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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2-Poster

It begins quietly and with difficulty speaking, a problem that persists as the narrative progresses. Throughout The Hunger Games series, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has struggled to be heard or acknowledged as more than a pawn or puppet. This continued interest in the voiceless and powerless has been a consistent element of the series’ grim dystopia. Mockingjay Part 2 continues this conceit as Katniss repeatedly tries to assert her own identity and agency, yet is continually co-opted and coerced by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final role). Katniss’ struggle allows the viewer to appreciate revolution and combat from a ground level, as director Francis Lawrence stages many gripping and even shocking set pieces, yet never loses sight of the individual journey. Attention is given to other characters such as Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) to allow other views and responses, while Panem in the grip of war is presented consistently and convincingly by production designer Philip Messina and DOP Jo Willems. Where many an action franchise presents violence as redemptive or at least cathartic, Mockingjay Part 2 suggests that violence may not be an answer. The coda feels like a partial cop out and is not entirely convincing, as the viewer may be left with a sense of disquiet and non-completion. But that may well be the point – whether the Games end or not, freedom and agency remain circumscribed. In daring to present this lack of resolution, The Hunger Games stands out from many of its contemporaries not only in its female-centred narrative, but also its willingness to suggest that courage, determination and compassion may not ultimately lead to a happy ending.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay

How do we negotiate between personal loyalty and social responsibility? This question propels the first part of The Hunger Games finale, exploring conflict on a micro and macro scale. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is frantic with worry over the imprisoned Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), but she has been recruited by revolutionary president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and spin doctor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the Mockingjay, symbol of the Panem rebellion. A key dramatic tension throughout the film is Katniss balancing her concern for Peeta against the larger demands of the revolution, while Coin and Heavensbee endeavour to use the Mockingjay to win the hearts and minds of Panem’s population. The flickers of rebellion allow for thrilling but brutal action set pieces, director Francis Lawrence and DOP Jo Willems making judicious use of handheld cinematography (which was overused in the original The Hunger Games), at one point conveying the aesthetic of a journalist embedded in combat troops. Alongside these set pieces, Katniss delivers heartfelt, impassioned speeches about President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) atrocities, her words utilised in propaganda videos that are stirring and inspiring. Lawrence is magnificent in a role that requires both strength and fragility, the viewer never in doubt as to Katniss’ pain and fear as well as her courage and resolve. The dilemma that she faces is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s final shot, as Katniss’ reflection is superimposed over the human cost of the escalating conflict. The answer to the film’s central question may have to wait until Part 2, but Part 1 remains a grim and compelling exploration of the conflict between personal and social duty.

Expanding and Continuing Part One

Catching Fire

 

The Hunger Games was a delight in 2012, merging elements of Winter’s Bone, Battle Royale, The Running Man, Blade Runner, Never Let Me Go and quite a few others to create a grim and compelling vision of the future. The only thing that bugged me about Gary Ross’ film was the excessive use of shaky cam, which distracted from the sense of oppression and fear intrinsic to the setting. Happily, the cinematography of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, as one satisfied viewer put it, as steady as the bow of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), allowing greater appreciation of the wide vistas of the various districts, as well as the malevolent jungle of the arena in which the Quarter Quell Games take place. A stark colour palate conveys the sombre situation of District Twelve, where Katniss along with fellow victors Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) prepare for their victory tour. Meanwhile, Katniss must balance her growing feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) with the need to protect her family, especially as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responds to the stirrings of rebellion.

In an early scene, Snow asks Katniss if she would like to be in a real war, indicating the wider ramifications of this instalment. We see more of Panem this time around, including the other districts and the oppression they suffer, as well as the decadence of the Capitol, where a far more garish mise-en-scene emphasises the excess and over-indulgence of the inhabitants who take purging agents to make themselves sick enabling them to eat more, while people in the districts are starving. This sociological dimension is one of the strongest elements of The Hunger Games franchise, as its dystopia is based upon class divisions held in place by an iron fist. As the seeds of rebellion begin, the ironically named Peacekeepers crack down on dissenters, whipping people in the streets and, at one point, threatening to shoot Katniss where she stands until Haymitch points out the negative publicity.

The media presence of the Hunger Games victors, and indeed the media as a tool in Panem, is for me the other key elements of the franchise, explored in greater detail on screen than on the page. I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games after seeing the first film, and am reading Catching Fire at the moment (I’m funny with books). Being a first person, present tense narrative, Collins’ prose never wavers from Katniss’ perspective, and while a lot of detail can be included in Katniss’ internal monologue, the films take a wider perspective and show events beyond her experience. In particular, scenes of the control room and interactions between Snow and his advisors, especially the new head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), demonstrate the mechanics and predictions of propaganda, such as Plutarch’s chilling line: ‘I agree that she should die but in the right way’ – i.e. on television. While The Hunger Games emphasises the malevolent ideology of having children fight to the death, Catching Fire demonstrates the power of the media to both the state and the populace, a power that is all too apparent in contemporary society.

Catching Fire, therefore, builds upon the premise of its predecessor, doing what all good sequels do – expand the world, give us what is familiar but also what is different. The legacy of the first film appears as trauma, as Katniss wakes from a nightmare and, when it is announced that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be drawn from the pool of winners, makes a desperate, futile flee into the woods, the scene palpably expressing her panic and horror. To have been through hell and then be informed that you’ll be doing it all over again (she is, after all, the only living female victor in District 12) would be horrendous, and the film conveys the fear and dread of such an ultimatum, with the added understanding that this is an act of political oppression conceived by Snow and Plutarch. Here is the greater scope of Catching Fire, the development of the initial premise to allow a fuller understanding of the fictional world.

Some interesting features, that were not evident in The Hunger Games, become apparent in Catching Fire. In the first film’s reaping scene, a video is shown that recounts the historical Uprising, including footage of nuclear blasts. When I saw this, I took it to be stock footage or simply special effects put into the propaganda film by the Capitol’s producers. But when Snow threatens Katniss, he reminds her of District 13, which was reduced to a radioactive ruin during the Uprising, and remains a potent symbol of the Capitol’s power. Furthermore, once the Games begin, Catching Fire does not simply repeat the survival drama of the first film, with Katniss battling the various perils and other tributes as they come at her. Catching Fire has plenty of action set pieces during the Games, including ferocious baboons (much like the ghastly After Earth), poisonous mist, forcefields and gigantic waves, but also an element of mystery as the other tributes assist her and each other to a surprising extent. Having not read the book, the final revelation and its resultant cliff-hanger came as a genuine shock, opening the tale even wider. Fans of the books report that Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy, but I eagerly anticipate where the story will go from here.

Mockingjay

Divergent

Divergent-poster

 

From the opening voiceover of protagonist Beatrice/Tris (Shailene Woodley), Divergent emphasises the parallels between personal and societal identity, and maintains this central conceit throughout its running time. Tris’ early complaint that everyone fits in apart from her may sound like specifically teenage anxiety, but to its credit, Neil Burger’s adaptation of Veronia Roth’s novel does not labour this point but keeps it as an undercurrent throughout. Furthermore, the film succeeds in making these concerns universal as, at all ages, we must not only make our own choices but live with their consequences. Tris’ journey not only expresses this concept but also provides an engaging presentation of Divergent’s world, a dystopia that, like so many others, uses its science fiction setting to explore contemporary tensions. Comparisons with The Hunger Games are inevitable, but Suzanne Collins’ series as well as their film adaptations emphasise extreme class oppression with some personal drama. While Divergent suffers from an overstuffed third act and a clunky treatment of sexual awakening, the personal drama is effectively foregrounded while the wider events are both powerful metaphors for personal fears and compelling narrative developments. Pleasantly, the film resolves its own story while still leaving potential for development in subsequent instalments, making this a worthy addition to the science fiction young adult sub-genre.

Review of 2012 Part Three – Great Expectations I: Marketing Malarkey

Great Expectations

2012 proved a year of great expectations in several ways – to commemorate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the BBC as well as BBC Films, not to mention Baroque Theatre Company, produced adaptations of Great Expectations.  I saw none of them, nor have I ever read the book, but there were a number of films released in 2012 that came loaded with expectations of various sorts.

Cast your mind back and you may recall The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy.  I posted on this back in April, saying that I had wanted to avoid all prior knowledge.  I failed quite spectacularly in this regard, encountering reviews as well as an interview with star Jennifer Lawrence.  Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the visceral thrill and the ominous portents of The Hunger Games, which succeeded in presenting a very grim portrait of the future and some thrilling yet disturbing action sequences.  I was very impressed with The Hunger Games and have subsequently read the novel, which surpassed the film in some areas but not others.  The most common response to adaptations is “The book is better than the film”, which is nonsense because films and books work differently and to compare them qualitatively is like saying a boat is better than a car.  While both are vehicles, a boat is used for different purposes than a car, and while a book and a film are both media texts, they are consumed in different.

That said, the dystopia of The Hunger Games was more convincingly portrayed through Collins’ terse, urgent prose, which steadily built up the world of the book through Katniss Everdeen’s reminiscences and descriptions.  Director Gary Ross’ excessive use of shaky cam was jarring and prevented a sense of oppression or a panopticon, but his decision to feature some action away from Katniss (Lawrence) did enable the social criticism of reality television to be made more strongly.  The response of established fans of The Hunger Games was naturally influenced by their feelings towards the book, with some appreciating the adaptation and others disappointed that it did not meet their expectations (there’s that word again).  Later in the year, the release of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two similarly fanned the flames of fan furore.  I haven’t seen it, so no comment on the film itself (for that, see here), but The Hunger Games and Twilight serve as interesting examples of the expectations that surround adaptations.

Shortly after The Hunger Games came Marvel’s The Avengers, or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble if you’re in Britain.  Joss Whedon’s superhero ensemble was the culmination of a remarkable feat of franchise filmmaking, beginning in 2008 with Iron Man and developing through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.  As a result of those earlier films, expectations for The Avengers were very high – the combination of these four superheroes plus the supervillain and three additional heroes, not to mention the steady campaign of teasers, trailers and excerpts, raised anticipation to a high level.  I was more than satisfied with what came about: The Avengers fulfilled my expectations as a glorious, fun-filled, power flinging, well-balanced, gripping and compelling, not to mention funny, blockbuster.  It broke multiple records and has become the third highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

When I think back on The Avengers, which I saw twice at the cinema, my memories are very positive and I look forward to the Special Edition Blu-Ray which includes Whedon’s director’s commentary, since the current UK Blu-Ray does not include this special feature from the US release (not that I’m complaining; oh wait, yes, I am).  And yet, even though I loved the film and expect it to be in my Top Ten of 2012, something about it continues to niggle me.  I realise that it was a matter of having my expectations met.  I am well aware that unreasonably high expectations can frequently lead to disappointment, so I am careful to keep my expectations reasonable.  The Avengers fulfilled my expectations, but did not surpass them.  So it wasn’t disappointing per se, but nor was it exceptional.

Next up was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-vaunted return to science fiction and a sort-of prequel to Alien.  Furthermore, it was to be Scott’s first use of stereoscopic photography and the marketing campaign was even more detailed than that of The Avengers, with trailers, teasers, an entire commercial section on Channel 4 during Homeland and various viral videos.  The viral campaign helped to create a wider universe within which Prometheus is set, continuing the expansion of the Alien franchise’s world that has progressed since 1979.  The marketing also served to create very high expectations for the film itself, and probably went too far.  A large proportion of the response to Prometheus has been negative, with critics and audiences alike deriding its plot holes, indistinguishable characters and inconsistencies with the previous films.  The rather cynical home release has done the film and its distributors financial favours but little else – if you want the seven hours worth of extra features, you need to buy the highly priced 3D Blu-Ray.  Yes, I will be doing that, even though I don’t have a 3D TV.

Personally, I liked Prometheus very much.  It was gripping, atmospheric, scary and thought-provoking.  It also provided a useful example for identifying what I like in movies and why I have fairly wide taste.  But I also think it was over-hyped and left me wanting more.  It is very likely there will be further instalments as it features a clear set-up for a sequel, but Prometheus itself has numerous flaws and did not live up to the expectations it created.

Perhaps the most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s “EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND”, according to the trailer.  This was the film that, for me, carried the greatest potential for disappointment.  Superhero trilogies, including Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men, have a record of 1. Good; 2. Better; 3. Worse.  So far, the Batman trilogy had started well and then gotten better, so there was concern that The Dark Knight Rises might follow the pattern and be worse.  Furthermore, The Dark Knight had been such an exceptional movie, perhaps the most impressive superhero film ever partly by being more than a superhero film.  For a threequel to top that seemed unlikely.  To make matters worse, Nolan had hardly rested on his laurels, following up The Dark Knight with the remarkable Inception, and setting his sights even higher for The Dark Knight Rises which was touted as epic and grand.  Nolan is the most significant Hollywood director of the 21st century, so it was reasonable to hope but perhaps not to expect that he would surpass himself.  Advertising again raised expectations even higher, with teasers, trailers, excerpts and viral marketing escalating anticipation to fever pitch.  The result was not only a very healthy box office take, but some rather bizarre screening options – 6am at the cinema, anybody?

Was The Dark Knight Rises everything I wanted it to be?  Yes.  Was it everything I expected it to be?  Yes.  And did I expect it to blow my socks off and leave me flabbergasted at its extraordinary power?  No.  I knew it was unrealistic to expect as big a surprise as The Dark Knight, so I didn’t.  I anticipated that the trilogy closer would be at least something of a comedown, despite its epic build-up, and I was right.  One review of The Dark Knight argued that if Heath Ledger were removed from the film, you would be left with a fairly standard action movie.  I disagree on this – Heath Ledger is not the only exceptional thing about The Dark Knight, but he is outstanding, both in terms of his performance and the way the Joker is written.  The Dark Knight Rises is The Dark Knight without the earlier film’s central element of anarchy, personified in but not limited to the Joker.  It is this theme which makes The Dark Knight special, a serious exploration of the anarchy inherent in costumed heroics and villainy.  The Dark Knight Rises is more conventional with Bane’s baroque schemes and, ultimately, a clash between “good” and “evil”, rather than an in-depth meditative study which pushes The Dark Knight into serious, philosophical art.  The Dark Knight Rises is by no means bad, but its ultimate purpose is to close the trilogy, and it accomplishes this with aplomb.  I expected a spectacular finale to the trilogy and I got it.  I didn’t expect any more, and I didn’t get any more.  It would therefore be unfair to call The Dark Knight Rises disappointing, but it would still have been nice to be surprised.

All of these films were marketed to within an inch of their lives, and in each case the hype may have damaged the films’ reception.  It would be unfair to criticise the films’ distributors for this hype, as studies have shown that good marketing is key to the box office success of major films, whereas bad marketing can lead to flops like Fight Club and this year’s John Carter.  Box office success is not an indicator of public enjoyment – more than $1 billion gross for The Avengers does not mean all those cinema-goers enjoyed the film – but the bottom line is movies are put into cinemas to earn money, and marketing helps that happen.  Marketing works by raising expectations, yet paradoxically it can have a negative affect on audience enjoyment as we may expect too much.  I think the seasoned movie-goer understands the effect of marketing, but that does not mean we are immune to it.  The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises had firmly established themselves in public consciousness weeks if not months before their release, and it was a rare cinema patron who saw these films with no preconceptions.  Quite often, these preconceptions can have a negative effect on our response to the film itself, but if we manage our expectations we can make them realistic, and therefore avoid disappointment.  I am carefully managing my expectations for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Hobbit

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) has proved very successful with critics and audiences, including fans of the books by Suzanne Collins as well as those unfamiliar with the material.  I have not read the book, and my original intention was to see the film cold with very little knowledge.  But this didn’t work out as I heard both a radio review and an interview with the film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, so I read further reviews and went into fairly well informed, which is the normal way I see a film.

Not that there’s anything wrong with knowing what to expect, it doesn’t stop me having a good time, and I was very impressed with The Hunger Games.  It was a compelling story, convincingly performed, well-handled by Gary Ross, and struck just the right thematic balance.  A major portion of the film’s action is an extended set piece consisting of the eponymous games themselves, and this is thrilling and gripping and, in places, suitably nasty.  Yet to watch these sequences is to be ambivalent, as on the one hand there is gripping action with its attendant visceral thrill, but on the other it is very disturbing to watch children kill each other for the purposes of entertainment.  This tension is maintained throughout the Hunger Games section of the narrative.  In an early scene, characters discuss the perversity of watching actual people die, or perhaps watching people at all.  It is to the film’s credit that it does not labour this point, leaving the viewer to ponder the ethics.

Overall, the film succeeds as a chilling vision of the future, although this vision could be improved by changing the one area that I thought did not work.  Much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras, commonly known as “shaky cam”, which for some has the effect of inducing nausea and motion sickness.  I wasn’t queasy, but the shaky cam aesthetic was irritating and jarred me out of the film in places.  This was not always the case – once the Hunger Games are underway, the unsteady cinematography was effective in conveying the unpredictability of the hostile environment, the sudden outbursts of violence and the constant threat of death to our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence).  But in the opening sequences that establish the world of the film and the circumstances in which the Hunger Games take place, a more composed aesthetic would have been more effective.  The reason for this is that wide angled, static shots can convey oppression visually, capturing the subjugated inhabitants of District 12 within the shot composition.  Show the oppressed proletariat within the vision of the panopticon, and the sense of oppression can be made all the stronger.  Aside from these cinematographic infelicities though, this is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work.

Furthermore, The Hunger Games is especially interesting in terms of the tropes and themes it brings together.  Reality TV and its cinematic incarnations, such as The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and EdTV (Ron Howard, 1999), form a lineage that feeds into The Hunger Games, as well as more violent treatments such as Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) and The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987).  To me, however, a more interesting lineage is a couple of sub-genres that I’ve recently researched.  One is Rural America, on which I wrote an essay for the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent Cinema.  The subject of such films as Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001), Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008) and Undertow (David Gordon Green, 2004) is poor, (mostly) white, broken families, plagued by inertia.  A film that creates an obvious link between this sub-genre and The Hunger Games is Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a teenager who has to take charge of her family (sound familiar?).  While The Hunger Games has a bigger budget, wider distribution and far higher exposure than these “indie” offerings, the concerns of family responsibility and entrapment are just as apparent.  The rural environment emphasises self-sufficiency, through Katniss’ bow-hunting, as well as community since all district inhabitants seem to know each other.

As a contrast with the rural districts, the Capitol that governs them is a city, filled with prosperous people who express their wealth through flamboyant attire.  The state of “Panem”, where the story is set, declares a clear hierarchy between the urban and the rural, which demonstrates the second sub-genre that feeds into The Hunger Games, what I call “class-topia”: a dystopia that is explicity built upon class divisions.  The legacy goes back to Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), in which the proletariat workers slave for the benefit of the upper class, a trope seen again in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) that features a replicant slave race.  More recent examples include Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) and The Island (Michael Bay, 2005), in which the underclass provide those above with organs, and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006), in which immigrants are cast as an underclass to be abused and removed.  WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) features an artificial underclass while humans sit in permanent consumption, and In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011) draws class boundaries between those who literally do and do not have time to live.  In much the same way, The Hunger Games presents classes divided explicitly for the sake of power – those of the districts are governed and oppressed by the Capitol and forced into the maintenance of their oppression as aptly named “tributes”.  Here is rural America, designated as an underclass in a dystopia that demands their death and suffering as entertainment: it’s Winter’s Bone meets In Time meets Battle Royale!

The “class-topia” sub-genre highlights the richness of class divisions for dramatization, and the ever-present opportunities of science fiction to draw attention to elements of contemporary culture.  In the case of The Hunger Games, it is extremely positive that the film is disturbing, as has been noted by audiences and reviewers (the phrase “the hunger games is disturbing” yields over 4 million results on Google).  It should disturb us, not only to see children fighting for the death, but for the underclass to be coerced into roles for the maintenance of an unjust system.