So it’s back to the arena, where life is cheap but the production values sure as hell are not. In THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, defiant champions Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) discover how costly their rebellion actually is, both in terms of human toll as the government moves to crush any signs of rebellion inspired by their victory, and personally, as the ruling elite — represented by the likes of Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman — conspire to force them into a new, even more deadly competition.
beabetterbooktalker.com‘s Andrea Lipinski is back once again to share her knowledge of the original book series with Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons. We’ll look into whether there’s story enough to support two-and-a-half hours of screen time, whether the return to the bloody Hunger Games competition is worth the trip, and whether all the characters have a preternaturally intimate understanding of human nature or are just damn lucky. Then, Dan and Andrea quickly discuss the celebratory DOCTOR WHO 50th anniversary episode, “Day of the Doctor.” Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
There is a pretty decent 90-minute movie hiding within THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, but the filmmakers were not going to let that fast-paced thriller escape from the laborious two-and-half-hour running time required to appease a fanbase that wants every major development, nuance, and tidbit from the source material to at least rate a mention on screen. Patient viewers (including not only readers of the Suzanne Collins novels) will still find an enjoyable viewing experience, but only the most forgiving fans will be able to completely overlook the longueurs – which are even longer here than they were in the previous film.
As before, there is a rather length preamble before we get to the good stuff, which is of course the titular Hunger Games. This time, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embark on a government-mandated promotional-propaganda tour of the twelve districts, selling their tale of survival and feigned romance to the populace, who presumably will be pacified and more accepting of their miserable fate while the elites continue to live high on the hog.
What’s that about feigned romance, you ask? Well, you ask if you have not read the book, because nothing in THE HUNGER GAMES suggested Katniss did not fall in love with Peeta, but in order to make the sequel story work, that previously overlooked narrative thread finally finds its way off the page and onto the screen. It makes for a rather sulky first act, with Katniss’s true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) lamenting how genuine Katniss’s feelings for Peeta seem, while Peeta sulks over how artificial they are.
The challenge of acting as if she is acting is a bit of a stretch for Lawrence, whose feigned passion for Peeta registers as no more or less passionate than her allegedly real feelings for Gale. Lawrence is hardly helped by the series of gowns and makeups she is given to wear: one would like to forgive them as intentional attempts to underline the clown-show nature of the victory tour, but at times they look simply like failed attempts to render the actress in an exotic guise, and by the time dress designer CInna (Lenny Kravitz) is ruthlessly beaten, the action seems less like political ploy than aesthetic statement about his work.
Fortunately, President Snow ( Donald Sutherland) puts the sulk-fest at least somewhat to bed when he grows resentful over the popularity of Katniss and Peeta, who success seems to be inspiring hope in a populace that Snow wants permanently quelled. Hoping to nip this development in the bud, Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) contrive a new version of the Hunger Games, in which twenty-four previous winners will compete, with the goal of eliminating the popular heroes and showing the futility of hoping to rise above one’s station in life.
The “hope” issue contradicts THE HUNGER GAMES, in which Snow specifically stated that hope was the essential reason for having a winner: hope keeps people from succumbing to despair and believing there is nothing left to lose, which in turn can lead to rebellion. Apparently, hope is a Goldilocks kind of thing: you don’t too little or too much, but Snow never clarifies exactly what qualifies as “just right.”
However, none of this matters, as it is just a contrivance to get Katniss and Peeta back on the killing field. Once there, the film generates considerable, if familiar, interest, as alliances are formed and tested, and our heroes ponder the moral dilemma of joining forces with people they may be forced to kill later, in order to survive themselves (a dilemma that, fortunately for mass-market taste, the scenario solves for them). The lethal action on the island where this year’s Hunger Games takes place is captivating – not just viscerally exciting but also emotionally engaging – which is a good thing, because the plot developments are, well…mostly a matter of marking time until the next film.
Snow and Plutarch begin and even more Draconian program of repression against the twelve districts, theoretically in order to suppress that unwanted rising hope. Strangely, the arbitrary nature seems more like to foment an uprising than repress one, and one begins to wonder just how Snow has managed to stay in power.
This question is not directly answered, but a twist ending gives us insight into why the tactics might be been deliberately designed to produce exactly the opposite of their stated result.
Plutarch turns out to be part of a resistance movement, in league with Katniss’s mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). This also explains why several competitors on the island seemed willing to sacrifice themselves to save Katniss and Peeta; it’s all part of a plan whose details are to be revealed later.
Unfortunately, this is one of those revelations that raises as many questions as it answers, such as: Why isn’t President Snow smart enough to see that Plutarch’s methods are having the opposite of the desire result? And how did Plutarch and Haymitch know to have their rescue ship poised above the dome on the island at precisely the moment when Katniss, on the spur of the movement, performs an entirely unexpected action that blasts a hole in the dome, allowing the rescue ship to get in? And if Plutarch and Haymitch are so on top of the situation as to be able to pull this off, how is is that (we are told) the President managed to get his hands on Peeta and take him to the capital? We also have to wonder whether we are now supposed to forgive Plutarch for the lethal results of the plans he concocted with Snow – is this a Machiavellian case of the ends justifying the means?
Worst of all, this half-articulated surprise revelation is supposed to pass for a climax, but it is entirely inadequate. The movie simply stops in mid-sentence, and instead of a real ending, we get a nifty CGI rendition of the mocking bird emblem, in a blaze of firy gold (the closest the film comes to living up to its title). Call it THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK syndrome: who needs a conclusion when you’re watching the middle chapter of a trilogy?
Though it never fully ignites, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE has its virtues. The sullen leads may lack charisma, but the supporting cast is fine, especially Harrelson; Elizabeth Banks very nearly humanizes the cartoony Effie Trinket, and Donald Sutherland excels so well at villainy that he can rend a simple sip from a glass as a supremely ominous gesture. The satirical depiction of the Capital is amusing if a bit broad (Stanley Tucci’s phony smile as TV celeb announce Caesar Flickerman is still funny but wearing out its welcome). The film takes effective pot shots at the contrived nature of “Reality TV,” which is relentless manipulated behind the scenes to fit narrative requirements. And the propaganda nature of the resulting popular success stories is relentless mocked though the bogus victory tour, in which Katniss and Peeta must seal the deal on their publicly perceived personas by playing out their romance on camera, regardless of Katniss’s actual indifference. (One of the film’s highlights occurs when Peeta, having learned to play the game, announces he would have no regrets about playing another round of the Hunger Games “if it weren’t for the baby” – the phony announcement of Katniss’s non-existent pregnancy predictably delights the decadent crowds.)
THE HUNGER GAMES remains one of the best film adaptations of a young adult novel in recent memory, exceeding expectations for a genre mired in muck like TWLIGHT. Unfortunately, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE succumbs to twin devils of Sequel Syndrome and Franchise Disorder: it provides more of the same – not bad, but not better – and its main goal is less to be a satisfying work unto itself than a teaser to keep you coming back for more.
On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: worth watching if you’re interested
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (Lionsgate, 2013). Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay by Simon Beuafoy, Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Rated PG-13. 146 minutes. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrleson, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer.
Once again, America has taken a look at the latest revisionist fairy tale and sighed a collective, “Why?” JACK THE GIANT SLAYER flopped at the box-office in its opening weekend, despite a mammoth budget, attractive leads, and director Bryan Singer expanding the story of a humble peasant vs. a ravenous giant into something that incorporates a plucky princess, an enchanted crown, a sardonic soldier, a war between giants and humanity, and much, (maybe too) much more. But is the audience’s resounding apathy deserved? Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss this 3D attempt to do bigger better and weigh whether this version distinguishes itself from the revisionist lot, or is just more fee-fi-fo-fum.
Plus: Steve gives his capsule review of THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, and what’s coming to theaters next week. [NOTE: the podcast capsule is spoiler free. For a more in-depth look at what’s wrong – and almost right – about the ending, check out the review posted here.]
There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.
Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.
Hunger will compel people to some extreme acts: lie; kill; volunteer your child to appear on TODDLERS & TIARAS. Who knew it could also lead to one of the best movies of the year? The highly anticipated THE HUNGER GAMES takes the first book of the popular young adult series — about a dystopic future where the working masses are kept under control by being forced to sacrifice their children to a high-tech, to-the-death, televised battle — and turns it into a top-notch entertainment. Plus, in the person of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — a combatant whose behavior amidst the carnage may be a harbinger of change — audiences finally get a more palatable and compelling heroine than a certain, vampire-besotted star of another series.
beabetterbooktalker.com‘s Andrea Lipinski joins Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons to explore the fine points of the film: What might have been lost in the transition from page to screen; how does director Gary Ross reconcile the carnage of the battle sequences with the more satirical vision of the ruling elite; and what’s scarier, the prospect of being torn to bits by raging, genetically-engineered hell-hounds, or Stanley Tucci’s hair? All this and more will be discussed in the show. Plus: What’s coming to theaters and home video.
REGRETTABLE TECHNICAL NOTE: Conversation about a film this good is hard to contain, which is another way of saying that the running time of show forces us to reduce the audio quality slightly for convenience sake.
We’re betting Paramount would’ve preferred that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER had come out on the Memorial Day or July 4th weekends. However, martial-arts-happy animals and big-ass robots claimed those two slots, so here we are in later summer, trying to get our patriotism back for a red-white-and-blue bedecked super hero doing his bit for mom, apple pie, and gas-guzzling cars in the thick of WWII. Does director Joe Johnston’s ROCKETEER-tested period style work its magic for this final bit of table setting before next year’s THE AVENGERS? Are two hours enough time for an origin story, rescue adventure, and ultimate clash between good and evil? And where the hell are all the Nazis? Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss these issues and more.
Also in this episode: Dan gives his capsule review of the moody, science-fiction drama, ANOTHER EARTH.