The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I (2014)

Mockingjay Part IHaving been rescued from the 75th Hunger Games by insurgents from District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now exiled underground with her family (Willow Shields; Paula Malcolmson), friends (Liam Hemsworth; Woody Harrelson) and assorted refugees from the other districts (Sam Claflin; Jeffrey Wright). As President Snow (Donald Sutherland) tries to quash the nascent rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) seeks to fan the flames. Capitol interlopers Plurarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymore Hoffman) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) agree to help by turning Katniss into the Mockingjay, a figurehead for the resistance, and with the help of director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) they leave the safety of the bunker to put together a series of propaganda films on the surface. Before she can help them, however, Katniss must come to terms with the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — something made all the harder by the revelation that he is now working for Snow.

Although largely seen as the refrain of the fanboy, “it’s not as good as the book” is a criticism that might accurately be leveled at Lionsgate’s extant Hunger Games franchise. The first film was held in relatively high regard upon its release in 2012, and following the subsequent deluge of imitators it has become the yardstick against which all other Young Adult adaptations are measured, but next to Suzanne Collins’ source novel it isn’t quite as impressive. In a drive to recreate the book’s urgency and momentum original director Gary Ross left an awful lot out, as did successor Francis Lawrence when he took on Catching Fire the following year. District 12 lost most of its screentime to the titular Games, and unconvincing special effects, bizarre casting choices and incomprehensible action sequences have dogged the series ever since. Ultimately, however, the story of Katniss Everdeen — Girl on Fire — has been just about compelling enough to compensate.

Mockingjay, however, was always the weakest episode in the trilogy, and it followed that the film (or films, as it was inevitably split in two, Deathly Hallows style) would likely follow suit. Buried underground and removed from the action, Katniss spent most of the novel on hold as control was ceded instead to Coin. This is the part of the narrative that occupies Mockingjay – Part I, and it was hard to imagine returning director Lawrence being able to make it work, especially seeing as key characters from the book — often present throughout Collins’ trilogy — had yet to be introduced and relationships satisfactorily established onscreen. In the event, this is particularly evident in the opening act, as Katniss — distrustful of Coin — is sent back to District 12 to see the damage wrought by Snow for herself. Whereas the destruction of Hogwarts — after eight films spent within its walls — verged on iconoclastic, seeing the Victor’s Village in ruin just doesn’t have the same impact; the mythology doesn’t mean quite as much. The previous films haven’t done enough to make audiences care about anyone or anything other than Katniss.

Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (best known for playing Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) do their best to bring you up to speed — but it’s too little, too late. It’s a silly example, but both Katniss and sister Prim go out of their way to save the family pet despite the fact that it has never been mentioned before, robbing their efforts of the emotional resonance that they perhaps deserve. That they each call the cat by different names only confuses matters more. Similarly, it is mentioned that — like Peeta and fellow victor Johanna Mason — Annie Cresta is a prisoner of the Capitol, yet you’d have to really rack your brains to recall her fleeting cameo in Catching Fire. It’s only now that the supporting cast is finally getting some attention that you realise how small and superficial the ensemble actually is, with extras once again being called upon to provide the stakes and scale whenever the film rejoins the battle taking place beyond Coin’s bunker. The Hunger Games must have some of the hardest working extras in the industry.

It’s all the more amazing, then, that the film kind of works regardless. Jennifer Lawrence continues to carry the series, and from the moment the camera opens on Katniss Everdeen you can’t help but invest in her struggle. She no longer has to do so single-handedly, however, and both Moore and the late Hoffman help to shoulder the weight. Hemsworth gets more to do as well, and if anything he makes Gale more sympathetic than he was even in the books — he’s lost Katniss to Peeta, and he knows it, yet he stands by her side regardless. Mainly, however, it’s thanks to the subtext — now essentially text — that Mockingjay – Part I manages to hold your interest. There has always been a sense of satire to the series, and ever since The Hunger Games first hit our screens it’s been impossible to look at reality television in quite the same way; but here the socio-political commentary takes the fore. Mockingjay has a lot to say about propaganda and the media, about democracy and dictatorships, and about rebellion and terrorism. Given that the series is allegedly set in a future dystopian America its message could be very pertinent indeed.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I, being half an adaptation of a disappointing book, is about as good as it could ever possibly be. Excellent performances, a strong satirical edge and a killer ending (Katniss’ torments are worth one hundred anonymous tragedies) help to compensate for an uneventful story, slight supporting cast and lack of emotional weight. Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from here.

3.5-Stars

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X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

Days Of Future Past

In 1973 the death of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and the subsequent capture of his killer Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the United States government to pursue the late inventor’s sentinel programme. Fifty years later, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) are among the last mutants remaining after the shape-shifting robots have exterminated most of their kind. Using Kitty’s powers, Charles and Eric send Logan back in time to stop Mystique, save Trask and hopefully prevent the future as they know it from ever happening. In order to succeed he must seek out their younger selves (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively), a task that is easier said than done given that they are no longer on speaking terms, with the former suppressing his abilities with the aid of a serum and the latter incarcerated miles beneath the Pentagon. Luckily, he has Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to help him.

I think it’s safe to say that for a while there thing’s weren’t looking very good for 20th Century Fox’s flagship superhero franchise. The X-Men had been in a bad way for some time; the saga had devolved into three separate sub-series, the continuity of which had become convoluted, often contradictory, and its biggest box office draw — the now ubiquitous Hugh Jackman — was openly considering an early retirement. Worse, the story behind the camera was often as difficult to follow as that which was unfolding before it: first, director Bryan Singer left the celebrated trilogy he had started in the ill-equipped hands of Brett Ratner, then Gavin Hood pursued a Wolverine prequel only for Matthew Vaughn to reboot the series with a largely new cast, while most recently James Mangold took on a second Wolverine spin-off, which — just to confuse matters further — acted not as a sequel to Hood’s film or a spin-off from Vaughn’s but as a continuation of the original trilogy. I did my best to make sense of it all here.

Some faith was restored when Singer announced that he would be returning to the series he started, and the revelation that he would this time be adapting the revered Days Of Future Past storyline from the X-Men comics was met with (admittedly wary) optimism. What Singer had planned was certainly ambitious: to use a time-travel plot device to not only knit together the now disparate threads — each with its own cast, often playing the same characters — but to unpick some of the narrative knots introduced into the series by Ratner, Hood, Vaughn and Mangold. It seemed from the outside as though Singer was plotting not just a movie but a rescue mission, and though he has ultimately succeeded in putting the franchise back on track his efforts go far beyond papering over the cracks supposedly left by others. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is not simply course correction — the film doesn’t tie itself in loops trying to plug every single hole (you may remember Wolverine had his adamantium claws severed in the last film, yet he retains them here) — but an attempt at something bigger and more exciting.

Considering just how much ground he has to cover Singer tackles the first act with an astonishing lightness of touch. We are reunited with Kitty Pride — complete with hitherto unseen time-travelling abilities — in a brief but brilliant opening salvo that also introduces four new characters and establishes the film’s dystopian future timeline. Patrick Stewart then explains the stakes, while also dispensing with fifty-odd years of history and laying out the various obstacles that Logan must overcome in his mission to save the future from the past. Before you know it you’re transported back to the 1970s, watching Wolverine struggle out of a waterbed and into a floral shirt — cracking wise once again after ten minutes of action-packed but sober exposition. After five movies and one gratuitous cameo you could be forgiven for expecting another glorified vehicle for Jackman; however, not only does Singer somehow manage to breathe new life into the character by putting him into a novel situation but he manages to keep Logan under strict control and just to the edge of the spotlight. X-Men: Days Of Future Past feels like the missing piece of the puzzle, and once in place it becomes clear that the series isn’t really about him after all.

Singer may give the likes of Storm, Shadowcat and Iceman one last chance to shine (not to mention Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, who after three films of relative inactivity finally gets something to do), but his focus is ultimately on the newer cast of 1973. Despite fears of overcrowding born from seemingly endless casting announcements, Days Of Future Past is in fact a surprisingly intimate affair. This is the story of two feuding friends, and of the young woman caught in their crossfire; as McAvoy’s Charles and Fassbender’s Erik pursue their individual ends, Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique is left to strike out on her own — a path that will ultimately lead mutant-kind towards extinction. A supporting character in the original trilogy, and somewhat underserved by Vaugh’s First Class, Mystique finally comes into her own, growing to embody the struggle between revenge and redemption that has been at the franchise’s core ever since day one. It’s such a perfect fit that you wonder if it has in fact been Singer’s plan all along — when Stewart (and later McAvoy) insists that it’s never too late to bring someone back from the brink, he could almost be speaking of the franchise itself.

Where Days Of Future Past really distinguishes itself, however, is in its surprisingly unspoiled and understated second half. It’s amazing just how little of the story has been given away in the film’s apparently excessive promotional materials. There comes a point after Mystique has saved Havok (Lucas Till) from Saigon and Professor X, Wolverine and Quicksilver (who makes an impression far exceeding the time he is actually onscreen) have freed Magneto from prison that you realise you have no idea what’s going to happen next. X-Men has always been the full package — offering not only superhero spectacle but also compelling characters and real satirical edge — and Singer weaves a story that makes absolute sense, whether you look at it from a logistical, emotional or historical standpoint. This gives the third act stakes not often seen in the superhero genre; Mystique’s soul, Charles and Erik’s friendship and fifty years of history (not to mention the films audiences have grown up with) are all on the line. By the time the film ends you will have laughed, you will have cried and you will have left Wolverine-esque gashes in the arms of your chair.

With Marvel having set a precedent in The Avengers, it seems that every studio with a superhero series to its name is pursuing an integrated mega-franchise. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is really the first film to deliver on this particular promise; Singer’s latest is an emotional, intelligent and thrilling movie in its own right but it’s also a part of something much, much bigger. It’s at once a conclusion (and an astonishingly satisfying one at that), a bridge between instalments (we get flashbacks/forwards to every film in the series) and a springboard for future adventures (I for one can’t wait to see more of Blink). Singer somehow manages to have his cake and eat it; rather than dismiss the films that came before, Days Of Future Past actually validates them — as if somehow elevating them by mere association with this towering achievement. He hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

5-Stars

 

American Hustle (2013)

American HustleDespite owning a chain of dry cleaning stores in New York City, businessman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) makes most of his money flogging fake paintings on the side. When he meets stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party in 1978, the two become partners with Sydney adopting the guise of British aristocrat Lady Edith Greensly in an attempt to ensnare investors. They attract more than just clients, however, and are soon under investigation by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), though he has bigger fish to fry; in exchange for their freedom Irving and Sydney must help to implicate four other criminals. Suddenly, they, along with Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), become embroiled in a plot involving seemingly corrupt politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and mob boss Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).

Like some strange composite of last year’s awards contenders, recycling the cast of David O. Russell’s own Silver Linings Playbook‘s and recalling both the setting and tone of Ben Affleck’s Argo, American Hustle struts into cinemas just in time for 2014’s Golden Globes. The whole thing stinks of award bait, from method actor Christian Bale’s continued yo-yo diet to cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s preoccupation with the production’s extensive hair and make-up. Watching Russell’s latest it’s hard not to mentally compose your own “For Your Consideration” montage, even for the most technical of categories.

That’s not to say that American Hustle isn’t good — there is undoubtedly much to admire in its 138 minute running time, as there should be — just that it’s often more concerned with being worthy than either engaging or enjoyable. For what feels like much of the movie’s first act, dialogue is often eschewed in favour of lengthy voice-over, giving the film a detached quality that is perfect for explanatory soundbites but perhaps less conducive to immersive storytelling. This uninterrupted stream of exposition is necessary, however, as unlike Affleck’s Oscar winner Russell’s film doesn’t simplify events so much as complicate them. The introduction of the Arab Sheik should have been funny in its absurdity, but unless you’ve been keeping notes you’ll be too busy waiting for him to explain his purpose to get the joke.

It’s a shame because when the jokes do hit their mark they’re often very funny indeed. Cooper, though recently revealed to be a capable dramatic actor, is first and foremost a gifted comedian, and his passive-aggressive relationship with his boss Stoddard Thorsen (played beautifully by Louis C.K.) — a mentor figure who keeps trying and failing to impart wisdom through a fishing anecdote — is a joy to behold. Lawrence also shines in her capacity as unstable housewife and accidental arsonist Rosalyn Rosenfeld, and she — along with Stoddard — may be the closest the film comes to sympathetic characters. Bale and Adams aren’t anywhere near as much fun, though the latter still manages to impress thanks to a note-perfect English accent and an irrepressible innate charm.

Impressive and occasionally entertaining, American Hustle is decent enough comedy-drama — more admirable perhaps than Anchorman 2 but nowhere near as enjoyable. Strong performances and even stronger production values guarantee that there is always something to look at, but once the credits have finally rolled you’re unlikely to recall more than Bale’s comb-over, Adams’ cleavage and Cooper’s curls. At least until awards night, when the montages start.

3-Stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Catching FireFollowing her unprecedented victory at the 74th Hunger Games, in which she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) both survived the arena after threatening viewers with a double suicide, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is touring the country with her entourage of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). With many in the districts viewing her actions as an act of rebellion against the Capitol and showing signs of revolution themselves, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is keen to have Katniss placate the masses by convincing them that is was instead an act of love. There is a contingency plan, however, and with a Quarter Quell approaching, Snow and new gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are conspiring to put Katniss back in the games.

When Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games was released back in 2012, Suzanne Collin’s creation was at the very height of its popularity. With the three novels riding high in the charts, bows topping Christmas wishlists and $691 million at the international box office, Katniss was like catnip to teens who had outgrown the ineffectualness of Twilight‘s Bella Swan. At the time of its release, the first film received incredibly strong reviews, with Ross praised for treating his audience like adults and Lawrence hailed as a hero figure in her own right.

Over the last year, however, The Hunger Games has undergone something of a re-evaluation. While still undoubtedly a step above its fellow Young Adult adaptations — not just in terms of acting but world-building and relevant socio-political subtext too — the film hasn’t exactly lived up to repeated viewings. Ross’ infernal shaky-cam may keep the censors happy by obscuring some of the arena-set violence but it also detracts from the experience of watching the action scenes, while Hutcherson himself has criticised the film’s rather lacklustre special effects.

The first thing you notice about Francis Lawrence’s sequel is that you can just about tell what is going on, which should have immediately improved upon the original film and allowed you to appreciate the performances on a whole new level. Unfortunately, Lawrence has his own directorial quirks, and Catching Fire is — bizarrely — presented primarily in extreme close-ups, drawing an almost distracting amount of attention to his star’s jarringly flawless features. It’s not just the action that suffers; a Katniss-Plutarch dance scene is robbed of any identifiable dancing. There are so few establishing shots in the finished film that you could probably count them on one hand, if you weren’t feeling quite so cripplingly claustrophobic.

So what do these films have to hide? Both directors have so far made efforts to distract their audiences from something. Once again the answer seems to be the film’s budgetary constraints, for despite having an extra fifty million or so dollars to play with Lawrence is still clearly struggling to do justice to Collins’ Panem. Almost nothing looks real, and not just the unimproved parade of fancy-dressed tributes or the chimps borrowed from After Earth but the plight of the characters themselves. Having just suffered a panic attack after hunting a turkey, Katniss spends so much time fixing her hair for the cameras — the filmmakers, not even the gamesmakers — that the moment is all but lost.

Camerawork and special effects aside, however, Catching Fire is still a head and shoulders above the competition. Catching Fire is the best book in the trilogy, and from it Lawrence makes a pretty good film too. With Katniss and company seeing more of the country, the audience is introduced to new characters (though neither Sam Claflin or Jenna Malone seem suited to their roles), increased stakes (fellow victors replacing children in the ring) and more certificate-pushing mild peril (although low on blood, the taunts of the mockingjay are truly horrific). Downplaying the romantic element and instead focusing on the brewing rebellion, the film feels darker and more confident. As President Snow intimates himself, the Hunger Games are just that: games. This is war.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore the film’s weaknesses. Whereas Collins’ Catching Fire told a complex, compelling and complete story that had you walking all the way to Asda in the rain for the next instalment, Lawrence’s leaves you just as excited for Mockingjay but without the sense of having just witnessed something great in its own right. There’s no beginning or end, just a string of admittedly very well constructed scenes that more often or not feel like connective tissue.

3-Stars

The Hunger Games (2012)

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a fatherless hunter-gatherer from the twelfth outlying district of Panem, is forced to volunteer her life when her sister is picked as tribute for the Capitol’s nefarious Hunger Games. Devised both as penance for a past uprising and a deterrence from future rebellion, the Games pit a boy and girl from each of the nation’s districts against one another in a battle to the death from which only one victor can emerge, an event which is broadcast for the enjoyment or torment of the programme’s various viewers. Mentored by past victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and represented by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) must fight for survival against 46 other competitors, including 12 year-old Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and the formidable Cato (Alexander Ludwig).

It’s difficult, when it comes to things so close to the heart, or whichever obscure area of the brain is tasked with regulating such rampant faboyism, to take a step back and evaluate something as already subjective as the predicted enjoyability of a motion picture. There is, however, a certain level of detachment that can be maintained, a narrative investment that can facilitate the illusion that you are watching something – or at least this one, specific version of that thing – for the very first time. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is still its own beast, forever preserved in her source novel, but in this instance director Gary Ross has created something different, something more.

Told entirely from Katniss’ perspective, one of the first things to hit you about Collins’ storytelling is its immediacy. From the first page we are in Katniss’ world, her Panem, and from there we view the nation, in all its murky glory, through her scrutinising eyes in relentless real-time. Ross continues this intimacy, utilising an impressive arsenal of close-ups and fraught shaky-cam to immerse his 3D glasses-less audience in a dangerous and unstable environment. Unlike first person narrative, however, Ross does not seek to exclude the rest of his characters, instead using this new medium to explore Katniss’ surroundings and relationships without ever jeopardising her own agency and importance to the story.

Ross’ Panem is worlds away from that broadly sketched by Collins in a child-friendly font. Whilst the books only alluded to the reality faced by those ostracised by the Capitol – at least until the subsequent instalments – the film doesn’t shy away from the destitution and degradation endured by the denizens of the outlying Districts. Washed out and mired in filth, District 12 resembles at best a neglected shanty town and at worst a disturbing parallel with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. This bleakness is only exaggerated with the arrival of Effie Trinket and her entourage of Peacekeepers, before she remorselessly tears two families apart and whisks the District’s teenage tributes away to a Neverland of excess, a cross between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Whoville, where they will most likely end their young lives.

This isn’t the only example of the film taking Collins’ Young Adult novel and turning it into something undoubtedly fit for all ages. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), originally effectively relegated to the sequels, is introduced early, his dealings with the head Games Master Seneca Crane (Wes Bently) reorganised as a surprisingly effective framing device that speaks of a politically-charged world beyond Katniss’ immediate understanding. The first contemporary uprising is also brought forward, adding to the already charged atmosphere as we watch human beings refusing to cheer the death of their friends and family, a haunting impression no amount of juvenile talk about jibber-jabbers and mockingjays can seek to undo.

Thematically, this is a much stronger telling of the story, as an ever-present and ominous unrest asks serious and important questions not only about the running of a fictional future dystopia but of our own lives and society as well. Collins’ issues with reality television and other forms of distraction that aim to mask oppression, poverty and war as they happen, unchallenged, elsewhere remain intact, emphasised here by the parallels that are drawn visually. As a pruned and preened child chases his sister with a facsimile sword, desensitised to the genocide that such an act ultimately endorses, it is difficult not to shudder in ghostly apprehension of its near-inevitability.

Other improvements include a certain narrative efficacy; surprising, perhaps, as Collins’ source novel was already pretty trim, and all the more compelling for it. While some characters might have been omitted they are rarely missed, the newly reshaped relationships and causality also proving more satisfying and economical than their original configuration. The endowment of the mockingjay pin, for instance, has much more resonance coming from Prim (who was herself given it as a gift) than it would have done had it come from a cameoing mayor’s daughter, while the omission of Peeta’s father and numerous hunting sequences come as somewhat of a relief.

Perhaps the most obvious benefits offered by the medium of film, however, are the sensory aids of picture and sound, and both are used to optimum effect. In addition to the naturalistic cinematography, the bleakness of the opening segment and the unreality of the Capitol itself, Ross’ direction facilitates a number of other stand-out scenes and sequences. Inside the arena, the effects of a powerful hallucinogen on an injured Katniss and the dying sight of one particular tribute prove particularly memorable. The sound design, on the other hand, is even more effective, its expert use generating a reality – and, in some instances, subtle horror – that the images alone could not possibly convey. The soundtrack in general is one of the strongest so far this year.

But that is to seriously short-change The Hunger Games‘ biggest asset: it’s characters, brought to life by Ross’ faultless cast. The consistently compelling Jennifer Lawrence leads an outstanding cast, yet outshines them all with her interpretation of Katniss. Strong, stubborn and yet exuding a reluctant vulnerability, Lawrence breathes independence and integrity into a character who could have easily been squandered at the head of a thankless love triangle. Along with Josh Hutcherson’s dependable Peeta, they bring a nuance and dignity to a relationship which rarely delivered as construed on the page. Liam Hemsworth, meanwhile, does his best with a difficult part as boy-at-home Gale.

There are issues, however, and not all of them originate from deviations from the source material. At 142 minutes, it is debatable whether or not the already considerable running time is used to the best effect. While the initial focus on peripheral characters and interactions undoubtedly helped to establish the world and ultimately served the various themes, it also leads to an unfortunate side-lining of the arena-set action. With many of the film’s subplots already due to come into play later down the line, it is entirely possible that they blurring of the other tributes, the undermining of certain hardships and the underdevelopment of a few key relationships was not entirely necessary.

Aside from this narrative imbalance and a few precarious effects (it’s a shame the filmmakers should have such an issue with CGI fire – given the subject matter), however, there is very little that is actually wrong with Ross’ film. Harrowing, intelligent and startlingly relevant, The Hunger Games is both an entertaining film and a strong cinematic adaptation. With the second instalment – Catching Fire – offering much more in terms of action and social commentary, this should be the franchise to watch. See, a whole review and I didn’t have to mention Battle Royale once. Well, twice.

My Hunger For The Hunger Games

Now, I don’t tend to think of myself as having a particularly addictive personality; I only drink to be sociable and I only smoke when I drink, but every so often something so synapse-frying and irresistibly brilliant comes along that I obsess over it as though nothing else really matters.

During my childhood it was Star Wars, then Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I ended my teens and most recently Harry Potter, each of which I have been obsessively shooting directly into my eyes for years. Following the release of the final instalment of the latter (Part II) last year, I have once again found my withdrawal symptoms manifesting themselves in mysterious and alarming ways: only last week I saw an advert for Two and a Half Men and smiled. SMILED!

Google help me, I have tried to find something new to fill this hole. I persevered 13 pages into Twilight, did a bit of a run to the shops and even tried my hand at paintballing, but nothing touched me or my imagination in the same way that my previous compulsions had. It was with some trepidation, resignation and a fair dose of desperation then that I turned to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the story following a young girl in District 12 of a dystopia future’s America who is forced to fight to the death for an upper class’ amusement. And here’s five reasons that you should too.

It’s Easy Reading.

Put down the syringe, drop that diet and for the love of God, Michael Fassbender, stop masturbating in your office toilet, it doesn’t have to be this way! You don’t have to break a single law, shatter a single mirror or draw attention to your kinky sex habits to enjoy this conveniently more literary crack, this top shelf treasure. Simply man up, borrow a younger relative, have them peruse your local book shop’s Young Adult section and hey presto, voila: a new raison d’etre.

It’s Unputdownable.

What? Of course it’s a word. Anyway, after three months and thirteen pages of mopey Mormonism I needed something new, something that I didn’t physically have to glue to my hand. I used to love peeling dried PVA from my fingers as much as the next person, but I’m already reading a children’s book and so help me Peter Pan there’s only so much childishness one top-deck, back-seat bus journey can take. With each chapter ending on the kind of cliff that actively induces vertigo, you will find yourself committing continuous social suicide as you shun your workmates and friends in an unquenchable need to know what happens next – a hallmark of any self-respecting addiction.

It Sneaks Up On You.

While the first few chapters will leave you spluttering and watery-eyed, you will quickly realise that The Hunger Games is more than the relatively measly sum of its parts. I’m not talking chic peas or inconspicuous traces of talcum powder, but an over-reliance on hammy subplots and repetitive hunting sequences in order to pad out the narrative. Despite the occasional dud note (every time Collins names a muttation – or uses the word muttation itself, for that matter – I want to quit and take up stamp collecting), The Hunger Games soon develops into an intelligent, keenly observed and utterly compelling way to spend your rapidly exploding waking hours.

There’s More Where That Came From.

While there may have been seven Star Wars movies (don’t forget Star Wars: The Clone Wars was released theatrically), seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and seven instalments in the Harry Potter series, I have refused to be spoilt by such relatively inexhaustible suppliers as George Lucas, Joss Whedon and J.K. Rowling. The Hunger Games is no one hit wonder, however, and I spent a glorious five days in the company of Suzanne Collin’s incredible trilogy. And it’s not over yet…

There’s Going To Be A Movie.

Finally, justification for spending nearly a thousand words on a topic that falls noticeably outside the jurisdiction of this blog and the confines of my other addiction: popcorn. Star Wars had its games and spin-offs (and Vodaphone adverts), Buffy had its comic book continuation and Harry Potter had its own cinematic adapatations (eight of the buggers). As of March 23rd of this year, fellow addicts fans will be able to revisit The Hunger Games when it reaches cinemas in the guise of the Gary Ross film based on the original book. With Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mallark and Thor’s brother (not that one) as Gale Hawthorne, this new incarnation promises to delight, sate and inevitably divide audiences for years to come.

The Beaver (2011)

Having spent years trapped in crippling depression, despondent toy executive Walter Black (Mel Gibson) finally finds himself evicted from his home and divorced from his family. Throwing out some of his belongings in order to make room for a few crates of alcohol, Walter takes solace in a braver hand puppet rescued from the skip. Using the puppet as a barrier between his vulnerable mentality and the outside world, Walter starts to rebuild his life – both personal and professional – as he finds a new means of communicating in his youngest son and creates a lucrative new toy for his failing company. Older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) and wife Meredith (Jodie Foster), however, soon lose patience with the foetid, cockney beaver, the question of permanency driving a fresh wedge between the struggling family.

Well I suppose we should address The Elephant (sequel opportunity?) in the room, Mel Gibson’s rants and raves at the expense of just about every minority there is,  and treat it with the respect and dividends it no doubt deserves.

Anyway, while it could be argued that the real life similarities inherent in Walter Black’s cry for help and subsequent career revival lend The Beaver an extra dimension of poignancy, I spent little of the film’s running time drawing the comparisons. You see, quite beside the fact that I have been able to discern fact from fiction since the age of about four, I have always found Mel Gibson a formidable and magnetic screen presence, his recent flirtation with the director’s chair producing one of the greatest movies of the last few years, the utterly excellent Apocalypto. The Beaver proves no exception.

Not only does Gibson convince with a bonkers cockney accent – I literally, until the credits rolled, believed it to be the voice of Ray Winstone – but he delivers one of the most nuanced and heart-breaking performances of the year. Hidden behind a puppet and navigating life by way of zombie shuffle, it’s easy to overlook the actor’s admittedly understated approach to the character. It is to Gibson’s credit, then, that his presence is always felt, even opposite the decidedly more active roles enacted by Foster and Yelchin.

A lot has been said of Yelchin’s allegedly superfluous romantic subplot, in which he battles for the affections of reluctant street artist Nora (Jennifer Lawrence). While the set up of their relationship – strictly business at first – defies believability (he fakes other students’ essays for a living, she needs a graduation speech that sounds like it was written by her own hand), it develops into an organic and welcome escape from Walter’s all-consuming psychosis and a moving – if slightly pretentious – final speech.

The Beaver absolutely destroyed me. For reasons I have yet to truly comprehend, the story of one man’s struggle to find his voice – and keep it distinct from that of his furry fabrication – reduced me to a blubbing wreck, refusing to leave my thoughts since. Beautifully shot, passionately acted and utterly visceral, Foster has put together a dramedy which matches the lightness of the core premise with some of the darkest undertones you will see in cinemas this year. Whatever your feelings towards Mel Gibson, the story of Walter Black is not one you ought to miss.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Desperate to avenge his mother by killing the man responsible for her death, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) travels the globe dispatching the Nazis who had served under Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in the concentration camps of his youth. In England, meanwhile, Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is recruited by the CIA to help avert a nuclear war. Travelling to America with operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and his childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier soon encounters Lehnsherr and Shaw, founding the X-Men with the former after saving his life in the field. Where Charles teaches his new charges tolerance and humility, however, Eric believes that they shouldn’t have to hide themselves from humanity, that they are the next stage in human evolution and should take their rightful place in the natural hierarchy. When events result in a stand-off between the U.S. and Russian naval fleets, our small group of mutant heroes must put their differences aside if they are to defeat Shaw and avert war.

I must admit to taking my seat in the auditorium with a small degree of trepidation, what with all the early chatter regarding retcons and cameos, I feared a film which jeopardised established cannon in the blind pursuit of narrative freedom; the excellence of the first two instalments (and the adequacy of the third) being somehow undermined by a nifty new beginning where Charles Xavier says “groovy” and the sun inexplicably rotates the Earth. I needn’t have worried, however, with X-Men: First Class proving far less revisionist than director Matthew Vaughn might have had you believe. While he may take a few liberties with the extant franchise, they are – and this is where X-Men Origins: Wolverine went catastrophically wrong – for the good of the story.

Having successfully deconstructed the superhero genre with Kick-Ass, it is interesting to see how Vaughn handles his superpowers. Reconstructing the opening scene from Bryan Singer’s first movie, Vaughn and screenwriter extraordinaire Jane Goldman have endeavoured to tell an X-Men origins story of their own, albeit one that beautifully marries the 1960s setting with an expanding array of new and returning mutants, successfully imbuing the story with a freshness not felt since we were last introduced to Professor X and his merry band of mutants. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender make the characters their own – no mean feat considering the talent which preceded (or is it superseded?) them – while Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, January Jones’ Emma Frost and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert provide delightful additions to the franchise.

Elsewhere, however, the newcomers are less impressive. While the original X-film was criticised for feeling like a teaser for adventures to come on behalf of its slim cast, it at least found the time to flesh out its ensemble (OK, maybe not Toad). First Class, on the other hand, feels overcrowded, with many mutants given little to do but change sides and fill out the two organisations – I for one don’t remember hearing Álex González’s Riptide speak once. With the most recognisable mutants still in nappies at this point, the buck falls to an array of dopplegangers and less-than-inspiring B-mutants to take their place. While Banshee, Havoc and Darwin have their moments, Azazel never escapes Nightcrawler’s shadow and Angel Salvadore treads foolishness as the wasp-like go-go girl with explosive vomit.

Other elements that don’t quite work are the split screen training montages (the entire third act rests on Beast having the most productive week ever), the plotting inconsistencies (Beast has created an antidote to his mutation that he doesn’t believe will affect his mutation, quite despite the fact that it is his abnormally prehensile feet that give him his abilities) and the relationship between Xavier and Raven. While this latter issue may resolve itself as they mature into a more organic friendship by movie’s end, the characters’ childhood introductions don’t quite sit right, whether due to scripting issues or the child actors themselves. It is a small gripe, but one that haunts the film’s opening act nonetheless.

First Class is a return to form, however, with the renewed focus on characters and a welcome prioritisation of substance over style (poor special effects can be forgiven, an over-reliance on set pieces cannot) acting as a reminder of how figuratively rich the X-series can be. In tying Nazi occupation and the Cuban missile crisis to a high octane superhero tale of world domination, Goldman has once again delivered a wholly fulfilling script with some well observed inter-character dialogue. That said, although First Class has commendable aspirations, the heavy-handedness with which the name-checking of literary behemoths Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is dealt serves only to illustrate how derivative the medium can be; riffing off existing emotional truths rather than exploring its own. Now five movies in, the core messages of self-actualisation and societal acceptance – while timeless – are beginning to echo previous instalments. Far from the vacuousess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, at least it stands for something.

All in all, X-Men: First Class heralds an exciting new dawn for a franchise steeped in qualitative discrepancy. While some of the plot points might creak as the writers attempt to retrofit the narrative to the original trilogy, and although a few of the characters may fall by the wayside, there is enough wit, innovation and genuine exhilaration to justify a new franchise, even if one less radical than the overhaul befalling Star Trek. That this is largely down to Fassbender and McAvoy – although Lehnsherr may suffer a somewhat severe case of accent ambiguity and Xavier’s preoccupation with his hair might wear a little thin (ahem) – is a reflection not only of the filmmakers’ combined talents, but the quality of the source material from which they draw.