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Column Fri Nov 22 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Nebraska, Delivery Man & Oh Boy

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


It may have taken me two films into this series to realize it, but there a substantial difference between a Young Adult film (meaning one made for YAs) and a film about young adults that is geared more toward an older crowd. You can spot the differences in the character development and the themes of the three novels by Suzanne Collins versus the Twilight books/films (an easy target, I know). In the Twilight material, love (in all its selfishness) matters most of all, even if it mean the deaths of so many good people. In The Hunger Games and even more so in this newest chapter, Catching Fire, the lead heroine Katniss Everdeen (brought to soulful life by Jennifer Lawrence) does something that is almost unspeakable in the world of YA fiction: she pushes aside romantic entanglements from two fronts in the name of the greater good. Even Thor couldn't do that. And this makes Katniss one of the great, pure heroes in film right now.

There's no getting around the fact that The Hunger Games was about kids killing kids; that's the nature of the games and has been for 74 years under whatever twisted system of government exists in this world. The good news for those who were bothered by that concept is that Catching Fire is more about all ages of tributes trying to wipe each other out. To celebrate the 75th annual Hunger Games (known as the Quarter Quell), President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking like the evilest Santa) decides to bring back previous winners of the games to pit them against each other. He doesn't do this on a whim; he does it because suddenly Katniss' win has stirred up a type of early-stage rebellion in some of the poorer districts, which has made any surviving tribute a source of inspiration and, therefore, a threat. What better way to kill most of them off then by pitting them against each other to the death?

One of the most fascinating concepts in the film is that none of this group of tributes wants to be there. In fact, they all thought they were exempt from ever having to go through this again. As a result, they bond together in protest, even as they are being paraded around the land like the Stanley Cup, to be ogled, pawed at and admired by the masses. Once the Quarter Quell begins, the tributes seem more willing to form alliances with each other to stay alive and outsmart the new and far more deadly challenges set forth by new game-master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in full snake-charmer mode).

Catching Fire picks up almost immediately after The Hunger Games, as Katniss and fellow winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing to take a victory tour all of the districts with their mentors — the drunken Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) — all leading to a reception at the President's residence. But Katniss is clearing suffering from battle shock; more specifically, she's is haunted by the death she caused and the ones of her closest fellow tributes, like the young Rue.

At each of the districts, she and Peeta much pay tribute to the fighters from that district who died, and it pains Katniss to the point where she can barely spit the words out. On top of that, the President is convinced the people don't believe the romance between the pair, and demands that the couple up the public displays of affection, which leads to an impromptu engagement, much to the chagrin of Katniss' other love interest, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who is still back home working in the mines — although it becomes clear by the end of the film that his role will be greatly expanded in the two-part finale to this story, Mockingjay.

As much as I enjoyed what director Gary Ross did with The Hunger Games, especially with the unenviable task of introducing so many characters and concepts to audiences, new director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is clearly enjoying the fact that he is able to dive right into the inherent drama of Katniss' emotional turbulence and her growing responsibility as a leader of a resistance that she barely knows exists. Pockets of rebels pop up at each public appearance of Katniss and Peeta, and peace keepers swarm in to crush them as quickly as they throw up their three-fingered salute. Some of the means by which citizens are punished for standing up against the government are exceedingly violent, but I give the film credit for not glossing over either the inherent violence of the games or this type of government.

Another aspect of Catching Fire I found more intriguing than The Hunger Games are the tributes themselves. They are the best of the best, even if some of them are much older than Katniss and Peeta. I was ecstatic to see the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as a pair of nerdy, eccentric former tributes who tend to use their brains more than fighting skills to advance. But my favorite new character is Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), who is just plain pissed most of the time. But she also serves as a one-woman cautionary tale for Katniss and what she might become if she doesn't think and act smart and keep her sanity during these new games. These new characters add a bit of color and excitement to the story, far more than the old characters who seem designated to these roles. I still hate Stanley Tucci's announcer character Caesar Flickerman and Banks' Effie. These films don't need this overly broad comic relief and ridiculous-looking fops, and they certainly don't make the film any more interesting.

What's best about Catching Fire is getting more of a behind-the-scenes glimpse into both the games and their aftermath, and how both are almost equally fake and pre-determined. President Snow wants to curb Katniss and turn her into a tool for his purposes, but when that clearly isn't going to happen, he turns to Heavensbee to rig the games against her surviving, and we see it all unfold (SPOILER!) unsuccessfully. I've never read Collins' books, but I love the way this story ends on something of a cliffhanger that makes me cringe to think I have to wait another year for the next chapter in this story (and then another year after for the second part of the third chapter). I'm hooked, and knowing that director Lawrence will be returning for Mockingjay is exciting news for dedicated and casual fans alike.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what a remarkable job Jennifer Lawrence is doing in these films. The story requires her to up her dramatic game as Katniss, and she surpasses all expectations this time around. After an Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook last year, Lawrence didn't simply show up to fulfill a contractual obligation with Catching Fire. She clearly loves this character and what she represents as an action hero and an outlet to vent against oppressive political structures. These films aren't exactly "message movies," but they aren't ignorant about propaganda, dirty tricks and dictatorships either. And Lawrence has shown up to envelop herself in all of it with a fire in her eyes and arrows at the ready. Katniss has many lives she's responsible for, and that's something that weighs on her heavily. And Lawrence wears that pressure the same way she wears her skin-tight battle suit.

Catching Fire certainly has its moments of skillfully staged action sequences. But the actual Quarter Quell doesn't kick in until about 90 minutes into the 2.5-hour film. It's what happens in that first 90 minutes that makes the rest of the film feel so important and amount to more than just empty violence. The stakes feel so much higher because we know something about many of the tributes, and because the games have ramifications for so much outside of the arena. I wasn't expecting such an emotional journey with Catching Fire, but the fact that emotions factor so prominently into this work make it a seriously thrilling experience.


Nebraska


For such a simple, straight-forward film, Alexander Payne's latest ,Nebraska, brushes against many themes without truly grabbing onto one. This is a good thing, since life doesn't work that way; it rarely allows us to tackle one part of our world at a time. More often than not, we have several issues brewing — often boiling over — and we must cope or ignore them as we see fit. This is the case with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who may or may not be losing grip on reality, but more than likely he's just stopped caring, or at least stopped paying close attention.

If you feel the need to pinpoint a theme to Nebraska, let me try and assist you. This is the most purely American work that Payne has made since Election, and as with that film (and a couple other of the directors works), he's chosen the Midwest as his setting, trading in the red, white and blue of patriotism for glorious black-and-white. A Nebraska native now living in Billings, Montana, Woody is a man who has trusted everyone, even those that would seek to rip him off or otherwise take advantage of his kindness, and when he gets a sweepstakes envelope in the mail seemingly promising him $1 million, he decides to make the journey to the company's Lincoln headquarters to claim his prize (he doesn't trust the mail to get him his money).

Since he can't drive any longer, he just starts walking and it isn't long before the cops pick him up and call his family to come collect him. His hellcat wife June (June Squibb) sends son David (Will Forte) to pick up the old man and discover why he's even buying this scam designed to sell magazine subscriptions. (Other son Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, works for the local TV news and has just been given his first fill-in anchor spot, a true point of pride for his mother.) After taking stock in his own life — busted relationship, shitty job, no prospect of better in either situation — he offers to drive with his dad to Lincoln so the old man won't get hurt trying to walk the nation's cold and dangerous highways.

Screenwriter Bob Nelson (Nebraska is his first produced movie) has both a bleak and sentimental connection to both the heartland and family. Watching Forte in an almost purely dramatic performance (Dern and Squibb get most of the best lines) is remarkable; it's a classic case of thinking you know an actor's limits — and being one of the funniest people on the planet is hardly limiting — and then watching them surpass them by miles. David is the embodiment of patience and practicality, and he's willing to indulge his father's wishes because he wants to bond with the old man a little before his mind goes too far off the rails.

Their travels bring them to the small town in Nebraska where Woody and his large family were born, and this affords the pair a chance to spend a little time reuniting with the Grant family clan, all of whom are fascinated by Woody's good fortune. David tries to explain that he hasn't really won, but they just think the son is trying to protect his father from vultures, who, it turns out, are everywhere. The magnificent Stacy Keach is on hand as Ed Pegram, Woody's former business partner who believes he's owed a little something out of the winnings for money Woody cost him back when they were younger men working together in the car repair business. Ed is the classic big fish in the littlest pond, working what few angles there are to work, and in one of the film's best scenes, he even mildly threatens David to do what's fair.

Kate and Ross show up in Nebraska to make it a true family reunion, and the rest of the film is largely the family going from place to place revisiting old haunts and painful memories (and a few good ones thrown in). Dern really comes to life in these moments. At times, he looks bold and indestructible; other times, he becomes frail and pathetic. In every guise, Woody has a thread of conviction running through him, and it's clearly something David wants to uncover and explore. Woody is resistant; he doesn't get why his kids would care, but he warms to the idea, and there's a brief part of day when the Grant family is driving around having what can only be described as an adventure, and it warms our hearts to see it, as short lived a moment in time as it is.

When I said Nebraska was about America, I meant it. There are several dozen examples of gluttonous folks in the town, barflys, greedy SOBs, and stone-faced family remembers sitting around a living room staring at a TV that is never turned off. Have you ever walked into a home where the TV is never off? It depresses the hell out of me, especially when it's just on for the noise. Payne knows that feeling and gives us such a household to underscore what separates Woody from the rest of the Grants. Woody was the one that got away, and even though he only moved to Billings, he's looked at as a city-living outsider — part celebrity, pat cautionary tale. And Dern's performance as this unaffected traveler is perfect.

One of Payne's many strengths has always been casting, not just actors but faces. It's clear that some of the background players are actual locals, and they just look exactly right, to the point where your eyes may drift from the scene at hand to explore the faces surrounding the action. One magnificent face in particular belongs to the lovely older actress Angela McEwan who plays Peg Nagy, editor of the local newspaper and a woman with a strong, early-days connection to Woody. The scene with her and David and a callback moment at the end of the film will elevate you ever so slightly. In fact, that's how I feel about Nebraska overall. Everyone who sees it will take away something slightly different, but I firmly believe that something will make you feel slightly better about the world. The film is a series of lovely small moments, culminating in a slightly bigger moment that is well earned and wholly satisfying. Despite all of its grumpy characterizations and a few abrasive characters, Nebraska is still an easy film to fall in love with. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Nebraska stars Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and target="_blank">June Squibb.


Delivery Man


To the seven or eight Americans (of which I'm one) who actually saw the French-Canadian film Starbuck back in the spring of this year, the new Vince Vaughn film Delivery Man is going to hit you as being remarkably familiar. And the fact that director Ken Scott also directed and co-wrote (with Martin Petit) the original film isn't going to make the existence of this new work any less confusing. That being said, this does seem like the type of broad film that Vaughn might find appealing as an actor. It's not strictly a comedy; in fact, there are quite a few serious moments in the film, more than your average Vaughn yuck-fest like The Internship. And I'll go to bat for the actor's attempts at drama, including the Ron Howard-directed film The Dilemma.

But the problems with Delivery Man don't boil down to simply Vaughn trying too hard to make us laugh or make us feel. The issues are inherent in the insane story of a man who donated anonymously to a fertility clinic 20 years ago, and now finds out that the clinic used his "samples" exclusively, resulting in 533 children of various ages, 142 of whom have filed a class-action lawsuit to find out his identity. Vaughn's David Wozniak, who works as a meat delivery man for his father's family-run butcher shop, is a royal screw-up, shirking responsibility at every turn and in debt to some very bad men for tens of thousands of dollars he spent on failed business ventures and other ill-advised purchases. The one good thing in his life is his girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders), who is on the verge of leaving him but has also just discovered she's pregnant. Needless to say, she is hesitant to let David have any part in raising this child, but agrees to his request to help in the birth-preparation classes.

The last things David wants is for these 142 offspring to find out what a screw-up he is or let anyone who knows him know how much donating he did to the clinic, so he fights the lawsuit with the help of his wacky lawyer buddy Brett (Chris Pratt, by far the funniest thing in this film). Brett leaves a large envelope with David containing profiles of all of the class action plaintiffs, and David can't stop himself from removing one page just to see what one of these kids looks like. Then he pulls another, and another, and with each one he pulls, he goes to visit that kid just to see how their life is going. Because he wants to be a good dad, even if they don't know it, he's able to be something of a mid-level guardian angel to a couple of them and ends up becoming their friend in the process.

There comes a point fairly early in this story where we honestly can't figure out why David wouldn't simply reveal who he is to these kids. It would certainly make Emma think he was a responsible person, if he's willing to open his life up to these people (or at the very least give them access to his medical history). The pluses so outweigh the contrived negatives that you'll probably get angrier at David the more the story carries on with his charade of wanting to help these kids with everything but the one things they all have in common. He even stumbles into a group meeting of many of the 142, as they receive an update on the case.

One of the other downsides of the film is that most of the kids we actually do get to meet are all weird, selfish assholes. Britt Robertson (from TV's "Under the Dome") plays drug addict Kristen, who overdoses right in front of David, as he's posing as a pizza delivery man to meet her (I'm guessing a lot of stalkers and rapists use that trick too). The other grating element of Delivery Man is that every so often, thugs show up in David's life to cause him or someone in his family bodily harm to entice him to pay them pack. This film has enough going on that forcing bad guys into the mix feels truly unnecessary.

I was a modest fan of Starbuck (the name the anonymous donor went by in both films), mainly because I thought the lead actor was funny (and everything is a little bit better in French), but Delivery Man is, at times, excruciating to behold. I applaud director Scott's ability to milk this odd and unique little story into two films, and I'm always happy to watch Chris Pratt in pretty much anything, but neither of those factors make Delivery Man any more bearable or amusing. Vaughn can be interesting when he's taking risks, which he does every few years, but this repeated retreat into painfully familiar territory brings out the loudest moans of mental exhaustion from the depths of my soul. Let's try again, Vince.


Oh Boy


First-time German writer-director Jan Ole Gerster has delivered Oh Boy, a quietly funny day-in-the-life story of Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), a slacker-ish young man who is pretending to go to college so he can keep getting checks from this wealthy, largely absentee father. There isn't so much a dramatic arc to Niko's day, as he goes from strange event to stranger event, altering the course of his day with as much conviction as a gust of wind. If there is a continuing theme, it's that the man is in desperate need of a decent cup of coffee, but he is thwarted throughout his day.

We get a sense that if this one mission could have been accomplished, everything would have been so much easier. Instead, he wakes up from an awkward one-night stand, meets his bizarre new neighbor, is talked into going to a strange performance-art show, is humiliated by his father, gets into a fight with some young punks, and the list goes on. Nothing seems out of the realm of possibility, which makes the whole experience read like Scorsese's After Hours (but during the day) and play out quite humorously. I know the concept of German humor might not register with many, but this huge European hit won a bunch of German film awards and is well worth checking out. Schilling reminds me of a low-key Aaron Paul, who has the good looks to get the ladies interested in him but lacks the confidence to close the deal most of the time (excluding the aforementioned one-night stand).

One of my favorite aspects of Oh Boy is they shot it (or at least project it) in black and white, which adds a pinch of extra desperation to the mix. If you'd told me this film was made in the 1960s, I'd have no trouble believing it. Niko's experiences on this day seem not only universal but timeless as well. Filmmaker Gerster isn't going for gut-busting laughs here, but so much of what floats into Niko's field of vision seems to fully register to him beyond, "Why is this happening to me, and why can't I get coffee?" The results range from uncomfortable to poignant to moving, and I found the entire experience to be rich and entertaining.

Oh Boy is playing as a sneak preview screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Nov. 22 at 8pm, with writer-director Jan Ole Gerster on hand for a post-screening Q&A. The film will be getting a wider release early in 2014 from Music Box Films.

 
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