Movie Review ~ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


The Facts
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Synopsis: In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I’m going to not-so-secretly admit something I’ve been holding inside for a few decades now, I never understood why Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Fargo in 1996.  Now, I don’t want to take anything away from McDormand because she’s been a consistent actress since she began but I’ve been scratching my head over the years about that win (maybe that’s why my bald spot grows bigger each year…).  Sure, her performance was rock solid and deserving of attention but I always felt it was more of supporting role that landed in the wrong category in an otherwise weak year.  I’m ok with it…I just don’t understand it.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that McDormand’s performance in the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is truly one for the record books and worthy of all the awards that can be thrown at her.  This will, I’m sure, enrage McDormand (Promised Land) to no end seeing as how in interviews she laments these types of accolades but if ever there was a role best suited for her, it’s this one.  Mildred Hayes is wily, profane, blunt, and honest and McDormand pulls absolutely no punches as she takes this woman through an emotional journey that might not heal her broken heart but slaps a strong band-aid on it so she can solider on.

At the start of the movie, Mildred is driving on a backcountry road near her house that isn’t used as much now that a new highway has gone in.  Noticing three billboards in disrepair displaying fragments of advertisements from years past, she gets an idea that sparks a furor in town, reopening old wounds for the town that have never healed for Hayes and her family.  Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered and no one has as of yet been brought to justice.  The police don’t even have any suspects or leads to go off of.  Feeling like the justice system has failed her, she rents space on the billboards and puts up two statements and a question meant to shock the police force and it’s chief (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2, in a damn fine performance) into action.

Action is taken all right, but the energy generated is more toward Mildred and creating various forms of pressure put on her to take the billboards down.  Most of the town loves its revered family man chief of police, especially his troubled deputy (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) who takes the billboards as a personal attack.  Already in trouble with a police brutality charge likely racially motivated, the deputy becomes unhinged and is willing to do whatever it takes not to help Mildred’s cause but to impel her into silence.  Lucky for her (and us), Mildred isn’t one to back down as she shows when a dentist friend of the chief chastises her and then attempts some oral surgery without anesthetic.

Director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh scored a sizable indie hit with 2008’s In Bruges and followed that up with the clever Seven Psychopaths.  As he’s shown in film and even more with his skilled plays, McDonagh isn’t afraid of a little blood, violence, and profanity and he brings the big guns to Ebbing.  People get burned, shot, bloodied, thrown out second floor windows, and most of those are only periphery characters.  All that brutality might be something to recoil from but McDonagh balances the bloodshed with multiple emotional punches to the gut in the form of developments you’ll be hard pressed to see coming.

This is a twisty, twisted narrative and it works throughout the film.  When you get to go to a lot of movies each year you begin to see sameness to what you’re watching but with Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri I felt like I was seeing a picture with a purpose.  The performances are note-perfect (especially anytime McDormand and Rockwell share the screen) with effective supporting turns from John Hawkes (Lincoln) and Mildred’s ex-husband, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) playing their son, Peter Dinklage (The Boss) as Mildred’s would-be suitor, and Clarke Peters (John Wick) as another police chief who comes into play late in the film.  I also enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) as the man who rents the billboards out to Mildred and pays a costly fee and Sandy Martin (Lovelace) as Rockwell’s ornery mother. For a movie so bleak it can be hard to stick an effective ending in but McDonagh manages to tie the picture up without a tidy bow that remains wholly satisfying.

With the emotional knob cranked up to 12, this isn’t an easy movie to watch but it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough.  It’s a story that feels like it could happen anywhere and, sadly, probably has and that makes it all the more resonant to this viewer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wilson

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Synopsis: A lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged man reunites with his estranged wife and meets his teenage daughter for the first time.

Release Date: March 24, 2017

Thoughts: Though MN has been the setting for several notable Hollywood releases, it’s been a while since we’ve had a locally shot project to look forward to…especially one with such a strong cast. Adapted from the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes and directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) stars as the titular character who reunites with his ex-wife (Laura Dern, Smooth Talk) to visit the daughter she put up for adoption years earlier.  Harrelson and Dern on their own would pique my interest but the two stars together in a movie shot in my hometown featuring a host of familiar local faces?  Sign me up to get to know Wilson better. 

Movie Review ~ Now You See Me 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’m just as surprised as you are that 2013’s Now You See Me did well enough to warrant a sequel seeing that I left my screening frustrated at its cheats and wholly averse to its attempts to charm. Still, someone thought it was smart move to assemble the old crew again three years down the line and aside from a new female in the mix, not much has changed about the film or my opinion of the series as a whole.  What could have been a slick summer mea culpa sequel is just another time-wasting sleight of hand.  It’s not that we can see what the actors and filmmakers have up their sleeves, it’s that we don’t care in the first place.

If you haven’t seen the first film you’re going to get some spoilers so if you don’t mind having the final twist of the original spoiled for you keep reading.

In the years since the Four Horseman took down a wealthy mogul (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) and a shady secret spiller (Morgan Freeman, Lucy) they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, Warm Bodies) haven’t gone far though and as they’re readying another elaborate trick to expose a cell-phone hacking scam they’re joined by Lula (newcomer Lizzy Caplan, Bachelorette, replacing Isla Fisher as the lone lady in the bunch) who was recruited by their leader, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo, Spotlight).  A mole in the FBI agency, Rhodes has been leading his colleagues on multiple wild goose chases, until it all catches up to him and his Horsemen when the tables are turned and they’re split up.

The Horsemen wind up in China, face to face with elvish Daniel Radcliffe (What If) who has grown a beard to show he’s not Harry Potter any longer. There’s some jibber jabber about an all-powerful computer chip Radcliffe wants and a rather lengthy sequence where the Horsemen break into a high security company to retrieve said chip. Hiding the wafer thin treasure on a playing card, director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) takes, no kidding, nearly five minutes showing the Horsemen passing the card between each other to avoid being caught by guards that are frisking them. It’s an exhausting passage of time that isn’t nearly as impressive as anyone involved thinks it is.

Meanwhile, Rhodes has to bust Freeman’s character out of jail because only he knows who’s behind the mystery.  A personal vendetta between the two men quickly resurfaces and becomes a focal point for several head-scratching plot twists down the road. When the Horsemen and Rhodes are reunited, the final truth of who the man behind it all is and though the mystery is ostensibly solved, there’s still a good forty-five minutes left.  It’s in these forty-five minutes that I officially checked out as it’s just a series of parlor trick moments that are less than magical.

As I’ve said before, magic tricks onscreen just don’t work for me because there’s no sense of disbelief one can reasonably hold.  When magic is done live and in person, it can be an impressive experience because you learn to not trust your eyes.  On film, when I see a trick being performed in the middle of multiple edits and angles I’m just wondering how many takes and lighting set-ups it took to get it to look right. It just doesn’t work for me.  At all.

Performances here are in line with the broad script.  God love him, Ruffalo acts the hell out of his role and for that I thank him. If only his co-stars had found a way to do the same. Eisenberg is as nebbish and stilted as ever, Franco is disarming but not given much to do, Caplan starts off with spunk but gradually gets reduced to ninth banana, Radcliffe as usual is having way more fun than we are, and Caine and Freeman are just there to cash their checks (at least Freeman is required to both stand up and walk in this film…unlike London Has Fallen).  And poor Harrelson pulls double duty as Merritt and his offensively fey twin.

Capping off with another finale that throws some random turns in at the very end, Now You See Me 2 is slickly made and moves fast but is superficially bland and all together hollow.

Movie Review ~ Triple 9

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A gang of criminals and corrupt cops plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.

Stars: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Triple 9 kinda snuck up on me.  Admittedly, I’ve been a little distracted with the upcoming Oscars to prep for and an aversion to perusing trailers that give too much of the movie away.  Still, I was surprised that a movie boasting the A-List talents that Triple 9 has didn’t register on my radar until it’s release date was already rapidly approaching.  We’ve emerged out of the murkiness of a dull January and are entering into the warmer waters of February and while Triple 9 isn’t the best work of anyone involved, it’s a solid entry into the crime drama family.

Presented with the right amount of grit, grime, and gore (one bloody scene takes place in a dilapidated housing project infested with vermin both human and animal), the movie takes a solid 45 minutes to get going into any interesting direction.  First it’s a heist film, then a cop drama, then it’s (briefly) a buddy picture before settling into its tale of corruption and double crosses.  All of it seems a bit recycled from better pictures but I kept going back to the fact that it’s quite well made and earnestly performed by its impressive roster of bad guys and gals.

The film opens with a bank robbery executed with tactical precision led by small time criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwitel Ejiofor, Secret in Their Eyes).  On a mission to obtain the contents of a security deposit box that’s set to net him and his crew a tidy sum upon delivery, Atwood has more than money on his mind as his payday is being funded by his son’s mother’s sister (did you follow that?), the acting head of a Russian mafia family.  When the boss lady (a smirking Kate Winslet, Labor Day) demands Atwood and his crew take on one more mission, it comes with hefty consequences for all involved.

Into the mix is thrown Chris Allen (Casey Affleck, The Finest Hours) a cop returning to duty in a new precinct.  The new kid on the block steps on some toes, including that of his grumpy partner (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) and the local gangbangers who are used to cops looking the other way. How Chris becomes linked to Atwood is one of the twists you’ll have to experience for yourself but no double cross comes as a surprise and no one is safe from the chopping block as one major character learns early on.

Look, there’s some good stuff to be found here, such as director John Hillcoat’s (Lawless) staging of several tense chase scenes and shoot-em-ups.  Hillcoat is solid at ratcheting up the stress meter of the actors and the audience as we peer around dark corners not knowing what we’ll find.  We’re all let down by Matt Cook’s script, a mish mash of underdeveloped characters and a final feeling that the whole dirty business was pretty pointless.  As you can see from the poster above and nearly all the marketing materials, red is the color du jour and Hillocat goes a little overboard with the red herrings and red visuals (smoke, clothes, signs, lighting, etc) to the point where you just want to say “OK, we get it…it’s symbolic.” and move on.

Ejiofor seems a little sleepy here, only coming alive in scenes where he’s going toe to toe with Winslet.  Winslet, for her part, is to be commended for trying out another bad girl (after her swing and a miss with Divergent) but it just doesn’t suit her…kinda like her iffy Russian accent.  Winslet’s actually in more of the movie than I thought she’d be, but it’s reduced to a series of scenes where she taunts Atwood that she can whisk his son away at any moment.  Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Teresa Palmer (The Choice), and Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6) comprise the rest of the cast and, especially where the women are concerned, fade to the background faster than they should.  Let’s not forget Woody Harrelson’s (Out of the Furnace) half serious/half jokey performance as a veteran detective, the uncle to Affleck’s character.  Seeming to be impersonating his True Detective co-star Matthew McConnaughey’s laid back twang and sporting a confusing set of false teeth, Harrelson adds some spark to the film…but at what some significant cost to his overall effectiveness.

It’s a rather mulligan stew of a picture and it’s too long by a good twenty minutes, but Triple 9 isn’t a totally unwelcome guest.  Might be worth a lazy matinee day but it could easily wait to take up your time at home.

Movie Review ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As the war of Panem escalates to the destruction of other districts by the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant leader of the rebellion, must bring together an army against President Snow, while all she holds dear hangs in the balance.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Michelle Forbes

Director: Francis Lawrence

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Unlike many readers of Suzanne Collins trilogy of novels, I wasn’t as disappointed in the final entry as most.  For me, all three books had their high and low points but Mockingjay was the one that felt like it had the most consequences within its pages.  It wasn’t an easy read with the fates of several characters being painfully revealed so it was with great trepidation that I approached The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 because I knew what lay ahead.

I still feel deep down inside that Mockingjay should have been released as one long movie.  Audiences are willing to sit through a three hour (cinema) tour if the characters are appealing and the story engaging and I spent the first hour of Part 2 thinking that it came across as the middle part of a longer film, opening with the part where the action dips and audiences are given a breather before the final act begins.  It was a mistake on my part to not re-watch Part 1 before because the film isn’t concerned with bringing anyone up to speed.  Needless to say, I can’t write a review of Part 2 without including some spoilers from the previous films so…you’ve been warned.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook, as usual investing herself 130%) is still reeling after being violently reunited with a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), her former ally and would-be love interest.  That pushes her back into the arms of brawny Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2) and she still can’t seem to make-up her mind as to who she believes she should be with.  There’s no time for dewy eyed romance though with the final drive underway by the rebel army to seize the Capitol and destroy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People) before he can deploy more troops to wipe them off the map.

With the rebels being led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, looking fierce with a short haircut, cat-like contacts, and a wardrobe that feels Jetsons-esque) under the advisement of Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, in his last film role), Katinss finds a way back to the front line after being remanded to merely being the figurehead mascot of a force of people fighting for their freedom.  Katniss has her sights set on Snow and will do anything to be the one to end his reign, if she (along with a small band of allies and officers) can avoid the booby trapped city blocks that lie ahead.

I never noticed it until my partner pointed it out to me but with its prominent golden eagles and red color schemes, the leaders in the Capitol have a distinct Nazi vibe going on.  Themes of oppression and barbarism plague our real-life news feed and Collins’ novels tapped into some of that.  While her world has definite fantastical elements, the underlying message of independence hard won is prescient.

The film is light on softness, deciding instead to keep its edges razor sharp and unforgiving.  It’s not, I repeat not, a movie parents should remotely consider bringing their young children to.  I’d ask parents to heed the PG-13 rating and know that it probably should have carried an R due to the amount of violence and frightening sequences of death.  The carnage here is a far cry from the good old days of the first movie where young prospects picked each other off to become the victor of The Hunger Games.  Here, the losses are devastating and uncompromising…making for emotional and exhaustive viewing.

After taking over for original director Gary Ross, Francis Lawrence (no relation to our star) has helmed the remaining films and done so without making concessions.  From the production elements to the costume design and make-up, there’s a fully realized world on display, one that resembles ours but feels distant.  Is it futuristic?  Other-worldly? Yes and yes…but it also feels like it could be happening mere years from now.  That’s a scary thought and one not to dwell too much on.

Since the first film was released, Jennifer Lawrence has become a true movie star with an Oscar under her belt yet she doesn’t show any signs of boredom with her involvement here.  Other actresses may have started phoning these in once the first checks had cleared but Lawrence takes her job seriously…maybe a bit too seriously at times.  No matter, the film has become the success it has largely due to her and the emotional depth she’s brought to a complicated character.  Hutcherson too has evolved nicely over the course of the films, not just as his character but as an actor.

The main players involved are all given their due (even if Hoffman’s final speech is relegated to being read by Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me) and the good-byes have a sting to them.  Watch the final shot of the exquisitely styled Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) as Effie Trinket and you’ll see how so much can be sadness can be conveyed with a single expression.  I wish there were more for Jena Malone to do as Johanna Mason, a tough as nails former victor that both reviles and envies Katniss.  Malone made a grand entrance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and has been a value add to the series ever since.  The final moments of the film may come off as maudlin and treacly to the more jaded among us but it feels like a fitting tying off of a well taken care of commodity.

There’s talk of the studio working on a new sequel or a prequel and I would beg of them to drop it.  There’s plenty more YA literature waiting for their moment in the cinematic sunshine and the four films that have comprised The Hunger Games franchise have earned their chance to be distinguished.  Don’t muck it up.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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Synopsis: After being symbolized as the “Mockingjay”, Katniss Everdeen and District 13 engage in an all-out revolution against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: This is going to be a tough one. The final chapter of The Hunger Games film series arrives this November and brings with it the highest of anticipations on going out with a bang. Though fans were divided over the third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, I found it be the most satisfying because it’s when the consequences of action became a reality. It’s a somber finale, to be sure, but the franchise has earned the right to get as dark as it wants. I felt that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 was downright scary and I know the worst is yet to come…so hold on tight. Starring Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Jena Malone (Inherent Vice), Sam Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman), Josh Hutcherson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), Stanley Tucci (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Liam Hemsworth (The Expendables 2), Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master).

 

Reviews of
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen reluctantly becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts: We aren’t that far off now from the beginning of the end for the tale of Katniss Everdeen. Though I’m no fan at all of the recent popular trend of splitting every film franchise written as a trilogy into four movies, in the case of this second sequel to The Hunger Games it may turn out to be a good thing. I’ve yet to read the book the film is based on (choosing instead to read it closer to the release date) but fans of the series have always been divided as to where Mockingjay stands against its printed predecessors with some loving it and some condemning it. So there’s room in two movies for the makers to right some potential wrongs devotees of Katniss and her quest may still be smarting over. It’s going to be a mega-watt blockbuster no matter what…but will Part 1 be more than a device to set the stage for the final hurrah? 

Check out my review of The Hunger Games here

Check out my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire here

Check out my review of the teaser trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 here

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen reluctantly becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’m still not crazy about the last book of The Hunger Games trilogy being split into two parts being released this year and next, I have to admit being fairly excited for November to roll around so I can get a look at the first chapter in the epic finale. I’ve held off on reading the book until the release is closer but based on how well The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire made their way to the big screen, I have high hopes that these next two installments will maintain the gold standard of its predecessors. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Julianne Moore (Carrie), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), and Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) should be sitting pretty this Thanksgiving.

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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Movie Review ~ Out of the Furnace

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.

Stars: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana, Sam Shepard

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: One could be forgiven if one missed the fact that the crime drama Out of the Furnace was released amongst the higher profile films this holiday season.  With so many choices up for consumption in our multiplexes it can be easy to miss these more character driven films that eschew mind numbing special effects in favor of honest performances that work their own kind of magic on an audience.

I myself almost missed the movie, nearly letting it slide to my “Watch at Home” pile that tends to get loaded up around this time of year.  Something drew me to the film, however, and I’m glad I made the effort because with stellar performances, crafty direction, and an overall ominous feeling of danger Out of the Furnace may just find itself on my shortlist for favorite films of 2013.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) proves again that he doesn’t need a batsuit or a big budget to show he’s a helluva good actor in his performance as Russell Baze.  A good natured man that keeps a watchful eye over his brother (Casey Affleck, ParaNorman, showing again that the Affleck Talent gets better with age), uncle (Sam Shepard, Mud) and his dying father, all while holding down a job in the town mill.  When a mistake puts Russell in prison for several years, he’s faced with finding new ground in his old life when he returns home.  What could have been another reworking of a tired plotline turns dark when Russell’s brother goes missing and he sets out to find the people responsible.

Don’t think that this is a variance on Death Wish, though, even if the look, feel, and performances seem to be plucked right out of the mid 70’s.  This is a character driven story written by Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) that lets the actors do the heavy lifting in a script that’s relatively light on dialogue if you really sit down and think about it.

Along with Bale and Affleck’s rock solid performances, Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) makes for a frightening hick at the center of a ring of bare knuckle fighting and drugs.  Harrelson started out as a dim bulb light comic on Cheers and continues to produce diverse and interesting performances, refusing to be pigeon-holed in one genre.  I wasn’t sure about Willem Dafoe’s (John Carter) greasy loan shark at first, thinking that 10 years ago he would have played Harrelson’s role but something about his duck tailed hair and cheaply fancy clothing rang true.  Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) seems a tad too old for his character but still manages to smooth things out thanks to his smartly restrained instincts.  If there’s a nitpick to pick, I’d say that everyone in the film seemed to be going for a whiskey soaked manner of speaking that came off feeling like everyone was trying to “out gravelly voice” each other.  Whitaker, in particular, sounds just this shade of producing a sound that appears to have originated near his belly button.

This is male heavy film with only Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the lone female with a substantial role (I’d say there are about 4 small female speaking roles in the entire film).  In fact, the movie is so testosterone heavy that even the daintiest of ladies should bring their travel Nair with them in case they were to sprout a mustache during the films running length.

Cooper has assembled all these strong parts into a grim, gritty experience that’s aided by strong location shooting from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey) in a Pennsylvania industrial town and a moody score from Dickon Hinchliffe.  I don’t think Cooper needed an extra shot in the final moments of the film but aside from that the movie is edited to keep things moving without sacrificing the strong work the cast is putting forth.

So if you can find this one in theaters, know that the other blockbuster choices will still be waiting for you in a few weeks and try this one out instead.  Those who warm to smoldering dramas with a hard edge will find a reason to head into Cooper’s Furnace.