THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”: Even if you’re not a fan of the worldwide phenomenon that is “The Hunger Games,” there’s three very good reasons to see the second of the quartet of films based on the books: the formidable acting talents of Jennifer Lawrence, the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the new Gamemaker), and the firm directing hand of Francis Lawrence, who helmed one of our favorite (and overlooked) recent films, “Water for Elephants.” In this edition, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), whose victory in the 74th Hunger Games has sparked an insurrection of sorts in the 12 districts of Panem, become the enemies of the Capitol and, after a tour of the country, are forced to participate in the most diabolical games yet devised. The first hour is given over to the political machinations of the government and the beginnings of the rising insurrection, keying in on Katniss’ strengths and setting the stage for her role as a symbol for the dispossessed underclass; the second hour is devoted to the 75th Games and its tropical jungle death match, which Katniss and Peeta barely survive. If the first half is a little heavy on explication, the second half more than makes up for any wordiness with spectacular fight and special effects sequences. At the heart of the film is Lawrence, who imbues Katniss with an earthiness and honesty that makes her a modern-day cinematic hero. Despite Katniss coming out on top, however, there’s no resolution: You’ll have to wait for the two-part finale later this year and 2015: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” both of which are being directed by Lawrence. Co-stars Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Liam Hemsworth, Jeffrey Wright, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, Amanda Plummer. Extras include commentary with director Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, deleted scenes; the Blu-ray adds “Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire,” a nine-part feature-length documentary. From Lionsgate. Due Friday, March 7.
“The Grandmaster”: Director Wong Kar Wai is in love. In love with his actors and actresses, his stories, his camera, his movies … he’s in love with moviemaking. It shows in his films, which, for the most part, are love stories and romances — “Chungking Express” (1994), “In the Mood for Love” (2000), “2046” (2004), “My Blueberry Nights” (2007). “The Grandmaster” is no exception. It’s a love story to Ip Man, the famous martial arts grandmaster who popularized the wing chun style of fighting and who trained Bruce Lee; it’s a love story to China, to martial arts, to loyalty. Beautifully photographed and choreographed with some spectacular action scenes, the film follows Ip Man from the 1930s in Foshan, in Southern China, to his flight to Hong Kong after World War II and, in particular, his love for his art and for Gong Er, the daughter of one of the greatest grandmasters of all time, Gong Yutian. His love for Gong Er is never consummated, which is kind of the tone for the whole film: unrequited love. Despite the strong presence of Tony Chiu Wai Leung as Ip Man and Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er, the film falters in its languid and at-times muddled chronicle of Ip Man’s life and times. Extras include a couple behind-the-scenes featurettes. From The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay.
“12 Years a Slave”: Based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender) as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the 12th year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) forever alters his life. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (for Lupita Nyong’o) at this year’s Academy Awards. Unavailable for review. From Fox.
The top release this week is the Blu-ray debut of iconoclastic director John Waters’ “Hairspray” (1988), starring Sonny Bono, Ruth Brown, Divine, Deborah Harry, Ricki Lake, Jerry Stiller, Mink Stole and Pia Zadora. It’s Baltimore, 1962, and rebellious “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy (Ricki Lake) attempts to be one of the featured stars on a popular dance show and win the coveted “Miss Auto Show” crown. Waters’ first “mainstream” pic takes an ironic and tongue-in-cheek look at the 50s/60s dance show craze and dance fads, segregation, class warfare and the soon-to-be born protest movement of the 1960s. Oh, and there’s plenty of generation-gap hijinks between Tracy and her parents ((Divine and Jerry Stiller) and a pair of proto-hippies (Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora). “Hairspray” was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002 and then made again into a 2007 musical feature (adapted from the play) starring Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden and Queen Latifah. A must for any collection. From Warner.