by Steve Habrat
Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!
Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.
At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.
As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.
As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.
Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!
by Steve Habrat
One thing that I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime is Sylvester Stallone duke it out with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now if that doesn’t scream manly than nothing does. Thanks to director Simon West’s The Expendables 2, I have now seen these two titans of action beat each other to a bloody pulp and I have to say, I kind of enjoyed watching it. Yes, I sort of enjoyed The Expendables 2 because, well, it was the movie that should have been released back in August 2010. I wasn’t exactly kind to the first Expendables film and for good reason. It was pretty stupid and unfulfilling to say the least, a hoarse battle cry for the action films with empty beefcakes shooting their way through endless waves of bad guys. It also had a weak villain and not nearly as many aging action stars as it liked to think it had. Also, Stallone was taking things way too seriously, almost like the film (which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in) was the reassuring whisper in his ear saying, “you still have it in you, man!” Now we have the balls-to-the-wall sequel to that testosterone terror of a first film and the party has begun. Still weak in the plot depart and still light on character development, The Expendables 2 wins bonus points for the smart inclusion of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, AND Chuck Norris. Got all that? The only manly thing missing from The Expendables 2 is an all you can eat buffet of pizza and hot wings and a complimentary cooler of ice cold Budweiser, all served to you by a smoking hot blonde in a low cut tank top. Personally, I’m stunned Stallone didn’t demand all theaters provide this during showings of the film.
After rescuing a Chinese businessman from the clutches of a brutal mercenary in Nepal, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Played by Sylvester Stallone) and his team return to the U.S. for some much needed R&R. Playtime is cut short when Barney finds himself approached by the mysterious Mr. Church (Played by Bruce Willis), who asks that the Expendables travel to Albania to retrieve a set of blueprints from a downed airplane. Mr. Church also demands that Barney takes the beautiful tech expert Maggie (Played by Yu Nan) along with him. Barney reluctantly agrees to take the mission and begins rounding up the gang. With blades specialist Lee Christmas (Played by Jason Statham), martial artist Yin Yang (Played by Jet Li), heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Played by Terry Crews), demolitions expert Toll Road (Played by Randy Couture), and snipers Gunnar Jensen (Played by Dolph Lundgren) and Billy the Kid (Played by Liam Hemsworth) by his side, Barney comes face to face with his deadliest foe yet—terrorist Jean Vilain (Played by Jean-Claude Van Damme). It turns out that the blueprints that the Expendables were sent in to retrieve could spell doom for the entire planet, but when one of their own is killed on the mission, the fight gets personal.
The Expendables 2 mulls you over with brute force the second it takes command of the screen but it isn’t all an ego stroke for Mr. Stallone. The Expendables 2 is willing to kid with the audience and even have a sense of humor about itself. The guys all crack jokes about their age and long for the youthful enthusiasm that radiates from newcomer Billy the Kid. In a way, you do sort of feel for these guys because, beneath all the protein bars and steroids, they do have hearts of gold. Still, when one of their own falls in the line of duty, they just sigh deeply, say a few words, and move on like the manly men that they all are. Come on! Show a smidgeon more of respect. Oh well, that is the kind of experience you are in for if you were wondering. Still, it is a MINOR improvement over the first film but it is clear that screenwriters Richard Wenk and Stallone still have little regard for the plot of their film. It is the typical stop the money hungry terrorist before he reduces the world to ashes. This loose storyline basically leads us to one massive action scene after another and I must say, these battles are incredibly satisfying on every level. My only complaint is that they resorted to the goddamn CGI blood! NOOOO!
It is hard to approach a film like this and expect to really evaluate the acting but there are a handful of standouts, if you can believe it. Stallone dials back his heavy determination and plays things a bit cooler. I can’t believe I am about to write this but the one who steals the entire film is Van Damme as the purring terrorist Vilain, a man with the meanest roundhouse kick you have ever seen. He’s just a few kicks short of brilliant if you ask me and you can tell he is having the time of his life back in front of a camera. When he isn’t chewing up the movie, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris are. Schwarzenegger is like a giddy muscleman let loose on shopping spree in a GNC. He grins through one-liners like, “I told you I’d be baaahck” and you will be happy to join him in grinning. Willis, meanwhile, seems to enjoy being back in action mode after drifting into dramatic territory with Moonrise Kingdom. Willis is the most talented actor here and when he screams, “SHOOT SOMETHING”, he means it. Then there is Norris, the one who got the biggest response from the audience. You’ll be doubled over as Norris shoots his way through an ARMY of bad guys and then looks at Stallone and calmly says that he prefers to work alone. If that isn’t cool enough, Norris then references those jokes about him that have been passed around the Internet. Good to have you back, Chuck.
Then we have everyone else, who does the exact jobs that you expect them to do. Li is reduced to basically a cameo in the film and then he is off on his own. He does get a savage little confrontation at the beginning to keep his fans happy. Statham grumbles and mumbles over the fact that he is getting older and then throws some knives. There isn’t really any growth to be found in his character. Hemsworth brings some fresh talent to the mix but he isn’t given much to really do. He does bring a bit of depth with him, which was nice and pretty surprising consider no else cared to. Crews and Couture are here just to let you know that their characters are still alive and kicking. They get a few decent jokes here and there but they mainly just fill the background. And then there is Lundgren, who references his real life master’s degree in chemical engineering while sending a big wink our way. He almost seems desperate to convince us that he isn’t just some lumbering piece of meat. Rounding out the team is Nan, the female newcomer to this guy’s night out. She adds a sexy little sizzle and she can more than handle herself in a fight. It’s good to see Stallone is starting to let a few ladies mix it up with the boys.
Despite a familiar plot, thin characters, and some eye-rolling dialogue, The Expendables 2 still packs a mean action scene. The opening sequence has to rank as one of the most extreme action scenes of recent memory and it sure as hell leaves a lasting impression. I think it has to hold a record for the most deaths on screen in the span of ten minutes. The end fistfight between Stallone and Van Damme will have action junkies on their feet and begging for a lot more. And I have to admit that I smiled when Ah-nold and Bruce picked up some machine guns and joined the madness. And I have to confess that I laughed when Norris strolled onto the screen and let loose a fury that would make God tremble. My only other complaint about the film was the absence of the great Mickey Rourke. He would have been a welcome presence here as he really did most of the heavy lifting in the first film. There have been some significant improvements since the first film and I give The Expendables 2 credit for that but there is still room for even more improvement. For now, I’d happily sign on for a third mission with these guys. I just hope I don’t regret it.
by Steve Habrat
If you are someone who refuses to get swept up in The Hunger Games fever and dismisses the film as just a Twilight wannabe, you need to get to a theater immediately and check the film out for yourself. The Hunger Games is the first must-see movie of 2012 and it certainly lives up to the hype surrounding it. I went into the film with a neutral attitude, never having read one of the books and not overly excited to see the movie. About halfway through, I was fully immersed in the film because of the way director Gary Ross sold me Katniss Everdeen’s story and how he shaped the world of Panem. When it comes to other teen franchises, mostly Harry Potter and Twilight, I have to say that The Hunger Games is the most impressive debut film, one that establishes characters that I want more from, action that was both uncomfortable and yet exhilarating, and a cliffhanger of an ending that makes a sequel necessary. But The Hunger Games refuses to go flat stylistically much like Harry Potter and Twilight did on their first run, and I have to say that I ate up the Battle Royale meets District 9 meets A Clockwork Orange meets THX 1138 meets 1984 appearance of The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games drops us off in the totalitarian nation of Panem, a post-apocalyptic world that is made up of the futuristic Capital and the twelve poorer districts that surround it. We arrive in the mining town of District 12 where we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Played by Jennifer Lawrence) who shacks up with her younger sister Prim (Played by Willow Shields) and her mother. Every year, the nation of Panem huddles around their televisions to watch the Hunger Games, where twenty-four children are selected by the government and then forced to fight each other until only one survivor remains. During “the reaping”, an event in which the gaudily dressed Effie (Played by Elizabeth Banks) selects one boy and one girl from the Districts, Prim ends up being one of the names that gets called. Katniss volunteers to go in her sister’s place, an offer that is accepted by Effie. The boy who is selected is Peeta Mellark (Played by Josh Hutcherson), who hides feelings for the prickly Katniss. They soon make the trip to the Capital where they meet their mentor Haymitch (Played by Woddy Harrelson), stylist Cinna (Played by Lenny Kravitz), grandiose announcer and host Caesar Flickerman (Played by Stanley Tucci), and the leader of Panem President Snow (Played by Donald Sutherland). As the kids begin training and battling for sponsorships, Katniss emerges as the most deadly in the Hunger Games, but soon Katniss and Peeta learn that there is more to the games than just simply fighting for your life.
The style that Ross applies to The Hunger Games is reminiscent of past works but all it’s own too. The dystopian decay and totalitarian rule brought District 9, THX 1138, and 1984 to my mind while the games themselves acted as a smoothed over Battle Royale. The futuristic style seemed like they were ripped right out of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the scenes where a group of kids laugh at their own violence brought images of Alex DeLarge and his “droogs”. Yet The Hunger Games feels vaguely fresh and is a beast all its own. It reflects on our willingness to hang on reality television and violence. There are several kids competing in the games who are all too eager to kill off fellow competitors. You can’t help but reflect on the violence that is sold to children both in video games and cinema itself. Yet The Hunger Games doesn’t exploit the carnage, much of it remaining of screen and to our own imagination. The opening moments of the games are extremely brutal as kids with swords, hatchets, knives, and more hack other kids up, some doing it with a faint smile forming on their faces. The Hunger Games suggests desensitized times but throws in a sensitive heroine who only kills if she has to, and she certainly doesn’t do it happily, making Katniss the last good kid alive. The film will no doubt spark discussion about violence and it is justified. Still, I think it is something that children can handle. The violence is never injudicious or excessive and when it does erupt, Ross smartly makes it tough to swallow.
Unlike Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen is a female hero that girls should rally behind. She is a bit unsure of herself when she is in the spotlight, but she remains strong willed, crafty, and resourceful, a “girl on fire” as the film suggests. She isn’t a shallow, scowling teen who broods over two guys fighting over her, whining about how horrible it all is. Early on, she is juxtaposed with Effie, who bathes in glamour, beauty, and excesses, hanging on the glittery material items surrounding her while caring less about the real matter at hand. Ross and screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray illustrate Katniss as a more thoughtful character, someone who looks out for the ones she loves rather than strictly herself in these selfish times. While Katniss does brood, it helps that Ross, Collins, and Ray give Katniss a reason to mope. Her life is on the line.
The rest of the characters are just as captivating as Katniss, leaving the viewer actually wanting more of them too. I loved Tucci’s theatrical blue-haired talk show host and I hope to see more of him in future. Another big surprise is Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, a character of quiet warmth for our dear Katniss. A scene right before the beginning on the game between Cinna and Katniss is truly a standout. I also really liked Harrelson’s Haymitch, a reluctant and drunken mentor who finally comes around when our heroes need him most. And I can’t leave out Elizabeth Banks as Effie, a colorful character who is eccentric but I wish they had pushed her character a bit further. She is deliciously sinister when she is drawing the names for the games, resembling a manic jester relishing in misery. The Hunger Games does work in a slight love story, hinting at a blossoming love triangle between Katniss, the sensitive Peeta, and Gale (Played by Liam Hemsworth), a character who is more seen by the audience not really heard from. I wish the film would have developed his character a bit more, but I feel he will have a strong presence in the future. I just hope and pray the series doesn’t morph into a repetitive soap opera like Twilight did.
Of all the young adult books that have been developed into movies, I firmly believe that The Hunger Games is the best and most important of all of them. The Harry Potter series fell victim to too many artistic approaches and clunky tones, as there was not one consistent director at the helm. The end result is a series that is an absolutely mess with little to no flow between the movies. Twilight was more concerned with selling itself on sex appeal rather than developing a proper story that we can invest in, resulting in a petty franchise with little regard for the fan’s intelligence. I just wish they would wake up and see it. Now we have The Hunger Games, which I hope doesn’t fall victim to what destroyed the Harry Potter franchise. On this first run, it seems that it avoided what has plagued the Twilight saga. I sincerely hope they keep Ross behind the camera, the entire cast committed, and the ideas pulsing. We’re off to a good start with The Hunger Games, and may the odds continue to be in this franchise’s favor.