalments meant to be slaves to their position in a sequence, or should they strive to be ‘complete’ in and of themselves?
I dunno. It hasn’t hurt the flick’s box office, which has made like a bazillion dollars in one week. The only person who could objectively evaluate whether it works like that or not, whether it’s a satisfying film in and of itself, is someone who’s read neither the books nor seen the first flick. Why that hypothetical person would bother is another question entirely, dearies.
For me, it was a satisfying experience. Katniss is such a great character, and so well played, that it was a joy to spend nearly two and a half hours in her presence, depressing though her life is. Everything, everything keeps being taken away from her, and those in power keep trying to find ways to destroy her without killing her, and she keeps fighting on all the levels she needs to fight, desperately, with no confidence or certainty that anything will ever work out.
She is ably supported by those around her, especially Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, in a wig even Nicolas Cage would reject), but she’s also perpetually swept around by events beyond her control. In fact, to a deceptive extent, she has zero control over her own fate, and those wheels and gears keep whirring around her, such that she could almost be seen as a passive victim of events.
Except she makes choices. She’s always making choices, and that’s what distinguishes her from exactly the types of female characters in books and movies with sparkly vampires that this Hunger Games series is meant to be the antidote to.
She becomes a beacon, as a symbol she herself never intended to create or wield, and she starts being wielded by others without her even being aware of it, and yet that never reduces her to a passenger in her own story. I think the reason for that is, we’re more focused on her and her survival, rather than the machinations of the Powers that Be trying to ruin everything for everyone.
There are plenty of stand out scenes, the vast majority of which come well before the Hunger Games action starts, which is the last third of the flick. My favourites include the first stop on the tour, which takes Our Heroes to the District where Rue, one of the characters from the first film, came from. The whole way the scene is put together, the way Katniss and Peeta talk directly to the families of the fallen children, and its brutal aftermath, was so perfectly done that I could not fault a single frame. The fire we see that starts catching is a mystery to Katniss, but now we can see how and why the seeds were sown in the first film, in her first go round in the Games, and what they might lead to.
The Mockingjay scene is so perfectly done, I could not imagine it being a better scene in this or any other alternate reality. For a story about a brutal dictatorship that forces kids to kill kids, it might seem bizarre that there’s so much emphasis on dresses and makeup, except when you see it as an aspect of that additional battlefield upon which a stylist in golden eyeshadow (Lenny Kravitz? Lenny fucking Kravitz??) is a powerful general. Cinna, poor Cinna, we’ll miss you terribly.
To show the upping of the brutality stakes across this dystopic nation, there’s a scene where a new Peacekeeper in District 12, called Thread (Patrick St. Esprit), metes out sadistic justice to Katniss’s childhood friend Gale (Australia’s Own Liam Hemsworth). The thing that got me about the scene, all of which is superbly done, is that so much attention to detail is paid to a scene that would be a throwaway in a lesser flick. Down to the sprays of blood coming off the whip the bastard is using, which have sprayed out onto his own uniform. Just stay with this for a while: he has precise diagonal lines of blood, all of which seemed to come (accurately), from when he’s pulling his arm back after a strike, not from the impact itself. It’s macabre, I admit, but I found it fascinating. And then there’s the chilling way he wipes the blood off the business end of the whip, which horrified me, in the right way.
Even after that, the flick keeps delivering, and extending the importance of that scene further. Two people debate the scene we just watched, and its likely impact on the great unwashed masses of Panem, and in its way, it’s just as well done. The evil President and his slightly less evil sidekick (Philip Seymour Hoffman, totally underplaying the role), talk about it as if they’re evaluating the poll results from an impending election or the outfits on the finalists of Dancing With the Stars, and how many people will have to die because sequins is out this year.
The overwhelming opulence and grim architectural fascism of the Capitol is contrasted with the squalor of the Districts, what with their comically impoverished outfits still making them look like refugees from 1940s Europe. Contrast that with the insane outfits of Effie Trinket and her ilk in the Capitol, (Elizabeth Banks), one of which seemed to consist entirely of butterflies, even down to there being butterflies in her fake eyelashes, and we see how the cognitive dissonance that’s starting to tear up Panem would make sense to us too.
There’s only so much crap the have-nothings can tolerate from the have-everythings before they go berserk and destroy everything.
It’s surprisingly well made, considering how trashy this all could have been, coming as it does from a director whose previous work I have not liked. This is the guy, after all, who was responsible for flicks as bad as Constantine and as mediocre as I Am Legend. Maybe it’s just a function of there being so much put into the production, and enough people committed to bringing the best version of these books to the screen that they can imagine, for him not to be able to fuck it up even if he wants to.
Let’s hope that continues with the next two films. Yes, they’re going to split Mockingjay into two movies, but I don’t care just as long as there as good as this one is. That being said, I have no idea how they’re going to make Mockinjay a reality without having to change the entire ending, or how they’re going to film even half of the stuff that happens in the book.
In which case, I’m simultaneously excited about what comes next and dreading it at the same time. It’s a good state to be in.
8 times they also fight angry monkeys, almost rendering the flick perfect out of 10
“You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Everdeen. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war? Imagine thousands of your people, dead. Your loved ones, gone” – way to butter her up, you bastard – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.