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Posts Tagged ‘The Hunger Games’

Well, it’s a cold and rainy afternoon in November, and the threat of references to Battle Royale and The Year of the Sex Olympics hangs heavy in the air, so I suppose it must be time for this year’s Hunger Games movie. I must confess to having gone along to the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part Two (directed, like the last couple, by Francis Lawrence), more out of habit than any sense of genuine excitement or anticipation. This should be something of an anomaly, given I have usually been impressed by the previous offerings in the series.

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I must also confess to a certain relief that this is the last movie in the series. Standard operation procedure for any series of book adaptations, these days – especially a genre or YA series – is to chop the final volume in half in order to maximise revenue. The result is often rather choppily paced films with arbitrary-feeling start and finish points. The fact that they’re largely aimed at a pre-existing, fanatically-dedicated audience also often means that the film-makers skip on things like recaps and other things to refresh one’s memory of the previous episode.

Mockingjay Part Two is a bit like that, opening with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from the attempt on her life by her long-term is-he-or-isn’t-he-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been conditioned to want to kill her by nasty President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In case you are wondering, we are in the midst of a full-blown civil war, but to be perfectly honest, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, you probably shouldn’t bother with this one at all.

Anyway, the conflict seems to be tipping the rebels’ way, and as the assault on the Capitol gets underway, Katniss embarks on a personal mission to assassinate the author of all her woes (I’m talking about Snow, by the way, not Suzanne Collins), along with – but of course! – a squad of equally photogenic cohorts, along with a few adults who are mainly there to frown a lot. Some people are looking ahead to whatever will follow the conclusion of the war, and realising that the inspirational qualities that have made Katniss such a useful media asset during the conflict could make her an equally dangerous enemy once it is over – so perhaps putting her in harm’s way isn’t such a bad idea…

‘Harm’s way’ is a bit of an understatement, for the path to Snow, as well as being blocked by vast legions of Stig lookalikes, has also been extravagantly booby-trapped by the twisted minds of the Capitol’s light entertainment division. Will anyone survive the mission to take out the President? And even if they survive the war, surviving the peace is another question…

Regular viewers may recall that I was generally impressed by the first film, somewhat disappointed by the second one, and rather surprised by the sheer sophistication and astuteness of number three – not to mention a little concerned that this concluding exploit was going to cop out in some manner. Well, I am pleased and not a little startled to say, it does not; it absolutely does not.

I suppose I am so impressed by the Hunger Games films simply because on paper they resemble a bunch of other movies based on popular YA series (Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, that sort of thing) and I automatically manage my expectations sharply downwards as a result. That said, if all YA film adaptations are anywhere close to these ones in quality, then this subgenre comprises the best-kept secret in modern cinema, for the Hunger Games films are genuinely impressive on so many levels.

It’s not just in their technical proficiency, which is of course commendable, but in the way they manage to be so consistently sharp and cynical. This one is no exception: it doesn’t romanticise or glamourise combat in any way, and while it’s theoretically an SF movie, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war (or politics) in the slightest. Glib heroics and easy solutions are utterly rejected at every turn. I think I said once that this is the most thoroughly horrible dystopian vision ever to make it into a blockbuster, and I stand by that: the film is relentless in the way it deconstructs the mechanisms of power and politics, and finds the people at the top of both sides to be virtually indistinguishable.

This is one of the things that makes the Hunger Games films distinctive: for all that they are set in a futuristic otherworld, and occasionally feature genetic mutations and the like, they are always firmly grounded in reality, almost painfully so (for all the absurdly OTT death traps involved, there are also some shockingly bleak moments in this film). For all their huge SFX budgets, they also shy away from the big action set-pieces you expect from this kind of movie – they are almost always character-driven, when it comes down to it. Perhaps this is at the root of my inability to completely engage with them, despite their quality: they may look and get advertised like huge action blockbusters, but they’re not. (That said, half-way through this film is a stunningly effective Aliens and Blade 2-influenced action sequence which seems to have wandered in from a different film entirely – and like a lot of the movie, it stretches the limits of the 12A certificate to breaking point and beyond. This is not a film for anyone yet to reach their teens.)

And this is why the films have been so lucky to get an actress like Jennifer Lawrence to lead them – such a character-driven series needs a performer of her quality, even if she perhaps isn’t required to use all of her range. She receives customarily good support from all the usual suspects this time, with Sutherland on especially good form. (Julianne Moore looks rather like Theresa May this time around.) I feel compelled to mention that this is the last film to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman, although his contribution this time is sadly limited.

It’s really a small miracle that Mockingjay Part Two sticks to its guns and stays so downbeat and dourly realistic almost to the end, although I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that a degree of idyllic rustification pops up before all is said and done – the underlying politics of these films has always been fairly traditional, perhaps even reactionary, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, this is a worthy and impressive conclusion to a series which maintained a startlingly high level of consistency throughout. In years to come I suspect these four films will come to be regarded as classics, of a sort – and there’ll be no injustice to that.

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So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; here we are again for the third of our annual visits to the Hunger Games franchise. I just had an interesting discussion with a somewhat like-minded friend down the pub, who expressed surprise that I was even going to see this film, revealing that he hadn’t thought it to be my cup of tea. ‘What, you think I don’t like big-budget Hollywood SF movie?’ I said, my face probably assuming a fairly distinctive expression.

‘You think it’s SF?’

‘Well, yes, of course – what do you think it is?’

‘Young Adult.’

‘Yes, but Young Adult SF.’

Oh, how the evenings fly by when we get together, especially when I start going on about The Hunger Games’ place in a long lineage of things like (say it together with me) Battle Royale, Rollerball, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. Anyway, my point was ultimately that if all Young Adult movies (is that even a proper genre?) are as sophisticated and cynical as the Hunger Games series, then there’s no call to be snotty about them.

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This time around we are treated to the fairly unwieldy title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part One, for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ final book has been chopped in two. (Rather mysteriously, Collins is credited for ‘Adaptation’, while two other bods have their names on the script. Hmmm.) This isn’t the only unwieldy thing about the film, which has most of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but at least it’s reasonably short.

One problem is that the film seems to be made with the dedicated fanbase in mind (is there much of a fanbase? The coffeeshop was running a marathon showing of all three films this week, but I’ve no idea how many turned up for it). As before, there’s no recap or reprise from the previous film, we’re just dumped into the action, and it took me quite a while to remember exactly who everyone was and what they were up to. This was irksome, and if you haven’t seen the other two I suspect you will never work out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, stubborn bow-wielding knitwear-lover Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is still ensconced in the separatist enclave of District 13, her home region having been devastated in the uprising that broke out at the end of the second film. The rebel leadership (various genuine luminaries like Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the plan to use her as a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She signs on, in the understanding that her sometime love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sprung from Snow’s clutches. Naturally, Snow is using Peeta to issue various statements undermining Katniss and the rebel cause.

As you may have surmised, there aren’t actually any Hunger Games in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, but to my mind this was rather to the film’s benefit, as the games were by far the least interesting bit of the second film. This one builds on the strengths of the second, especially in its bleakness and the sophistication of its politics.

Once upon a time this sort of ‘heroic rebels versus evil empire’ kind of film would have been about just that – plucky underdogs triumphing due to their own essential virtue and the rightness of their cause. The Hunger Games is savvy enough to recognise that things do not work this way: this film is all about the media management of the rebellion, which is presented as being absolutely crucial to both sides. We first see President Snow objecting to having to call the rebels ‘rebels’, and a word with more satisfactory connotations is soon found. Katniss’ allies are not interested in her as a person, but as a symbol to the masses they are trying to bring into the conflict.

She is, in short, much more useful as a propaganda aid than as a warrior, and when she is sent to the barricades of the rebellion she is accompanied not by a team of soldiers but a camera crew. In a fiendishly clever bit of scripting, no sooner does she meet the people she is supposed to inspire than she finds herself having to lie to them: the subtext is clear. She is, in short, being manipulated by her superiors just as Peeta has become a mouthpiece for the regime.

This is all surprisingly sharp and impressively cynical for a major release aimed at teenagers: the film is all the more timely, given how much it recalls the high premium placed on media-management in recent conflicts in the Middle East. The bombed-out, shattered landscapes of Mockingjay are horribly reminiscent of any number of news reports from Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and Snow’s doleful threats that civil war can only end in unimaginable slaughter and suffering sound depressingly plausible. I can’t quite see where the happy ending at the end of the next film is coming from; I hope the writers don’t completely cop out on all this good work.

This is all so engaging that you really don’t notice the slightly soapy teen romance angle of the story, nor a few somewhat improbable plot developments. The fact that this is really just the first half of the story means that there isn’t actually that much action in it, and hardly any of that features Jennifer Lawrence herself. Lawrence’s ability to maintain a career as both a bona fide box office star and an acclaimed actress is impressive, and it’s a shame that here she has a largely passive role, spending a lot of her time staggering about looking appalled at whatever atrocity the bad guys have committed most recently. Other senior members of the cast are much luckier: Moore, Hoffman, and Sutherland are all clearly having a ball scheming away at each other.

The Hunger Games is one of those series which rather impresses me while I’m watching it, but doesn’t exactly linger in the mind once I’ve finished. Maybe it’s just expectations management – the level of intelligence and grit in most SF franchises is somewhat lamentable – but it seems to me that these films are always much smarter and more surprising than they have any right to be. I just hope the concluding episode doesn’t let the side down; there are grounds here to be hopeful, I would say.

 

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You could spend happily spend forever pointing out all the things The Hunger Games series is derivative of, and come to think of it I indulged myself quite a bit when I was talking about the first film. So let’s just say Year of the Sex Olympics, occasional bits of Star Trek, and Battle Royale one last time and move on to considering the new movie on its own merits.

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The hefty lead-times involved in a movie this size mean that Gary Ross has been replaced as the director by Francis Lawrence, a prolific creator of music videos but someone really lacking in a significant movie CV. These movies are basically a licence to print money anyway, so all it really takes is a safe pair of hands, I suppose.

Anyway, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (one of the increasing number of films that doesn’t bother with a title card until the end credits) is very much what it is, which is one of the middle films in a blockbuster genre adaptation franchise. (As is pretty much obligatory these days, the final volume is being chopped in two to maximise the bottom line to increase viewers’ pleasure.) By this I mean that it assumes most of the audience will not only have seen the first film, but watched it recently on DVD, because there isn’t what you could call a recap of the events of part one.

Jennifer Lawrence again plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who when asked to describe herself opts for ‘Stubborn – good with a bow – that’s about it.’ I think she’s forgetting ‘fond of knitwear’, but that’s just me. Having won the titular games in the first film, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – not stubborn, not much good with a bow, basically just blandly good-looking and a bit dull – are coming to terms with the realities of life as victors. They are celebrities, but more than that, the manner of their victory has made them symbols of dissent against the autocratic government, as embodied by nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

For complex and slightly subtle reasons, Snow manages to persuade Katniss that preventing an uprising against the authorities requires her and Peeta to maintain the fantasy of the romance they simulated during the games, and do her best to avoid stoking the flames of dissent. Of course, events prove this to be quite difficult, and Snow comes to realise that the cult of personality surrounding games victors is a threat to his own position: the games weren’t intended to produce heroes, but that’s what’s happening (oops, forgot one: it’s a bit like the original Rollerball, too).

So, with the aid of new games director Plutarch Heavensbee (good grief, these names), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Snow hits upon a wheeze which will probably kill all these symbols of opposition – and even if it doesn’t, Katniss’s reputation as a good citizen will likely take a major hit. He decides to stage a champion-of-champions version of the hunger games where only previous winners will compete.

It takes quite a long time for the film to reach this point, and another quite long time for the various pre-games rituals and games themselves to play out. The result is a film which, to be perfectly honest, felt to me to be rather longer than was strictly necessary, especially when so much of the second half is more-or-less a retread of the same material from the first film – all right, so they’re in a jungle rather than a forest this time, and things get spiced up a bit by the introduction of acid gas, homicidal baboons, and so on, into the proceedings, but even so.

I thought the first half of the film was by far the more interesting, anyway, dealing with the realities – both political and personal – of The Hunger Games’ world with a surprising level of sophistication and subtlety. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn, between the fantasy of the viewing channels and the reality of life in the various districts, between the personae Katniss and Peeta adopt for their fans, and who they really are, and so on. This section of the film is surprisingly subtle and cynical, in many ways, and it doesn’t feel the need to belabour the audience with the points it is making.

Then again, it did occur to me that The Hunger Games may be the most dystopian piece of SF ever to form the basis of a modern blockbuster franchise: this is a horrible, brutal world, and we are shown absolutely as many details of it as the 12 certificate will permit. My main criticism of the first film was that it just wasn’t vicious and shocking enough: I do not make that same criticism here. The parallels with the days of the Roman Empire are not made with a great deal of delicacy, but that doesn’t stop them being effective.

So this is, at least in part, a very competently made and rather thoughtful piece of SF. However, it felt to me like a potentially very good film bashed out of shape by the need to be part of a franchise. We don’t get a proper opening, as it follows straight on from the first film and doesn’t bother to introduce the characters, and – especially irksomely – it doesn’t really have a proper conclusion, opting instead for a cliffhanger into the forthcoming part three.

And I still think the fact that the film is consciously pitching to as broad an audience as possible is a problem. Everything, from the plot to the characters, is just a little blanded out or soap-opera’d up in an attempt to make it as palatable as possible. As a result none of the cast really get the material they deserve to show their full abilities, and this is a real shame when performers like Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman are sharing scenes. (Also particularly good this time around are Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as two of Lawrence’s rival competitors – Toby Jones, on the other hand, has landed himself a plum spot in the cast list but barely appears.) Then again, I suppose you could argue that people like Hoffman and Lawrence aren’t cast in this kind of film to give brilliant, subtle performances, they’re here to give a glossy genre movie a bit of credibility and gravitas. (We really should be honest that, both here and in the X-Men films, Jennifer Lawrence really is slumming it in return for a fat paycheck.)

There were a lot of things that I liked about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the cast do the best they can, the production designs are pleasing, and the generally horrible tenor of the whole thing is sort of refreshing. I wasn’t so impressed by the structure, as I said, and the soap-opera love-triangle romance elements felt a bit laboured to me. Some of these negatives will no doubt get fixed for part three, while others I’m sure will be with us for the duration. For the time being, though, this is one big franchise which doesn’t feel like it’s outstaying its welcome or presuming too much on the audience’s goodwill.

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One of the skills I imagine you have to master as the parent of a young child is presenting the proper expression of surprise and delight when they do something new – new and breathtakingly original and memorable for them, of course, but something which you yourself grew familiar with, accustomed to, and indeed perhaps even a little bit tired of a long time in the past. Every generation has to rediscover things for itself, of course, and so one ought to be indulgent in these matters.

As with toddlers tying their shoes or mastering bladder control, so with major entertainment corporations rediscovering and representing hoary old SF tropes and cliches, I suppose: which brings us to, need it even be said, The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross from the novel by Suzanne Collins.

In an unspecified future, North America is under the control of a totalitarian regime, and has been reconstituted as a single nation named Panem – presumably twinned with the nation of Circenses (one for the Latin scholars out there). The control of the ruling Capitol is maintained through the titular Hunger Games, in which young men and women from the outlying regions are forced to fight to the death in front of TV cameras on an annual basis. This time around, representing the remote District 12, where the inhabitants eke out an existence of bucolic deprivation, are Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – sorry folks, everyone has names like that. After being presented to the public and the preening judges and officials in the Capitol, the contestants are transported to the remote arena where the bloodletting will take place, and the stage is set for a battle roy – oops, hush my mouth…

Pointing out things that The Hunger Games is a rip-off of has become a bit of a blood sport in its own right recently: in addition to a certain Japanese movie, people are going on about Rollerball, original episodes of Star Trek, and so on, and so on. Well, you know, just because something isn’t original doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually bad, and it seems to me that the main donor of most of the narrative DNA here is Nigel Kneale’s 1968 play The Year of the Sex Olympics, in which a jaded population is kept pacified by savage reality TV ‘entertainment’. (Mark Gatiss has observed that in later life Nigel Kneale could have been given his own late night TV show where he just sat glowering at the camera and hissing ‘I told you so.’) So no, it’s not new, but it’s taking from the very best of sources.

And, naturally, as a new take on a classic theme, The Hunger Games does tell us a lot about the time in which it was made (i.e., now). As a portrait of the culture wars currently being waged in America, the film is rather interesting: the decent, homespun, countrified districts are controlled by the corrupt, decadent and effete metropolitans of the city. The political and social comment in this film is not overplayed – the producers steer clear of going into too much detail about any differences in religion and social morality between city and districts – which is probably just as well, as appearing too didactic or preachy would probably not be a good route to go down. Nevertheless, the line between being vicariously entertained by fictional slaughter and genuinely entertained by the real thing is probably thinner than most people would like to think, and it seemed to me the producers have missed a bit of a trick in not examining this theme in more depth.

Even so, the build-up to the start of the Games is finely done with considerable tension being generated: but, alas, I found the Games themselves to be rather disappointingly presented. We’re led to expect something truly vicious, and relentlessly, gruellingly savage and brutal – but commercial considerations (and the need for an accommodating certification) appear to have played their part and the action is relatively tame stuff. As a result the film comes across as rather anodyne and toned-down, where more overt bloodletting and violence would probably have suited its theme better. (At the risk of revealing a spoiler, plotting which allows a character to progress to the closing stages of this kind of elimination event without committing a single cold-blooded killing struck me as a bit of a cop-out, too.)

This is not a perfect film, then, but on the other hand it’s a superior piece of work, well-mounted, solidly written and with some very good turns in it. Jennifer Lawrence is making a bit of a habit of giving great performances in big studio movies and she does so here as well. She pretty much carries the entire picture here, without much sign of strain. Donald Sutherland seems rather subdued as the bad guy, and the guys playing Lawrence’s various love interests aren’t much more than placeholders, but Lenny Kravitz is impressive as her stylist. The only genuinely bum note is struck by the hammy performance turned in by Woody Harrelson as her trainer.

There’s a bit of a wobble late-on as some soapy teen romance insinuates its way into the story, which is an ominous sign as it looks like this is the route the inevitable sequels may be going down, but on the whole this is well worth the price of admission: involving, quite thoughtful entertainment that ticks the drama, romance, and action boxes very satisfactorily. Even so, it’s not going to change the world – its anger against the reality TV culture dominating modern TV feels entirely feigned. In the end this is simply superior entertainment, with nothing present that will discomfit Cowell too much – or even rattle Boyle.

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