REVOLVING around a TV game show in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death, the first instalment of The Hunger Games was a curious and slightly unsatisfying mix of big themes, great characters and dystopian sci-fi action.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A)
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Liam Hemsworth
* * * *
The limitations of a 12A certificate alone made it tricky to convey on screen the full horror of its central premise without excluding the legions of teen fans hooked on Suzanne Collins’ source trilogy of young adult novels. (When you have kids slaying kids, there’s only so much close-up, hand-held camera work you can deploy before losing sense of the bigger picture.) Nevertheless, the first film, which was co-adapted and directed by Gary Ross, did a couple of things well: it set up the future-ruined world of Panem (both its hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken Districts and its decadent first city, the Imperial Rome-like Capitol), and it brought the saga’s self-possessed, bow-and-arrow-slinging heroine, Katniss Everdeen, to the big screen in the bold, unsentimental form of Jennifer Lawrence.
Both those things are capitalised upon in this bigger, better, bleaker sequel. Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), and adapted by Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar-winning writer of Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (the Oscar-nominated writer of Toy Story 3), Catching Fire picks up the action months after Katniss’ unorthodox victory in the Hunger Games has turned her into an instant celebrity. Now haunted by the blood she has on her hands, and plagued by survivor’s guilt, she’s having a hard time faking smiles for the endless, stage-managed publicity tour that has come to define her life. This isn’t helped by the fact that she’s also having to maintain the pretend romance she played up for the cameras with fellow winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in order to beat the rigged nature of the games and save his life too. With her family under constant threat, her job is to play nice as a government pawn, not be true to her own defiant nature.
Emotion to the fore
The film takes its time exploring all this, which allows Lawrence (Jennifer, not Francis) the space to dig deep and really give us a sense of the emotional toll all this is taking on Katniss, particularly as it becomes clear that the method by which she won the games has sown the seeds of a rebellion that is being closely monitored by the government of Panem. This has left Katniss with little time to ponder how she really feels about Peeta, or indeed, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her hunky childhood friend whom she sort of liked before her priorities were so violently changed.
In a subversion of most Hollywood movies, Catching Fire smartly relegates these love- triangle travails to the backburner in order to develop the far more intriguing and compelling story of Katniss’ emergence as an unwitting, revolution-fomenting icon. Panem’s duplicitous leader, President Snow (a magnificently sinister Donald Sutherland), already understands the threat she poses to his brutally enforced regime and, in an effort to suppress the nascent rebellion, and her growing influence on it, he hastily contrives another round of Hunger Games – a sort of all-star showdown known as the Quarter Quell that will pit Katniss (and Peeta) against past winners in a booby-trapped arena replete with lightning storms, poisonous fog and murderous baboons.
Though this structure mirrors that of the first film, Lawrence (Francis, not Jennifer) enhances rather than repeats anything that was seen before. The new tournament pits Katniss and Peeta against adult competitors, something that gives Lawrence the freedom to beef up the action sequences. He’s also much better at imbuing the fantastical nature of the premise with a naturalistic feel, which helps all the characters – not just Katniss – seem like believable human beings.
Elizabeth Banks’ hitherto cartoonlike, Capitol-loving public relations doyen Effie Trinket has a sort of tragic nobility this time, and, as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor Haymitch, Woody Harrelson doesn’t shy away from going to some dark places when it looks like he’s going to be forced into being a participant in the new tournament.
Then there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, joining the saga as the fabulously named Plutarch Heavensbee. He’s the Quarter Quell’s Head Gamesmaster, a man whose ambiguous nature Hoffman captures with a subtlety that’s rare for these types of films. In terms of performances alone, this is, by some stretch, the best acted of any of the behemoth-like, young, adult-oriented franchise films that have dominated multiplexes over the last decade or so.
Whether that will be sustained over the two-part concluding chapter that’s about to go into production (with Lawrence once again at the helm) is anyone’s guess. For the moment, though, it’s good enough to fulfill the promise of the title. With Catching Fire the Hunger Games saga really catches fire.
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, James Hosty, Billy Bob Thornton, James Badge Dale
Star rating: * * *
Parkland is the name of the Dallas memorial hospital in which John F Kennedy was pronounced dead on November 22, 1963. It’s also where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was taken two days later after being shot by Jack Ruby. That both men were operated upon in the same hospital, by some of the same staff, and were subsequently buried on the same day, are facts that writer/director Peter Landesman uses to provide a neat structure to this in-the-moment dramatisation of the Kennedy assassination and its immediate aftermath.
Essentially a one-act movie, the film avoids engaging with the conspiracy theories in order to recreate the crime from the point-of-view of key government officials, medical staff and civilians caught up in the atrocity as it happened. That’s an interesting concept and the film works well when focused on the shooting’s accidental documentarian Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) and Oswald’s brother Robert (James Badge Dale) – both of whom immediately understood that their lives were going to be ruined by their association with the assassination. But the approach also results in an unavoidable imbalance in screen-time for many of the key players, which reduces much of the film to a series of distracting star turns.
The Family (15)
Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John d’Leo
Star rating: *
Silver Linings Playbook aside, Robert De Niro has been so bad for so long that even the wilful defaming of his classic work now barely distinguishes one pile of dross from the next. Such is the depressing lesson to be gleaned from The Family, a fish-out-of-water gangster comedy from Luc Besson that features, among its many dire and unfunny set-pieces, a moment when De Niro’s in-hiding mobster is called upon to introduce a screening of Goodfellas to the members of a French film society.
Lacking even the eye-watering awfulness of his desecration of Taxi Driver in The Adventures of Rocky and
Bullwinkle, all this moment really inspires is indifference – a sort of shrugging
acknowledgement of the mediocrity that his name above the title has
come to signify over the last 15 years or so.
Directed by: Kim Sung-su
Starring: Ae Su, Jang Hyuk, Park Min-ah
Star rating: * * *
More Outbreak than Contagion, this South Korean viral thriller sticks closely to established Hollywood formula in depicting the fall-out from a communicable disease after it escapes into the populace. That means clearly defined heroes and villains and a straightforward narrative that, unlike Contagion, leaves no room for ambiguity.
Nevertheless, Kim Sung-su’s relatively big budget production is good at conveying the panic that arises when something airborne instantly turns thousands of people into feverish, blood-vomiting walking corpses. In this case, a strain of avian flu unwittingly brought in by human traffickers is the cause of a pandemic that sees the highly populated Bundang district of the city of Seongnam put on lockdown (in the film’s creepiest moment, tiny chirping birds are seen running out of a shipping container when the police locate the source). The plot contrivances are laughable, but the action is executed slickly enough for the film to fulfill its duty as straight-up blockbuster thriller.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (18)
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Star rating: * * * *
An intense, sexually explicit love affair between two young women may be the basis for French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winning drama, but it’s the well-documented war of words that have erupted between Kechiche and star Leá Seydoux regarding the former’s allegedly exploitative working methods that has dominated much of the discussion of the film thus far.
Now that it’s hitting cinemas, however, it’s worth pointing out that the film itself is worthy of debate in its own right, not least for how it manages to be both thoroughly remarkable and utterly banal. An intimate story told on an epic scale, it is, at heart, a coming-of-age drama in which a teenage girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) comes to terms with her sexuality, falls in love with a slightly older and more experienced woman (Seydoux), and never gets over it when the relationship dies.
Over the course of three hours, the film achieves a stark emotional realism that’s striking at first but ultimately suggests that there’s nothing special or unique about the lives of its characters. It’s this – rather than the explicitness of the sex scenes – that makes it feel genuinely radical.
Computer Chess (15)
Directed by: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Patrick Riester
As his fellow mumblecore pioneers Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers drift closer to the mainstream, Andrew Bujalski – always this loose collective’s most aesthetically adventurous filmmaker – retracts even further from it with this singular work of retro weirdness. Set in the early 1980s and filmed using vintage black-and-white video cameras from the period, Computer Chess is a bizarre exploration of a moment in time in which inarticulate nerds were on the cusp of developing the technology that would eventually facilitate the social networking platforms that have brought us closer together virtually while pushing us apart physically.
The film explores this in abstract fashion by following a group of programmers at a conference hotel for a computer chess tournament. Over a weekend, as their various machines malfunction or refuse to perform, these socially maladroit tech-heads find themselves confronting the hotel’s other guests. The clash of these two groups makes for compelling viewing, but it’s Bujalski’s attention to conversational detail and his commitment to the film’s formal design that enables Computer Chess to make some fresh moves.