The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: The odds are in this movie’s favor

The original Hunger Games film revealed both the triumphs and pitfalls of adapting a wildly popular book. While it was ultimately considered a success, its rushed pace, uneven acting and shaky cinematography left many cold. Catching Fire, the hotly anticipated sequel, feels like the movie the original film should have been. Thanks to a new, dedicated director in Francis Lawrence along with better source material, the film is a triumph both as an adaptation and a mass-produced entertainment that should thrill diehard fans and series newbies alike.

The story picks up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing for their victory after “winning” the 74th Hunger Games, a brutal blood sport started by the Capitol of Panem to keep the twelve districts from instigating a revolution against the oppressive regime. The Capitol is thrilled by Katniss’ and Peeta’s victory, as well as their seemingly budding romance, but all is not well. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their dual victory as an act of defiance, and so did many of the districts, who begin staging a series of small uprisings. Snow makes it his mission to stamp out Katniss, the symbol of the revolution, for good by forcing previous victors back into the arena for another round of the Hunger Games.

One of the great pleasures of this film is seeing returning actors embody these characters. While Lawrence’s Katniss came off as somewhat robotic before, here we get to experience her full range of emotions as well as the toll the games have taken on her psyche and relationships. Fresh off her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has grown leaps and bounds as an actress, and it shows. Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ competing love interest, Gale, are also given much more to work with here. Elizabeth Banks’ garish, Lady Gaga-esque Effie is a scene-stealer once again.

There are tons of new faces as well. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new head game maker Plutarch Heavensbee is a particularly inspired choice of casting, and may well be some fans’ favorite character come series’ end. Sam Claflin is brilliant as previous victor Finnick, and Jenna Malone steals scenes as the vicious Johanna Mason.

Director Lawrence (I am Legend) is a great replacement for Gary Ross, whose first film was a bit sporadic in its execution. The camera stays still and wide much more often here, allowing us to thankfully see the beautiful vistas and intense action much more clearly. Veteran writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) shove a lot of characters and events into 2 ½ hours, but the film never feels bloated. Scenes are allowed to breathe, and they thankfully avoid the rushed ending of the first film. That Catching Fire ends on a cliffhanger is a natural consequence of the movie being a middle chapter, but at least it’s a good one (brilliantly shot and exactly the same as the book, refreshingly). The fact that so much material fit into one movie without any major omissions is somewhat of a marvel.

Catching Fire is not a perfect movie. There are small plot holes here and there, and, in a film with so many characters, some are bound to be underdeveloped. But, in every important way, it’s the perfect sequel. It amplifies the things that worked in the first film while all but eliminating the many things that didn’t. Lawrence has breathed new life into a franchise that was already in danger of becoming stagnant, crafting an utterly satisfying, visually stunning and insanely thrilling ride from start to finish. It even achieved the rare feat of getting me genuinely excited for the next one. Your move, Hobbit. 

12 Years a Slave Review: Tough, demanding, inspiring, essential

Twenty years later, we have a Schindler’s List for a new generation, a film that stares unblinkingly into the dark soul of a nation that is far from overcoming the sins of its fathers. 12 Years a Slave is that movie.

It is, in some ways, an odd comparison, because the films, while both based on harrowing true stories, are actually quite different. Steven Spielberg is often seen as an old-fashioned sentimentalist, but the same tendency could in no way be leveled at 12 Years director Steve McQueen. In grueling, draining films such as Hunger and Shame, McQueen has shown himself to be a distinct modernist, his camera recording the actions of his characters with an almost cold indifference.

What makes 12 Years a Slave a great movie, perhaps the definitive American slavery film, is that McQueen doesn’t tell us that slavery was bad, as so many others have. He shows us through the life of Solomon Northup, a black man exposed to a litany of horrors few souls could survive. There is raw power in Northup’s story; McQueen smartly realizes no further message is needed.

Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in New York in the 1840s. He makes his living as a world-class violin player, taking care of his wife and two children. A band of traveling performers convinces him to come to D.C. where he can make some money playing violin for their two-week show. When he arrives, however, he is sold into slavery and taken to the south.

We are taken on a tour of human depravity as Northup comes across a cruel slave trader (Paul Giamatti), who gives Northup his slave name before selling him to kindly plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is eventually passed on to a not-so-kindly one. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is known as a slave breaker, but even he is unprepared for Northup’s impossible resilience.

Although McQueen coaxes brilliant performances from an all-star supporting cast, it is truly Ejiofor’s Northup that anchors the film. It is not so much the impossibility of this man’s circumstances or the fact that he survived them that inspire, but the fact that his spirit was so unbreakable. Ejiofor’s eyes express the spectrum of human emotion; pain, sacrifice, unendurable suffering and relentless hope are all right there in his face. When he stares into the camera, without saying a word, we feel every inch of what he has felt. It’s the performance of a lifetime.

A breakthrough performance by Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsy is equally breathtaking, providing not only a kindred spirit but a foil to Northup’s optimism. One of the film’s more powerful scenes comes when Patsy asks Northup to kill her. Repeatedly raped and beaten by Epps and despised by his mistress, she has reached the limits of human endurance. Northup refuses, and tells her to hold on a little longer.

McQueen’s film reminds me of the dichotomy in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: the way of nature vs. the way of grace. The way of nature is for Patsy to die a dog’s death, the way she lived. But Northup shows her the way of grace, that the human spirit, unlike the body, can never be truly broken.

We see this dichotomy in the film’s treatment of religion as well. Epps and others use scripture to justify the way they treat their slaves, laying bare one of the grossest misuses of the Bible in human history. But the slaves show the way of grace in their songs. When a group of slaves sing a hymn over another slave who has died, we see them singing to the same God who has been used by other to oppress and demean them. The way of grace stands triumphant over the way of nature. When Northup meets Brad Pitt’s Bass near the end of the film, we realize we have met one of the few decent souls in the entire movie. And we can breathe a sigh of relief that people like him existed, that one decent man can almost redeem the human race. If, as Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” there are occasionally those who break in to remind us that the way of grace still exists to prove us wrong.

12 Years a Slave holds our heads over our nation’s history and forces us to stare. Rarely does a film speak so clearly and directly to our human existence. It is unflinchingly brutal, and certainly not for the faint of heart (I looked away from the screen at least twice). It’s also a powerful testament to the endurance of the human spirit. It’s not an easy sit, but it is, I believe, a necessary one; an important reminder that, while we’ve come a long way, there are miles we have not yet traveled in our shared human experience. If movies like Gravity remind us why we should go to the movies, movies like 12 Years a Slave remind us why we must.

Ender’s Game Review: An admirable attempt

Author Orson Scott Card has referred to his seminal sci-fi novel Ender’s Game as “unadaptable.” But that hasn’t stopped him, and others, from trying. Nearly 30 years after its initial release, the book has finally seen the light of day on screen, courtesy of writer/director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The result is an admirable attempt that nonetheless may not find much of an audience outside of fans of the source material.

A significant plus is that the film does, in fact, work. The book’s major plot points and even its potent pacifist themes are present and accounted for. In the world of adaptation, that is rarer than it should be. On a futuristic Earth, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a gifted youth recruited by the military to join a program that trains child soldiers in battle simulations to help fend off a repeat attack by alien invaders known as the Formics, who devastated humanity in a previous attack. Ender is recruited by the intimidating Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who sees potential in the tension between the boy’s calculating intellect and startling propensity for violence. Perhaps he is the one that can win the war.

The film’s story faces problems similar to this year’s earlier sci-fi film, Elysium. Ender is “the one,” an almost-mythical figure tasked with saving humanity from a young age. It’s a common sci-fi trope, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. The film does a poor job explaining why Ender is so important, other than the fact that he just is. Card’s book offset this through a complex side-story detailing Ender’s gifted siblings. That difficult material is understandably axed, but nothing replaces it, leaving a hole that is hard to ignore.

One reason the book has always seemed so unfilmable is that it takes place mostly in ship corridors and computer rooms. But Hood and cinematographer Donald McAlpine have created a lovingly crafted and visually exhilarating version of Card’s world. Ships, space suits and the battle arena look fantastic, even better than I envisioned them in the book. Although we see very little of the Formics, their design when we do is intriguing.

What Ender’s Game gains in production design it unfortunately loses in its acting. Ender is a somewhat icy character, and in that regard Butterfield’s performance fits the bill. But that doesn’t make his performance any more engaging. His acting is mostly steely reflection punctuated by occasional outbursts of emotion, similar to his role in Hugo. He’s not a bad actor, but he’ll need to either keep picking these very specific, icy roles or expand his acting chops.

Nearly everyone else in the movie gives equally one-note performances. Harrison Ford doesn’t do much beyond looking angry and yelling, and gifted young actors such as Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin are given precious little to work with. The standout performance is the magnificent Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson. While Graff sees his soldiers as chess pieces, Anderson sees them as children, as they so rightly are.

The performances aren’t helped by dialogue that often reduces conversations to grand specifying. And yet, the film is briskly entertaining, clocking in at 114 minutes while managing to keep much of what made the book so engrossing. In particular, the ending retains its potent antiwar punch, bolstered by a great late-game twist. Unlike the rest of the movie, the conclusion leaves you thinking.

Ender’s Game is perhaps the best we could have hoped for from an adaptation of the wildly influential book. It’s visually impressive and retains enough of the book’s potent antiwar commentary. And yet, ultimately, the film feels slight. Maybe it’s the grandiose dialogue, or the fact that many of the actors often look a bit too lost in space. Or perhaps it’s yet another example of how difficult it is for the medium of film to convey the raw power of the written word.