Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Die Hard (1988)

If you've read any of the reviews I've posted on Christmas over the last few years, you've probably noticed that my taste in Christmas movies leans more towards the wacky and weird than to the traditional. Why would I watch It's a Wonderful Life when Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night are right there? But of all the off-kilter holiday-themed movies I've seen over the years, not one of them can come close to topping the pure unbridled awesomeness that is Die Hard. I know Die Hard probably isn't the first or even second movie that comes to mind when you think of Christmas movies. (That is, unless you're a total kook like me.) But if you've seen it, you'll know that Christmas is at least involved in the movie's premise, so I'm counting it.

Meet Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), an off-duty New York City cop who's arrived in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. Hoping to spend the holiday with his kids and try smoothing out the problems that have hurt his marriage with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), all John wants is a nice, quiet Christmas with his family. But things never work out like we expect them to, do they?

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, John heads for Nakatomi Plaza, the massive office building where Holly works, to surprise her. His arrival is not the only surprise of the evening, as a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) barge into the building's Christmas party and take everyone hostage. While Gruber's plan is to steal the 640 million dollars worth of bearer bonds in the building's vault, John ― who managed to elude Gruber's henchmen during their initial sweep of the building ― intends to throw a wrench into the mix and protect Holly and the other hostages.

Die Hard is one of those rare movies that has managed to withstand the test of time. Twenty-five years since it was unleashed upon the world, it has steadily built a reputation as one of the greatest action movies ever made. As big as Schwarzenegger and Stallone's action movies were during their heyday, I dare say that only Terminator 2 and First Blood even come close to matching how freaking good Die Hard is. It is a movie that absolutely must be seen if you even remotely consider yourself a fan of the genre.

The movie was directed by John McTiernan, who had previously made a name for himself with Predator a year earlier. Much like Predator, his work with Die Hard is fabulous. Each scene is filled with a tension and excitement that many of the movie's subsequent knockoffs and wannabes (and to a certain extent, its sequels too) never came close to duplicating. McTiernan keeps the movie rolling at a hundred miles an hour even during its slower, more understated moments, and even at 132 minutes in length, the movie never once lags or wears out its welcome. McTiernan knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the audience's attention and make sure they're having a blast watching the movie. He keeps the pace fast and the entertainment value high, with every gunshot, broken window, chase sequence, and explosion orchestrated to be as energetic and thrilling as possible. McTiernan went above and beyond the call of duty and crafted an action movie that's not just a great genre flick, but a great movie in general to boot.

It also helps he's working from a surprisingly strong script penned by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. I haven't read the source material ― Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever ― so I honestly can't compare just how good an adaptation it is. But twenty-five years after its release, I wouldn't doubt that Die Hard has completely overshadowed Nothing Lasts Forever by a considerable margin. At this point, most people probably wouldn't even know it was based on a book at all if it weren't for Thorp's name appearing in the credits. But we're here to talk about a movie and not a book, and Stuart and de Souza's script for this movie is something else. The whole terrorist plot is stock action movie fodder, but where Stuart and de Souza's writing succeeds is with its witty dialogue and intelligent characters. The banter between John and the other characters is fantastically written, each line having a sense of urgency that makes even the tiniest thing feel important. And you can't have an '80s action movie without a fair share of one-liners, and all of Die Hard's are pretty great.

The characters are fantastic too, but they're made better by the excellent group of actors assembled in front of the camera. Amongst the minor supporting cast, Reginald VelJohnson (who plays an LAPD cop on the outside John manages to contact) and Bonnie Bedelia are likable in their roles, while William Atherton is fun as a slimeball tabloid TV reporter who continually irritates the police who've congregated outside Nakatomi Plaza and Paul Gleason also does a fine job as the LAPD's deputy chief and head of the negotiations with Gruber's gang. But the stars of the movie are where the best acting comes.

As the villainous Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman is absolutely wonderful. He practically steals the entire movie with by playing Gruber as suave, sophisticated, yet utterly vile. Rickman redefined the action movie villain with this performance, as his Gruber is an intelligent and well-composed gentleman that still has no qualms with putting a bullet between someone's eyes if they don't cooperate to his liking.

Our hero, meanwhile, is nothing short of stellar as well. Prior to Die Hard's release in 1988, Bruce Willis was known mostly as a comedic TV actor thanks to his starring role on Moonlighting. This movie helped change the public's perception of Willis from TV joker to action hero and bona fide movie star. John McClane is unique among action heroes in that he's not some brawny superhuman or a military-trained killing machine, but just a regular NYPD cop stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. Willis approaches it appropriately, playing John as a normal guy with a normal life that's ended up out of his element. He gets bruised and bloodied, beats himself up because he failed to stop Gruber from killing a hostage, tries desperately to save the life of a hostage that he didn't even like just because it was the right thing to do. He knows he's in way over his head and that any wrong move could possibly get him and the hostages killed, and Willis plays it with absolute perfection. He's charismatic and very believable, and I honestly don't know if any of the other actors who I've heard were up for the role could have pulled it off quite as well.

People have been singing Die Hard's praises for twenty-five years, and this review is just one more for that massive pile of positive ones. The movie not only blows a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone's output from the '80s out of the water, but it still hols up to this day as one of the best American action movies ever made. Anyone who even remotely considers themselves a fan of the genre and has yet to see Die Hard is doing themselves a great disservice. And while it might not be the most traditional Christmas movie, I'd much rather spend the yuletide season with John McClane than George Bailey and Clarence the angel. Yippee-ki-yay, indeed.

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

After the success of the original Friday the 13th in 1980, anybody with access to the right equipment started cranking out their own slasher movies. And Paramount Pictures, seeing dollar signs, started ordering one Friday the 13th sequel after another. But by the middle part of the decade, Paramount began having second thoughts. Slasher movies were nearly always met with nearly universal scorn and derision from critics, and though they were largely profitable from a financial standpoint, Paramount wanted to be known for their serious Oscar contenders rather than some lowly slasher flicks. That's why, in 1984, the studio chose to end the Friday the 13th franchise with its fourth entry. The series would end up continuing long past this one, but this so-called "final chapter" was indeed intended to bring the franchise to an end. And if it had indeed concluded, the saga of Jason Voorhees would have ended with a bang.

After the bloody ending of Part III, Jason Voorhees (Ted White) was apparently dead via an axe to the noggin. But you just can't keep a good horror villain down. He awakens in the county morgue, killing a morgue attendant and a nurse before making his way back to Crystal Lake.

And I'm sure Jason will be happy to find that he'll have a whole new crop of victims waiting for him. A group of horny teenagers have rented a lakefront cottage, expecting a few days of fun and debauchery. Their cottage just happens to be next door to the home of the Jarvis family. Twelve-year-old Tommy (Corey Feldman) kinda likes the idea of cute, nubile young women hanging out next door, but his sister Trish (Kimberly Beck) is more drawn to Rob (E. Erich Anderson), a mysterious hiker who claims to be in the woods hunting bears. It's soon revealed, however, that he's really there hunting Jason, who killed his sister in one of the previous movies. He'd better make damn sure he knows what he's in for, because this is Jason's "final chapter," and he's going out in a blaze of glory. (Until the next sequel, that is.)

It took half a decade and a couple of sequels to do it, but Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter represents what I feel is the first truly awesome Friday the 13th movie. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the first three, but The Final Chapter is where the franchise really hit its stride. It's funny that a movie that was supposed to be the last in its franchise ends up being the one that fully perfects the formula for future sequels. But that's exactly what The Final Chapter is. It's regarded by many fans as one of the best (if not the best) in the series, a status that is not undeserved.

The movie was directed by Joseph Zito, who was hired based on the strength of his prior directorial effort, the 1981 slasher flick The Prowler. The Friday the 13th movies ― and slasher movies in general ― have almost always based around the various set pieces that build to each kill. Much of the suspense and the scares often come from the anticipation of when, where, and how the killer might strike. Zito approaches The Final Chapter with his experience from The Prowler and uses that to craft these set pieces well. He builds upon what the first three movies did and creates an atmosphere that makes one feel that Jason could be anywhere at any time, ready to pounce upon an unsuspecting victim. He works in the occasional cheap "boo!" scare, but allowes some scenes to creep up on the viewer. Slasher movies are an odd beast in the realm of horror, but Zito has made one of the best ones.

The movie also benefits from some fantastic gore effects courtesy of Tom Savini, who had earlier worked with Zito on The Prowler. Savini returns to the franchise after his work on the first movie and sends Jason out in a bloody blaze of glory by giving us some of the best cinematic gore on his résumé. The way Jason is defeated alone is worthy the price of admission, but the way his victims are dispatched are all really cool. Granted, I'm sure a lot of the best stuff had to be trimmed or edited out to make sure the movie got an R-rating, but Savini's work here is just more proof why the best slasher movies of the early '80s hired him.

And like with most slasher movies, the script is mostly unimportant. It's just there so the characters have something to do between death scenes. But honestly, the movie's script, credited to Barney Cohen from a story by Bruce Hidemi Sakow, isn't really all that bad. Parts of it seems like it owes a debt to the glut of sex comedies that came out during the early '80s, as far as the tone of the early parts of the movie go. Some of the characters seemed like they escaped from a cheesy knockoff of Porky's. But it actually feels like a natural part of the movie, and the characters are likable and fun.

I actually really liked the subplot with the Rob character too. The idea of a guy roaming around the woods tracking Jason like he were big game is a pretty cool idea (one that the franchise would revisit nearly a decade later with Jason Goes to Hell), and tying it into the other movies by making Rob the brother of a victim from Part 2 is a good touch. The catch is, though, that it feels like he's been hunting Jason for months when the timeline of the sequels are spread out over just a few days. The continuity is a little screwy, but I still thought the concept was a neat enough idea that I'm surprised they waited until the ninth movie to try it again.

Even the cast is pretty good here. None of them were hired to give Oscar-caliber performances considering that nearly everyone is cannon fodder, but the majority of them weren't bad at all. I thought Crispin Glover (yes, George McFly himself) and Lawrence Monoson were funny in their parts as the two dorky goofballs amongst the teens at the cabin, while Judie Aronson and Barbara Howard have a few cute moments as well. Kimberly Beck, while not one of the best or more memorable Friday the 13th heroines, does prove to be a capable "Final Girl" and holds her own when necessary. E. Erich Anderson also does a great job as the mysterious Jason hunter, giving the character a sense of intrigue and a somewhat sympathetic nature as well. His final scene, though, is so goofy that I can't so much as think about it without wanting to laugh.

But the real stars among the cast are Corey Feldman and Ted White. Only twelve years old when the movie was released, Feldman had yet to be propelled into stardom by The Goonies. He shows a lot of the charm and charisma he would bring to future roles, though, and does a lot to make himself stand out from the pack. It's one of those cases where you watch an actor's pre-fame work and say to yourself, "Yeah, he'll be a star one day." White, meanwhile, makes for a damn fine Jason. He approaches the role in a way that makes Jason seem sleeker and meaner, casting an intimidating presence that makes Jason feel more unstoppable than before. The movie's got a lot going for it, but White's portrayal is the icing on the cake.

Thirsty years and eight more sequels later, it's obvious that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter wasn't the final chapter after all. If it had been the franchise's actual swan song, it would have ended on a high note. With some inventive kills, decent acting, and some good scares, The Final Chapter is not just one of the best in the series, but one of the best the slasher sub-genre of horror has to offer. It's definitely worth the time and effort to check out. But now that the final chapter is out of the way, there's only one place to go from here: a new beginning.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn ― Part 2 (2012)

The saying goes that all good things must come to an end. But what they don't say is that bad things end as well. Case in point: the series of movies based on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels. I'd never heard of the Twilight books prior to the first movie's release in 2008, but the media blitz surrounding the movies, along with the offensively bad quality of these cinematic adaptations, have made me vow to never read the books. All of the Twilight movies have been piss-poor, but after this review, I'll never have to watch or even think about them ever again. So let's jump into The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn ― Part 2 and get this mess over with as soon as possible.

Our movie begins where the previous one ended, with Bella Cullen (Kristen Stewart) awaking as a newborn vampire, having been turned by her new husband Edward (Robert Pattinson) in a desperate attempt to save her from death during childbirth. She quickly masters many of the new gifts and abilities that come with being a vampire, her only struggle coming in controlling the bloodlust that is natural to those of the undead persuasion. And she's far from thrilled when she learns that Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) has "imprinted" upon her days-old daughter, an involuntary reflex in which werewolves find their soulmate.

But as time passes, Bella comes to accept and overcome these problems, while her and Edward's daughter Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy) quickly matures thanks to her hybrid human/vampire heritage. Things will get a wee bit rougher for the happy Cullen family, though, as word of Renesmee's birth reaches Aro (Michael Sheen), the leader of the Volturi. Erroneously led to believe that Renesmee is an immortal child, something prohibited in vampire culture, the Volturi venture to Forks to eliminate the Cullens. Fearing a war and desperate to prove Renesmee is not who they think she is, the Cullens band together with a number of other vampire covens and the members of Jacob's werewolf clan to combat the Volturi.

It's like the brain trust behind this insipid franchise only wanted to prolong the torture of non-fans. Because instead of adapting Stephenie Meyer's final Twilight novel into one movie and getting it over and done with, they split it in half and made two. I guess they figured that if Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can be made into two separate movies that each made a billion dollars worldwide, Breaking Dawn could try doing the same thing. I'm actually surprised they didn't take the full leap and convert the second Breaking Dawn into 3D to shake a little more money out of the audience. And it wouldn't have been so bad if either of the Breaking Dawn movies had been good. This one is a definite step-up from Part 1, but it's just so unbelievably dull that even the moments that aren't totally bad will have you wishing they'd hurry up and get along with it.

Director Bill Condon returns to for the second half of Breaking Dawn, and once again, he's making a respectable effort. He's made what is arguably the least worst out of the Twilight saga with this one, with some of the sequences actually being pretty decent. The climactic fight scene is really good too, but I'll get more into that later. Condon still still falls into some of the same traps that the rest of the movies have fallen into, however. There are quite a few sections that are boring and overlong, others are so hackneyed that one can't believe that someone would allow them to be in the finished product.

But then there's only so much Condon could do with the mediocre script and actors, and the CGI is so atrociously bad that I'm flabbergasted that anybody would allow the movie to be released with it looking the way it does. The CGI baby is especially awful, looking creepy rather than cute. I've seen behind-the-scenes pictures from the movie where baby Renesmee was represented by an ugly animatronic puppet, so the awful CGI is, in retrospect, the lesser of two evils. But the CGI baby is still really off-putting, with my first thought upon seeing it honestly being, "Oh my God, what the hell is this thing?" The one saving grace is that it didn't stick around for long.

The movie has some good elements, sure, but it's weighed down by so many of the bad ones. I find it amazing that Condon can come so close to directing what could have been the lone good entry in the Twilight saga, only to stumble over the same problems that befell three directors before him. It's like the franchise himself was daring Condon to try and make a good movie before pulling the rug out from under him as if it were Lucy Van Pelt holding a football for Charlie Brown.

But again, you can't polish a turd, and with Melissa Rosenberg once again writing the movie, that turd is pretty substantial. Thanks to Breaking Dawn being split into two movies, the material here is thinner than usual. It honestly feels like half a movie stretched out over two hours, with quite a bit of it (particularly the scenes where the Cullens start recruiting other vampires to help them fight) coming off like so much padding.

And then there's only one scene where they ever address just how weird the whole "Jacob imprinting on Renesmee" thing is. It feels rather pedophilic, and I'm not surprised that Bella would be righteously pissed off when she finds out about it. The problem is, though, that any drama that could come from it is diffused when the whole thing is dropped like a hot potato almost as soon as it happens. Jacob is pretty much treated like Renesmee's bodyguard after that and that's it. Rosenberg never delves into it or goes anywhere with it, and all it does is allow Rosenberg to resolve the Edward/Bella/Jacob love triangle in the quickest "let's sweep this under the rug" way possible.

And then there's the climax. That awful, awful climax. (Be warned, here be SPOILERS.) The movie ends with a truly awesome 10-minute brawl pitting the Cullens and Jacob's werewolves against the Volturi, and it's a sight to behold. It's the best thing to happen in all five movies, a climax that made slogging through all these movies absolutely worth it. I'm not joking, I actually did really like this sequence. But then comes the revelation that the whole thing was just a vision implanted in Aro's head. You know how mentioned Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football earlier? That applies to the climax too. It's frustrating to see that Rosenberg wrote a movie that spends two hours establishing that the Cullens were building a gang of vampires with superpowers to fight the Volturi like they were the X-Men, only to find out that the big epic fight scene technically never happened and that the whole movie was for nothing. It's just one great big cheat that slaps everyone that watches this movie in the face. But then I've come to expect disappointment from Rosenberg, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

I'm also not surprised by how weak the cast is. For starters, Robert Pattinson seems like he's just there because of a contractual obligation. You really get the feeling that he doesn't care at all, but is happy that this is the last time he'll have to play Edward Cullen just he can get on with his life. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, once again proves just how terrible an actress she is. Even when she's showing emotion, it feels like it's beyond her meager abilities. But then, considering how awful a character Bella is, I guess it makes sense that they'd keep an awful actress around to play her for five movies.

It's not all bad, though. Billy Burke and Michael Sheen are great, and many members of the supporting cast are decent despite not being very memorable. And while Taylor Lautner still isn't the most talented actor in the world, he's still the finest of the three leads. The guy does a decent enough job as Jacob, and he's likable despite how weird the whole "Jacob imprinting on Renesmee" thing is. Lautner's not awful, and has just enough charisma and charm to stand out from Pattinson and Stewart here. And with a little luck, he could end up becoming much better down the road. I hope that happens for his sake, because I don't think he wants any more repeats of his poorly-received 2011 flick Abduction in his future.

With this review coming to a close, I can now finally wash my hands of the Twilight saga. And it end not with a bang, but with a limp across the finish line. I've spent the last five years dreading the release of each chapter in this franchise, knowing that my masochism would kick in and I'd have to sit through them. Sure, I afforded myself the luxury of watching them on cable or downloading bootlegs off the Internet so I wouldn't have to spend any actual money on them. I just can't shake the feeling, however, that I was cheated out of something. Precious brain cells, maybe. My free time, certainly. But now that it's all over and done with, I can go back to pretending these movies never existed and I can return to watching bad movies that are actually fun, like The Room or Troll 2. Goodbye, Twilight, and good riddance.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

When The Hunger Games hit theaters last year, I'll admit that I wasn't expecting much out of it. I thought it would be just another movie in the vein of the Twilight franchise, a lame piece of crap made solely for the tweens who'd read and adored the books that inspired it. The fact that one of the constant criticisms was a negative comparison to Battle Royale, a movie that I absolutely love, didn't help my initial perceptions either. But then I actually saw The Hunger Games, and was blown away by just how good it was. I left the theater excited to see the sequels, and hoping they would come sooner rather than later. So the second chapter in the franchise was released, I was the odd man out, the adult man surrounded by an army of teenage girls that had been camping out at the theater all day in anticipating of the movie's first showing. But it was totally worth it, because The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a legitimately fantastic movie.

For the first time in its history, two people have emerged victorious from the Hunger Games. But for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), winning the Games is only the beginning. As they prepare for their upcoming "Victors' Tour" of Panem's twelve districts, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) confronts Katniss in secret. He explains that while many viewed Katniss and Peeta's attempted suicide pact at the end of the Games have made fools of the Capitol and sown the seeds of rebellion amongst the districts. And unless she and Peeta want their loved ones to be killed, they'll have to use the Victors' Tour convince the nation and Snow himself that the whole suicide idea was not an act of defiance against the Capitol, but of two young people madly in love with one another.

It doesn't exactly work that way, though, as uprisings continue to gain steam despite Katniss and Peeta's attempts to publicly play a happy, loving couple. Realizing that Katniss is developing a reputation a symbol of the rebellion, Snow decides that she has to be eliminated. Most attempts would just turn Katniss into a martyr and make her a greater symbol than she already is, but an opportunity presents itself in the form of the third Quarter Quell, a special version of the Hunger Games that occurs every twenty-five years and boasts a major twist to shake things up.

With the Quarter Quell approaching, President Snow announces that this year's twist will be that its Tributes will be selected from all living Hunger Games winners. And since Katniss is District 12's only female victor, she realizes that Snow has essentially written her death sentence. As this new game begins, she and Peeta quickly align themselves with the handful of fellow Tributes they feel that can actually trust. Survival is not their only plan, though, as some of the Tributes ― among them cocky pretty boy Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), scientifically-minded Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright), and bitterly sarcastic Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) ― have devised a way to give the Capital the finger even if it costs them their own lives.

I'll admit that I approached Catching Fire differently than I did the first movie. While I went into the first movie with a bit of trepidation because of my inexperience with the source material and a general distrust of movies based on young adult novels (a distrust that was caused solely by Twilight), I was excited to see Catching Fire. I couldn't wait to step into that theater and see what would happen next in the world of Panem, and Catching Fire didn't disappoint either. It's one of those seemingly rare sequels that completely outdoes its progenitor.

With Gary Ross unable to return to the franchise due to scheduling conflicts, Francis Lawrence replaces him in the director's chair and does a fine job with it. Seeing Lawrence attached to the movie didn't really fill me with a lot of hope, since my past experiences with his body of work ― I Am Legend and Constantine ― weren't exactly all that great. But I did, however, really like his efforts with Catching Fire. Much of the movie is dedicated to how the characters must deal with the emotional and sociopolitical fallout from the Hunger Games, material that Lawrence handles delicately. He doesn't rush anything, instead allowing it to simmer until it finally boils over in the climax.

The Quarter Quell makes up the movie's third act, and Lawrence makes sure these games feel like a far different beast than the ones we saw in the first movie. There's something deeper to it; it isn't children being forced to die for a government's amusement, but that government using it as a weapon to throw water on a fire of rebellion that threatens to burn out of control. The delicacy Lawrence used with the rest of the movie is there, but it feels meaner, more rough and intense. These aren't frightened kids in the arena, but experienced killers with a bucket of psychological issues, and Lawrence builds this accordingly. With the trendy shaky-cam used sparingly and only when it work in the movie's favor, Lawrence crafts the Quarter Quell in a way that makes it feel even more dangerous. Certain moments, like the swarm of screaming "jabberjay" birds and the scene where the center of the arena is spun like a top while the Tributes fight atop it, are particularly intense. But Lawrence never forgets that the characters are bigger than the games and he makes sure it stays about them.

While Lawrence's direction is very good, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt's script might actually be better. I've only read a few bits and pieces of Suzanne Collins's novel, so I can't truly speak for how faithful Beaufoy and Arndt were to it. What they bring to the movie, though, is a deptyh and intelligence that many of these movie based on young adult novels wish they had. The material could lend itself to schlocky melodrama if handled wrong, but Beaufoy and Arndt approach it maturely. Their script doesn't treat the audience like idiots, nor does it shy away from the psychological and political repercussions of the Hunger Games. Katniss has constant nightmares about the horrors she saw and constant guilt over the horrors she was forced to commit, while the downtrodden citizens of the Districts see her as a symbol of hope following her acts of compassion and bravery in the Games, realizing that if a teenage girl can stand up to the Capital's oppression, they can too. Beaufoy and Arndt obviously wrote the movie with a audience full of young women in mind, but they treat it in a way that allows it to be greater than the trappings of the substandard claptrap foisted upon today's youth by much of Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the acting will bring up the rear of this review, and it's just as fantastic as the rest of the movie. Nearly everyone makes some kind of memorable contribution, no matter how major or minor their role. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are funny and sweet as Katniss and Peeta's mentor and Capitol-assigned chaperone respectively, while Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in top form in their roles. Jeffrey Wright and Sam Claflin are also very likable as well, with Claflin in particular standing out with his confident, charismatic performance.

Among the more major players, I really liked Josh Hutcherson here. He has a certain "nice guy" vibe going that makes you want to root for him. I can't really say the same for Liam Hemsworth, though. The movie tries setting up a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Hemsworth's character, but Hemsworth has so little screen time and that you never really get a chance to feel anything other than ambivalence towards him. It doesn't help that he's dull as dishwater and doesn't have much in the way of on-screen chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence, either. All he does is just make the love triangle element feel tacked on.

But Hemsworth's shortcomings are made up for not only by the strength of the rest of the movie, but by its villain and heroine as well. Donald Sutherland makes for a damn fine bad guy, playing President Snow as calm and cool but delivering every line of dialogue as if his words were the auditory equivalent of rattlesnake venom. Snow is smarmy, vindictive, power-hungry, and absolutely heartless, and Sutherland plays it perfectly.

But above all else, the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence. She's an insanely talented actress, and she uses those talents to make Katniss a character worth following. Lawrence imbues her character with heartbreak and anguish and rage, simultaneously terrified yet daring to fight and potentially die to protect those she loves. Katniss is a very complex, very deep character, and Lawrence makes her one you absolutely cannot take your eyes off of.

I can actually say the same about Catching Fire as a whole. It's an impressive movie, one whose complexities are deceptively hidden beneath the glossy sheen of a teen-oriented Hollywood blockbuster. Catching Fire also defies the notion that the middle chapter of a trilogy is the weakest by being a fascinating, exciting watch. It commands your attention and refuses to let go once it has it. I hear that they'll be following in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises by splitting the third Hunger Games book into two movies, a decision that I'm not one hundred percent sure I agree with. I don't know why the producers would feel the need to really do that other than to milk the franchise for all they can get, but either way, Catching Fire is such a fantastic movie that it's made me excited to see both of them. This is that kind of movie.

Final Rating: ****