by Steve Habrat
Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!
Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.
At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.
As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.
As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.
Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!
by Steve Habrat
One of the best science-fiction thrillers from the 1950’s is without question 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a paranoid creep out of a movie that follows a small town whose residents are being turned into emotionless drones by pods from outer space. It is a gloomy affair, boasting one hell of a bleak climax that features our hero screaming; “They’re here!” on a clogged highway filled with trucks transporting the cloning pods to other communities. It was a film that did not need a remake, let alone two remakes but that is Hollywood for you. While one of those remakes is really bad (2007’s The Invasion), one happens to be really, really well done. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an unforgiving film, one with paranoia that surpasses the ’56 original in ways you can’t fathom. He accomplishes this through simple close-ups that repel the viewer, turning every shot of a leaf, flower, or human face into psychological torture that will practically have you tearing your hair out in dread. I can guarantee that you will never look at a plant the same way again.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers picks up on an unidentified planet that appears to be dying. The alien beings, which appear to be gel-like suds, begin drifting through the galaxy where they finally end up on earth. These gel-like suds are washed to earth in a rainstorm and end up in San Francisco. The suds grow into ugly pod-like flowers that catch the eye of Elizabeth Driscoll (Played by Brooke Adams), an employee at the San Francisco health department, who takes one of the flowers home to identify it. She shows the flower to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Played by Art Hindle), who is equally perplexed by the flower. The couple leaves the flower on their nightstand in a glass of water and the next morning, Elizabeth awakens to Geoffrey cleaning up a broken glass and acting extremely distant. Concerned, Elizabeth confides in her friend and fellow health department employee Matthew Bennell (Played by Donald Sutherland), who attempts to calm Elizabeth and suggests that she speak to his friend and psychologist David Kibner (Played by Leonard Nimoy). The next day, Matthew hears a strange story from the owner of Chinese Laundromat that he frequents. The man tells Matthew that his wife isn’t acting like his wife anymore. As more and more stories emerge about people not being themselves, Matthew and Elizabeth begin trying to uncover what all the hysteria is about, only to make a horrifying discovery that there may be extraterrestrial beings walking among us, looking to clone us, and erase all human emotion.
While the ’56 version slowly crept up on you from the shadows, the ’78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t slowly mount the tension. There is something off about this film in the opening scenes of the alien suds washing down to earth. It helps that the soundtrack, which is filled with spacey chimes, fries your nerves down and makes you feel like you are plopped on a seat of pins and needles. From the first time we realize that there is something wrong with Geoffrey, our paranoia sets in and things get more unbearable from there. We are skeptical of every single person that walks onto the screen, right down to the individuals in the distant background. Director Kaufman knows that this film, with its surging no-one-believes-me jitters, can really mess with us psychologically. He knows we will be afraid of every single face we see and we will be second guessing everyone our protagonists come in contact with. When the pod-people finally reveal themselves, they make a horrible shrieking noise and they turn into sprinting zombies who will stop at nothing to get a hold of their victim. If you think they were creepy when they were lifeless drones, wait until you see them when they explode into this form.
Director Kaufman allows us to easily identify with the brainy heroes that are front and center in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We can feel for their desperation in trying to get someone to believe them that something terrible is going on and we do not even realize it. The increasingly frantic pleas from Sutherland’s Matthew are especially scary, his fear increasingly more erratic as each second passes. The scenes when he stumbles around downtown San Francisco as people push past from all angles is appropriately claustrophobic (a nod to the tightly focused original film), like chilling conformity is crashing in from all sides. His fate is especially devastating, mostly because he puts up one hell of a fight to stay alive. Brooke Adams also grabs the viewer early on due to her pleas for someone to hear her out. Everybody just dismisses her suspicion, instead advising that she see a doctor, psychologist, or to just get some sleep. We root for her to keep her hope alive, even when her optimism is slowly fading away.
The supporting cast is just as awesome as the two leads, especially Hindle as Geoffrey, who will cut right through you with his icy stare. He is especially disturbing in the extreme close-ups that Kaufman chooses to show him in. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as Jack and Nancy Bellicec are equally pathetic as Matthew and Elizabeth. They form an alliance with Matthew and Elizabeth in trying to stay human after they have a memorable run-in with a slimy pod person that will have chills shooting up and down your spine. You will find yourself getting attached to this small band of survivors, making things even more piercing when one of them falls victim to the pod-people. Leonard Nimoy steals the show as David Kibner, who at first feels like there is some sort of reasonable explanation for all the hysteria but slowly comes around (Or does he?!).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78 is a lot more disgusting than the ’56 original, especially a scene where the group goes to sleep and while they are out, strategically placed pods begin birthing clones of the group. Between the gasping and gagging sound effects and the graphically evocative visuals, it is not only the most terrifying scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but also the one that will stick with you the longest of any scene in the film. The extended chase at the end, with the group of fugitives on the run from a conformist holocaust are wonderful, each route that offers hope ending in a dead end of roaring and silhouetted monsters. There is also a brief glimpse of a mutant dog, another highlight that will equally make you giggle and give you the willies. Yet it ends up being the frantic hopelessness that is what will make you a nervous wreck while watching this ageless remake. For fans of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, keep an eye out for cameos from the original’s director Don Siegel as a taxi driver and star Kevin McCarthy as a man screaming his famous lines from the original’s climax. Overall, I still prefer the original Cold War/post-World War II suburban conformity that gripped the original to this strictly conformist-terror reimagining. The feeling that our backs were against the wall was greater in the original to this much larger vision of identity loss. Still, there is a lot to admire in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78, and lots to scare the living daylights out of you too.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you are someone who refuses to get swept up in The Hunger Games fever and dismisses the film as just a Twilight wannabe, you need to get to a theater immediately and check the film out for yourself. The Hunger Games is the first must-see movie of 2012 and it certainly lives up to the hype surrounding it. I went into the film with a neutral attitude, never having read one of the books and not overly excited to see the movie. About halfway through, I was fully immersed in the film because of the way director Gary Ross sold me Katniss Everdeen’s story and how he shaped the world of Panem. When it comes to other teen franchises, mostly Harry Potter and Twilight, I have to say that The Hunger Games is the most impressive debut film, one that establishes characters that I want more from, action that was both uncomfortable and yet exhilarating, and a cliffhanger of an ending that makes a sequel necessary. But The Hunger Games refuses to go flat stylistically much like Harry Potter and Twilight did on their first run, and I have to say that I ate up the Battle Royale meets District 9 meets A Clockwork Orange meets THX 1138 meets 1984 appearance of The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games drops us off in the totalitarian nation of Panem, a post-apocalyptic world that is made up of the futuristic Capital and the twelve poorer districts that surround it. We arrive in the mining town of District 12 where we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Played by Jennifer Lawrence) who shacks up with her younger sister Prim (Played by Willow Shields) and her mother. Every year, the nation of Panem huddles around their televisions to watch the Hunger Games, where twenty-four children are selected by the government and then forced to fight each other until only one survivor remains. During “the reaping”, an event in which the gaudily dressed Effie (Played by Elizabeth Banks) selects one boy and one girl from the Districts, Prim ends up being one of the names that gets called. Katniss volunteers to go in her sister’s place, an offer that is accepted by Effie. The boy who is selected is Peeta Mellark (Played by Josh Hutcherson), who hides feelings for the prickly Katniss. They soon make the trip to the Capital where they meet their mentor Haymitch (Played by Woddy Harrelson), stylist Cinna (Played by Lenny Kravitz), grandiose announcer and host Caesar Flickerman (Played by Stanley Tucci), and the leader of Panem President Snow (Played by Donald Sutherland). As the kids begin training and battling for sponsorships, Katniss emerges as the most deadly in the Hunger Games, but soon Katniss and Peeta learn that there is more to the games than just simply fighting for your life.
The style that Ross applies to The Hunger Games is reminiscent of past works but all it’s own too. The dystopian decay and totalitarian rule brought District 9, THX 1138, and 1984 to my mind while the games themselves acted as a smoothed over Battle Royale. The futuristic style seemed like they were ripped right out of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the scenes where a group of kids laugh at their own violence brought images of Alex DeLarge and his “droogs”. Yet The Hunger Games feels vaguely fresh and is a beast all its own. It reflects on our willingness to hang on reality television and violence. There are several kids competing in the games who are all too eager to kill off fellow competitors. You can’t help but reflect on the violence that is sold to children both in video games and cinema itself. Yet The Hunger Games doesn’t exploit the carnage, much of it remaining of screen and to our own imagination. The opening moments of the games are extremely brutal as kids with swords, hatchets, knives, and more hack other kids up, some doing it with a faint smile forming on their faces. The Hunger Games suggests desensitized times but throws in a sensitive heroine who only kills if she has to, and she certainly doesn’t do it happily, making Katniss the last good kid alive. The film will no doubt spark discussion about violence and it is justified. Still, I think it is something that children can handle. The violence is never injudicious or excessive and when it does erupt, Ross smartly makes it tough to swallow.
Unlike Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen is a female hero that girls should rally behind. She is a bit unsure of herself when she is in the spotlight, but she remains strong willed, crafty, and resourceful, a “girl on fire” as the film suggests. She isn’t a shallow, scowling teen who broods over two guys fighting over her, whining about how horrible it all is. Early on, she is juxtaposed with Effie, who bathes in glamour, beauty, and excesses, hanging on the glittery material items surrounding her while caring less about the real matter at hand. Ross and screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray illustrate Katniss as a more thoughtful character, someone who looks out for the ones she loves rather than strictly herself in these selfish times. While Katniss does brood, it helps that Ross, Collins, and Ray give Katniss a reason to mope. Her life is on the line.
The rest of the characters are just as captivating as Katniss, leaving the viewer actually wanting more of them too. I loved Tucci’s theatrical blue-haired talk show host and I hope to see more of him in future. Another big surprise is Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, a character of quiet warmth for our dear Katniss. A scene right before the beginning on the game between Cinna and Katniss is truly a standout. I also really liked Harrelson’s Haymitch, a reluctant and drunken mentor who finally comes around when our heroes need him most. And I can’t leave out Elizabeth Banks as Effie, a colorful character who is eccentric but I wish they had pushed her character a bit further. She is deliciously sinister when she is drawing the names for the games, resembling a manic jester relishing in misery. The Hunger Games does work in a slight love story, hinting at a blossoming love triangle between Katniss, the sensitive Peeta, and Gale (Played by Liam Hemsworth), a character who is more seen by the audience not really heard from. I wish the film would have developed his character a bit more, but I feel he will have a strong presence in the future. I just hope and pray the series doesn’t morph into a repetitive soap opera like Twilight did.
Of all the young adult books that have been developed into movies, I firmly believe that The Hunger Games is the best and most important of all of them. The Harry Potter series fell victim to too many artistic approaches and clunky tones, as there was not one consistent director at the helm. The end result is a series that is an absolutely mess with little to no flow between the movies. Twilight was more concerned with selling itself on sex appeal rather than developing a proper story that we can invest in, resulting in a petty franchise with little regard for the fan’s intelligence. I just wish they would wake up and see it. Now we have The Hunger Games, which I hope doesn’t fall victim to what destroyed the Harry Potter franchise. On this first run, it seems that it avoided what has plagued the Twilight saga. I sincerely hope they keep Ross behind the camera, the entire cast committed, and the ideas pulsing. We’re off to a good start with The Hunger Games, and may the odds continue to be in this franchise’s favor.