Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part one) (2014)

As well as clocking in as one of the longest film titles this year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1) also, unfortunately, happens to be one of the more underwhelming films too.

Once again, Jennifer Lawrence dons wig and quiver as Katniss, victor of the 74th Hunger Games and now working begrudgingly for District 13 led by the steely-eyed, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Under the tutelage of ex-Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), Katniss is prodded and poked into becoming the face of the District’s rebellion. Like a member of the royal family, she is carted around from place to place with a camera crew/marine guard filming her every moment. Meanwhile, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) appears to be now working for the Capital who are ramping up their propaganda to sedate to the great unwashed.

You know how in the run up to an election, you become awash with leaflet campaigns and door knocking from every party. You start becoming deaf to their accusations that the other party is the worst. Mockingjay (Part 1) is similar in that despite its big name stars and large budget, we’re basically following some people on a campaign trail.

Those who have read the source material will know the action doesn’t really ramp up until the second half, which makes it all the more obvious that this is simply a cash-in. There is nothing here that wouldn’t be missed if someone was to take a scalpel to the film and cut it down to 45 minutes tops. This is not a slur on anyone involved in the film itself. Everyone is fantastic and on the ball through out, with the exception of Liam Hemsworth who hasn’t convinced in any of these films. It’s just it’s hard to defend Mockingjay (Part 1) against accusations of lining the pockets of those above. No movie needs this much setup. Like The Deathly Hallows Part 1, people are being duped into thinking this is a complete film. It’s not. It’s flashy exposition. It’s the prawn cocktail before we get to the roast dinner.

When the second part is released next year, there’ll be a better idea of how well this film fits in with the narrative. However, for now, this is an incomplete movie. After the success and, quite frankly, joy of Catching Fire, it’s a shame the suits had to be involved so much.

American Hustle (2013)

David O’Russell gets the band back together– Cherry picking his team of actors from his canon –  for American Hustle; a comedy drama with one tiny toe dipped in the truth. ‘Some of this actually happened’ it cheekily informs us before the beginning credits roll.

Christian Bale is morphed into Irving Rosenfield, an overweight, balding con artist who spends just much time on his comb-over as he does on his hustles. On one arm, he has Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) a fellow trickster who helps him carry out numerous loan scams, whilst on the other arm is his trophy wife Rosalyn, played like a hyena in a jumpsuit by Jennifer Lawrence, who seemingly aware of his infidelity refuse to divorce him. Which is fine by Irving. After they are busted by the FBI, Agent Richie Di Maso (A pubic haired Bradley Cooper) forces them to help set up a honey trap for corrupt politicians including coiffured Mayor Carmin Polito (Jeremy Renner).

American Hustle is like a heady cocktail of two-thirds Goodfellas to one-third Boogie Nights. It zips along fair old pace as Cooper dances his way into Adams’ pants, whilst Bale develops bromantic feelings for Renner, seeing a kindred spirit in him. Everyone is on fine form. Bale reminding everyone that he can play a damn site more than a millionaire dicking around in a bat suit, and Adams giving a stellar performance as proof that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Meanwhile, although Cooper and Lawrence share little screentime together, they both surpass their performances in O’Russell’s optimistic outlook on mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook.

Irving et al are fully fleshed characters that have a life off camera and this in part to the terrific script co-written by O’Russell. It positively sizzles with comedic dialogue even when the story is, it’s fair to say, in fear of being crushed by the weight of its own convolution.

American Hustle is a funny and engaging movie that made us want to watch it again as soon as it was finished. A definite must see!

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The franchise that people love to compare to Battle Royale is back (and yes we do as well so sssh). Now with added Oscar Winning Actresstm.

Following on from the last’s bleak happy ending, the 74th Hunger Games victors, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are continuing their sham relationship under the scrutiny of the public gaze, whilst barely talking to each other behind closed doors.

Fearing an eventual overthrow of government, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his new Games Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) put steps into motion to further water down the impact of Katniss’ actions in the first film; Having unwittingly whipped the great unwashed into a revolutionary frenzy. Katniss must now tow the company line in return for the lives of her family; swapping piss and vinegar for doe eyes and Vaseline-on-the-teeth smiles. When that fails to work, a new Hunger Games is announced with the contestants all being previous winners. Can Katniss and Peeta survive another round up against seasoned pros?

The interesting thing about this chapter in the franchise is how little interest the games present when measured up against what’s going on behind the scenes. And we mean that in the nicest way. Through Peeta and Katniss’ victory tour of the Districts, we’re further exposed to a rich world of the haves and the have-nots. If the first film was about the idea of hope, then Catching Fire – as the title suggests – is about that idea becoming something tangible. Something the downtrodden can aspire to that doesn’t involve millionaire playboys running around dressed up as bats. Something as simple as a three fingered salute in front of your oppressors. There’s a lot to chew on and mull over, which gets lost when the new games eventually start.

When the klaxon screams the start of the slaughter, the film drops the symbolism like a bad habit and we find ourselves yearning to be back at the capital. Yes, there is kind of a key theme regarding people hiding behind a façade, which comes to some sort of payoff in the end, but honestly we like a bit more meat with our gravy.

Thank heavens then for Sutherland and Hoffman. In a stark improvement upon the first film’s glimpses of behind the scenes politics with Game Master Seneca Crane, Catching Fire lets us see the corrupt Sutherland and Hoffman as they buffet on the scenery and put their machinations in order. If this film were set in the 1800s, these co-conspirators would quaff brandy, smoke cigars and stroke their chins decrying the name of Katniss Everdeen.

Speaking of the Girl on Fire, Lawrence brings it all to the table; adding gravitas to a role that others would not. In the wrong hands, a character like Katniss could painted as an all-conquering hero, invincible to all. However, Lawrence brings subtlety that grounds the outlandish scenario unfolding. In her final scene, she manages to tell a whole emotional story without uttering a word. It’s a shame the same couldn’t be said of her onscreen boyfriend played by Liam Hemsworth, who struggles to add any life to his performance. Does he love Katniss or is it just gas? It’s the kind of performance we expect from other franchises, not this one. And not wanting to get too political, it’s always, ALWAYS good to see a strong female lead whose sole preoccupation isn’t who does she love more.

Overall, Catching Fire is solid fantasy which almost suffers the indignity of being the bridge from the first film’s set up and the payoff of the final two. The fact it still succeeds, shows great promise for the next films in the franchise.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

David O’Russel is no stranger to the family unit, subverting it oedipully (?) in his debut, Spanking The Monkey, exposing the dynamics within the army as family in the fifty percent great Three Kings, very nearly pulling off an “everything is connected” universe family in I Heart Huckabees and then coping comfortably with a genre flick that dealt with nothing but brotherly love and hate in The Fighter. With Silver Linings Playbook we find him cosy in his wheelhouse as he adapts Matthew Quick’s novel about a dysfunctional family with a streak of mental illness in Philadelphia into a loose, shaggy, wry tale of obsessive behaviour, love and loss and the American Football team that binds them all together.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man released into his parent’s care (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) from an institution where he has been incarcerated for eight months for assaulting the man he found graphically involved with his wife when he returned home one day. Armed with a plan for mental health called “Excelsior” and a fitness regime designed to win his estranged wife back, Pat sets about re-integrating with society, meeting old friends, bonding with his spiky father over Philadelphia Eagles games and finally meeting Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany has lost her cop husband recently and reaches out to Pat for companionship. Pat begins to use her in a scheme to get a letter to his wife who he is restrained from seeing by a court order. In a totally non-shocking cliché Pat and Tiffany begin to fall for each other as they practice for a dance competition…who would’ve thought it?

Silver Linings Playbook (awful title, we kept forgetting it prior to our screening.) treads that very tricky line between comedy and drama, too funny and the mental illness’ would be viewed as trite handles on which to hook jokes, too serious and the bittersweet edge of comedic reality would be lost in a shower of pathos. Fortunately, O’Russel skillfully navigates this track to deliver possibly his most balanced, enjoyable film yet.

Using the Philadelphia Eagles (the birds, as their fans call them) as a focal point for its characters and their community, Silver Linings Playbook accentuates their rivalries with the New York and Dallas teams to accentuate the rivalries within the families. Every Sunday is game day, the family gather, eat snacks cooked by Mom and argue over every play, every comment and every past hurt, this is a much more effective form of therapy for Pat than the state provided psychiatrist. Even Tiffany, who ostensibly hates football, knows every stat and result, such is the import of the Eagles.

Bradley Cooper manages to pull off an impressive “not being smug” performance which is good news for those who watched The Hangover, A-Team and Limitless with a lingering urge to never stop punching him. De Niro manages to summon some fire back into his eyes, playing Pat’s OCD father with verve but Jennifer Lawrence is the star here. Bruised, vulnerable and resolutely unapologetic for a promiscuous period following her husband’s death, Lawrence gives Tiffany an edge that feels as if it could be shattered any moment. A scene in which Pat and Tiffany argue in a diner and then in front of a movie theatre showcases both her highly visible broken heart and the skillful writing that O’Russel has supplied her with. Tiffany is unable to keep the emotion from her face and Lawrence uses this to portray a woman on the brink of slipping into alcoholism and self-pity. Her roles following this film will be scrutinised closely.

The whole thing builds to a brilliantly handled, multiply important dance-off climax that is funny and charming and perfectly integrated with the rest of the film (Unlike Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, films that exist solely to try and impress you with a quirky dance at the end and are instantly forgettable.). Important to every character and wonderfully pathetic, the win/lose conclusion is emotionally satisfying and at least semi-plausible, managing to avoid leaving a Hollywood sheen over proceedings that would have rung hollow with the preceding honesties revealed.

O’Russel seems to be getting into his groove and his (relatively) inexpensive movies, which have actors clamouring to appear in them (for knockdown fees, presumably) should continue to expose us to familiar forms of the human condition skewed through his off kilter, left field eyes for a long time to come.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Firstly, EBFS is assured by someone who HAS ploughed through Suzanne Collins trilogy of futuristic, murderous teenagers that this adaptation is a faithful representation of the novel. Faithful in spirit definitely, some minor characters and plotlines have been jettisoned for obvious reasons and that seems fair and reasonable. Secondly, this is a review of the rated 12 version that we have been “granted”  here in the UK. So, whilst a bigger portion of the novel’s fans might be able to see it up on the screen we are left with a film, about 12-18 year olds murdering each other for the delight of a dilettante society ruled by a totalitarian government, which lacks spine. And guts. And even blood.

Jennifer Lawrence, with more than a hint of a young Juliette Lewis (Not Cape Fear young, a bit after that), is Katniss Everdeen, a tomboyish hunter stuck way out in District 12 (looks like Nebraska) scraping a living for her younger sister and mother. When her sister is selected for The 74th annual Hunger Games, an X-factor style show with less tears where 24 kids go into an arena and only one emerges, Katniss volunteers to take her place to save her. Her sister being well, less tomboyish.

Exposition is kept to a few lines that function as the titles and a brief, public information film voiceover from President Snow. Everything else about  future America is revealed piecemeal, this is relatively complex world building here and it works well enough, although it did lead to this reviewer briefly believing that although the human race was still semi-reliant on coal, it had mastered the tricky craft of creating dogs out of nothing.

The targets are big but the aim is true. The Hunger Games effectively lampoons reality television. There is nothing of the scabrous wit or dark comedy of Network here, just a gentle but firm aura of disapproval of those running the game and those enjoying the broadcasts, but not, interestingly of several people who work for the show who must be as part of the problem as anyone. Both Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, looking normal) as a stylist and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, looking quite normal), a former winner, are off the hook for taking company money as they are presented sympathetically. Haymitch is almost the comic relief in a po-faced film played in no way for laughs. Seneca (Wes “dancing bag” Bentley, looking bearded and insane) and Caeser (Stanley Tucci, Oh my god) as producer and presenter respectively get the bad guy roles and thoroughly enjoy them, camping up the Roman angle to a sneeringly, obtuse level. The main evil in The Hunger Games, however, belongs to President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking like a poodle pilgrim) who seems to spend an absurd amount of time bothering with a television show when, presumably, he also has a fragmented, two tier society to oversee.

By the time the clever ending (a highlight, with a nod to A Clockwork Orange) comes around the persuasive acting of the leads and the immersive structure of this particular future have won out over the nagging issues and overlong running time to provide a decently entertaining few hours with enough surprises to make even the most hardened sci-fi fans interest a little piqued. So, we’re left with a smart, well made, driven, action film that isn’t making as big a point as the pile of money it’s rolling around in. We can’t help thinking that teens killing each other in an arena has been done better before………BATTLE ROYALE, BATTLE ROYALE, BATTLE ROYALE. Sorry. Fear the sequels.