Movie Review ~ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright

Director:

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I honestly expected there to be a slip-up in bringing the second part of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy to the big screen.  After the whopper success of The Hunger Games in early 2012 (compounded by the fact that the film was quite good), tongues were wagging in anticipation of when the next film would arrive and a worldwide true love affair with down-to-earth star Jennifer Lawrence began.

Starting off 2012 with a huge box office hit and ending with another praise-worthy film (Silver Linings Playbook) along with a Best Actress Oscar for her efforts, Lawrence couldn’t have asked for a better year.  Then 2013 rolls around and the starlet saw the release of another film which has critics crying Oscar (American Hustle) as well as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sequel that’s in many ways superior to its predecessor.

Though I keep my reviews fairly spoiler-free, there’s no real way to discuss Catching Fire without giving away some aspects of the original so if you’ve yet to see it…you’ve been warned.

OK…are we ready to move forward?  Good.

It’s a year after Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) defied the odds (and the authorities) and became the first joint victors of the gladiator-esque Hunger Games.  Though they may have new housing and comforts that have kept their families nourished, both are still haunted by what they saw in the arena.  The Hunger Games are presented as entertainment but really serve as a reminder of oppression by the wealthy and how inconsequential the poor are.  Katniss and Peeta came from the lowliest district and survived together…giving hope to those that had none.

This causes great fear in the upper crust, mostly from villainous President Snow (a smirky Donald Sutherland, Backdraft) who plots with new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, using his greasy ginger puffiness to his advantage) to teach the two young winners a lesson…by making sure that the next Hunger Games is an all-star battle with players culled from past victors.  Back into the area they all go and this time there can truly be only one winner.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire) brings out the best in Suzanne Collins novel, always reminding the audience of the stakes at play and the very real price for any kind of mistake.  Characters feel more fleshed out with very little favorite faces getting short shrift of screen time.  That  leads to the film running nearly two and a half hours but the time seemed to fly by for me thanks to director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) keeping things at a good clip and the continued strong performances of the cast.

It would have been easy for Lawrence to simply show up and recreate the strong work from the original but instead she goes deeper than before, uncovering new layers of Katinss that even Collins wasn’t able to scratch.  It’s a full-bodied performance that proves Lawrence is a formidable force that’s just getting started.

Maybe it’s because Lawrence flaunted her Oscar around the set (highly doubtful) but everyone else in the film seems to have stepped up their game as well.  Hutcherson has less of a moon-pie face in this one, letting the actor not seem so ruled by his character’s obvious infatuation with Katniss.  Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), Stanley Tucci (The Company You Keep), and brief turns from Amanda Plummer (Joe Versus the Volcano) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) are rich with the kind of character shading that gives the film its subtle dexterity.

Special mention must be made yet again to Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) in the beefed up role of chaperone/advisor Effie Trinkett. The actress could quickly have been lost within her colorful make-up, zany wigs, and Gaga-edgy costume design but she’s smart enough to show the beating heart of the person underneath it all.  And former child star Jenna Malone may have one of the best entrances of the last few years as the plausibly sinister former victor Johanna Mason.  Malone is so good that she often steals Lawrence’s thunder later in the film.

With a year to wait until Part 1 of the final chapter of the series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare sequel that builds upon the solid foundation of the impressive original.  There’s more to love here and a greater sense of risk kept alive by Beaufoy’s detailed script, Lawrence’s skilled handling of the material, and a bevy of creative performances led by undeniable star Lawrence.

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Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie ~ This is My Life

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A stand-up comic neglects her two daughters in the midst of her newfound fame.

Stars: Julie Kavner, Samantha Mathis, Gaby Hoffmann, Carrie Fisher, Dan Akyroyd

Director: Nora Ephron

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Shortly after writer/director Nora Ephron passed away in the summer of 2012 I began looking for This is My Life, her directorial debut from 1992.  I’d seen it numerous times and even owned a copy on VHS but it was just nowhere to be found so I eventually forgot about it.  Enjoying the films she wrote like Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally…, I was more interested in the films she directed.

I wasn’t about to revisit You’ve Got Mail mostly because the AOL age update to The Shop Around the Corner is so dated you’d need to be an amnesiac emerging from a time machine to really enjoy it.  I also wasn’t up for the sappy but still warm to the touch PG-ness of Sleepless in Seattle.  And even Madeline Khan’s presence in Mixed Nuts couldn’t get me to take that mess for a spin again.  No…it had to be This is My Life or nothing.

Flash forward a few months later to a sleepy Sunday morning and I was browsing On Demand making the Sophie’s Choice between…well…Sophie’s Choice and some Bruce Willis movie when lo and behold there was This is My Life streaming for free.  Jackpot!  93 minutes later I remembered why Ephron’s no-frills first feature was high on my list to see…and her name is Julie Kavner.

There seem to be two audiences that know Kavner.  One is from her days playing sister to Valerie Harper on Rhoda and the other only recognizes Kavner as Marge, the animated matriarch on The Simpsons.  Kavner (Radio Days) has rarely had a chance to let loose on screen, certainly never in a leading role which makes this bittersweet comedy a real gem.

Adapted by Ephron from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, This is My Life is the story of a department store cosmetics lady that wants to be a stand-up comedian.  Raising two daughters as a single mother, she gets by by making due and making others laugh.  When her star begins to rise and eventually takes off, mother and daughters get some hard lessons on the price of fame.

As is the case of most films about comedians, very little of the material is actually funny with Kavner’s character telling some pretty dusty jokes about the trials of being a single mother. (Zoinks!)  It’s very hard to make material that works better live seem as immediate as being there and that’s one of the areas the film struggles through…but thankfully the rimshot jokes wind up playing second fiddle to the drama taking place offstage.

It’s easy to see why this film got lost in the shuffle at the box office.  With no bankable star and a female heavy presence, audiences and studios didn’t know what to do with it so it flamed out quickly and landed on video soon after.  Though it’s no work of art, there’s an assured charm to it all that makes even the more conventional emotional outburst (and there are probably two too many) work.

While Ephron had some true triumphs as a writer, her career as a director was spotty.  Of the eight films she directed less than half are worth a second viewing and that’s being generous.  Still, films like This is My Life aren’t likely to be made even in this day and age so this laughter through the tears melodrama is a worthwhile reminder of what made Ephron’s voice such a special one.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Raid 2: Berandal

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Synopsis: Immediately following the events of the original, The Raid 2 tracks Officer Rama as he is pressured to join an anti-corruption task force to guarantee protection for his wife and child.

Release Date:  March 28, 2014

Thoughts: 2011’s The Raid: Redemption was a high-speed locomotive of an action film, one that took very little time to take a breath or allow the audience to catch theirs.  Following a S.W.A.T. team working their way up through a slum high-rise while a seemingly endless supply of knife wielding bad guys try to cut them off (and up!), the movie left a lasting impression on me – mostly because it was such an unexpected marvel.

Flash forward three years and The Raid 2: Berandal is set for release in 2014, picking up pretty much after the first one ended.  I’m thrilled that director Gareth Evans (V/H/S 2) is back as well Iko Uwais as tireless good cop Rama.  As big and bold as the first film was, its follow-up has a high bar to meet and I’m interested to see how well the sequel works outside of the mostly one location setting of the original.  From the looks of this first teaser trailer, Evans has it all under control.