Monday, December 16, 2013

Where There's Smoke

Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013, directed by Francis Lawrence) is more or less the same film as its predecessor. The filmmakers behind it prove that they are savvy to the way people consume sequels. That it also happens to be better than its predecessor in just about every conceivable way is just some kind of weird alchemy that happens with sequels sometimes, perhaps because it can jump right into the story without having to set up the primary conflicts and relationship (or the world in which it takes place), but I think it's more than that. The craft--for want of a better word--is better. This film cost considerably more than its predecessor and that expense winds up on the screen. This is a case of more being more. But it's not just that, either. Francis Lawrence (presumably no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence) comes to the film from genre filmmaking and proves to be more adept at the film's genre requirements than Gary Ross ever was. The action in this film is more comprehensible, the genre beats more on the mark, and in general, the style of the film is smoother and less rawboned. This is true even in the film's more miserablist settings, where Lawrence has reined-in the lazy shaky-cam of its predecessor and created images of surprising power. The opening shot of Katniss, for instance.

As I say: in its broadest outlines, the structure and story of this film is more or less the same as its predecessor. Katniss and Peeta, as victors of the previous Hunger Games, live a life of relative affluence back in District 12, where Katniss continues her clandestine courtship of Gale. Early in this film, she receives a visit from President Snow, whose grip on power is feeling the first signs of slipping. Katniss, it seems, has become a symbol of hope to the Districts, where unrest is growing. He emphasizes that Katniss's relationship with Peeta--the crux of their survival in the previous games--must appear to be real. He sees through the sham, of course, but on their victory tour, their relationship starts to become "real," especially after Katniss realizes that as a matter of surviving the politics of the capital, they must marry. Meanwhile, the new game master has concocted a way to deal with Snow's problems with the victors. The 75th games are coming up and the tributes for those games will be special: the pool from which they will be drawn is the previous victors, creating a kind of "all-star" version of the games. This puts Katniss and Peeta back in the arena, but this time, they have more substantial alliances: with the flamboyant Finnick O'Dair, with the jaded and angry Johanna Mason, with the clever with technology Beetee. During the ceremonies prior to the games, Katniss finds a way to tweak Snow and send a message to the resistance with a dress that transforms her into a mockingjay. This costs her stylist, Cinna, his life, which she takes into the arena as motivation. But something screwy is going on with the other tributes, many of whom are going out of their way to help her survive. Whether she can trust them or not is the question...

My main complaint with The Hunger Games movies is that the world Suzanne Collins has built is designed more as an allegory than as a convincing society. I mean, Snow's regime demands children from each district to have them fight to the death and he's surprised that there's unrest? Really? This isn't a politically savvy piece of world-building by any means. As allegory, on the other hand, it's a film that strikes a rich chord of unease. It's a demonic reflection of the shit sandwich this film's target audience--the Millennial generation--have received from its predecessors: inequality at every turn, a predatory and untouchable upper class, a feeling that the world is pitting them against each other for their very survival. Yeah. This is almost too on-the-nose. Science fiction is like that sometimes, though: It's always been a funhouse mirror.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

More relevant to my own interests is the way this film deconstructs the gender dynamics of contemporary pop narratives. These movies stand as a rebuke to the ordinary roles of women in the movies. It's not just that this film has an action heroine. Action heroines pop up with fair regularity, in spite of the fact that male dudebro movie executives think they can't open a film (this series is a rebuke to that kind of thinking). This is a film where the secondary female characters are also badasses. The overtly badass Johanna Mason seizes the camera's attention by not giving a fuck about the male gaze and stripping out of the fetishy outfit imposed by the Panem patriarchy the first chance she gets. Jena Malone turns this into a kind of seduction of Katniss, partially as a rebuke to the Team Gale/Team Peeta nonsense that these movies have appropriated from Twilight. Johanna is Team Katniss all the way, which is the right and proper fixation. Katniss's sister, Prim, is less obviously a badass in this film. In the first film, she was a plot device. In this one, she has a couple of brief scenes that sketch out a resolute character that's entirely behind her sister. You can see the same steel in her spine as she tends to the wounded Gale. By extension, this applies to Katniss's mom, who obviously raised her girls with some sand. The other female tributes--particularly Mags--but even the villainous Seeder (she of the filed teeth) and the apparently insane Wiress--defy gender expectations, too. The boys, on the other hand, get themselves dameseled. Both of them are put into situations where Katniss has to act to save their lives. Katniss's attitude of self-sacrifice in order to preserve Peeta's life is totally the role usually assigned to male heroes. She has a "woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do," attitude to the games, much to the chagrin of her beaux. Peeta in particular plays a LOT like the hero's girlfriend in other movies.

Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

That all said, there are other more subtle inversions of gender in this film: the best of them is when it turns fashion into a political statement. How Katniss is dressed in the run-up to the game is an overt critique of patriarchy using femininity itself as a weapon: Snow insists--given the sham Katniss and Peeta have been perpetrating--that she wear a wedding gown to the big show. He's giving away the bride, as it were. When that gown transforms Katniss into a living bird, it's something in the domain of women--fashion--metaphorically and literally flipping the bird to the bullshit demands of patriarchal authority and to all authoritarianism in general. This works even better given Jennifer Lawrence's continuing evolution as a movie star and the dog and pony shows she's had to walk through for publicity and award shows. This is a case of off-screen persona meshing with on-screen persona and producing something striking. More subtle than this, though, is the emphasis on representation. There's a small scene--almost a throwaway--where snow notices that his (grand?)daughter is wearing a braid like Katniss's. "All of the kids are wearing them now," she tells him. There's an acknowledgement here that girls emulate their heroes, too, but it's also another kind of rebuke to a real-life culture that refuses to give girls more than a token diet of Disney princesses to emulate and aspire rather than real heroines with agency of their own.

The remaining subtext from the first film is all still there: the cultural divide between the haves and the have-nots, the coded decadence of rich vs. poor or rural vs. city. This is still a film that will play equally well to the sensibilities of red states and blue states. Like most big entertainments, this is a film that is non-committal to its politics most of the time, though this film tilt's more and more toward the position of the Occupy crowd rather than toward the tea party. Part of this comes from its racial diversity. The prime mover in the revolution isn't Katniss and her victory in the previous games, nor her "romance" storyline. It's her relationship in the previous film with Rue. Her kindness to Rue triggers the revolution. This is something that this film understands implicitly. Rue is the kindling. Katniss is merely the fire. (The symbolism of the "girl on fire" is not for nothing). The most effective male allies that Katniss has are men of color: Cinna (who continues to rock the androgyny of his gold eyeshadow) and Beetee, who gets the scientist role traditionally reserved for white dudes.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Harrelson in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The film uses its coding to play with the audience's expectations and to muddy the motives of its prime movers. The two capital denizens who eschew flamboyant decadence are Snow--who is obviously the film's villain-- and Plutarch Heavensbee, the new game master. Heavensbee is obviously playing some kind of long game. The players in this film are more ruthless the less flamboyant they are. This calls into some doubt the role that Effie Trinket--by far the film's most elaborate decadent--plays in the film. Where are her loyalties? Visually, she's coded as a villain, but she doesn't behave like one. I'll be interested to see how her part plays out in the endgame.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

If the first film was a coming out party for Jennifer Lawrence as a movie star, this film taps into her chops as an actress. As with the first film, this isn't an easy part, requiring her to play the hard-bitten poor kid, the fashion plate, and the action heroine by turns. This film adds "conflicted lover" to the mix and Lawrence is more than equal to the part. Even more than the first film, this film taps into Lawrence's great performance as Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone, while simultaneously dressing her in a downscale version of high fashion. This is a film where the drab winter apparel she wears while hunting is even more fashionably constructed than the gaudy gowns she wears in the capital. Seriously, those scarves are costume elements that I crave for myself. They're beautiful. But I digress. Jena Malone I mentioned earlier. Donald Sutherland is channeling the Needle from Eye of the Needle into his turn as Snow. He's all quiet menace and homicidal sociopathy. Philip Seymour Hoffman is an ambiguous presence and the actor sometimes underplays--something that the film rarely encourages of its actors. Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson remain "girlfriend" characters, with about that much depth, though Hutcherson manages to make a character of it due to his longer screen time. Jeffrey Wright is new to the series, too, and he provides the same kind of scientist character--indeed, practically the same performance--that he gave in Source Code. I wonder how much time he was given to prepare for the role. Elizabeth Banks continues to be surprisingly effective beneath her bizarro costumes as Effie. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch is given a bit more depth in this film, and a surprising character turn toward the end of the film. In all, this makes better use of its actors than its predecessor, which is funny when you consider that this film is directed by an 'action' director while the previous one was directed by a 'character' director. Go figure.

One major flaw this film carries with it is a matter of franchise building. This is a film that aspires to be The Empire Strikes Back, and like Empire, it ends on a cliffhanger. This will doubtless carry over to the next film--Mocking Jay will be split into two films a la Twilight and Harry Potter--which means that the next film will likely have a cliffhanger, too. That's a narrative strategy that gets old after a while. Still, this film's last shot is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence's performance as the camera focuses on the transformation from scared victim to revolutionary with only her eyes to show what's happening to her.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As an action film, this has its drawbacks, too. The game itself is needlessly complex. The whole "this arena is a clock" thing has no real symbolic meaning. Rather, it's the kind of bullshit complication of lazy writing. There is surprisingly little conflict between the tributes in this game, too. This is more of a tribute vs. the arena cooperative contest than it is a fight to the death--although there's some of this, too. Still, this is better than the incoherent mess that the previous film gave us. Francis Lawrence brings a welcome level of competence and cinematic imagination to this part of the film. He actually knows how to block his actors during action scenes rather than relying on close-ups and editing to "intensify" the scenes. Mind you, this isn't a great action film, but it doesn't need to be.

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