The Universe Expands

Ever since the first (now fourth) episode of Star Wars, the universe from that long time ago and far, far away story has expanded beyond the films. Novels based on it appeared even before The Empire Strikes Back, and they now number easily in the hundreds of volumes. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they green-lit the third trilogy originally planned by Lucas, but they also saw the potential to tap into the wider world of the series. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was the first step in that direction, though it truly qualifies as a prequel to A New Hope rather than a stand-alone film. With Solo: A Star Wars Story, they still stand squarely on the source material, but they reach out further.

The production of Solo didn’t go smoothly, and that handicaps the movie. The original duo of directors got canned by producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter & executive producer Lawrence Kasdan even though they were months into the shoot. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were successful in both animated films (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as well as live action (both Jump Street movies). Sometimes it works well to pick directors whose previous work is nothing like a major film series. This year Ryan Coogler, who’d done Fruitvale Station and Creed, entered the Billion Dollar Club with Black Panther. Last year Patty Jenkins, known for getting Charlize Theron an Oscar for Monster, shattered the previous box office record for a female director with the success of Wonder Woman. The Russo brothers had directed comedies before they did Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’re now approaching the Two-Billion Dollar Club with Avengers: Infinity War.

But it didn’t work with Solo. Face with a monumental task to reshape the film so it could be released, Kennedy recruited A-List director Ron Howard. The amount of reshooting Howard did isn’t fully known, but some estimates put it at 80% of the film. Star Thandie Newton (Val) has said most of her work was with Lord and Miller, but for Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos) nearly all of his scenes that made it in the movie were directed by Howard. Howard is a Star Wars fan and was reportedly under consideration to direct The Phantom Menace (though it was probably for the best that he stayed away from that mess). He’d of course worked with Lucas on American Graffiti, and the two visited on the set while Howard was working on Solo, allowing Howard to pick Lucas’s brain. The extensive rework pushed the budget to the $300 Million level, making it  one of the most expensive movie of all time. It neared the level of two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (At World’s End and Stranger Tides, the most expensive film ever at $375 million) and Cleopatra, when adjusted for inflation.

Was it worth it? I’d say yes, with a caveat. The script by Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) in collaboration with his son, Jonathan, is the Star Wars equivalent of a superhero origin story, applied to the character of Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar, Rules Don’t Apply) does an excellent job as a younger and less-jaded Han. We first see him as the teenaged indentured servant of a crime lord on a bleek, gray planet. He’s in love with a fellow servant, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and the two try to make a break from their servitude and get away together. Han makes it, but Qi’ra’s caught. Han vows to get his own ship and come back for her.

After a few years that include a stint in the Imperial Fleet, Han hooks up with Becket (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Newton) on a heist of coaxium, the expensive fuel for star ships. The job goes sideways when a group of Cloud Rider ravagers try to take the coaxium for themselves. Becket had been hired for the job by Dryden Vos (Bettany) and he must make good on the crime lord’s investment. He tells Han to walk away since Vos doesn’t know of his involvement, but instead Han comes up with a heist that will both satisfy Vos and make them a handsome profit – but to do it they’ll need help.

The Kasdans have essentially crafted the science fiction equivalent of a heist movie in the Oceans 11 vein that establishes Han Solo’s outlaw character. Along the way he picks up the pieces that come together in the first trilogy: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon, and more. Suotamo is a 7-foot Finish basketball player, taking over for the ailing Peter Mayhew. He does the role proud. With a sly smile and the swirl of his capes, Glover captures the essence of Lando. The Kasdans even take a shot at one of the elements of A New Hope that fans have debated for forty years.

Clarke, Harrelson, Newton and Bettany, as new characters, are all first-rate. The stand-out, though, is the droid L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This is the first specifically female droid to appear, and Waller-Bridge makes her absolutely smashing and memorable.

My caveat with Solo is that the cinematography is often dark and dismal, so much so it interferes with the story. In several scenes you can’t see the faces of the actors clearly because of backlighting that puts them in shadows. Even the Millenium Falcon’s interior feels murky in comparison to its look in the other films. I was surprised by this, since the director of photography was Bradford Young. Young had recently shot A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Arrival, all excellent films I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s like he was going for the feel of natural lighting, but I like a movie where I can see what is happening.

The trilogy films have all be major box office events, and continue to be. There is space for other films, for other stories, in that universe. One hopes that the decent but modest box office of Solo, especially in light of the production costs, will not cause Disney to question their commitment to the Star Wars universe. I will always be ready to travel a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.


Signs of the Time

Whenever award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh switches from the stage to the screen as writer and director, he usually mixes crime drama with comedy. His first feature, In Bruges, has two hitmen laying low in the titular Belgium city after a hit in London goes very wrong. It drifts into the absurdist realm by mixing in dwarfs and a movie getting made. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, revolved around a screenwriter who gets mixed up in the Los Angeles underworld when a friend of his kidnaps a gangster’s shih tzu. With his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he still mixes comedy with drama, but it comes from a deeper level – human grief.

With seven months having passed since of her daughter’s brutal rape and murder, Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on the highway to Ebbing, Missouri, and puts up her own version of the old Burma Shave ads, challenging the town’s chief of police (Woody Harrelson) on why no suspect has been found. The billboards become a sort of Rorschach test for the townspeople, and especially for the police. Chief Willoughby understands the grief fueling Mildred, though his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) is less generous, knowing what her husband’s gone through in the past few months. Worse, though, is the reaction of Deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who’s had complaints against him for excessive force. For Dixon, the billboards are a personal slap in the face.

For Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the billboards reopen the wound of the loss of his sister. Some in town, like Mildred’s coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) and car dealer James (Peter Dinklage), are sympathetic to Mildred. Others, though take offense, so the town becomes a minefield for Mildred. However, she’s equally explosive, if not more so.

The movie is a meditation on grief and guilt, though the cockeyed characters mine humor within a horrible situation. McDormand’s performance as Mildred is as harsh as her haircut, which looks like it was done with a weed whacker. She wears coveralls throughout the movie like a suit of armor. Her patience is at an end, and anyone who shows a smidgen of self-righteousness, be it a priest or a dentist or a teenager at school, will pay a price.

She’s matched by a golden performance by Harrelson who provides an emotional heart for the movie. He has come a thousand miles from his early sitcom work on “Cheers” to become one of the finest and most reliable supporting actors currently in films. As impressive, though in a much different tone, is Rockwell’s standout performance. He dives into his deeply flawed and in many ways distasteful character without holding anything back.

On the downside, McDonagh leaves some characters underwritten – Dinklage is pretty much wasted in his role – while others, including John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, drift into stereotypes. But the center of the story is strong enough to survive these weaknesses and still be memorable.

This is a story of characters stumbling their way towards a form of redemption. There aren’t easy answers or conventional resolutions. In the end life is messy and harsh, but at the same time it’s as precious as it is fleeting. That’s the human drama, and McDonagh manages to portray it in a humane way.

Thin Alphabet Soup

The trip to the silver screen can be a challenge, with many pitfalls. After a film is written, there’s no guarantee it will be produced. The website Blacklist publishes a yearly listing of the best-liked scripts that didn’t have production deals. In 2014, that list had several screenplays that were successfully produced within the next three years. These included:

  1. Manchester-by-the-Sea, for which Casey Affleck won last year’s Best Actor Oscar
  2. 2016’s Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney
  3. Gifted (2017) with Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer
  4. Michael Keaton’s biopic of Ray Kroc, The Founder
  5. A screenplay titled “In The Deep” which became the thriller The Shallows starring Blake Lively
  6. “Mena” which became the better-titled American Made with Tom Cruise.

It also had two 2017 duds: My Friend Dahmer (who doesn’t want to watch a serial killer’s struggle in high school? Apparently almost everyone), and The Wall, the Doug Lyman-directed sniper drama that made less than 2 million at the box office.

Somewhere in between the good and the bad is LBJ, a biopic of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The screenplay was picked up by Rob Reiner, who made one of my favorite political movies, The American President, though that screenplay was by the thoughtful and erudite Aaron Sorkin. Reiner handles the period piece details of the story beautifully, with assistance from Cinematographer Barry Markowitz (Sling Blade, The Apostle) and Production Designer Christopher R DeMuri.

Reiner and casting director Jane Jenkins assembled a first-rate cast, starting with Woody Harrelson in the title role. Harrelson went through two hours of makeup daily to look like LBJ, and he has a definite power in the role. Jennifer Jason Leigh does well as Lady Bird, as do Jeffery Donovan as JFK, his second time portraying a Kennedy. Donovan had been Robert Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, making him the second actor to have portrayed both brothers (the first was Martin Sheen). Other actors include Bill Pullman, Richard Jenkins, and C. Thomas Howell. An outstanding performance is given by Michael Stahl-David as Robert Kennedy who’s in a Civil War battle with pro-segregationist LBJ.

Strangely enough, given its place on the 2014 Blacklist, the weakness of the movie is its script. Johnson was a massive personality and a polarizing character. Biographer Robert Cato has worked on the life of LBJ for over 40 years, and his original plan for a four-volume has expanded to five volumes, with the last one only about half-done at this point. Johnson was in the middle of the most tumultuous times of 20th Century America, and he was a master politician. But LBJ concentrates on only about 10 years of his life.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The outstanding Patton took place over the last four years of the general’s life, though of course that was in the middle of WWII. George C. Scott’s performance, though, gave you the feel for the man far beyond those years. On the other hand, you have MacArthur in 1977, starring Gregory Peck, which covered his service in WWII through the general’s dismissal during the Korean War. That movie comes across more as a pageant, showing him in action but not truly illuminating his character.

Once again with LBJ, it falls in the middle, not revealing the character like Patton, but doing it better than MacArthur. The script ping pongs through time at first, telling the story of Johnson’s legislative battles relative to JFK and his selection as Kennedy’s running mate while contrasting it with the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Following Kennedy’s assassination, the movie focuses on Johnson trying to cement both Kennedy’s and his own legacy by passing Civil Rights legislation.

Filming of the movie was done two years ago, and it was screened at 2016 Toronto Film Festival. However, 2016 also saw Bryan Cranston in the role of LBJ for the better received HBO film All The Way, which covered much the same territory. Cranston was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance. So LBJ sat on the shelf for the over a year before it was released, likely to give it separation from All The Way.

LBJ, though, zooms through the story since the film runs only a bit over 90 minutes. Overall, it gives the feel that the story’s a Reader’s Digest condensation. LBJ had a thick stew life, but the movie LBJ is more like thin soup that doesn’t satisfy.

An End to the War

A movie trilogy is a different animal than a series. Rather than an on-going story with repeat characters, a trilogy focuses on a story too large to fit in one movie. It’s closer to a three-act play in construction. The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies are good examples, and there’s a good chance the current Star Wars series may accomplish the feat as well. I’d also make the case that the special edition of Godfather I & II, cut into chronological order, fits as a trilogy: Vito, Vito & Michael, Michael alone. (We’ll forget about Godfather III; Please, let’s forget about Godfather III!)

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the series begun in Rise and continued in Dawn now fits as a trilogy – and a stunning third chapter it is! The accomplishment is all the more amazing in view of the origins of the series. The original Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic, with its script adapted by Rod Serling from a book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai). With the mammoth success of the movie, Twentieth Century Fox ordered a sort-of sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its climax being the total destruction of the planet. Not the best move if you want another sequel, but Fox did the time warp again and went back to show how Earth became the Planet of the Apes. The movies were schlocky after the first, but were embraced by fanboys before Hollywood realized there was such a thing as fanboys. Tim Burton’s remake of the original kept the schlock without the grace of Serling’s script, and it had one of the worse endings ever stuck on a movie. But it was a financial success, grossing nearly $200 million.

At the same time as Burton’s movie with its made-up monkeys, Peter Jackson was revolutionizing character animation by using motion capture (mocap) technology to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Animation is originally the artist’s creation, with an actor adding their voice. Mocap technology works more like virtual make-up to support the actor’s performance. It’s the actor’s expressions and physical movements that control the animation, and because of that mocap performances should be considered along with all other performances during awards season. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in War is definitely Oscar-caliber.

War takes place fifteen years after the experimental drug augmented the intelligence of Caesar’s band of apes and led to a pandemic that wiped out most of the humans race. But pockets survive, including a military regiment under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). At the end of Dawn, the human survivors in San Francisco had contacted the regiment, and the Colonel led his men south to battle the apes. War begins with a skirmish between the two groups, with Caesar defeating the Colonel’s men. Rather than killing or imprisoning the surviving soldiers, Caesar sends them back as a peace offering. All he wants is to be left alone by humans. But the maniacal Colonel blames the apes for the destruction of society, and in a horrible attack he comes close to destroying Caesar’s world.

Caesar sends the rest of his apes to where he believes they’ll be safe, while he heads out to have his revenge on the Colonel. Some apes accompany him, including the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konaval). Caesar is also haunted by the spirit of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose anger and obsession precipitated the confrontation with the San Franciso humans in Dawn. Along the way Caesar’s band picks up two new members: the mute human child Nova (Amiah Miller) and the elderly chimp from a Lake Tahoe zoo who thinks his name is what the humans kept calling him, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).

War for the Planet of the Apes has as part of its DNA the westerns of John Ford, with Caesar coming close to the obsessive Ethan Edwards played by John Wayne in The Searchers. He’s matched by the Colonel, who echoes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But War creates its own powerful story, and the interaction between Serkis and Harrelson crackles with electric energy.

While Zahn’s character is called Bad Ape, he is anything but, and Zahn injects a beautiful humanity (it’s the only word that fits) into his character. Humanity also flows from Amiah Miller’s Nova, who is adopted for all intents and purposes by Maurice. She has an assurance in front of the camera that is far beyond her years, and though she only signs a few lines in the film, her eyes speak volumes.

Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns to the director’s chair for War, and he again collaborated with Mark Bomback on the script. As with the screenwriters of Rise, Reeves and Bomback both play with and pay homage to the original series. Yet War is far superior to any of the original five movies, including the first. War rises to a Shakespearean level of drama, even as it tugs on your heart.

There’s been some talk of a fourth film, but I really hope the studio will leave well enough alone. The story of Caesar in Rise, Dawn, and War is fulfilling, and deserves the grace of an ending.

Coming of Age in a New Age

Back in the 1980s, the John Hughes coming-of-age flicks became a fixture of the
Cineplexes. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and others were embraced by the youth of that day – people the youth of today know as mom and dad. Since then there have been some excellent examples of the genre that are less formulaic and more heartfelt than humorous, such as Boyhood, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Juno, An Education, and Thirteen, among others. One of the accomplishments of The Edge of Seventeen is it blends serious with silly to capture the highs and lows (real and imagined) that pretty much everyone faces on the way to adulthood.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is the one on the edge. She’s been an outsider at school all her life, though she was fortunate when young to find a best friend who’s stuck with her ever since, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). It’s hard for Nadine because her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is firmly in the In Crowd at school, while her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) spouts platitudes as advice even as her own life is a mess. As a substitute father figure, Nadine has latched onto her favorite teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), even though he’s not happy to be cast in the role.

Then Nadine is thrown into a crisis when Krista falls for her brother and Nadine can’t handle sharing her. Swirling around like an uncontrollable whirlpool, Nadine becomes obsessed with a boy she only knows from a distance while missing a boy who sits near her in class (Hayden Szeto).

Writer/Director/Producer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a coming-of-age story that rings true to everyone who’s survived high school. While it fits with the current generation’s more profane style – things that would have caused angst in the 1980s don’t rate a bat of an eye here – the underlying traumas that life can throw at you are all too familiar. Yet Craig leavens the traumas with a bright wit and a light directorial touch that serves the movie well.

Given a fully-formed role to play, Hailee Steinfeld slips into Nadine and gives her best performance since True Grit. At 20, Steinfeld has begun to show that she will be a major performer for many years to come, with a successful start to a recording career to go along with carrying a movie like Edge where she’s center stage in almost every scene. I would not be surprised if Steinfeld winds up an EGOT before she finishes her career.

A delight of this movie is it’s not just one excellent role in a half-baked stew. Craig has invested the other roles with heart and character, and the actors deliver wonderful embodiments of these characters. Harrelson’s scenes with Steinfeld are a particular joy to watch, and Sedgwick is first-rate as a mother with her own maturity issues. The film’s almost stolen by Hayden Szeto whose character Erwin is almost as awkward and mixed up as Steinfeld’s, though with a desert-dry sense of humor.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen. It manages to tickle your funny bone and touch your heart at the same time.

Spare Tire on a Tricycle

Turning a trilogy into a tetralogy is risky. On the plus side, the film maker has a good four-plus hours to adapt a book, rather than 2-2 ½ hours, but it runs the risk of coming across as a spare tire on a tricycle – its only use is to try to keep it going when things go flat. After the stellar The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which improved on the original Hunger Games, Mockingjay Part 1 had to keep fans hooked until Part 2’s release next year.

The book already has the weakness of being The Hunger Games without any games. A critique of the book when it came out was that, after the inventiveness of the first two volumes, the third came across as a straightforward dash to the finish line. Stretching the book to two movies seemed motivated solely by the box office. “Mockingjay” is half the length of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” another final entry in a series that was split in two, and even with the greater source material the first part of Deathly Hallows dragged. The good news is that, even though it’s a letdown from Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) have managed to make a decently exciting film. It doesn’t suck like it could have, especially when you think about Spider-Man 3 or X Men: The Last Stand (and I apologize for making you think of those two turkeys, but they do illustrate how Hollywood can suck at the level of an industrial-strength vacuum when it comes to the third entry in a series).

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up shortly after Catching Fire. After the destruction of her home district, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is taken by Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the rebel outpost in District 13. There she’s reunited with her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) who were led to safety by Gale when District 12 was attacked. She also meets with the rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who wants to use Katniss to counter the Capitol’s propaganda and build the revolt into a full-fledge revolution. Katniss, though, is still emotionally damaged by the Quarter Quell experience and the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Things change when Peeta shows up on the Capitol TV broadcasts being interviewed by Caesar (Stanley Tucci). Katniss agrees to do counter-programing, but she comes across as wooden thanks to the leaden script she’s given to perform against a special effects background. Thankfully a now clean and sober Hamish (Woody Harrelson) shows up to save Katniss from the debacle. He points out that when Katniss has inspired people, it has been with her honest reactions to what’s happening around her. So Hamish and Katniss head off into the fight, accompanied by a film crew under the direction of Cressida (Natalie Dormer).

By now the main characters are well established, so seeing them on screen again is like meeting old friends. Jeffrey Wright returns as tech genius Beetee, and Sam Claflin’s Finnick is there, though several scenes are stolen by Elizabeth Banks, whose Effie Trinket looks upon her exile among the jump-suited, wig-less rebels as her being condemned to Hell. Donald Sutherland once again is awesomely villainous as President Snow, and the movie does manage to get a face-off between Katniss and Snow, even if it is a televised one.

But that actually fits with the film and its focus on how media can be used to manipulate the masses, both by those in power and those wanting to break free of that subjugation. Mockingjay Part 1 manages a final twist that changes the dynamic of the story and will make fans wait anxiously for Part 2’s release the weekend before Thanksgiving next year. In the end that was its purpose, so mission accomplished.

Burning The Bread And The Circuses

The beginning of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire mirrors the first movie, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting in the remnants of District 13. The winter landscape, though, makes the world even bleaker, and it’s soon clear Katniss is haunted by her experience in the games. Her true love, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is supportive, but he’s also dealing with what happened between her and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutherson) in the arena.

She returns to her home to find President Snow (Donald Sutherland) waiting for her. Snow was a hovering threat in the first movie, but now they’re in direct conflict as Snow tries to quell the nascent rebellion ignited by Katniss’ defiance. She and Peeta are about to depart on a victory tour of the districts with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). Snow threatens her family and Gale if she can’t convince the people – and him – that her actions in the Games were only for love and not rebellion.

The tour doesn’t go well. Throughout the trip they see signs of the rebellion: graffiti of her Mockingjay pin; more that changes the game’s slogan to “The odds are never in our favor”; people in the audience giving her three-fingered salute and whistling Katniss’ haunting whistle, which brings on lethal responses from the authorities. Snow realizes that not just Katniss but all the past victors in the Hunger Games are potential leaders in a rebellion, and he turns to a former game designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for a way to eliminate the threat. The answer Heavensbee provides is a Quarter Quell for the 75th games, where the contestants are all former winners. As the only female winner from District 12, Katniss has to return to the arena.

The Hunger Game franchise, like Star Wars and Harry Potter before it, ls blessed with a strong production team, led by Nina Jacobson and John Kilik. After director Gary Ross departed, they replaced him with Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend). If anything, it’s made the series stronger. The new movie opens up the canvas so the audience see more of the world and the capitol.

The production design, especially the sets and the makeup, have actually improved on the outstanding work in the first movie. There’s a strong echo of Imperial Rome in the movie’s style, more than just the chariots the tributes ride when they’re introduced before the games. The heavily-lined eyes with the women’s makeup and the rows of drummers along the parade route would be instantly familiar to Caesar’s citizens. The buildings, though, are 20th Century Totalitarian. Kudos to Philip Messina for the overall production design as well as to the entire makeup department. Also deserving of recognition is Trish Summerville for the costume design, which ends up being an integral part of the movie’s plot.

The roles of the returning cast have grown. It’s a pleasure to watch Sutherland in full villain mode. Even when Snow interacts with his granddaughter, his ruthlessness is just below the surface. Banks beautifully embodies the shallow Effie as she ventures tentatively into deeper waters, and we see in Willow Shield’s portrayal of Katniss’ sister Primrose some of her older sister’s grit and strength. We also get to know both Gale and Peeta better, and both actors help give reality to Katniss’ dilemma of being denied her first love as well as the real feelings developing for Peeta. Not only Katniss but the whole audience can’t decide between the two.

Several of the former Game winners stand out, in particular Jeffrey Wright as the brilliant Beetee and Sam Claffin as the vain but complicated Finnick, but the one who is stunning is Jenna Malone, who has one of the most memorable entrances in film history as wild-child Johanna Mason.

The movie, though, is carried by Lawrence, who can communicate pages of emotions in a simple glance. The point of Catching Fire is Katniss’ transformation from young, fragile girl to steely leader of the rebellion. In one moment of silence, Lawrence nails it.

The final book “Mockingjay” has been split into two films, as was done with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The Potter films felt a little bloated – together they ran over 4 ½ hours – and one hopes that this won’t happen in this series. The good news is they’ve brought in Danny Strong to pen the adaptations. Strong won an Emmy for his writing of the HBO movie Game Change, and he also did the screenplay for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, released earlier this year. Another reason to hope is that the producers have already pulled off one of the hardest tricks in the movie business – they made a sequel that is better than the outstanding original.