“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.

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Spike’s “Oldboy” is Great Art

If you like crazy in your coffee, try “Oldboy.” It’s art.

The original 2003 Korean “Oldboy” and the new Spike Lee remake both have a brilliant and intriguing opening act, and hammer killings. They have the most evil twist ending I’ve ever seen, and I watched all the old “Twilight Zone” episodes. I defy anyone to watch either flick and say they saw that coming.

If you haven’t seen “Oldboy,” you might still agree it’s crazy, because you might know the Virginia Tech killer took his own photo posed with a hammer like the poster of the original “Oldboy,” and sent it to media outlets. This is interesting in the context of how truly dark the violence and psychology of “Oldboy” becomes.

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Let’s leave it there.

There are flashes of goofy old Kung Fu movies in the first act of Spike’s “Oldboy,” when the main character, Doucett, is locked in a creepy hotel room for 20 years. There’s a TV, a poster of a bellhop, some unconvincing wallpaper, and not much else. Bad Chinese food is delivered daily, but Doucett doesn’t get to leave or talk to anyone. He knows he’s being watched. He goes nuts, then he gets a grip by exercising and writing letters to his daughter.

He gets out, unexpectedly, and tests the fighting skills he learned emulating those movies on a gang of douchey jocks. He brutalizes them. Later, in a single long shot without an apparent cut, he fights dozens of goons in two hallways and beats them all down with a hammer and their own weapons. He spins around them, grabbing their knives and bats and stabbing or pummeling them. It’s cool.

Not as cool, but definitely scary in the perfect way, is Sharlto Copley as the villain, Adrian, who locked Doucett up for so long. He is RIDICULOUS. It’s tempting to decide Copley’s overdoing it by being so weird, but he’s not. You can’t overdo a character with this guy’s background, going to these insanely extravagant lengths for revenge.

“Oldboy” flashes back occasionally, but Spike takes the present-tense characters into the flashbacks with us, so they’re like Scrooge watching Christmases past, invisible. One truly surreal scene shows Adrian and Doucett watching Adrian’s father move from room to room, blowing away every member of his family with a shotgun. Both kids (Adrian and his sister) eagerly offer up sex before they’re blasted. The dad concludes his rampage by shooting off the back of his own head while past and present Adrian both watch. The cinematography, with the shot following the dad around the house like it’s a third-person video game, is excellent work by Spike.

I’m not gonna give away the twist, partly because I don’t want to even write the words, but I am gonna give away the very last scene, so . . . .

. . . . Doucett is back in the room, presumably until he dies. He’s happy. It’s satisfying for us and him because this is exactly what he deserves. He wasn’t just bad, he was truly horrible—disgusting to his family and at work; so drunk he wound up puking on himself in the gutter.

Josh Brolin nails the drunk scenes. He checked into rehab for alcoholism around the time “Oldboy” came out. This is interesting in the context of how an actor can channel his own demons into a great performance. Let’s leave it there.

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When I told my wife how much I enjoyed Spike’s “Oldboy,” she said “You like everything.” I heard the same thing from colleagues when I was reviewing movies for the newspaper. I like a lot more movies than the general criticsphere, that’s true. But that’s because most critics have grown full of themselves and forgotten what art is.

Movie (and, worse, TV) critics all over the internet watch something, make a quick decision about it, and then work to convince readers certain things they didn’t like make a movie bad. I read these guys every day, and I’m jealous and bored and fascinated.

It’s easy to decide “Oldboy” is too violent or gross or overacted or whatever. But it’s a movie that wants to blow our minds and succeeds, whether you “like” what you’re seeing or not. Spike Lee is an artist, and he’s not boring, and I love that.

You know what isn’t art? You know a movie I didn’t like? It’s also newly out on DVD. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was beloved by the critics, but it’s the opposite of art. It’s pure product. We’ll come back to this.

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