Monday, December 30, 2013
"THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE" (2013) Review
Despite my enjoyment of the 2012 movie, "THE HUNGER GAMES", I must admit that I had regarded its sequel, "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE" with a wary eye. One, the movie franchise had replaced Gary Ross with a new one, Francis Lawrence. And two, a relative who had read all three of Suzanne Collins' novels expressed a less-than-impressed opinion of the second installment, which this movie is based upon. But enamored of the first film, I decided to give this second one a chance.
"CATCHING FIRE" picked up not long after the ending of the first installment. The winners of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, have returned to their homes in the impoverished District 12. But due to their winnings, both now reside in upscale neighborhoods. Before they are scheduled to embark upon their victory tour of Panem, Katniss receives a visit from the tyrannical President Snow, who reveals that her actions in the recent Games have inspired rebellions across the districts. He orders her to use the upcoming tour to convince everyone her actions were out of genuine love for Peeta, not defiance against the Capitol. The victory tour goes off well, aside from an emotionally difficult and violent visit to District 11, the home of the deceased tributes, 12 year-old Rue (whom Katniss had befriended) and Thesh (who had saved Katniss).
Despite the tour and the installment of violent Peacekeepers in District 12 to crack down on any signs of rebellion, President Snow remains fearful of Katniss being used as a symbol of any possible upheavals. The new Head Gamekeeper, Plutarch Heavensbee, proposes a special Hunger Games called the Third Quarter Quell (the 75th Hunger Games), in which the tributes will be selected from previous victors. He believes the Games would either ruin Katniss' reputation, or kill her. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is naturally selected. However, her mentor Haymitch Abernathy is chosen as the male tribute. Peeta immediately volunteers to take his place. Haymitch informs the pair that most of the tributes are angry over being forced to participate again and suggests they make alliances. Although Katniss is against the idea, she and Peeta adhere to Haymitch's advice and find themselves in competition that ends with surprising results.
Despite becoming a fan of "THE HUNGER GAMES", I continued to resist watching Suzanne Collins' novels. Perhaps one day I will read them. But due to my unfamiliarity with the plots, the end of "CATCHING FIRE" pretty much took me by surprise. And this is a good thing. The movie's first third hinted of a growing rebellion against President Snow's rule over Panem in scenes that included Katniss and Peeta's harrowing visit to District 11, the beating of Gale Hawthorne (Katniss' closest friend and possible lover) at the hands of the Peacekeepers, and Snow's growing paranoia over Katniss. Even the scenes featuring Katniss' participation in the 75th Hunger Games continued hint the growing rebellion against Snow's administration and the Capitol through the characters like Haymitch, Katniss' friend and costume designer Cinna, and those serving as tributes. Characters like Beetee Lasnier and Johanna Mason expressed their dismay or anger at being forced to participate in another Hunger Game during their pre-Game interviews with Caesar Flickerman. Even Peeta tried to manipulate Snow into stopping the Game with false hint that Katniss might be pregnant. And during the Game, I found it interesting that Katniss and Peeta ended up forming an alliance with Lasnier and his District 3 counterpart Wiress, Johanna, and the two tributes from District 4, Finnick Odair and Mags - the only tributes to express any hostility toward the Games and President Snow. I had figured that all of them would eventually openly defy Snow by getting out of the Games. But thanks to some very good writing from Suzanne Collins, along with screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn; the circumstances behind the beginning of the rebellion really took me by surprise.
Another aspect of "CATCHING FIRE" that took me by surprise, turned out to be its cinematography. With the change of director, the franchise acquired a new cinematographer, Jo Willems. And I liked the way Willems expanded the look of Panem in the film. I suppose one could thank the movie's plot, which allowed viewers a look at the exclusive neighborhood of District 12, into which Katniss and Peeta moved following their victory at the 74th Games; the other country's districts, and the tropical environment that served as the 75th Games' new setting. But more importantly, Willems expanded the visual style of the Capitol . . . especially in a scene that featured Katniss and Peeta's arrival. This expanded visual really took me by surprise. The movie also acquired a new costume designer, Trish Summerville. I have to be honest. I found her costume designs similar to the ones created by Judianna Makovsky. I really do not see the differences . . . especially for those costumes worn by the cast for the Capitol sequences. Mind you, they are just as imaginative and beautiful as the ones featured in the first film. I simply cannot see the differences. There was one outfit - worn by Elizabeth Banks - that I found very original:
I understand that the song "Atlas", written and performed by the group Coldplay have earned both Golden Globe and Grammy nominations. Congratulations to the band. However, I do not remember the song. Sorry. I simply did not find it memorable. I was also a little disappointed in how Lawrence (the director) seemed to rush the first third of the movie - namely the sequence featuring Katniss and Peeta's victory tour and District 12's problems with the so-called Peacekeepers that culminated in Gale's beating. It seemed as if he was in a hurry for the movie to focus on the 75th "Quarter Quell" Hunger Games. And if I may be blunt, I was also not that impressed by Alan Edward Bell's editing. It struck me as a little choppy - especially in the movie's first half.
The performances by the cast struck me as first rate. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson did superb jobs in continuing the development of their characters, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark. I noticed in this film that Lawrence conveyed a great deal of realism in Katniss' growing difficulty in containing her emotions regarding those she cared about. This was especially apparent in the scene following Gale's public whipping, Peeta's near death experience during the first day of the Games and the visit to District 11. Someone once described Peeta as a saint. I never could view him in this manner. He strikes me as a rather manipulative individual, who can also be a very good liar. What is amazing about Hutcherson's performance is that he perfectly balanced Peeta's manipulative skills with his near all consuming love for Katniss and willingness to do anything for her.
Liam Hemsworth got a chance to develop his portrayal of Katniss' childhood best friend, Gale Hawthorne. Hemsworth, like Hutcherson, did an excellent job in balancing the different layers of Gale's personality - namely his love for Katniss and his ever-growing obsession with rebellion against President Snow and the Capitol. Woody Harrelson continued to knock it out of the ballpark as Katniss and Peeta's alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. I think this is the first time moviegoers got a real look at Haymitch's hostility toward President Snow, especially in the scene which featured the announcement of past winners participating in the Quarter Quell. Harrelson portrayed that small moment with such intense anger. Donald Sutherland continued his brilliant portrayal of the brutal, yet manipulative politician, President Coriolanus Snow.
Sutherland perfectly captured Snow's quiet machinations that could rival Palpatine from the STAR WARS franchise. Yet, the actor also did a subtle job in conveying Snow's growing paranoia over Katniss' popularity and growing role as a symbol of rebellion. I had greatly enjoyed Elizabeth Banks' performance as Effie Trinket in the first movie. I loved her performance in this film, as the actress allowed filmgoers a deeper look into the chaperone's persona, beyond her usual shallowness. I am also happy that Lenny Kravitz reprised the role of Cinna, Katniss and Peeta's stylist for the Games. As usual, the actor/musician gave a warm and beautiful performance as Katniss' emotional solace before the Games. One particular scene in which Cinna endured a brutal beating over a dress he had created for Katniss proved to be a very painful one to watch, thanks to Kravitz and Lawrence's performances, along with the other Lawrence's direction. Stanley Tucci was marvelous as ever in his continuing portrayal of Caesar Flickerman, the Games' announcer and commentator. Toby Jones reprised his role as Flickerman's fellow commentator, Claudius Templesmith. But his role had been reduced considerably.
The movie also featured some newcomers to the franchise. Philip Seymour Hoffman gave a sly and subtle performance as the Games' new Head Gamemaker, who schemes with President Snow to destroy Katniss' reputation and possibly, her life. Sam Claflin continued to surprise me at how charismatic he could be, in his engaging portrayal of Finnick Odair, one of the tributes from District 4, during the 75th Games. Jena Malone was a hoot as the outspoken and aggressive female tribute from District 7, Johanna Mason. The strip scene inside the elevator is one that I remember for years to come. I was surprised to see Jeffrey Wright appear in this film. He gave a subtle, yet intelligent performance as the male tribute for District 3, Beetee Latier. Wright also clicked very well with Amanda Plummer, whose performance as Latier's fellow District 3 tribute Wiress, struck me as deliciously off-center. Lynn Cohen nearly stole the show as Finnick's fellow tribute from District 4, Mags. I thought she did a pretty good job, although I am at a little loss over the fanfare regarding her performance.
Many seemed to regard "CATCHING FIRE" as superior to the original 2012. I cannot agree with this opinion. I am not saying that "CATCHING FIRE" is a disappointment or inferior to "THE HUNGER GAMES". But I certainly do not regard it as better. I would say that it is just as good. And considering my very high opinion of the first film, one could assume that my opinion of this second film is equally positive, thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, first rate direction from Francis Lawrence, and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
"AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.": THE LAST STAND AGAINST MEDIOCRITY
The age of serial drama or adventure is over. It is over. I came to this conclusion after learning the dismal ratings for the last episode of ABC's "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." called (1.10) "The Bridge". And ironically, my statement is not a criticism directed at the series or its latest episode.
I recently learned that the ratings for "The Bridge" had dropped considerably. Many fans would see this as a sign of the show's not-so-sensational quality. I realize that "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." is not flawless. There is no such thing as a flawless show. But it has the potential to become a first-rate one, as the quality of its writing grow with time. But judging from the reaction to the show from the past two months, I can clearly see that American television viewers and critics now lack the patience to deal with a serial drama. They will not allow shows like"S.H.I.E.L.D." to develop at a steady pace. They want instant perfection right off the bat.
I blame televisions series like "LOST", the new "BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA", and "ONCE UPON A TIME". All three shows gave television viewers an excellent First Season that seemed to blow their minds. And thanks to shows like the one I had just listed, an excellent first season is what many viewers have come to expect from a TV show in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Superb shows like "BABYLON 5", "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" and"ANGEL" did not have perfect first seasons. First first seasons were decent, but flawed. But in time, all three developed into excellent shows by their second and third seasons. And this is why I consider them among the finest series in television series. I am also reminded of cancelled shows like "FLASHFORWARD" and "THE EVENT". I might as well be frank. The first half of their single seasons never struck me as exceptional or impressive. But both shows managed to develop in quality by the end of their seasons. And both shows promised great potential, as well. But the respective networks refused to give them a chance and cancelled them, instead of giving them a second season.
Considering that the writing for television series like "BABYLON 5" and "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER"managed to slowly develop over time, I now realize that I can never consider shows like "LOST" and "ONCE UPON A TIME" among the best in television history. Sure, they were entertaining and revealed flashes of brilliant writing. Unfortunately, I believe that the writing for "LOST" flip-flopped in quality during its remaining five seasons. Despite some first-rate story arcs and plot twists over the years, it never reached the same level of quality that it had enjoyed during its first season. Many fans were dazzled by "ONCE UPON A TIME" during its first season. But the series is now in the midst of its third season. And I feel that eventually, it will suffer the same fate of inconsistent quality as "LOST" did.
The first season of "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." reminds of those first seasons for shows like "BABYLON 5" and"BUFFY". Like the two now defunct shows, the first season for "S.H.I.E.L.D." is obviously flawed. But I feel that it has potential, especially in the story line regarding the agency's battle with an organization called Centipede. When the series first began, I could barely stand characters like Grant Ward, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons. I found the former aggressively bland, and the other two rather annoying and out of place. The series has just finished airing its tenth episode and I have grown to appreciate all three characters. This is due to their fleshing out as interesting characters, instead of remaining mere cliches.
For me, this is a sign of why I like the production styles of television producer/writers like Joss Whedon and J. Michael Straczynski. They do not try to wow the audience off the bat with a spectacular premiere or first season. Both Whedon and Straczynski, and other show creators like them, are willing to allow their stories and characters to develop with time . . . like true storytellers. But today's television viewers do not seem to appreciate real storytelling. They do not appreciate a steady development of story and characters. They want to be dazzled right off the bat. And the creators of shows like "LOST" and "ONCE UPON A TIME" are willing to feed them dazzling premieres to automatically draw in viewers. Because of this new style of storytelling and lack of audience patience, I fear that "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." will not last beyond a first season. And if it does last, I fear that the networks might force Whedon and his brother, Jed Whedon will transform the series into an episodic one that allow guest starring costume heroes to push the main characters into a back seat.
Oh well. There is nothing I can do about it. In fact, all I can do is sit back and speculate on the future of "AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.". If it ends up cancelled by the end of the season or is transformed into episodic television; the show's fate will become another step down in the quality of television writing - especially for the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I fear culture is in serious danger of going to the dogs.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Below are some images celebrating Christmas at the two amusement parks at the Disneyland Resort - Disneyland and California Adventure - in Anaheim, California:
DISNEY CHRISTMAS Photo Gallery
Monday, December 23, 2013
Below are images from Season One of "HOUSE OF CARDS", Netflix's television remake of the 1990-1995 BBC miniseries trilogy that was based upon Michael Dobbs' 1989 novel. Produced and developed by Beau Willimon, the series stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright:
"HOUSE OF CARDS" SEASON ONE (2013) Photo Gallery