From now on, I'm going to see movies that are based on books far removed from finishing the book. That seemed to aid in my enjoyment of this considerably. When the first Hunger Games movie came out last year, I had just finished reading the book a few months prior. I liked it but didn't love it and thought it fell drastically short of where the book had taken me. So either I was thrown off because all the details from Suzanne Collins' book was still fresh in my mind or the film itself just wasn't that good. Judging by the reaction of critics and fans alike, it was that the film wasn't up to snuff because changes were made to the team and thank God they were.
Director Gary Ross created the first film and this sequel was done by Francis Lawrence. Ross directed films like Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Lawrence directed films like Constantine and I Am Legend. Neither are stellar directors but more like adequate ones but when you consider their past work, which do you think is more suited for a film about a post-apocalyptic America where children battle each other to the death for the entertainment of adults? Exactly.
In every single way that the first one fell short, Cathing Fire wins. Lawrence has made a world that feels as gritty and evil as it should. His use of FX is far superior than what showed up in the first one; the script is better, the music resonates but it's the raw emotion that makes this the success it is. Granted, this story is full of heartbreak and tragedy but no more than the first book had. There are scenes in this film that made me tear up and they were scenes that did not have that affect when I read it. That impresses me as an audience member more than almost anything else in the film.
That's not to say that there isn't loads of action in Catching Fire though. The danger involved in the games feels so much more real this time around. The arena is 100% scarier and more creative and all of that is actualized almost perfectly in the film. Most of that terror is hightened by fantastic performances from Jennifer Lawerence, who's really starting to prove that she deserved that Oscar last year. She carries the film firmly on her shoulders even with new heavy hitters joining the cast like Phillip Seymore Hoffman (Doubt, Boogie Nights) and Jeffrey Wright (Source Code, Ides of March).
The production company responsible for making this franchise has made the decision that not only was Gary Ross wrong for the series and Francis Lawrence is right but that Lawrence is THE guy. They've named him the director of the next two (yes, they're splitting the last book for no other reason than greed) films. Seeing Catching Fire gives me the confidence that this series I enjoyed so much is in good hands, will continue to be and is making me hungry for more.
Sometimes, it's hard to remember that Matthew McConaughey is a great actor. It's not just that he went through a phase where he did nothing but strut around the beach with no shirt on 24 hours-a-day playing the bongos and wearing crystals. It's that he did a string of really bad movies there for a while. Movies like Failure to Launch, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Wedding Planner, Sahara, Fool's Gold; these films are enough to write off someone as Hollywood blather and described as anything BUT an actor. But under that pile of silliness is the same guy who kicked ass in Contact, Amistad, A Time to Kill, Frailty. And lately, he's been on a tear with great performances in Mud, Magic Mike and Killer Joe. But would Dallas Buyers Club continue the winning streak? It does...in spades!
In the film, McConaughey plays a real person named Ron Woodruff, who was a straight, homophobic, good ol' rodeo boy from Texas who got AIDS in 1986 when it was widely believed that only gay men could get it. Instead of accepting his short life expectancy given to him, he seeks to medicate himself with non-FDA approved drugs from international sources and circumvents the government by then selling them to other people with AIDS. Through his self-preservation he learns to love the community he once hated and mocked and helps them fight for their right to choose whatever path they want to get better.
This is one of the best performances of McConaughey's career although he, once again, kinda plays himself. He manages to create a wonderful anti-hero who we learn to love as his transformation from bigot to man of the people takes place. The other stellar performance is from Jared Leto (Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream) who plays his transgender partner, Rayon. Their friendship is humorous and heartbreaking and is the soul of the film. It's devastating when you discover that Rayon was a character created by Hollywood to make the film more fun. Regardless, Leto knocks it out of the park and is even better than McConaughey; both deserve Oscar nominations. It makes you wish that Leto would stop pretending to be a rock star for 30 seconds (get the joke?) so we can remember that he's actually a really gifted actor.
Great performances are not the only reason you see this movie. Director Jean-Marc Vallee blew me away with his ability to step so far out of his comfort zone and capture what it was like to be a s**tkicker in Texas in the '80s. This is light years away from his period romances and adorable French films. The script is another reason to buy a ticket. A film about AIDS already feels too heavy for most people to swallow and knowing that McConaughey and Leto both lost so much weight that they look like walking skeletons makes it even worse but, I assure you, this film is fun. It has all the funny quips and show-stopping tearjerkers that Academy members love. It's a film that's handled with respect to the gay community (for the most part), tackles the difficult topic of AIDS in the '80s and does it all with a light approach. That's no easy task.
Dallas Buyers Club isn't for everyone and that might be one area that holds the film back come Oscar time. Academy members like films that are serious but still fun, touching yet don't depress us but they also like all that done in a PG-13 arena. Dallas Buyers Club is not that. They do the story justice with an R-rating and I'm glad that they did. Aside from some stereotypes and fictionalized characters to make the film more marketable, it's a story that needed to be told and one that sheds light on a moment in our history that is shameful and important.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a favorite Avenger. Even if they know nothing outside of who is in the super group, they have their favorites. When I was a kid, my favorite was Wolverine (but we all know he'll never make it into an Avengers movie because he's now owned by FOX) but my close back up was The Incredible Hulk and I think it still might be. All my friends seemed to like Iron Man and we all agreed that Captain America was pretty cool because he fought Nazis. As far as I knew in my social circle of nerds, no one liked Thor. He was the one character that didn't fit into their world because, well, he was from a different one and that seemed weird. But Liam Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Rush) has done such a good job with the character that he's won me over. But this sequel seemed to have placed him back towards the bottom again.
This sequel picks up some time after the events in The Avengers just like Iron Man III did. I like that they show how the events in that film have impacted these characters. Tony Stark seems to have had a hard time shaking it off and has pumped doubt into him for the first time in his life. However, Thor seems totally unfazed and I don't like that. I get that he's a god and doesn't even really care about what happened but at the very least, his brother was the one who caused all that. The fall out of that relationship is dealt with in this but not nearly to the level of depth that it could have been.
Director Alan Taylor (HBO's Game of Thrones, The Sopranos) made choices that I'm not sure were smart. Actually, I assume that none of the directors that Marvel chooses for their Avengers franchise films get 100% say in what direction or look or tone the film ends up in, but I have to assume they have some. Taylor's choices have taken everything that was enjoyable about the first Thor and removed it. Action aside, I really enjoyed Hemsworth ability to craft humor out of the story that was heavy with "fish out of water" scenes. Taking a god from Asgard and placing him in dusty nowhere, New Mexico was funny. But this film takes place almost entirely on Asgard where he feels right at home.
The other problem that that causes is detachment to the film from an audience. If I see Thor in New York City or the American desert, I can wrap my brain around that and relate to what's going on. The sets seem real even if most of them are still CGI. But placing almost the entire sequel in space on other planets in what we know is a world created entirely in computers makes me not feel for anything that's happening. My friend Hank pointed out that it was the same fate that the Star Wars prequels fell too. You need real sets with real props for me to like it and this has very little of that.
It's not to say that Thor: The Dark World isn't worth watching; of course it is. Marvel hasn't made a bad film yet in the Avengers universe. But this might be one of the worst and it actually gets boring for long stretches of the film. I wonder if we liked the other films because we were excited knowing that it was building toward a mega-superhero film. This time around, we have no idea where it's going and that couldn't be more evident by the hidden scene at the end of the film featuring Benecio Del Toro as The Collector, a character that becomes heavily important with the mega villain Thanos for the next two Avengers movies. These hidden scenes are always fun but until we all know more, it's hard to really dig it.
Gavin's Giveaway this week is Grown Ups 2 on DVD! CLICK HERE to enter to win!