American Hustle (2014)

★★★★

Director: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 20th, 2013 (US); January 1st, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner

“Some of this actually happened.”

These are the first words you see on screen as American Hustle rolls along the runway in preparation for a turbulent take-off. The next thing, an obtuse, balding Christian Bale spends a good few minutes chained to mirror, meticulously attempting to glue hair to his head. And it’s brilliant. One minute the film is poking fun at itself, the next it’s indulging in extended Hollywood grooming. Whether or not you actually believe that any of what is to come actually happened is irrelevant. Batman is fat and bald. Only he’s not Batman, he’s the first of five characters who, placed in any other film, could easily be dismissed as unlovable. Yet these characters, these jaded and faulting human beings are the epitome of most things great in American Hustle — and trust me, most things are great.

After a string of loan scams gone right, con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught cheque-handed by exuberant FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Along with a reluctant Sydney, who is posing as a Brit with banking connections, Irving is manipulated into joining DiMaso in a plan to take down four potentially corrupt political figures, including the well-meaning New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). If Irving does not oblige, he fears the loss of his adopted son from his marriage with an uncontrollable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

First thing’s first: American Hustle serves up an abundance of heart to go along with bountiful amounts of razzmatazz and wild hair-pieces, and this is no small part down to David O. Russell’s focused direction, a direction particularly zoned in on his characters. Since making The Fighter in 2010, Russell has admitted that people are the most important elements of his films, that they infuse soul into his work, and this is certainly true here. At best the plot is slightly overloaded, but then it probably should be given the elaborate scam unfolding on screen. Russell deflects all attention away from these various narrative layers and strands though, and gives his characters the limelight. Unselfishly too — this character-based production style is something that doesn’t always necessarily invite directorial attention, rather the actors take most of the plaudits. However Russell’s passion for people, which is as much on display in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as it is here, means he most likely doesn’t want all the plaudits no matter how much he deserves them.

It’s not often that a truly A-list cast amalgamates where each actor delivers a tip-top performance. Normally, either there’s not enough material to satisfy so many hungry egos, or a severe case of weary cheque-collecting goes on. This could not be further from the truth in American Hustle, as the five stars bring out the absolute best and most flamboyant in one another. As Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale is the centrepiece of events, the instigator of many of the crazy goings-on (whether he likes it or not). “He had this air about him.” Sydney is absolutely correct. At the beginning, you get the feeling Irving is growing tired of his surroundings, he’s let himself go but not so far as to come across as weak — what we see externally is carefully tended (the hair), what we don’t see is tucked away (the stomach). It’s not until the glamorous and vibrant Sydney Prosser glances over into his life that Irving experiences an ambience of regeneration. Adams embodies seduction; she mesmerises the viewer as much as she does Bale and it’s obvious her character Sydney (or is it Evelyn?) has had a lot of practice in hiding charmingly behind a veil of otherness.

Bradley Cooper, who put in a career-best performance in David O. Russell’s previous film, is astoundingly funny as Richie DiMaso. He has the 70s jumping off him: a curly perm, outlandish clothing and that wise-cracking demeanour, one which harks back to more serious crime outputs such as Goodfellas, and even Scarface. DiMaso manoeuvres in the opposite direction to that of Irving — he becomes too cocky, dragged into a world of madness. As American Hustle trumpets on, it becomes an electric game of one-upmanship between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso. Nobody really knows who is playing who. There’s an air of unpredictability about proceedings. All of this makes for more compelling viewing as the sentiment hanging-on-every-word becomes agreeably essential.

Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is another firecracker in this celebration of absurdity and Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at the character. She delivers many of the funniest lines very well (“Don’t put metal in the science oven”) yet still manages to evoke heartfelt sympathy. It’s clear Rosalyn is under appreciated, struggles with demons and craves some consistent attention from Irving, or anyone really. To be able to stand on, and subsequently pull off, both sides of fence — the staunchly comedic and starkly vulnerable — is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence’s ability as an actor and storyteller. Newcomer to the David O. Russell school of actors (perhaps the coolest club going in Hollywood) is Jeremy Renner, a welcome addition. As Mayor Polito, Renner is more likeable than ever in a very different role from those he has partaken in recently. His outrageous facial expressions during a sing-a-long with Bale is a standout moment.

Harking back to David O. Russell’s preferred filmmaking style, behind all of the madness, these characters still feel like real people (they listen to each other’s phone calls in the other room for heaven’s sake). None of them really want to be where they are. Perhaps they are wearily sucked in, or can’t seem to find a way out. Better lives, that’s all they’re after. They create attractively unattractive personas in order to acclimatise to the anarchy. Yet you still want to love them in the end. Unlike the plot, which arguably outstays its welcome, not one single character does.

The saying ‘never a dull moment’ has rarely been more fitting. Everything here is so over the top and brash. When names such as Carmine Polito and Victor Tellegio are sprayed around, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of entertainment on show. There absolutely is a sense of indulgence, but it’s more than simply self-indulgence, rather a communal kind between filmmaker and audience. A conversation about coriander and perfume smelling like “flowers, but with garbage” essentially sums up American Hustle: it sort of doesn’t make sense, but the circus-like pandemonium makes the film great because it allows people to thrive and evolve.

I left the cinema thinking American Hustle was a good film, and many hours later it is still growing on me. There is a good chance it will for a long time. It’s euphoria and desolation. Furious and funny. Organised chaos which descends (or ascends) into disorganised chaos. Somewhere along the way, Bradley Cooper, in his most vociferous New Yoik accent says, “You might even get sick of me!” He could be referring to the fabulous five on show (or six, if you include David O. Russell).

If so, honestly Bradley? Not in the slightest.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Francis Lawrence

Release Date: November 21st, 2013 (UK); November 22nd, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

They always say it. It’s almost an unwritten rule in franchise filmmaking. Premature reviewing at its most uninspiring. “The sequel will never beat the original.” Of course I am paraphrasing here and my source is general social cinematic norms rather than cold, hard evidence. But it is certainly true that sequels have a lot to live up to, particularly when they find themselves following on the heels of a successful franchise opener.

Interestingly, even after The Hunger Games delivered thought-provoking sub-plots, new Hollywood superstars and overall cinematic enjoyment in abundance, the onset of Catching Fire has been met with optimism and even more positive hype than its predecessor. Of course there’s pressure, but there hasn’t really been any noticeable apprehension over a potential disaster in regards to the second big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novels.

And why should there be?

Under new leadership, with fresh faces and even fresher faces, Catching Fire forcefully retains all of the progress made by The Hunger Games and elevates the franchise to new heights. The film is weightier, slicker, more intense, and once again boasts a number of glowing performances. Francis Lawrence (no relation) directs an orchestra lead by The Girl on Fire as they collectively strike all of the correct notes, creating a sequel which has its volume up loud as it transmits a clear message of hope and defiance.

A short time after their unprecedented joint-victory in the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are distant with each other and the world around them, and are preparing to embark on a Victory Tour. Still reeling psychologically from her experiences in the games, Katniss finds herself thrown directly under President Snow’s evil spotlight as he strives to quench any potential district-driven rebellion against his autocratic Capitol. The film opens moodily, reflecting the ominous on-edge feeling amongst the district-dwellers that the previous instalment developed so well. Its physical scope travels far and wide with landscapes displaying an icy exterior mirroring that of the mechanical, desensitised hierarchy — an unrelenting mechanism represented at its most negligent by the metal claw disposing of the deceased.

Perceived by the oppressed as a beacon of hope against fear, Katniss and Peeta are subject to re-entry into the Hunger Games tournament, this time alongside fellow victors from the past in a master-plan devised by recently introduced Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his Hunger Games debut as Heavensbee, demonstrating Darth Vader-esque inequalities at times. His deceiving, snake-like delivery is as skin-crawling as it should be. Katniss represents all that is right in a world riddled by wrong, therefore she must be stopped and placing her back into the murderous tournament is Snow’s means of doing so. After all, “Nobody ever wins the Games”.

There is an underlying sense of good versus evil here, but more significantly a battle of hope versus fear. Katniss defines hope, regardless of whether she herself believes it, and having been plagued by fear for seventy-five years, the people of Panem are finally bearing witness to a means of resistance. This notion of defiance plays out in various subconsciously related instances as the film progress; be it through Gale’s encounter with the viscous and ironically-named Peacekeepers, or Cinna’s symbolic garment creations. The actors, writers and director each fulfil their role in successfully creating a dynamic which sees the audience entirely on the side of Katniss, without proceedings ever balling over into a territory of jadedness. Any semblance of an upper-hand gained by the resistance is a triumphant one.

Jennifer Lawrence once again shines as Katniss (sometimes literally) as she steers the bow-wielding heroine through the emotionally wrought rigours, and is quite simply a delight to watch on screen. Her steady evolution from a reluctant and isolated victim of the games to a determined leader is unblemished. Both Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have more to do this time around and Hutcherson’s volunteer scene is perhaps the most poignant of the piece.

Newcomers Jena Malone and Sam Claflin embody the characteristics of past victors Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair to a T, with both the latter’s charm and the former’s abrasiveness in full flow. “Attitude” is the new “mahogany” for Elizabeth Banks’ Effie, who is as flamboyant as before but who also delivers movingly on occasion. An abundance of tension lies beneath the pretension of the Capitol resident — she essentially becomes a token of distinction between the harmless ignorant and pure tyranny, a tyranny of cruelty displayed by Donald Sutherland as President Snow. The ensemble cast deliver performances devoid of weakness, providing Catching Fire and the lead actors a solid backbone to impress from.

A common criticism aimed at The Hunger Games was the extensive use of shaky cam by director Gary Ross, intended to bring a sense of immediacy and danger to proceedings (which, incidentally, it did). Francis Lawrence opts for far less of the bumbling camera work this time around, instead focusing on the contrast between the expansive, free landscapes and capturing the troubled, constrained essence of the Katniss and company. These contrasts diverge further from just the narrative, as melodic instrumentals battle the thumping, grandiose Capitol soundtrack.

Catching Fire is far more encompassing that its predecessor, both visually and thematically, and as a consequence of delving further into the themes of oppression, resistance and trust, it carries more burden that the first instalment. Distressing scenes are almost commonplace in a distressing universe. Francis Lawrence has done exceptionally well in getting a 12A rating for his film here in the UK, and should also be commended for pushing the envelope when it would’ve been far simpler to develop a film containing less weighty elements than those Catching Fire rightly and necessarily displays.

The film is the most anticipated sequel of the year — possibly one of the most anticipated of the last number of years — and it without doubt lives up to its title. The Hunger Games conglomeration certainly is catching fire, and on this evidence who knows when its spark will burn out.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Out November 21st, 2013)

Around the end of March last year, I ventured up to Cineworld in Glasgow and settled down to watch The Hunger Games — code adhered to, of course. The adverts I had seen on the television beforehand had looked fairly interesting and although I was expecting to watch an enjoyable film, I certainly did not expect to like The Hunger Games as much as I did. The film was more or less critically lauded and I have already mentioned in a previous Genre Toppers post that I think The Hunger Games is very good and a film which, when I first watched it back in March 2012, far exceeded my expectations. In fact, after seeing a few times since then, I think it is even better on second and third viewings.

On to today then and switching focus to the future of the franchise with this post, which will hopefully act as an informative and entertaining (okay, perhaps just informative) preview looking ahead to the next instalment of Suzanne Collins’ novels: Catching Fire. Unlike when I went to see the first film, I have read the book which the second is based on and therefore I more less know what is going to happen, thus I have a lot of confidence that Catching Fire will be an even greater success than its predecessor, which took just under $700 million from a budget of just under $80 million. Since then, the franchise has become one of the most actively popular today, and this popularity is only likely to increase as the second instalment nears its release.

The first trailer for Catching Fire was unveiled to the world a few months back and set the scene for another storming outing, which this time will be directed by Francis Lawrence (director of I Am Legend and, more recently, Water for Elephants). The second trailer, released today at the San Diego Comic Con, goes into a bit more detail about the story and we even get a glimpse at some of the new characters. Trailers often give away too much these days, and I do think the new Catching Fire trailer shows quite a lot, but one thing is for certain: it is on an epic scale. Hopefully Francis Lawrence can do what Gary Ross done so well for The Hungers Games, and keep the focus on the characters in a film which will move along at break-neck speed at times.

Please keep those pinky fingers down.

It goes without saying that Jennifer Lawrence is up there with the most-talked about actors on the planet — it also goes without saying that I think she is the most talented out there at present — and she will more than likely pick up from exactly where she left off last time around as Katniss Everdeen, in Catching Fire. Josh Hutcherson is back as her love interest and fellow Hunger Games victor Peeta Mellark, and Liam Hemsworth is sure to see more screen time here as her best friend and another District 12 resident, Gale Hawthorne. Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and company will also return for Catching Fire, which will also see newcomers such as Sam Claflin and Jena Malone offer their hands in making the film the success which it is bound to be. The newcomer I am most looking forward to seeing is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is set to portray Plutarch Heavensbee and who comes across delightfully smug and sinister alongside the untouchable Donald Sutherland in the first trailer in particular.

With a somewhat covertly semi-political backdrop accompanied by elements of class-relations and discrimination, combined with characters who the audience care about and will root for and action which should appease the masses, Catching Fire could well be on its way to becoming the biggest film of the year come November, and I for one am certainly looking forward to seeing it on the big screen back in Cineworld in Glasgow.

Below is the brand new trailer for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Dystopian

A personal favourite of mine, the dystopian genre covers all of those films set in a structured, uncompromising society — the opposite of a utopia. More often than not, the society in question is a less-than-flattering one, or one which favours the minority at the expense of the majority. These films tend to portray suppression in one form or another, with freedoms and rights being brought into question. However this is not always the case, and at times the dystopian aspect is used purely as a setting, rather than the focus of a film.

There are a number of variations on the dystopian setting: it covers anything from a government-ruled society to one dominated by otherworldly beings (or aliens) to a post-apocalyptic civilisation — a word I use lightly. I am taking the basis of a dystopia in its simplest form — that is, the one I described in the first sentence of this post. There will not be any zombie-related films in this list (even though the majority of zombie films are set in some sort of dystopian society) as I think those films deserve a list of their own.

I am going to follow a similar format to the one I used in my mystery genre toppers post. With that settled, I reckon it is time to get started.

Total Recall (2012)

A quick note: I will be covering the newer, 2012 version of Total Recall, because I have not seen the original 1990 version. However, based on comparisons between the two, I am sure the original version is just as, if not more, deserving to be on this list.

Len Wiseman’s remake of the 1990 original, Total Recall stars Colin Farrell as Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who visits Rekall — a place which allows its customers to live the life they wish for a period of time, but in their own mind — only to discover that his ‘desired’ life is his actual one. Thereafter, Quaid goes on a crusade to search for answers and is joined by a familiar woman, Melina (Jessica Biel), whilst at the same time being pursued by the woman he believed to be his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale).

Where The Dystopia Is Implemented

The story is set in the year 2084, in the aftermath of a worldwide war which has destabilised the earth. There now exists only two forms of civilisation — the wealthier United Federation of Britain (UFB) and the more desolate Colony (Australia). The only form of transport between the two is a massive elevator which travels through the Earth, known as the Fall.

“Ha! You’re just a couple of Star Wars knock-offs!”

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Intricate story: Although the film begins telling one story from the perspective of Colin Farrell’s character, after the Rekall scene, the whole outing essentially turns upside down with the focus now on the same character but in completely different circumstances. The fairly quick plot twist works well for me, as it allows the rest of the film to be primarily about piecing together earlier nonsensical snippets of information. Even though towards the end the film becomes a more stereotypical action flick, Wiseman does an excellent job in the first hour or so in achieving the correct challenging-yet-understandable balance, preventing the plot from being either too complicated or too simple.

Ambiguity: There will be a spoiler in this paragraph, so beware. In the cinematic version of the film, after Quaid and Melina embrace at the end, Quaid glances at a massive Rekall sign which beckons in the distance. On seeing this, I instantly thought that everything after the Rekall scene earlier in the film had all happened in Quaid’s mind. Of course, it is equally likely that Quaid staring at the Rekall sign is merely him acknowledging it saving him (without Rekall, he would still be completely unaware of who he really is). However, in the extended director’s cut, there is no tattoo on his forearm which had been placed there in the earlier Rekall scene. This appears to hint that, since the tattoo is gone, his present existence cannot be a true one, therefore it is an implanted memory and he is still sitting in the Rekall chair. Ah yes, I rather like ambiguous endings.

Awesome action: This is a straightforward one — the action sequences in Total Recall are brilliant. Combined with very impressive visuals, the fight and chase scenes are quick-paced, well-choreographed and exhilarating. Farrell has always been a solid action star, as has Beckinsale, meaning it comes as no real surprise that the quality of action in this film is pretty high, and that is not to mention Wiseman’s previous work with Beckinsale in Underworld and his dip into the Die Hard franchise.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps not better than the original (although that is still up for debate with me), Total Recall offers up all the necessary elements required for a very entertaining action film with an intelligent and well executed plot.

The Book of Eli (2010)

Released in 2010, The Book of Eli stars the ever-reliable Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman, and is directed by the Hughes Brothers. Washington plays a lone man, Eli, whose personal mission is to travel across a post-apocalyptic America in order to protect and deliver a special book to a safe place, as he believes this will protect mankind. On his travels, he encounters ruthless Carnegie (Oldman) who rules over a town and is after the book Eli carries.

Where The Dystopia Is Implemented

With no real form of government, the United States is a wasteland left behind by a nuclear apocalypse and is now ruled territoriality by those who have the ammunition to do so.

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

“Uh, i forgot the bullets.”

Fallout and fallout: Being a huge fan of the Fallout game franchise, I enjoyed The Book of Eli even more because it closely resembles those games. Everything from the wasteland setting, to both the minor and major characters, to the practice and execution of scavenging are all traits familiar to both the film and the games. But even though The Book of Eli so closely resembles Fallout, it never boils over into that unwanted territory where a film becomes a parody of a game, which often happens. We are seldom shown good films which have been based on a game — which is not to say that The Book of Eli is based on “Fallout 3”, because it is probably not.

Hopeless setting: No, not hopeless in the sense that the locations are rubbish and not any good. Hopeless in the sense that they appear to signify just that — a lack of hope for humanity. Set in the dusty, lifeless plains of a tarnished United States, the film conveys a complete lack of energy, which is essential for a post-apocalyptic setting. I am a big fan of these types of films (or television shows, like The Walking Dead) where, after a massive event, civilisation is fractured and scattered around rather than all holed up in one or two locations. It gives the situation an injection of realism, which is often necessary for the post-apocalyptic genre.

Convincing acting: Everybody in this film pulls their weight: Mila Kunis effectively portrays a daughter desperately seeking to get away from her unrelenting father, Gary Oldman, who’s bad performances are as common as pigs flying, and is once again on form here as a dominating, angry leader who lacks compassion. The star of the film however, both literally and figuratively, is Denzel Washington as Eli. Washington gives very little up to the audience in terms of emotion, yet he still manages to make Eli appear to be a good person who the viewer wants to root for (at least I did). There is a constant intrigue surrounding Eli and his relationship with the mysterious book he carries, which adds to the character and film as a whole.

Final Thoughts

The Book of Eli is very often bleak, but through the terrific performance of Washington, maintains a sense of hope and keeps the audience guessing until the very end.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Concocted by the incomparable Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange tells the wacky, unnerving story of delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell) who, along with his band of miscreants, or “droogs” as he labels them, traverses the streets of London causing mischief and engaging in “ultra-violence”. The film then follows Alex’s impending arrest and subsequent attempted rehabilitation through a variety of unethical methods.

Where The Dystopia Is Implemented

A Clockwork Orange is set in a futuristic London, where society seems to operate slightly differently from the way society operates in the present day.

“Please, no more Made in Chelsea!”

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Kubrick masterclass: Stanley Kubrick is without doubt one of the greatest directors the film industry has ever seen. Often adapting books rather than screenplays, Kubrick tended to focus on elevating key themes in his films and A Clockwork Orange is no different. Kubrick regarded A Clockwork Orange as, “a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is, at the same time, a lecture on free-will”. I am nowhere near as critically competent as millions of others out there, but I do love watching and writing about films and, without knowing how Kubrick perceived the film beforehand, his words above are exactly how I perceived the film afterwards. This has nothing to do with me though, this is an example of how exceptionally good Kubrick was at connecting with his audience — an audience of varying film knowledge — through the medium of film.

Malcolm McDowell: McDowell carried the film on his the whole way through, being the primary main character and the only actor who is at the centre of every significant event. I did not think it was possible, but McDowell managed to create, in Alex, a horrible, nasty human-being who I sort of felt sorry for by the middle of the film. Yes, it did not even take as long as the end. His convincing portrayal of a mad-man slowly unravelling and juggling morality is one of the best I have watched on-screen.

Legacy: When A Clockwork Orange was released in cinemas back in 1971, it was withdrawn in the United Kingdom by Kubrick himself after his family were the targets of threats and protests. However it was a big hit in the United States, and to this day is critically lauded and held in very high regard by film-goers the world over. Not only that, but it had a massive impact on the relaxation of violence depicted on the big screen. For one film, A Clockwork Orange has become one of the most controversial-yet-endorsed films in history.

Final Words

I do not have many bad things to say about A Clockwork Orange, rather Kubrick has created a dystopian film which successfully targets and challenges issues far wider than I have even come close to discussing here — providing a social commentary on issues such as youth culture, politics and the economic characteristics of Britain.

Monsters (2010)

Monsters is a science-fiction drama film released in 2010 and directed by Gareth Edwards. It stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able as a young photojournalist and wealthy employee’s daughter, respectively, who must attempt to travel across the infected Mexico to the border of the United States, in the midst of an alien-occupation on Earth.

Where The Dystopia Is Implemented

Large parts of the Earth have been occupied and controlled by some sort of alien beings, leaving certain regions, such as Mexico, inaccessible to mankind — or at least, inadvisable to travel through.

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

“I really shouldn’t have used glue to fix the camera.”

Tiny budget: Gareth Edwards, in his directorial debut and working with a budget of around half a million dollars, makes this film absolutely work. By using cheaper cameras (but still maintaining a high quality) to capture digital images rather than the normal 35mm ones used in film, and filming on locations often without permission, and using passers-by as extras, Edwards was able to keep the costing down — perhaps even lower than half a million dollars. There have been, and will be in the future, many directors who have ten or even one hundred times the budget Edwards had at his disposal for Monsters, and who will not even come close to creating as good a film.

Focus on drama: Very often in science-fiction films, the focus is taken away from the story or relationship between characters and is instead placed on big special effects or loud explosions. It is likely that the small budget had something to do with it, but Edwards manages to keep the primary focus of Monsters on the two main characters portrayed by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, and how the relationship between the two develops as the film progresses. The human relationship in a world partly destroyed by aliens is the driving force behind the success of the film.

Simplicity is key: The premise of Monsters is fairly straightforward — two individuals with significantly varying backgrounds must band together in order to get home. This is by no means a downfall though, in fact the easy to follow plot once again allows the viewer to fully concentrate on the two main characters and the situation which they find themselves in, without getting distracted by unnecessary plot twists or contrivances.

Final Words

The less-well-known film on my list, but by far one of the best, Monsters is a triumph in film-making as it shows that with some small financial backing and enough determination, anyone can create a dramatic, engrossing film.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Adapted from the first book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross, is a science-fiction adventure film set in a dystopian existence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen, it follows her preparation as a tribute in the annual Hunger Games and her progress in the violent televised tournament, along with her relationship with Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson.

Where The Dystopia Is Implemented

The film is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, where the land is separated into twelve poorer districts, each of which specialises in serving the wealthy Capitol in a certain way.

“Ha! You lot are just a bunch of Star Wars knock-offs!” Wait.

Three Top Five Clinching Reasons

Plot premise: I am a big fan of the outline and progression of the story in The Hunger Games. Having never read the books before seeing the film, the plot came across to me as very unique (sharing connotations with Battle Royale) and even quite ambitious. The idea that the majority are ruled and made to serve the minority is a commonly utilised premise, however the implementation of the Hunger Games tournament, particularly a tournament aimed at twelve to eighteen year olds, is an effective way to create suspense and drama. There is an underlying notion of resistance and rebellion which runs fairly unnoticed throughout the film, up until a significant moment on-screen (literally) and this gave said moment even more emphasis. All in all, the story and ideas thrown around mesh very well in my eyes.

Ensemble cast: With the combination of a number of, at the time, unknown actors and globally renowned names, The Hunger Games boasts an excellent ensemble cast, and one which involves every character with meaning and on their own merits. More minor characters such as Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna (who oozes coolness and clarity) and Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman (who oozes charisma and clairvoyance) play essential roles in the story. President Snow is majestically portrayed as a despicable, uncaring leader by Donald Sutherland, acting as a convincing mastermind behind the madness. In terms of the main characters, Josh Hutcherson is very good as the uncertain hero whose confidence is lacking but who only wants to do good and not give into the system. Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as Katniss Everdeen, perfectly balancing the correct amount of determination with a level of emotion shown rarely, but significantly when the time comes.

Appeal to everyone: I think The Hunger Games appeals to just about everyone — it has that adventure and action aspect for the younger audience, but also a more low-lying hostile nature in terms of young people fighting against each other to the death. Although the latter is the case, there is actually very little violence conveyed throughout the film, with circumstantial horror playing a substantial part in the unnerving nature of the film.

Final Words

An exceptional outing in adventure, drama and science-fiction, The Hunger Games sews each of these genres together neatly to create the ultimate depiction of a dystopian society fanciful on the surface, but hell-bent on retribution at heart.

 

Those are five greats and here are some others worth mentioning:

Battle Royale (2000) — This Japanese thriller directed by Kinji Fukasaku is, in essence, The Hunger Games with more blood and guts. A pretty uneasy and, dare I say, at times funny watch.

I, Robot (2004) — Everybody knows this one: Will Smith versus robots. A lot of robots. A mesh of robotic body parts and entertaining action.

Sin City (2005) — I actually only got round to seeing Sin City last night. Although I am still unsure of what I think about it as a whole, stylistically it is remarkable and overall very intriguing.

In Time (2011) — Starring the well-liked Justin Timberlake and boasted by a very interesting concept, although In Time does not quite reach the heights it potentially could have, it is still a slick outing.

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Comedy

After spending most of the day trying to fix my laptop (and succeeding, evidently) I think some laughs are in order. Therefore, it is time for five funny comedies! Everybody loves to laugh and there are not many better places to go than the cinema to be prompted in that direction. I have been a fan of comedy for as long as I can remember and the great thing about the genre is that it does not discriminate — everybody enjoys it.

Anyway, let the hilarity ensue!

Johnny English (2003)

I am okay with this.

Released in 2003 and directed by Peter Howitt, Johnny English stars the incomparable Rowan Atkinson as the title character and the only British spy left in action after an attack on MI5. English — confident, yet lacking in the intelligence department — is tasked with finding the perpetrator of the attack and recovering the stolen Crown Jewels, with assistance from the far more capable Interpol Agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia).

This is the one of the first comedy films that I can remember watching and laughing uncontrollably at throughout. Rowan Atkinson really is a comedic genius, with everything from his facial expressions to his timing absolutely spot on here. The film acts as a sort of parody of James Bond, and Atkinson is exceedingly good at making the audience root for a rather unintelligent, out-of-depth British spy. There are a few particularly funny scenes (the sewers), but in general the film is bursting with laughs. Natalie Imbruglia does a fairly good job at portraying English’s more sensible partner, although the apparent romance between the two is a little far-fetched (I guess that is comedy though, right?). John Malkovich hits just about all the right notes as the villain of the piece with his dodgy French accent (it only adds to the humour) and sublime hair.

Johnny English does not attempt to take itself too seriously and this works in its favour as the film delivers barrels of laughs and entertainment.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

“Come on! Bin bags make great clothes, we could sell millions of these!”

The first film to be nominated in all four acting categories at the Academy Awards since 1981, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as recently widowed sex addict Tiffany Maxwell and bipolar Pat Solitano, respectively. After being released from a psychiatric ward, Pat’s primary aim is to reconcile with his ex-wife who wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, having just lost her husband Tiffany has her focus on an upcoming dance competition. After the two meet, they agree to help each other out with Tiffany ensuring Pat’s letters reach his ex-wife, as long as he partners Tiffany in her dance competition.

Well that was a long synopsis. The first thing to say here is Jennifer Lawrence is the greatest living being and Bradley Cooper have tremendous chemistry which more or less makes this film as good (and funny) as it is. They work so well together, in fact, that they are working together on another two future films, one of which David O. Russell is back directing. Lawrence is absolutely on fire at the moment (no pun intended) and can do wrong, and Cooper has put in a steady stream of really great performances in recent films such as, The Place Beyond the Pines and Limitless. It is no surprise, therefore, that the foundation of all things good about Silver Linings Playbook is in the dynamic between the duo. Combine that with a witty, energetic and sensitive script, along with magnificent supporting actors like Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver and you have a very funny but also very moving film.

Much has been said about this film’s careful depiction of mental illness and how positively it is put across on-screen, but purely in terms of comedy, Silver Linings Playbook is up there with the funniest films in recent years.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

“For the hundredth time, the camera’s this way!”

Next, we take a trip back to 1986 where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has just graced cinemas around the world, garnering much critical acclaim. Matthew Broderick stars as Ferris Bueller, a teenager who decides to take a day off school (imagine that?) with his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), where they go out and explore their freedom whilst simultaneously attempting to avoid the school principal in any way they can.

It took me a long time to get around to seeing this film, which is regrettable because it is one of the best feel-good comedies out there in my view. In terms of sheer laughs, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off probably is not the funniest on my list, but it certainly is the funnest. Be it the inventive ways the trio try to avoid the principal or the principal himself’s various ordeals throughout, this film grasps the ‘be positive’ attitude more than any other I have seen. Broderick, Sara and Ruck work well together in the three prominent roles, with Broderick keeping the audience on their toes as he breaks the fourth wall a number of times — this I thought was an interesting ploy used by director John Hughes and one which worked well. Jeffrey Jones is hilarious as the principal (or ‘Dean of Students’) and makes a more than adequate nemesis opposite the trio.

John Hughes has a brilliant knack for comedies and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is definitely one his more heartfelt, if not one of his funniest.

In Bruges (2008)

Directed by Martin McDonagh, In Bruges was released in cinemas back in 2008. It stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen who are relocated to Bruges, Belgium after a hit goes wrong. But what they believe to be another job turns out to be something else entirely.

“Man, you’re small.”

Since its release in 2008, In Bruges has gone on to claim cult status and is regarded as a classic by many. McDonagh’s brand of black comedy is in full force here, and both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson deliver it with ease. The two leads are hilarious in their roles, playing off each other to great effect and both generating much empathy from the audience, particularly Farrell whose character, Ray, has played an accidental role in the murder of a child. McDonagh’s sense of direction comes through in abundance here, with each character playing an important part in the film and each scene executed with finesse. The Bruges setting is beautiful and greatly adds to the poetic nature of the script and the fairy tale aspect of the film. Although this is primarily a comedy, there are a few touching moments which take the film above and beyond the comedy genre. Ralph Fiennes and Clemence Poesy are both effective in, metaphorically, very different supporting roles — the former about order and conviction while the latter exudes freedom and new beginnings.

In his directorial debut, Martin McDonagh has created a gem in In Bruges: often hilarious and occasionally touching, this is a winner.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? opened in cinemas in 2000 and is directed by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (although Ethan is uncredited). Set amid the Great Depression in 1930s America, it stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three convicts — Ulysses, Pete and Delmar, respectively — who escape capture in order to search for hidden treasure, whilst evading a lawman who is in pursuit.

“My ears are burning. Can anybody smell smoke?”

This is just fantastic. I first watched this in school (school finally comes up trumps) and have been a big fan ever since. The rural Mississippi setting creates a dusty, woody atmosphere (which is by no means a bad thing), shoving the three leads right into the heart of the hardships of the depression in 1930s America. With nothing but themselves and their brains — well, Ulysses’ brain — to keep them on the correct path, they must rely on trust and luck more than anything else. The Coen brothers, as I have mentioned in one of these blogs previously, have an exceptional eye for selecting locations to film and, more than any other film on this list, the dusty plains of rural Mississippi are unequivocally suited to the mood and script of O Brother, Where Art Thou? In terms of the script, it is witty, wacky and insightful and is delivered with nothing but enthusiasm by Clooney, Turturro and Nelson. Of course, I cannot forget about John Goodman, who is very funny playing the brash, obnoxious Bible salesman “Big Dan” Teague. There are plenty of laughs woven throughout the film and they all hit the mark without going overboard — this film is out there at times, but not too far out there. Finally, the soundtrack is rich and hugely satisfying, giving the film a nice twang.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is another corker from the Coen brothers, full of quips and ambition. It is a triumph in filmmaking in my opinion.

 

Here are a few honourable mentions, films that I really like but not quite as much as the aforementioned five:

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) — The original comedy road trip film, Planes, Train and Automobiles sees Steve Martin and John Candy unwittingly team up in order to find a way home for Thanksgiving, but not without a few mishaps on the way.

American Pie (1999) — The raucous teen comedy which paved the way for more like it, the original American Pie is by far the funniest and probably the least offensive. You do not need to be offensive to be funny, right?

Bruce Almighty (2003) — Jim Carrey is in full comedic flow (facial expressions and all) in Bruce Almighty as he portrays an unlucky guy who is given God’s job for a week. Chaos, commence.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) — Alongside Johnny English, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is one of my long-standing favourite comedy films, and it is still as funny now as it was back in 2004. Yes, it is still dodging those wrenches.

The Hangover (2009) — Hopefully Kermode won’t see this.

Which films make you laugh the most?