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.

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In Retrospect – Natural Born Killers (1994)

It’s been almost 20 years since Oliver Stone’s outrageously provocative indictment of our obsession with media-fed celebrity and violence grabbed its own set of headlines, but if anything it’s become even more prescient.

As fearless as it is bombastic and problematic, it's unlikely we'll see the like of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers again

As fearless as it is bombastic and problematic, it’s unlikely we’ll see the like of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers again

With each new school shooting, massacre and serial killer, America’s news networks have sunk to new depths and served up opinions and conjecture as ‘factual’ prime time entertainment to a public drawn to the grisly details like a moth to a flame.

Cinema has long-held a fascination with our darker side, from such classics as Badlands (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Funny Games (1997) to schlock horror like the recent run of torture porn flicks.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) on their media-fuelled rampage in Natural Born Killers

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) on their media-fuelled rampage in Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone, one of America’s most polarising directors, has long explored humanity’s black heart and loss of innocence in the likes of Platoon, JFK and the under-appreciated Talk Radio, so it came as no surprise when it emerged he was making his most controversial film to date in Natural Born Killers.

Originally written by a pre-Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino, Stone dramatically altered the tone of the script from popcorn action to a polemic attacking what he saw as the insidious and cynical devolution of the media from a fair and balanced news provider to a ratings-chasing entertainer that glorifies the violence it purports to condemn.

The shizer hits the fan fortabloid TV journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) in Natural Born Killers

The shizer hits the fan for tabloid TV journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) in Natural Born Killers

Drawn together by a common desire and abusive childhoods, lovers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) hit the road and embark on a frenzied killing spree that captivates the sensation-hungry media machine, encapsulated by bloodthirsty tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) and his rabid TV show American Maniacs (which he describes as “junk food for the brain” for “those dim wits out there in zombieland”). Regarded as “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson” by his deluded fans, Mickey and Mallory’s notoriety only increases with each new massacre and explodes after they’re captured and locked up in prison, run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones).

If you thought JFK was a cinematic smorgasbord, Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson give us one of the most hyperactive and kaleidoscopic movie experiences ever committed to celluloid. Switching frenetically between colour, black and white, video, Super 8, CCTV, slow motion, projection, red lens, green lens and animation, it’s nothing if not eye-popping.

Not the thing you want to be staring at in Natural Born Killers

Not the thing you want to be staring at in Natural Born Killers

The late Roger Ebert said of the film: “Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning.” Re-watching Natural Born Killers, I was able to get past the “visceral experience” and realised that Stone was trying to portray events through Mickey and Mallory’s crazy perspective. When we see the animated Mickey looking the cool hero, for instance, it’s how he sees himself.

Stone depicts his central pairing as an unstoppable force of nature relentlessly careering down “the road to hell”. When Mickey escapes prison for the first time, he jumps on a horse and symbolically rides towards a tornado. Likewise, they seem to float above those seeking to drag them down to the gutter, especially the parasitic Gale who sees Mickey and Mallory as his ticket to the big time. When Mickey poetically announces that “only love can kill the demon” during a live interview, Gale cheapens the moment by going to commercial, where an ad for Coke duly pops up.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woodly Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson”, in Natural Born Killers

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson”, in Natural Born Killers

Images of sex and violence are projected in the background and dominate the airwaves, including footage of Scarface (an odd choice considering Stone wrote the screenplay). Also, Mickey and Mallory each have ying and yang tattoos to show their “extreme light and dark” sides, but they could just as easily represent the interdependence between their killing spree and the media’s insatiable blood lust.

However, for a film seeking to throw a cautionary spotlight on where we are and where we’re heading, Stone undermines his message in the way he depicts the moments of violence. Within the first five minutes, we’re shown a highly stylised scene of brutality visited upon the staff and customers of a diner, including an arresting tracking shot of a bullet fired from Mickey’s gun that dramatically stops in mid-flight before ending up in a cook’s head, and another tracking shot of a knife sent spinning slow motion through a window and into its victim. Crudely, Stone has the rednecks leer and grab at Mallory as she dances next to a jukebox, suggesting they’re asking for it.

Warden Swight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) loses it in Natural Born Killers

Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) loses it in Natural Born Killers

Stone would argue he’s seeking to project such violent scenes through the prism of satire, but when every cinematic trick in the book is adopted it’s difficult not to conclude he’s having his cake and eating it.

The excellent Harrelson and Lewis walk a fine line between being frightening, charming and sympathetic, while the manically over-the-top Jones and Downey Jr are deliciously sleazy and Arliss Howard’s angel of death on Mickey and Mallory’s shoulders is all the more unnerving for how underplayed it is.

As fearless as it is bombastic and problematic, it’s unlikely we’ll see the like of Natural Born Killers again, while for all his faults we need more directors like Oliver Stone to make us think, however unsubtle the message might be.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 1

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one out there to feel a sense of crushing inevitability when browsing what’s on for the week ahead at my local multiplex.

If it ain’t got cigarette paper-thin characterisation, CGI-a-plenty and a script that’s been cooked up by ZX Spectrum then the chances of finding it playing at the World of Cine down the road are slim to none. Sure, there are exceptions to this broadly-brushed rule (awards season usually throws up something) but these are mostly needles in enormously oversized haystacks.

So when the London Film Festival comes around every October I, like so many others, gleefully part with too much cash to experience what else, beyond summer tent pole releases, exists out there on Planet Cinema.

When I say “like so many others” I really mean it as purchasing tickets for the LFF is becoming increasingly difficult. Gone are the days when you could make your selections and be virtually guaranteed of a seat. Tickets for certain films this year went ridiculously quickly. My hopes of seeing The Artist, We Need to Talk About Kevin, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and Steve McQueen’s Shame were dashed pretty swiftly, but one of the joys of the LFF is that there’s so much to choose from, you’re hardly struggling to pick something that intrigues.

One such film is Rampart.

Rampart

Rampart

The police corruption genre isn’t one that’s been mined much in recent years (the most notable examples have been found on the small screen in such series as The Shield), but Hollywood hasn’t a bad history in the field, with the likes of Internal Affairs (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winner The Departed (2006).

However, one man more than any other has stood out as a seal of quality – James Ellroy. This master of crime fiction saw his 1950s-set Los Angeles potboiler L.A Confidential turned into a one of the best American films of the 1990s, while he also penned the screenplay for the under-rated Dark Blue (2003) starring Kurt Russell.

Dark Blue was set in a LA barely in control following the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots that tore parts of the city apart. Although set in 1999, seven years after the riots, the LA of Rampart (based on a story by Ellroy, who also co-wrote the screenplay) is a cesspool of distrust.

The LAPD is barely keeping a lid on the city, a situation not helped by the fact that it is the source of so much hatred in the city. Part of the reason for this is because of cops like Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson). When Over we first meet Brown he’s patrolling the streets, not afraid of dispensing a very particular brand of justice to those who step out of line in his little kingdom. The control he feels he has at work extends to his personal life, wherein he picks up women in bars without a second’s thought while living next door to his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), sisters who are the mothers of his two disaffected daughters.

When he is caught on camera beating half to death a man who drove into the side of his car, Brown’s superiors see an opportunity to show they are cleaning house by burying a bad cop. Convinced he’s being set up, Brown decides to make life difficult for his bosses and threatens a messy lawsuit. But this is an enemy this Vietnam veteran doesn’t fully understand and as the pressure inexorably builds, Brown starts making irrational choices and gradually digs himself ever deeper into a pit there is no escape from.

Working with Harrelson again following the Oscar-nominated The Messenger (2009), Oren Moverman clearly understands his material, having had a hand in the script. Moverman also understands Harrelson, still one of the most under-rated actors of his generation, as he draws out a performance of such brutal honesty it’s sometimes difficult to watch. Harrelson’s never been one to shy away from exposing himself bare, physically and emotionally, on screen given the right material and here turns in a career-defining performance of a man who is overwhelmed on all sides and too stuck in his ways and self-destructive to carve a way out.

Harrelson is ably supported by a superb star-studded cast, including Heche, Nixon and Robin Wright as an emotionally damaged lawyer who, like others, is drawn to and repulsed by Brown in equal measure.

One of the best crime movies this century, Rampart deserves to find an audience. Hell, it might even make it to my local multiplex.

One film that I guarantee won’t be making its way there is The Loneliest Planet – and to be honest the multiplex crowd won’t be missing much.

The Loneliest Planet

The Loneliest Planet

A loving couple, played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg, are travelling in Georgia hoping to get off the beaten path. Used to getting by with a smile and one or two words of the local lingo, theirs is a happy existence and the travelling you suspect is a final opportunity to see the world and live independently before marriage and babies get in the way.

They hire a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) to take them into the Caucasus Mountains. With the exception of the odd sheep or goat, they are seemingly all alone in this vast wilderness. But when a chance encounter goes awry following a misconstrued comment, the trust between these two young lovers is suddenly pushed to breaking point as they discover things about themselves they wished they hadn’t.

There have been a glut of films in recent years in which innocents abroad are deceived/trapped/hunted/tortured by the locals, and when you sit down to watch The Loneliest Planet you could be forgiven for half expecting it to follow in the same footsteps as the likes of Hostel.

The fact it doesn’t is a good and bad thing; good in that there’s only so much torture porn one can take, but bad in that the film is so teeth-grindingly slow you kind of wish the protagonists were being hunted/tortured etc.

There’s nothing wrong with slow-burn mood pieces where little of anything happens when those films contain characters you engage with.

The problem with The Loneliest Planet is that you feel little of anything towards Bernal’s or Furstenberg’s characters aside from a wish for see them get off screen as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, director Julia Loktev isn’t one to oblige and it’s almost two hours before she brings up the end credits.

Numerous shots of the couple and their guide dwarfed by their surroundings, presumably symbolising how insignificant we are in nature’s hands, promise much and the discordant, jarring strings that accompany these shots work well, but the sense of unease created fizzles out and you’re left with what is ultimately an empty exercise.