Tag Archives: Woody Harrelson

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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Seven Psychopaths: no animals were harmed

SevenPsychopaths

I was quite excited about this one. Longtime readers might remember me burbling on a while ago about how much I love writer/director Martin McDonagh’s previous film In Bruges, and I’ve got a real soft spot for self-aware Charlie Kaufman style absurdities about blocked writers like Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, so the announcement of Seven Psychopaths, in which a Hollywood screenwriter finds himself sucked into a bizarre gangster caper while struggling to get his high concept script about serial killers off the ground, had me positively salivating. As it turns out, the new film is something of a glorious mess that doesn’t quite manage to pull off the challenging job of getting the audience to invest in all these oddball characters who always seem to be behaving like they know they’re in a movie, but it’s sure as hell pretty funny, and if the plot and motivations of everyone are both sometimes a touch convoluted they’re certainly never predictable.

Colin Farrell gets the lead role as Martin, whose efforts to come up with enough sufficiently interesting disturbed individuals to justify his title Seven Psychopaths are hampered both by a burgeoning alcohol problem and his enthusiastic, if not exactly over-thoughtful, friend Billy, who has a side-line in kidnapping dogs before returning them to their owners to collect the reward. Billy’s aided in this enterprise by Hans, a dignified Christian pensioner who’s trying to raise funds for his wife’s cancer operation. Things get complicated when Billy picks up a shih tzu belonging to a local crime boss at the same time as Martin gets kicked out by his long-suffering girlfriend. Martin is forced to look after the dog, but events don’t play out anything like you’d expect, largely because both Billy and Hans seem to be living according to their own private codes, neither of which pays much regard to such basic instincts of self-preservation as fear and caution. While this is going on Martin is harvesting tales of legendary psychopaths from various quarters, and dreamlike, though often horribly bloody, reconstructions of their dark exploits frequently punctuate the main action.

Farrell’s character and a couple of token girlfriends aside, McDonagh has populated his film with a gallery of weirdos and pleasingly he’s been able to round up some of Hollywood’s most prominent portrayers of nut-jobs to play them: Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits, and even the venerable Harry Dean Stanton appears in one sequence. Sometimes the movie plays like a Tarantino tribute, with stand-offs littered with inappropriately casual banter. Sometimes it gets unexpectedly quiet and meditative, as Martin bemoans all the violence and strains to create something deeper and more meaningful. The film always seems to be commenting on itself, even forestalling potential criticisms by putting lines about how thin the roles for its women are into the mouths of its characters. It’s a symptom of this too-clever-by-half approach that Billy is given the surname Bickle and is seen at one point in front of a mirror doing the Robert de Niro “you talkin’ to me?” routine from Taxi Driver – you might enjoy getting the reference, but it doesn’t really help the film*.

Fortunately, McDonagh has enough of a gift for killer lines of dialogue and smart plot swerves that he more or less gets away with what might otherwise be a hopeless melange of self-indulgence. He’s also got some highly watchable people on screen: Farrell’s role is a bit thankless as he’s mainly there to provide some kind of yardstick of normality, but Rockwell gibbers winningly as a volatile wild card, Harrelson exudes full-on menace when he’s not pining pathetically for his lost dog and Walken is just outstanding as someone who’s decided to never compromise his hard-won poise and won’t even put his hands up when a mob is pointing guns at him. It’s also worth going to see the film just to get to hear Tom Waits croak out one of his tall tales of madness and regret. Seven Psychopaths may be often  too far up its own conceits for its own good but it’s never boring and it’s never dumb.  Great soundtrack too, particularly when Half Man Half Biscuit’s immortal Trumpton Riots kicks in.

* I saw this at an unusually lively screening, the audience of which seemed to contain not only members of a production company involved with the film, who cheered at some of the start and end credits and were mumbling appreciatively at certain points, but also a couple of over-refreshed gentlemen who at times were engaging quite loudly, Rocky Horror style, with the on-screen dialogue. I’d normally find this kind of thing intolerable, but given the self-referential nature of the film it actually felt pretty appropriate, as if the ambience of the movie had extended into the auditorium.