Thursday, December 5, 2013

Burning Under the Spotlight - A "Catching Fire" Review

I liked the first "Hunger Games" film quite a bit. I hadn't read the book (and I still haven't... I'm bad at reading) so I went into the movie knowing very little and I left more-or-less satisfied. Like many people, I had a number of qualms with it. Most people cited the shaky-cam or lack of originality as the bigger complaints, but I honestly found those to be minor problems. The shaky-cam was necessary to obscure the violence enough to score a PG-13 rating, crucial for a film like this. And yeah, we'd seen movies like it before, but "Hunger Games" did enough differently to stand apart and justify it's existence.

My biggest problem with "Hunger Games", as I've said before, was that Katniss was never put in a situation where her survival meant doing something morally compromising. Every time the movie almost gave her an impossible situation, they found a way to rob her of it. When (SPOILER ALERT) Rue died, I was upset, but not largely because I particularly cared about Rue as a character, but because her sudden death robbed the film of an interesting question. Suppose everything went Katniss' way. Suppose she and Peeta and Rue all survived until the end of the Hunger Games as the last three standing. Then what? Would she have tried her berry-eating routine with Rue, too? Would that have worked? Would she have sacrificed herself to save Rue knowing that she wouldn't have been able to return to the sister that Rue so reminds her of? Would Rue have been able to live knowing that Katniss and Peeta gave their lives for her? Rue's death at the hands of some random shmoe meant Katniss would never have to make a hard decision for her survival. And that's kind of how that entire film works. Most of Katniss' enemies either die off screen or she only kills them after they do something horrible. I left the theater liking Katniss but not exactly knowing much about who she really was.

Luckily for me, "Catching Fire" tackles this particular angle head-on, almost from the very beginning, and we end up with a film that's more engaging, more complex, and far more enjoyable than the previous.

No Spoilers

A running theme in "Catching Fire" is really about what I discussed above. Katniss in the first film had two major motivations: to survive and to be a decent human being. At no point in the first film did she have to choose one over the other. This leads the insane President Snow to believe that Katniss, whose efforts to be a decent human being have inspired a fledgling uprising, is not the revolutionary many seem to believe her to be and that when push comes to shove, she'll save her own neck before laying herself on the line for others.

This actually serves as a major point of conflict for her character. See, for Katniss, survival isn't really a selfish desire. She wants to survive for the sake of her sister and her mother and her friends. Yet her survival almost entirely depends on her willingness to cooperate with President Snow. She knows that any act of defiance will put her loved ones at considerable risk. But as events continue to escalate, she comes closer and closer to the inevitable decision between doing the right thing and putting herself and her loved ones in harm's way. And how she handles that decision, in the end, is a truly defining moment for her as a character and really drives this movie in a way the first film didn't.

The direction here is great, and not just because Francis Lawrence knows how to use a tripod. Say what you will about Lawrence's other works, the guy knows how to frame a shot. But more than that, I've always felt like he was very good at evoking a character's personality through simple visuals rather than through dialogue. While "Constantine" is a mess in terms of plot, dialogue, and pacing, I love watching it if only for the larger-than-life feel of most of the characters. Like the first "Hunger Games", most of this film sticks to the book's limited point-of-view around Katniss. The viewer rarely knows more than Katniss does. In fact, unlike the book, we are often left knowing less than Katniss does. Still, through very excellent and subtle acting and cinematography, we always know exactly what Katniss is thinking or feeling without her having to say a word. That takes skill and restraint.

Some may say that this film's weakness is that it doesn't stand on it's own, and I've said before that that doesn't really bother me. Sure a film that can stand on its own and function as a good sequel is ideal, but for me, it's extra credit. So long as the film that came before it is worth watching, I don't mind doing a little extra homework.

The few weaknesses the film does actually have are actually fairly difficult to articulate, but I'll do the best I can. While I can understand perfectly well why we are limited to Katniss' perspective through the majority of the film, I do think they could have eased back a little bit on it. Film is a visual medium and being told about a thing that's happening is almost always less interesting than actually seeing it. That said, some of the things we do see are at times not very interesting. If you can't create a convincing CGI baboon-thing, you probably shouldn't center an entire action sequence around them. Just saying.

All-in-all, though, I was extremely satisfied with this film and would recommend checking it out.


OK, fun time.

This film starts out great. I think my favorite scene in the film is actually towards the beginning where Katniss and Peeta are greeting the viewers at home from their isolated little village in District 12. While we hear cheering fans over the broadcast, we simultaneously hear a hollow emptiness surrounding Katniss and Peeta as they pretend to be overjoyed with their predicament. It creates this powerful sense of uneasiness and phoniness that suits the scene incredibly well. It's really incredible to me.

Then they start out their tour in probably the worst possible starting location, District 11, home of Rue. I swear, this film does not fuck around.

I heard a lot of stuff about the love-triangle thing in this part of the series, but honestly I wasn't bothered by it specifically because of three reasons:
1) Katniss' struggle choosing between Peeta and Gale reflects her difficulty choosing between survival (through living a comfortable sham with Peeta) and doing the right thing (being true to herself and refusing to play ball with the twisted President Snow). It's not just about choosing either the hunky guy or the sweet sensitive guy or something shallow like that.
2) Peeta, who embodies the "nice guy" trope thankfully subverts that trope quite a bit. He gives Katniss a fricking locket with a picture of Gale in it. Despite his obvious feelings for her, he never feels entitled to her affection, even if he is clearly frustrated over not getting it.
3) Katniss makes it clear that her struggle is less about "twoo wub" and more about getting to a place where they're allowed to even have love to fight over in the first place. I like that.

OK, enough dallying about. Let's get to the meat-and-potatoes. In an effort to kill off Katniss while also tarnishing her imagine, Snow arranges for a special Champion Edition of the Hunger Games, bringing back former victors to fight again, including Katniss and Peeta. While this seems like a cheap ploy to just retread the first plot, the story smartly recognizes that this decision is a double-edged sword. All of these former victors are crowd-pleasing favorites and no one wants to see them go, particularly not the victors themselves. This move is implied to be extremely unpopular, even among the callous citizens of the Capitol.

In addition, since the new participants are largely adults, the movie can get away with killing them left and right without needing shaky-cam. That said, a great deal of them die off-screen, and that's pretty lame, but whatever.

The big thing here, however, is that Katniss has to forge more alliances this time around. And not all of them are clearly good people. And as things get closer and closer to the conclusion, we actually start to get closer to the point where Katniss will have to make the decision between doing the right thing and surviving.

It all culminates in one big moment where Katniss and her allies are purportedly planning to electrocute the remaining competitors before ending their alliance at midnight. However, this plan goes awry and Katniss finds herself on her own, wounded, and left with a golden opportunity. She can either kill her ally, Finnick, who undoubtedly poses the largest threat to her, or she can take a shot in the dark, try a crazy spur-of-the-moment plan, and attempt to fry the force field on the arena. While this seems like an easy choice, it really isn't. While frying the arena would mean allowing her and her allies to live, she knows that doing this is nothing short of an act of open rebellion and war. She knows this could get everyone she cares about killed, as well as the lives she would be saving in the process. She also has no reason to believe that this crazy plan would even work. She just knows it's the right thing to do.

And what makes this even better is that we find out that this was pretty much the plan the whole time. While Katniss being left in the dark does come off as burying the lead for a big twist ending, it actually serves a much deeper narrative significance by giving her choice meaning. If she knew Finnick was on her side and that her attempt to fry the arena was pretty much orchestrated to work, her choice wouldn't have mattered nearly as much.

And best of all, her decision does have consequences, and they were consequences she knew she would be provoking. District 12 was fire-bombed (again, something that would have been cool to see, but whatever) and while her mother, sister, and Gale are OK, the rest of the District is fucked up. For the first time, she made a truly hard decision and lost something for it, informing what truly matters to the character and allowing her to evolve as a product of her own agency. The movie finally gave me the moment I wanted so badly from the first film and it was exactly as great as I hoped it would be. In fact, I think it actually makes the first movie better by making the unanswered questions about Katniss' motivations a central plot element to this film. It takes a really special movie to make other movies better by proxy.

The rest of the movie has its ups and downs.

The aforementioned baboons are silly. I think everyone can agree on that.

My roommate who was familiar with the books told me a few things that were lost in translation that I would have liked. For example, apparently the whole "THE CENTER OF THE ARENA IS WATER" thing was a bigger deal in the book because most of the Districts are land-locked and thus a decent number of contestants simply couldn't swim. I get that something like this is hard to establish, but they could have simply had a moment during the countdown to the beginning of the Hunger Games where the camera cuts over to one or two of the tributes losing their shit over the water and shouting that they can't swim before getting blown up for not leaving their platform. Simple, quick, effective. But because the movie is typically very dedicated to sticking with Katniss' perspective, especially once the Hunger Games start, we don't really get that kind of insight into what the other tributes are going through. It's a minor nitpick, but it did bug me.

I really liked that during the reaping, they still used the same giant fish bowls even though there were only three names for District 12.

This is more a criticism of the books than the movie, but in the history of Panem, District 13 was the one that led the rebellion and they got wiped off the map (except apparently not really) and now District 12 got the same treatment. Assuming Suzanne Collins knew this was going to be a thing, I think it would have been cooler if the nuked Districts weren't conveniently at the end of the number list. Like if District 13 were instead District 7 or something and so when they go through the list of Districts and skip over 7, you get a sense of its absence that reflects the silent pain that lingers on in Panem and the unforgiving power of the Capitol. When the missing Districts are at the end of the list, it's easier to forget about them or ignore them, and I would think the Capitol wouldn't want that to happen. It's not really that big a deal, but if I were Suzanne Collins' editor, I probably would have suggested something like that.

Pretty much all of the new characters are amazing. I particularly liked Johanna, though it took me a while to realize she was that girl from "Stepmom" and "Saved!".

All in all, though, these bits and pieces are trivial. What matters most is that the core of this movie, the driving narrative, is strong and resonant and makes this a truly great film that elevates the franchise for me.

My only major concern at this point is with the last two films. I really feel like there's not a lot of ground left to cover, and yet they are apparently taking the "Harry Potter"/"Twilight" route of splitting the last book up into two films. I've heard a lot of people say that "Mockingjay" is their favorite book, so I'll give these movies the benefit of the doubt, but as far as I'm concerned, they have a pretty high bar to overcome.