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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Mid-Day Mini ~ Joe Versus the Volcano

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though Joe Versus the Volcano failed to ignite much spark with the box office or critics when it was initially released in 1990 the film has gained a nice following over the years who can appreciate the film and its oddball charm.  Before Tom Hanks (Splash, Cloud Atlas) and Meg Ryan hit it big with their second and third collaborations (Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 and You’ve Got Mail in 1998) they headlined this quirky comedy that played to both of their strengths.

Set up in the guise of a fairytale, the film opens with average Joe slumping through his dead end (literally) job and keeping to himself as he goes through the paces.  A hypochondriac, Joe’s visit to a doctor (delightfully played by deadpan Robert Stack) and subsequent terminal diagnosis will set him on a life changing mission that will take him into the middle of the ocean to a mysterious island.  Along the way he meets a kooky set of characters that will play a part in Joe learning lessons on living life to the fullest.

Hanks is pretty appealing as a pale sad sack that gradually looses/livens up.  You can see the color returning to his cheeks as he frees himself of his dreaded job, tells off the boss, romances a co-worker, and sets sail for adventure.  Demonstrating the same charm that would prove so valuable in later movies with Ryan, he’s affable and relatable.

An actress also just coming into her own at the time, Ryan deftly handles playing three roles (four, actually, for those eagle eared viewers) of women that Hanks meets on his journey.  The first is his mousy co-worker that loves him but can’t deal with his impending demise, the second is a flighty LA-type that’s not as shallow as she presents herself to be, and finally she’s the fiercely independent woman Joe’s meant to be with…if he didn’t have to jump into a volcano in a few days.

Good support is also to be had in Ossie Davis as a limo driver that shows Joe the finer ways of style as he prepares for his one-way trip, Dan Hedaya as Joe’s comically droll boss, and Lloyd Bridges as the man with the plan that coerces Joe to take a leap of faith.  It’s a well-cast affair and they all make material that could have gone awry work exceedingly well.

First time director John Patrick Shanley already had his Oscar for another modern day fairytale (Moonstruck) and his direction is done with the same light touch that’s applied to his script.  There’s a swell production design from Bo Welch, incorporating familiar points of interest from each stage of Joe’s journey.  The music by Georges Delerue is typically gorgeous…even if it’s essentially the exact same score he produced for Steel Magnolias a year before.

It’s easy to see why audiences and critics in 1990 turned their noses at the film which was probably a little ahead of its time.  It’s absolutely an offbeat romantic adventure that is catered to a specific group of viewers.  Those that are willing to take the journey and can let themselves be taken away by Shanley’s script and two strong lead performances will be rewarded greatly.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Synopsis: Katniss and Peeta are dethroned from their respective victory riches and are put back into the arena for the most climatic and menacing of the Hunger Games, known as the Quarter Quell.

Release Date: November 22, 2013

Thoughts:  Arriving less than two years after the blazingly entertaining original, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a lot to live up to when it’s released in November 2013. Not only has the profile of its leading lady risen astronomically (thanks to her Oscar winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook) but the second book is considered by fans of the series to be the best. What I like about this trailer is that it leaves out a few critical details that may sell more tickets but isn’t really the heart of what the movie is about. With a new director at the helm (Francis Lawrence, who delivered another dark future world in I Am Legend) and most of the players reassembled (I live for Elizabeth Banks and her take on Effie) this is easily of the more highly anticipated films of the latter part of 2013.