Talking Movies

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copyCatching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

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June 14, 2012

Stay Hungry

I’ll be writing more in the near future about director Francis Lawrence in his own right, but for now let me emit a whoop of delight and a howl of despair regarding the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire.

I have a very high regard for Lawrence and am delighted that he’s been given the chance to direct the sequel as I think his flair for suspenseful action directing and deliberately measured pacing, and his aversion to pointless shaky-cam, are precisely what Gary Ross failed to bring to the table. Regrettably along with the announcement that Lawrence was taking the directing helm came the unwelcome rider that two of my least favourite screenwriters are charged with crash-writing an adaptation of the novel for him to start shooting in August. Ross’ screenplay with novelist Suzanne Collins and (the enigma that is) Billy Ray mirrored his shooting style of showily out of focus backgrounds and close-in focus on the faces of his actors. His film was infuriatingly lacking in scope. Some of this was inexperience in action directing, leading to an inability to locate action within a coherent geography, but some was due to frankly bizarre decisions to leave things unsaid which should have been bellowed. When rebellion was whispered about we had almost no knowledge of the history of the rebellion or the current state of Panem and the districts it domineers. And these aren’t additions that necessitated reshoots, they could have been added in ADR; just take Katniss’ send-off of Rue which incites a riot in District 11. If you haven’t read the book you can only guess at what actual meaning this obviously meaningful symbol has (ditto Katniss’ wearing of a Mockingjay); would it have killed Ross to have Wes Bentley ADR over a shot of his back in the control room a horrified “My God! She’s making the salute of the Rebellion!”?

All these problems could be fixed quickly in the opening of the second film, but that Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt are entrusted with the job. I’ve previously berated Beaufoy over his adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which sent me scurrying to read the book, which he infuriatingly reversed in multiple respects. Novelist Paul Torday’s dry comedy and political satire was sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivered only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife was hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent in the film; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion were all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminated in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which made me groan, and later enraged me when I realised that everything I hated most in the film as cliché was delightfully subverted in the novel. Beaufoy also ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal novel Q & A into the disingenuously feel-good Slumdog Millionaire so I despair at what he’ll do to Catching Fire to make it a ‘well-made-screenplay’. And then Michael Arndt will polish the adaptation… Little Miss Sunshine may have won a screenplay for Best Oscar but I passionately hate it as perhaps the supreme example of the maddeningly cutesy indie clichés that win Oscar nominations needed for marketing purposes; from the quirk by numbers characters, to the complete lack of anything approaching emotionally authentic personal relationships, and the ending that solves absolutely none of the characters’ problems but provides a three-card-trick ‘subversive’ feel-good ending.

Jennifer Lawrence will be fantastic again as Katniss Everdeen, but Francis Lawrence can’t fix a screenplay and direct at the same time.

April 16, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday’s acclaimed comic novel is brought to life by a top British cast, but screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Lasse Hallstrom sabotage the comedy.

Ewan McGregor is Dr. Fred Jones, a humdrum fisheries scientist who is whisked out of his quiet existence in London by an implausible fishery project in the Middle East on the insistence of his superiors; themselves bullied by Kristin Scott Thomas’ terrifying spin-doctor Patricia Maxwell, who sees an opportunity for a rare good news story about British involvement in the region. He begins working for a Yemeni Sheikh of such quiet assuredness and obviously good intentions that Fred’s misgivings slowly melt away. As he becomes more committed to the success of the scheme Fred also steadily becomes more besotted with the Sheikh’s English project manager Harriet (Emily Blunt), to the increasing displeasure of his icy wife Mary (Rachel Stirling). Harriet, however, is pining for her MIA soldier boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison), and Fred is equally oblivious to Al-Qaeda’s murderous objections to the Sheikh’s westernising dream…

There is some wonderful comedy in this film, a highlight being Fred’s patronising doodling on a whiteboard to explain to Harriet how ridiculous the whole project is. But there aren’t enough jokes to really make this work as a comedy. McGregor is on subdued form as the straight man, with irritating references to Asperger’s thrown in to make his awkwardness part of a new cliché zeitgeist. Blunt effortlessly moves from casually charming to emotionally raw, and Amr Waked is on fine form as the charismatic Sheikh who equates fishing with universal brotherhood, but the best scenes come from Scott Thomas’ domineering Press Secretary. All her scenes are delightful; whether she’s harassing the P.M. with IMs re-shuffling his Cabinet for him, terrorising her minions with an instruction to find a good news story from the Middle East in 60 minutes, or verbally abusing her own children.

A bad adaptation sends you scurrying to the book in frustration or bewilderment – looking for more depth or to discover if the original story was poor. Beaufoy’s script made me read the book, which he’s infuriatingly reversed in many respects; just as he ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal Q & A into Slumdog Millionaire. Torday’s dry comedy and political satire is sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivers only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife is hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent here; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion are all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminate in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which should elicit groans…

This is a prime example of a film that is structurally as sound as a bell, and therefore excruciatingly predictable viewing.

2/5

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