Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone,Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth, Lynn Cohen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson
Released: 22nd November 2013 (UK)
There are plenty of perks to being the middle installment of a giant trilogy. Whether you’ve read the books or not I think it goes without saying that Catching Fire, the film, is a much bigger and more impressive exercise than what the first film was able to deliver after it finished setting up the world all of this would be taking place in. This, coming from the benefit of being that middle child. It has always been the case though (Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United, Spider-Man 2) that without having to deal in exposition and not having to worry itself with how to wrap everything up nicely, that the second chapter of a larger story is the one where we get to dig in, where we are able to see the meat of the conflict, and get to really know the characters and what drives them, what makes them different and why we remain interested in their plight past the unbelievable circumstances they were thrown into the first time around. All of this remains true in director Francis Lawrence’s follow-up to Gary Ross’s faithful and fervent opening chapter. Yes, it is important to note that I am a fan of the books, all three of them, but that Catching Fire was by far my favorite and for all the reasons I’ve listed above I desperately hoped the film turned out the same way. As we reach the final shot of this film it became all the more clear that we’d just witnessed something rather special. It may not have been a game-changer like The Dark Knight or as exceptional as X2, but it has some clear moments and techniques that are more than impressive and more than intriguing that lead us to becoming intensely wrapped up in the world of Panem and the brewing revolution. The scope and scale, the performances all-around, the more confident hand behind the execution; it all adds up to a film that knows what it is, what its message and main themes are, and where it is going because there is a driving force behind the narrative that makes the briskly paced film (not a bad thing with a run time of two and a half hours) feel like a consistently mounting piece of music that perfectly staggers its force and intensity until hitting that crescendo. This is only one passage though, and that perfectly timed climax of this specific progression only leaves us wanting more which can only mean part two has done its job and done it well.
Picking up about a year after the events of the first film Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) now live in Victor’s Village with their families and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who has been there for quite some time. They are preparing to board the Victory Tour where they will travel and visit a district a day paying their respects to the fallen tributes from each, but there are rumblings in the districts about the true intention of Katniss’s defiant actions at the end of the 74th annual Hunger Games. Those who prosper in District one and two think nothing more of it than a love story for the ages while the outliers only see a symbol of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel and someone who is going to spearhead the campaign to do away with the Capital and its barbaric traditions once and for all. Catching Fire keeps things interesting story-wise because it likes to add on layers of complexity and not just from the adolescent girl perspective that pits Hutcherson’s earnest and humble Peeta against Liam Hemsworth’s darker, more brooding Gale Hawthorne. What is slightly ironic about these films though are that the satirical elements are meant to shine a light on our own pop culture/reality show obsessions and yet they have become a product of that environment themselves. Still, there is real sentiment here and it helps that at its center they have the one young actress in Hollywood who is seen as a legitimate and genuine person rather than a manufactured pawn of a bigger industry. The way in which Lawrence’s public persona mimics the defining characteristic of Katniss is ever so slight, but it is there and it is important otherwise it would be hard to take the idea of this young starlet heading up a revolution. This is what Katniss was destined for though, from the time she stepped up to volunteer she allowed those rumblings to finally turn into cries and screams. President Snow (a menacing Donald Sutherland) is at odds with the threat of an uprising that will remove him from his comfortable seat as ruler of Panem though and he sees Ms. Everdeen as public enemy number one. In order to rectify this situation he puts the fear of God in her by threatening her family, forcing her to convince him and the rest of the world that her love for Peeta is real, and then pushing her over the edge when he arranges the Quarter Quell (an edition of the games every twenty-five years that mark the anniversary of the districts’ defeat by the Capital that involve some sort of twist that make the games more disastrous or difficult to compete in) as an all-star game of sorts by using reaping victors from the previous hunger games as contestants in the latest fight to the death.
Where the first film had the daunting task of introducing us to the sprawling cast of characters and more than that establishing the world where these kinds of brutal games are looked upon as sport the second film takes advantage of not having to divulge all of the information in order to make sense, but it also sets up the context for everything going on and why it is happening this way with much better measure. We see the inner workings of President Snow’s thought process and when he wants things done and how, but more importantly we see those desires debated and thought out with new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in delicate conversations where we realize the power of one person in the Capital and how it can so easily decide the fate of those that seem to matter little in district 12. For a little more than the first hour of the film we are thrown head first into the politics not only of Katniss and what is going on in her world, but given how the bigger picture relates and influences her issues. It is in Lawrence’s performance that we are given a window into just how demanding and emotionally exhausting all of this has to be for a teenager who wants nothing more than the simplicity of doing the right thing, but is held back and beat into submission time and time again so that she can protect what is important to her in her life. Lawrence is able to not necessarily shift, but present a duality of how this young girl can at once be broken-hearted and lost and the next put on the face that will symbolize the revolution. She is someone who brings those nuances to the role in a subtle manner where you don’t even realize the complexities of the performance she is giving simply because it is so naturalistic in nature and gut reaction tells you this is how she would react and so naturally that is what she does, but to translate all of that into a performance where we don’t necessarily see the inner-workings of those decisions being made only helps to elevate the material and the level of credibility at which we accept this world. Of course, she has plenty of help in that task as everyone from the original returns including Elizabeth Banks as Effie who we begin to see suffer from the fact she is being forced to face a certain reality as well as Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top Caesar Flickerman who makes us laugh and cringe at the same time, but not for the performance but in what he stands for and how proud he is to be the face of the hunger games. Besides Hoffman, we also have a slew of new characters joining the ranks in the form of a charming Sam Claflin as fellow tribute Finnick Odair who clearly hides more under his playboy facade than he is letting on. There is his mentor and mother figure Mags (Lynn Cohen), fellow tributes Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) who each make an indelible impression upon first coming into contact with Katniss and her team and not to mention, the audience.
It goes without saying that Catching Fire is kind of a big deal in that it will only catapult it’s stars further into stardom and indefinitely carve out a place on the walls of tweens everywhere that rip the posters out of their latest magazines, but even as the antithesis of what the film stands for fuels the entire reason it is reaching such a wide audience there is something to be said for the fact that this particular message has struck a chord with the young audiences, but also has the power and concept to entrance the older members of the crowds that will flock to see this and that it demands the attention of such a wide variety of spectators that they might just actually take something more away from it than pure entertainment. That the films stand for something and function not only as a product but as a thought-provoking piece make them on many levels, true art. It is hard to swallow those ideas when operating on as large a scale as Suzanne Collins novels and these adaptations now do, but all of it began somewhere and it is hard to ignore the fact that this all began with the kernel of an idea about our reality show culture and how if we continually move in the direction at turning anything into entertainment it wouldn’t be long before we were broadcasting live footage of a war and then moving on to manufacturing war ourselves and coming up with some flimsy, silly justification for it that would allow the masses to feel better about continuing to consume this junk wrapped up in professional packaging. At the core of The Hunger Games series, that is what they are operating on: turning a magnified mirror on its own audience that hints at a future that feels unlikely but hits closer to home than we’d like to admit.
We laugh at people making a fool of themselves on singing talent shows, but there is no doubt many of them who have genuine dreams of becoming more than just complacent and average, but they are wiped out in a matter of seconds with the harsh words and dismissive attitudes of those who think of themselves better than the common man. It is the sacrificing of human integrity for higher ratings and though I realize that is a far cry from making children murder one another, it certainly says something about the human spirit and how flexible it can be. All of that is to say that Catching Fire captures the heart of what Collins was writing about. There is spectacle galore with large action set pieces and glorious costumes and premium production value that will keep us entranced, but what had me really into the film and loving it were the small moments where Peeta reassures Katniss as the sound drowns out and the atmosphere crushes us, where Gale sleeps on a table and Katniss lightly kisses him, and where Caesar looks back at the tributes all holding hands and his demeanor changes from the bright-white smile he usually carries to a look of anxiety and concern that hints even the most artificial of Capital slime realize all is not well. It is all in the details and director Lawrence has crafted a film that appeals to the masses while speaking to the conscience of each person in a very specific and affecting way that will make for interesting discussions among every set but will also have you clamoring for the next installment.
God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)
Released: 29th January 2018
Directed By: Francis Lee
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu
Reviewed By: Barry Levitt
Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.
God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.
Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.
The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.
The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.
The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review
Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ken Hughes
Stars: Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear
Released 14th November 2016
In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television. It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star. Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963. The response wasn’t so warm.
Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Time for a re-assessment.
The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer. He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way. It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals. At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him.
Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially. The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before. Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses. You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits. It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.
All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out. There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge. So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother. And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.
The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released? One reason could be timing. It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962. Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money. Nor is it a comment on society.
But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances. Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner. And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’). The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.
It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker. Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.
One Million Years BC – DVD Review
Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Don Chaffey
Stars: Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick
Released: 24th October 2016
Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status. Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002). And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979). But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini. She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star.
The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary. And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement. Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later. And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.
The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot. It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes. The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other. They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life. It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything. And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.
The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick. But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.
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