The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – Francis Lawrence (Dir.), Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Jeffery Wright, Jenna Malone, Amanda Plummer, Elizabeth “Mutherfucking” Banks, Stanley “Boss-Ass Mutherfuckin’ President of the Universe” Tucci and Toby “Meh” Jones
DISCLAIMER: There will be frequent, flagrant and flamboyant usage of nonsensical name-contractions throughout this article including, but not limited to: J-Law, J-Hutch, Lemsworth, D-Suths, Woody H, Len Krav, J-Wright, Jenna Malone (she was in Sucker Punch, that poor, poor girl), E-Banks and Stancci. Deal with it.
ANOTHER DISCLAIMER: There may or may not be serious spoilers abound in this article. But guess what? These books have been out for multiple years now. Your illiteracy isn’t my problem…and I realize the irony of that statement seeing as you have to read it in order to get offended. Whatever.
ONE MORE DISCLAIMER, I PROMISE: I have a horrifying obsession with these books. I don’t know what it is. I read each one of the fuckers in a single sitting and, not only am I not ashamed by this fact, I take pride in it. Yes, they are the literary equivalent of Hodor from GoT wrapped in a infanticide blanket; and Susan Collins approaches sentences like I approach Gummy Bears (I’m coming for you, you delicious mutherfuckers), in that she forces them into her gaping maw of a mouth while slobbering manically over each and every one of her digits soaking in that sweet Haribo goodness (seriously, that stuff is like food porn to me). So, know that going into this review of both The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) that I will not spend the length of it shitting on the darkest set of pseudo-children’s books since Philip Pullman decided to take on the Catholic Church. My love and devotion to these tales is like a Ron Jeremy ass-spelunking expedition: long and deep. Also, they’re the reason why whenever I hear the Suburbs by Arcade Fire come on the radio, I can’t help but think about children getting stabbed in the face. And that’s awesome.
OKAY, I LIED ABOUT THE LAST DISCLAIMER THING, BUT SEEING AS I, AND THE REST OF THE LIVING, BREATHING WORLD IS IN LOVE WITH J-LAW, I SHOULD PROBABLY GET IT OUT OF THE WAY SOONER RATHER THAN LATER: Boobs. Tee hee.
Here we are my friends, the biggest movie of the not-quite-summer-not-yet-Christmas no-man’s-land that is the pre-Thanksgiving insanity consuming America. That’s right, as parents rush from supermarket to supermarket ready to shank the bitch with the last jar of Ground Cinnamon (I did not do that, I promise…I have to say that for legal purposes) and as department stores decide to forget that Thanksgiving is a Federal Holiday and, like Nazi Germany, have decided to annex it as part of the ever-growing and murderous Black Friday, we need a distraction from our self-imposed, food-fueled torment. What better way than to sit down with the fam and delight in a dystopian future where children are slaughtered in order to tamp down revolution? For food! (I knew there was a connection somewhere). Yes, ladies and gents, we have the second movie from The Hunger Games coming to dinner tonight. And it’s packing heat, bitches.
Of course, after gorging myself on the books in a fury of loneliness that can only be crafted by internet dating, my roommates and I stormed the first Hunger Games castle at midnight on a Thursday in the fateful year of Anno Domini MMXII. And, shit, there were so many teenage girls in the audience I would have thought people were stocking up for a Duck-face shortage. The Hunger Games was perhaps the most cynical grab for the post-Twilight sparkly-dick insanity in the last few years (other than The City of Mortal Instruments or Something Like That, I Really Can’t Remember the Title Because it’s Stupid). Directed by Gary Ross of Pleasantville fame, the first movie was about as serviceable as a movie adaptation can be without failing miserably. For the last year I have been afraid to make my true feelings on the first movie apparent, seeing as I might be murdered by hoards of teenage girls newly trained in the Zen of Archery, but I really didn’t care for it. When I strapped myself into the first book, it was a tense, brutal experience. I remember hyperventilating when the games began and that half-book of lead up exploded into sheer terror as twelve-year-old children were unceremoniously impaled for the sake of good TV. Told entirely in the first person from Katniss’s, at best, terse point of view, you fly through the book feeling like a rat trapped in a labyrinth. Rarely does Collins, a seasoned TV writer, pull on the reins to allow you to catch your breath. You never know what’s coming next. And the pages fly so fast, you don’t have time to think about it or the fact that you haven’t seen a worthwhile adjective or multi-claused sentence in three chapters or so.
And then there was the movie… Already, in pre-production, people were making a stink about this no-name Jennifer Lawrence whose last movie, X-Men: First Class was campy mess that encased her in unbreathable and unbearable latex for the entirety of its run time. Yes, she had an Oscar nomination, but what teenage girl gives a fuck about that? But Mr. Ross did his best to create a lived-in world for his tale, from the bonkers costume and hair design of the residents of the Capitol to the grungy Billy-Elliot-Inspired coal miners of District 12. Here’s the problem, for a district filled with believably starved residents, when Liam “Brother of Thor” Hemsworth shows up with a face torn from a cover of GQ and abs practically sponsored by LA Fitness, it sort of destroys the ambiance. Whenever we have shots of District 12 during the games, we are offered a blight of a community, all of the residents looking more at home in a concentration camp than in the US of A…and there, in the center, is Hemsworth looking like a Almost Famous-esque golden god, radiating balanced nutrition and a never-ending membership to Tan-Yo-Ass LLC with impunity.
This was only one example of the grand systemic issue of Ross’s direction and conception of the first movie. It was painfully obvious to see that Lionsgate had attempted in every way, shape, and form to twist this story of rebellion and political defiance into nothing more than a lovey-dovey tri-tipped love-turd. Not only that, but Ross is obviously not a man with a fantasy background. For every inspired design choice, there were five bland ones to discount it. While, we have both Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks offering performances worthy of legend, Mr. Harrelson phones in the majority of his performance, no doubt from his whiskey drowning cellar. Seriously, I don’t know if the guy decided to go method with this movie, but he certainly doesn’t look like he wants to be there. And then, finally, the true piss in the bonnet, is the construction of the games itself. While the book excels in its claustrophobic tension, keeping the reader guessing as to what unnamed horror will be assaulting you on the next page, the movie telegraphs everything in an almost clinical fashion. We are given numerous cutaways to Wes “The Plastic Bag” Bentley, who’s facial hair does its best to emulate a black shark’s butt decoration at all times, as the Head Gamesmaker. It’s nice to see a few scenes between Crane and President Snow, Sutherland’s mustache-twirling uber-villain, but other than that it does nothing but destroy any tension. On almost every front, from lack of gore to lazy design to a minuscule CGI budget, the whole movie feels like a bald eagle with its talons clipped. You know there’s something majestic and ready-to-steal-a-freaking-baby buried underneath it all, but it seems muffled and diluted.
And that Bald Eagle is, of course, Jennifer Lawrence. If it weren’t for her spot-on performance, with steely eyes ready to gouge themselves out rather than express any sort of weakness, and a voice more monotone than a tone-deaf kazoo, the movie would have unraveled into nothing more than a forgettable farce. She is the flashpoint, the eye of the storm, the focal point of all things. Poor Josh Hutcherson. The kid does his best to hold onto the lady’s fleeting, talented tail feathers, but the charisma just isn’t there. J-Law sells every moment like she’s going for that Oscar once more. And she earns it.
So…all of that being said about the disappointment that was the first movie…what about the second? Well, if I could sum up my reaction to it in the form of a religious set of genitalia:
The second movie, along with the two upcoming sequels, is directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation). You might remember him from such fucking gems of the Walmart budget bin as Constantine, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants. As far as literary adaptations go, this guy is 0 for 3. He also has the dubious honor of ruining one of my favorite book-endings of all time with that bullshit during the finale of I Am Legend. UGH. I was readying my steak knife, because I already wanted to eat this bastard alive if he ruined the superior sequel to The Hunger Games… and then I promptly put those knives away and lost myself in the giddy euphoric glee of a squealing fangirl. He doesn’t just do a good job, or even a serviceable job…he exonerates every ounce of the franchise. It seems that, along the way, Lionsgate was like, “Guys, we made WAY more money than we expected with that first movie. Who knew? And we’re going to make a shit load more with the next one. It’s a done deal! What should we do? Fart in people’s faces for two hours? Just give all the fans the finger? I’m just so excited!” To which, Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Lawrence (again, no relation), responded, “What if we made it…good?”
Lionsgate: “Woah. You just blew my mind.” So they did. And it’s good…like really, really excellent.
Catching Fire picks up where the first one ended, with Katniss (Ms. Lawrence) and Peeta (J-Hutch) pretending to be in love to try to stop the welling rebellion in the districts surrounding the Capitol. President Beardy Voldemort (Sutherland) pays her a visit and, in a scene that is the acting equivalent of Clash of the Titans, tells J-Law that she had better fall in love with this adorable puppy of a boy that she basically dragged through the first homicidal games or else he will murder her family. No jokes. No comic relief. Just sheer political brutality. After unsuccessfully touring the districts to quell the residents, the President Evil-Mc-Evilson announces that the next Games will include the victors from the previous games sending Ms. Everdeen and Mr. Whatever-Peeta’s-Last-Name-Is back into the ring. And oh, what a ring it is.
It seems as though, due to the fact that the games are now populated exclusively with adults who previously won, the moral ambiguity of seeing children murdered is gleefully removed and Mr. Lawrence can up the gore factor to ‘passable’. While the games are just a bounteous tropical house of horrors, the true tension of the film is in the build up to the explosive second half. The first movie was too busy trying to convince us that the audience was watching The Hunger Games that it forgot to actually let people act. It’s the nervous new kid throwing his first high school birthday party, running around with hors d’oeuvres constantly asking his friends if they’re having a good time and if they’re still his friends. Catching Fire on the other hand oozes the kind of confidence that can only be generated by a $100 million volt up the ass. It’s the kid at the party who’s like, “I’m going to go throw bottles at a wall. You can come if you want.” And OF COURSE you go because that sounds so much better than doing the Electric Slide for another hour. Every returning actor has relaxed into their roles (except Hemsworth, but let’s be real; he’s the human equivalent of a Firefighter Calendar…pretty to look at, but the only information you’ll ever get from him is how many days there are in a month). It seems that every dollar of profit made on the first outing has been returned to the artistic design, offering grander locales, CGI that ain’t nothing to sneeze at, and an incredible Hawaii set for the second games.
Lastly, of course, there are the new additions to the cast. Firstly, we have the psychotic Joanna (Jenna Malone) who manages to redeem herself in the face of Sucker Punch once and for all. Then there’s Jeffrey “Black Felix Leiter” Wright as Beady and Tarantino veteran Amanda Plummer furiously muttering he only line over and over. Perhaps the only actor willing to bask in the light of J-Law and survive the fame-tan is Mr. Sam Clafin as the beautiful and impish Finnick Odair. The man gives a career-making performance that will only get better with the next two films. Even Mr. Harrelson seems to have sobered up and decided to flex those pseudo-hick acting chops. Lastly, and certainly not leastly, Philip Seymour Hoffman waltzes (let’s be real, there’s a bit of a waddle) into the film looking as though he just woke up from a nap…proving that the guy that act well in his fucking sleep. Seriously, the scenes between Hoffman and Sutherland make the Bentley/Sutherland tet a tets of the first film look like community theater. How often do you get to see acting of this quality in the adaptation of a Tweenie-bopper book? It’s insane.
There is something mildly revolutionary about The Hunger Games. It’s a sad thing to see that, still, every major motion picture of the last few years include only male protagonists with some lady-candy on the side. I don’t care how much the production companies attempt to force The Hunger Games into the Twilight mold, what with their bullshit ‘Team Peeta’ and ‘Team Gale’ t-shirts and obsession with Katniss’s choice as to who wins the coveted position of ‘baby-daddy’, The Hunger Games will not be contained. She will shove an arrow in your face and kick her way out to freedom. The love story in this film and in the books is about as central to the tale as Han and Leia in Star Wars. Sure, it’s there. Sure, it affects the story. Is it the point? NO. It’s part of a damn story. There are no ‘teams’. There are characters and there are themes. If Katniss Everdeen and Twilight’s Bella Bitch-face were stuck in a room together, while Bella was too busy chewing on her lip and crying about boys, Katniss would have already disemboweled her and started cooking her lower intestine for food. That’s right, because Katniss eats food, unlike the Barbie dolls trotted out for public consumption. When I eventually have daughters, I will lock them in their rooms until they finish The Hunger Games, no doubt banging on the doors begging to be free from this depressing mass of political cynicism. And then I’ll hand them 1984, lock the door and say, “Time to be a big girl.” Yep. I’m going to be a kickass dad.
If these books had been written ten years ago, no doubt they would have been forced to target male audiences and the protagonists’ genders would have been swapped because “girls don’t like violence.” Collins, after escaping the toxic wasteland of television production, has done a great thing. She didn’t set out to craft a harlequin romance or even chick-lit. She wanted to bear the world a mythos, a legend. There is no question that she knew of the grander scale involved in this tale, what with the future-historicization of the world as well as the basis in Greek Mythology (Katniss is decently veiled analog to the Labyrinth’s Theseus). Her gambit has paid off, offering a series that is almost as widely read as Harry Potter (as I’m writing this review, there is a 20-something hipster with a hardback copy of “Mockingjay” sitting next to me in my extremely hipster coffee shop). Collins knew what she wanted to say, she invested to her characters and, like George Lucas before her, she stuck to the Hero’s Journey closer than a fly sticks to treacle. And what serendipity it was to cast Jennifer Lawrence. The woman is the new generation’s feminist idol. She’s equal parts demigod beauty, cornbread gentility, candor-escewing badass, sweeter-than-an-apple-pie-that-she-probably-made-and-then-will-eat-all-by-herself angel and sex symbol without removing any of her clothes. She is the female Harrison Ford. But, you know, with talent. It is to Mr. Lawrence’s credit (DEAR GOD, CAN’T THAT MAN CHANGE HIS NAME, I’M TRYING TO WRITE A REVIEW HERE) he never overtly sexualizes Katniss outside of her absurd array of evening gowns. We have no underwear scenes, no butt-shots and the costume for the second half of the movie, while skin-tight, is purely functional. In another person’s hands, we would have seen kevlar bikinis and cleavage up the wazoo because, let’s be honest, J-Law is not lacking in the chest department. But this movie, and the director, respect her and Katniss too much for such base intentions. Thank the lord.
If Catching Fire is any indication, The Hunger Games is well on its way to establish a non-gendered nerd legend for this decade. While the third book, trying desperately to stick to the formula of the previous two, falls flatter than a steam-rolled pancake, the next two movies will afford the characters what they didn’t get on the page: time to breathe. Collins tried to squeeze a national revolution into the book-equivalent of a nutshell while refusing to let us see the hugeness of the event. I hope and believe that these next two filmic chapters will push the books where they weren’t confident enough to go. Shit, they have the money for it. And, unless Ms. Lawrence is caught with dead underage hookers in her bed, the lady’s effervescence is nigh-impenetrable.
ONWARD AND UPWARD, FRIENDS.