Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cinema Fancy - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Any time entertainment tries to make a statement of any kind, there will always be criticism.  While the lines between art, entertainment, and commentary have always blurred somewhat, there are some who believe that works of fiction (whatever the medium) that are developed strictly as a medium of entertainment have little, if any, artistic merit or value.  I would argue to the contrary: any work that creates an emotional response within the audience, however slight, can be considered art in some form, even if the response is negative.  When a mass medium entertainment form transcends its trappings and is able to speak to people at a level beyond just merely evoking a response and consuming their time, it becomes difficult to argue against the merits of it as art.  Such is the case with The Hunger Games, and it's sequel, the aptly named Catching Fire.

I failed to mention so in my review of the first film, but when I saw the movie with my wife, teenager, and a coworker/friend, it immediately sparked conversation after the movie.  Not the usual post film questions of "What did you think?" and the like, but we immediately began a discourse on the weighty themes of the film, the implications of some of the plot points, and talking about how the events unfolded and what it all meant.  I suspect that's just what Suzanne Collins wanted, and that translated well in the first film.  This second installment of the trilogy revolves around a quickly planned and executed 75th Hunger Games; the 'Quarter Quell', a special edition of the games that takes place every 25 years.  This particular event seeks to bring back past winners of the Games and pit them against one another in a spectacular event.  President Snow, the reigning leader over the republic of Panem, hopes to use this event to eliminate Katniss, since her presence has sparked hope in the people of the 12 districts, something that the Capitol needs to keep at a minimum to prevent all the subjugated people from revolting.


Taking place a few months, or presumably close to a year after the events of the first book/film, Catching Fire immediately evokes a sense of familiarity for anyone who read the first book or saw the first film, and could be slightly confusing for anyone who hasn't.  Having said that, it's not entirely necessary to do so to get swept up in the film's cinematics, drama, effects, or pacing.  It seems as though there's a balance between wanting the focus of the proceedings to be on the Quarter Quell, and to the events brewing under the surface, namely, the growing unrest and dissatisfaction of the people of the 12 districts of Panem who have finally been given a symbol of hope in Katniss.  Katniss is, of course, caught in between the two worlds she is now a part of, one where she remains a poor young girl with a duty and responsibility to her family, and the lavish world of the Capitol, a land of plenty that she can now experience while touring to visit the districts and promote the Games as a victor.  Katniss does not see herself as a symbol of hope, and only wants to protect her sister and mother, as well as have a chance to live out her life without fear.

With the death of previous Games Maker Seneca Crane, the Quarter Quell is helmed by returning Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee (played by the over-cast Philip Seymour Hoffman), who quickly plays both sides of the games by appealing to Katniss during a special reception for President Snow (again, excellently played by Donald Sutherland), as well as assuring President Snow during every step leading up to and during the games, that Katniss would be "destroyed" during the course of the 75th games.  Katniss tries to sacrifice herself once again in the games, this time for previous co-winner Peeta Mellark, with whom she has a complicated relationship.  Former District 12 winner Haymitch Abernathy (portrayed well by Woody Harrelson) is chosen alongside Katniss to participate in the Quarter Quell, but Peeta volunteers to take his place, complicating Katniss' efforts to keep Peeta safe.  All the while, Katniss is torn between her feelings for Peeta (while pushing him away), and District 12 boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (while pining for him).  Effie Trinket, the chaperon and constant companion to Katniss and Peeta during their "tour" after the 74th games, shows some emotional connection to the 2 victors during the tour and the time leading up to the 75th games, possibly demonstrating that she's not completely a heartless nincompoop after all.

There are some interesting parallels between the two films that bear mentioning.  It's interesting that in the "demonstrate your skills" portion of the Games preparation, she is totally confident in herself here, and rather than again displaying her bow & arrow skills as she did the first time, she instead uses the time to stage a political demonstration, completely unaware of the machinery at work behind the scenes.  This compared with the shy, awkward girl who missed the target with her bow & arrow the 1st time, before getting a bit lucky with the arrow shot the 2nd time.  The other thing that is quite interesting is Cinna's dress work for Katniss.  In the 1st film, the initial "girl on fire" stunt gave Katniss an identity, and was played upon for the events leading up to the Games.  This time around, however, as a victor and not a tribute, the "girl on fire" persona is taken to the extreme with the transformation of the wedding dress to that of a Mockingjay inspired outfit.  Combine that with Jenna Malone's spirited, expletive-filled rant on stage as Johanna Mason, and the general unity of the tributes during Caesar's interview show when everyone on stage holds hands and lifts them up to the sky.

Looking at it from a post-watch perspective, it's not hard to see the "plot twist" of Heavensbee being some kind of revolution leader, but I honestly wasn't expecting Haymitch to be in on the revolution at that high level, which I thought was kind of cool.  I liked the fact that Katniss wasn't in on the coup from the very beginning, and that the rest of the victors knew that they would be participating in, and possibly dying for, a revolution that may never get off the ground.  But, as the saying goes, "If you're going to die, die for what you believe in."  It's a solid motivator for them, as obviously their deaths are totally meaningless if they're just fodder for the Games' entertainment value.  I'll be interested to see the 3rd act and how it plays out, especially since it will be split into 2 films, as has become customary for Youth/YA novel-to-movie adaptations of late.  Hopefully it will mean further character development for Gale and Peeta, who are admittedly a bit thin as characters thus far.

Ultimately, if you enjoyed the first film like I did, looked past the obvious similarities to previous "death lottery" films, books, and stories, and took it for what it was, you'll enjoy this probably just as much, if not a bit more.  This isn't a film that will go down in history as one of the most socially conscious or poignant of all time, but in terms of its social impact, it still looks to be quite the phenomenon.  When I first saw it in the theater, I felt like it would be the current generation's "The Empire Strikes Back".  My perspective on that has cooled slightly, as I don't know that it will have that level of impact, but in terms of a movie that crosses over from being a niche sci-fi/fantasy drama into something much more universal in its storytelling and overall cultural impact, Hunger Games: Catching Fire has great potential to scale a similar height, even if it doesn't reach that zenith that the Star Wars franchise did.  Since they tell similar stories of oppression and rebellion against an unacceptable status quo, I believe The Hunger Games as a franchise could become the de facto "rise against authority" story for this generation.  Even if you didn't care for the first film, I still recommend this chapter, because I think it's worth the expanded story and Jennifer Lawrence's performance this time around.

Deliverance - Hear What I Say! (2013)

Bands break up all the time.  Some burn out from touring, some have inter-personal conflicts and can't sustain friendships enough to maintain the band, some just get tired of doing "the band thing".  Some bands break up because the style of music they've been playing has fallen out of favor, and rather than dragging fans through a shift to something they might not be on board for, they change the name or break up and reform under a different moniker.  Other times, the motivation for carrying on just isn't there, and artistic integrity demands that a stopping point be chosen.  Whatever the case may be, we're all human, and we can't carry on making music forever.

When a band decides not to change the name as a stylistic change is afoot, sometimes fans feel slighted.  Anyone making music, unless it's absolutely devoid of artistic pursuit or merit, has to be satisfied, at some level, with the art they've created, or it becomes a hollow pursuit.  When the artist chooses to do what feels right from an artistic perspective rather than perpetuate the machine that may please fans more, there's usually a backlash.  Such is the case with Deliverance, forever in the shadow of the 1st 2 albums they recorded, their eponymous debut and "Weapons Of Our Warfare", a high watermark of tuneful thrash/speed metal and a fan favorite.  When band leader and chief songwriter Jimmy P. Brown II decided to begin moving away from that style and guitarist George Ochoa wasn't keen on doing so, the resulting 3rd album "What a Joke" demonstrated that artistic conflict doesn't always make great records like it did with The Beatles.  Once Jimmy was back at the helm 100% of the time with George's departure, he took the band in a number of different directions over the next few years, and created several excellent albums.  The entire "D" fan base wasn't on board with the move away from thrash, because let's be honest - most thrash fans are a kind of picky.

I'm of the mind that while the band's 1st 2 albums are awesome, they're not the be-all, end-all of the Deliverance musical canon.  I happen to quite like some of their non-thrash material as much as those 1st 2 records.  In particular, "River Disturbance" and "Camelot in Smithereens" are both top-shelf albums that any band should be proud of.  I never felt like a full-on return to a thrash metal sound was warranted, and I believe the band proved me right with 2007's "As Above, So Below".  Granted, it was as much a groove metal album as it was thrash, but it didn't sound as vital as it should have, had largely forgettable riffs, and just didn't grab me the way much of their discography had.  I had the same experience with the band's "Learn" album, though repeated listens has given me a much greater appreciation of that record.  I still don't have much to say about AASB, because it still doesn't do much for me.  Now that "Hear What I Say!" is out, and is reportedly the band's last album (again), does it fare any better?  I'll answer that with a resounding "YES!" this time around.

Where the previous album was hampered by largely forgettable songs, this album is far tighter and more interesting, in part because Jimmy and company aren't attempting a halfhearted recapture of the "glory days" of thrash .  Instead, they wisely choose to provide a sort of stylistic retrospective of the Deliverance catalog via a new set of songs.  This works pretty well since the tracks are interesting, the production is much improved, and the whole thing just feels like a concerted effort to make a good album.  The album is a bit slight in terms of content, since you have an intro track that segues into 1 of only 7 new original songs, followed by a cover of Iron Maiden's "Where Eagles Dare", and "Entgiftung", which is a German-language version of "Detox".  Despite the somewhat slim pickings here, it still has enough meat on the bones to satisfy.

The guitar sound is improved here over "As Above, So Below".  Not so much because it's heavier (it's not), but because it has a crisper feel to it.  The production helps that somewhat, but both Jimmy and Mike have a guitar sound that is just tighter and snappier than before.  I think it hearkens back to an earlier time for the band, and that's a good thing, because the production of AASB was just a bit heavy-handed, with its 90's groove metal sound and wall of sound bass.  I'm all for a heavier sound, but when it doesn't enhance the songs or make them sound better, it falls into the "more is just more" category.  I'm happy to report that both Jimmy and Mike sound great here, with a meaty tone that doesn't sacrifice clarity or definition.  In addition, the guitar solos here have a nice wail and bite to them, where they appear.  Acoustic & clean guitars sound great, too, in the songs they're utilized, with that hint of reverb that helps them ring out a bit.  Bass is provided again by long-time Deliverance bass guitarist Manny Morales, who has played on more "D" studio albums than any previous bassist.  It's only fitting that he would play on the final album.  His bass guitar is loud and clear this time around, and is nicely placed in the mix where it provides both an audible companion to the guitar and drums, but also provides necessary weight to the sound.  Drumming on this final album is provided by none other than renowned skins man Jayson Sherlock, who many will know from his time in Mortification, Paramaecium (and later InExordium), as well as his prog metal band Altera Enigma and one-off black metal band Horde.  While it would have been cool to have Jeff Mason behind the kit again to echo the Deliverance power trio days, Jayson's drumming here is powerful, dynamic, and spot on for what this album needed to really take it to the next level.

Vocally, Jimmy sounds as good as ever, and in my opinion, a bit more focused and on-point than he was on AASB.  Jimmy's David Bowie-esque wail has become a signature of his style since he really started singing, and he uses that to great effect here, but there is a bit of variety as well with some shouted vocals, a bit of grit now and again, and a nice rapid delivery vocal in "Angst" that has a bit of a "tunnel" effect on it.  Anyone who has been listening to Deliverance for years knows that Jimmy isn't the world's best singer, but he uses his voice as effectively as he is able to get the lyrics out there, and that's what you get here.  The slower passages and more mid-tempo bits have the best vocal work, as is par for the course with Deliverance material, and in some of those sections he sounds really well honed.  He does some nice dual-layer/multi-octave vocals like in "Hope Lies Beyond", and of course the chorus of "Detox" where there's the mid-range vocal for the melody, and a bass vocal underneath.

In terms of the songs, the new material here is stronger than that of AASB.  Firstly, the intro track ties into the album nicely, giving a hint of the main riff in "The Annals of Subterfuge".  There's no 11-minute aimless instrumental, no tracks that go on longer than they ought to, and really no filler to speak of.  This is a lean album, clocking in at just over 41 minutes.  "The Annals of Subterfuge" destroys any of the thrashier or speedier tracks on AASB, and "Angst" pretty well trounces the previous album's material as well.  Beyond those 1st 2 major songs, you get a lot of variety in a short time.  "Hope Lies Beyond" is a lot of atmosphere with a little riff, and "Detox" is a major groove-fest with a heavy riff and catchy chorus.  "Nude" is a mid-tempo song that echoes the band's more progressive outings with its vocal layering, interesting riff, and different melodic structure.  "Pass" returns to a bit more of the groove metal sound, but with a melodic riff and more interesting presentation than most groove metal can hope to boast.  Rounding out the new songs is "A Perfect Sky", which echoes the balladry on "Camelot in Smithereens" somewhat, with its somber yet buoyant melody, gentle acoustic guitar and spirited vocal from Jimmy.  The cover of "Where Eagles Dare" sounds good, with its chunky guitar, Jayson giving Nicko a run for his money, and Jimmy straining a bit to hit a handful of the notes.  He really does have a bit of that Bruce Dickinson vibe to his voice, and it's a wonder Deliverance hasn't done a Maiden cover before.  And of course the German-language version of "Detox", "Entgiftung" is fun to listen to, especially if you don't speak German, because it's interesting to hear the lyrics of the song delivered in a different language.

If you're going to go out with a bang that leaves fans mostly satisfied but still wanting more, this is the way to do it.  You're not giving them so much material to chew on that they'll be analyzing the album for years to come, but enough that they don't feel slighted that you ended on such an abrupt note.  This 40+ minutes of music is just about right because it gives that retrospective look at the career with quality songs, doesn't overstay its welcome, and encourages repeat listens through memorable melodies, excellent production, and great performances.  Though it's sad to see a band go when their music has been a steady companion for so long, it's nice to see it happen on the band's terms, and to go out on a high note like this.  I would recommend this to all fans of Deliverance, and especially those who like the bulk of the band's catalog.  Anyone else who is open minded where their metal is concerned would do well to look into the album as well.