Tag Archives: Sequels

‘Catching Fire’ Was Always Going to Be a Better Movie

Reviews of the Hunger Games sequel have been nothing short of rapturous when it comes to comparing the new film’s director (Francis Lawrence) to his predecessor (Gary Ross). Critics are crediting Lawrence with taking Suzanne Collins’ unwieldy second novel and turning it into a tight, suspense-filled thriller all the while judging the shaky cam snooze fest that (apparently) was the first movie.

While I will categorically agree that Catching Fire has surpassed the original movie in terms of cinematic scope and quality, I will say that there’s more going on than just a change in the man behind the camera. Although I’m not sad to see the shaky cam go — in fact when I watched the original last week, I actually got a little nauseous —  Ross didn’t do all that bad a job, given what he had to work with. And that’s really the crux of the issue here: with Catching Fire, Lawrence was definitely dealt a much better hand of cards. It was inevitably going to turn out into a better movie.

There’s No Way to Spin Kids Killing Kids 

Trying to keep the rating PG-13, the first film tripped all over itself to gloss over this important factoid, with shaky cam, a lack of blood and an emotional distance that leeched anything that might have been considered “stakes” out of it. By trying to smooth over the idea of kids killing kids, the first movie also sanitized the emotional import of a society in which kids are forced to kill kids. And this decision, whatever the motivation behind it, definitely hurt the movie.

The second time around, there are no kids in the arena. There’s no problem with a teenaged Katniss Everdeen taking out a forty-something hulking dude coming at her with a spear. Nothing particular of emotional import there. Just self-defense. And so Katniss can finally fight, a little blood can be shown, and she can be genuinely scared of these hulking monsters who are genuine threats to her and Peeta’s survival. And it’s no different than any superhero taking out the minions of the super villain.

Home Is Where the Backstory Is 

The Hunger Games had so much to cover in so little time there’s very little wasted on Katniss’s home town of District 12 besides some brief shaky cam shots of dirty children looking Appalachian. But just like JRR Tolkein made sure to introduce us to Hobbiton before he sent Frodo off to Mordor, Collins spends a lot of time in the first book introducing us to District 12. Unfortunately she does it in flashbacks that are hard to translate into the flow of an action film. So it’s not till Catching Fire that we really get to see what Katniss is fighting for. The film gets to spend nearly a whole hour of its time with Katniss’s friends and family, establishing relationships merely hinted at the first time around (Gale it’s nice to finally meet you!).

Love You J.Law, But I Can’t Read Your Mind

Almost as problematic as the whole children murdering each other thing is the fact that wide swaths of the first novel are first person narration without Katniss speaking to another living soul. And even when she’s talking to Peeta once they team up, she’s constantly reminding the reader that her relationship with him was an act for the cameras. In the first movie, for someone who’s never read the books, that subtext is almost entirely lost. Jennifer Lawrence does her level best at it, but it would help if she could talk.

Catching Fire has ample opportunity for the Girl on Fire to speak her mind. After spending a significant portion back in District 12 the book takes her back to the Capitol and the arena, but instead of sending her off in search of water and climbing trees, she is immediately thrust into an alliance full of relationships and dysfunction and all sorts of good stuff. Beyond actually getting at characterization, it’s simply more interesting to have her in a group and interacting with people than to have her tied up in a tree by herself.

The Clock is Cooler Than a Forest

The arena in the first novel is your pretty standard forest. Barring CGI fire and CGI dogs, there wasn’t much threat besides the other kids. Not so in the sequel. The arena itself is a much more hazardous place. Tidal waves, lightning, killer baboons, rain of blood. It’s not just more eventful, it’s more visual. A panning shot of the the clock jungle is just a better picture than a plain forest. Plus when there are threats that aren’t people, Katniss is allowed to fight and shoot with reckless abandon. Who cares how many rabbid monkeys she kills? At least they’re not kids.

Just Like Oreos, the Best Bit is in the Middle

Call it The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers rule. Without being bogged down with lengthy exposition or a conclusion that ties everything up in a bow, the middle chapters of series have an undeniable advantage over the beginnings and endings. They get to just tell a story in an already established world without anything that even resembles an ending. In fact, the more of a cliffhanger, the better. More people will line up to buy tickets to the midnight showing of the last movie (or, er, the last two movies).

Lawrence (Francis, not Jennifer) undoubtedly brought a fresh take and a better eye to the series. He certainly brought fresh new faces to the franchise, and achieved near perfect casting when it came to Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna. The manic arrogance Malone has and the twinkling bravado that Claflin brings to the table are exactly how the characters were portrayed in the book, and exactly what the movie needed. Characters almost as intriguing as Katniss to (maybe) root for. And yeah, it was really good to get rid of all that shaky cam. But really, Gary Ross didn’t do all that bad. And he did cast Jennifer Lawrence, and the internet shall be forever in his debt for that.

None of this is to say that Mockingjay is going to turn into a good movie. As has already been noted, there are some really big problems with that novel that are going to be hard to turn into an exciting film. So we’ll just have to wait and see what Francis Lawrence gives us.

Advertisements

The Hobbit and Hollywood’s Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome

the-hobbit_2422493b

I am a Lord of the Rings fan. I am also a fan of The Hobbit. I never thought of it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings though. I thought of it as a one-off adventure, a completely contained story with overlapping characters and plots. Like JRR Tolkein once said, a children’s story.

The most important reason I felt that The Hobbit was very separate from the later trilogy was because of the stakes. It’s right there in the title: There and Back Again. Bilbo undoubtedly will come back. Yes his quest is dangerous and often life-threatening, but it’s also fun and an adventure and something of an extended holiday for Bilbo.

The Lord of the Rings is an entirely different story. The stakes couldn’t be higher. They are, in fact, apocalyptic. Frodo isn’t leaving his home out of any desire to see the world or have an adventure, he’s doing to because otherwise people will die. There is no fun involved as he’s chased by Wraiths and orcs and travels across barren landscapes with little rest and little food. And there is the possibility that this is a one way journey for him. And meanwhile, the rest of Middle Earth is caught in the throes of war, the outcome of which will be decided by Frodo. It is an epic. It has three stories to tell, and as such, was told in three films.

When I heard that Peter Jackson’s long-long awaited adaptation of The Hobbit was going to be split into two films, I was pretty nonplussed. The trend started with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book was just too long to make into one film. Of course, Warner Bros. had the benefit of double the profits from two separate releases, but, as an avid Harry Potter fan, I’d agree that you could find two separate movies in that last book. And when I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 I was pleased that it was its own movie, if only because of the flashback scene with Snape and Lily. Then came Twilight: Breaking Dawn split into two films, which I could care less about, although it was clearly a profit minded move, as I’ve read that travesty of a book and there is certainly not enough material for two movies. Then The Hobbit announcement, which I accepted because The Hobbit is long, and I trusted Peter Jackson. Then the third Hunger Games installment is officially two films, which I could see, because Mockingjay is a wild and unwieldy book. Then comes today’s press release from Peter Jackson that The Hobbit will be not two, but three films. And I am out of excuses for the filmmakers. 

Peter Jackson made it out like we are supposed to be excited about this. Who’s excited? The reaction I’ve seen is mostly one of anger and disappointment. Does anybody want three three hour films? Did anybody really want two films? Sometimes stories are just that, one story. They deserve their beginning and end in one sitting.

But moreover, this latest announcement illuminates the problem with Hollywood right now that I like to call the Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome. Symptoms include: sequels to crappy films (Transformers 2 and 3), sequels to films where the story really ended in movie one (Taken 2), reboots of franchises before the old ones have really died (The Amazing Spider-Man), continuing franchises after the original actors/characters have gone (The Bourne Legacy), remaking good old films into bad copies (Footloose), remaking bad old films into bad copies (Conan the Barbarian), and this new trend, breaking up adaptations into smaller and smaller pieces.

I’m not naive. I do understand that the movies are a business and the goal of a business isn’t to make art but to make money. It’s sad but true. Like 3Disease (a horrible affliction sweeping our nation), Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome has taken over Hollywood and has become the norm. But the problem here isn’t that they’re trying to make more money, but rather that genuinely new stories are becoming rarer and rarer. Look at last weekend’s box office. The Dark Knight Rises, a threequel in a rebooted franchise, topped the chart, followed by the fourth installment of a children’s cartoon. And that is the real sad truth here. Hollywood isn’t safe for ingenuity anymore. I don’t mind that studios try to make money by betting on known quantities, but rather that they won’t gamble on a good new idea. Instead of seeing new ideas and new stories, we are going to start going to see the same movie over and over again.

And we are the cause. Movie prices are continuing to climb into the stratosphere, and so why would you waste $10 on something that you don’t know much about, when you can just go see the most recent James Bond film? I’m guilty of it too. I love adaptations and am excited for sequels that continue stories I love. I like reboots too. But I also like stories. And I wish I could see more of them.

Possibly the most disappointing thing about this announcement is that it came not from a money-grubbing studio, but from the artist himself, an artist that many fans have come to revere over the past decade. Jackson has become a trusted guardian of a story that we love. And now he’s broken our trust. What is the point of expanding trusted properties when that trust is gone? Hopefully one day there will be a tipping point. One film too far. I think a small one happened this past weekend with Step Up: Revolution, the fourth film in a teen dance franchise. The tipping point for Hollywood would have to be much bigger, a huge tentpole sequel that didn’t hold up at all. I don’t think it will be The Hobbit. Despite my reservations, I plan to see all three films. But hopefully, someday soon, they will start making new movies again.