Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There may be plenty of hunger before we finally get to the games, but it’s more than worth the wait in this bigger, bolder and – yes – better sequel.

Even in spite of Lawrence's knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you'll be hungry for the next serving

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving

Despite being an international bestseller, nothing was written in stone to suggest Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult sci-fi adventure novels would make a convincing leap to the big screen.

However, paydirt was well and truly hit with the casting of star-in-waiting Jennifer Lawrence in the central role of Katniss Everdeen who, along with strong direction from Gary Ross and striking production design, turned 2012’s The Hunger Games into a mature and effective first chapter in the franchise.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow's hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow’s hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

With almost double the budget under his belt, new director Francis Lawrence (no relation) has turned in a follow-up that manages to avoid many of the symptoms of sequel-itis and builds on the foundations of the first movie to impressive effect.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and fellow 74th Hunger Games tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embarking on a victor’s tour of the impoverished districts of Panem out of fear for their families’ safety. Anxious to stamp out the unrest that’s been brewing following Katniss’ show of defiance in the last Games, despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th anniversary Quarter Quell will see former champions – Katniss and Peeta included – fight to the death in the most twisted and sickening Games yet.

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Just as in the first installment, Catching Fire spends a great deal of time building up to the gladiatorial spectacle of the Games themselves. However, unlike The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for example, you never get the sense the film is treading water and indulging itself. The slow, gradual wind up towards the horror of the Quarter Quell feels neccessary, as if the characters are pieces on a chessboard being carefully positioned.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

That this build up is as engaging as it is is largely down to the captivating performance of Lawrence, who commands the screen. Since her breakout turn in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s stature has grown with every film and here it’s as if the camera is magnetised to her. What makes Katniss so appealing – and so human – is that she remains a reluctant hero, someone who would much rather be out hunting with her friend/love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than be the face of the rebellion or a thorn in Snow’s side.

Catching Fire‘s supporting cast is an engaging mix of young and established talent, from Sutherland’s oily turn as the banally evil Snow, to Woody Harrelson’s colourful performance as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ nuanced portrayal of the garishly dressed Team Katniss cheerleader Effie Trinket, whose blind obidience to the Capitol gradually erodes as the veil is lifted.

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Special mention must go to Stanley Tucci, who’s even more over-the-top this time around as Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games talk show host with the impossibly white teeth and insincere laugh who peddles bread and circuses to the masses and stands alongside Snow as the face of Panem’s totalitarian regime. It’s the film’s creepiest character and Tucci’s performance is skin-crawlingly effective.

Just as in the first film, Catching Fire, well, catches fire when the Hunger Games finally commence. Although essentially the same set-up as the previous film (last person standing wins), this time around we get poisonous gas, electrified force fields, psychological warfare and, most disturbingly, flesh-eating monkeys thrown in. Each mini-set piece is striking in its own way and follow each other so quickly you’ll be left as exhausted as the tributes.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As is the way of modern day franchises, this second installment is darker than its predecessor and is much better for it. The social commentary and political subtext alluded to in the first film is more pronounced this time around (both visually and in the dialogue, most notably between Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Games Designer Plutarch Heavensbee) and the violence more reactionary and brutal. It’s pretty strong stuff for what’s supposed to be a film aimed at young adults.

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving.

Review – The Master

There are two kinds of ‘tent pole’ movie; one is the derivative, big-budget blockbuster that bankrolls a studio, while the other is less frequent but far more challenging – succour to the film connoisseur.

Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of only a handful of directors whose films are considered must-see events to any self-respecting lover of cinema.

The Master

The Master “will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics”

Since his confident debut Hard Eight, Anderson’s career has followed the kind of upward trajectory most film-makers can only dream of, from his brilliant porn industry drama Boogie Nights, through to the epic ensemble piece Magnolia, the marvellously off-kilter romantic comedy-drama Punch Drunk Love and most recently the profound There Will Be Blood.

Anderson treads a similarly bold path with The Master, only his second film in almost a decade. It centres on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two Navy veteran who gets dumped back into society with little or no prospects, a nervous condition and a serious penchant for his own brand of moonshine, made largely from paint thinner. He seems not to understand social boundaries and is obsessed with sex, an unhealthy mixture shown in an early scene set during the war when he starts dry humping a sand sculpture of a woman his fellow seamen have created on a beach.

Freddie is a powder keg who drawls through a clenched jaw and a sneered lip and resembles a coiled spring in the way he walks, all hunched over like a primate. Constantly escaping his own tortured psyche, he runs away from one unnecessary scrape after another until he takes refuge on a yacht that for all intents and purposes looks like it belongs in another world.

The boat is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself to Freddie as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man” and, fascinated with this new arrival, invites him to stay. It emerges that Dodd is the ‘master’ of ‘The Cause’, a Scientology-like movement that believes the Earth is trillions of years old and its inhabitants contain within them countless past lives.

The Master

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Dodd looks upon Freddie as a “silly animal” who has “wandered from the proper path” and decides to help him, akin to a dog and its master. Freddie is at first dubious, but soon embraces Dodd’s unconventional approach to self-improvement and becomes his right-hand man.

Part of this approach is ‘processing’, a psychological question and answer session that Dodd puts Freddie through in the film’s finest moment. Anderson suffocates the viewer, refusing to pull the camera away as we see Freddie’s tortured soul unburden. It’s bravura filmmaking (with mesmerising performance from both actors) and one of the scenes of the year.

A requirement of The Cause is to record everything that is said by Dodd, most revealingly during a scene when a group of young women are writing down a speech in which the Master espouses the pursuit of perfection by rejecting our animal instincts and controlling our emotions. Freddie finds one of the girls attractive and, ignoring Dodd’s words passes her a note saying: “Do you want to fu*k?”

The Master

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) joins The Cause in The Master

Dodd comes from the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ school of cult leaders, often allowing his emotions to get the better of him, whether it be envying Freddie’s child-like, unfiltered existence, moments of self-doubt or bouts of rage when his teachings are questioned (most revealingly during a riveting exchange with a skeptic). Although it doesn’t take a genius to see the Master is a fraud, it takes Dodd’s son to scrape off the veneer for Freddie when he tells him: “He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”

Dodd’s wife Peggy (unnervingly played by Amy Adams) reveals herself as the real power behind the throne, tolerating her husband’s love-hate relationship with Freddie, but subtly steering him when the need arrives.

Johnny Greenwood’s mesmeric score amplifies the discordant world these characters exist in, while Anderson also interjects period music to masterful effect (the use of Irving Berlin’s ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ while an attractive, enigmatic woman walks through a shopping mall and eventually encounters Freddie is inspired).

The Master is, in essence, a yin and yang love story between two men from very different backgrounds desperate for what the other has. Whether Anderson intends this meaning or not, one could easily draw parallels to a post-war America at turns equally arrogant and deeply uncertain about its future.

The Master has been pilloried in some quarters for its lack of narrative progression, but these critics are forgetting There Will Be Blood was hardly plot-heavy. Both are studies of entrancing characters whose individual traits are so powerful and entrenched they are bound to them forever. Oil magnate Daniel Plainview is just as alone and consumed by his relentless quest for money and power at the end of There Will Be Blood. Freddie is a broken machine doomed to spend eternity stuck on that beach alongside that pliant, sand sculpture, while Dodd will continue to believe he and The Cause hold all the answers.

Just as There Will Be Blood was one of the great films of this century’s first decade, The Master will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics.

Great Films You Need To See – Hard Eight (1996)

There are few directors who have masterminded such a ceaseless string of ambitious and visually brilliant films as Paul Thomas Anderson.

In a career that has spanned more than 15 years, Anderson has done for the American independent film what Christopher Nolan has for the blockbuster; namely to tear up the rulebook and treat audiences as the savvy, cine-literate group they largely are.

Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic debut Hard Eight

As well as directing two of the greatest films of the ’90s – 1997’s seminal Boogie Nights and its Robert Altman-esque follow-up Magnolia in 1999, Anderson has also been responsible for one of this century’s greatest cinematic achievements, his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Let’s also not forget his leftfield 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, without doubt Adam Sandler’s finest hour (which I appreciate may come across as damning the film with faint praise – it’s really good).

Big things invariably start with small beginnings and in Anderson’s case this was the little-seen Hard Eight.

Anderson emerged from that post-Tarantino/post-Sex, Lies and Videotape moment in the early ’90s when studios of all sizes were falling over themselves to buy up anything ‘indie’ and repackage it for the mainstream.

In Anderson’s case, his short film Cigarettes and Coffee played at the 1993 Sundance Festival and led to his being invited to hone his burgeoning craft at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab, a sort of Hogwarts for talented young directors. As well as being spotted by Sundance, Anderson had also popped up on the radar at Rysher Entertainment, which financed his first feature.

What Rysher giveth, it took away, however, and after Anderson completed the feature – originally titled Sydney – it took it upon itself to re-edit the film. Anderson kept hold of the working print of his original cut though and, after finding the $200,000 needed to finish the film, a subsequent screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and an agreement to rename it, Hard Eight made it onto the big screen. The fact it made only a small dent at the box office turned out to be irrelevant; Hard Eight proved a big hit critically and gave Anderson the calling card he needed to make Boogie Nights the following year.

Hard Eight

John (John C Reilly) is given a leg-up by the enigmatic Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Hard Eight follows Sydney, an aging, well-heeled loner who takes the down-at-heels John under his wing. John is penniless and on his way out of Las Vegas after failing to win the $6,000 he needs to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on the beaten-down John and takes him back to Vegas to mentor him in the way of making money at the casino.

The film picks up two years later with Sydney still the teacher and John his eager pupil. With the absence of a father, a paternal bond has also been formed which comes in handy when a desperate John calls on Sydney to help him deal with a situation involving his new wife – waitress and prostitute Clementine.

The first thing to say about Hard Eight is that it features a fantastic cast, led by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall as Sydney. Anderson apparently wrote the part specifically for Hall, who had been drifting in the wilderness for a number of years and has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in his autumn years. Hall brings real gravitas to a part that requires subtle changes of character. Sydney is a man trying to make amends for a terrible decision in his past in the best way he can, but he’s not to be messed with, as Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) finds to his cost.

Equally good is John C Reilly as John. Reilly may now be best known for his comic roles, but his early career was made up almost exclusively with bit parts or dramatic roles. Hard Eight was as much Reilly’s calling card as it was Anderson’s and he uses his naturally doe-eyed persona to his full advantage in his portrayal of a character trying the best he can but who keeps making mistakes.

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Gwyneth Paltrow also excels as Clementine. It’s a thankless role in some respects; the tart with a heart who falls for John and drags him into a situation they cannot deal with, but Paltrow doesn’t employ the aloofness that has marred some of her other performances here, instead making Clementine a damaged soul magnetised to the equally bruised John.

And let’s not forget Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small but notable cameo as an obnoxious craps player. He’s only on screen for a brief time, but Hoffman doesn’t need long to breathe life into his characters.

The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the film (something acknowledged by Anderson), with sweeping tracking shots, dazzling visual flourishes and unusual editing style that he embraced even more fully in Boogie Nights. One criticism of the film is the use of music, which can feel a little over-bearing at times. Compared to There Will Be Blood‘s extraordinary soundtrack, Hard Eight feels a little cheap.

Hard Eight is nevertheless a fascinating first salvo in a superb directorial career (his latest, The Master is one of the most anticipated films of 2012) and an intriguing snapshot of the state of American independent cinema at the time (how many directors can boast such a top-notch cast with their first feature?). His is a star that is sure to burn brightly for many years to come.