Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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The film scooped six trophies at the prizegiving, including awards for Best Film and Best Lead Actor for Bridesmaids star O'Dowd.
Wayne Blair took the Best Director title, Deborah Mailman was named Best Lead Actress and Jessica Mauboy won Best Supporting Actress. The film also landed the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The haul adds to the five technical AACTA honours which were given to the film at a pre-awards luncheon on Monday (28Jan13), taking The Sapphires' total to 11.
Joel Edgerton's thriller Wish You Were Here was also among the winners, securing the Best Original Screenplay honour and the Best Supporting Actor prize for Antony Starr.
In the TV categories, the Best Television Drama Series prize went to Puberty Blues, while Best Lead Actor went to Richard Roxburgh (Rake) and Best Lead Actress went to Leah Purcell (Redfern Now).
The ceremony at Sydney's Star Casino was hosted by Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe and featured appearances from Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush.
The main Australian ceremony follows the handing out of the AACTA International Awards in Los Angeles on Saturday (26Jan13) - the majority of the foreign film prizes all went to acclaimed drama Silver Linings Playbook with wins for Jennifer Lawrence (Best Actress - International) and David O. Russell (Best Direction - International).
Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver picked up the international supporting actor titles and the movie was also named best international film.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
On the surface Kevin Smith has crafted a clever concept a ragtag group attempts to make a porno film in order to get some quick cash. The underlying story is the platonic relationship between roommates Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) whose friendship goes to a whole new level once they find themselves out of cash and decide to cast themselves in their own triple XXX film. After meeting a gay adult film actor at a party Zack comes up with the get-rich quick idea to make a porn movie enlisting Miri’s help and convincing her that it will not affect their friendship. They set about casting the rest of the film with a disparate group of participants including the very self confident sex maniac Lester (Jason Mewes) superstud Barry (Ricky Mabe) gorgeous blonde bombshell Stacey (adult film icon Katie Morgan) and daring kinky Bubbles (legendary Traci Lords). What seemed like a simple proposition turns complicated when Zack and Miri in the heat of simulated lovemaking and in front of the whole crew discover they may be more than just friends. Even considering his great work in Knocked Up Zack is Rogen’s most accomplished character to date a lovable loser who uses last-ditch initiative to turn his life around and in the process discovers more than he ever bargained for. Chemistry is a tricky thing but Rogen certainly has it in spades with co-star Banks who takes what could have been a broadly sketched role and turns Miri into a three-dimensional woman who doesn’t even realize her true soul mate may be right under her nose --literally. You root for these two all the way. The wonderful supporting cast is unique to say the least including adult film star Katie Morgan making her mainstream debut as the ditzy Stacey. After some 200 “real” XXX films she graduates to the big leagues in style and shows she may have a future outside of her niche. Lords who made that leap some time ago niftily sends up her own former image and shows fine comic chops and a willingness to dress deliciously inappropriately. As for the guys Mabe is very funny but Jason Mewes (Jay of Jay and Silent Bob) lets loose with a hilarious and totally uninhibited portrayal of a sex addicted tattooed dude willing and able to do anything on camera. Also nearly stealing the show is The Office’s Craig Robinson a married crew member who is excited to help out buddy Zack because he wants to see “titties.” And in extended cameos Justin Long as a gay porn star and Superman Brandon Routh have a great time sending up their straight movie images playing bickering boyfriends. Kevin Smith has always gone for the jugular challenging the ratings boards and pushing the envelope in his films ever since the classic “dirty movie” Clerks made him famous. But not since his early films such as Chasing Amy has he showed such style and maturity as a filmmaker as he does in Zack and Miri his most outrageously hilarious and accomplished movie to date. Yes he does continue going for shock value (there’s a laugh-out-loud moment involving a certain bodily function natch) but his story is grounded in reality recognizably human and engaging. He milks this genius comic premise for all its worth but gives it an extra dimension that makes it different unexpected and finally memorable. Mostly though it’s just plain fun.
In the Australian town of Jindabyne mystery flows like the river and the river is about to overflow. Racecar driver-turned-mechanic Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) goes on his annual fishing trip with three buddies (John Howard Stelios Yiakmis and Simon Stone) leaving his ill wife Claire (Laura Linney) at home with their son. While on the trip Stewart and his friends discover a young Aboriginal woman’s dead body floating in the water but lest the trout swim away they decide to wait till morning to alert the authorities. The four friends wind up paying for that non-decision in ways they hadn’t previously foreseen. Upon returning home they’re greeted by what they think is undue public outrage but none is heavier than the punishment levied onto Stewart by an already skeptical Claire. She was the last of the wives to learn of Stewart’s particularly unforgivable actions that day and she joins the rest of the community in not being able to look him in the eye. She demands he act like a man and show his face at the victim’s traditional Aboriginal burial ceremony as a last resort to some semblance of redemption. Meanwhile the actual serial killer remains at large and makes no attempt to run or hide from anybody. But as is the running theme of Jindabyne who is the real bad guy? Laura Linney the lone American in the movie headlines a cast of well-proven veterans. No contemporary actress not named Streep or Dench does “adult” quite like Linney and Jindabyne is another dazzling notch on her belt. As always Linney keeps things tense the whole way through even during the first half in which her character is fairly content; however she makes it clear that everything’s not OK despite seeming superficially so. But more than anything Linney’s Claire marks a welcome if much more dramatic return to her You Can Count on Me roots. Byrne who appeared alongside Linney in 2004’s P.S. turns in perhaps his darkest emotional performance to date. His Stewart turns into a pathetic shadow of a man towards the end with one shot at potential redemption and Byrne—an odd casting choice because he’s an Irishman playing an Aussie—really makes it stick. The rest of the largely Australian cast won’t be recognized by American viewers but they’re quite frequently employed in their native film industry and for good reason. Deborra-Lee Furness aka Mrs. Hugh Jackman especially stands out as one of the frantic newly ostracized wives. Jindabyne is director Ray Lawrence’s third film; his first was in 1985. For that reason it’s fair to say he’s Australia’s Terrence Malick. Every second of film for Lawrence like Malick is a labor of love. It shows but with Jindabyne it makes for a less enthralling—and less organic—viewing than his previous film 2001’s superb Lantana. Jindabyne is a pleasure to look at and listen to and the story—based on a short by Short Cuts author Raymond Carver—probably has a lot more to offer when read but Lawrence’s slooooow-burn technique with fade-outs in almost every spot that needs a cut is occasionally tough to sit (awake) through. Towards the end however it picks up speed and profundity and ultimately leaves your head spinning for mostly the right reasons. In other words it winds up a genuine Ray Lawrence experience which is a good thing. That said the movie is definitely not for everyone especially in the days of sequel season er summer.
Set in Sydney Australia the story revolves around Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) a police detective in his mid-40s who is married with two teenage sons. He struggles to keep his life under control but feels it slipping away from him especially after he has a fling with a woman Jane (Rachael Blake) whom he meets in a dancing class he is taking with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). Jane is also surviving the breakup of her marriage to Pete (Glenn Robbins) and is simply lonely. She lives next door to Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci) a young couple with three children who seem to have a strong and happy marriage even after certain events nearly tear it apart. Sonja on the other hand suspects her husband is cheating and talks to her therapist Valerie (Barbara Hershey) about it. Valerie urges Sonja to confront Leon and tell him her feelings. Meanwhile Valerie and her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) are having problems of their own trying to come to grips with the murder of their young daughter a few years before. Somehow the lives of these eight people intersect when Leon becomes embroiled in a missing persons investigation.
For the most part the ensemble cast of mostly Australian actors is quite excellent. Many might not know the fact that LaPaglia who usually plays tough Italian New York types (One Good Cop So I Married an Axe Murderer) is actually a native Australian. Hearing his lilting and natural accent is refreshing and he gives his best acting effort yet as a man in the throes of a midlife crisis. Armstrong also turns in a quiet and subtle performance as the wife Sonja who eventually understands her husband's turmoil even though it wounds her deeply. Hershey and Rush play well off of one another as the damaged couple knee-deep in the grieving process particularly Hershey who gives an interesting twist on a successful therapist spiraling into her own self-doubt and despair. She proves once again how great an actress she really is. The other supporting characters lend depth to the story with Colosimo and Farinacci as Nik and Paula standing out the most. Their intense love affair starkly contrasts the messed-up lives of the rest of the couples.
Lantana refers to a type of plant which is filled with beautiful and exotic flowers but hides a thick thorny growth underneath. The opening shot takes us from the middle of this thorny bush where we see what appears to be a body entangled in it and pans out in a strange and slow way to show a great vista (reminiscent of David Lynch's opening to Blue Velvet). This pretty much sums up the feel of the movie--strange and slow--but not always in a positive light. While the performances are all good the pacing and subject matter brings the film down. The actions of the characters aren't always enough to keep up the momentum and the only compelling parts are when the actual mystery of the investigation start to unfold. You aren't sure who's guilty and who's not and the movie keeps you guessing until the very end. Yet the meandering personal dramas begin to get stagnant. Watching dysfunctional people deal with their marriages is something we've seen many times before.