|Steals This Movie|
The first film was a bit of a slog, really; a little too much like an indie movie rather than a blockbuster, and the presence of Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role as a phenomenally put-upon girl on the cusp of womanhood was a bit of a stretch, since Lawrence has, well, the hips of a 20-year-old, which she was during the filming of that movie, and kept popping up at distracting moments. I also tend to lose my sense of disbelief when I've seen actors in other roles, and Lawrence's work in the great "Winter's Bone" had locked her into my memory as Not Katniss Everdeen. But the movie was good enough to get us to Film 2, and man alive, it's a great Film 2.
Honestly, there might not be a better cast in a blockbuster trilogy well, ever. (And yes, I know that I just did a great disservice to the Lord of the Ring movies, which I also adore.) Lawrence is amazing; able to convey the gamut of emotions required without ever lapsing into mawkishness. Woody Harrelson steals just about every scene he's in as the bitter drunken veteran mentor Haymitch, assuming he's not in a scene with Elizabeth Banks as overmatched comic relief, but not quite, peacock Effie Trinket. Donald Sutherland is downright menacing without ever getting his hands dirty, or even raising his voice. You ache for his comeuppance, even when he seems monstrously reasonable, or at the very least, chillingly realistic.
And there's just great actors all over the place, even in tiny roles. Look close and see Paula Malcomson, stupendously great in "Deadwood", as Katniss's mother. Stanley Tucci is making a million choices at once as the borderline manic MC Caesar Flickerman, and he's absolutely aces. Phil Seymour Hoffman is understated and masterful as Gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee, and keeps his cards so close to the vest, it;s as if he's not even acting, or under any kind of stress. Oh, and three more: Jeffrey Wright from "Boardwalk Empire" as Beetee, Amanda Plummer as cohort Wiress, and utter scene-stealer Jena Malone (that's her above: she's going to be working in movies for a real damned long time) as shameless contestant Johanna Mason. The cast is dozens strong, and there isn't a weak hire in the bunch. You find yourself just falling into the story and not minding the time -- nearly 2.5 hours of it -- because there's just great scene after great scene.
Next, the pace. "Fire" drags a bit in book form, because it takes a long time to get back into the arena, and on some level, you just know that's where we have to go. The conceit is too original to move away from it, and Book 2 of a 3-book series always has challenges, since some part of you knows that the protagonist isn't getting offed. But the movie doesn't have these issues, because you're not bogged down in the details, or locked in the increasingly erratic narration of the protagonist. In the movie, non-Katniss scenes can play out and speed up the exposition, rather than stay in stop/start mode. It also helps that the fairly heavy-handed universal nature of author Suzanne Collins' work (equal parts food, fashion, violence and romance, always punctuated by fairly artificial cliffhangers) can be whisked away through the usual truncated nature of movie-making. Some books suffer in the translation to movie, but The Hunger Games, especially since it's so involved in the artifice of media, is not one of those books.
Finally, there's something pretty great about an action movie series where the gender roles aren't just reversed, but downright transmogrified. Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen isn't de-sexualized or made unrecognizable, any more than Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Mellark is turned into weak masculinity through his choices, either. When people are killed in these movies, there is no shouts of victory or athletic achievement; there is, instead, gravity and consequence, as if something terrible and taboo has happened. People aren't indestructible or heroic; they are fallible, desperate, gritty and afflicted. I can't tell you how welcome that is, really. You get to watch a blockbuster series without feeling like you have to check your brain at the door.
In short, this series mirrors the age and culture of current youth, where gender does not limit the kind of person you can be, or the roles you can choose. One of the best and toughest men in the series is Lenny Kravitz rocking metallic eyeliner as the subversive fashion designer Cinna, and he does that with the classic close-mouthed mystery of the best male role models. Seriously, dude is the most bad ass designer ever, because the genius of this series is that badassery is not gender or role specific, and no one is unbelievable, even when they are dressed like fools, or behaving like misanthropes. It's grim and funny, portent and trenchant, and deserves to make the stunning amount of money that it's going to make, because it's actually got ideas behind the eye candy.
And really, can you ask for anything more from a movie, let alone one with a big budget?