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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
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.
When X-Men: First Class hits theaters on June 3rd, you may notice that the blockbuster series has changed a bit. The costumes and setting are different, as are the actors playing lead characters Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr/Magneto. But the most noticeable departure for the franchise is its super-powered roster. The A-team of Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey and Wolverine are gone, along with heroes-in-training like Ice Man, Rogue and Kitty Pride. And though you’ll hear a few familiar names like Mystique and Beast, you won’t recognize their faces. Filling in for these future fighters are a new batch of mutants who join Xavier in actually founding the X-Men, and a young and talented cast of newcomers who you’ll be seeing a lot of in the coming years. Let’s take a look at the new mutants (well, not THOSE New Mutants…).
Emma Frost/The White Queen
Played by: January Jones
First Comic Book Appearance: X-Men #129 (1979)
Mutant Abilities: Various telepathic powers, including mind reading, mind control, mental sedation and psionic force bolts. In addition, she can transform her skin and hair into a diamond-like substance, rendering her nearly invulnerable.
Emma was born into a wealthy Boston family, but shunned its success and instead wished to make it in the world on her own. Guided by her ambition, intelligence and charm (not to mention her telepathic powers), she climbed the corporate ladder of big business and became the majority stockholder of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate principally involved in electronics and transportation. Her success caught the attention of the Hellfire Club, an elite secret society bent on global domination led by Sebastian Shaw, which is at the center of the conflict in X-Men: First Class. From there, she became one of the Club’s most respected members, and eventually its White Queen.
Played by: Kevin Bacon
First Comic Book Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #129 (1979)
Mutant Abilities: Can absorb kinetic energy and re-channel it into superhuman strength, speed and durability. He also has minor telepathic capabilities.
It’s no wonder that Frost and Shaw hit it off so well; they come from different sides of the same coin. Born to a poor family in Pittsburgh, Shaw turned his fortunes around by his mid-twenties with Shaw Industries, a company he built from the ground-up. He was quickly invited to join the Hellfire Club, and rose it ranks to become the Black King with relative ease. At this point, he planned to use its political and economic resources to further his own goals of global domination, but the X-Men surely had something to say about that…
Played by: Jason Flemyng
First Comic Book Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #428 (2003)
Mutant Abilities: Like the video game Portal? If so, this is the mutant for you. He can teleport by opening portals from one dimension to another. He can also concentrate this portal energy to conjure devastating blasts. Additionally, he shares a mental link with all of his offspring.
Believe it or not, mutants have been around since biblical times (Jesus? Maybe?). Azazel is one of the oldest, and he’s a pretty bad dude. As ruler of the Neyaphem (demon-like mutants from the old days), he believes that Earth and everything in it belongs to him, which kind of puts him at odds with the X-Men. It’s quite strange, then, that one of his children would turn out to be one of them! That’s right: Nightcrawler, the blue teleporter from X2, is the son of this evildoer, though I wouldn’t expect him to bring that up in First Class.
Played by: Zoe Kravitz
First Comic Book Appearance: New X-Men #118 (2001)
Mutant Abilities: They’re quite icky, actually. Angel possesses a few abilities akin to that of a common housefly. Aside from having a pair of wings that allow her to both fly and create a deafening ultrasonic sound by vibrating them, she has an insect like reproductive system that lets her lay eggs that can hatch after just five days. If that’s not weird enough for you, she can spit up an acidic bile-like substance that’s probably not too good for your skin.
Not to be confused with Ben Foster’s winged character from The Last Stand, Angel comes from a very different background than Warren Worthington III. Her abusive stepfather drove her out of her home, forcing her to sleep in the woods where her mutant abilities kicked in a formed a cocoon around her. When she woke up, she had her wings and ran into Wolverine, who took her to Xavier’s mansion. On an interesting side note, actress Zoe Kravitz, who plays Salvadore in First Class, briefly dated the fore mentioned Foster, bringing the cinematic mutant universe back full circle in a sense.
Played by: Lucas Till
First Comic Book Appearance: X-Men #54 (1969)
Mutant Abilities: Havok can absorb cosmic energy into the cells of his body, transform it in an unknown manner and release it as waves of energy that heat the air in their path enough to turn it into plasma, which is a super-heated state of matter consisting of charged subatomic particles.
This is where things get tricky for the chronology of the mutant universe. You see, Alex is the younger brother of Scott Summers a.k.a Cyclops. When we catch up with him in First Class circa 1963, he’s well into his teens already. How, then, can Scott the elder brother be in his early thirties in 2000s X-Men while Alex, the younger is 16 in the sixties? I really hope that director Matthew Vaughn and his army of writers address this fallacy, because it actually has kept me up at night.
Anyway, after a tumultuous upbringing in an orphanage followed by foster care, Havok joined the X-Men and fell in love with Lorna Dane, a.k.a Polaris (who is noticeably missing from the roster). After time spent abroad together doing research, he later would rejoin the X-Men and eventually lead the second iteration of the government sponsored mutant fighting force known as X-Factor.
Played by: Edi Gathegi
First Comic Book Appearance: X-Men Deadly Genesis #2 (2006)
Mutant Abilities: As his moniker would suggest, Darwin’s game is adaptivity. If he’s trapped in a burning building, his skin becomes fireproof. If he’s deep underwater, he grows gills to let him breathe. Get it? Unfortunately, he has no control over his powers; they are purely the result of an instinctual response. However, they have increased his intellect to near genius level.
Darwin is a relatively new addition to Marvel’s mutant universe, but no less important. His story begins in a 2006 run of comics in which he’s born to a father who rejects him and a mother who resents him. However, his intelligence got him a full scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, where he was bullied because of his wraithlike appearance. At 15, his latent abilities kicked in and he used them to fight back. It was then that he was sent to Dr. Moira MacTaggert, a renowned geneticist and friend of Charles Xavier. Eventually, all of MacTaggert’s students joined Xavier’s growing band of freedom-fighting peacekeepers known as the X-Men.
Played by: Caleb Landry Jones
First Comic Book Appearance: X-Men #28 (1967)
Mutant Abilities: Sean’s got a powerful set of pipes; thanks to his superhuman lungs, he can produce a sonic scream for various effects. First off, he can stun, disorient or knock someone out with his deafening shriek. He could generate sonic blasts that strike with tremendous concussive force, liquefying or outright disintegrating targets at his highest levels of power. He can even concentrate the sound waves to enable himself to fly.
Cassidy belongs to a noble line of Irishmen that dates back before recorded history. Born into a happy home where as a youngster he dreamed of heroic acts, he discovered his mutant abilities as a teen but concealed them at first, fearing for his own safety. He frequently clashed with his mutant cousin Black Tom, and the two had a longtime feud over a local girl who Sean ended up marrying. After a career in law enforcement with Interpol, Sean teamed with the X-Men to take on the rising mutant subversive organization Factor Three and, following their defeat, joining the team full time. In First Class, Cassidy will be one of the younger team members, but in comic book lore he’s actually of the same age as Charles Xavier and became a close confidante of the leader.
Played by: Alex Gonzalez
First Comic Book Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #210 (1986)
Mutant Abilities: Riptide can spin his body at incredible speeds, creating a vacuous suction that draws in nearby objects and allows him to throw objects at equally powerful velocities; chief amongst them calcified “daggers” which he grows from his own body.
Another villain who has clashed with the X-Men on numerous occasions, in the comics Riptide is a member of the mutant collective the Marauders who serve Mr. Sinister. In the film, he’s one of Sebastian Shaw’s henchmen and in all likelihood a low-ranking member of the Hellfire Club.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.