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Movie Roundup, Part 1 — 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, HG: Catching Fire

 Golden Globe nominations and post-year awards have been announced for 2013 movies. This article will be the first in a series of three Movie Roundups to help readers catch up with the bygone film year. The films being reviewed are “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen; “American Hustle,” directed by David O. Russell; “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallee; “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence; “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears; “Saving Mr. Banks,” directed by John Lee Hancock; and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” directed by Martin Scorsese.

      Of this group, the one I enjoyed the most was “Philomena” because the story had texture beyond its melodramatic premise and because of the lovely, warmhearted performance of Judi Dench and the steelier, more cynical turn by Steve Coogan.

       The best of the bunch is “American Hustle,” in which David O. Russell depicts the joy and elan of the con game while showing that government officials, on both sides of the give and take, protect their own gain more than anything else. Except, perhaps, for the mayor who is among the key players in the movie and its plot.

      “Dallas Buyers Club” was a great surprise because of the comedy and commentary built into Jean-Marc Vallee’s movie. “12 Years a Slave” is a powerful tale of injustice that centers of an individual but speaks for all who lived his brand of servitude. “Saving Mr. Banks” is a lark, a spree that gets its luster from two sources, the flintly, no-nonsense performance by Emma Thompson and the scenes in Australia that feature a charming, heartbreaking turn by Colin Farrell. “The Wolf of Wall Street” starts out at a roaring, rollicking pace and dissolves into self-indulgence. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is more of a visual treatment of a popular phenomenon that it is an attempt to make a solid movie, but it entertains, and I found myself, a neophyte, interested in the lore Suzanne Collins created for her dystopian world. (My niece helped fill in all that I couldn’t glean for myself.)

       These films have already figured into post-year conversation about 2013 films. The Golden Globes will be distributed on Sunday, January 12. “Philomena” and “12 Years a Slave” are nominees for Best Drama. “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” compete  for Best Comedy. (The other nominees for Best Drama — “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” and “Rush” — have full reviews in NealsPaper. You can find them under Movie Reviews and Older Posts.)

         Among actors, Dench and Thompson received Best Actress nods from the Golden Globes for Drama while Amy Adams garnered one for “American Hustle.” Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo Di Caprio, and Christian Bale are nominated for Best Actor in the movies about to be reviewed. Jared Leto, Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Lupita Nyong’o earned nominations for Supporting performances. Lawrence was given the New York Film Critics’ Award last month. (Other nominees are reviewed in full-length reviews in NealsPaper.)

 

         The reviews are presented alphabetically, in two parts. Below are “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” “Philomena,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” will be published under separate cover as “Movie Roundup, Part 2.” “Nebraska,” “The Hobbit” The Desolation of Smaug,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” will be in Part 3.

 

12 YEARS A SLAVE — a movie by Steve McQueen —  Slavery is a horror no matter how one comes to it, but Solomon Northup is a free, enterprising young man with a family and lifestyle to support when he leaves the safety of Massachusetts and goes to Washington, D.C., a de facto Southern town in ante-bellum days, and is duped by alleged friends who sell him into slavery.

      McQueen opens his audience’s eyes as he familiarizes Northup, played with passion and dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor, with the institution under which he now must live in bondage, unable to convince anyone of his place as a free individual, as if someone would care, and unable to get a message to his family, his wife and two small children.

      Northup is a gentleman, better bred and better educated than most of the people who will lay claim to own him, but he learns to put his pride and his knowledge aside if he wants to survive in a society that expects ignorance and subservience.

    McQueen is keen on showing the vestiges of slavery. Most of the time, the scenes he depicts reinforce the inhumane practices many have read about in classic historical works such as Kenneth Stampp’s “The Peculiar Institution.” McQueen spares neither his characters nor his audience sequences of random beating, wholesale disrespect, the forced separation of families, often via the sale of spouses of children, and the regarding of human beings as property. All is there to underscore the cruelty and self-righteousness that existed and to which Northup was subjected. More importantly, McQueen and writer John Ridley make clear the simple acceptance of slavery in the 18th century American South.

      As Stampp says, using a phrase by which Southerners referred to slavery, the possession of men and women was an institution, an integral part of society that was acknowledged by the slave holders and traders and even, in resignation, by the slaves themselves. McQueen is shrewd in presenting slavery as a way of life, the way a portion of the world in one historical era, goes about its business.

     The director is good at details. He shows differences in the men who have title to Northup and who regard him as a valuable, salable commodity. Not only do the men played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt have different personalities. They live in different styles. The houses of the owner are not necessarily the opulent mansions in most movies. Paint peels. Floorboards crack. Life on the plantation is not depicted as being all elegance and gentility. McQueen does not present a picture of glamor in the midst of misery.  Slave owners vary as much as any group in society. Their living conditions and level of ease, grandeur, or sophistication do as well. McQueen makes distinction between the people Northup meets and the places he lives and serves.

      Underlying “12 Years of Slave” is a tone of injustice, general and specific to Northrup. (John Ridley, by the way, shares writer’s credit with Solomon Northup, who wrote the book on which McQueen’s movie is based after he was freed from his ordeal.)

      The constant feeling of oppression, the scene after scene of inflicted pain and general squalor, the depiction of the hardness of life, informs the movie and creates its lasting impression. You care about Northup. Ejiofor is a superlative actor who makes sure of that. You sympathize with his plight and despise the wrongness of it. But “12 Years a Slave” extends beyond Northup to a way of living that may be matter-of-fact to the people living it but is exposed for the universally unhappy, misguided, and corrupt mode of existence it is.

     McQueen is not always subtle or in control. More than once, he lingers on sequences or extends a a passage in a way that amounts to overdramatizing. The situation or event, whether it’s a beating or a negotiation about the price of a human being, continues long after it has made it impression and communicated what it must in the overall context of the movie.

      The self-indulgent episodes happen more in the beginning of “12 Years a Slave” than in the later scenes. When they emerged, I was afraid McQueen caught Lee Daniels disease and was going to be ham-handed in his storytelling the ruinous way Daniels is in an earlier film this year, “The Butler.”

      My fear was unfounded. “12 Years a Slave” makes most of its points honestly but showing a humane audience evidence of gross institutionalized inhumanity.

      As Ejiofor did in roles as diverse as the accused renegade in “Amistad” and the drag entertainer in “Kinky Boots,” the actor brings range and strength to his portrayal of Solomon Northup. Ejiofor lives each moment Solomon faces as his character does. His authenticity of both emotion and action is remarkable. You clearly see the various stages from the time he stubbornly clings mentally to his independent status to his acceptance, such as it is, to his fate.

      Ejiofor’s performance is not one that cries for attention. It’s one that commands it. In an excellent cast, he retains the lead and sets the examples for others.

      Michael Fassbender may be the least attractive of the owners to whom Northup is indentured, but he plays the complexity of the self-loathing, willful drunkard with the same measure of reality Ejiofor brings to his part. One welcomes the presence of the calmer, more civilized Brad Pitt after seeing Fassbender’s take on his character, but it is Fassbender whose performance registers in your memory and that hits the notes McQueen chooses to stress in his narrative.

      Paul Dano continues his skein of well-drawn alternative characters with his hardscrabble portrayal of a line boss at the plantation. Alfre Woodard exudes dignity as a cultured woman who befriends Northup. Sarah Paulson has some telling and well-played scenes as Fassbender’s strict and mercurial wife.

      Two of the more wrenching characters in the movie, women who are especially brutalized by their slavery, are played by Adepero Oduye as a free woman, who like Northup, is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and Lupita Nyong’o as an attractive young slave who catches the eye of her owner but does enjoy her favor or what it takes to please him.

      Nyong’o is heartbreaking. She appears so defenseless even while showing defiance and taking expected punishment for it. In her character, you see a fresh young woman wither into sudden age, while still a girl, before your eyes. You see clearly the plight of someone who is not entitled to say ‘no’ and who can be damaged for having even the temerity to think it. Like Ejiofor, Nyong’o is likely to receive an Oscar nomination. If she does, she will be a front-runner for the award.

 AMERICAN HUSTLE — a movie by David O. Russell —  When David O. Russell’s movie begins, Christian Bale, as a Jewish con artist, and Bradley Cooper, as an Italian IRS agent who has Bale’s character under his legal thumb, engage in a macho shouting-shoving showdown that plays larger than life and includes Cooper’s cop disturbing the carefully coiffed combover we’ve just witnessed Bale’s flim-flam artist conscientiously constructing to perfection.

      It all seemed a bit much, and I wondered if Russell was going to treat us to a couple of hours of big effects and overwrought emotions like he did in his lauded, but I don’t know why, “Silver Linings Playbook.” I kept hoping Jennifer Lawrence would appear soon, so she could save the movie with her core of authenticity the way she rescued “Playbook.”

      Lawrence was welcome and more when she came on screen, but it turned out she just adds to the merriment and appropriate size of “American Hustle.” The movie had already settled into being entertaining in the right proportion. Bale, Cooper, and Amy Adams were doing just fine getting some interest and some steam going, and you can see that in the year between “Playbook” and “Hustle,” Russell had acquired a knack for wit that would make this look at what we in the Delaware Valley recognize as the Abscam gambit into a breezy, enjoyable ride.

      Like many a good movie, the title, “American Hustle” has a lot of readings. It refers to the ambition to get ahead and make a name for yourself in a given field. For Bale and Adams’s characters, that field is defrauding. They are as brazen and they are talented at getting rich by separating the unsuspecting from their cash. What’s left of their consciences, and it isn’t much, is salved by the knowledge most of their clients/victims are looking to get rich quick and have more than a little larcenous streak in them.

      Then, of course, there’s the legitimate hustle. Cooper’s character is a cop. He despises the crooks and scam artists of the world, especially the slick ones that Bale and Adams play. He is out to make a reputation, and advance his position at the agency, and possibly in politics, by making a show of nailing top conmen in their tracks. He is as unstoppable in his quest for law enforcement stardom as Bale and Adams are in fleecing their more than willing marks. Lucky for Cooper’s Richie DiMaso, as New York a guy as you’ll ever want to meet, his boss has a boss who is equally ambitious.

      The hustle people tend to admire most is the grit to get a job done and get it done right. The hope is the hustler who can do that will benefit in the bargain, become as rich as Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld or the lofty British aristocrat Adams’s character, Sydney, pretends to me, or gain in position as Richie envisions. The beneficent hustler here — Notice I do not regard the cop as beneficent — is a New Jersey mayor , played by Jeremy Renner, who wants to make deals but wants his efforts to bring jobs and a better life to the common people who live in the state and city he serves, Camden.

      Again, Philadelphia readers will recognize who the model is for the Camden mayor, called Carmine Polito by Russell and his co-writer, Eric Warren Singer.

       So, you have a lot going on here. DiMaso, through sound police work, has caught Irving and his allegedly noble British accomplice red-handed skimming off the many investors who come to them hungry for a big margin of return that elementary logic tells you cannot exist. Irving and Sydney are on their way to Federal prison, Sydney being treated to a taste of jail as a preview.

       But hustle prevails. Irving has an idea. Suppose he can deliver big fish going after minimal bait. Fish like Congressmen, mayors, perhaps a Senator or two. That would certainly rate a headline bigger than nailing two petty crooks who play, and play skillfully, for champagne stakes. That would make Richie DiMaso’s name known in the echoing corridors of power.

      DiMaso, who is as meticulous about curling his straight hair as Irving is about combing over his, bites. Abscam is in gear. All DiMaso has to do is let Irving and Sydney’s Mayfair alter ego design it, obtain clearance from IRS brass, and set the trap for the fish who make headlines.

      Watching how this is done and how it plays out becomes a lot of fun in Russell’s movie. You see dedicated hustlers at work and witness as they interact with bureaucrats who don’t quite understand their level of unorthodox creativity, and you get to see the messy lives our protagonists on both sides of the law lead.

      For contrast, you have the lavish life the big-hearted mayor and his wife  enjoy in their haven of South Jersey. The irony is the mayor may be on the take when presented the chance in the Abscam sting, but he is probably the most sincere, honorable, and honest character in the movie.

      Don’t get me wrong. He doesn’t mind making a buck. Mostly, though, in the context of the movie, he wants to use the money offered to improve Atlantic City and propel New Jersey into affluence greater than his.

       “American Hustle” becomes a study in self-aggrandizement. But it’s also a study in extreme characters, and that is where it shines. You enjoy being let in on the secrets of scams and all the machinations, deceits, set-ups, and dramatizing they require. You like seeing government agents, Cooper’s DiMaso chief among them, displayed as schmucks. But the real joy, the absolute fun comes just from seeing the main characters fit their high-level- high-stakes schemes into their normal lives.

      Those lives are complicated, and part of Russell’s genius in “American Hustle” is making those complications pay in terms of how they affect the scamming business and in terms of the comedy they create.

       Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s wife, is the key to the comedy.  Rosalyn Rosenfeld is not a sophisticated person of the world, not even to the extent her husband, who can pass for bright and worldly, is. She is Long Island to the core. She dresses the part. She shops the part. And this is the late 1970s, so the clothes Russell’s characters wear evoke laughs from the get-go. Rosalyn’s wardrobe, not so much untasteful as showy, is an act in itself. Lawrence wearing Rosalyn’s wardrobe is particularly funny. Almost by accident, she insinuates herself in the Abscam proceedings and becomes a necessary cog in them (even though she doesn’t know what the proceedings are). Lawrence is a genius at making large, offbeat characters real and affecting. She earned her Oscar in “Silver Linings Playbook” by always seeming real no matter how fake or overdrawn the situation Russell put her in on how over the top the dialogue he gave her.

       Everyone in “American Hustle” has that skill, but Lawrence plays it the best. You believe Rosalyn to be a flesh-and-blood, actually breathing human being no matter what calamity she causes or how bizarre she behaves or reacts. Lawrence is authentic and loveable. She just may find herself winning back-to-back awards, although her nomination for Rosalyn would be in a supporting category.

      Russell has a knack for earning his casts Oscar nominations. Three people from “The Fighter” and four from “Silver Linings Playbook” were so honored. Bale, Melissa Leo, and Lawrence received the award. Amy Adams was nominated for “The Fighter,” just as Cooper was for “Playbook.” Russell seems to have a repertory troupe working with him, and they get rewarded for their efforts.  In a year strong in Best Actors, Bale and Cooper will probably remain on the sidelines, but Adams could sneak in with a Best Actress nod, longshot though that is, and Lawrence is probably a shoo-in.

     Amy Adams has to be among the most versatile of actors. Looking at her work from “Junebug” in 2005 to “Hustle” and “Her” this year, you see someone who can easily go from the sweet and quirky — think “Enchanted” — to the unglamorous and mousy — think “Doubt” — to highly attractive and sophisticated. As Sydney, she exudes “smart.” She is a woman on top of her game, and she plays it with deft aplomb. Conscience is as little a part of her personal life as it is her professional life. Sydney will play the main chance and play it accurately and shrewdly. Most of the time.

      Adams enjoys the cleverness of Sydney and the opportunity to pose as British nobility (although no one with an ear towards authenticity would buy her accent). Like her castmates, she has a good time playing her role, and the fun she’s having translates to the movie.

       Cooper is fine at playing Richie’s vanity. I thought he overdid in “Silver Linings Playbook.” In “Hustle,” his acting is big, but it’s in proportion to Richie’s ego and hope to move out of his mother’s apartment and make a life where he can rate a woman like Sydney, or even Rosalyn, instead of the conventional types his Mom finds for him.

      Richie needs to have nerve, and Cooper conveys that. He also shows his character’s unbridled desire to get ahead and do anything it takes to make sure he does. Although he says he loves the law, his ambition could include being less than scrupulous about following it himself.

      Bale, who has played more than one part that demanded wraith-like thinness, carries Irving’s bloat like it was a costume. It is hard to remember it’s Christian Bale under all of that puffiness.

      The actor is hysterical playing the ambiguous, almost schizoid, facets of Irving. He is a big-time hustler, but he dresses and keeps his office like a small-timer, the better to fleece you with, my dear. He likes the high life, but he prides himself on being a family man who returns to Long Island each evening to be with Rosalyn and their child. While Irving has no compassion for the rinky-tinks whose money he’s glommed crookedly for years, he feels bad about involving the Camden mayor in his sting.

       It is in playing Irving’s yin and yang that Bale shines. He tries to be all things to all people, but he is half-hearted and half-assed so things don’t always work as he expects or prefers.

       Jeremy Renner, with a pompadour high enough to cause an opening of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge, is all congeniality and openness at Mayor Polito. The character is likeable. Even his taste for big, loud parties has charm.

       Renner also brings out Polito’s sincerity. This is a man who doesn’t mean to be dishonest and just as soon would not be. One of “American Hustle’s” virtues is it raises the question whether Abscam, a fake sting was worth doing, to catch people doing something they may not have done if Abscam was never devised…by a hustler who is inventing his way out of having to go to jail.

       I enjoyed Elisabeth Rohm as Dolly Polito, the mayor’s wife and as carefree, proud, and bighearted as he is.

      Robert DeNiro has a cameo as a mob boss and is funny. Louis C.K. has a nice turn as Richie’s sad sack, penny pinching, constantly overruled supervisor.

      “American Hustle” goes about its business with gusto. It raises questions that might not have concrete answers but that are worthy of discussion. Best of all it entertains by celebrating the 1970s and the extreme characters that inhabit the picture.

 

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB — a movie by Jean-Marc Vallee —  “Dallas Buyers Club” celebrates individualism by following an unlikely hero, Ron Woodroof, played gleefully by Matthew McConaughey, as he bucks systems, skirts laws, and puts all of its efforts into staying alive after he’s diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s when AIDS was a death sentence and a miserable one at that. (Today, the average life span for people with AIDS is age 72.)

      Woodroof is neither an intravenous drug user nor a homosexual, but he is free-wheeling about everything, and that includes women. He is an electrician who is the go-to guy to supply power to oil rigs. He also enjoys rodeo and does his share of competitive bull riding (and share of bull).

      Woodroof lives life on his own terms. His trailer and wardrobe primarily of white T-shirts is good enough for him. Women, liquor, an occasional toot of cocaine, and hanging out with guys are enough to compose his world. He doesn’t offer anything. He doesn’t ask for anything. He’s a figure in a rather bleak, simplistic landscape on the outside of Dallas and as content as heck with his lot.

       AIDS changes his outlook, and not only because Ron, given the times, is facing certain death. He finds out about his disease after a jolt of electricity sends him to the hospital where blood is taken, and he receives an examination. Ron is combative when he first hears the news from a rather smug doctor, played  by Denis O’Hare. He wants to punch the doctor for implying he might be gay. He is confident the diagnosis is a mistake and leaves the hospital of his own accord, miffed and rebellious.

      Time confirms the diagnosis. Woodroof becomes weaker. Like Shaw’s Alfred P. Dolittle, he is one of the undeserving poor. He is ineligible or too late for clinical trials testing pharmaceuticals extending the life of people with AIDS. His insurance does not cover all he needs to be treated. Woodroof’s world is a wall of “no.” He hears about waiting lists and placebos and administrative boondoggles that are keeping him from effectively fighting his disease. Death is bound to come sooner than expected. O’Hare’s doctor estimates Woodroof’s remaining time to be 30 days.

       This is where the average person fades from the scene, and the movie hero begins. Woodroof’s life may not attract many, but it suits him. He likes his trailer. He enjoys being with women. (You should see his enthusiasm and alacrity when, while visiting a clinic, he meets a woman who also has AIDS.) His pleasures are simple, but they fulfill his requirements. Woodroof wants to live.

       And so he sets about it. First, he reads. Then he goes to the hospital and challenges authority, and when that doesn’t work, takes further steps. He demands and eventually bribes to receive what he needs.

        Self-medicating improves Woodroof to some extent, but he is not careful about dosage and may be harming himself in the name of taking matters into his own hands. In the process, he makes an ally of a doctor played with wit and perspective by Jennifer Garner.

       Bribery and pilfering pharmaceutical samples he’s been denied are Woodroof’s first floutings of the law. He is emerging as a character with a survival instinct, and Vallee’s audience wants Ron to succeed. The law is the transgressor here, not a man who is trying to extend his life with the resources available to him. Especially since so many legitimate resources are denied him. Woodroof becomes the most laudable kind of hero, a rebel with a cause. His quest to live takes him to Mexico, where he consults a doctor who had his license stripped in the U.S. and relocated to establish an ad hoc clinic where Woodroof hears he is helping people with AIDS. Griffin Dunne does a fine job as the smart, beleaguered, but no-nonsense doctor who, like Woodroof, will carry on doing what he thinks right no matter the opinion of U.S. authorities. (Those authorities do not come out too rosy in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and audiences should be glad they don’t.)

       Woodroof extends his heroism by becoming both canny and generous. He buys a large supply of the vitamins Dunne’s doctor distributes. He remains on the windy side of the law. The pills he imports are not approved by the FDA, but they are not illegal.

      Again, like Mr. Dolittle, Woodroof sees a profit in selling what is helping  him. His aim is not altruistic, but by offering Dunne’s concoctions, a cocktail of sorts before therapeutic cocktails are in vogue, to other with AIDS he both shares the medical wealth while becoming financially wealthy. Business booms. People do not buy drugs. They buy memberships in the Dallas Buyers Club, an idea Woodruff gets from doing research and that is endorsed by the attorney he keeps on retainer. Woodroof asks no questions. If a person can buy a membership, they’re in. If they can’t, they cope with AIDS on their own or as the government prescribes. The terms are clear-cut, as is the dog-eat-dog nature of AIDS treatment in the first years after the disease was defined.

      Vallee and McConaughey each in his own way provides a good time as you watch “The Dallas Buyers Club.” The director wholeheartedly embraces the idea of an individual taking dire matters into his own desperate but competent hands. The scenes he plots with writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallach show the cleverness of Woodroof’s thought processes and determination to do things on his terms rather than relying on a system that says outright it is going to fail him by rejecting him and categorizing him as doomed. “Dallas Buyers Club” maintains an upbeat and optimistic spirit. Woodroof is unafraid and unstoppable. He will dress as a priest to get drugs into the U.S. He will run his business on clear terms — Pay, you receive; don’t pay, nada.” And he will recognize who can help, whether it be Garner, who admires a patient who relies on himself, or the drag prostitute/druggie who helps him find customers and manage his drug emporium (excuse me, buyers club), the hapless Rayon, played with depth, variety, and panache by Jared Leto, who like Johnny Depp, never  misses the chance to play an eccentric character.

      “Dallas Buyers Club” criticizes a system that denies people the resources to continue life while exuberantly showing a man who doesn’t accept the status quo.

       Matthew McConaughey gives his finest etched performance to date as Woodroof. It will probably earn him his first Oscar nomination.

       McConaughey has always been charismatic, and his looks take him far. In “Dallas Buyers Club,” those looks are diminished by the emaciation of the ill. McConaughey’s thin face is hollow, this eyes look sick and about to burst from their sockets. Best of all, the actor finds an emotional core for Woodroof. You see the “good ol’ guy, the cowboy who has a steady job in the oilfields but prefers his booze and his broads without much regard to cosmetics or sanitation.

      You also see someone of keen insight and ferocious determination. McConaughey’s Woodroof is going to outsmart the FDA. He is going to use laws that exist to counteract laws that impede, and he is going to become wealthy so he can afford to keep obtaining what he needs to survive and never let cash be an obstacle.

      All the moods Woodroof can muster show up in McConaughey’s face and posture. Swagger, canniness, and fear exist side by side and in turn. Decades into his career, McConaughey has a breakthrough performance that takes him to a new level of acting. That is artistry entertains is a great bonus. Ron Woodroof, and the way McConaughey plays him, is a person to admire, warts and all. (And those warts come in dozens.)

       Jared Leto’s character and performance are on a separate plane. Streetwise and tough, Leto’s Rayon also has a fragile side. She likes softness next to her skin. She enjoys sensuality with a measure of roughness. She is a different kind of survivor from Woodroof, but a survivor nonetheless, someone who can navigate tawdry street life and win out over pimps and rivals but whose self-destructive habits, drugs and needles, mean she cannot fight AIDS with the arsenal Woodroof provides for himself.

       Leto is ephemeral and solid at once. You see his knowledge, and you see his weakness. Rayon, if she pays attention, can beat anyone at any game. Drugs and disease detour that attention, and you see a downward spiral different from the one Ron constantly fights.

      Even with her faults, perhaps because of them, Leto makes you sympathetic to Rayon. He, like McConaughey, is destined for an Oscar nomination. I predict he will receive the award. He plays Rayon with so much grace and so little discipline. Rayon goes knowingly into his good night. It is painful for the audience to witness. Given that Rayon is responsible for his destruction, it is a tribute to Leto that he makes the character so poignant.

       Jennifer Garner is sturdy in her part as the doctor who is willing to risk to abet Woodroof in his pursuit of time against the onslaught of AIDS. Garner always conveys a naturalness and intelligence that works for her. She is a welcome presence whenever he appears in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

       The unsung performance in Vallee’s  movie might be Michael O’Neill’s as the FDA agent who must combat Woodroof’s activities while getting a kind of kick out of them. Duty and statutory enforcement must prevail in the long run to O’Neill’s character, and the actor is clever in the way he balances the rigid cop with the man who sees what’s going on and, on some level, approves.

 

 

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE — a movie by Francis Lawrence — Among the current crop of fantasy writers, I have a special regard for Suzanne Collins because as she imagines her dystopian world and the characters of no privilege who have to survive in it, she opts to keep the occupants totally human. Though they have Tolkienesque names such as Katniss, Peeta, Primrose, Finnick, and Haymitch, the people who inhabit the poor districts of Collins’s Panem have no superpowers, are not vampires, and have few outlandish gizmos or whirligigs to make them invulnerable.

       Denizens of Panem are all too expendable. In a paradigm that’s popular with fantasists, the majority of Panem’s population must work and live in squalor while a select few enjoy opulence, culture, wealth, and cleanliness in a region removed from the masses.

       Collins seems to have looked to ancient Rome, the imperial era that brought enlightened leaders like Caligula and Nero to power, as model for her futuristic Panem. Entertainment for the elite takes on a bread and circus cast. Two representatives called Tributes are chosen from each of 12 districts and charged with fighting each other to the death until one outlasts the pack and is declared the winner of that year’s ritual, The Hunger Games.

      To Collins’s credit, the competitors have to depend on their talent and cunning to retain their lives. Each Tribute usually has a skill that gives him or an edge. Each also gets to choose and design a weapon that suits his or her style of offense or defense. Katniss, the heroine of Collins’s “Hunger Games” series, is a formidable archer, and a bow and arrow are her arsenal. Others are savants in science or technology and use mental skills in their attempt to gain advantage. Most, like Katniss, depend on some sort of physical superiority or warlike talent to thrive. Each has to be careful about whether to trust others, and each must also rely on some semblance of native wit.

      In the first installment of “The Hunger Games,” in print and on film, Katniss has triumphed over 22 of the Tributes in her year’s contest. She could have killed the 23rd but decided to spare him because he, Peeta,  also represents her district.  She also claims to love Peeta, a fiction designed to sway powers to accept her threat to sacrifice herself if that is the only way Peeta can stay alive. Reluctantly, the master of games and Panem’s president agree to declare co-winners who will, in time, have to go on a Victory Tour, not only as mutual champions but as a couple tasked with inspiring the drudges of various districts via their romance.

      In “Catching Fire,” the second and current part of the story on movie screens, the President, a charming but unmitigated villain in the time-honored  style of Collins’s breed of literature, warns Katniss that he will be watching her and Peeta to see signs of this love and impending marriage. Of course, the audience, chocked with “Hunger Games” experts and aficionados, knows Katniss truly loves another from her district, Gale, and is saving herself for him. This means she will have to act as if she has affection for Peeta and hopes he will understand she continues to play a kind of game.

      The President is aware of this, so he invokes a clause in Panem’s bylaws that allows him to convene a special playing of the Hunger Games that will involve champions from 25 previous years. In essence, that mean 23 who survived their first ordeal must try their luck and skill again. Katniss and Peeta once more represent their district.

      “Hunger Games” lore is satisfactory to Collins’s many fans. The author’s most avid readers eagerly await each new episode.

       Francis Lawrence keys his movie to the “Hunger Games” legions. They understand the various details of the story without the movie having to explain or illuminate them.

      Neophytes can be left in a quandary because nuances, so familiar to the Collins crowd, are not made clear. Lawrence’s movie is a not neat one and not user-friendly for the uninitiated. Catching up without a scorecard is difficult. I was lucky to have one niece with me at the theater to answer questions following the movie and another niece ready to meet us at a restaurant where both nieces gave me a full tutorial.

      Lawrence does not only depend on “The Hunger Games” reader to know each plot twist. He relies on them to accept a shorthand in acting and storytelling that serves his and the fan’s purpose but doesn’t add up to good moviemaking.

      “Catching Fire” is weak in terms of clarity, depth, or attention to detail. It is strong on visualizing the adventure, the Victory Tour on which Katniss and Peeta embark and the jerry-rigged Hunger Games the President decrees, Collins readers can only imagine in the books. This puts “Catching Fire” in the category of an action picture. Lawrence does best when he can concentrate on Katniss and the other 23 competitors training and fighting for survival.

      Actors do not expend a great deal of effort in trying to give their characters dimension. The exception to this is Jennifer Lawrence, who is so instinctively authentic, even when playing a larger-than-life fantasy character, she almost can’t help endowing Katniss with some texture, some idea of purpose besides being a public relations idol or sacrificial lamb.

      “Catching Fire” is star-studded, but few of the other major players do more than  a basic delivery of their lines. Seasoned pros like Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer barely break a sweat as they earn their paychecks. None of them stints the audience, but none of them, including the usually inventive Hoffman, takes his or her character beyond what they are on the page. (Hoffman may be more integral and more typically spellbinding in the next “Hunger Games” installment, which involves a rebellion for liberation.)

       Because he plays the flamboyant emcee, Stanley Tucci gets to show some personality and wit as Caesar Flickerman. With her costumes and wigs as ballast, Elizabeth Banks also makes an interesting showing as the cheerleader of Katniss and Peeta’s district, Effie Trinket.

       The male leads are pretty much ciphers all around. No one will have trouble seeing why Katniss cannot raise much steam for Peeta because Josh Hutcherson, though good looking, has no sex appeal. Liam Hemsworth, as Gale, and Sam Claflin as Finnick, have more going for them, and Claflin, to his credit, attempts a performance.

        The actors in addition to Jennifer Lawrence who manage to go beyond the elementary and give their characters some individual traits are Woody Harrelson, who seems to enjoy the grittiness and been-there-done-that nature of Haymitch, a former Hunger Games winner who coaches Katniss and Peeta, and Lenny Kravitz, who takes the time to make you care for his character, the doomed philosopher, Cinna.

        Collins knows her business in all aspects of creating the setting and mood for “The Hunger Games.” As with the “tomorrow we die” nature of the Hunger Games contest, she borrows a lot from movies that are set in ancient Rome.

        I have wondered my whole life why movies sent in a post-Apocalypse future have to be so dusty. The villages that represent the various districts are ramshackle and feature hovels and muddy lanes. The costumes are rudimentary and border on rags, but rags that cost a fortune at Urban Outfitters or some other purveyor of horrible taste at luxurious prices. If this is the future, remind me to put some clothes from today aside so I don’t have to look like a Gap waif in my dotage. Make sure I pack some cleanser and Clorox wipes as well.

      Every place the poor, everyday live is squalid, and all of their homes look as if paint was not yet invented. All of the haunts of the Panem rich look like places rejected by Las Vegas for being too garish. The clothes for the rich are a different story. I’m sure costumer Trish Summerville had a ball designing them. She did so with such abandon and wit, especially in her outfits for Effie.

      Also, as in most fantasies, Collins offers a strong suggestion of the oppressed being fed up and planning to rebel. My niece was complete about telling me the signs and symbols of Panem’s revolutionary front so I would recognize and appreciate them.

      In the long run, I had a good time dissecting the way Collins put her story and overall saga together. I enjoyed watching Jennifer Lawrence, a true artist who cannot hold back even when a role offers few challenges or demands. I thought the scenes of the Games were exciting, and I had fun seeing the bombast with which Tucci plays Caesar Flickerman, a character that reminds me of too many actual game show hosts and emcees.

      The plot of “Catching Fire” remained ponderous to this newcomer to the Collins canon. I would have liked to see more detail in the writing and more authenticity and character development in the acting.

      Yes, I will see Part Three. I will make a date with my niece the minute opening day is announced.

 

 

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