MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wimington on Movies — The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

801U.S.: Francis Lawrence, 2013

Books were my first love, movies my second. Yet, though some day, I may get around to reading Suzanne Collins’ mega-selling young adult novel “Catching Fire,” for the moment the big-money  blockbuster movie adapted from it — called The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — will have to suffice. I liked T. H. G.: C. F. well enough, even though it’s not the kind of movie on which I like to see so much money being spent and so much effort expended. It would have been just as good, I bet — better maybe — at a half, or even a third of the price it cost and the effort expended. But that’s the way the game is played these days, “Hungry” or not. (For an entirely different attitude on adaptation, see my review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — from J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” a book I have read, and treasure.)

The first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, directed by Gary Ross (replaced here by Francis Lawrence of the futuristic horror movie, I Am Legend) and co-produced by Collins and others with much of the same cast and crew, notably co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as young game-players Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark and supporting players Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci as some of the various adults, meanies and hungry gamesters  swirling around them. Like that movie, this one is built around an action-adventure show that’s also a political allegory and a coming-of-age fable. In it, the so-called “Hunger Game” (a mass media event which combines the plot knock-‘em-off theme of And Then There were None” with the trappings of The Super Bowl), functions as  a social pressure valve to pacify the masses in an Orwellian dictatorship of the future. And,  and in this “Nineteen Eighty-Four” variation, the downtrodden masses are kept in their social slots by a set of media games and deadly sports, in which chosen members of the underclass (including Katniss, our heroine)  battle it out to the last man or woman standing, thereby providing bloody TV diversion and satisfying the rest of the underclass.

In the last movie, Katniss, the representative of impoverished District 12, poorest of the competing communities in the 74th annual games, won the final battle and then spared the other last survivor Peeta, because they were supposedly in love — to the discomfiture of Kat’s longtime friend Dale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).  Now she‘s back and so is Peeta, and so are a flock of other past champions, all of whom have been recruited for the 75th games, rejiggered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his most unctuous and nastily narcissistic and Sutherlandian) and gamesman/planner Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman at his most Hoffmanesque) to become an all-star champions-of-champions combat. The obvious intention is to prevent Kat or her fellow champs from lending any popularity or credence to the brewing revolution, just about to break.

This seems pretty unfair, since one of the rewards of winning the other games was supposed to be survival. But whoever said that Orwellian dictatorships play by the rules? Even their own? Catching Fire is a long movie with dozens of characters, and it takes its own sweet time getting to the 75th Games. But when it does, it roars and explodes and erupts in what seems to be a CGI-laden science fiction jungle-forest, in a manner that suggests the Cooper-Schoedsack ”Most Dangerous Game” filtered through half a century of science fiction epics and video games. There’s not that much suspense, of course, where Kat is concerned. We know (or some of us know) that there are two more sequels coming, both of whom need their heroine. But we can muster some concern about the others contestants.

Everything about this fable about a future dystopia (that’s “utopia” turned inside out) suggests high quality, a young adult-derived show with class. The cast is headed by newly anointed Oscar winner Lawrence (that’s Jennifer, not Francis, nor Lawrence of Arabia, R.I. P. the Great Peter O’Toole, for that matter), and it’s top-notch. She’s  abetted or thwarted by an expensive and talented ensemble that includes her kind of boyfriends Peeta (Hutcherson) and Dale ( Hemsworth), along with Kat’s shaggy mentor-at-arms Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson, giving it the Full Woody), her hyper fashion maven Effie Trinket (Banks)  plus a roster of fellow game-players that includes non-mad scientist Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his companion Wiress (Amanda Plummer), angry punk siren Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and dashing Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), from whom we will obviously hear more later.

There’s also a fine set of villains or maybe-villains headed by the evil, half-lisping President Snow (Sutherland), and including the smirking games planner Heavensbee (Hoffman, than whom no one smirks better), and a sadistic bastard of a militarist swine named Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit). And we haven’t gotten to the wickedest and most supportive of supporting players, not-really-a-villain-or-contestant, but one hell of an emcee, the incandescent rouser and ultra-flam showman Caesar Flickerman, as played by Stanley Tucci with no inhibitions and a smile that could devour Liberace.

It would be  shame to ignore The Flick since Tucci is, as Billy Wilder might say,  a little bit of terrific in this part, and since he gives the best performance in the movie: a delightfully barmy, hammy turn (the character is the ham, not the actor), seething with twisted wit and high jinks, as if Jay Leno  had turned into Lucifer on the way to imitating Professor Harold Hill. I just had one thing to say while watching Tucci prance and sneer and ogle, eyes a-glitter, and that was “More!’  Hs fellow actors were a formidable consort, especially Harrelson and Hoffman, But Tucci’s was a supporting performance truly, uh, supportive. Caesar is at the opposite extreme from Katniss, who is the strong, quiet, gorgeous  type, and who is played by Lawrence with the kind of presence that suits a new-style movie or young-adult heroine. But if there were more humor in Catching Fire, more of the Flick Stuff, it would be a better movie.

Speaking of Lawrences, Francis Lawrence here is a slicker director that Ross was, though I don’t agree with the quibbles about Ross’s more verite’ camera style. Ross was good enough for the first movie (he’s better with more sentimental pieces like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) but Lawrence makes this film a bit more pretty, tense and violent — and even, when Tucci is around, hilarious.

If you look at the art of moviemaking as a branch of higher economics — and a lot of people do — then The Hunger Game: Catching Fire is just the kind of show that the cinema industry is most geared up to make these days. It’s pre-sold, third in the tetrology, or quartet, of films adapted from the trilogy of young adult novels written to thunderous response by Collins (and filmed to an even more thunderous response) It’s a  big, expensive, pictorially lavish and star-filled show full of action and attractive young actors (or their magnetic and highly skilled elders), all doing violent or sexy things, while music roars and  the audience, pre-sold and almost pre-entertained, pours into the theatres like lemmings heading over a cliff.

Every beautiful and gifted young actress should have a few years like Jennifer Lawrence just did: the  critical raves that greeted her appearance in Winter’s Bone, a 2012 Best Actress Oscar for her saucy star role in Silver Linings Playbook, and two enormous box-office hits in the Hunger Games movies:  a double (or triple) whammy if there ever was one. I’m not trying to rain on any of this parade when I suggest that this latter achievement — the big-budget movie of The Hunger Games; Catching Fire — is being a little over-rated, and that the last five or ten minutes are a little abrupt and confusing. Nevertheless, it’s  a better than good movie, and one that does almost exactly what was so obviously intended and expected of it.

Who could ask for more? The other night I saw the other current pre-Hobbit box-office titan, the Disney animated feature, Frozen, based on a literary classic (Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Snow Queen) or inspired by it — and, while enjoying the movie (and enjoying the El Capitan Theatre stage show that accompanied it),  I wondered all over again why so much effort and care and money is spent on movies that seem primarily geared for children or teenagers (grownups are the secondary audience) compared with so-called adult movies. As long as they’re  as good as either Catching Fire and Frozen, I guess, it doesn’t matter.   But it would be nice to see some older-than-young-adult movies catch fire too.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon