Katniss Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Mockingjays

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers everywhere!

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the world of Panem, and land rife with civil unrest. 74 years ago Panem, which is split into twelve working-class districts and one wealthy capitalist Capitol, was host to an uprising, during which the unruly numbered districts were defeated by the Capitol’s military powers, and during which District 13 was destroyed. As penance for this act, every year the Capitol holds an annual Hunger Games, for which a boy and girl aged 12 to 18 from each district are randomly selected, trained, presented to the public and thrown into a specially made arena to fight it out to the death, until only one player survives. Katniss lives in District 12, and the when her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is picked in her first draw, Katniss volunteers in her stead. Her male counterpart is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker who only tangentially knows Katniss. Katniss asks her friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) to look after her sister and emotionally frail mother (Paula Malcomson).
Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in THE HUNGER GAMES.
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Casino Royale

With the imminent release of Daniel Craig’s third outing as James Bond, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (UK release October 26th), it seems like the perfect time to cross the film ranked 56th greatest film of all time by Empire readers a few years ago, Craig’s first Bond outing, Casino Royale.

Now, if you ask me, #56 is pretty high up, especially when you consider that Goldfinger, my favourite Bond movie, is 110 places lower at #166, and no other Bond movies made it onto that list (You Only Live Twice appears in the Empire 5-star 500). Even if you take into account Casino Royale’s proximity to the release of the list, made just two years later, it’s still pretty damn high. Apparently, it’s better than Lawrence of Arabia, Annie Hall, 12 Angry Men, The Great Escape and literally hundreds of other films that, in my opinion, are far superior. But then I didn’t compile the list (though I did vote on it, and not for this film), so who am I to voice the opinions of others?

Before I continue my now-trademark tirade of negative comments, I should probably point out that this is a very good film. It served as a much needed shot in the arm for a franchise left face down and drowning on a CGI-wave of Pierce Brosnan’s swarm and Madonna’s atrocious Die Another Day theme song. In a post-Bourne world it established itself as a gritty reboot, taking Bond away from the ludicrous gadgets and back to the basics of hand-to-hand scrapping in a public bathroom, whilst still retaining the sheer spectacle of fighting on top of not one crane but two. Every aspect of classic Bond is present, from the impossibly slinky and easily-bedded women to a nefarious villain with a silly name and mild physical deformity (Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, with a scarred eye that weeps bloody, and asthma to boot). Yet everything feels a bit more real, a bit dirtier and scuffed around the edges. And this description is none more fitting than of Craig’s Bond himself. Yes, he looks impeccable whether wearing an immaculately tailored dinner jacket or a pair of swimming trunks that apparently make my girlfriend’s mother go all weak at every possible joint, and he’s always got a quip ready in his back pocket, but this is a Bond with flaws and imperfections, all to aware that the men he is up against may be more than his match.

Take the early scene in Uganda, for example. Here, Bond must chase down and apprehend a suspect to obtain the passcode on his mobile phone, yet unfortunately said miscreant (Sebastien Foucan) is rather adept at long-distance sprinting, free-running and jumping off things that are ridiculously high up. Whilst he bounds around without a care in the world, remaining relatively scratch free, Bond is always a fair way behind, getting progressively beaten up and always opting for the easier route – hopping into a JCB digger or shoulder-barging through a wall rather than leaping through an uncomfortably small window. Here is a Bond who doesn’t need to show off when no-one is looking, he just wants to get the job done, and at whatever cost.

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with Bond films. I’ll gladly watch any of them, even Quantum of Solace if there’s nothing else on, but the plots are usually a bit labyrinthine for me, which is only to be expected if they want to make each film different. I’m not quite sure of the main motivations in Casino Royale, but I’m fairly sure it’s got something to do with the stock market, although the basic point is that Bond infiltrates an extremely high stakes poker game with a $150,000,000 pot, in order to prevent Le Chiffre from winning it and doing something bad with the proceeds. Everything else is fairly superfluous. I’ve read elsewhere that setting most of a Bond film around a poker table is nothing short of sacrilege, but I found those parts to be fraught with tension and often interspersed with enough action to suffice, even if the film made poker out to be a game that only deals in the most improbable card hands ever. There’s a nice running commentary provided by Bond’s accomplices, Vesper Lynd and Mathis (Eva Green & Giancarlo Giannini), but I didn’t think it was that necessary to have so much exposition, considering how dumbed-down the game was.

There were some very memorable set pieces, with the cold open of Bond achieving his double-0 status and the parkour escapade being particular high-lights, though I also enjoyed the stairway scuffle later in the film, showing how Bond had improved his jumping-and-punching skills from earlier. The testicular-torture scene may have gone a little too far, but it was well-handled and didn’t make me feel as squeamish as it could have done, and it’s more than compensated for by the various little moments of humour, and the record number of car rolls a little earlier. 

I approved of the expansion upon the relationship between Bond and M (Judi Dench), whose involvement in this franchise has cemented her presence as something of a British icon, and the rumours that this repartee has been increased ever further in Skyfall excites me no end. Bond is always at his best when bouncing off a superior – best seen with Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, and his utter, barefaced cheek clashes perfectly with Dench’s no-nonsense style. 

Though the last act may drag a little – the film clocks in at 138 minutes – the pace is fairly consistent throughout. There’s a lot here for Bond fans – more in-jokes than I remembered – and plenty for newcomers too. It may not be my favourite Bond film, but it definitely breaks the top 10, and maybe even the top 5.

Choose film 7/10

The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling is Stephen Meyers, assistant campaign manager to Governor Morris (George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote), who is currently locked in a battle with opposing democratic candidate Senator Pullman to win the Ohio Democratic Primary and eventually win the nomination as the next potential president. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are their campaign managers, Marisa Tomei the Times reporter out for inside information, Evan Rachel Wood a young intern with her eye on Gosling’s big man on campus, and Jeffrey Wright is the senator both sides are eager to please.

In the past few years there have been a number of talky, ‘important’ films with predominantly male all-star ensemble casts, with generally well written scripts dealing with issues whose effects can have life or death ramifications. From The Company Men, Moneyball, Margin Call and Wall Street 2, they all have something else in common – I haven’t seen them yet. It’s not that I don’t want to see them (Moneyball and Margin Call are in my LoveFilm queue and The Company Men is sat on DVD form on my shelf – Wall Street 2 will take me a while as first I must get past a hatred for Shia LaBeouf) it’s just that I don’t have many opportunities to go to the cinema, so I use them for seeing movies with a certain sense of spectacle, ones that will make the better use of a gigantic screen and that, should I happen to miss a line of dialogue from a fellow patron’s ringing phone, screaming child or popcorn-chomp, I can still follow the plot amidst the explosions and giant robots. The more dialogue-heavy, less action-y films are saved for DVD. This even applied to such masterpieces as The Social Network – I saw Toy Story 3 instead. Please don’t have a go at me about this. Rest assured that if I had the time (and the money) to see the other films at the cinema too, then I would, and there have been difficult decisions made in the past as to what must be sacrificed for a smaller screen some months down the line.
And so it is that it’s taken me a little while to watch The Ides of March, though it was well reviewed, I’m a fan of 5 of the principle players (Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman, Giamatti & Tomei) and The West Wing has made me at least interested in the ins and outs of American politics, more so than I am in the British trivialities. Plus, my girlfriend could be described as being more than a fan of Gosling (I’m still receiving backlash from my rant on The Notebook).
Now this isn’t a bad film, but I got the feeling that every actor involved was retreading ground they’d walked down many a time before. They all performed well – though Gosling goes a bit glary-eyed on a couple of occasions – but no-one really showed anything new. This is kind of a testament to the acting talents on display. Nobody does cynical schlubs like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, but they’re settled into a well formed groove, and who is Clooney’s smoothly persuasive senator than a slightly more ambitious Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air? Only Gosling gives something of a fresh performance, but only in terms of him being something of an impressionable blank slate of contradictions. His Stephen has supposedly worked on more campaigns by the time he’s 30 than most of his peers ten years his senior, yet it sends him reeling when he discovers that the world of politics is more than occasionally played with cards to the chest and the odd stacked deck.
At times the plot goes a bit overly dramatic. The outcome from who is the presidential candidate already has the potential for phenomenal consequences, yet the scriptwriters felt the need to show the devastating effects this can also have on individual people, with the fate of Evan Rachel Wood’s intern Molly being particularly distressing. It hits the point home, but does so in too severe a manner. I feel that there was greater scope for exploring the characters of Gosling and Clooney being two sides of the same coin twenty years apart. Had equal time been spent on their stories, rather than instead focusing more on Gosling – who I never really believed in as a masterful campaign manager sought after by everyone – then this could have been more interesting. The whole poster campaign was set up to show them, and their freakishly symmetrical faces, as being the same person anyway, yet this seemed completely lacking in the film.
Were this the first film I’d seen with most of these actors in I’d no doubt have been floored by the incredible performances on display. I don’t mean to take anything away from them – they are all consummate professionals who are incredible at what they do and I look forward to seeing them do it again – it’s just I’ve seen them all do it before.
Choose life 7/10