The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth.

Directed by: Francis ‘no-relation’ Lawrence.

Plot: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

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Catching Fire really delivers as the second instalment of the Hunger Games series (based on the novels by Suzanne Collins).  Of course, sequels generally have it easy, since they don’t have to introduce the audience to a fictional society/world or any of the main characters, but there are other reasons this film outshines its predecessor.  Francis Lawrence directs well, the script is good (almost identical to the dialogue in the book), and there’s enough here to satisfy most tastes: action, tension, romance, politics and a pinch of fantasy.

Katniss and Peeta are set to embark on their victory tour of Panem, after winning the 74th Hunger Games.  Before they leave, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), travels to District 12 to remind Katniss that the only thing keeping the triumphant couple alive is their sometimes not-so-fictional romance, and warns her to crank up the public displays of affection.  Snow’s real problem is that Katniss and Peeta (but mostly Katniss) have sparked rebellions with their win, and are now a symbol of hope among the oppressed inhabitants of Panem, especially in the inferior districts.  Even sticking firmly to Snow’s script on the victory tour is not enough to quell the uprisings sufficiently.  So, hoping to restore order, Snow asks new Head Playmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to reap the champions for the 75th Games from the existing pool of victors, making the “Quarter Quell” his convenient excuse.  Katniss is District 12’s only female victor, so she is automatically selected, and Peeta volunteers to take Haymitch’s place.  Back in training, we’re introduced to an array of new champions, all with absolutely nothing to lose, and all willing to do almost anything to get back at the Capitol after years of oppression.  One small group of champions band together, united against Snow, instead of fighting to kill each other.

The biggest strength of Catching Fire is characterisation; many characters are more multi-dimensional.  Katniss, as well as being her usual intense self and suffering from PTSD (which sadly isn’t explored enough), has more to fight for this time around.  She’s not worried about her own life; she’s worried about the safety of her family.  On top of all that, she’s struggling with conflicting feelings towards Peeta and Gale.  Lawrence, of course, plays this with grounded ease, and makes Katniss a believable, likeable, cool heroine.  Peeta, thankfully, is braver and more macho in this chapter of the story (well done, Suzanne Collins, for creating the wettest, feeblest male hero in literary history).  He’s heavily involved in the action here, and is able to measure up more evenly with the rest of the male cast.  And, of course, there’s Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who forms the third side of the love triangle.  In Catching Fire we see Katniss and Gale’s feelings for each other intensify, which certainly complicates things.  Gale vows to fight for liberation in any way necessary, which lands him in rather a lot of bother with the Peacekeepers in District 12 (it’s horrible!).  We see many sides to him, which is nice.

We are also re-introduced to some much loved ‘secondary’ characters.  For me, the champion supporting star is Elizabeth Banks, whose acting really flourishes in Catching Fire.  She returns as the mad, simultaneously-inhuman-and-human Effie Trinket.  Tainted by the Capitol way of life, poor Effie finds herself bereft when reality catches up to her and makes her question everything she’s ever known.  Putting her cherished (in her own strange way) Katniss and Peeta back into the arena is already taking its toll, and there will hopefully be more on that in Girl on Fire (as there is more in the book).  It’s great to see her character developing here, as in the first film she comes across as superficial, clueless and alien.  Here, we see her tragically recognising the pitfalls of her beloved society (perhaps for the first time?) and her true emotions break the surface once or twice, making her much more likeable.  Of course, she still has her moments (“This isn’t very festive!”).  Woody Harrelson returns as Haymitch, the champions’ mentor, who suffers from poor mental health as a result of his own stint in the arena.  Stanley Tucci is back as Caesar Flickerman, an eccentric TV personality and interviewer who takes quite a liking to the ‘happy couple’.  Lenny Kravitz plays Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, who joins the revolution in the best way he can – he’s a favourite among Hunger Games fans.

What’s not so good?  Some of the CGI isn’t quite up to scratch. The monkeys, though terrifying, are also very obviously not real.  Although this one is far more graphic and grim than the first, it’s still not nearly realistic enough – these films could do so much better with a higher age certificate.  I don’t think the arena is used quite to its full potential, though it’s still very good.

One of the great things about these films is that there’s a lot of food for thought, if you want to look for it.  The audience can either explore or ignore various metaphors as they see fit.  None of the messages are pushed to forcefully, so the story appeals to a wider audience.  It offers up a lot more depth than most other young adult adaptations, with equal doses of action and storyline.  It’s 146 minutes long, but it flies over, it’s never boring, and it doesn’t do that thing that most long films do when you think they’re going to end five or six times before they actually do.  Four out of five stars.

Frozen

Starring: Kristen Bell, Edina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff.

Directed by: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee.

Plot: Loosely based on the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, fearless optimist Anna (Kristen Bell) teams up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) to go on an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and the hilarious snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

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Frozen has everything anyone could ever want from a Disney film.  It’s funny and romantic, the animation is beautiful, and it’s a proper musical to boot!  It even has the now staple Disney moment when the audience are scared the whole film is going to turn into a depressing mess, during the poignant ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman’ sequence.

Anna adores her sister, Elsa, who possesses the power to summon wintry weather with a flourish of her hands.  But one day, Anna is almost killed by Elsa’s ‘ice-beam’, and can only be revived by the Troll King (it’s Disney, just go with it).  In shock, Elsa locks herself away in her bedroom, terrified that she’ll hurt her sister again if she can’t control her powers.  When their parents pass away, Elsa becomes the new Queen of Arendelle, and the palace gates are opened for the first time in years for her coronation.  When Anna introduces Elsa to her very-new-just-met-that-day fiancé, Hans, Elsa reacts badly, loses control, uses her powers in front of everyone and flees.  So, Anna teams up with Kristoff, whose ice delivery business has taken a hit now that Arendelle is a winter wonderland.  He agrees to help Anna find Elsa and restore Arendelle to its former summery glory.

Although Kristoff and Hans are injected into the story to add some romance, the main focus is the relationship between the two sisters and how they work to mend it.  The big message here is to embrace your inner strength and to love yourself, which may sound cheesy, but it’s never too forced or sickly because it’s so well written.  Jennifer Lee really delivers with the script, providing characters we care about and like, plenty of humour and some decent twists.

Most of the comedy comes from Olaf, a talking snowman who spends rather too much time dreaming of his first summer (“Winter’s a good time to stay in and cuddle, but put me in summer and I’ll be a… happy snowman!”).  Or take the moment when he is gifted with his first carrot-nose, and ecstatically declares, “Oh, I love it. It’s so cute. It’s like a little baby unicorn.”  As if being funny isn’t enough, Olaf is loving (“I like warm hugs.”), brave (“I’ll distract them while you run.”) and selfless (“Some people are worth melting for.”).  He’s wonderful!  I’ve heard some people say Kristoff’s pet reindeer, Sven, is underused, but I disagree.  Unlike lots of other Disney creatures Sven can’t talk, so Kristoff talks for him, taking both his own part in conversations and also speaking for Sven, which is funny and endearing.

It’s an attractive film, and I can see how 3D would appeal here.  The wintry world is beautiful anyway, but Elsa creates a spectacular ice palace (“Let it go! Let it go! … The cold never bothered me anyway.”), which is the icing on the cake.  There’s lots of tumbling down mountains and adventurous chases with snow flying everywhere, which would look great in 3D, too.  And aside from the frozen world Disney has created here, there are some new iconic dresses for girls to flounce around in!

The music is brilliant and clever, which is good, because this film if full to the brim with songs.  Sad songs, funny songs, love songs, songs you just can’t help singing along to, the lot.  Not since Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid has the music in Disney films been this good, with the exception of the odd song.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes another Disney film to make it to the stage – it would be an easy transition, as the script and music won’t need any work, and just imagine the set!  Yes, please, Disney!

It’s brilliant, truly brilliant.  I’m awarding my first ever 5 stars, because I just can’t wait to see it again!

Elysium

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Wagner Moura.

Director: Neill Blomkamp.

Plot: In the year 2154, the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth. A man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarised worlds.

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I hate it when sci-fi films give the briefest of premises in opening captions, and expect the audience to just accept that Earth has changed rather too drastically in too short a period of time.  So, I didn’t get off to a great start here, with text declaring that in the late 21st century “Earth was diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated”, forcing the [insanely] rich and powerful to flee to a luxurious space station named, you guessed it, Elysium. Already annoyed that we’ve been offered no further explanation as to how Earth has ended up in such a desperate state in a relatively short amount of time (the film is set in 2154), I buckle in for what I’m sure will be a disappointing ride.

Matt Damon plays Max, a reformed gang leader trying to contribute to his pitiful society as much as he can.  It’s tough!  Los Angeles is essentially a giant slum and the city is policed by brutal robo-cops – not just part robot like RoboCop himself, but fully fledged, 8 feet tall, brutal machines, helped along by automated parole officers.  Built on top of what can only be described as a tip, the houses are thrown together out of whatever materials are available (imagine my horror to discover that this was filmed on location, a real place!), and the residents resort to crime and begging to get along.

Elysium, in stark contrast, and as its name suggests, is sublime – green, bright, fresh and amply packed with pods that can restore you to perfect health, regardless of the severity of your affliction.  One character, for instance, has half of his head blown clean off, only to be put back together again minutes later.  Ridiculous?  Yes, I know.  So, when an accident at work leaves Max with only days to live, he needs to get to Elysium so he can cure himself.  But wait!  Of course, the government on Elysium welcome earthlings about as much as earthlings would welcome an aggressive pathogen, which makes Max’s quest somewhat problematic.  Throw in a sick child and a love interest and there’s really rather a lot going on.

Characters?  Most of the actors do okay, to be fair.  Matt Damon does the best he can with the role he’s been given, and the supporting earthlings are good as well.  Wagner Moura is the stand-out star for me here, as a sort of liberation gang leader (he even has Che Guevara facial hair) pushed to desperate measures.  Diego Luna and Alice Braga also do well as Max’s childhood friends who become embroiled in the ordeal.  However, there are a couple of frankly baffling performances. Jodie Foster is Elysium’s Head of Security*, and offers up a totally mystifying act.  Indeed, she has no problem dictating heavy-handed orders with severe cruelty, but her accent is outrageous and her timing is way off (“I’m not interested in your … (longest pause ever!) … little ideas.”).  Her delivery is one of the most distracting things I’ve ever seen on screen, especially since half of the time her face doesn’t seem to make the right shapes for what she’s saying.  This may be poor dubbing, I don’t know, but it’s weird.  Similarly, as terrifying as Sharlto Copley’s character is, he’s also laughably melodramatic at times.  All the roaring and face twisting reminds me of over-the-top Hammer Horror villains, which wouldn’t ordinarily bother me, but it just doesn’t sit right in this film.  It all comes to a comical head when he straps on a robotic octopus-like suit to become the proper end-of-level boss.

Can I think of anything nice to say about this film?  The music is fine, the effects are good, and most of the acting is okay.  My major issue here is that, personally, I can’t reasonably believe that technology will have advanced enough for us to have robot policemen and miracle curing machines by 2154.  Perhaps I’d get along with this film a lot better if it were set either way, way, way into the future, or if it didn’t involve Earth, but some other fictional planet instead.  I also sincerely hope that Earth isn’t reduced to such a sorry state in just 140 years.  Call me idealistic, but I just don’t think that will happen.  For me, Earth-based sci-fi has to be a little bit believable, and I just don’t think this is.  On top of all that, it doesn’t help that my brain immediately goes to Gladiator whenever anyone mentions Elysium: “For you are in Elysium, and you’re already dead!”  Actually, it’s not an entirely inaccurate quote where this film is concerned.

A generous 2 stars – I don’t think it’s fair to mark this more harshly just because I think the storyline is outrageous.

* This probably isn’t her actual job title; this is just how I’m remembering it.  Secretary of Defence?  I can’t remember, but you get the idea.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Robert Sheehan, Jemima West, Lena Headey, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Director: Harald Zwart.

Plot: Based on the novel by Cassandra Claire. When her mother disappears, Clary Fray learns that she descends from a line of warriors who protect our world from demons. She joins forces with others like her and heads into the dangerous New York ‘Downworld’.

City of Bones

This movie is right up my street – I’ll watch anything that involves vampires, werewolves, demons, witches etc. etc. It’s always been one of my favourite film genres, and so, I quite enjoyed City of Bones.

Lily Collins is Clary Fray, whose mother gets abducted at the start of the film. On her ‘quest’ to find her mother, Clary learns that she descends from family of Shadowhunters (demon hunters), and is not human (or a Mundane as humans are dubbed here) as she had always, quite reasonably, assumed. There’s lots going on here – back story, pretty decent action, some good effects, the discovery of new powers, a love triangle, some double crossing – teen angst, tied up with a shiny, supernatural bow!  In fact, this pretty much ticks all the boxes for young adults, which is fair enough, since it’s based on teen fiction.

For general information, there are six books in the Mortal Instruments series, five of which have already been released. There are also three prequels, called the Infernal Devices. Plus, apparently there will be a series of sequels called the Dark Artifices from 2015. Therefore, it’s likely that the Mortal Instruments will stick around for a while. Indeed, City of Ashes is already set to hit cinemas in 2014.

It’s got a good cast that doesn’t disappoint. Lily Collins does well as the heroine, and Jamie Campbell Bower is suitably broody and sarcastic. The chemistry between the pair is scorching, and there is a pretty good kiss – MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss at the ready! Robert Sheehan is funny and endearing as Clary’s best friend, and the token ‘normal guy’ of the group. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is terrifying as the main villain, Valentine – creepy, deluded, and insane.

It’s an attractive film. The effects are mostly good, especially the horrifyingly grim demon transformations (ick!). The sets are exquisitely crafted, the ‘City of Bones’ and the Library at the Institute being the most impressive. The building containing as Clary’s apartment is beautiful, too. Fans of the books will appreciate the attention to detail in each character’s weapons and runes.

What’s wrong with it? There’s nothing we haven’t seen before here, except perhaps the tattoo-based magic. There are some really soppy song choices, which I suppose won’t matter if you go in for that sort of thing, but I don’t. Pairing up with the gushy ballads is one of the corniest scenes in film history (though it’s the same as it is in the book so I guess that’s fair enough). Also, there’s one particularly cringe-worthy line at the end of the film, which actually brought an audible groan out of me, and may ruin the entire film for some people. Luckily, I’m well practiced at embracing cheesy – I put it down to years of watching Disney films and musicals. Still, I’m taking off half of a star for sheer over-romanticising.

What’s right with it? It’s not boring – there’s always a lot going on and there’s plenty of action, especially towards the end. It’s well cast (especially when you compare it to other recent films of this genre, like Twilight), it’s well shot, it looks amazing, and quite true to the book. As a fan of the books, I like that it sets up the story for the next film/s pretty well – there are things hinted at here that don’t creep up properly until the second book, but it works well. It’s witty in places, and there are a lot of one-liners. Chiefly, what’s right with it is that it’s perfect for its target audience – I’m sure lots of teenaged girls are going crazy for this film right now.

Finally, I feel it would be almost scandalous to post this review without mentioning eyebrows. Almost the entire cast have absolutely spectacular eyebrows, especially Lily Collins and Robert Sheehan. It’s fascinating, and I’m giving an extra half of a star purely to pay homage to large eyebrows.

I enjoyed this film, but I do wonder whether it would draw in anyone who isn’t already a mortal Instruments fan. Having said that, I went to see it with someone who hasn’t read the books and they seemed to enjoy it well enough. Harald Zwart is lined up to direct City of Ashes as well, so hopefully he’ll be able to inject a tad more originality and depth there. I’ll give 3.5 stars to this one, whilst looking forward to the next one.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Starring: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney.

Director: Declan Lowney.

Plot: Anglia’s most famous DJ finds himself in unfamiliar territories as a hostage situation takes over the North Norfolk Digital studios.

Alpha Papa

This is going to be a short review – let’s face it, it’s Alan Partridge, and there’s only so much to work with.

I went into the cinema thinking I would hate this movie. I haven’t seen much of Alan Partridge in the past, and the little I have seen I just didn’t get. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.

The Partridge-esque comedy starts almost instantly, with a crying-with-laughter sequence that sees Alan dancing a singing (or, really, it’s just miming with purpose) and dancing around in his car to the radio, amidst rants at fellow drivers for unnecessary fog light usage. Then we get some familiar studio time with Alan’s Mid-Morning Matters (“Which is the worst monger: fish, iron, rumour or war?”). However, as the film progresses the comedy gradually loses its Partridge-ism and goes more mainstream.  To me this is a great relief, but it might not please die hard Partridge fans.

The story stems from the breakdown of Alan’s colleague Pat Farrell, played by Partridge newcomer Colm Meaney. After being sacked, he holds everyone in the building hostage and refuses to negotiate with anyone but Alan. As you can predict, chaos and ridiculousness ensue. It’s up to Alan to save the day, but at the same time, he decides to make the most of the media attention.

There’s lots of comedy – jokes, slapstick, cheap gags, toilet humour (literally) – but it’s not too over the top that it renders the film unwatchable. The real humour, for me, lies in the script, the way Alan communicates, and his general awkwardness. Thankfully, it’s not necessary to be familiar with Alan Partridge to enjoy the film. For someone who has never enjoyed Alan Partridge before, I laughed a lot! However, I have no great desire to watch it again. So, 2.5 stars, because it’s very funny, once, but it’s not re-watchable. It does dredge up a lot of forgotten ‘classic’ songs and has more than one hilarious mime-dance sequence, though. Oh, go on, then – 3 stars.

Monsters University

Starring (voices of): Billy Crystal, John Goodman.

Director: Dan Scanlon.

Plot: It’s the story of how Mike and Sulley meet at Monsters University, where they weren’t always the best of friends.

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Can you believe it’s been 12 years since we first met Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan in Monsters Inc.? And what a fantastic film that was. In Monsters University, we’re taken right back to Mike’s school days and fall instantly for little Mike – he’s agonisingly cute!  He’s the monster that nobody wants to sit/work/play with on a school trip to the Scare Floor at Monsters Incorporated. But this is where Mike decides to become a Scarer, and we see him enrol at Monsters University, where he meets Sulley. It’s definitely not friendship at first sight. While Mike works very hard to make his grades, Sulley arrogantly coasts along, failing his classes, relying on his legendary family’s Scarer status to get him through school. They are like chalk and cheese, and each dislikes the other, until an accident in Scaring Class means they have to set their differences aside if they have any chance of staying at school. They enter the Scare Games – if they win, they can stay at Monsters University, but if they lose, they will be expelled and will effectively lose their chance to ever be Scarers.

We’re introduced to some brilliantly endearing characters in Mike and Sulley’s newfound sorority Oozma Kappa. Don Carlton is a mature student, looking to improve his prospects by learning about ‘the computers’. Scott ‘Squishey’ Suibbles is a timid, insecure, five-eyed monster, who still lives at home, and said home is the frat house. Squishey’s mum is also a gem, mildly spoken and fussy, but with a penchant for death metal. Art is a furry, purple thingamajig, who is the token weird guy, but in a funny way.  Then there’s Terri with and I and Terry with a Y, who are squabbling, four-armed, two-headed conjoined twins. It’s impossible to not like these guys, mostly because we all know people like this, and partly because there’s probably small amounts of each characteristic in our own personalities. Their goofiness compliments Mike and Sulley perfectly. Plus, everybody loves an underdog, don’t they (or, in this case, several)? Introducing new characters like this is always risky, but it certainly pays off here.

Monsters University projects a completely different feel to Monsters Inc. –adorable Boo has been replaced by comedy, and the film addresses some real world issues, ones we all face, without being condescending or annoying. And of course, the filmmakers have done a fantastic job creating the Monsters University campus. They use every millimetre of space available to them, and the buildings and stereotypical societies and students portray campus life wonderfully. One thing I love about any Disney Pixar creation is their attention to detail – so much thought goes into each scene, each character, each ‘set’, and it makes their films all the more enjoyable. Giving a film like this a sense of realism is a testament to how talented they are over at Disney and Pixar.

This is a wonderfully charming movie, and an instant Disney Pixar classic, in my opinion. The visuals are amazing, it’s well written, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, the new characters are irresistibly loveable, and somehow it meets the standards of the first film with ease. 4.5/5 stars, because I loved every second and I laughed a lot. Definitely re-watchable, again and again.

Now You See Me

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine.

Ditector: Louis Leterrier.

Plot: An FBI agent and an Interpol detective track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.

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This is going to be a short review, as I really can’t think of many compliments to give this film, and I can’t go into too much detail for fear of revealing spoilers.

What’s good about it? Not much. Some of the magic tricks at the very start of the film are impressive enough, if you go in for that sort of thing. Isla Fisher really does have wonderful red hair. All of the magicians look good in suits.

What’s bad about it? Where can I start? There’s not much depth to the story at all, and the script is very simple. The main characters aren’t likable; Jesse Eisenberg’s character is infuriatingly arrogant, Woody Harrelson’s and Dave Franco’s characters are both thieves, Isla Fisher’s character is annoying and has very little to do throughout. There’s far too much nauseating roundabout camerawork and lots of strange lighting. Throw into the mix a ridiculously over-complicated plot which inevitably winds up not making any sense and leaves too many loose ends, a ‘twist’ that you cotton on to before you even realise there’s supposed to be one, and some of the most appalling CGI work I’ve ever seen. CGI blankets? There wasn’t money in the budget for a couple of real blankets instead? Come on.  While I’m on visuals, Jesse Eisenberg’s hair was so distracting – it’s practically glued into place. On top of all of this, I’m convinced that some of these tricks have result in serious injury or death, if anyone were ever to try them in real life. And I’m not just saying that because I don’t believe in magic.

To sum up, I left the cinema feeling distinctly unmagical (I think I may have just made that word up). A good idea in theory, but it just didn’t hold together.  1/5 stars.