The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games - Catching FireReleased: November 22, 2013. Directed by: Francis Lawrence. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth. Runtime: 146 min.

If you don’t feel like reading this 11-paragraph review, the most hyperbolic sentence is probably: “This is immensely enjoyable and one of the year’s strongest films.”

It’s impressive when big blockbuster sequels can improve over their predecessor in significant ways. What’s even more impressive is that the writers manage to make a great adaptation of a decent book. The film opens up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting, something that used to give her more solace than it does now. When she hunts and kills a turkey, she gets flashbacks to killing Marvel in the Hunger Games arena; which is something that creatively compelled me right away. One can tell from her eyes that she is saddened, and is suffering from guilt.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland) meets with the young victor to try to prevent an uprising within the Districts of Panem. Katniss has convinced most of the people of the Districts of the love shared between her and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but she hasn’t convinced Snow. As seen in the film’s trailers, the 75th annual Hunger Games is a Quarter Quell to remind a new generation of those who fell within the Rebellion seventy-five years ago. This time, President Snow is also using it as a way to remind the people of Panem that no one is invincible – and to that, the names for the Reaping will be drawn from the existing pool of victors; thus saying, Katniss and Peeta or Haymitch will have to fight in the games once again, this time against trained killers.

There are many new characters introduced, but I’ll only discuss a few. Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is the gamemaker that replaces Senecca Crane (Wes Bentley) – and he’s far more interesting. There only a few tributes remembering, and they are the District 3 tribute Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), a technology wizard; Wiress (Amanda Plummer) of District 3; Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “Snow White and the Huntsman“) of District 4; Mags (Lynn Cohen) of District 4; and the tough-as-nails Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) of District 7. The returning characters are basically everyone who didn’t get killed off in the 74th Hunger Games. I’ll just move onto the performances because you already know the characters’ names.

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss, giving an even stronger performance than the first time around. This is because the character now realizes that she won’t have any privacy; and she doesn’t yet know what to do – love Peeta, which all people in the Capitol expect, or love Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her hunting buddy. I wish she could just play a game of Eenie-Meenie Miney-Mo, but it’s not that easy. The character is now suffering from post-traumatic stress, it seems to me, because she had to kill many people to survive in that arena last year. It is never really clear if she’s in love with Peeta or not, because she claims it’s just for the camera – but sometimes it seems real; so what the hell does her heart want? Lawrence is great at displaying all of her complicated emotions as the cheeky Everdeen. She is a great character, regardless, and she’s a real fighter – especially for those she loves. She’s always emotionally touching.

Josh Hutcherson is strong as Peeta, because he’s hurt because he realizes Katniss’ love for him was just for the cameras – but like I said, it’s kind-of in between the two of being real and fake at times. Woody Harrelson is very funny as Haymitch and great at being serious. Sam Claflin is likeable as Finnick Odair, and he acts decently throughout. Lynn Cohen’s role of Mags isn’t a talking one, and I can’t recall if she was a mute in the novel; but she is a real sweetheart. Stanley Tucci is still awesome and eccentric as Caesar Flickerman, the eccentric talk-show host of everyone’s dreams.

The plot is strong because it has spectacular pacing for a 146-minute feature. Much like the first film, the Games themselves are only a part of this story. The concept of this dysoptian future fascinates me; and I like how it marries this futuristic culture with the bread en circuses of Ancient Roman culture. This is where the government gives food and entertainment to the people to keep them happy, so they won’t revolt against the government. In this case, the government is the Capitol, they give enough food to the people to keep the districts from starving, and the actual people of the Capitol have so much food, they drink an elixir that makes them throw up so they can stuff more in. The entertainment is of course, the Games. Suzanne Collins, the book’s author, must be fascinated with Ancient cultures – since she borrows that from Rome, and since a main tribute (Finnick) has a trident, used by the Greek god Poseidon.

I like the world Collins has created a lot because it’s hauntingly like our own in some ways; at least the entertainment way. These people actually watch a legitimate fight to the death, which would be morally wrong in this time to have that, but for cinema, it’s a great premise. I love movies like this (“The Condemned” is a guilty pleasure of mine), but this one is definitely not all about the killing. Half the time, the kills happen so fast that it’s to tell exactly who dies. Perhaps many of the tributes’ names aren’t revealed to us, because they just don’t have any identity that way – and they’re not that critical to the story in a few ways, so we won’t really care too much that they die. But when the villains die, I’d just like to see a bit more of the violence.

An unrealistic part of this all is the lack of blood during practically all of the kills. It is a PG-13 rated film, but realism should take precedence over ratings. A problem with the film is that, even with characters we know, when they die we just shrug it off with many because, we know only one person can survive, but it’s also because we don’t get much bonding time with them. That is a problem with one character Katniss befriends in the first film, when that person dies. (I’m trying not to spoil it too much!)

I like the iminent threats of the arena in this film, because they’re creative and happen at inconvenient times. It seems that there are more natural threats created by the gamemakers this time around than the previous film; and it keeps the action exciting. This story’s also strong because the film can just focus on the government politics of the potential uprising and trying to stop it by using fear and constant floggings to destroy the people’s spirit; and it can also focus on the Games.

The glamour of the Capitol people isn’t so in our face this time, but that’s because we were introduced to it in the first – and by now it just seems normal. The make-up and costume design is even better, especially a jaw-dropping piece for Katniss “created” by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). One thing that is way better is the cinematography because the new director, Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), doesn’t feel the need to move the camera around when people are just simply talking. Gary Ross did that, even when no action was occuring – and he did it a lot more when action was happening. No shaky cam makes me a happy camper, and I am sure it will please others, too.

There isn’t a lot of this film I don’t like, even if there are certain aspects it can improve on – but it has to appeal to the target audience. It’s still an immensely enjoyable movie and one of the year’s strongest films. I’ve seen this twice already, and that’s a rare occurence for me. (It’s great in both IMAX and 2D.) One more thing: The scenery is simply stunning. Reading the book is one thing, but to see this all come to life through its creative settings and beautiful landscapes, is just another whole spectacular feeling.

Score90/100

Epic (2013)

Epic

Release Date: May 24, 2013

Director: Chris Wedge

Stars (voices): Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Colin Farrell

Runtime: 102 min

Blue Sky Studios is best known for their Ice Age movies. Chris Wedge, co-director of that franchise, goes solo with Epic, the third animated movie of 2013 (after Escape from Planet Earth and The Croods). It follows the female protoganist, M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), who is forced to re-locate to the home of her estranged father, Professor Bomba (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), after her mother’s death. Her father is an eccentric character, as he is convinced there are tiny people living out in the woods.

It turns out, there is. But it’s a little more complex than that. It’s a challenge of good and evil of the Leaf Men, who, by protecting the queen (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles), preserve the life of the forest; but the evil Boggans threaten them with powers of decay. Today is the day Queen Tara must pick the pod to be the heir to her throne. M.K. is mixed up with this world when she is turned from a stomper (the Leaf Men term of big humans) to a little miniature human. She must team up with a crew to help keep the pod away from the malevolent leader of the Boggans, Mandrake (voiced by Christoph Waltz), in order to save their world, and ours.

It must be expected that a movie called Epic really won’t be so damn epic. It turns out to be a good, light-hearted animated flick that teaches kids about teamwork and that, even if you feel alone, you truly aren’t. It’s a nice message, and the way the filmmakers portray it is imaginative and admirable. The animation has a great, human look and feel to it. It might as well be an animated version of The Borrowers, just with very mild action sequences, in a very fun, but forgettable story.

It’s an old-fashioned, good vs. the forces of evil, predictable and formulaic ride. The imaginative action sequences are fun and have intensity present. There’s a lot of room for imagination at play, but there are only a few notable characters. The main Boggan, Mandrake, is often psychotic and threatening for a children’s movie, but nothing that will have kiddies waking up in the middle of the night with nightmares. He has some memorable lines, but he’s more underwhelming than anyone could believe a character portrayed by Christoph Waltz could ever be.

Nod (Josh Hutcherson) is a misfit Leaf Man who needs to learn about teamwork, and the primary Leaf Man, Ronin (Colin Farrell), is precisely the man to teach it to him. He’s a no-nonsense character, and Queen Tara desperately wants to see his smiling face. She requests this in a truly dull fashion. I don’t have much praise to hand out to Knowles, Hutchison, Seyfried or really even Farrell, but I don’t have anything to fault them for, either. They just don’t stand out so well. Many of the characters have good lines, but you’ll forget their names (most notably Bomba, Bufo, and M.K.) as soon as you walk out of the theatre.

There are four characters whose names and presences no one will forget anytime soon. Nim Guluu is the “rock-star” information keeper of the miniature world, appropriately voiced by rock star Steven Tyler. There’s also a silly, three-legged dog who mostly just runs in circles. The laid-back slug called Mub (Aziz Ansari) and his uptight snail associate, Grub (Chris O’Dowd), are the true scene-stealers of the movie. They’re hilarious in the way Mub thinks he has a chance with M.K., and how Grub is an aspiring Leaf Man. (Let that irony sink in for a second.) They’re never annoying, always funny, and the movie is at its most lively when they’re on-screen. Who thought slimy little things could be so appealing?

Epic isn’t quite, y’know, epic, but it’s a predictable and funny ride that is a blast once it really gets going. For the most part, it’s about as memorable as its generic title. The great animation and hilarious and slimy scene-stealers make this memorable, and something worth watching twice. Christoph Waltz, to his best ability, rocks his role and he shines when Mandrake is at his most psychotic. You care for the protagonists, because no one wants to see a forest rot to the ground, right?

74/100

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

Cirque du FreakCirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

Release Date: October 23, 2009

Director: Paul Weitz

Stars: John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia

Runtime: 109 min

Teenager, Darren Shan, meets a mysterious man at a freak show who turns out to be a Vampire. After a series of events Darren must leave his normal life and go on the road with the Cirque Du Freak and become a Vampire.

This isn’t near-awful, but it isn’t that good, either. The character’s ambitions are strange, like how Hutcherson’s character aspires to become a vampire… It’s fairly obsessive and weird. This is sort-of a stange blend of supernatural wars and events, but it also touches on teenage angst. Mostly how Hutcherson’s character feels he is surrounded by idiots and isn’t accepted; and the non-normative transformations certain characters endure.

Chris Massolgia won’t make you want to root for Darren. He’s just a dull presence. Also, it was so hard to care for him at times, I was rooting for the friend-turned-foe, Hutcherson. This is just a really forgettable flick. It’s one of those movies that is decent to watch on TV when nothing interesting is on; or one might put on when they’re just puttering or dabbling on the computer. It’s effective background noise.

The style and cinematography are great, and there are some engaging scenes. It’s refreshing to see a comedy director (Paul Weitz, American Pie) take on something so strange. The thing is… The story isn’t that interesting. It’s about some fat guy called Tiny who tries to spark a war between two vampire clans. One of the clans has a vegan attitude (the side Darren and Crepsley are on), and the opposing side has that stereotypical, blood-sucking, fleash-eatin’ attitude. The screenplay is written by Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland (the guy behind L.A. Confidential). One would think a screenplay co-written by Helgeland would be so much better!

John C. Reilly works the role of Crepsley. Overall; it’s slightly creepy, but it’s a mostly bland, strange tale of the supernatural. It’s a weird genre blend, and some of it just doesn’t work. You probably won’t be begging for a sequel. This is, at its most basic, a movie about teenage angst set during a war between vampires with an Olive Garden lifestyle and vampires with an Epic Meal Time (just with human meat, kinda thing) lifestyle.

54/100

Red Dawn (2012)

Red Dawn

Release Date: November 21, 2012

Director: Dan Bradley

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Josh Peck

Runtime: 114 min

Tagline: Heroes are made in America

Oh look, Chris Hemsworth is in a second movie this year where he goes to a cabin in the woods.

Jed Eckhart, an experienced soldier on leave, leads a group of teenagers to the forest as a way of escaping the North Korean soldiers that have just attacked their town. Soon enough, they form a terrorist group called the Wolverines, and they plan to take the town back from the North Koreans.

Directed by newcomer to the directing game, Dan Bradley, this is a remake of the 1984 cult classic of the same name (which I haven’t seen). Apparently, the only thing that is really changed is the invaders are North Korean, not the Soviet Union like the original. You may think that sounds like a promising story, but you’d be wrong.

The film opens with some compiled archive footage explaining a situation in North Korea where Kim Jong Il has recently died, and the people are furious for some reason. It just feels disorganized and it was a very dumb history lesson. It sort of sets the tone for the film and adds some context on what’s to come, but it isn’t easy to appreciate.

The plot has a fine pace, but there really isn’t any story at all. It’s just a series of events where The Wolverines attack North Korean forces, steal flat bread, meat and soda from a Subway, and just generally wreak havoc as a way to take back their town. The action comes around a lot, and that’s pretty nice, but that doesn’t leave any time for much character or plot development. The action is just a whole lot of explosions and lots of bullets being shot. For any lover of war violence, they’ll eat it up, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to something like the great action of Saving Private Ryan.

Sometimes my suspension of disbelief is really stretched. At some points, the North Koreans had perfect opportunities to shoot at the so-called Wolverines, but they didn’t take that golden opportunity. Or, they widely missed. Wouldn’t they have had military training? Who’s training them, Forrest Gump? “Just keep staring, and staring, and staring. That’s all I have to say about that.”
The dialogue is very, very poor. One character asks “Legit?” and he doesn’t even bother to say the full word. Another character says, “I’m not giving you dick!” The context, though, is when character asks the person to give him the gun, but he refuses and utters that stupid line. Who wrote this screenplay, a white thirteen year old wannabee gangster?

Red Dawn is filled with A-list and B-list actors who were fairly unknown when it was filmed in 2009. Since then, it has been stuck on the shelf, and it should have stayed that way. The action is non-stop, but that action is sometimes boring. One other poor thing about the film is the characters. They are one-dimensional, and I didn’t particularly care for any of them. Their motivations are to become heroes of the town and avenge the lives of their loved ones, and take their homes back. Some of them are particularly selfish, too. They are not easy to admire or respect, so when any of them gets killed off, the viewer could easily rub it off their shoulders and forget about it. Whenever the film tries to put in any character development, it’s pretty mediocre, and frankly, boring.

The list of Red Dawn‘s redeeming qualities is a very short one. The actors are great, but their source material is bad. There are some good action sequences, and there are some mediocre jokes to be offered (mostly from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his buddies). That’s about it. The acting is bad and the cinematography is very shaky, and the storyline isn’t a thick one. Red Dawn is a poor action film, and there are much better action films in theatres right now. If you feel you must see it (probably because of Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson or Josh Peck), and that is something I discourage, go in expecting a generally poor feature with amateurish direction.

40/100

Bridge to Terabithia (2007) Review

Bridge to Terabithia

Release Date: February 16, 2007

Director: Gabor Csupo

Stars: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel

Runtime: 96 min

Tagline: Discover a place that will never leave you, and a friendship that will change you forever.

Jess Aarons (Hutcherson) is a boy who feels out of place, but has a  great artsy talent. He has been training for to become the fastest runner in school, only to be beaten by Leslie Burke (Robb), the new girl in school. Soon, they find common interests and become friends. They create an imaginative kingdom of Terabithia out in the woods, that they escape to every day after school. This newfound friendship teaches him lessons that will stay with him for life.

Bridge to Terabithia is a poignant examination of a great friendship and great imagination. It is fairly slowly paced and can be boring, but it has a few great scenes.

The film is greatly thematic, including ones of imagination, denial,  acceptance and remorse. Apparently the book written by Katherine Paterson, which this was adapted from, was aimed more at a teen to young adult audience, while this is much more for children. It really is a film that can be enjoyed by kids with wicked imaginations.

Some scenes are boring and the plot is just a little silly. The visuals aren’t anything special, when they could have been great. That makes some of this feel like a real wasted opportunity. The beginning and middle act weren’t great, but the third act was emotionally poignant and pretty impressive.

It’s wickedly overacted, but it’s necessary for a film like this. Each actor’s performance is pretty great, because each one does an impressive job in making the viewer feel exactly how the character is. In this way, we can easily immerse ourselves into that often poignant atmosphere and sometimes really relate to some of the characters.

The character of Leslie Burke is nice, because she is just so imaginative and naturally real. She is someone who isn’t afraid to be herself. I also like the character of Jess and Leslie’s parents; and I liked the character of May Belle, Jess’ little sister, because she just really wanted to be included. I didn’t care for a lot of the others, though.

Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison and Lauren Clinton.

The plot can get a little ridiculous and boring, but it’s great for kids with imaginations. It is also impressive that it’s so poignant for children’s cinema. It just felt like a wasted opportunity because I didn’t like the visuals or anything.

64/100

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games

Release Date: March 23, 2012

Director: Gary Ross

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

Runtime: 143 min

Tagline: The World Will Be Watching.

 

I favor the book.

The film is set in an America which, after a war, has been renamed Panem in the future.  As a cruel reminder to the people of Panem for a past rebellion, two representatives from each district, one male and one female, are chosen to for an annual lottery (where no one in the lower districts will want to win) called the Hunger Games. The Games are a fight to the death, where twenty-three of the twenty-four young teens die, with one lone victor. The Hunger Games is an annual propaganda-based reality TV show favourite, for the people of the Capitol at least. This 74th Annual Hunger Games marks history for District 12, as it got its first volunteer, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss took her sister’s place and it was a noble act, indeed. She must use her hunting skills/wilderness experience and sense of direction to stand a fighting chance to survive.

It’s a really interesting film that uses propaganda as a main theme, and just shows how corrupt the government has really gotten. For the young adult audience, it’s a very fresh idea; but I have heard that this film feels like a big rip-off of the Japanese film that was released in 2000, Battle Royale. I haven’t seen that one, so it won’t taint my view of this film at all, so it felt like a fresh experience.

A lot of it feels like just a youth spin of Gladiator (which I still have to find the time to watch), and the film sort of reminded me of an old Roman thing, bread and circus. The bread means food which the emperor would give to the people of Rome, and the circus meant entertainment.

In this case, the President would give food the people, and that’s what going on here, as the tributes have the option to put their name in numerous times in the raffle as a way to get more food (even though they should be getting more food in the first place, as it is revealed in the second book [I don’t think it’s a really large spoiler] that the people of the Capitol drink this fluid that makes them vomit, so they can stuff their faces even more). The entertainment is most obviously the Hunger Games, which is a reality television show put on for the people of the Capitol, which is really a heinous occurrence which would be pretty bad if it happened in this day and age (granted, it does make for a pretty interesting film [or book] idea).

The film really is quite entertaining and an interesting experience and has a really great ensemble, with a few great characters (that the writers actually want you to connect in any way with) and very intense sequences. There’s some really memorable action sequences, but don’t expect a full-throttle action thriller. Expect a nice adventure flick with a great heroine (push over, Bella!) with some solid action sequences, and lots of adventure and a bit of dramatic science fiction futuristic material.

Okay, some stuff I didn’t like about it. The first is a spoiler and the second is pretty spoiler, but expected.

                                        *SORT OF SPOILER ALERT*         

I didn’t feel there was enough bonding time with Rue to be shared here. Not solid enough character development for her, as in the book.

I don’t see why Collins, like Stephenie Meyer, just had to add in a love triangle. It seems to be that it can’t be a young adult phenomenon without it. It’s very expected, so I didn’t really care for it; but at the same time is effective.

*END OF SPOILERS*

Okay guys, it’s pretty safe to read here. Some other stuff I didn’t dig about the film is that some of the material is a little unclear for those audience members who haven’t read the book, and I didn’t like that aspect of it. I would have thought that the loose ends of the background information would have been better connected with the actual author of the book (Suzanne Collins) having a writing credit for the film.

I feel that the film just needed a bit more violence to be better appreciated; readers could easily handle the violence portrayed in the book, so why couldn’t there be a lot more of it in the actual film? Sometimes young adult’s imaginations can be even more violent than what is portrayed on film, so I just didn’t care for it in that aspect. It couldn’t have even gone for a 14A rating? Or like a really strong 14A rating that could have been secured without going too far as to get an 18A rating? I know it’s a young adult audience, but seriously; more than half of the tributes were killed off screen.

In some ways it’s not an incredible adaptation, it isn’t quite on the same great caliber as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings but outshines (or should I say… out-sparkles? I’m calling you out, Edward) Twilight by great lengths.

I guess this film review, that’s turning into a bit of an essay, should reach its conclusion soon.

It’s a film with a great heroine, great performances (by Jennifer Lawrence especially, who I wish the Academy will be so bold to nominate her for Best Actress; which I doubt will happen), great action/adventure sequences, and a story that offers a fresh enough cinematic experience. The film is a bit lengthy (with the Games starting about 65 minutes into the film), but of course there must be some background  information to be shared here, which could have been better-developed at that. For Oscars, I think the film should get Academy recognition (or at least large award recognition) for its Costume Design, Make-Up jobs especially, and its Cinematography, and even maybe a Best Picture nomination.

The film has a dynamite cast with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead spot, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks (nearly recognizable, except for her voice, as Effie), Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Alexander Ludwig (Cato) and Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove; whom I know as the little psychopath from Orphan).

It’s a film with slow pacing at the beginning but gets great when it heats up, has many entertaining sequences, and could have been a better adaptation, as there’s a lot of room for improvement, but is a great experience for both young adults and even some adults can enjoy; and should be enjoyed by those who are willing to accept it for the quite unique adapted experience it offers.

80/100