December 11th, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

We found "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" to be an interesting and exciting installment in the series. The second plot picks up shortly after Katniss and Peeta's winning the annual games, just before they are to set out on the mandatory "victory tour." Katniss is not dealing well with her post-traumatic stress or with trying to balance her public romance with Peeta with her genuine feelings for Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The pressure on her increases when she gets a personal visit from the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who demands that she convince the populace that her winning stratagem was in fact done out of love for Peeta and not to outwit the system, since she has unwittingly become a rallying point for dissatisfaction and potential new revolution. So, the emotional stakes are ramped up even before the devastating announcement that she must endure the murderous games again.

Jennifer Lawrence, reprising her role as Katniss Everdeen, does a fine job expressing the horror of living under a government that has given up pretending it is not an oppressor, while maintaining the Kafkaesque pretension that it plays fairly with its victims. Ms. Lawrence portray Katniss' anger, despair, and determination, while keeping her character believably youthful and vulnerable.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mullark gives another stalwart and sensitive performance, and we get to see some depths from both Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. Although the competing Tributes are mainly one-dimensional, seeing them makes them more real, although most of them get less action and dialog than in the novel. (Georgie was displeased with the role of Mags, the old woman Tribute, which adds to the stereotype that the old are only burdens until it is time to sacrifice themselves. It's been a while since I read the book, but I was pretty sure she had more to do in print--.)

Effects and production values are maintained, with some amazing costume and makeup designs, making for a satisfying visual experience.

That being said, I'm not thrilled about the prospect of the final book becoming two movies. Although there are two distinct parts to it, I don't really think that there was enough plot in Mockingjay to sustain two movies. But, I'll reserve judgment on the films until we have a better idea how they are done.

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The Book Thief

Commencing in 1938, "The Book Thief", based on the novel by Markus Zusak, follows the life of a young German girl, Liesl (Sophie Nélisse), though the early years of World War II. It is a sad, affecting, moving story. Her mother, a Communist, is fleeing the Nazis and surrenders Liesl to foster care. The plan was for her to be with her younger brother, but he dies on the way to their new home, so she is left to the care of strangers, alone.

Her new parents are Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), a sign painter and veteran of World War I, and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson), an angry and disappointed woman. Hans' warmth and gentleness make it possible for him to ride over Rosa's abrasiveness to help make a home for Liesl.

Initially illiterate (presumably due to having lived life underground with her fugitive mother--), Liesl treats books with an almost mystical reverence, that doesn't entirely go away once Hans has helped her learn to read. (That she's lived rough is also implied when, having been teased as a "dummkopf", she takes down the school bully with a solid punch to the head, and follows up with a ferocious attack-no "girly" slaps or hair-pulling for her!)

School life continues with the variations attendant on being in Hitler's Germany: general enrollment in the Hitler Youth (Ms. Nélisse, in an interview, said that wearing the uniform was creepy--), and attending the community book-burning session. This is where she 'steals' one book, a singed copy of "The Invisible Man" rescued from the pyre. (The book would have been condemned because H.G. Wells was well-known as a Socialist at the time--.) This doesn't mean that she has any reverence for Der Fuhrer: she jokes with a friend, imagining conversations between Hitler and his mother; "Who cut your hair?" "What's that on your lip?"

Although the story has elements common to a number of World War II narratives-Hans, Rosa and Liesl hide Max, the son of a Jew who saved Hans' life in the first war-its real strengths lie in showing how the lives of the common people were both similar to, and different from, other nations. The people still feel the losses of the last war, the wounds and the missing sons. In the new war, food and fuel become short; sons, and sometimes fathers, go away; there are air raids. But also, the local Gestapo man is not a cold-eyed stranger, but someone you've known for years, and is dangerous because he's too honestly friendly and knows you too well--.

Given the setting, it's not surprising that it's a sad story, but how completely, and how suddenly, is still shocking. Nevertheless, it's all very, very well done, and well worth experiencing.

Fine, fine performances by Sophie Nélisse, who goes from about age eleven to sixteen by the time the war ends; by Rush, who is charming as only he can be, with none of the smarm found in his "con-man" roles; Ms. Watson, as the woman whose stony façade cracks convincingly; and Nico Liersch, the German "everyboy" who befriends Liesl.

The film looks perfect, with "Heaven Street", where most of the action takes place, looking convincingly like an old, rather run-down European street, neither modern nor picturesquely Medieval. Costuming had some interesting details, such as the boys evidently wearing tights under their short pants when playing soccer in the early winter, and the elegant house coats worn by the Burgomaster's wife when at home.

Highly recommended.

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