The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (UK Cert 12A)

The original Hunger Games arrived with enough hype to rival the London 2012 games. The first big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ ridiculously successful teenage novels, this was to be the beginning of a huge film franchise that would go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Harry Potter; the brand new Twilight. While the original film made enough money to buy a lifetime supply of Drumstick lollies and then some, the reaction from Collins’ fans, and those who had never picked up the books, was lukewarm. The film was watered down, lacking both the smart observations and brutal violence that made the books so celebrated. I have to hold my hands up and admit that I have never read the books, but from what friends have told me, The Hunger Games is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale with a heart. The big screen version of The Hunger Games I saw was Battle Royale for the kiddies, with all the satire and teenage slaying removed to conveniently give the film a 12A rating.

It did not take the bigwigs at Lionsgate long to green light a sequel, and here we are with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. On the plus side, Catching Fire has learnt a few lessons since the original, though it’s unlikely to be troubling the likes of Hogwarts and Co. When the film does get going (which takes a while; it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours and during the first hour very little happens), you rarely stop to breathe, with one impressive set piece after another. Just as before, Jennifer Lawrence proves why she is the go-to-girl for Hollywood’s leading roles and why she totally deserved to win an Oscar.

Again, I’m pointing out that I have not read the novels, and maybe this is what screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Ardnt have had to work with, but the satire and nods feel as subtle as a brick through a window. The first hour of Catching Fire is virtually scene-after-scene of not so much nods, but head-butts to what’s going on in our world today: those with too much and those with not enough; politicians abusing their power; the public’s consumption for reality TV and how far these shows are willing to go for entertainment. Without sounding patronising, raising these issues is important, but there are contemporary films out there that have been far more successful at highlighting the world’s flaws. In Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, what made the film so heart-breaking was that at no point do its protagonists even consider an uprising, instead choosing to accept their fate. Also, Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s Children of Men showed us an alternative future, suggesting that it’s not too big a leap to see Britain becoming a nation of fascists. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was some character development or a narrative to push the film forward, and while there are a handful of scenes, for the most part Catching Fire’s first hour is determined to list the many injustices of this world in as blatant a way as possible.

Catching Fire feels like two films that have been bolted onto each other. You have the plodding first hour followed by the remainder of the film, which makes up for this with CGI set piece after CGI set piece. All of these scenes are brilliantly put together, and you do find yourself worrying about the characters (a scene involving a massive flock of mocking jays is chilling), though this is more because you are watching someone in deadly danger rather than actually caring about them. Jena Malone gets the most intriguing role as Johanna, driven mad by the Hunger Games and what it has cost, both to her and the people she loves. Unfortunately her backstory, the reason why she’s so angry all of the time, is explained away in an all too brief summing up by one of the supporting characters. With Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, you’re not cheering him on because he is in love with Katniss, or because Peeta is a fully fleshed out character; it’s because he’s so damn nice.

Despite the film’s faults, for most of its running time it is a thrilling watch. When the tributes finally enter the arena it is action-packed and unrelenting, ending on a cliff-hanger that will certainly have me watching part three. There is plenty of bang for your buck here – poisonous fog, giant baboons and tidal waves to name just a few – and Jennifer Lawrence is perfect throughout. Katniss may not be the most complex film heroine, but Lawrence gives it her all, one minute being tough as hell with a bow and arrow, the next being caring and compassionate, letting that tough pretence suddenly slip. You can forgive many of Catching Fire’s problems because Lawrence does such a great job.

Rating: 3 out of 5


Saturday, 16 November 2013

Review: Gravity (UK Cert 12A)

Finally, there's a film that's actually worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.

There's been a lot of debate about whether this film counts as sci-fi or not. To me, it's not sci-fi exactly. We're not dealing with alien worlds or Death Stars here- we are rooted in a world of science fact. The ISS, Hubble and space exploration are all real. But this isn't a documentary: the story is fictional and, no doubt, some of the effects have been heightened to increase the drama and the tension of the situation. So I'm going to back away from calling this a sci-fi movie and instead call it a psychological drama with thriller elements that's set in space.

Plot-wise, it's quite straightforward- Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are two members of a team of astronauts that are servicing the Hubble space telescope. It's Stone's first trip and Kowalski's last. However, disaster strikes when debris from a defunct Russian satellite damages their craft, leaving them stranded in the vast darkness of space.

Visually this film is absolutely stunning and at times utterly breath-taking. The first twelve minutes is an unbroken shot, focusing on Earth and the vastness of space and then introducing the Explorer and its crew. The scenes of destruction and the impression given of zero gravity, with things like tears and sparks floating, just look amazing. Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber pull out all the stops to make this film look sublime.

Sandra Bullock's performance is sterling for the most part, with a few shaky script choices responsible for her dips away from greatness. Misfortune piles on misfortune for Stone and I found myself hoping she would catch a break at some point. She carries the film emotionally, mentally and physically and its a bravura turn from her (for the most part). Clooney kind of phones it in- playing a suave, charismatic raconteur is hardly a stretch- but it's fun and there's a particularly poignant scene between Clooney and Bullock about half an hour in that will bring a lump to the throat.

That's not to say that the film is perfect: some of the character points are a bit cliched, there's an ill-advised hallucination scene, plus some maudlin stuff about Stone's daughter which shone through as blatant emotional manipulation. There's also one particularly bizarre scene involving barking like a dog which really brought me out of the palpably tense mood created up to that point. I also wasn't particularly sold on one particular aspect of the ending but think I may have missed something in the lead-up to it which would explain Stone's actions, so it seems disingenuous to mark it down just on that.

There's a lot to like about this film and I admire the ambition and the end result. There are just a few niggles that stop this being truly great for me, and that's a shame. But if you are going to watch this, do try and see this on a cinema screen- you will appreciate the visual spectacle all the more.

Review: 4 out of 5


Saturday, 9 November 2013

12 Angry Men (1957)

 Currently in the West End of London on a limited engagement, following a short tour of the UK, is the stage version of 12 Angry Men (starring Martin Shaw, Jeff Fahey, Nick Moran and Robert Vaughn). Originally a teleplay, based on writer Reginald Rose's own experiences of serving on a jury in a manslaughter case, the film version of 12 Angry Men was produced in 1957.

In what appears an open-and-shut case, a young man is accused of murdering his father. The jury retire to consider their verdict. They are told that their decision has to be unanimous and, if the defendant is found guilty, the death penalty will apply. In the stifling jury room, on the hottest day of the year, the twelve men start their deliberations. Eleven vote guilty; one does not. The scene is set for a tense battle of words and wits which will lay the jurors bare as a young man's life hangs in the balance.

The word 'masterpiece' is often thrown about and often misused but it's entirely justified here. 12 Angry Men is a masterpiece, not only of directing, but of writing and acting as well. 

This is Sidney Lumet's feature film directorial debut. He would go on to direct such classics as Network (1976), The Verdict (1982) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and continued making films until 2007. Lumet was handpicked by Reginald Rose and Henry Fonda (who also produced the film, marking his first and only time as a producer) to direct. Lumet and his director of photography Boris Kaufman use some interesting camera tricks and perspectives to really heighten the claustrophobic feel within the jury room. All but a few minutes of the film take place outside the room and, at times, you get a sense of the walls almost closing in on the jurors as the tensions erupt. There is some interesting use of close-up (especially during several of the votes) and Lumet gets strong and assured performances from each of the twelve actors.

Whilst the film is ostensibly a battle of wills between two of the jurors, that doesn't mean that the other ten men are bland or just there to make up the numbers. Each one gets a moment to shine and show their acting chops. The jury foreman (Martin Balsam) is accommodating and serious about his role; Juror 2 (John Fiedler) is initially timid but finds his voice later; Juror 4 (E.G. Marshall) is analytical and fact-driven; Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) is sympathetic and from a similar background to the defendent; Juror 6 (Edward Binns) is plain-speaking and respectful.

Juror 7 (Jack Warden) is wisecracking and indifferent, concerned only for his baseball game tickets. Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney) is wise and thoughtful and the first to change his mind. Juror 10 (Ed Begley) is a loudmouthed old bigot (and one of the most powerful moments of the film comes when the rest of the jurors turn away from him as he launches into a tirade about 'them'). Juror 11 (George Voskovec) is a naturalised American citizen, polite but very firm in his beliefs, whilst Juror 12 (Robert Webber) is indecisive and personable. Through skilful writing and strong performances, each character feels fleshed out and rounded and you get the sense of who these people are with very little to go on- not even names (until the end when Jurors 8 and 9 give their surnames).

The main thrust of the drama is the stand-off between Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) and Juror 8 (Henry Fonda). There is a ferocious performance by Cobb, full of ire and vitriol. He remains stubborn and steadfast in his opinion of the defendant's guilt in the face of a strengthening wave of opposition and his clashes with Fonda are riveting. The hints as to what's really going on in Juror 3's mind are subtle and not overplayed (at least, not until the very end) and Cobb proves to be a towering antagonist.

Fonda's performance here ranks among his very best which- for a career that encompasses films like The Grapes Of Wrath, On Golden Pond and How The West Was Won- is saying something. Juror 8 could have merely been played as a bleeding-heart liberal, a saintly do-gooder or moral crusader. There's no hint of sanctimony or piety in the performance; he is a man who simply wants to talk, feeling that they owe the defendent an hour of their time before sending him to the chair. He barely raises his voice, doesn't outwardly scheme or manipulate - he just talks, and the arguments start to fall away.

The film was nominated for three Oscars- Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay- but was beaten in all three categories by The Bridge On The River Kwai. It remains one of the best courtroom/legal dramas ever made, is currently one of the Top 10 rated movies on the Internet Movie Database, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007 as a piece of work that is 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'.

Like the current stage version, the film is engrossing and compelling and full of great performances. It's definitely well worth a watch.