The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

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Tekken


In the future, there won't be enough fabric left for shirts.

In the future, there won’t be enough fabric left for shirts.

(2010) Martial Arts (Anchor Bay) Jon Foo, Kelly Overton, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Ian Anthony Dale, Cung Lee, Darren Dewitt Henson, Luke Goss, Mircea Monroe, Tamlyn Tomita, Candice Hillebrand, Marian Zapico, Gary Daniels, John Pyper-Ferguson, Roger Huerta, Lateef Crowder, Monica Mal. Directed by Dwight H. Little

When Arcade Games ruled the earth back in the 80s, there was (and continues to be) a subgenre known as the fighting game. Some of these, including Double Dragon and Mortal Kombat lived to become film adaptations and it took almost 20 years but now so does Tekken. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Jin (Foo) is a young fatherless man living in 2039. World War III has decimated the population of the planet and rendered a good portion of it uninhabited. Corporations rules the world now and have divided the planet amongst themselves (which gives corporations more credit for co–operation than they probably deserve). North America is ruled by the Tekken Corporation, which in turn is ruled by Heihachi Mishima (Tagawa).

When Jin’s mother and martial arts mentor Jun (Tomita) is killed during a crackdown by Tekken’s security forces, known as the Jackhammers, Jin – who as a contraband runner was closer to the insurgents than Jun ever was – discovers in the wreckage of his home a badge identifying his mother as a fighter in the Iron Fist tournament which promises riches and fame for life for the winner. Intrigued, Jin decides to enter.

He finds the Tournament to be a mess of intrigue. Heihachi’s son Kazuya (Dale) who is also his right hand man, is plotting to take over the company from his son and is using the highly popular tournament to do it. Jin finds an ally in Christie Monteiro (Overton) and a mentor in Steve Fox (Goss), a former tournament champion who sponsors new fighters.

He’ll be going up against fighters like Miguel Rojo (Huerta) and Bryan Fury (Daniels) as well as other mainstays of the game. The rules of the game however are changing and growing more deadly. With the stakes higher than they’ve ever been can Jin defeat the powerful forces aligned against him and emerge a fighting champion?

This is a very basic outline of the plot which goes into a lot more detail which really is unfortunate. The game itself as I remember it – I don’t think I’ve played a version of it since the 90s – was very simple and straightforward. Quite frankly I’m not sure that fans of the game are looking for a plot that’s anywhere as near as complicated as this.

What they’re looking for are the fights and those are done pretty well. The filmmakers even incorporated some of the moves from the game which was much appreciated by this ex-player. The style is definitely very similar to the look of the game, although obviously adjusted for the big screen.

There is a pretty goodly amount of CGI but quite a bit of it is surprisingly subpar. At times the footage looks like a 15-20 year old computer game. Considering the size of the budget, it’s incomprehensible why the effects looked so cheesy. If I were the filmmakers, I’d have been suing somebody.

The acting is passable which is about what you’d expect in a videogame adaptation but even for that notoriously underachieving subgenre of movies, this is pretty awful. Why is it that when Hollywood takes a videogame and makes a movie out of it they feel it necessary to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator, or give it little or no support in terms of getting good scripts, good effects and so on. No wonder the makers of such obviously cinematic games as Halo and World of Warcraft have given the thumbs down to letting Hollywood have their hands on the properties they’ve worked so hard and spent so much time and money to develop properly. It shows little or no respect for the videogame audience which is kind of bizarre considering that gamers go to a lot of movies themselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nifty fight sequences. Cast gives a game effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really subpar CGI. A mess of a plot.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and brutality with a side order of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Iron Fist Tournament fights were staged at the Hirsch Memorial Coliseum at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport, Louisiana.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interesting Canadian television documentary on  stuntmen which was largely shot on the set of this film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $967,369 on a $30M production budget; this was a box office catastrophe.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mortal Kombat

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Lovely, Still

Anonymous


Anonymous

Rhys Ifans wonders if posing as Captain Morgan might not have been the best career move for him.

(2011) Thriller (Columbia) Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Arnesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Derek Jacobi, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sam Reid, Paolo De Vita, Trystan Gravelle, Mark Rylance, Helen Baxendale. Directed by Roland Emmerich

The greatest writer in the history of the English language is William Shakespeare. There’s no argument on that point whatsoever. However, there are those who believe that Shakespeare, the son of an illiterate glassblower, never wrote the things he did and in fact couldn’t have.

There is a contingent of scholars, known as Oxfordians, who believe that Edward de Vere (Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, was in fact the author of Shakespeare’s works. The movie takes up that cause, opining that de Vere, unable to publish his plays due to his father in law, William Cecil (Thewlis), a devout pilgrim and his wife Anne (Baxendale).

De Vere is aware that the Cecils – William and his conniving hunchbacked son Robert (Hogg) are plotting to put James, the King of Scotland on the throne when Elizabeth (Redgrave), who is aging, ill and without a will finally passes away. He believes that would be a catastrophe for the kingdom. He wants to sway the tide of public opinion in a different direction, and he notices that the wildly popular theatrical plays can do that. He enlists the young playwright Ben Johnson (Arnesto) to publish and produce de Vere’s plays under Johnson’s name.

However, things go a bit awry when Johnson, wishing to have a career of his own work, hesitates to take credit for his first produced play and an ambitious, drunken actor named Will Shakespeare (Spall) steps forward and takes credit. The die is cast therefore and court intrigue begins to swirl.

Shakespeare’s plays become enormously popular and the man, dumber than a rock but clever in a streetwise sense, extorts money from De Vere when he figures out who the true author of his plays are. In the meantime, De Vere supports the claim of the Earl of Essex (Reid) for the throne, a claim which is also supported by De Vere’s close friend the Earl of Southampton (Samuel) whose ties to De Vere are deeper than anyone supposes.

The Cecils have the aging Queen’s ear and despite her very plain affection for the Earl of Oxford, it appears she’s is going to let the Cecils seize the power in England and it will take a very bold plan and some very stirring words to turn things in the favor of the Earl of Oxford and his supporters.

Emmerich, better known for big budget apocalyptic films like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day has long had this on the back-burner as a vanity project. This is definitely a departure for him and one has to admire his willingness to move out of his comfort zone.

To his credit, his recreation of Elizabethan London on German soundstages is incredible, from the muddy streets laid with lumber so that the noblemen may walk about the city without muddying their boots, to the magnificent estates inhabited by nobles and courtiers to the intimate setting of the Globe Theater itself.

That said, the historical accuracy here is to put it kindly somewhat shaky which writer John Orloff admits, but rightly points out that Shakespeare himself was notorious for bending the facts of history to suit his dramatic needs. Some of the facts that have been bent will only outrage scholars but there is certainly some fudging in order to make the case for Oxford.

Nonetheless the entertainment value is up there. Ifans, known for playing kind of whacky and often stoned-out roles in his career plays a literal Renaissance man who manages to keep to his conviction of avoiding bloodshed and resolving things in a peaceable manner. He is opposed by forces that are both malevolent and devious, and he is intelligent enough to sidestep most of the pitfalls, although he in the end….well, we’ll let you find out for yourself.

The British cast here have some pretty solid pedigrees, including the Oscar-nominated Redgrave and Jacobi, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the time. Most of the rest of the cast are well known on the London stage or from television roles, although Thewlis will be familiar to Harry Potter fans.

Some might find the plot a bit murky, particularly in regards to the ins and outs of court intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I near the end of her reign. Still, while I disagree with Emmerich and Orloff’s conclusions vis a vis the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (as do most scholars) I did like the discussion raised here not to mention the authenticity of the setting.

REASONS TO GO: A fine recreation of Elizabethan England with some solid performances all around, particularly from Ifans.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes a goodly amount of historical liberties. Twists and turns of court politics might be confusing for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality, not to mention a few adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redgrave and Richardson who play older and younger versions of Elizabeth are mother and daughter in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: I thought it appeared very snazzy on the big screen; Emmerich seems to thrive in the larger-than-life environment.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Rum Diary