The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 (2015)

★★★★

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 PosterDirector: Francis Lawrence

Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (UK); November 20th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is an empowering film, and it was likely always going to be that. However, there is no denying the impact that recent tragic events have had on further funding its overarching message of hope. Movie-making, of course, manifests as a trivial pursuit when considered alongside matters of life and death. It’s a luxury, a pastime, a hobby, a passion. But it’s also a love, a source of joy, a triumph, an escape. Cinema is one of life’s most important unimportant things, and when it reflects reality in any form — big or small — cinema is arguably at its most engaging.

The Hunger Games franchise has always had its finger on the pulse of geopolitics and society; the struggle that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) faces, against tyranny and barbarism, is also the struggle that many people in this world are currently caught up in. You can feel the heightened reverence as you watch, and those behind the series — from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, from Suzanne Collins to Danny Strong and Peter Craig — deserve credit for bringing those aforementioned weighty themes to the forefront of young adult fiction.

The film opens with Katniss hoarsely attempting to say her name, battling against the damage inflicted by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) towards the end of the previous film. Instantly the outing is reinforcing its central notion of a silenced body fighting against said silence and not giving into an oppressive society. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is the oppressor in Panem, Katniss the symbolic body speaking out. As Snow and his cohorts sit around lavish dining tables, eating and drinking and toasting their own unsavoury greed, Mockingjay — Part 2 initiates the conclusive rebellion.

We know there won’t be any messing about when the title card appears on screen, white letters bluntly protruding from a black background. But the moral structure of this tale isn’t as clear-cut. “It’s war Katniss. Sometimes killing isn’t personal,” says Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose righteousness has apparently seen better days. For the rebels, cause is supposed to take precedent over spectacle — The Hunger Games and Catching Fire particularly honed in on the consequences of the latter via their televised Gaming exploits — but there are even those in Katniss’ team who adhere specifically to marvel. This blurred morality keeps us on our toes as characters waver on who to trust.

Even Katniss, leader of the rebellion, feels harnessed by the warring tactics invoked by her superiors: “It doesn’t matter what you want,” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) spits. The film has a grey palette that is quite distinct from the flashiness of earlier films, but that is similar to the chalky aesthetic of something like Saving Private Ryan. Katniss, Gale and co. are part of an insurgent team that takes to the booby trapped Capitol in an effort to fuel their cause and, perhaps, deal with Snow. We think back to Saving Private Ryan again as the rebels carefully navigate the urban decay, threat constantly hanging over the screen like a dark shadow. It really feels like the final battle, especially following Mockingjay — Part 1’s more subdued, poised, and frankly justified prerogative.

Fans of The Walking Dead will see familiarities in the Capital-set roulette game, where death could befall anybody at any moment; as such we sit through nerve-shredding uncertainty. A genuinely scary sewer sequence is coincidentally similar to a scene in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, only this one bears even more edgy ferocity. The underground monsters here are spawns of World War Z’s sprinters and The Descent’s crawlers. Neither Francis Lawrence nor his writers shirk away from tough subject matters which means death, a lot of it, is inevitable. It’s a brave mantra and an honest one in my view (i.e. not exploitative), though there is a truly horrifying moment that some might find too tough for a film rated 12A.

We do get small glimpses of cheer: the wedding of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), for instance, ushers in a deluge of celebratory dancing. War thoughts never abate though; Katniss and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) watch the festivities from afar as they debate their separate roles in the rebellion. It’s a scene akin to one in The Return of the King where Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the probability of Frodo’s success while Merry and Pippin party nearby. The brooding calm before the inevitable storm. The screenplay also investigates how individuals scarred by war operate. Johanna, for example, is dependent on drugs. Avox cameraman Pollux (Eldon Henson) bears not only physical but also mental ailments. And Peeta spends much of his time conflicted, Josh Hutcherson playing the tortured soul with a sense of purpose.

Given the large cast involved, some characters only appear fleetingly: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to mediate the revamped Hunger Games with despicable aplomb; Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), affording the film greater substance with a simple glance; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), humanised to the point of no return; Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a key player in generating emotion; and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a burst of thunder amongst the clouded moral spectrum.

There are a few fairly minor problems, namely that the all-seeing Snow constantly believes Katniss has met her demise when it is clear she hasn’t and, without tempting spoilers, the unfair and somewhat puzzling fate of one key character (no death involved). The final half hour is unexpected in many ways — some good, some not-so-good — but it at least ought to be hailed for not conforming to a prerequisite narrative. It’s also worth pointing out that this is an action movie that manages to dazzle without sacrificing its politically-infused roots, which must be worth something in 2015.

Fittingly, we end with a nod to Jennifer Lawrence. Mockingjay — Part 2 packs an emotional punch because it has good writing and good direction, but those are only conduits for a performer and Lawrence’s performance here, just as it has been throughout the entire series, is wholly affecting. She absolutely is a filmmaker’s dream, both talented and marketable. But her commitment, her discernibility, also makes Lawrence a film-watcher’s dream, and it is through her leadership that this smart, pertinent blockbuster franchise has flourished.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 - Katniss & Gale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

Mad Max (1979)

★★★★

Mad Max PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Date: December 10th, 1979 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Mel Gibson

Mad Max roars into life in the midst of an increasingly tumultuous car chase. Nightrider, a crazed gang member, is on the run from a group of police officers seeking justice for the murder of one of their own. The cops — or Main Force Patrol (MFP) — aren’t the most skilled highway cruisers, bumbling in nature and even more so in execution. All except one. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the definition of poise, is the key player in a rather lousy team. We only see his grazed cowboy boots and chiselled chin to start with.

Max enters the vehicular fray, rampaging down an otherwise barren motorway — George Miller took inspiration from the 1973 Australian oil crisis, and this certainly looks like a region in need of basic resources. The director acknowledges the absurdity in what is occurring, and in what is set to occur, by introducing a plethora of slapstick obstacles: a stranded caravan, a barrage of road works, and a road-crossing baby. The pursuers crash, but the maniacal Nightrider cackles his way past each distraction in his “fuel-injected suicide machine”. Of course, Nightrider eventually crumbles at the sight of cool Max. He should have frenzied at dusk instead.

The screenplay never really deviates from the antics relayed above. It turns out Nightrider was part of The Acolytes, a motorcycle gang cut from the same cloth as Alex and his droogs. Their ultraviolence really is ultra-violent; from smashing up towns to off-camera rape to fiery murder, The Acolytes are a bad bunch. In line with Miller’s preferred tone there’s also an unconventional aura to the troupe, whose members would rather roly-poly back to their vehicles than walk.

Droogs they may be but unlike Kubrick, who liked to slow events down to a thoughtful meander, Miller takes an all over the place approach, with David Eggby’s cinematography zipping around and refusing to linger. This unholstered style greatly heightens the film’s prevailing intensity. The closest we get to an extended shot is during car chase scenes, at least when vehicles aren’t flipping on their head or exploding into pieces.

An apt description of the film might be ‘western on motorcycles’. But instead of galloping into town, characters rev. Said towns are often dusty, laid back communities where every day is Sunday. We are privy to a world where civilisation is in the process of falling, where chaos is a wrongdoer’s prime weapon and justice is in tatters (the latter, visually represented by the worn-out Halls of Justice sign). Trial attendance is low thus criminals walk free, devoid of lawful comeuppance, leaving only one form of comeuppance left to dish out. It doesn’t resemble the dystopian landscapes prominent in modern outings such as The Hunger Games or Oblivion, but instead a future that still bears familiarity, in that sense more aligned with a Blade Runner.

Droves of faceless characters are the product of a relentless mindset, and as such it can be difficult to clearly distinguish who stands on which side and why. Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), leader of The Acolytes and definite villain, is how you would imagine Russell Brand if Russell Brand was the leader of a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang: speaker of intellectual gibberish; British accent; hair all over the place; wearing a lot of leather. Keays-Bryne successfully balances oddness with menace and is particularly effective when conversing. “That man is Cundalini and Cundalini wants his hand back,” is one of his numerous uncouth and brilliantly delivered lines. Every time he appears on screen the film instantly spruces up. Toecutter is a bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker in that sense — irresistible to watch, utterly deranged yet eternally composed.

Gibson’s Max isn’t a hard-nosed or rugged vigilante, but in fact baby-faced and emotive. He spends his evenings listening to soothing saxophone melodies and having his hair washed by his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel). At one point the job becomes too much for him and he opts to spend more time with his family, which means lying in wheat fields and Tarzan-ing into springs. But Max is “a winner”, he’s “on the top shelf” according to his MFP overseer, Captain Fifi (Fifi in name only), portrayed solidly by Roger Ward.

This overly righteous version of Max works because it highlights the character’s purity in a bad world, and underscores the endpoint of his arc. Miller’s decision to purposefully emphasise the familial side of Max — the side pre-Mad — before entering into the final act is a simple-yet-effective ploy that makes us sympathise with greater heft.

Miller spreads his OTT prerogative across all aspects of the story, not stopping short simply at action sequences. Corny music plays over loved-up scenes between Max and Jessie. Brassy cacophonies of sound are present during dramatic moments too — for example, a gruesome hospital bed scene. Elsewhere the pillaging score is constant and somewhat overdone but, again, is a key part of the director’s ethos.

A middling lull is unfortunate, where contrivance seeps into the narrative (somehow Max and The Acolytes keep wheeling into each other) however proceedings soon pick up again and build to a gratifying conclusion. This isn’t Mad Max yet, not the iconic manifestation of the character as moviegoers know him, but it’s a superbly crafted worldbuilder.

Mad Max - Max

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

The Maze Runner (2014)

★★★

The Maze Runner PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 19th, 2014 (US); October 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Twilight kick-started the craze only for it to ripen amongst the chaos of The Hunger Games’ Cornucopian anarchy. The young adult adaptation trend is sweeping cinema and its latest passenger, The Maze Runner, is certainly one of the better book to screen jobs. This latest jaunt owes a great debt to Suzanne Collins’ novels in particular, and manages to hold up stringently despite not sharing The Hunger Games’ politically infused backbone. It’s a solid film that will likely play better when pitted alongside the planned sequels, but for now Wes Ball’s directorial debut should be considered, at the very least, a steadfast success.

Devoid of his ability to remember, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) awakens inside a noisy metal cage that is rapidly ascending skywards. It suddenly halts, opening to reveal bright sunlight and a group of grubby males. Thomas soon learns that about the Maze, an ever mobile entrapment monitored at night by dangerous spider-like Grievers. To make matters worse, the boys are stuck in the Glade — the grassy centre of the Maze — and there doesn’t appear to be any way out.

The rules: trust, run, return. Led by the longest serving inmate, Alby, the group of young males have systematically formed and subsequently cater to a subsistence society; some build bamboo prisons, some farm vegetables, some run the Maze. These Runners, we’re warned, must return from their exploration exploits before dark or else they’ll be trapped for the night and “no one has ever survived a night in the Maze”. The opening act is very pre-occupied with Basil Exposition. Launching us into this new, mysterious world without any briefing, the filmmakers do their damnedest to catch us up on happenings without giving too much away.

What we have, then, is a Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games narrative composite, and one that works rather well. Whilst thematic exploration is a tad frothy, the film definitely has the latter’s industry. It shows too. Visually, The Maze Runner dips into that familiar gloomy, metallic sheen before unravelling with energy and turbulence as characters enter the Maze. Perhaps too caught up in the action, the camera itself becomes overly-eager on occasion but cinematographer Enrique Chediak ultimately reflects the disparate tone of proceedings. It is worth pointing out John Paesano’s brooding score also, one that spikes in moments of danger and gets the heart racing.

And it’s not just in these areas of technicality that the film resembles its older cousin, but also in plot make-up. The Maze, it turns out, is split into eight sections much like games’ twelve in Catching Fire. The cage that elevates Thomas into the Glades at the start is essentially the glass pod that drops Katniss off at the Cornucopia. Although the piece doesn’t resonate thematically — at least not with the same rigour — there are interesting momentary flares. At its heart, The Maze Runner is an analysis of defeatism, of struggle and acceptance. Thomas’ arrival signals a resurgence in moral determination for some Gladers (“I don’t know if [Thomas] is brave or stupid but I think we should make him a Runner”) whereas others, such as the group’s perennial enforcer Gally, seem somewhat content with their chained destiny. We can almost empathise with him too, given the Glades isn’t really all that horrifying a place.

The aforementioned element of mystery — amplified when Kaya Scodelario’s sole female Teresa shows up — helps us relate to the characters as a collective; essentially, we know as much as they do and vice versa. By the same token, Wes Ball is faced with the task of balancing the integral build of tension with restraint when it comes to use of the Maze. He almost achieves this unity too and that simmering atmosphere is nearly there — the brutalist appearance of the snaring stone structure combined with hardly any knowledge, a sense of dissolution and a lack of someone to villainise all coalesce together into a medium-sized wave of carpeting tension.

We do get the sense that Ball and company have been sold down the river when it comes to matching the tone with on screen events. Put simply, the film needs to be a little more violent. Instead the audience can just about smell the stench of studio-implemented pandering at the expense of storytelling. Sequences in the Maze are effective yet never totally capture the risk that would normally be glaring from the screen, and it’s because of this sterilised approach. The Griever monsters, all hybrids of the Xenomorph, the Predator and Shelob, look like they could do some hefty damage but we never really feel the brunt of their potential capacity.

As is often the case in this genre these days, the cast do well. Dylan O’Brien leads the way as the “curious” Thomas and manages to garner a feeling of hard-to-pinpoint inner turmoil whilst also coming across as capable, as someone fuelled by purpose. The arrival of Teresa does prescribe in tandem worries over a clichéd romance between the pair, but love takes a back seat as it should under the circumstances. Kaya Scodelario is also effective in her role, but she’s the one who draws the shortest straw in terms of character development. More to come, I suspect.

Two other stand-outs are Will Poulter, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a promising big screen talent, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Game of Thrones fans will recognise Brodie-Sangster, here playing second in command Newt who is arguably the most accessible of the bunch. Despite his role as the most remonstrative resident, Poulter ensures that Gally retains an understandable righteousness. Friction-causing notwithstanding, Gally’s thoughts are always practical and occasionally hold greater verve than the riskier doings of others.

The inconclusive ending does hurt the film. Revelations arrive a tad too easily before concluding abruptly, and it is clear that those in charge have at least one eye on the sequel by the time the final act rolls around. It is also true that during the two hour runtime, there ought to have been a warrant for deeper examination into societal codes between the boys. Having said that, opting to engage with The Hunger Games over Lord of the Flies is probably a wise decision in 2014.

The Maze Runner is a very good three star film that could, given time and triumphant sequels, become a laudable four star franchise opener.

The Maze Runner - Dylan O'Brien and Will Poulter

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Hunger Games (2012)

★★★★

The Hunger Games PosterDirector: Gary Ross

Release Date: March 23rd, 2012 (UK and US)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks

As District 12 native Gale peers pensively across a carpet of dense woodland, we know his thoughts are centred only on Katniss and what could’ve been. Many miles yonder, the Games are about to begin and the odds aren’t in Ms. Everdeen’s favour. In fact, the odds aren’t in anybody’s favour. The green canopy before him is an “escape” that Gale and Katniss have always cohesively pondered. Now, it’s likely too late. There isn’t much respite from this sense of pertinent dread throughout The Hunger Games. Themes of oppression, manipulation and artifice consume proceedings, each element tackled maturely and with a degree of intelligence. Though it’s based on Suzanne Collins’ teen-aimed novel of the same name, The Hunger Games beckons forth a far wider audience, a psyche that no doubt assists in creating close to an indelible franchise curtain-raiser.

In a dystopian future, the nation of Panem is segregated into 12 districts and a commercially rich Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is Capitol overseer, and his methods of maintaining ‘order’ in society rely heavily on a tournament of death called the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) survives week by week in District 12, the poorest area of Panem, though since volunteering in place of her younger sister to take part in the 74th annual Hunger Games, survival has become a rare commodity. Alongside fellow district resident Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss now must participate in a maniacal free-for-all where there can be only one survivor.

An assured opening sets the stage for what is to come. The first act carries eerie subtlety, etching discomfort; a melancholic hum, almost vigil-esque, is interrupted by the hollow sound of a horn ushering in inevitable death. Later on, this underlying notion of distress plateaus as a 30 second countdown intermittently signals the immediacy of inhumane violence for Katniss. We see portions of District 12 that are hopefully its worst parts as anything poorer would imply extreme poverty — it is a place that could easily be mistaken for the downtrodden Ozark dwellings of Winter’s Bone, only unfrozen. Instantly an air of durability emerges, within which citizens have learned to fend for themselves. Katniss and Gale hunt in forbidden zones in order to feed their families, the former exclaiming, “Is this real?!” upon the sight of bread.

Shortly thereafter, the Reaping takes place and the Hunger Games players are selected. Booming screens represent a watchdog elite, the Capitol, whose justification for staging an animalistic melee is to protect those whom they rule over: “This is how we remember our past, this is how we safeguard our future.” It’s clear who the “our” in said statement denotes (and who it does not). The film’s inaugural goings-on are excellent, presenting an ideological enemy that bares no echelon of morality. We are already desperate to see those being held down rise up and, as promise dwindles, this desire escalates. President Snow refrains from showing face until events have advanced further and, in truth, has very little impact on the film as an active villain. His affects on events are delivered far more insidiously, his sophisticated whisper carrying indulgence, and this only serves to fuel a fire of loathing against the autocratic Capitol.

Having conjured up a seemingly impermeable enemy and a downbeat atmosphere bathed in truth — knowing these cruelties are very palpable factors in the real world makes them even tougher to comprehend — director Gary Ross must then offer a beacon of hope for viewers to grab hold. Occasional splashings of humour temporarily alleviate the heavy tone, but it’s Katniss who is the primary body of resistance. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss, moreover. Sculpted from the get-go as necessarily protective of her loved ones, Katniss’ strength stems from a hereditary place, ultimately one that resonates with viewers. She’s unaware of but not impervious to pain when her family is at risk (an early finger-stabbing scene cements this). With those paternal foundations in the bank, Jennifer Lawrence adds rigour and ambiguity — we’re never entirely sure where her loyalties lie away from District 12 — though in distancing herself from other characters, she never distances herself from the audience. It’s a tremendous performance in a clinical role, and Lawrence deserves a lot of credit.

Tom Stern’s cinematography resembles his work in Mystic River, chartering gritty immediacy which, alongside instances of on-point editing, generates a jolting disquiet in the face of in-game brutality. Bloody splurges are uncommon and therefore more impactful upon manifestation (included in the 15 certificate version, they make events in the arena seem more visceral). In contrast, Capitol life is artificial; the pre-game festivities are produced, and giant screens relay betting markets for the benefit of already wealthy residents, who wear extravagant attire and hide their faces with make-up. The filmmakers rightfully abstain from going down a commercial route though, instead engraving the tournament as an antidote of perverse enjoyment for Capitol civilians. After all, “it’s a television show” according to Haymitch, one of Katniss’ few allies, himself flawed as a result of the Games: his heart promotes authenticity, but his head is hampered by alcohol.

Woody Harrelson balances Haymitch’s principle-jousting effectively and appears to be having a blast in the process. As does Elizabeth Banks, playing Effie Trinket, an eternally positive Capitol export whose drastic appearance and bubbly mindset do not connotate evilness as much as they do ignorance. Rather, malevolence froths from Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. Delivering a performance of poise, Sutherland compels the audience to detest Snow more and more with every muttering. Josh Hutcherson is solid as Peeta Mellark, though he does sporadically tow the corny line. A nod must also go to Stanley Tucci, whose Caesar Flickerman is the face of the Capitol, an ebullient television presenter. Tucci injects so much charisma that it’s difficult to dislike Caesar, though your teeth will grit upon hearing his pronunciation of the “Hungaaa Games”.

The film does suffer slightly from a quite lethargic middle act, particularly as it comes on the back a swift and purposeful opening. Throughout many of the training centre scenes, there’s a less-than-sure ambience and events begin to meander. We know Peeta is in the shadow of Katniss, no need for him to explain it over the dinner table. In comparison, the outing’s conclusion feels rushed, almost as if the filmmakers can’t wait to end proceedings and move onto the second instalment.

The Hunger Games is a decisive franchise opener. Shepherded by an accomplished lead performance, the film tackles issues carrying present day prominence in a manner feasible to most audiences. Like an arrow through an apple, Katniss must be emphatic when striking an enemy whose guard is down, when they’re not paying attention. They mightn’t be watching, but you should.

The Hunger Games - Katniss

Images credit: IMP Awards, What Culture

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

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.