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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.
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.
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.
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.
Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.
I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.
Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.
Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.
I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.
How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.
This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.
The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).
Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.
I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.
What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.
This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.
Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.
Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Eleven Grey wolves
Ten Joes a-killing
Nine Lives of Pi
Eight Raiders Raiding
Seven District tributes
Six Unexpected Journeys
Five Looping Loopers
Four Argo film crews
Three Assembled Avengers
Two Dark Knights Rising
And a Skyfall from 00-Heaven.
That’s my musical version of presenting my top twelve films of 2012, and the reason I decided on a top twelve rather than a top ten. Not that 2012 featured so many astounding cinema experiences that I could not pick less than twelve – originally there were ten. But then I decided to put them into musical form, which necessitated an extra two. Ranking them was surprisingly difficult, and the factor I used to ascertain their positions was surprise. What surprised me, what met expectations, and what exceeded expectations were the deciding factors in deciding my favourites.
As I’ve written previously, expectation plays a large part in my engagement with a film, largely because I get involved in the hype and let it influence me – the cinematic experience is not only the time spent in the auditorium, but the anticipation that builds up through news, trailers, reviews and reactions of other viewers. My most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, and when I saw it I was far from disappointed. But Christopher Nolan’s EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND (sic) only met my expectations, it did not exceed them. It has divided opinion, although there seem to be fewer who thought it “sucks” than those who found it “awesome”. Similarly, while it was great to be back in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was an unshakeable sense of déjà vu which meant the film lacked freshness, unlike Avengers Assemble which united familiar figures in a new situation. Skyfall also divided opinion, as many thought it was superb but there were (apparently) instances of people walking out, which is baffling to me. I probably had a prejudice about Skyfall because it is a Bond film, and there is only so much I expect from the series. Happily, Skyfall gave me so much more than its franchise led me to expect, working as a great film in its own right.
When it comes to ascertaining what makes a film good, different people have different standards. For many, a crucial factor is character consistency and/or sympathy. For others, flashy action and special effects are important. Ultimately, there will never be universal agreement on what constitutes high cinematic quality, there will always be differences of opinion, and thank goodness for that because it would be very dull if we all liked and disliked the same things.
Fundamentally, I want high technical quality, such as detailed production design (Prometheus), expressive cinematography (Life of Pi), effective editing (Avengers Assemble, Argo) and direction that pulls all these elements together (The Dark Knight Rises). I also want conviction to subject, as few things frustrate me more than a film that raises a topic and then abandons it (The Iron Lady), so a film that sticks to its guns (The Grey) and has the conviction to deliver on what it sets out to do (Killer Joe) is a good one to me. Exploration of themes such as responsibility (Looper) and loyalty (Skyfall) also work, again so long as there is conviction throughout the filmic text. Detailed fictional worlds, especially science fiction (The Hunger Games) and fantasy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) work very well on me, and I like something visceral that draws me into the diegetic world and to make me feel what’s going on (The Raid). The films on this list gave me what I wanted, and the best gave me more than I expected.
I often ask people to explain their opinions and their explanations indicate the standards which they use for assessment. My standards probably seem strange and idiosyncratic, but they enable me to organise the list below.
Classic features meet contemporary panache in the year’s most surprising and satisfying film. Nobody did it better.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
An operatic conclusion to an epic saga. Sublime technical features express weighty themes in a compelling story.
3. Avengers Assemble
A marvellous assembly of sparkling characters, high stakes, wit, brio and inventive action.
A superb combination of satire, history, political commentary and nerve-shredding suspense.
An atmospheric crime thriller that uses its time travel premise to effectively explore issues of responsibility and culpability.
6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
A warm yet thrilling return to Middle Earth.
7. The Hunger Games
A grim vision of the future with powerful comments on voyeuristic pleasure.
8. The Raid
The most intense action movie in years.
9. Life of Pi
Beautiful, spiritual and metafictional glory.
10. Killer Joe
A jet black comedy which displays fearless conviction to its macabre tale.
11. The Grey
An enthralling, existential tale of survival.
Questions of faith and science collide with suspense and shocks.
A delightfully affectionate reboot of reinvigorated old favourites.
The Woman in Black
A genuinely chilling ghost story.
Slightly undercut by its episodic structure but still an emotional journey with moments of real power.
A humorous and touching tale of a family struggling to cope with loss and betrayal, with great use of its Hawaiian backdrop.
The Cabin in the Woods
Smart, funny and scary meta-snuff film about why horror movies happen.
Turkeys of the Year
1. The Iron Lady
A mess of under-developed ideas that squanders every opportunity for compelling drama.
2. Safe House
A potentially gripping thriller undone by distracting cinematography.