Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]’

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton

In defence of Quantum of Solace

[Warning: spoilers!]

Everyone seemed to love Skyfall on its release. Papers listed it among the top few Bond films, reviewers heaped praise on it and Sam Mendes and Adele’s return for Bond 24 met with popular demand. I liked it a lot, myself, though in hindsight slightly prefer 2006’s Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig debuts and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain (seven years pre-Hannibal) chews the scenery into succulent, meaty chunks. The interceding entry in the series, Quantum of Solace, is the one fans and critics alike seem to have hated – and no, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.

I recognise the film’s problems. It’s the shortest of all the Bonds, sandwiched between the longest two to date, and also the most violent – an entirely unproductive combination. Royale was gritty in its depiction of a bruised and bleeding hero, but its glamour, humour and storytelling finesse meant it never relied on action; Quantum exhibits not much else. To a large extent, this comes down to the 2007-8 writers’ strike – by the time of filming, the film’s script was only partially completed, leaving the cast and director Marc Forster to devise scenes. It shows: one moment Craig’s Bond is dispatching the icy pith familiar to viewers of the previous film, the next he’s left dependent on pick-up lines like ‘Come up and help me find the stationery.’ (Seriously. Bond says that.) Beyond technical and visual aspects, much of the film just feels underdeveloped, and it suffers greatly as a result. Still though, I don’t think its faults sink it.

Except for single-filmer George Lazenby, each of the past Bonds had a misstep or two: Connery had Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, Moore had Moonraker, Brosnan had Die Another Day. (Moore’s Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, plus Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill, are borderline for me.) If Quantum of Solace is remembered as Craig’s weakest note, it still stands tall next to most of these.

In fact, thanks largely to the talents of its cast, Quantum is far, far better than its half-baked screenplay might have meant. Beside Judi Dench’s reliably spiky M, both main villains deserve special credit: with his Jokeresque laughter under interrogation and quipping, ‘Tosca isn’t for everyone’ disdain, Jesper Christensen takes previously nondescript Mr. White straight to magnificent bastard status, and Matthieu Amalric radiates creepiness, predacity and danger as Dominic Greene, particularly when onscreen with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille – the scene where he threatens to throw her from a balcony is a rare moment in which a Bond villain feels genuinely unsettling, someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

Camille herself won’t be going in the Bond woman hall of fame any time soon, but feels like the major casualty of the partial script; had she been given more time and development, perhaps she’d have come across in deliberate contrast to predecessor Vesper Lynd, as a grittier, less refined but similarly wounded and courageous character instead of an inadequate stand-in. The climactic moment when Camille hunches panicked amid a fire, Bond trying to get through to her, echoes his and Vesper’s shower scene from Royale, and it seems her story might have been just as compelling if fully developed. Gemma Arterton feels equally neglected as agent Fields, though her scenes with Craig and Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis crackle with wit and charm, and her death scene – an oily twist on Shirley Eaton’s in Goldfinger – is legitimately harrowing.

This film, unusually for Bond, devotes earnest attention to violence against women: where elsewhere in the franchise this is fetishised, here it’s a theme. Camille’s mother and sister were raped, as quite possibly Fields is before her death, and Greene’s relationship with her is shown transparently as abusive; that a trail of murdered women follows Bond is even commented on by M. (‘Look how well your charm works, James’, she says, surveying Arterton’s nude corpse. ‘They’ll do anything for you. How many is that now?’) Unlike other ‘kept women’ in prior films, however, Camille is not seduced by 007 – in fact, in Bond’s closest encounter to date with feminism, it is she who ultimately abandons him, acknowledging his damaged emotional state. Seeing Bond’s torment play out through alcoholism and sleeplessness is itself captivating – Craig is at his tense, brooding best in these moments, and it’s a shame, again, that he’s left little else to do by the film’s unfinished script.

My inner jury is still out on Marc Forster’s direction. Certain cosmetic elements visibly jar: the stylised title cards for the story’s locations feel out of place, for instance, and like the dialogue’s subtitles, don’t match their components in Royale. (It may not seem important, but I notice these things – you have no idea how much it bothers me that the colour and size of the onscreen text changes.) I’m still not sure, moreover, why Forster provides subtitles for two Bolivian extras’ in-taxi exchange. Footage of villagers during a drought captures the travelogue flavour of Fleming’s writing perfectly, though, and in a film over-reliant on action, it’s a good job Forster directs it exquisitely – the scaffold sequence in the opening minutes, in particular, is executed perfectly, and if anything feels like a more natural place for the opening titles to have gone; the rooftop chase leading up to it, similarly, is amazing even as a lesser retread of the Parkour chase from the previous film, and the aerial confrontation just before the final act, while at moments difficult to follow, spectacular. Other highlights include Bond’s hand-to-hand battle with Edmund Slate, one of the whole series’ best fight scenes in terms of both choreography and camerawork, and the entire, breathtaking showdown at the Bregenz opera.

There and elsewhere, Dennis Gassner’s set designs channel the sixties cleanliness of the Connery era: while we don’t get the Shanghai skyline’s modern mystique or the natural beauty of Scotland as in Skyfall, the backdrops of MI6’s new headquarters, M’s apartment, Mathis’ villa and Bond and Fields’ hotel are effortlessly cool. In the case of the operahouse, too, Gassner’s forensic aesthetic helps create a real sense of menace, framing the ensuing shoot-out’s violence like meat on glimmering ice in a butcher’s shop. Quantum, the organisation whose meeting Bond disrupts here, is a superb creation – a kind of global capitalist, 21st century SPECTRE, manipulating world politics for the highest bidder. ‘We’ll supply the private security,’ Greene tells Medrano. ‘We’ll pay off the right officials, and we have twenty-six countries ready to recognise your new, official Bolivian government.’ Chilling indeed. With its boat chase, embattled lead woman, political corruption and gangsterism, and with Bond out of place in a deprived area, the film sometimes brings Live and Let Die to mind – it’s pretty good, too, seeing Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter caught up behind the scenes in shady manoeuvring.

Louise Frogley’s costuming often feels uninspired, particularly in the case of Craig, on whom wider ties and conservative-cut suits just don’t sit right (compare them, for example, to his narrow three-pieces in Skyfall). Bond’s clothes, however, are used to good effect – we see him start out in one outfit at Port au Prince, requisitioning a jacket when needed to cover a knife wound, fly to Austria thus dressed, scavenge for a dinner jacket in the opera’s laundry area, then switch back to his previous outfit keeping the dress shirt. These might seem like trivial details, but deployed in the film, they enhance the sense of a spy on the run, improvising with all resources available – somehow I’m more invested than I would be with Bond’s usual Barbarella wardrobe.

More and more, I’m convinced Quantum’s biggest flaws are in its first few minutes. The opening shot, gliding across Lake Garda to David Arnold’s throbbing strings, has a real air of menace, but the car chase it introduces feels perfunctory and empty. (And why, additionally, has Bond paused to remove his waistcoat since the end of Casino Royale, supposedly only minutes earlier?) ‘Another Way To Die’, the much-loathed theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, has greatly grown on me since I first heard it – White’s lyrics and the shrieking, orgasmic guitars of the middle eight blend passion and danger as only Bond can, and the composition hangs more elegantly together than I thought – but the recut three-minute version used for the opening titles does the song no justice, and I wish Arnold had been in charge of its brass and horn sections. Again, the titles should have played after a moment more dramatic than a car’s boot being opened, and Forster’s freeze frame feels distinctly wrong, but while on seeing the film I wished Daniel Kleinman’s chunky graphics from Royale had returned, I’ve come to admire the sequence’s motifs – Bond roaming the desert, gun pointed in every direction, shadowy female forms rising from the sand.

Both films’ theme songs, in the end, epitomise them: where Skyfall was stylish and classic but sometimes slipped from homage to pastiche, Quantum initially felt crude and structureless, too seemingly reliant on percussion, but improves on repeated encounter. Maybe it wasn’t a Royale flush, but if you loathed it in the cinema five years back and haven’t seen it again since, give it another chance – you might find it’s better than you remember.

See also: Bonding with history – Skyfall‘s postmodern 007

Gitsupportthisblog

GiTwhyinowhaveadonatebutton