Tag Archives: Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

HungerGamesCatchingFireAbout eighteen months ago I was quite sniffy about the first Hunger Games movie, mainly because I was disappointed that a promising future world scenario, in which random young people from the oppressed outlying districts of a decadent dictatorship were forced to fight to the death, had fizzled out in an over-extended arena sequence which seemed to go out of its way to dodge the potential moral challenges that Jennifer Lawrence’s gutsy heroine Katniss should have had to face. Fortunately author Suzanne Collins’s books form one of these modern Harry Potter style franchises, so here’s another film in which they get to have another go at the same basic storyline (or a pretty familiar-feeling development of it, anyway) and this time round it seems to me to come off a lot more satisfactorily.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows straight on from the events of the first installment and assumes that you’re up to speed on who’s who and what’s what without so much as a title card to break the ice. It’s framed as a conflict between Katniss, who is becoming the unwitting figurehead for a nascent revolution since her wily gambit at the end of the previous games saved her life and that of her fellow tribute Peeta, and the cruel and manipulative President Snow who was only a shadowy presence before but gets buckets of choice dialogue scenes and lingering malevolent close-ups here. This is good news as Donald Sutherland can do unsettling and controlling as well as anyone in the business, and he’s not the only heavyweight delivering a classy performance as we also get Stanley Tucci reprising his role as a brilliantly oily TV presenter and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hard-to-read games designer Plutarch Heavensbee, which is incidentally the most preposterously enjoyable character name I’ve come across in a good while.

Anyway, whereas in the first film we got a gripping set-up followed by a lame pay-off, here it’s the other way round. The first half of Catching Fire seems unremittingly drab and dour and bleak as we witness the various deprived regions suffering brutal reprisals for the mildest acts of dissent against the state while the plot weaves its way through the contortions necessary to contrive a reason to send Katniss back into the arena of death again. None of this is poorly thought out or badly staged, and in a lot of ways it even feels emotionally convincing, but Lord it’s grim, with the only light relief being the bizarre costumes and hairstyles of some of the privileged capital dwellers and the odd moment of deadpan black humour. It really ramps up though when we eventually get to the main event – this time The Hunger Games themselves are meaner and altogether zippier, taking place in an ingeniously deadly environment and involving a much more interesting bunch of competitors than previously. Hell, some of them are even middle-aged or older! One of them even wears glasses!

The last hour or so of the film is as inventive and engaging as you could hope for, even if the overall tone remains firmly in the zone marked bleak, and there’s real uncertainty as to how the story will resolve. Without wanting to spoil anything, there are another couple of films in the pipeline and this one ends with the sort of revelations that some folk like to call “game-changing”. This isn’t exactly the cheeriest night out, and don’t even think about going to see it if you haven’t seen the first film, but it’s nice to see a sci-fi blockbuster that’s taken the trouble to establish characters as complex and subtle as some of those presented here, and to not make it too obvious which ones are going to win out in the end.

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Silver Linings Playbook

SilverLiningsPlaybookMy mopping up of recent critically rated movies continues with Silver Linings Playbook, for which Jennifer Lawrence just picked up a best actress Oscar. I don’t know whether there’s a recognised sub-genre for off-beat dialogue-heavy films revolving around a troubled young individual retreating to his or her family home and then striking up unlikely but redemptive connections with other troubled young individuals but I seem to have seen quite a lot of them (Garden State and You Can Count On Me spring to mind straight away), and if this a category SLP falls squarely into it. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is a bi-polar and fiercely earnest school teacher whose job and marriage disappear from under him when he finds himself institutionalised after a traumatic and violent episode. He’s full of nothing but good intentions though, and when his mother springs him from the facility he’s determined to do his best to make amends and win back his wife, despite an inconvenient restraining order and his refusal to take his meds making all his social interactions tense at best. As he himself says, he has no conversational filter and is incapable of dissembling for the sake of maintaining a cordial tone. Eventually he catches the eye of Tiffany (Lawrence), who’s attempting a recovery from her own set of personal calamities, and events play out more or less along the lines you’d expect, though with enough plot swerves, hyper-charged confrontations and over-ambitious dance routines to keep you engaged throughout. There’s a lot of shouting and swearing and raw nerves on display here but it’s actually a pretty sweet film – although more or less everyone on screen is suffering from psychological damage (most prominently, Robert de Niro as Pat’s OCD ballgame-obsessed father) none of the characters are selfish or malicious, and all of them are striving for a happy ending. Not sure JL really deserved that Oscar over Emmanuelle Riva’s amazing turn in Amour, but it’s nice that something in which the stakes are this small and personal got some kind of nod.

The Hunger Games: not all that nourishing

Following in the wake of the mega-successful Harry Potter and Twilight franchises this year’s teen fiction/blockbuster movie crossover hit looks to be The Hunger Games. Directed by Gary Ross and adapted from the books by Suzanne Collins, this first movie in what will presumably become a sequence is significantly grittier than the two antecedents mentioned above, and also a couple of degrees less fantastical (in that there don’t appear to be any supernatural or magical characters or devices involved, at least). It’s set in a future version of the United States, where after a bloody civil war a central metropolis has established dominance over twelve outlying regions, who every year are required to select a teenage girl and boy to be sent to the capital to take part in a fight-to-the-death version of extreme Duke of Edinburgh Awards camping, which is televised Big Brother style to the nation and from which there can be only one winner.

That this is hardly an original idea for a speculative fiction doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. The notion of a select group of young people being rounded up and sent as a tribute has been used as far back as the Minotaur myth, and gladiatorial style ordeals in contained environments occur time and again in science fiction (the forest, river and pastures of the combat zone here reminded me immediately of Blake and Travis facing off in the hallowed Blake’s 7 episode Duel). And the serious, but not deadeningly portentous, tone established in the first hour or so of this film seemed pretty promising. The poverty of the remote District 12, from which lead character Katniss is drawn to take part in the games, is credibly depicted with resonances with the depression-era Southern states, and the contrast with the gaudiness of the effete figures controlling the media presentation of the event is properly effective (if for no other reason, this movie may be worth going to see just for the extraordinary, burlesque-goes-dada, hairpieces and costumes on display in the capital city). Ostentatious digital effects are kept to a minimum, and refreshingly made to serve the needs of the script rather than the other way round, and most importantly, in Katniss we’re given a credible character to identify with, someone from a disadvantaged background with native intelligence who’s not overly charismatic or unconvincingly gifted. Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to have cornered the market in this type of thing, following her similar role in Winter’s Bone, where she also played a resourceful outsider looking after a spaced-out mother and a vulnerable younger sibling. She has to more or less carry The Hunger Games singlehanded at times, and does so with grace and efficiency.

After a long preparatory section showing the tributes being trained in the arts of killing and survival between being presented to the public on glitzy chat shows we eventually get to the game itself, and by now we feel that we’ve earned some action, preferably with some tough moral choices thrown in. Unfortunately, the film cops out on both counts. While there’s certainly a lot more in the way of brutal child massacring than in your average multiplex entertainment you don’t get to see, or more importantly feel, much of it at all, as practically every character involved has been set up explicitly as either a one-dimensional sadist or just cannon fodder, and the killings tend to happen either offscreen or in impressionistic slow-motion montages which obscure rather than reveal. I guess this is probably a compromise necessary to earn a 12A certificate, but it seems to jar with the earnest feel of the early parts of the film, as does the inexplicable removal of multiple corpses from the fields of combat in instances when they’re returned to by surviving participants. More disappointing, and a more serious failure of the film, is one’s increasing awareness that Katniss, while undoubtedly being put through the mill in terms of discomfort, anxiety and personal injury, is never going to be called upon to make the sort of unpalatable decision as to who who lives and who dies that a scenario like this ought to be forcing upon her. The good players help her, the bad players attack her and if she’s having to dispatch someone it’s always an act of self-defence. Towards the end of the film even the controllers of the game seem to be conniving to let her avoid hard decisions, and by the denouement this audience member at least had stopped caring. It also doesn’t help that the movie seems far too long – one’s good will seems to run out surprisingly soon once the game begins. It’s a shame because The Hunger Games is far from terrible, and there’s enough good stuff here to make it worth watching (did I mention Donald Sutherland, turning in a great performance as the amoral President?) It just could have been so much better.

Winter’s Bone: hardbitten

I’m a bit late on this one, but I finally got to see Winter’s Bone, a film for which adjectives like “gritty” and “unflinching” might have been coined especially. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, this features a star-making central performance from Jennifer Lawrence as 17 year old Ree, who has by default become the head of her disadvantaged and dysfunctional family given the absence of her drug-dealing father and the fragile mental state of her housebound mother. They live in a shack as part of a straggly and impoverished community in the Ozark mountains in Missouri and Ree’s been doing a pretty good job of paying the bills and looking after her two younger siblings, but a visit from the local sheriff who warns her that their house will be repossessed unless her father turns up to an imminent court hearing precipitates a desperate search for information among some highly unwelcoming and unforthcoming local characters.

Winter’s Bone is far from a glossy, escapist piece of entertainment. There’s mud, blood, greasy hair, unwashed clothing, rusty machinery and precariously constructed living quarters on display in pretty much every scene, and, Lawrence aside, the casting director seems to have picked the players on the strength of the weatherbeaten-ness of their faces and the growliness of their cussing. Ree finds herself in more and more physical peril the more she ignores the warnings to mind her own business and her ordeals look like they really hurt. Despite this, the film never feels gratuitously bleak, and the possibility for human redemption is carefully pointed up by Granik, mainly through the happy and as yet unsullied natures of Sonny and Ashlee, the two young children who Ree struggles to protect from a very uncertain future. Lawrence shines in a very unglamorous role and succeeds in conveying a mixture of toughness, savvy and compassion that doesn’t seem like it came off a production line. All very impressive, with a satisfying ending as well.