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New films: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Delivery Man, Kill Your Darlings

Thanksgiving Releases: Part 1

There will be more holiday releases in a couple of days, but for now let’s focus on the new films that opened over the weekend.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s reminiscent of when the Harry Potter series switched directors between the second and third films, going from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuarón, with everything suddenly seeming far more substantial and dark. Which is a fitting mood in two franchises that involve children repeatedly engaged in fights to the death*.

However, in “Catching Fire,” while almost everything about the production seems better, the story itself doesn’t really do very much. We find out more about the reactions that followed the outcome of the first book/film and we get a good setup for the third book/third and fourth films (yes, it’s another case of cutting a book in half to cash in at the box office), but it doesn’t really feel like a self-contained story outside of that context. One of the upsides to the aforementioned Harry Potter series was that each felt like it had a beginning, middle, and an end (until the last book was split, similarly, into two films). “Catching Fire” seems like a lot of middle.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeter Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), having been seen to challenge the rules of the 74th Annual Hunger Games and come out ahead, have taken on a heroic and hope-inspiring role among the downtrodden people of Panem. Without even trying, they inspire rebellion. This is obviously problematic for President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who devises a means to get rid of his two young problems.

In my review of the first film, I discussed the underlying premise of “The Hunger Games” and the seemingly ridiculous premise of a fractured population being held in check by being forced to submit children to annual deadly combat. The idea that this has been a successful peace-keeping technique for 74 years is hard to swallow. But I watched the first film again recently, attempting to put that concern behind me, and it plays fairly well as a simply told story, especially after reaching the combat scenes. The new film is essentially a less well crafted story, told better. It just makes one wish that the first film had been made this well.

Another bonus of this film is that we have a new group of higher quality secondary actors – including Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jeffrey Wright. This is helpful as we’ve gone from seeing first time combatants to seeing more of the past victors – a group that would be likely to include more unique and forceful characters.

If I wasn’t reviewing these films as they’re released, I suspect that I would enjoy them far more if I waited and just watched them all in a marathon – such that the overall sequence of events would matter but the episodic beginnings and endings wouldn’t. But that’s not unique to this particular franchise/series.

*It’s still amazing to think that stories like this, with battles to the death among teenagers, receive a PG-13 rating, while a film like this year’s “The Kings of Summer” received an R rating, because some 15 year olds were shown drinking beer at a party and a few people cursed. Those are some very odd priorities and values that we’re implicitly passing along.

 

Delivery Man
Directed by Ken Scott

The basic premise here is quite amusing: A man discovers that his earlier “career” as a sperm donor has resulted in 533 children, after the clinic used his donations with all of their clients. Coincidentally, his girlfriend is pregnant and is questioning his ability to be a father to even one child. He’s also a classic under-achiever, working as an unreliable delivery driver for his family’s meat business. All of which resulted in a funny and endearing film – except that it wasn’t called “Delivery Man.”

The same director previously made this as a French language film called “Starbuck” – the name that David Wozniak used all those many years ago at the clinic. “Starbuck” played at this year’s Sacramento French Film Festival and was very well received – but “Delivery Man” loses something in the translation, despite often being a scene for scene, line for line remake.

I learned about the remake at the same time as watching “Starbuck” and Vince Vaughn just seemed miscast in the lead role. That said, he’s actually a little better than I was expecting, despite some of the expected problems. Vaughn has made a living playing wise cracking characters who rarely connect in an emotionally sincere manner – and that’s what David Wozniak/Starbuck requires in order for the story to really work.

There’s also the problem of Vaughn being 6’5” tall. If you were casting a film like this, you’d be more likely to want the most average looking guy imaginable to avoid the need to cast offspring that share some distinctive characteristic like that. Although one of the few changes to make the film more appealing to American viewers replaces a son who’s a professional soccer player with one who’s a professional basketball player, which is not only more American but which reflects that height variable. Meanwhile, another son is actually played by the same actor in both films.

But the end result seems less engaging and somehow less genuine than the earlier film. Everything seems to resonate more and hit home harder in the French language version. If the idea behind the film is at all appealing, try and find “Starbuck” – it delivers better than “Delivery Man” does.


Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas

In the early 1940’s, while World War II still raged in Europe, a group of young would-be writers crossed paths in New York. Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) was admitted to Columbia University, where he met Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and, soon afterwards, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and an old friend of Burroughs, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall).

However, unknown to Ginsberg, Carr and Kammerer’s relationship was complicated and long-running. As Ginsberg was drawn to Carr, and his sense of freedom and disregard for the rules, he became more aware of the tensions around him, albeit ill-equipped to cope with them.

Ultimately, as is depicted in the opening of the film, Carr killed Kammerer. He did this in a manner that caused the rest of the group to become involved – which in turn influenced some of their later writing. But “Kill Your Darlings” is a film that focuses exclusively on that brief period when these young men met, experimented, plotted, and gave birth to the sentiments that would later define their work.

It’s a neat film, primarily based on the central performances. Radcliffe captures the freshness of freshman Ginsberg and DeHaan is especially believable as the character in the group whom others are drawn to. This follows another solid performance by DeHaan, earlier this year, in “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Foster also shows range in an unusual part for him, as the drug using but relatively restrained Burroughs. It’s a worthwhile film for fans of either the actors or the authors, exposing talent in one group and a fascinating period for the other.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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