Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Runtime: 146 minutes
Time to eat a little bit of crow. When I Am Legend and Water for Elephants director Francis Lawrence was tapped to take over duties for The Hunger Games franchise following the departure of Oscar nominee Gary Ross, some skepticism surfaced over whether the adaptations would continue to meet the heights achieved by the invigorated and largely faithful -- not to mention wildly-popular -- first film. Despite being entertaining-enough movies in their own right, neither of Lawrence's previous book-to-screen projects have strong reputations for their closeness to the source material, leaving confidence up in the air for Catching Fire, the daunting middle entry in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy of young-adult books. Those suspicions appear to have been premature, though: not only has this continuation of Katniss Everdeen's saga of rebellion, spectator manipulation, and conflicted love matched the initial film that ignited the spark, it confidently surpasses its predecessor in nearly every way possible, from craftsmanship and faithfulness to sheer exhilaration.
The story picks up half a year after the events of The Hunger Games (watch out for spoilers for the first film), amid the biting cold of winter in District Twelve. Victor Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook) has struggled to get her life back to normal -- especially involving her best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Triangle) -- following her time in the mandatory to-the-death arena, which will complicate further as she goes on tour with the unexpected second victor, her feigned boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right, to the other districts in a display of the Capitol's power. Before that, she's greeted by President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Don't Look Now), the authoritative leader of Panem, who suggests that he knows the depth of her deceit during the games, how she and Peeta manipulated the system and spectators into letting them both live for the sake of love. Her resistance to the Capitol during the games has sparked rebellions in response to the yearly Reaping and class structure, something she's forced to calm if she wants to keep her family and friends alive. Katniss, still a blunt and standoffish teenager, must choose to either play the Capitol's game or step up as a figurehead for the rebellion, with Snow ready to respond either way.
Catching Fire boldly roots into darker material by first centering on Katniss' mental integrity and moral constitution, delving deeper into the character's psyche than in The Hunger Games. Her experiences in the arena, the murder of other children and the joy derived from their brutality by the audience, manifest into a form of post-traumatic stress that the film actively explores, hinged on a blistering performance from Jennifer Lawrence as the burgeoning freedom fighter. The Oscar-winning actress' inherent heart-on-sleeve candor becomes crucial to realizing Katniss' internal trauma, commanded by the manic and fearful energy in her reactions as she sees violent images that aren't there and awakens in the night to harrowing dreams. There's a subtler melancholy behind her presence as well, though: the understated glances she shares with her maturing sister Prim (Willow Shields), her rekindled friendships with Peeta and Gale, and how she jolts her drunken mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), out of his stupor reveal a young woman bottled up with a cocktail of cynicism and desperation, justifiably unready for the challenges ahead.
Adapted from Collins' second book in ways that perhaps outdo even the text, those challenges consist of an uptick in the story's themes about authoritarian government and police enforcement, rendering a harsher dystopian atmosphere as Katniss and Peeta traverse the districts. Granted, director Lawrence can only go so far with depictions of brutality in a PG-13 film aimed at broader audiences, but Catching Fire certainly captures the bleakness and simmering intensity of a burdened nation on the brink of revolution, down to underscoring the volatile events -- the bloodshed -- catalyzing their fury. The work the production crew have done in shaping Central Georgia's locations to fit this bleak but arresting vision are constantly spectacular: the desolate and hopeless atmosphere of the industrial districts, held at gunpoint by white-clad peacekeepers, funnel towards the candy-coated center of privilege benefiting from their destitution, the Capitol. Where the first film emphasized the harrowing spectacle of the games with addled camerawork, the second focuses on the disparity and anxiety between social classes through Limitless cinematographer Jo Willems' steady, stunning gaze at Panem and its denizens.
Director Lawrence has his own challenge to handle with the book's story, since it'd be easy -- and not unjustified -- to look at Catching Fire's return to the arena for more bloodshed as an auspicious rehash, in a franchise that already deals with the baggage of emulating the likes of Battle Royale in its design. Katniss' resignation to death and the participants in the Games themselves, all previous victors with their own idiosyncrasies, give the plot the alternate perspective needed to mask the similarity. Revisiting the media exploitation and pop-culture critiques on reality shows are made intriguing by Katniss' bleak self-assurance and the collective passion of the elder participants, while the building of alliances and training exercises invite those watching into the minds of past tributes. Clearly, there's more to them than meets the eye: Sam Claflin lends suspicious magnetism to the chiseled, primped gladiator Finnick, while Jena Malone's embodiment of the rebellious axe-wielding whackjob Johanna Mason adds a clever parallel to Katniss' quieter and stoic resistance. The road to the arena might be similar, but it's an entirely different ballgame once they're at the Capitol.
In the arena, all of Catching Fire's alternate attributes come to a head, leading to vastly more engaging and visually alluring action beats created by a wide array of dynamic threats, both human and not. The jump to the big screen aids the activity in Collins' text in becoming clearer, which could get overly hectic and jumbled at times. Francis Lawrence's prowess as an action director shines in the complex combination of practical and digital effects, coming together in the tropical aquatic atmosphere in fast-moving, dangerous ways. The renegade flames and dogs from the first film were only the tip of the iceberg: the tricks up the sleeves of new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a reservedly charismatic Philip Seymour Hoffman) play directly into the deadly reality-show spectacle that the narrative so richly critiques, the shock and awe at his fingertips adding visceral surprises around every corner. Yet it's all part of the book's thrilling beats, the script taking very few liberties with the way the games go down. Shot almost entirely with IMAX cameras for breathtaking scope, it's an exhilarating forty-five minutes that buries the previous film's arena experience (something that can't really be said about the books).
There's also a veil of mystery, of suspicious moves and countermoves, going on within the games in Catching Fire, building towards a bittersweet lead-in to the final chapter(s) of The Hunger Games saga, and a fruition point in Katniss' journey towards becoming the face of the uprising against the Capitol. Sticking close to the source material ensured that the film would, ultimately, end on a cliffhanger that leaves questions only answerable by the next installment and, without doubt, feeling like a bridge between installments. Yet, even under those limitations, this adaptation finds a way to visibly underline Katniss' personal development across this individual story, in a rewarding and inspiring final burst as the film's final words hang in the air. That's what happens with a clear grasp on the source material, and it's really exciting to behold how Francis Lawrence not only maintained the strengths and spirit from the franchise's origin point in a reputable sequel, but improved upon them in surprising, reverent ways that make one eager to storm the castle alongside this girl on fire in the next one.
Directed by: Choo Chang-min; Runtime: 131 minutes
It's common for those who aren't politicians to want to live in the shoes of decision makers for a brief period, just so they might be able to put their perspective and values in motion to fix some of the problems created by questionable, self-focused bureaucracy. South Korea's period drama Masquerade (also known as The Man Who Became King) might not be entirely about that type of wish-fulfillment, but it's one of its strongest aspects: when given the opportunity to become either a hollow puppet or a voice for what he believes in, political decoy Ha-sun allows his sympathetic nature and opinions to guardedly emerge in opposition of the leader he's trying to emulate. While short on innovation within the story that director Choo Chang-min orchestrates, cobbling together familiar fables of paupers and shadow warriors in 1600s Korea, Masquerade triumphs on the momentum of its uplifting tone and a versatile performance from Lee Byung-hun, emphasizing self-aware humor amid the beautifully stuffy costume-drama setting.
Oldboy screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon bases the story around the enigmatic King Gwanghae of Korea's Joseun Dynasty, a growingly unstable and paranoid autocratic ruler embroiled in several complicated issues of the state. The increase in political pressure and aggression, coupled with his mania, leads to him asking his Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to seek out a doppelganger for his affairs, in case of an assassination attempt. Enter Ha-sun: a playful jester who performs at a brothel, whose unmatchable physical similarity to Gwanghae is belied by the loose and sympathetic demeanor of a commoner. After a few casual trail runs where he obeys the Secretary's instructions about acting like a servant-attended ruler and avoiding the Queen Consort (Han Hyo-joo), his impersonation skills are put to the test when the king's fears about being attacked come to fruition, leaving those in the know uncertain whether he'll survive or not. With suspicious eyes upon him as big issues -- taxes, diplomacy, treason -- are discussed in court, Ha-sun has his work cut out for him.
Liberally borrowing from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha in both plot and theme, Masquerade filters recognizable elements of a "Prince and Pauper" drama -- the cloak and dagger switch, the discovery of royalty's benefits, the fish-outta-water awkwardness -- through restrained comedic tones reminiscent of Korea's own The King and the Clown, balancing serious-minded stately theatrics with blatant humor. Spellbinding set and costume design befitting other great period epics build up what ultimately becomes a playground for Ha-sun's clash with the daily pomp and circumstance, where the stuffiness and servitude of the king's ungrateful routine ironically play into Ha-sun's discomfort and, ultimately, admiration of the unappreciated. Hwang Jo-yoon's script even works in a bit of literal toilet comedy that'll possibly get bigger laughs than other dedicated comedies. The film never loses its grasp on the situation's gravity, though, even when the humor's at its broadest, keeping the jester's acclimation to kingliness believable.
The duality of the king and the jester gives Lee Byung-hun an opportunity to go beyond his comfort zone as the emotional barometer at the center of Masquerade. While the bitter, stern demeanor of King Gwanghae isn't unlike the intensity he's displayed many times before (only not quite this malicious), the jester's comedic empathy and unease in the spotlight of his court allow the actor to shed his familiar solemnity for a jovial, awkwardly charismatic persona. Ha-sun's evolving interactions with the servants and political aides are frequently exuberant while he navigates the nuance of language, ritualistic dining, and delivering decrees -- a stark difference from the domineering fright they experience at the hand of their king -- reaching a surprisingly playful high once he comes face-to-face with the queen herself. The film knows how to handle this disproportion between personalities, too, by addressing it headfirst: perception of the king's change in demeanor, and his servants' response to it, becomes a focal point in the story that's given poignancy by lee Byung-hun's graceful handling of the weight upon the interim king's shoulders.
Despite Masquerade's politics being clear-cut and easy to follow -- involving land taxes, diplomacy with the Ming dynasty, and treasonous captives -- the machinations are only marginally engaging for highlighting the ominous atmosphere surrounding the king, and for when Ha-sun's admirable traits take over amid his limited power. Ultimately, an emotionally gripping climax is shaped out of seeing what the false king does with his fleeting moments on the throne and how he works around King Gwanghae's troubled queen, commanded by powerful tones about the gray-area usage of power and how a leader motivates his followers through respect instead of a domineering hand. Despite somewhat melodramatic and doubtful methods in how it emphasizes Ha-sun's ability to credibly influence the king's followers in such a short time frame (not to mention how the ruse lasted as long as it did), the sentiment ends up being strong enough through Lee Byung-hun's convincing embodiment of what a commoner would do when temporarily bequeathed the keys to a castle in turmoil.
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche; Runtime: 178 minutes
The first and last shots of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color (aka La Vie d'Adele - Chapitres 1 & 2) feature its focal character, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), walking alone toward the next stage in her life, mirroring one another as they frame this breathtaking drama about relationships and identity with a poignantly familiar image. These scenes feature two versions of the young woman who are quite different from one another, shaped by the experiences from her passionate bond with a blue-haired artist, Emma (Lea Seydoux, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), spanning several years throughout her youth. Categorizing the film as being purely about same-sex romance would do the story's purpose a disservice, though: this brave portrayal of attraction, sexuality, and conflicting philosophy revolves around Adele's draw towards individuals above how it sorts out her overarching preferences. Kechiche embraces the subject matter and shapes it into a powerful, self-conscious depiction of molding to the challenges of a new lifestyle -- and life itself -- for the sake of uncontrollable love and unyielding desire.
Based on Julie Maroh's graphic novel of the same name, Blue is the Warmest Color takes its time while fleshing out two stages in Adele's life -- before and after high-school -- across nearly three hours of deliberate, expressive filmmaking, capturing the intimacy and intensity of her burgeoning sexuality. Some will find the length indulgent, while others will savor the closeness it achieves: detail-aware camera movement and tight close-ups make the audience feel almost like voyeurs peering into Adele's life, unafraid to let the film's gaze linger on her everyday activities at school and around her fairly traditional home. The film encourages those watching to read her closeted emotions as the story organically touches on love at first sight, predestination, and regret from not capitalizing on opportunities, becoming especially poignant as she handles the havoc of high-school friends and dating boys. Kechiche and cinematographer Sofian El Fani find ways of making these early mundane things in Adele's life appealing and pertinent to observe, recurring throughout her life as reflections of the parts of her that never change.
The material becomes challenging once Adele passes by Emma on the streets for the first time, conjuring a spark that she's forced to manage on her own at first, driven only by a fleeting glance at the object of her affection. Director Kechiche skillfully balances the pains and satisfactions of discovering her same-sex cravings, where scenes involving clashes with her classmates and during her private reflections on the girl with blue hair reveal an incredible amount of rawness and sincerity. There's a lot to admire in how Blue is the Warmest Color hinges on Adele's turmoil in how she handles those emerging sensations -- a vague conversation she has with her gay male friend about "faking it" offers an invitation to really get inside her head -- while the film credibly explores how she clumsily navigates her social life while coping with how to explore those lesbian inclinations. Adele's personality takes shape through those moments of teary-eyed confusion and eventual vivacity, allowing the themes behind her tough experiences to speak for themselves.
Adele's coming-of-age moves in tandem with the courtship that blossoms between she and Emma, driven by exceptional performances from the two women that relish the complex and delicate areas of their long-term relationship, given nuance by Kechiche's reportedly demanding direction. Lea Seydoux projects a mysterious and confident aura that's commanded by Emma's years of experience at first, while Adele Exarchopoulos' disarmingly courageous performance becomes a sublime counterbalance through her character's emotional enthusiasm and social reservation. Blue is the Warmest Color doesn't keep them the same ages, though, moving ahead several years and revealing how the two women have changed with time. The transition is organic: as the idiosyncrasies observed in their younger years manifest into different, less savory shades of the same traits later on, the film never loses its grasp on authenticity, the complexities of their tempestuous relationship escalating with domestic life and professional ambition.
Abdellatif Kechiche's filmmaking perspective only really stumbles during the highly-publicized sex scenes, which certainly earn the film its NC-17 rating and deserve the scrutiny they've received. Especially during Adele and Emma's first encounter, the candor of the intimacy displayed in Blue is the Warmest Color takes strides to convey how absorbed they become by their lust, orchestrated in matter-of-fact, steady-handed sequences. However, much like the way Kechiche allows the camera to casually linger on Adele's dining and sleeping habits , these sequences simply go on longer than needed to achieve their desired effect. Whether they cross the line of tastefulness will depend on who's watching: the lighting, framing, and cinematography remain sophisticated amid their frankness, yet roughly ten minutes of the film are only a few tilted camera angles away from point-blank erotica. These almost-intrusive glimpses at their sex life are vindicated by their purposes and the actresses' stalwart performances, but they eventually start to ring false.
Getting under Adele's skin during her first, powerful love is a crucial part of Blue is the Warmest Color, covering the gradient of her emotion -- curiosity, frustration, jealousy, loneliness, and heartbreak -- within a melancholy depiction of how her persona evolves and guides her into adulthood. By the end, during that vision of her once again walking into another chapter in her life on the sound of a steel drum in the wind, Kechiche and his actresses make the audience feel as if they've endured the exhilaration of Adele embarking into uncharted territories, the tears that frequently stream down her cheeks, and the ache when she's lost the ability to change the direction of the way things are moving. It's an exhausting but rewarding experience that, ultimately, reveals more about the universality of her growth amid the ups and downs of love's turbulence than it does about where her specific preferences end up, though not without its own complicated resonance in that regard.