Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
"THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE"
Jennifer Lawrence returns as heroic Katniss Everdeen in the second installment of Suzanne Collins' dystopian "Hunger Games" trilogy -- one that resonates even darker and more dramatic than the first.
After winning the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) leave family and friends for a "Victor's Tour" of the oppressed, underprivileged districts. But first Katniss must face District 12 suitor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) now that she's supposed to be romantically involved with Peeta. It's a fictional liaison fostered in the Capitol by ruthlessly diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who -- along with wily games maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- is planning the next survival-of-the-fittest TV reality show, The Quarter Quell, which will bring together former Victors in gladiator competition, as the seeds of subversion and rebellion are sprouting throughout Panem.
"Last year was child's play," warns Katniss' manipulative mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, it's adroitly directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), who adheres to the central themes of loyalty, trust and betrayal, while developing complex emotional relationships and maintaining the resonant political undercurrent and exploitative tension of the suspenseful jungle games, which involve a rotating rock island, rabid monkeys, attack birds, blood rain and a rolling fog of poison gas.
Oscar winner for "Silver Linings Playbook," Jennifer Lawrence once again embodies fiery, ferocious, fatalistic Katniss, the outspoken, revolutionary warrior whose weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. There's also meaty, masterful support from Elizabeth Banks as PR-maven Effie Trinket, Lenny Kravitz as designer Cinna and Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman, along with newcomers Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Jena Malone. And great credit goes to Capitol Couture's Trish Summerville for inventive, elaborate costumes.
The final book "Mockingjay" will be divided into two parts, the first scheduled for release next November.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is an exciting, engaging, escapist 8 -- a spectacular sequel that should satisfy fans of the book as well as the 2012 blockbuster.
"DALLAS BUYERS CLUB"
Not since Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for "Philadelphia" has a major Hollywood star portrayed a person afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Now, Matthew McConaughey follows his mucho-macho "Magic Mike"/"Mud" characterizations with this gritty, frail man-against-the-system drama, based on true events.
When he's not working as an electrician, Roy Woodruff (McConaughey) is a bull-riding rodeo cowboy, a Texas redneck bigot who openly mocks homosexuals -- until, in 1985, he discovers he's HIV-positive. Stunned by the diagnosis, he refuses to believe the doctors (Denis O'Hare, Jennifer Garner) that he has only 30 days to live.
Proclaiming, "I ain't no dang queer," Roy balks at participating in a double-blind AZT trial at Dallas Mercy Hospital, afraid he'll be given a placebo. So he buys AZT illegally, only to discover it's making him worse, especially since he also chain smokes, guzzles booze, snorts cocaine and gulps methamphetamines. Through extensive research, he finds an unorthodox doctor (Griffin Dunne) at a Mexican clinic, where he learns about alternative treatments and starts smuggling them into Dallas.
With the help of an unlikely friend, Rayon (unrecognizable Jared Leto), a transsexual druggie, street-smart Roy organizes a "buyer's club" where HIV-positive/AIDS-infected members pay $400 monthly dues for his newly acquired, unauthorized supplies, as opposed to the $10,000 a year that pharmaceutical companies charge for AZT, despite its toxicity. That success leads rebellious, resourceful Roy to visit Japan, China and the Netherlands, searching for new AIDS drugs, despite attempts by the FDA, DEA and IRS to shut him down.
Empathetically scripted by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallick and grittily helmed in minimalist style by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee ("C.R.A.Z.Y.," "The Young Victoria") with Yves Belanger's handheld camera work, it's most memorable for McConaughey's convincing, complex, tour-de-force performance and astonishing physical transformation. While publicists say he lost 38 pounds, on his wiry, emaciated frame, it looks more like 50. And making a remarkable return to acting, singer/musician Leto is a revelation.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Dallas Buyers Club" is an admirable 8 -- a desperately sad, yet redemptive character study.
Looking for light comedy? With so many "significant" films opening, it's refreshing to find one that simply offers frothy, feel-good fun.
Irresponsible, unreliable and $80,000 in debt, aimless David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) can't seem to get his life in order, much to the dismay of his Polish father (Andrzej Blumfeld), butcher brother (Bobby Moynihan) and longtime girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders), a New York cop who tells him she's pregnant. Excited that he's about to be a father, he confides in his buddy/lawyer Brett (Chris Pratt), a beleaguered father of four, who cautions him that parenthood is not going to be easy.
Simultaneously, David discovers that there's been a disastrous error at the defunct fertility clinic where he frequently donated sperm-for-cash 20 years ago. Despite his having signed an iron-clad anonymity/confidentiality agreement, the 533 offspring he sired under the pseudonym Starbuck are now demanding to know who their biological father is. Curious about the 142 petitioners in this class-action lawsuit, David surreptitiously tracks down some of the individual plaintiffs -- his now-grown children -- in hopes of becoming, if not their father, perhaps their "guardian angel." They include a professional basketball player, wannabe actor, street-singer, drug addict (Britt Robertson), YMCA lifeguard, vegan hipster (Adam Chaner-Berat) and mute, special-needs youngster (Sebastian Rene) who is institutionalized and confined to a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the lawsuit's gone viral, publicly denouncing Starbuck/David as a chronic masturbator.
Based on a French/Canadian film "Starbuck," it's adapted by Martin Petit and director Ken Scott, who change the locale from Montreal, Quebec, to Brooklyn, N.Y., where David drives the Wozniak & Sons meat-delivery truck, and they've wisely added Chris Pratt's engagingly goofy supporting role. While the crazy deception is, admittedly, predictable and contrived, it's also chock full of comedic opportunity and heartfelt emotional involvement, which Vaughn ("The Break-Up," "Swingers," "The Internship") plays to the hilt, utilizing every bit of his innocuous slacker charm.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Delivery Man" is an amusing, compassionate 6, celebrating an unconventional concept of family.