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 Save the Last DanceSave the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance is a surprisingly well-thought out film.  Although it is primarily concerned with dance, it also deals with some big issues.  Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick  Thomas are great as two dancers with completely different backgrounds who come together to merge classical and hiphop dance styles.  Lots of fun, great music, and some serious issues.


Viola and Shakespeare in bedShakespeare in Love

Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.  Great performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, and Judi Densch fuel this terrific comedy and unpredictable romance!


Silence Lambs 01The Silence of the Lambs

When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.


Cooper and Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook

This delightful comedy/drama was written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from the book The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Centered around two quirky people, both at a crossroads in their lives, the film presents bi-polar disorder as a condition that can be overcome.  Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award performance opposite Bradley Cooper, with Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker.


Speak-Movie-kristen-stewart-7224892-960-540Speak

Here’s a 2004 film that really went under the radar.  It was screened at Sundance and aired on Showtime and Lifetime, but I’d never heard of it.  Based on the novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, it tells the story of a high school freshman, Melinda Sordino, who is brutally raped at a party by a senior boy.  Starring Kristin Stewart in a wonderful performance.


Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.


amy adams emily blunt sunshine cleaningSunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a delightful comedy and drama, with a great cast, a strong script by Megan Holley and crisp, clean direction by Christine Jeffs.  Although it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, the two performances at the center of it by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt really propelled the two actresses to the acclaim they so richly deserve.

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The Hunger Games

Hunger Games 01The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was already a huge success when producers began bidding on the film rights.  Clamor for the movie was both strong and at the same time a bit dubious.  It is a great story, but would some director muck it up by “making it his own” or changing things so dramatically that the original work lost its integrity?  Unfortunately, this has happened so many times that films of beloved novels must be met with some skepticism.

Hunger Games 02Fortunately, for this project, producers Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik were already fans of the novel and they protected this film by making good, strong, and remarkable choices right from the beginning.  Veteran screenwriter Billy Ray was hired to do the first rendering and he produced a good script.  Next, they hired the amazing writer and director Gary Ross (“Big,” “Pleasantville,” “Dave,” and “Seabiscuit,” among others) to shepherd the production.  Ross brought his considerable writing skills to Ray’s script and began making it even better.  The author of the novel, Suzanne Collins, was brought into the process and joined Ross for several weeks working out many of the details of the transition from page to screen.  This respect for the original vision is almost unheard of in Hollywood, but the filmmakers were also fortunate in that Collins had written a very cinematic novel and she was open to making some changes to make it a good adaptation for the screen.

The following plot synopsis reveals information about the ending, so beware.

The Hunger Games deals with a future America in which 12 Districts exist under the brutal control of the Capitol, which is located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  While those in the Districts work hard to provide for the Capitol, they do not enjoy its debauched luxury.  In fact, most of the Districts are on less than subsistence footing, with starvation and poverty the norm.  Nearly 75 years previous to the start of the story, a revolution occurred that the Capitol had to put down with force.  An original 13th District was utterly destroyed in that bloody fight and the Capitol created the Hunger Games as a way to remind their tributary Districts where the power lay.  Every year, a boy and girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly selected to represent their District in a fight to the death with representatives of all of the other Districts in a unique arena created for the occasion by a Game Master.

Hunger Games 03Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an 18 year old girl from District 12, hunts illegally in the woods with bow and arrows just beyond the tatters of a fence designed to restrict movement.  Her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), joins her on the morning of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games and after hunting, they go to trade their game.  Katniss finds a pin in the form of a circle with a Mockingjay inside.  These birds, hybrids between mockingbirds and jays, imitate sounds in the wild.  Her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has just turned 12, worries that she may be selected, but Katniss reassures her.  At the Reaping, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a powdered and wigged representative of the Capitol, pulls Prim’s name for the girl to represent District 12.  Katniss steps up and volunteers to go in her place and for that she honored by the others with a three fingered salute unique to their District.  The boy selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  On the train to the Capitol, they meet the only winner from District 12 in the entire history of the games, a drunk named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is supposed to be their mentor.  Initially, his only advice to them is to get ready to die, but on further probing he also tells them that they need to be likable so they can get sponsors.  He has already decided that Katniss will fail being likable.

Hunger Games 04At the Capitol, they are assigned a stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and they are introduced to the citizens and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in a parade of chariots.  Cinna has designed special costumes for them that leave a trail of fire as they blaze up a gigantic arena for the presentation.  Katniss gets her nickname “The Girl on Fire” from the Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  They begin their physical training and meet the other participants.  Districts 1 and 2 are more affluent than the others and spend a great deal of time and effort training their young so they are more equipped to win the games.  Their representatives are Marvel (Jack Quaid), Glimmer (Leven Rambin), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman).  The strongest is Cato.  During their final demonstration before they are given grades, Katniss misses her target and finds herself ignored by the Game Master, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and sponsors.  To get their attention, she fires an arrow into their midst, neatly skewering an apple from a roast pigs mouth and pinning it to the wall.  She receives an 11, the highest grade of all of the contestants.

Hunger Games 07During their final television interview with Caesar before the games begin, Katniss demonstrates fire again by swirling her red dress, designed by Cinna, the hem of which crackles with flames.  Peeta, that last to be interviewed, reveals that he has always had a crush on Katniss and Caesar renames them “the star-crossed lovers from District 12.”  Angry at Peeta for blindsiding her, Katniss confronts him, but Haymitch, who has now taken an interest in them tells her that it will probably be good for them in terms of sponsors and that she should act the part.  As she prepares to go to battle, Cinna pins the Mockingjay onto her shirt.

The Games take place in a woodland as each Tribute enters on a small, round elevator facing a Cornucopia of weapons and survival gear.  When the countdown reaches zero most of them run for the Cornucopia and a bloodbath ensues.  While Peeta turns and runs directly into the woods, Katniss grabs a backpack before she takes off.  Twelve of the tributes are killed in the initial fight and a small band of Tributes join together, led by Cato and the other Tributes from Districts 1 and 2.  Surprisingly, Peeta joins with them in hunting Katniss.  She wanders far enough away from the main site that the Game Master creates a fire to push her back toward the others and she injures her leg.  Scrambling to the river, she is discovered by the pack and chased into a tree.  On Peeta’s recommendation, they decide to wait her out.  Haymitch arranges for a sponsor to send her an ointment that she applies to her wound and when she awakes, it is completely healed.  In a neighboring tree, the very young female representative of District 11, Rue (Amandla Stenberg) points out a nest of tracker-jackers, which Caesar explains to the audience are genetically engineered wasps whose sting causes hallucinations and sometimes death.  Katniss climbs up to the branch and saws it off, but she gets stung in the process.  The nest lands in the midst of the sleeping tributes and the aroused tracker-jackers begin stinging at random, killing Glimmer in the process.  Hallucinating, Katniss grabs the bow and quiver of arrows from Glimmer’s body and runs blindly into the forest, eventually passing out.

Hunger Games 06When she awakes, her stings have been neutralized by medicinal leaves put there by Rue.  The two become friends and form their own alliance.  They plan to destroy the weapons that have been gathered together by the career Tributes.  While Rue sets fires to distract the others, Katniss shoots an arrow into a sack of apples that spill over the gathered weapons and trigger mines that have been implanted around it.  Katniss runs to find Rue, but finds her caught in a net.  After cutting her out, they are interrupted by Marvel, who throws a spear, killing Rue.  Katniss shoots him with an arrow, then arranges a bower of flowers around the body of Rue, weeping as she mourns the girl’s death.  Before leaving Rue’s body, Katniss finds the camera broadcasting her image and she raises a three-finger salute to Rue’s memory.

That action incites the residents of District 11 to riot, which the storm troopers from the Capitol quickly stop.  Seneca Crane considers killing Katniss for the action, but Haymitch speaks on her behalf, convincing Crane that they should capitalize on the crowd’s desire for hope by altering the rules of the game to allow two winners, but only if they come from the same District.  That will allow people to root for “the star-crossed lovers.”  The rioting, however, catches the eye of President Snow, who calls in Crane to advise him to control the situation.

An announcement is made to the Tributes letting them know about the rule change, so Katniss goes looking for Peeta.  She finds him seriously injured, hiding by the river.  They find a cave and she kisses him for the first time, on the cheek.  When they get a package from Haymitch, she expects to find more ointment, but only gets a cup of hot soup, with the message, “You call that a kiss?”  Another announcement is made that there will be gifts from the Capitol for those who need help the next morning at the Cornucopia.  Peeta begs Katniss not go and she gives him a real kiss.  Watching at home, Gale, who is now working in the mines, reacts jealously.  The next morning, when she runs to grab the ointment for Peeta, she is caught and pinned down by Clove.  Before killing Katniss, Clove boasts about killing Rue, but she is overheard by the other representative from District 11, Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) who then kills her in retaliation and lets Katniss go.

As they hunt for food, Katniss finds Peeta picking deadly Nightlock berries that kill instantly and they discover the dead body of Foxface (Jacqueline Emerson), one of the last surviving tributes, who died from eating Nightlock.  They decide to bring berries along with them in case Cato is hungry.  To create a finale to the Games, Crane has his people create large, vicious dogs.  Katniss and Peeta listen as Thresh is attacked and killed, leaving only three survivors: them and Cato.  The dogs chase Katniss and Peeta to the Cornucopia.  Climbing on top, they encounter Cato as the dogs snarl below them.  Holding Peeta by knifepoint, Cato threatens to kill him.  Katniss gets off one arrow that hits Cato in the hand, then Peeta pushes him off the Cornucopia where he is attacked by the dogs.  Hearing Cato beg for mercy, Katniss puts an arrow into him, ending his misery.

Crane turns on the lights in the arena, then makes an announcement that the previous rule change has been rescinded.  Peeta volunteers to let Katniss kill him, but she insists that the eat the berries together, leaving the Capitol without a winner.  Before they can go through with their plan, Crane relents and they are declared mutual winners.

President Snow takes his revenge against Crane by forcing him to suicide by Nightlock berries.  Haymitch warns Katniss that she has shown up Snow and that she needs to watch her back.

The second great decision, beyond hiring Ross to direct, was his decision to cast brilliant young actress Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss.  The entire movie revolves around her and Lawrence’s performance carries it in every way.  She has a strength of personality far beyond her ephemeral beauty and incredible voice and is Katniss in ever way.  All of the young people cast around her perform extremely well and work together with a kind of chemistry that elevates the entire endeavor.  In addition, Ross’s decision to cast well-known, award winning actors in the mature supporting roles, such as Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland, was absolutely perfect.  Banks is magnificent as Effie.

The production design, by Philip Messina is amazing, especially the architecture of the Capitol, using broad, open spaces, that smooth limestone feel to the buildings, almost as if we were in a throwback Nazi Germany, rather than years into the future.  The relationship of the playing field of the Games to the Game Room itself with its gigantic computer simulation, a half dome on a large round table, is extremely impressive and utterly believable.

Hunger Games 05Costumes by Judianna Makovsky range from the throwback, monochrome dresses worn by the women in District 12 to the beautifully understated and functional to battle gear of the Tributes in the arena to the absolutely outrageous outfits worn in the decadent Capitol.  They display and wide range of skills are brought to bear on this challenging project.  In addition, the make-up on the Capitol citizens, also byMakovsky, really adds a dimension to their flamboyant and debauched lifestyle.

Most of the cinematography, by Tom Stern, is done in a cinema verité, giving it a very kinetic feel.  Just as Katniss always seems to be running, so does the camera, jumping from intimate close-ups to quick pans to fast tracking shots.  Like everything else about the production, this was designed from the beginning by Gary Ross, who planned and storyboarded each and every shot in his shooting script.

The music, by James Newton Howard is very good.  Except for the martial sounds of the Capitol, it is fairly austere, never forcing itself on the action or calling attention to itself.  However, the short fanfare played when a Tribute dies, is extremely memorable.  The sound, created by Christopher Assells is truly amazing–and again, Gary Ross played a big role in the design–especially the use of silence during the initial bloodbath in the arena, the quick rush of sound out of silence, the cross-fading during the hallucinations, the gasping and breathing, the sharp sounds of battle.  It adds an element that really brings the action to life and at times even comments on it.

The editing, by Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione, and Juliette Welfling, under the supervision of Ross, really knits the movie together in very special ways.

The DVD also has two marvelous special features, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon” and “The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games.”  The first one isn’t very long, but it looks at the adaptation process, using interviews with the publisher, the producers, teachers, and teen readers to show how special the book is.

“The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games” is a feature-length documentary that examines every facet of making the film, from the adaptation process to the finished print, featuring extensive interviews with the director, the producer, the cast, and the technicians.  Most of the time I don’t really find “making of” documentaries to be very enlightening, but this one, because of the length, the depth, the access to all of the movie makers, is truly remarkable and so entertaining in itself that it makes a great evening’s entertainment.

When Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik, and Gary Ross first got to work on this project, I don’t think any fan of the book would have believed that a film could do such a fine novel justice, let alone actually improve on it in creating a new work of art, but these three, along with their cast and technical collaborators have succeeded.  Gary Ross deserves most of the credit for his work on the script and his powerful vision as a director, but truly this group works in harmony.

And the vision is so strong that it makes The Hunger Games a film that can be enjoyed over and over again, and probably makes it an instant classic.


Hunger GamesRead my review of the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins!

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Her Phoenix and AdamsHer

What would happen if cell phone addiction was carried one step further?  It’s a common sight now.  In public, it is not uncommon to see people isolated in a crowd, lost in their own little world, playing with their cell phone.  What if this phenomenon was almost universal?  In Her, the 2013 film written and directed by Spike Jonze, these questions are answered and it is both funny and scary.


 ray johnson how to draw a bunnyHow to Draw a Bunny

This 2002 documentary on the elusive, enigmatic artist Ray Johnson really gives us a lot more than it promises.  Almost from the beginning, it is suggests that “no one really knew Ray Johnson” and then, through interviews and close-ups of his art, the film proceeds to give us one insight after another into the man’s genius.


Hunger Games 03The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was already a huge success when producers began bidding on the film rights.  By teaming up director Gary Ross with Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, adding Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland and a bunch motivated, beautiful teens, the producers of this movie created a magic gumbo and a film that will long lead all of the Young Adult Dystopian movie franchises.

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 Across_the_Universe_3lgAcross the Universe

Conceived, produced and directed by the eclectic Julie Taymor, this film is a romantic musical that incorporates parts of 34 songs composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and the three of them plus Ringo Starr (“Flying”).  Most of the songs are sung on-screen by the characters, though there are some instrumentals.  This places the film in the category of old-style musicals where people seem to burst into song as a part of the story.  To everyone’s credit, it actually seems to work very well indeed.


1-adjustment-bureau-copyThe Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau, based on a Phillip K. Dick story, is a far-fetched, but very engaging film.  David Norris (Matt Damon) is a Brooklyn politician who meets a fascinating woman, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) on the night that he has just lost the Senate election.  When she runs away, he is motivated to give a galvanizing concession speech that will reenergize his career.


AdventurelandAdventureland

Adventureland is a funny and moving teen romance written and directed by Greg Mattola about a group of teens working at a summer carnival.  The main character, James Brennan, is a student who has just graduated from a small college and is saving up his money to go to the Columbia School of Journalism so he can begin a career in travel writing.  Played with both humor and angst by Jesse Eisenberg, James is trying to find romance, but his own geekiness stands in his way.


All is Lost RedfordAll is Lost

A man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian sea toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?


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Amadeus

A terrible way to triumph over God.  These are the words of 18th Century Italian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) referring to his murder of the brilliant, meteoric Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ((Tom Hulce). He tells the story to Father Vogler (Richard Frank) who has come to hear his confession at the insane asylum to which Salieri has been confined following a suicide attempt.


 american-hustle-posters-sonyAmerican Hustle

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting operation, this 2013 film was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer and directed by Russell of The Fighter and  Silver Linings Playbook fame.  Bringing along Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook, he has created a brilliant sting comedy that takes place at the height of disco mania, 1978.


Art of Getting By3The Art of Getting By

In The Art of Getting By (2011), George (Freddie Highmore), a high school senior living in New York City, falls into a fatalistic funk.  Although he is a gifted artist, he realizes that he’s going to die some day and asks himself: What is the point of trying?  Seeing no point, he gives up working on his school assignments, skips class and tests and just skates by as a loner.  Facing this failure, he is placed on academic probation.


Austenland PictureAustenland

The heroine of the movie, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a disheartened Jane Austen fan. Obsessed with the writer, she looks at her own life and sees failed relationships, a dead-end job and no future, so she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to England to resort called Austenland

 

Silver Linings Playbook

“The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else. But guess what? Sunday’s my favorite day again. I think of what everyone did for me, and I feel like a very lucky guy.”

Cooper and Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookThis delightful comedy/drama was written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from the book The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Centered around two quirky people, both at a crossroads in their lives, the film presents bi-polar disorder as a condition that can be overcome.

Pat Solatano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a former high school teacher, is held in a Baltimore psychiatric hospital for an episode in which he beat another teacher after finding him in the shower with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). After serving his court-ordered eight months, his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) gets him out.  In the parking lot, a fellow inmate, Danny (Chris Tucker) jumps in the car, announcing that he has been released, too, but Dolores gets a call from the hospital asking that Danny be returned.  Arguing with his mother, Pat grabs the steering wheel and almost gets them in an accident.

Returning home, Pat stops by the library to pick up all of the books in Nikki’s literature syllabus, intending to read all of the books. He is determined that their marriage can be saved, even though Nikki has moved and taken out a restraining order against him.  Pat’s father, Pat, Sr. (Robert De Niro) has recently lost his job and is supporting the family working as a bookie, although he intends to open a restaurant so that he can look legitimate.  Family and neighbors are all passionate Philiadelphia Eagles fans and Pat, Sr. is hopelessly superstitious about wearing the right jersey, putting his remote controls in certain positions, and rubbing a green handkerchief so that the can bring good luck, “juju” to the Eagles.  He also has a temper and is barred from actually attending Eagles games because of his violent behavior.  His friend, Randy (Paul Herman), is a Cowboys fan and tries to make money in bets off of Pat, Sr. by gaoding him into making foolish bets.

Pat stays up all night reading Ernest Hemmingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms and then blows up at 4 AM because it doesn’t have a happy ending.  He throws the book out the window and harangues his parents.  Pat believes that the key to overcoming his illness is to find a silver linings in his every day life.  He tries to live by the motto Excelsior (ever upwards) and shares this vision with his therapist, Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher), who replies that he must get a strategy to live with his illness.

His friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), invites him to a Sunday dinner. Married to a beautiful girl, Veronica (Julia Stiles), and with a baby, Ronnie is a broker who is suffering anxiety from fluctuations in the market.  Veronica’s sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose cop husband was recently killed, shows up at the dinner and she and Pat find that they can talk about their various medications.

Tiffany agrees to deliver a letter to Nikki if Pat will dance with her in a competition and he reluctantly agrees. They begin to rehearse, but the dance competition takes on a new meaning when Pat, Sr. and Randy make a parlay bet that the Eagles will beat the Cowboys and that Tiffany and Pat can score at least a 5 in the dance competition.

The story is completely engaging. Even though the film runs nearly two hours, every single moment is compelling and one doesn’t notice the time.  Cooper and Lawrence are both really terrific, portraying characters that are complicated and yet disarmingly simple.  Lawrence won Best Actress for her role as Tiffany.  DeNiro is at his very best as Pat, Sr. and Jacki Weaver gives wonderfully believable and warming performance as Dolores.  All of the supporting cast are terrific.

Russell’s script and direction are spot on. The editing is amazing, as is the use of music and sound.

It is a movie that deserved all of its nominations and it should be seen by everyone. It is funny, full of pathos, and very moving.

American Hustle

american-hustle-posters-sonyLoosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting operation, this 2013 film was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer and directed by Russell of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook fame.  Bringing along Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook, he has created a brilliant sting comedy that takes place at the height of disco mania, 1978.  It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including all four major acting categories.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a good man at heart. He has a home in New Jersey, a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and he has adopted her son, Danny, whom he loves.  But Irving is a small time hustler and he makes his money off of people about to under financially.  When he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), herself a small time hustler, they fall in love and she joins in his financial fraud scheme, posing as Lady Edith Greensly, a wealthy Englishwoman with connections.

Their secret life goes very well until they are caught in an FBI sting, led by agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Although technically they only have Sydney on the hook, Richie uses Irving’s love to get him to agree to a deal.  If they help him make four busts, he’ll let them both go scott free.  Thinking they’ll just be bringing down small time hustlers, Irving is all for doing the deal, but Sydney just wants to run away with him (she’s even willing to take his son Danny with them).  She is certain that something stinks about the deal and that if they do it, they’ll have to have an ace in the hole, but Irving is insistent.  Sydney tells him that if that’s what he wants to do, she’ll distance herself from him and get close to Richie instead.

Irving proposes using a friend of his posing as a sheik to sting some hustlers he knows, but Richie and the FBI have different ideas. They want to go after Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of Camden who is looking for investors to help revitalize Atlantic City.  Irving thinks the deal has now become too big for them and Richie’s boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) is also against it, but the FBI wants to do it.  In setting it up, Irving becomes friends with Carmine.  Seeing that he is also basically a good man, Irving tries to find a way to keep Carmine out of it, but things are beyond his control.  When he brings Rosalyn to a dinner with Carmine and his wife, she sees a chance to improve her own lot.

Carmine brings this unlikely group of people to a casino to meet the Mafia, led by Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), right-hand man to Meyer Lansky. Richie is posing as the sheik’s interpreter, but it turns out that Victor actually speaks Arabic and the whole plan falls into jeopardy.  This begins a hilarious series of plot twists and turns that lead to the conclusion of the movie.

Christian Bale turns in one of the best performances of this new century as Irving. He has crafted a character both deep and shallow, so well-layered in nuance that Bale himself completely disappears in the character.  Typically, he carries the film.  Adams, Lawrence, and Cooper are all very good, but pale beside the brilliance of this one truly great American actor.

The script is incredibly well-crafted and the direction is superb.  Russell is emerging as one of America’s finest cinematic minds and he brings all of his talents to bear in this period comedy that never ceases to entertain.  From beginning to end, the viewer is caught up in one bizarre scheme after another as the plot moves through unexpected twists and turns.  As the story gets deeper and deeper, a kind of tension is created behind the comedy that impels the viewer to watch, rooting for Irving and also fearing for him at the same time.

The film is beautifully crafted and should be seen by everyone!

Catching Fire

mocking_jay_animated_by_twilightlover865-d6hg1ka

Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, is an excellent sequel. Like the first film, it’s based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Although Ms. Collins co-wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games, she settles here for the role of Executive Producer. While that might have been a problem, I think that was really for the best.

For one thing, the novel Catching Fire has a few issues. Many times I felt kind of lost while reading it, mostly due to description. I couldn’t really see some of the action, especially in the Games arena. It felt rushed, as if the action was streaming by me, rather than keeping me actively engaged. The final problem in the novel is that the ending left me up in the air. I didn’t think it resolved–it seemed rather clear that it was only the first half of a book. The movie resolves all of these problems beautifully. Either that, or I was simply reconciled to the ending. It’s hard to tell.

At two hours and fifteen minutes from the opening to the final credits, there is plenty of time to see the action unfold. And while I generally don’t care for movies that long, some films are some noteworthy exceptions–where the action, story, and character all combine to keep me totally engaged for the entire length. Catching Fire meets all of those requirements.

A good example of how the movie took a generalization and graphically made it beautiful is in the look of the costumes. In fact, all of the visual flair of the movie makes the story come alive. The dress that Katniss wears to the President’s welcome party is stunning, interweaving the colored feathers of the mockingjay on her shoulders. The wedding dress that she wears for her interview with Caesar is beautiful. When she twirls and the fire engulfs the dress and turns it into a mockingjay, complete with wings, the effect is nothing less than astounding.

Jennifer Lawrence carries the film, as she did with The Hunger Games. There is something really special in the way she carries herself, the use of her voice and her eyes, that makes her one of those rare acting personalities that seem to reach inside you. Some actors have “it” and she has “it” in spades. Her body of work is already very impressive, considering her youth. Her acting in Winter’s Bone is amazing, as is her Academy Award winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook and I’m hoping that she chooses her scripts well and has one of those careers that is meteoric.

All of the supporting actors that were great in the first movie reprise their roles in this sequel–Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch are all perfect. The best performance of this group is given by Elizabeth Banks, who portrays a moving character arc as Effie, bringing her full turn from giddy capital gadfly to broken realist. In addition, there are a couple of new characters here that really make the story go. First of all, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Evansby, the new Head Gamemaker, and secondly, Jena Malone is cast as Joanna, the misfit victor who joins the revolution along with Plutarch.. Both of them are really great.

All of the scenes inside the new Hunger Games arena are extremely well-done. They have visualized the arena from the book very precisely and it makes a terrific battleground. The clock dangers, especially the poisonous fog and the attack of the apes, are heart-pounding sequences and memorable filmmaking.

The final reason that the film is better than the novel is that the ending brought a feeling of resolution. I can’t stress enough how difficult this is, given that the ending is really (just like in the novel) a cliffhanger. I walked away from the movie looking forward to the final installment, but not feeling as if I had been left hanging. The final shot of Jennifer Lawrence’s face is way plenty to keep me going until Mockingjay finishes filming and is released. I loved the final graphic of the mockingjay’s twisting around from a silhouette posture and turning into something resembling a phoenix surrounded by flames in the circle. Beautiful.

If you loved The Hunger Games, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find Catching Fire to be a marvelous film and well worth the investment of time. Highly recommend.