“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and Movie Critic Failure

“That was so bad,” I despaired, waiting for nachos. “I’m right, right? It was really that bad?”

“Yes!” Daniel snapped back. “What the fuck were those monkeys?”

We were staring over our beers at the Chama River Brewing Company bar. It was May 2008, after an advanced screening of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” I don’t often talk to strangers, but I couldn’t help telling the schlub two seats over “We just saw the new ‘Indiana Jones’ movie, man. Never see it. Oh my god.”

“South Park” soon made a graphic episode about how watching that movie was like watching Indy get raped by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

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The Rottentomatometer, which compiles every movie review on the internet into a percentage for each flick, shows a very high 78 percent for “Crystal Skull.”

If they serve any journalistic role at all, ubiquitous movie critics need to be calling out crap. They are too often wrong. I speak from a place of deep jealousy.

It was interesting to see Obama, between two ferns this week, say how bad an idea it was to make three “Hangover” movies, but how great Bradley Cooper is in them. Cooper also gets to be in good moves like “American Hustle.” Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence, the other stars of “Hustle,” have all served time in mutlistudio-powered franchises.

I think this is how it works for big-time actors. Yes, the studio tells them, you can make that David O. Russell movie with some of our money, but first you have to be in “Terminator Salvation.” Because we like driving gold-plated Bentleys.

There’s a scale, let’s say. At one end are movies made by talented directors with good scripts about interesting characters. At the other end are huge franchises. The huge franchises make billions for the studios, which subsequently finance the director-driven future Best Picture nominees.

Maybe critics can’t do anything about this system, but they shouldn’t enable it by endorsing obvious garbage like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Its Tomatometer was an astounding 89 percent. It is worth a billion dollars to its studio. It is an extremely bad movie with obvious, evil motives.

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A really cool guy I knew in my reporter days once told me his daughter hanged herself because of “Twilight.” He called the books “evil,” and thought I should write a story about what they do to young girls’ minds. His daughter insisted on being called Bella in the months before she died—the main character’s name—and gushed daily about how dreamy Edward is. Edward is the sexy high-school vampire Bella loves.

I ran with the story just long enough for suicide experts to explain why “Twilight” did not cause my friend’s daughter to kill herself. She had other (extremely sad) issues.

“Twilight” didn’t help, though. As we’ve discussed here before, “Twilight” is absolutely about sex, but it never says so explicitly. Immature entertainment consumers, around the ages of maybe 12-15, obsess over “Twilight” because of its love story, but they don’t realize almost every page or minute of movie is about characters who want sex but fear its consequences. That strange message seeps in before kids are smart enough to understand it.

I don’t think people understand how bad “Twilight” is. Bella gets so distraught when Edward dumps her that she starts riding a motorcycle too fast, without a helmet. Bella and Edward are confusing, dangerous role models.

Before the “Catching Fire” Blu-ray gets to the movie, an ad runs for the 10-disc collection called “Twilight Forever.” All four movies, plus 100 hours of bonus stuff. It costs $75.*

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There’s an amazing scene in the first “Hunger Games” movie. Katniss is one minute from the start of the game. She hugs her friend and she’s shaking. Her lips quiver. She’s breathing hard and her neck strains as she slowly walks to a tube that takes her to the field of play. A 50-second countdown begins. She can’t move until it’s over. She looks at the other kids, and at the stash of weapons they’re all facing. Everyone runs when the countdown hits zero. There’s no sounds but a hollow tone, and the camera shakes as Katniss watches opponents start killing each other with knives and axes.

It is so scary.

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Great science fiction mines tragic truth. Children should never, ever be in a position where they’re forced to kill one another. Yet this actually happens in our real world. The government of “The Hunger Games” is a lavish, wealthy class of psychopaths who rule impoverished slums and force the children of those slums to fight and kill. The story fictionalizes real problems, riding notions like income inequality and war to a dystopic vision of the future.

But it’s a tease. And, worse, a time suck. The fear Katniss experiences of having to kill others is a fascinating theme to explore, but not for four two-and-a-half hour movies. There is a true classic here, achieved by condensing the story and focusing on its most important aspects. We don’t get to see it.

Don’t tell me it takes 10 hours to tell. “Gladiator” has Maximus go from hero general to slave to gladiator to overthrowing the Caesar of Rome, all in under three hours. Katniss can inspire riots and take down Donald Sutherland in the same amount of time.

But no—10 hours. One movie can’t make what four can. So they pad the story with a teenage love triangle that oozes awful dialogue. Scene after scene is about either Peeta’s hurt feelings or Gale’s hurt feelings. Who will Katniss choose?

These scenes of two characters looking and talking intensely to each other are boring, but “Twilight” proved they work. It’s demographic targeting—tweeny love triangles are a billion-dollar formula. “The Hunger Games” pretends it’s about kids killing and elitist opulence, but those parts are brief. Almost all deaths in the games happen while Katniss is hiding far away. The actual meat is just fluff.

Instead of an incredible single science fiction movie, Jennifer Lawrence is the star of a franchise made interminable by selling out to a formula and disrespecting our time.

It’s probably not art if Hollywood suits are splitting billions in profits; it’s probably product. The critics should be watchdogging this. Instead, they happily swallow poisoned Subway sandwiches these megamoney franchises are branding. I’m telling you, Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” is so much better than “The Hunger Games.” No matter what the internet says.

Katniss gets attacked by computer-animated monkeys in “Catching Fire.” Monkeys. What the fuck?

* There’s also a trailer for “Divergent,” another “Twilight”/”Hunger Games” rip-off love story destined to make a billion dollars and be taken way too seriously.

An Oscars Rant for Oscars Night

Liam Neeson’s beautiful wife, in real life, died. Since that happened he has acted in a lot of violent rolls. He also starred, last year, in “The Grey,” as a suicidal widower battling a pack of wolves in a snowy forest. Neeson channeled the sadness of an ultimate real-life tragedy into a poetic, angry performance. It is total crap he isn’t nominated along with Daniel Day, Denzel and Joaquin Phoenix. F*ck Hugh Jackman.

As any character other than Wolverine.

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Phoenix seemed an Oscar lock when “The Master” came out in September. He drinks chemicals, fights fat strangers, fingers a sand lady and becomes the broken dog of a cult leader. Daniel Day hit the party late, on Christmas, because that’s how real gangsters roll. Of course he would crush it as Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: [pounds his hand on a table as his cabinet squabbles] I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!

There’s a blockbuster article in the new Esquire about the SEAL who fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. He scoffs at the raid scene in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but calls the portrayal of the CIA analyst who found bin Laden “awesome.” He’s right, it is awesome. Jessica Chastain is awesome in that flick, and she would probably win, except Jennifer Lawrence was such an intimidating, likable, unpredictable widow in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Lawrence freaks us out, befriends us and lets us into her damaged psyche. Bradley Cooper must have this woman; she’s too intriguing to let go.

And Robert De Niro destroyed it as a classic movie dad and a sympathetic nod to all the tortured sports fans out there.

Speaking of Esquire, the magazine also had a short writeup of “Django Unchained” headlined “Catharsis of the Year.” It included this: “(N)early three hours is filled wth slaves being whipped, dogs chewing slaves to death while bystanders watch, slaves being forced to gouge out one another’s eyes, slave women being given to houseguests the way one might give a basket of decorative soaps, slaves dying of thirst in burning holes, slaves having their balls cut off with red-hot blades, and so on. The amazing thing about watching all this is that it’s all perfectly Tarantinoesque, but it’s also for the most part historically accurate. Tarantino himself has neatly pointed out that you cannot make a film as lurid as slavery was in reality. He’s right. While you’re watching the filmic violence, the fact that these horrors really happened keeps intruding. The monstrosity of real history in the United States surpasses any pretend violence. It’s physicality is why Django Unchained is so necessary. … Lincoln is oddly bloodless.”

In “Avengers,” a team of superheroes battles an alien horde coming through a hole over Manhattan. In “The Hobbit,” dwarfs fight monsters. “Life of Pi” is about a boy trapped with a tiger on a life boat in the middle of the ocean. And “Prometheus”? “Prometheus” is a state-of-the-art atheist creature feature and the only film all year to harness the 3-D medium’s potential to make eye-popping artwork. These are the special effects nominees, and I don’t know how you pick a winner. More than any other, that’ll be the race I’m watching tonight.

The fat tear Anne Hathaway blinks off during her singing scene in “The Miserables” is so perfectly timed that she’s gonna win an Oscar for it.

Go Denzel.

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