Godzilla: Movie review

May 15th, 2014 by Sam Downing

Godzilla
When Hollywood’s last crack at the King of Monsters came out in 1998, I was about 15 – the prime age for enjoying awful blockbuster spectacles. And I still thought that movie was a giant hot turd. (Matthew Broderick as a leading man? Really?)

Sixteen years later, Godzilla roars back into cinemas* in a vastly, vastly, vastly-I-can’t-state-this-enough better film. His new incarnation wears the “gritty reboot” shell  beloved by modern films, but on the inside it’s still a gooey dumb monster movie. Which is a good thing! You will like this if you’re after grim but elegant visuals, but you will also like it if you just want to see skyscraper-sized behemoths scrapping with each other.

(*Meanwhile, if this movie does good at the box office “Godzilla roars back into cinemas” will be the headline used by every hack entertainment writer. If it does bad, I guess the standard headline will be… I dunno. “Rival film fights off Godzilla” or something shitty like that.)

Light spoilers ahead.

godzilla-posterUnlike the ‘98 movie, which depicted Godzilla as a humanity-bullying monster, here he’s the monster who saves us from other humanity-bullying monsters. He’s a mythical hero, all majestic and unknowable and, admittedly, a little tubby (a design which actually works in his favour, still evoking the classic guy-wearing-a rubber suit look even though he’s pure CGI.)

Godzilla’s battles in his new film with a destructive pair of MUTOs (that’s “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object”, obviously) set up a new franchise where he’s an “apex predator” who must return every couple of years to save the day and “restore balance” while crushing landmarks underfoot.

Or something. His purpose is all explained away via pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo delivered as straight-faced as every other line in the movie; there are almost no jokes here (unless you count the callbacks featuring screaming Japanese running for their lives, which I think are only unintentionally hilarious). Where its kaiju cousin Pacific Rim was camp and neon, Godzilla is muted and serious.

Its monster battles are strikingly realised, offered to us mostly in glimpses – witnessed out of car windows, in reflections, through binoculars – until the climax, where Godzilla and the MUTOs finally have at it. It’s a very nice-looking film, especially that stunning shot of military skydivers parachuting into a monster-addled San Francisco. (A scene, which, sadly was spoiled by trailers and previews that lessen its big screen impact. Please quit giving away so much, Hollywood.)

Unfortunately, the script keeps dragging us away from the fun stuff – the monsters – and forces us to suffer through the boring stuff – the humans. It’s not a problem (in theory!) that Godzilla chooses everyday-types as the lens for its story – none of its characters are chosen ones, or presidents, or Will Smith-in-Independence Day-style wise-cracking badasses. The problem is that most of these bystanders are just… pretty boring.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is hardest hit as the awesomely ridiculously named Liuetenant Ford Brody*, whose role is to look pretty and anguished as he wavers back and forth between wanting to save his family from monsters and apparently forgetting about his family while he goes off to fight monsters. Brody’s dad is Joe (Bryan Cranston, who’s set his Act-o-Meter somewhere up around “Manic Gnashing”), who’s that disaster movie staple: the madman whose crackpot theories about impending doom turn out to be right. There’s nothing surprising about that character type, but at least Cranston’s subplot ends unexpectedly.

(*Like I had an actual double take when I realised that was the character’s actual name. It’s like it came from a focus group to determine the most generically masculine-but-not-threatening name.)

Ken Watanabe plays another disaster staple: the scientist. He’s a monster expert who doesn’t do much more than look disturbed by the devastation and advise that the military’s plan to defeat the MUTOs is dumb. (A military with a dumb rescue plan is yet another disaster movie staple, but even by the usual standards Godzilla’s military is really dumb. At no point does anyone in charge actually point out that, um, guys, our plan makes zero sense if you actually think about it. Guys? Guys?)

The worst victim of this blandness is Elizabeth Olsen, who’s burdened with the appalling boring role of Brody’s nurse wife – a bonehead who literally does nothing but stay behind in San Francisco looking scared, refusing to flee because her husband told her to stay put. Seriously. That is her plot arc. She has a son to look after, but at no point does she have any convincing maternal chemistry with him. (She’s not helped by the fact that her onscreen kid is one of the movie’s many mute, gormless children who stares at Godzilla and destruction with vacant eyes.)

Actually, none of the human females in this movie fare well. The only other notable woman is Watanabe’s assistant, who simpers and expositions and was maybe given a name? She’s played by Sally Hawkins, who has so little of the spark she showed in Blue Jasmine that I barely recognised her.

That’s not to say Godzilla is yet another Hollywood blockbuster with a woman problem. It has equal opportunity character problems for both genders! And besides, there is one badass female character: The she-MUTO, who just wants to get laid and have babies and settle into a nice nest underneath a ruined city. And isn’t that what all of us want, really?

48 reasons ‘Cape Feare’ might be the greatest episode of The Simpsons

April 30th, 2014 by Sam Downing

WARNING: This post has lots of images and is pretty huge! You probably shouldn’t look at it on your mobile browser unless you have an enviably large data plan. All these images are hosted in this imgur album, if you want to view them there instead.

1.
The Simpsons couch gag gif

2.
That is some outfit, Schoey. It makes you look like a homosexual

Shocked McBain

Maybe you all are homosexuals too!

3.
Sincerely, little girl

Read the rest of this entry »

Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan: Book review

April 21st, 2014 by Sam Downing

Two Boys Kissing coverWhen I was about 14 or 15 – this was in 1998 – my English teacher took me aside and gave me a copy of Dance on My Grave to read. That teacher was openly gay (as openly as you can be as a teacher in a regional Australian high school in the ’90s, anyway), the novel is about gay characters, and I would turn out be gay. Pretty obvious why that teacher lent me the book: “Hey kid – you are this. Learn to accept it.”

But I refused to read it. A couple of days later I handed the book back to the teacher, insisting it interested me zero. This is called denial! I didn’t want to learn to accept anything. I probably knew – though had never consciously admitted to myself – that I was gay. But I really didn’t want to be.

Looking back, in the late ’90s it felt like homosexuality was on its way to acceptance, but a long way off being accepted. The same-sex marriage debate was a thing crazies speculated about, not seriously discussed. Pop-culture offered a smattering of gay characters – asexual sidekicks, mostly, or one-offs*. Being gay was the stuff of Special Episodes or Problem Novels. Gay people were a thing you knew about but didn’t look at directly. Being out in high school was unimaginable**.

(*Will and Grace didn’t premiere and Jack didn’t enter Dawson’s Creek till a year or so after my English teacher gave me that book. I guess Jack was a pretty Big Deal for teenagers my age, even though he barely pecked at other boys and Kerr Smith was pretty outspoken about how gross he found the whole thing.)

(**Adult Me is frequently amused that almost all of Teenage Me’s male friends turned out to be big ol’ raging homos. If only we’d been out to each other instead of dancing around it!)

Which is why David Levithan’s excellent book Two Boys Kissing, published in 2013, is so remarkable. He writes about teen life where being gay isn’t a problem by default. It doesn’t mark you as special. It’s just… a thing. (One character is even a transgender boy, which Teenage Me would find especially remarkable. Transgender teens were not even on pop culture’s radar when I was a Youth.)

Not that gay teenagers now exist in a utopian bubble of acceptance and tolerance. They don’t, and Two Boys Kissing acknowledges the floods of homophobic ugliness that will never entirely recede, and that coming out will never be effortless. Almost all its young characters struggle with different facets of their homosexuality. But the world they exist in is a very different place from the one 15 or 20 years ago, and that’s terrific.

(OH GOD HAS IT REALLY BEEN THAT LONG SINCE I WAS A TEENAGER OH GOD)

Two Boys Kissing balances several characters. Peter and Neil have been together a year (so in teenage terms they are an old married couple), but Neil isn’t out out to his parents yet. Blue-haired Ryan and pink-haired Avery (the aforementioned transgender boy) meet at a “gay prom” and start that delightful-but-awkward dance of determining what’s next. Self-loathing Cooper is disgusted and ashamed of his homosexuality – because his only experience with that world is through sleazy one-dimensional sex apps. And Tariq stands strong after a recent gay-bashing.

These boys orbit around Harry and Craig, a former couple-turned-best friends (with all the baggage that kind of relationship comes with) attempting to break the world record for longest kiss. That’s a gruelling 32 hours, an event broadcast to the entire world, and whether or not they’ll pull it off is terrifically suspenseful.

(Levithan was inspired by the real-life story of Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, two college boys who set the world record for longest kiss in 2010 when they locked lips for 33 hours. Although Guinness says their record has since been broken by a heterosexual couple in Thailand.)

Levithan’s writing is honest and beautiful, though he does toss in a pinch of that literary-ish tweeness which is a hallmark of “realistic” YA fiction. Tariq is obsessed with the poet Walt Whitman and leads friends in a recital of Whitman’s work, while in another scene Neil and Peter spell out love messages in book titles. Obviously, yes, some teenagers really actually do stuff like this, but – to me, anyway – these kind of grandiose moments always seem contrived and sugary when they’re flattened on to a page.

The boldest, most memorable part of Two Boys Kissing is that it’s told from the point-of-view of the ghostly chorus of gay men who died amid the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a striking, odd narrative structure. “Odd” because it sometimes keeps the living characters at arm’s length. But mostly because it filters the experience of being gay through such tragedy – like at any moment Two Boys Kissing might just become a tale of victims or the “descendants” of victims.

But it never does. Levithan - who in the acknowledgements explains  he came of age in the narrow window after the first AIDS crisis but before the advent of the internet – makes his ghosts vivid and important. By telling Two Boys Kissing from their perspective, he isn’t saying  gay people now need to define themselves by AIDS. But he is saying we need to remember it, and its cost.

Which makes Two Boys Kissing seem like kind of a downer. It’s not. The end of this book optimistic, powerfully hopeful, and filled with so much pride. I wish someone could have lent it to me when I was a kid, and that I could have put aside my teenage denial and cynicism and read it. I wish every gay teenager in the world could read and accept this book. I wish everyone, period, could read it and love it as much as I did.

Previously: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan: Book review

The Lego Movie: movie review

April 2nd, 2014 by Sam Downing

The Lego Movie

A Hollywood Lego movie sounds, in theory, like an unforgivably terrible idea. And yet Hollywood’s The Lego Movie is far from unforgivably terrible. The film industry is shamelessly gross at spinning brands into movies, but here’s at least one instance where that method has paid off.

Part of The Lego Movie’s charm is surprise that it is actually good. No one expected this to be good when it was first announced, right? We all pictured Hollywood hacks being like, “Hey, it’s Lego. Kids already like it. Let’s tack on some shit-baked story about loser characters and go get drunk.”

The Lego MovieInstead, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller* have had a good think about what makes playing with Lego (or “Legos”, as some awful Americans would have it) so popular. You can do anything with plastic Danish bricks that are excruciating to tread on, and that anarchic, limitless fun is the foundation of their movie.

(*Who, it turns out, are also responsible for Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, two movies also a lot better than anyone expected.)

The world of The Lego Movie brims with imagination. Opening scenes set in a massive city of Lego bricks have the kind of toy-rich detail that would have set my hair on fire if I’d watched this as a 10-year-old. (Happy to report that none of the actual 10-year-olds at the screening I attended spontaneously combusted.) The rest of the film jumps from world to world – Wild West, space, some sort of cuckoo fantasy land – and each is as glorious as the one before it.

The look of the whole thing is just terrific – the CGI has a stop-motion animation quirk reminiscent of those many charming Lego YouTube videos, or that old TV series no one but me seems to remember:

The plot itself is predictable and pretty stupid: something about a minifig everyman named Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) who stumbles across the “Piece of Resistance”, a Lego brick that will save everyone from an evil plot masterminded by the conformity-loving, unsubtly named villain “Lord Business” (Will Ferrell).

(The irony of a massive global business demonising a businessman is not touched upon.)

Elizabeth Banks stars as Wyldstyle, the intentionally-ridiculously-named Strong Female Character and requisite love interest. (Chastely innocent love interest, FYI. This is a children’s movie.) Lego Batman (Will Arnett) also features heavily, as do plenty of wildly cheesy jokes that kids seemed to get a big kick out of.

What’s interesting about the plot is how meta it is – the climax almost plays like a kiddie version of a Charlie Kaufman film. Yes, there’s the predictable “good triumphs over evil” finish, but the film concludes with a genuine, heartfelt, layered reflection of what makes Lego so great in the first place. Without giving the ending away, it’s actually crazy. It’s even crazier that it works as well as it does.

Gaysia, Benjamin Law: book review

February 12th, 2014 by Sam Downing

Gaysia, Benjamin LawPop culture has offered endless navel-gazing into what it is like to be a white gay man in Western countries. But what is it like to be an Asian gay man in Asian countries? It’s a mystery!

At least until you read Benjamin Law’s fine travelogue Gaysia. (Or unless you are an Asian gay man in Asia, in which case: just read this book anyway, OK.) An Australian child of Chinese migrants, Law ventures into Asia to learn how life for homos there is different (or the same) from life in his homeland, with each chapter exploring a different country or region.

Some chapters, while intriguing, are more or less what you’d expect: Law meets ladyboys in Thailand and explores sex tourism in Bali. Others reveal unexpected facets of Asia’s gays: Particularly interesting is the chapter in Japan, where Law explores how gay celebrities are “permitted” to be out and proud – as long as they’re men, sexless, and content with being entertainment for straight people.

Two chapters are particularly bleak. In Myanmar, Law explores the devastation wrought by HIV and AIDS. Even those who know how to get treatment – and that’s a short list – are unlikely to get it. It’s a terrible portrait of what happens when you mix poverty and oppression in one terrible soup.

The India chapter is bleak for a different reason. Law is positive about the country, which he visited after it overturned the section of its penal code outlawing homosexuality (laws dating back to the 1861, introduced during British rule). But in December 2013, India’s Supreme Court over-overturned that decision, so homosexual acts are illegal again. It’s a depressing, disappointing reminder that progress is not always permanent. Most of the anti-gay people Law interviews in India (and in Malaysia, too) are mostly motivated by their religious beliefs – unsurprisingly, and frustratingly.

Law doesn’t dive into the historical complexities of the countries he visits, but nor does he make out like he’s trying to paint a full picture of his destinations. Some of these places he visits, after all, have more than a billion people in them. Instead he meets people, talks to them, sketches a lasting impression of what life is like.

He’s also the world’s nicest travel companion. I relate to his buttoned-down brand of innocence – particularly when he politely-but-deftly deflects old leches in Bali then dares to (gasp!) go skinny-dipping. What could be termed his conservatism puts a compelling and often powerful spin on Gaysia: Law is a true observer without casting judgement, writing about his subjects with affection and respect.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, Helen Fielding: Book review

January 15th, 2014 by Sam Downing

Bridget Jones: Mad About the BoyHow comforting that, after all these years, Bridget Jones is still an idiot.

Now in her early fifties, she’s grappling with raising two very sweet but very boisterous children (an early scene in which the kids are making horrific messes from both ends of their body could be marketed as an alternative form of contraception), and learning the complexities of social media. (Am smugly pleased to point out that, as far as I’m aware, she never gains more Twitter followers than me.)

And she’s single. Again! Her one-true-love Mark Darcy is (horreur!) dead, killed by a landmine on a valiant mission to South Sudan. Which conveniently frees Bridget up for wacky and embarrassing hijinks (almost all of them self-inflicted) as she starts dating again – but which more conveniently adds much-needed depth to the book, as grief and sadness for Mark wash unexpectedly in and out of her everyday life.

Several reviews of this book deem it not v gd – some so harsh you’d think it was a horrifically unnecessary sequel in line with Sex and the City 2. Maybe those reviews softened me up, lowered my expectations – but Mad About the Boy is not a bad book. It’s a Bridget Jones book! It’s exactly what you expect from a Bridget Jones book! It’s hardly groundbreaking (for example: the older-woman-dating-younger-men thing is more well-worn than a serial dater’s most comfortable pair of Spanx) but it’s light and frothy and fun. I read Bridget Jones’s exploits because she is a charming idiot, and in Mad About the Boy she is a very charming idiot.

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: Book review

January 10th, 2014 by Sam Downing

The New York TrilogyI don’t remember how I first found out about Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – it just sort of stumbled onto my reading list. Which is appropriate, because this is one of the most mysterious and baffling books I ever read.

There’s no easy way to describe the Trilogy, which is sort-of-but-not-really a spoof of detective novels overlaid with a navel-gazing exploration of identity and what fiction is and how it intersects with reality. Sort of. But not really. The first instalment, City of Glass, follows a writer who assumes the identity of a private detective named Paul Auster (yeah) and becomes obsessed with tracking a creepy client’s even creepier father. Book two, Ghosts, is about another private eye, Blue, who also becomes obsessed with a case – watching a man called Black. And part three, The Locked Room, is about a writer who unwittingly takes over the life of a friend.

Reading the trilogy is kind of like watching Lost – for all that TV drama’s (many, many) flaws, at its best it summoned up a sense of foreboding mystery, that something dark and deep and important lurked below its surface. The Trilogy evokes that same feeling of ominous, “What the fuck is going here?” wonder. As everyone in the world knows, Lost failed (terribly, horribly failed) at tying it all up into something at the end. But The New York Trilogy succeeds, and it probably succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to boil everything down into a straight-forward explanation*. (“They’re all in the afterlife!”) It just presents a conclusion that is as oblique and utterly batshit as everything that came before it. You either buy it or you don’t; I bought it.

*In fairness to Lost, though, the Trilogy doesn’t have reams of characters who each need their own semblance of a farewell – which probably makes its opaque ending more palatable.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Movie review

December 26th, 2013 by Sam Downing

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a spectacularly realised saga that’s even more impressive for the scale of its ambition: to tell a grand, epic story on film, which it (mostly) does (when it’s not swaddling itself in sentimentality). Remember how compelling The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time? I saw that movie four times in the cinema and countless times after on DVD.

I can’t imagine watching any of The Hobbit films more than once, ever. Not because they’re terrible: The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, is fine, and its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, is also fine. It’s just that the ambition of these films feels less “let’s tell a story” and more “let’s make a ton of money stretching an uncomplicated story across three unnecessary films”.

If you’re a Middle-earth diehard and/or you don’t care about any of that, great, good for you, you will enjoy this a lot. But a sense of gross cash-grabbing cynicism hangs off Smaug like the creepy giant spiders that have spun their webs across Mirkwood. Sure, yes, Hollywood is a business and every blockbuster is made to make money – but The Hobbit franchise’s naked greed is actually revolting.

Because J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit book is so slight you could literally read the whole thing in the time it takes to watch a single part of its film adaptation, Jackson and co. have made significant additions to its plot. Smaug picks straight up from the first film, in which the 13 dwarves, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) made barely any progress on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to boot out Smaug the dragon (voiced by Tumblr’s favourite actor Benedict Cumberbatch).

To move things along a bit, the party takes a shortcut through the spider-infested Mirkwood while Gandalf goes off to investigate some spooky Necromancer we’re meant to pretend we don’t know is Sauron. The travellers are rescued then imprisoned by elves, including princely Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who spends most of the film looking fiercely irritated by his contact lenses) and his subject Tauriel* (Evangeline Lilly), a badass he has a crush on.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(*Tolkein avoided female characters like orcs avoid Sting, but Tauriel is one of the few inventions this bloated film actually needs: She’s its only major female character – in fact she’s the only female character, period, which is not a menstruation pun. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, An Unexpected Journey’s only lady, appears only for a moment. Of course Tauriel is manouvered into a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves; this doesn’t bother me because it’s sexist to give the only lady a love story, or whatever, but because it’s yet another unnecessary plot. And as if a warrior elf hottie would fall for some smelly dwarf anyway.)

The travellers escape the elf kingdom by riding in barrels down a river in a great sequence that will probably make a great theme park ride some day, and they befriend a handsome outsider named Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into a village near Smaug’s hideout called Laketown, where they meet a dumbass mayor (Stephen Fry) who cuts some deal with them – I’m fuzzy on the details because I slipped out to visit the men’s room* – and then they trek off to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves throw a tantrum and quit the whole journey because they don’t immediately find the doorway in, but luckily/conveniently, Bilbo finds it, and then he’s sent in to burgle the dragon’s lair (which was the whole reason he was dragged along, remember?) and find some important dwarf stone (which is the key to this whole quest, remember?) (actually I didn’t remember anything about that stuff, but luckily there is lots of exposition, so much exposition), and then Bilbo actually meets Smaug when the dragon emerges from under his treasure pile, and then some more stuff happens, and then…

(*One does not simply watch a 17-hour film without taking bathroom breaks, though it says a lot about Smaug‘s plot that you can skip scenes to pee without missing anything important.)

Whew. There is a lot going on in this movie. It leaps from scene to scene, so it’s never boring. It’s just… pointless. What is all this story for? What is it labouring towards? What does it service aside from this bloated franchise? There’s another film to go after this one? Jeez.

This feeling is most obvious in the climactic, 20-minute scene (spoilers ahead!) depicting Bilbo and the dwarves escaping Smaug’s lair, with the fire-belching dragon chasing furiously after them. They all run around! They all pull ropes! They all ride mine carts! Except it’s not really clear why anyone is doing any of this, because there isn’t any reason for it except to fill screen time.

The story of The Lord of the Rings had purpose. The story of The Hobbit just has… dwarves. So, so many dwarves, whose quest no one cares about and who blur into one and rarely stand out from each other. (“Hey, it’s that red-haired dwarf again. Oh – and another red-haired dwarf next to him? There are two red-haired dwarves in this I guess?”) Despite being the franchise’s title character, Bilbo disappears in among the dwarves and hardly matters for long tracts of the film. Who needs a magic ring to make someone invisible when you can pull of the same trick by burying them in hours and hours of unnecessary storylines?

Previously: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

American Hustle: Movie review

December 13th, 2013 by Sam Downing

American Hustle

Immediately after watching American Hustle, I said to my friend: “Well, that was… fine.” He replied: “It was, and I never want to see it ever again.”

Which pretty much sums it up. (End of review!) American Hustle is not a great movie. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just an unremarkable one.

Sporting a flabby and not-especially-appealing belly (maybe as a symbol for the whole film?) and a combover, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a 1970s conman who’s clever enough to know his limits. Working alongside his lover Sydney (Amy Adams), who poses as an prime Englishwoman with vague banking connections, he targets small-time victims and reaps modest rewards.

Then they’re busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious and arrogant FBI agent who exploits their cunning to go after bigger fish. DiMaso’s first mark is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor willing to do some dirty deals if it means he can ultimately do good for his community.

As Polito’s connections to crooked senators and the Mafia become clearer, a manic DiMaso raises the stakes of his operation and entangles Irving and Sydney in both increasingly dangerous hijinks and convoluted love quadrangles.

Tied up in all of this is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, aka my future best friend and definitely not your future best friend), an unpredictable big-mouth who serves mostly as comic relief.

American HustleThe story isn’t gritty or compelling enough to make it a satisfying, Goodfellas-ish underworld movie. But it isn’t wacky enough to make it a satisfying, Oceans 11-ish heist movie, either.

Hustle isn’t really enough of anything. It’s kind of funny, but not especially funny. Lawrence scores most of the good lines — dubbing her new-fangled microwave a “science oven” — and Louis C.K. is sort of amusing doing his Louis C.K. thing. It’s kind of retro, but not remarkably retro. Cooper has a perm, and Adams and Lawrence wear lots of open-down-to-the-navel ’70s blouses. (More like American Bustle, am I right fellas?) The performances and direction are solid, but nothing about it seems outstandingly strong.

It’s watchable without ever being engaging. This is the kind of film that will probably dominate this year’s awards season by virtue of its pedigree (yep), which we’ll all have forgotten about by this time next year.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Movie review

November 22nd, 2013 by Sam Downing

The Hunger Games Catching Fire
First things first: Jennifer Lawrence is amazing and brilliant (and my future best friend, so back off everyone please). So of course she is amazing and brilliant reprising her role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire. Lawrence is so effortlessly charming and charismatic in real life it’s easy to forget she is just as effortlessly charming and charismatic onscreen: Her Katniss is angry and strong but vulnerable, her line readings are surprising, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing this character. Catching Fire would not be as good as it is without her.

(Some spoilers lie ahead.)

But! Even putting Lawrence aside, this is a good movie – better than its predecessor. The stakes are higher, the plot is bleaker, and the horror of the world Katniss lives in isn’t just confined to an arena where teenagers murder each other for sport.  Fresh from her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss is closely watched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless leader of the oppressive Capitol. He suspects – rightly – that she’s growing into a symbol of hope for the downtrodden masses out in the districts. Pissed off that Katniss outfoxed him when she tricked her way out of killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in her first games, Snow orders her to act as a tool for his regime.

Katniss, furious but terrified of what Snow will do to her loved ones if she acts out, obeys. But that hope she offers is too potent for even her to call back, so Snow invents a way to get rid of her: He’ll serve up her and her fellow victors to compete in the 75th Hunger Games, a “Quarter Quell” that promises to be even more cruel and brutal than usual.

The resulting spectacle gets a lot of things right. The games don’t even kick off until well into the film – after we’re on board with what a desperate and horrible Katniss situation has been thrown into. When they begin, the action is brisk and thrilling and dangerous. Deadly fog! Deadly monkeys! Deadly lightning!

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

But Catching Fire inherits a lot of problems from both its cinema predecessor and the book it’s based on. Like the first Hunger Games movie, the violence is blunted and brushed aside – characters are gruesomely dispatched without much of an impact – and Liam Hemsworth, as the third point of Katniss’s love triangle, is still given barely anything to do. (I think he’s unfairly criticised for his wooden presence in the Hunger Games movies, when it’d be a struggle for any actor to make much out of such a brief, nothing-y character.)

And, like the book, the film’s ending is something of a letdown. The big twist feels unearned, the plot machinations muddled and never properly explained*, and the climactic cliffhanger – which in the book at least had a bit of heft – is pretty limp, especially coming so soon after the spectacular, fiery destruction of the Games’ tropical arena.

(*I still have no idea exactly what Beetee, played by Jeffrey Wright, was planning to do with that loop of wire.)

The Hunger Games Catching Fire poster

But everything that comes before it is so well executed (no pun intended, I swear). Lawrence deserves kudos for elevating the film well above its script, but she’s helped out on the heavy lifting by returning supporting cast members Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. (Banks’s Capitol publicist Effie Trinkett has a lot going on behind her veneer of make-up, while Tucci deserves a specially created Oscar for Best Performance as a Campy Beady-Eyed TV Host.)

Of the new cast, Sam Claflin is a much better choice than I thought he’d be to play Games victor Finnick Odair – his smug, elfin face suits that character perfectly. (On the downside he is only shirtless in one scene. One! For only like 15 seconds! What even is the point!) And Jenna Malone is a standout as Johanna Mason, who’s unafraid to declare how pissed off she is that she’s been called back for another Games.

It’s possible Catching Fire will be the last good Hunger Games movie: The third instalment, Mockingjay, is by far (by far) the weakest of the books, and it’s impossible to say yet whether needlessly splitting it into two films will make it even worse. But, it’s possible the movies will iron out the book’s kinks into a clearer (and even grimmer) story than the novel. If they can pull that off, it’s really going to be something to see.