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.

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Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano

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Keller Dover (Jackman) is a God-fearing family man who runs a less-than-successful carpentry business.  His family, attends a Thanksgiving party at the Birch’s, their neighbors, house.  While running home to retrieve a red whistle, Anna Dover and Joy Birch are abducted.  Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, and Alex Jones (Dano) becomes a person of interest because his RV was seen parked in the neighborhood, then was gone after the abduction.

Dover and Loki each try to piece together the abduction in their own way.  Loki through regular police investigation procedures, Dover taking the law into his own hands, even bringing Franklin Birch (Howard) into the mess for a time.

Aaron Guzikowski’s script for this film is excellent.  While the actors and actresses deserve a lot of credit, they have some great source material to work with.  As the plot unfolded throughout the film, I found myself wondering who was responsible for what and how everything fit together.  As with a good script and story, the pieces fell into place at the end, and the plot kept my attention throughout the film.

In addition to a great script, Villeneuve does a great job with the cinematography and sound effects.  There’s just enough suspense throughout to keep the audience on guard.  Again, the film kept my attention and had me guessing and wondering what would happen next.  It also didn’t help that I was the only person in the theater and constantly had the A/C kicking on throughout the movie.  The sound effects are subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as cheesy, and they complement the great acting showcased in Prisoners.

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Without a strong lead actor, a film like this simply falls apart.  Hugh Jackman does great as the conflicted father who becomes more and more desperate in the search for his daughter.  He’s a guy I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with.

One scene in particular in an exchange Keller has with Loki in his squad car.  He goes from raging lunatic to grieving father on a dime.   It’s good to see Jackman finally give a great performance in a film that’s based entirely in realistic life terms.  Yes, he was good as Wolverine, and I’m sure his performances were top-notch in Australia and Les Miserables, but those are musicals.

And don’t even get me started on Real Steel.

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Jake Gyllenhaal also gives a convincing performance.  He maintains that balance of being a professional and keeping as objective and rational as possible, but there were just enough times to show that he also had a heart in trying to find the two missing girls.

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Melissa Leo and Paul Dano both turn in great performances as Holly and Alex jones.  Their characters come across as very simple-minded, which of course makes the audience believe there’s more to their story than meets the eye.  There’s one particular scene that’s very disturbing involving Dano,  I’ll just leave it at that.

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Terrance Howard and Viola Davis do a great just as a voice of reason for Keller.  Though they become somewhat involved, they have the good sense to back out before they get in too deep.  I’ve come to expect good performances from these two, and was not disappointed.

Overall I thought Prisoners did a great job at weaving together a complex story involving many players.  There’s just enough suspense throughout to keep the audience’s attention.  It also benefits from strong acting throughout the cast, as well as good cinematography and sound effects.  However, I don’t know that the film had to be as long as it way.  While the story progressed, at times I thought it went a little slow.

Will I see this movie again? Probably not.  The suspense and not knowing how things would turn out is gone, and I feel an additional viewing is unnecessary.  Other films like this were far less entertaining the second time watching it for me.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Before Midnight

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18 years after Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) had a fateful night where they fell in love in Before Sunrise (1994), they are vacationing in Greece with their two daughters and Jesse has just sent his son back to Chicago to his  now ex-wife.  They’ve been in Greece for six weeks, in which time Jesse has written and gotten to know a much older, wise host and fellow writer.  Celine is considering a new job, and learns at the beginning of the film that a major project she had been working on fell through at the last-minute.

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There’s a very touching exchange between Jesse and his son Hank at the airport as Jesse sees him off.  Since Jesse lives in Paris with Celine now, he doesn’t see Hank very much, and as Hank is entering his high school years, Jesse struggles with that separation and his need and want to be a more central part of Hank’s life.

Some friends Jesse and Celine are staying with offer to watch their girls for a night so the couple can get away and enjoy some time together.  They wander the streets for a bit, conversing about their relationship and mostly enjoying the fact that they have time for just them without having their twins with them.  As parents they’ve had to build their lives around the footsteps in the background.   Since I’m not a parent, I can’t really relate to it. The conversations here and throughout the movie have shifted from the previous films.  As Jesse and Celine have gotten older, their interests and priorities have changed.  They don’t talk so much about big broad subjects but spend a lot of time conversing about their relationship, their kids, the past and the future.  It’s a nice dynamic and departure from the previous films.

They do address love in a broader sense at dinner with the couple who rented their hotel room for them, an older gentleman, his grandson and the grandson’s girlfriend, and a woman who is a widow but good friend of the host.  There’s a big contrast, and while most of the people see relationships and marriage as something where two people exist, the widow expresses the loss she felt when her husband died.  Part of her was gone, and it’s nice to see the value of that expressed.  I thought she spoke with the most conviction, speaking more from the heart and less from a logical cynical viewpoint.

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In this film, far more than in its two predecessors there’s a much stronger contrast in the way men and women think and go about their current situations.  Throughout the film it seemed like each person was rooted in either logical thought or emotion. Celine definitely appealed a lot more through emotion, though she distinctly remains true to character in ignoring and fighting traditional female roles and expectations, specifically within the family. Jesse is more methodical and following logical patterns.  No, I don’t think he was right all the time, I found that each had moments of great insight and other moments of semi-craziness.  There’s a good balance between the two, and I get the sense that Delpy and Hawke enjoy working together.

Their on-screen chemistry has only gotten better with each new film. Jesse did something that I as a husband and some day a father had a big problem with.  It could help explain why there was some of the tension between him and Celine.  It knocked him down a few rungs in my book, and while it added to the story line and the relational tension, I just didn’t like it.  Also, once they’re in the hotel, I didn’t really like that Celine remained topless for quite a few minutes of conversation.  It’s more a personal preference, but I felt it was a bit unnecessary.

A major plus to this film is the scenery.  Greece looks absolutely magnificent, and Linklater does a great job at capturing this.  From the ruins to the garden and through the streets, the scenery is just great.

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Before Midnight is a film that I’ll need to sit down and watch again once my wife and I have kids.  I remember watching Before Sunset the second time after being married whereas the first time was before my wife and I were dating.  It was definitely different watching it the second time.  Perspective and experience inform one’s understanding of a film.  Since Jesse and Celine are a little older than me, and they’ve had kids, that’s anther life milestone that I’m sure will change how I view things, and will change how I enjoy this film.

One of the main downsides of the film is that my wife is gone this week and we’ll have to wait until it comes out on DVD to see.  I could see them making another film in 9 years.  Jesse and Celine will be 50, their daughters about to finish high school.  Should make for interesting.  This is definitely a niche type franchise, and it’s one that I think has and can only get better with age.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.