INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Destruction, and for some Language

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Nicholas Wright, James A. Woods & James Vanderbilt

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Jessie Usher, Brent Spiner, Vivica A. Fox & Sela Ward

A sequel to 1996’s INDEPENDENCE DAY has been in development for a ridiculously long time. Finally, twenty years after that film’s original release, INDEPENDENCE DAY 2 has invaded theaters. Does this follow-up capture the same fun B-flick vibe that made the first film work so well? Does it entertain enough to make up for obvious shortcomings? Does the silly screenwriting occasionally get in the way of its entertainment factor? Well, the answers to all of these questions can be summed up in one resounding “meh.” While RESURGENCE is somewhat true in tone to its predecessor, this sequel also suffers from crucial missing elements and distractingly sloppy storytelling.

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Two decades have passed since earthlings stood their ground against heavily armed alien invaders. With the otherworldly menace defeated, scientists have incorporated their futuristic technology into our daily lives. We now have manned outposts on the moon, drive hovering cars, and can travel at super speeds across the world. When a mysterious object appears near the moon outpost and human forces shoot it down, it appears that another extraterrestrial attack has been averted. However, an enormous alien spaceship shows up that’s much bigger than the 1996 attack fleets. Instead of trying to colonize our world, the aliens now seem intent on harvesting its core. With a ticking clock and an Atlantic Ocean sized threat parked on our planet, humans must band together once again to take these aliens down.

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Old characters and familiar names with new faces make up the large cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Bill Pullman makes a welcomed return as former president Thomas Whitmore. However, Pullman’s character seems to have a bit of temporary dementia that only pops in when it’s convenient for the plot (sloppily explained by alien telepathy messing with his head). Jeff Goldblum carries most of this movie on his shoulders. Though other sequels to 90’s blockbusters have shown that Goldblum is hit-or-miss (cough, THE LOST WORLD, cough), he is a lot of fun here. His character of David Levinson brings back the sarcasm, witty banter, and humor that made the original film enjoyable in the first place. Prepare to be bummed though, because RESURGENCE couldn’t afford Will Smith (yes, even on a budget of 165 million), so they killed his character off-screen. The absent Will Smith charm is noticeable and contributes to this sequel feeling less fun than its predecessor.

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Jessie Usher plays Dylan Hiller, son of Will Smith’s character from the first film, and is convincing enough as a one-dimensional hero. As his annoying sidekick comes Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison, who ruins more than a few action scenes with his over-the-top jokes and obnoxious attitude. Maika Monroe (from IT FOLLOWS and THE 5TH WAVE, the latter being a teeny-bopper INDEPENDENCE DAY knockoff) plays Patricia Whitmore and comes off as the best of these newcomers. On the sidelines we also have Sela Ward as the new President and the always enjoyable William Fichtner as a confident army general. A big standout comes in Deobia Oparei as an African warlord who likes to collect alien skulls, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is completely forgettable as Goldblum’s bland love interest. Oh, we also get way too much of the comic relief Area 51 scientists, but the less said about them, the better.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE takes the “bigger is better” mantra that most summer movie sequels seem to function on and cranks it up to 11. Instead of major cities being destroyed by huge spaceships, we get half the planet being virtually demolished by one massive spacecraft. Instead of taking the less-is-more approach with the alien menace, we get lots of CGI-heavy shots of the creatures, including a giant Queen that seems to deliberately rip off the main monster from a certain 1986 sci-fi classic. Since we have alien technology incorporated into our weapons, you had better believe that the fight scenes are a tad confusing as you’re trying to figure out which ships to root for. I wouldn’t be surprised if humans were accidentally shooting down other humans, because their jets look exactly like the alien spacecraft.

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If you haven’t guessed by now, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is pretty stupid…but so was the first one. The key difference being that the 1996 blockbuster had a fun entertaining charm to it that only occasionally makes its way into this sequel. When it’s taking itself way too seriously, the bad writing sticks out like a sore thumb. RESURGENCE takes about a third of its running time to get going, because its messy script gets bogged down in introducing all of these characters and the futuristic technology. An overuse alien psychic connections serves as a means for convenient exposition and get more than a little annoying, but that’s not nearly as aggravating as the literal talking plot device that rears its ugly head midway through the running time and plays a major role in the proceedings.

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I’m not saying that RESURGENCE isn’t fun, because the film has its moments. However, most of the thrill is gone in this second installment. Part of this can be attributed to a missing Will Smith (who was a major source of energy in the first film) and the rest might be thrown onto the spectacle being less impressive this time around. We’ve seen BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, SKYLINE, OBLIVION, and 2012, there isn’t a whole lot that RESURGENCE can show us in terms of special effects that we haven’t seen before. If this makes a ton of money at the box office that won’t matter though, because there is no ending to this sequel…just a cliffhanger that sets up the premise for a third film. If that eventually happens, hopefully they’ll remember to bring the fun back with the effects and bad writing.

Grade: C+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

CUT BANK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Matt Shakman

Written by: Roberto Patino

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Dern & Oliver Platt

CUT BANK is a movie that I discovered through its trailer. I previously had no idea this film even existed, in spite of it receiving a VOD release earlier this year and playing a couple of big film festivals last year. The well-cut trailer intrigued me as to whether or not this might be an undersung gem of 2015. So, throwing caution to the wind, I ventured out to the nearest Redbox and spent a dollar to see this flick. It seems that this is one of those many cases where the trailer is better than the movie its advertising, because CUT BANK is a film suffering from both an identity crisis and a bland script. The end result comes off like someone trying really hard to imitate the Coen brothers and not quite understanding what makes their movies work so well to begin with.

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Dwayne McLaren and his girlfriend, Cassandra, are recording a video in their small town of Cut Bank, Montana. Their little video shoot goes awry when they accidentally capture footage of a deadly crime in progress. The postman has been shot and killed by a mysterious stranger. Dwayne, who has been desperate to get out of his small town, sees this murder video as a possible ticket for a lot of money. However, the clumsy Sheriff Vogel is investigating the crime and finds that the simple crime is much more complicated than it originally appeared to be. While all of this is going on, creepy redneck Derby Milton is hunting, with deadly determination, for a mysterious package (that has disappeared with the mailman’s body). Through a series of events all of these characters will wind up encountering each other and not all of them will walk away alive.

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CUT BANK has a Coen vibe to it, whether that was intentional or not. However, it doesn’t quite have the story to back that up. Once an obvious plot revelation has been revealed in the first third, it becomes pretty apparent where everything will head. The screenplay doesn’t dissuade from that predictable route. One thing that CUT BANK does attempt to do is tell it’s crime story with a sense of humor. There are tense moments as well as attempts at comedy. However, the mash-up of these two genres doesn’t work nearly as well as other, better attempts that have come long before this film (e.g. anything from the Coens or Tarantino). Even with the tonal imbalance set aside, the main two protagonists in this story are ridiculously bland. Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer just don’t sell their characters well, though the writing doesn’t do them any favors either. The likes of Billy Bob Thornton (who recently impressed in the first season of FX’s FARGO) and Bruce Dern (who received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in NEBRASKA) are handed equally boring roles. Thornton acts grumpy (what else is new?) and Dern acts even grumpier. That’s about all there is to their performances.

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This movie actually hits its stride in two subplots. John Malkovich is enjoyable to watch as the incapable Sheriff encountering his first murder on the job, which leads to scenes of him throwing up at crime scenes. A couple of Malkovich’s scenes also have him acting alongside Oliver Platt who plays a conniving businessman. However, Platt’s scenes only amount to about five minutes of total screen time. The best character and performance come from Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s unrecognizable as the central baddie. His character is the reclusive Derby Milton, a quiet hillbilly with a mean psychotic temper. Milton is just looking for his parcel and the mystery surrounding what exactly that is has a quirky pay-off, but not necessarily a satisfying one.

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CUT BANK is a weird, but predictable, movie that seems to be trying too hard to emulate the Coen brothers. It’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by way of FARGO and doesn’t manage to measure up to either of those films or stand by itself. The tonal shifts don’t work nearly as well as the director and writer probably intended them to and the performances are mixed across the board. The best pieces of the film come in Malkovich, Platt, and Stuhlberg. Even then, I can’t fully recommend the whole 90-minute experience for those three performances alone. If you stumble across this on late-night cable or while scanning Netflix out of boredom, then you could do far worse. However, I wouldn’t recommend going through much effort to watch this middle-of-the-road thriller.

Grade: C

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Disturbing Images and Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Frightening Images, Thematic Elements, a Suggestive Situation and Language

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt

(based on the novel CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer & Jeffrey Wright

I should preface this review with saying that I am not a fan of the first HUNGER GAMES. I found it to be bland, silly, and a total rip-off of the superior-in-every-way BATTLE ROYALE. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was far from a good or even serviceable one. This being said, my expectations for CATCHING FIRE were nil when it was first announced. I thought this series was going to become another TWILIGHT SAGA full of half-realized ideas, boring characters, and a squealing teenage girl fan base. There was something about the previews that suggested this would top the original though. Having now seen it, I would place CATCHING FIRE is in the same category as THOR 2. They’re both superior to their mediocre first installments and wind up being enjoyable in their own right.

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Taking place shortly after the events of THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are both reeling from the horrific games they both participated in. They are also selling their fake romance for the cameras in order to keep themselves alive. With the menacing President Snow watching her every move, Katniss tries to show how “real” her love for Peeta is, but this is not enough. The 75th Annual Hunger Games is here and the rules have changed. Instead of new tributes being selected from each of the 12 Districts, the tributes will be previous champions of the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a new arena with all kinds of threats, including the hardened killers they are fighting against. Can they survive this new breed of game?

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Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss Everdeen, a character that wound up being purely one-dimensional in the first installment. Josh Hutcherson is equally as good as Peeta, whose actual affection for Katniss is going unnoticed by her. As far as the other characters go, everybody else isn’t given as much time as I would have hoped. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks reprise their roles and so does Donald Sutherland. A welcome new addition to the group is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the game maker (an awesome replacement for the position that wooden Wes Bentley filled in the predecessor). Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, and Jeffrey Wright also show up as former victors of the Hunger Games.

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The build up to the actual Hunger Games themselves is about as long as the first film’s (nearly 50 minutes or so). In this case, the build up is earned. We see how traumatized Katniss is and I thought this was an intelligent element to throw in this series. The Games had consequences and they are shown to the audience in creative ways. The slow, steady pace that shows the potential impending doom for the protagonists makes for an intense experience for the first third. Little details are thrown in about the competition that Katniss and Peeta will be facing off against and this had a lot of promise. The use of outside elements (dangerous creatures, contained disasters, and an arena with a very special layout) make for some very exciting sequences.

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Not all is perfect though. It’s clear that the film was shying away from some of the payoff to keep the PG-13 rating. Seriously, what’s the point of having a character with sharpened fangs if you never show her use them? Some of the CGI is a bit iffy. The shoddily animated baboons are infinitely better than those poor excuses for dogs in the original film though. The government that runs the Hunger Games themselves is sloppily run and there are a few plot holes to be found. The ending is also loaded with plenty of bombshells dropped in the last 10 minutes that will leave fans eager for November 2014 to arrive with the MOCKINGJAY PART 1 (since every franchise seems willing to milk their movies for every possible cent).

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In the end, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is a winner. It’s not fantastic or terrific, but it’s very good and plenty of fun. The tension exists far more here than in the sub-par original. The cast do well with what they’ve been given (in some cases, it’s not much) and the movie delivers on being a creative piece of Science Fiction. If you’re looking for an amazing movie based on intelligent Sci-Fi, then watch the far better ENDER’S GAME. If you dug the first HUNGER GAMES (which I didn’t like) or are willing to give this series one more chance, then THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is a sequel that outdoes the original in every possible way. It’s far from amazing, but it’s very good. Recommended!

Grade: B

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