Katniss and a mockingjay: the revolution will be televised

Hunger-games-catching-fire-lawrence_katniss‘Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.’ The same could be said of Jennifer Lawrence these days. Following her award winning performance last year, she’s got some exciting things lined up to hit the screen soon. American Hustle, reuniting her with Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell, is out in December which, from the trailer, looks to be a right sexy treat. It’s covered in my recent trailer blog, along with some other ones worth a look. She’s also part of the jaw-dropping cast of X-Men: Days of Future Past, comfortably slotting herself into another juggernaut of a franchise.

Then there’s The Hunger Games. One thing that struck me about the middle slot of this trilogy is just how bleak and desolate it feels. I suppose, given the three act structure of a film (setup, conflict, resolution) and extrapolating that over a three film arc (or four film arc, as the conclusion will be a two-parter), Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Catching Fire, a reviewthe second one will always be rife with conflict and see the antagonist flex his or her muscles to gain the upper hand. Think Empire Strikes Back and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

On that note, and given the fact most of the audience will have seen the first one, this feel films tougher and more emotionally affecting than the first. Indeed, many of the characters have matured and grown wise to what life is like under this oppressive regime; off and on love interest Peeta and Katniss’s sister Primrose are typical examples. The latter calmly taking a needle from her mother’s shaking hands to sedate someone after a savage beating.

And talking of beatings, this film has them aplenty (mostly administered by soldiers looking like a cross between storm troopers and extras from a Daft Punk video).Hunger Games Catching Fire5-20131105-172 Austrian director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend, Water for Elephants) doesn’t let up; there’s precious little in the way of light moments to lift the mood. At times I questioned the 12A certificate (there were a lot of kids in the audience at my screening). However there was minimal cause for concern, in the event of a violent act the director would invariably cut away at the last moment, something no doubt advised by the studio to make the broader kid-friendly certificate. A tactic to save kids’ sensibilities perhaps, but still psychologically affects us adults, as we can fill in the gaps.

This is only really an observation though. Lawrence has taken the reins of this franchise in able fashion, proving he can handle action, drama and quieter character moments equally well. He’s also avoided directorial flair for the most part, letting the cast grow in their roles. jennifer-Lawrence-on-fire-in-New-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-Trailer-3As you’d expect, the focus is by and large firmly kept on Lawrence’s Katniss – we see everything from her point of view. And rightly so, she’s not only the catalyst and linchpin for the entire story, but also a tough female protagonist, something of which we’ve not seen on the big screen in a long time.

Hence perhaps why Jennifer Lawrence is fast becoming a favourite of tinseltown. In years past Hollywood has taken Oscar winners and tried to turn them into action/superheroes and failed (Hallie Berry, Catwoman; Charlize Theron, Aeon Flux; hell even Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider to an extent), perhaps lack of success was down to poor script, a weak director, sub-standard supporting cast… Who knows.

ID_D37_14785.dngNow, however, it feels right. Lawrence feels right. Maybe the industry has just finally got its act together. I’ve been a fan of hers since Winter’s Bone and, for me, she’s not put a foot wrong (please Jennifer, stay away from run-of-the-mill rom-coms!). And with Francis Lawrence directing the concluding two-parter of this tale, it looks to be in most competent hands. President Snow, watch your back… And your front. In fact, just watch out. Katniss is coming, she’s mad as hell and she just won’t take it anymore.

Silver Linings Playbook – smart, edgy rom-com

Seems David O. Russell is on a bit of a roll. Following a six-year break after I ♥ Huckabees, the Writer/Director returned in 2010 with a film which bagged him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, critically-acclaimed boxing tale, The Fighter.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKHis latest effort, Silver Linings Playbook, is another triumph – dramatic, touching, funny and heart-warming. This is down to a smart script, assured direction and stand-out performances – particular from the two leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

What’s it all about?
Pat (Cooper) is a history teacher with bipolar disorder, recently released from mental hospital following a violent outburst upon catching his wife with another man.  Despite suffering mood swings and having to contend with a restraining order, he’s convinced he can win back his wife. Then Tiffany (Lawrence) enters his life, herself a recovering sex addict, a condition brought about following the death of her husband.

The two initially bond discussing the types of medication they’ve taken – then begin to form an unlikely friendship. Pat asks Tiffany to give his wife a letter, hoping something which explains he’s getting his life back on track will rekindle their marriage. Tiffany thinks he’s deluded but agrees to help, but only if Pat helps her practice for a dance competition. We all know where this is going right?

silver linings playbookA tale of two wounded souls
Whilst the story may be nothing new – with the exception of the bipolar aspect – this film lives or dies by its leads. Both Cooper and Lawrence deliver career-best performances. For Lawrence, that’s saying something. She’s already had an Oscar nomination for her performance as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. Here, her latest offering looks likely to get another Best Actress nomination, possibly even a win.

Cooper was surprisingly impressive. All twitchy, unfocused energy with a blunt, direct nature and an imposing presence. You get the sense this is a guy capable of violent outbursts, but really trying his hardest to hold it all together. He also brings comic timing to the character, helping balance out the darker moments. Easily his best work to date. That said, his performance alone would not have lifted the film to the heights it achieved.

silver linings lawrenceLawrence the silver lining
The secret weapon of this film – or true silver lining if you like – was Tiffany. Once again, Lawrence showing the depth of her talent. She’s just astonishing. Obviously there’s a sizeable age gap (Lawrence was 21 during filming, Cooper 37), but she displays a maturity beyond her years – making the attraction between the two wounded souls of Tiffany and Pat wholly believable. She gives Tiffany a wildly unpredictable nature – often switching instantly between vulnerable, raw and conflicted, to steely, fiery and determined. This tends to break down Pat’s defences, leaving him utterly confused, poor chap.

Does this better her performance in Winter’s Bone? Perhaps not, but it more effectively displays her talents and range as an actress – marking her out as one to watch with great interest in the future.

Silver Linings Playbook De NiroDe Niro the dad
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning De Niro, playing Pat’s dad. Another flawed soul with a touch of OCD, cut from the same cloth as his son. It’s arguably his best performance in a long time.

In some of his more comedy-driven roles in the last few years he’s probably overplayed it, to a degree. Here he pitches it perfectly. David O. Russell really does seem to get the best out of the the actors at his disposal, even if he’s known for sometimes rubbing them up the wrong way.

To sum up, Silver Linings is a smart, quirky, dramatic rom-com that tackles some tough issues (marriage, mental health), however it’s buoyed up by a smart script and strong performances – with Lawrence showing that Winter’s Bone was just the start of her ascendancy.