Movie #78: Zulu (1964)

Director: Cy Endfield

Starring: Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, and James Booth

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Following the defeat of over a thousand British soldiers, an army of 4,000 Zulu warriors intends to attack the small British outpost at Rorke’s Drift.  The missionary station which is being used as a field hospital is protected by about 150 soldiers, counting the wounded and sick.  The ranking officer Lieutenant John Chard (Baker), a member of the Royal Engineers sent there to build a bridge.  Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Caine, in his breakout performance) is an infantryman with a more aristocratic background is put off with being outranked by an engineer, nonetheless, they lead the brigade of soldiers as they withstand charge after charge from the Zulu’s.  Zulu tells the story of the twelve hours or so of that battle.

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The history buff in me enjoyed this film.  It was a battle, and a war for that matter, that I was not familiar with, and though it was a fictionalized version that stretched the truth of the battle, it was entertaining and informative.  Stanley Baker and Michael Caine have great chemistry and their characters are so different that they complement each other very well. Bromhead represents the proper Brit, having gained his position from pedigree, in contrast with Chard’s hard work ethic and tough grit that carries him through.

Their relationship, and how it plays out throughout the battle, really grounds the film and keeps things interesting

I find there’s really very little to say about this film.  The story is pretty straightforward, and the idea of a small army repelling a much larger army after the larger army had just obliterated a much larger army has a certain romantic ring to it.

Since this film was made in the 1960s, it seemed fitting that soldiers killing one another would look as primitive and fake as it did in this film.  At times it didn’t even look like the person was stabbed, but they went down, or simply grabbing their chest when someone shoots at them.  Though I’m not surprised by it, I was a little dissappointed.

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Zulu was entertaining and informative.  Critically acclaimed and a box-office his in its time, it served as a launching point for Michael Caine as his first major role and a great use of his acting talent.  I’ve now seen this film twice, and while I won’t probably see it again, it’s nice to have watched it.  I’d recommend seeing this if you enjoy history, but other than that it’d probably be ok to skip.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jeffery Wright, Willow Shields, Jena Malone, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland.

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After their victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) adjust to their new lives as Hunger Games Victors.  As they prepare to embark on their Victory Tour, President Snow (Sutherland) pays Katniss a visit, revealing that he knows her relationship with Peeta is fake.  He also warns Katniss that her and Peeta’s act of defiance in the 74th Games is stirring discontent and rebellion in the districts.  Katniss must convince

As the 75th Hunger Games approaches, the Third Quarter Quell, a quarterly competition that is unique from all the other years, Snow and new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) devise a plan to take Katniss down.  The tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be reaped from the pool of former victors.  Katniss is guaranteed to enter since she is District 12’s only female victor.  Katniss and Peeta must return to the arena against a field of former victors, making the previous years competition “child’s play,” as Haymitch (Harrelson) describes it.

This film really helped The Hunger Games franchise grow up.

I would have put them on the level of a Twilight based solely on The Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (hereafter referred to as Catching Fire) has taken this franchise to more on par with say Star Wars or Indiana Jones in terms of script, cinematography, and mass appeal.

Catching Fire really feels like the second act in a three act play, though the third act of this one will be split up into two films.  It does a great job of advancing the story, going into much more detail about the world of Panem through the various districts.  The film also explores the significance and implications of what happened in The Hunger Games in terms of a possible rebellion and The Capital tightening it’s grip on the districts.

Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt wrote an excellent script that made the most of the two and a half hours of film and wrote a number of great lines while wasting very few in their contribution to the larger story.  Additionally, Francis Lawrence did a great job with the film’s cinematography.  There’s a nice balance of communicating and advancing the story either with words or visual cues.

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Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson both do great in this film.  While they did what they needed to do to survive in The Hunger Games, here they’re having to think about their families, close friends, and the Districts and how their words and actions affect those around them.  Since there is a familiarity with their characters, the writers and actors can add so much depth to these characters.  Each has to deal with the fact that they’re having to face the families of those they’ve killed, they have to keep this love charade up despite their real feelings, or lack thereof, for one another.  Their experiences have both made them grow up, and I can’t help but see how much more mature each of them is from the first time they’re on-screen compared to the previous film.

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I was surprised with Elizabeth Banks’ character, Effie Trinket.  She’s so much different having gotten to know Katniss and Peeta, and knowing that they’re going back into the arena and dealing with the emotional ups and downs that go with that.  Though she’s still a member of Capital society, and her dresses were still over the top, I found myself appreciating how Effie saw her tributes as more than just tributes.

Woody Harrelson also does great as Haymitch.  Having also gotten to know Katniss and Peeta in the previous year, he also seems to have somewhat cleaned up his act.  His character won the 50th Hunger Games, and the Second Quarter Quell, and though they go into far more detail with the books on his backstory,  I could potentially see Katniss or Peeta ending up like him had they been a lone victor.

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The big addition to this film was Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Plutarch has a much different relationship with President Snow than Seneca Crane had in The Hunger Games.  I think he brought a more calculated and wise character than the young and somewhat naive character Seneca was.  He was also kind of creepy, but that’s what Hoffman does with all of his roles.

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Catching Fire also benefited from a few great supporting character additions.  Finnick Odair (Claflin) and Johanna Mason (Malone) are both entertaining and strong tributes who add dimensions and layers to the story in the arena.  Mags (Lynn Cohen) and Beetee (Wright) are both interesting characters.  It was interesting to see how Beetee’s character grows in Mockingjay. 

One of my critiques of this film has to do with the translation from book to screen.  There were a couple of things in the book that I wish they’d gone into detail, or at least given some screen time to, in the movie.  There is only a couple of references to District 13 in Catching Fire, yet in the book Katniss encounters two travelers looking for District 13.  Cinna would have had more screen time had they explored Katniss’ fashion design and Peeta’s painting talents they were to showcase.   These are minor things, and while I would have liked to have seen these in the film, it doesn’t necessarily take away from the film at the same time.

Another thing that I’ve gone back and forth about is Jennifer Lawrence.  I think she does great in her role, and I can’t really see someone else doing better, however, I feel like her freak out moments are a little to dramatic at times.  I understand she’s gone through a lot and is haunted by what she’s gone through, but it just seemed like a little much. 

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Catching Fire does a wonderful job of building on The Hunger Games, and was really impressive in terms of acting, script and visual presentation.  It works well in setting up for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 by introducing some key players and setting the stage for the rebellion of the districts.  I would recommend seeing this film as soon as possible, and if you have the opportunity to see it in an IMAX theater, do it.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #77: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, and Ted Levine

Academy Awards (1992):

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Anthony Hopkins

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Jodie Foster

Best Director: Jonathan Demme

Best Picture: Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ronald M. Bozman

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Ted Tally

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Film Editing: Craig McKay

Best Sound: Tom Fleischman, Christopher Newman

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Clarice Starling (Foster), a FBI trainee agent, is sent to interview convicted psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins).  The FBI is trying to find Buffalo Bill (Levine), a serial killer who kidnaps, starves, kills, and skins his victims, his latest being the daughter of a U.S. Senator.

As with many great films, The Silence of the Lambs sets itself apart as both a horror and thriller film with two strong lead characters, suspenseful story lines, and just enough tension to keep the audience engaged and on the edge of their seats.

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It goes without saying that any Hannibal Lecter film has to have Anthony Hopkins.  The look on his face in his first encounter with Starling, and subsequently the way he spoke sent chills through me.  Without knowing anything about his past, I would have been bothered by those two things.  His character is very wise, tactful, and finds the right balance and timing when it comes to withholding or revealing information.

Jodie Foster gives a great balance of the young but wise beyond her years Clarice Starling.  Though she is young and probably looked down upon for her inexperience, she keeps a strong enough front even when she’s completely intimidated and scared.  Her background in psychoanalysis yet being haunted by experiences from her childhood are handled wonderfully by Foster.

Visually this film does a great job of building up suspense with the audience.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect with the opening sequence.  Perhaps someone was running from Buffalo Bill, in the end it was simply Foster’s character running the FBI obstacle course.  The prison scenes, either at the institution or at Buffalo Bill’s house, give that eerie creepy feeling.

Though this film has its twists and turns, at the same time there were some things that seemed like a give-away.  When they transferred Lecter to Memphis, you had to know he would break out.  The way in which he did it, skinning one of the officer’s faces, the bait-and-switch, made up for the predictability of his escape.

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In particular, the night vision scene at the end of the film, though it felt like a second-rate first person shooter video game at times, does a great job of building that suspense as Bill toyed with Starling in his basement.  The times when he reached out his hand were particularly disturbing.  I felt this scene actually dragged a little bit and could have been 15 to 20 seconds shorter and kept the same effect.

The Silence of the Lambs, though not a film I would go out of my way to see, is one I can appreciate and understand its significance as both a horror and thriller film.  Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter is both disturbing and brilliant at the same time, and I found myself both repulsed and at times mildly sympathetic as he and Starling worked together to catch Buffalo Bill.  

I watched Hannibal a few years ago, and I’d have to watch it again to see what I think of Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling,  I don’t plan on watching this film again, but in a small way I’m glad I watched it this time.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Director: Gary Ross

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson

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Some time in the future, America is now the nation of Panem, composed of twelve districts and a capital.  The Hunger Games takes place in Panem’s 74th Annual Hunger Games, a competition where each district must send 1 boy and girl aged 12 to 18 to fight to the death .  The Hunger Games exists as a penance the districts must pay for their rebellion against the capital.

In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a 16-year-old girl with exceptional hunting skills, volunteers as tribute when her 12-year-old sister is chosen as the female from the district.  Katniss, along with her schoolmate Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) go to the Capital and receive assistance and advice from District 12’s only victor, Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson).  The tributes train and then compete in a fight to the death.

Based on the book series by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games tells a story of a girl, a district, and a country in many different layers.  Though they don’t go into great detail about Panem’s history in the film, The Hunger Games is a reminder to the districts that the Capital is in charge.

Having not read the book series prior to seeing The Hunger Games for the first time, I had a very limited scope and understanding of Panem.  I’ve come to appreciate this film within the broader story of the series though, and I’ve had to remind myself that this is the first act of a three act play.  As such some of my shortcomings with the movie, though understandable, aren’t entirely unexpected.  I found that the story itself dragged at times, for some reason I felt some of the scenes could have been condensed, and yet the movie doesn’t go into something like Katniss’ thought process as these events are unfolding that are there in the book.

With many movies based on books, a lot of detail content is lost.  The scene where Peeta throws out the burn bread to a starving Katniss is only alluded to in snip-its in the film, but is described in much more detail in the book.  I think my reading of the book has helped me appreciate the film.

One of the strengths of this film is the distinct contrast.  At times it seemed the camerawork was more raw and primitive in a way with the scenes in the district in contrast to the Capital or the game arena.  The class distinction is also very clear in this film, almost to a sickening level.  While the Capital citizens certainly are head and shoulders above the rest, there’s even a great divide among the districts.  The fact that Districts 1 and 2 usually have ‘Career Tributes’ train, volunteer, and win is one way that shows how they’re still under the Capital, but far above the other districts.  

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A film like this has to, absolutely has to have a strong lead otherwise there’s no point in showing up the first day to film.  Jennifer Lawrence had been nominated for her leading role in Winter’s Bone two years earlier, but this film and to a lesser extent X-Men:First Class really put her on the map.  When discussing her performance and talent as an actress, Donald Sutherland compared her to Sir Laurence Olivier.  I feel like this sky’s the limit with her acting career.  She makes her character real, and does so in a way that could not be more organic.

Her character’s strength is without question, but some of her best scenes happened when she was most vulnerable.  The scene right before The Games started, where she and her stylist Cinna (Kravitz) are together, her pure terror, especially once she’s sealed in the tube, is both disturbing and completely believable.  Her strength in The Games, and then her maternal instinct kicking in with Rue, and subsequently her anger and heartbreak after Rue’s death really showcases a broad spectrum of her acting talents.  I also saw her grow in leaps and bounds from the start to the end of the film, and it seems more like talent and abilities that were already there, but needed to be brought out under the right circumstances.

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The underlying battle between Peeta and Gale (Hemsworth) for Katniss is interesting, though it’s one of those things that is much more of a sub-plot to the main issues dealing with Katniss and the districts of Panem.  Both Hutcherson and Hemsworth does well with their performance, either as the star-crossed lover in Peeta’s case, or the long-known friend and hunting partner with Gale.

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Most of the supporting cast does a great job in their given roles.  I don’t think Effie, Haymitch, or Cinna could have been portrayed better than with Banks, Harrelson, and Kravitz.

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Sutherland does a great job with the limited screen time he has in The Hunger Games.  He represents the status quo, and is a strong voice of reason on the side of The Capital.  I’ve always thought he had great stage presence, and this film was no exception.  I’m looking forward to seeing his character develop in the next three films.

The first part of the story is always difficult because so much information has to be communicated.  The Hunger Games does a good job of engaging the audience with an entertaining story of an alternate society and sets up for a lot more character and story development in the next three films.  It seemed somewhat inevitable that Katniss would survive.  Though there’s the underlying thought that she’d survive everything, Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray wrote an excellent screenplay that makes her character grow up quickly and adapt to the many dangerous circumstances she faces.

Having read all the books now, I am looking forward to what Catching Fire and Mockingjay 1 and 2 will look like.  If the same amount of competent care that was used with The Hunger Games, they should be great.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.