Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Movie Review


One would imagine that surviving the 74th Hunger Games would be something to celebrate. Awarded with homes of their very own to keep their families living comfortably for the rest of their lives and more money than either of them will ever need,

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned safe and sound to their homes in District 12, but a storm is now brewing and it is President Snow’s belief that this is as a result of Katniss’s actions during the Games. Rebellions and uprisings have begun in other Districts, and it is now left to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to eradicate this problem.

He announces that the “Quarter Quell,” an event marked by every 25 years of the Games, would be introducing a new twist for the 75th annual Hunger Games. The surviving victors from the previous years would be the sole names in the drawing for the Reaping, instead of the entire lot of each district, throwing Katniss and Peeta back into the fray. And it doesn’t end there. Allowing both Peeta and Katniss to live has resulted in Seneca Crane’s termination, resulting in the appointment of a new head gamemaker,

Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is teaming with President Snow to destroy Katniss’s reputation as a symbol of hope just before their planned time for her ultimate demise.

Now, as a fan of the books as well, the first installment of the series was my favorite out of the other reads, but the film Catching Fire is ultimately the winner against its 2012 predecessor, The Hunger Games. Under the guidance of its new director, Francis Lawrence, Catching Fire ditches the overabundant use of the hand-held shaky cam made infamous in the first movie and packs a heavy punch with its great ensemble cast. Along with its returning company of characters including the gruff Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the exuberantly gaudy Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the blue-wigged Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and the inspirational Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Catching Fire opens the door for some new faces like the charming Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Snow White & the Huntsman), the feisty Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone; Donnie Darko and Pride & Prejudice), the ingenious Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright; Casino Royale and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), and the nutty-but-clever Wiress (Amanda Plummer; Pulp Fiction and So I Married An Axe Murderer).

There are a few snags in the movie, but the gripes are minor at best. Given the fact that the Quarter Quell would comprise of a number of pretty vicious former champions, one might be anticipating some serious gladiatorial death matches when facing the other competitors in the arena that would make Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” look like child’s play in comparison. Unfortunately, the Games this time around are much more centered around a survival-of-the-fittest scenario where the tributes battle the elements more often than each other, and that seems to downplay the overall lethal intensity that the original games from the previous book/film delivered.

Also, the chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale doesn’t really seem to have that spark, urging you to really care one way or the other about this side of the supposed ‘love triangle.’ Thankfully though, Hutcherson and Lawrence do play off one another much better this time around, and their budding romance does actually build traction. As for the buildup to the fight in the arena, it does justify itself against all odds. Normally when second installment movies such as this come about that require a lot of dialog-driven plot for over the first half of the picture, audiences are left with sinking eyelids and a wide yawns (Yes, I’m talking to you, Lord of the Rings: The Tower Towers!). Surprising, Catching Fire swells in its heavy-hearted first half, laying down not only the groundwork for the climax of the movie, but to the overall storyline of the franchise as well.

The themes of hope, independence, devotion, and sacrifice in the book translate beautifully to the screen, and Jennifer Lawrence, as always, brings her A-game. Katniss is a deserving protagonist and a worthy role model to readers and viewers alike. The one drawback… The end. Granted, that sounds like a major problem, but it’s really not. It’s one thing to leave the audience yearning for more, but just as the book did, the movie concludes on a note that has us demanding for more information, more material… But alas, just as you find yourself as hooked as ever, the mockingjay symbol comes on screen, and the chorus of moaning at the realization that this second installment was over begins. (Literally, that’s what happened at the viewing I attended.)

The movie does in fact leave on a cliffhanger. For me, this was acceptable for the book, since I started reading the series after all the installments were already released, because I could just pick up Mockingjay to find out what happened next. But as far as movies go, I’m a bit more a fan of finality to a certain degree. Sure, I’m used to being teased by filmmakers dropping in additional scenes that hint at what is to come, but to just end abruptly really does inspire you to want to moan as well. Catching Fire didn’t really seem to end. Sure, it had end credits, but cutting to black doesn’t mean that the movie actually concluded.

Overall though, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a worthy 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

O Turkey, Where Art Thou?

Yep, it’s official. Consumerism has actually eaten an American holiday.

For those of you who have been keeping an observant eye on things when you’re out and about, you’ve come to notice something rather amiss happening. Come November 1st, suddenly everyone has pried the plastic headstones from their front yards and tossed all the ghostly Halloween décor inside its storage bin, not to be seen again until next fall. Nothing wrong with that, right? Nope, it’s the action that immediately follows that has me topsy-turvy: Everyone throws up all the Christmas decorations! Come on, people, it’s only November. I don’t have a bone to pick with baby Jesus and his plastic manger, but take it easy and celebrate the holidays in order.

Anyone else notice that little Christmas display corner in the Halloween department of Target that the employees put up in September? Okay, let’s just get something clear here. I live in the Chicagoland area, and for anyone such as myself, this is extremely cruel. Reminding us of the brutal, freezing months ahead that has us on the brink of losing fingers and toes in the cold as we try to shovel our ways out of the mounds of snow that is inevitably going to fall is pretty much about the emotional equivalent of kicking us in the shins after just having run us over with your car. In other words, NOT COOL, MAN! Not cool.

To make matters even worse, even the radio stations are jumping aboard this Christmas-crazed bandwagon. You know how there’s always that one local station come December that plays Christmas music 24-7? Remember how it started playing this on the first of December? Yeah, you know. 25 days of Christmas. Can’t argue. But then it started getting earlier and earlier. What started as December 1st turned to the day after Thanksgiving, turned to the week before Thanksgiving, then to November 1st! What?! No, no, and no! I like me some Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas” as much as the next gal, but by the time December even rolls around, I can’t help but what to shoot the radio upon hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” for about the billionth time!

If the Christmas overload wasn’t bad enough, as it turns out, Black Friday devoured up the very essence of Thanksgiving. It wasn’t that long ago when the fourth Thursday of November was reserved for family get-togethers, football, stuffing, gravy galore, and a massive turkey. Here, everyone spent the entire evening warmly cooped up inside someone’s home, enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. Slowly but surely, this tradition has dwindled away, all because of Black Friday sales. What originally started as stores opening up a few hours earlier in the A.M. the day after Thanksgiving with blockbuster deals has turned into an All American Nightmare for a true American institution.

In the past few years, I really began noticing this downfall. Some of those happy bargain hunters amongst the family would call it an early night on Thursday, admitting that they wanted to get home to get in a few z’s before hitting the stores first thing the next morning. Then, thanks to the likes of Wal-Mart, who happens to be opening their doors for Black Friday sales at 6:00 p.m. THURSDAY evening, along with numerous other guilty retailers, the big Thanksgiving family gatherings have diminished pretty much all together. Now, just about everyone is out the door by six o’clock, because either their job in retail requires that they have to come in and work that evening or because they’re the crazy shoppers that have decided that saving on a toaster is more important than spending time with the family.

What used to consist of the smells of a cooking turkey and the sounds of happy chatter come Thanksgiving evening have now been reduced to the smells of Dawn and Ajax hard at work and the sounds of a dishwasher hustling to clean up the gravy residue from stained dishes, because Thanksgiving dinner has now been deemed as Thanksgiving lunch where the family gets together for a short while to heave food into their mouths before running for the door by sundown.

Perhaps it’s just the nostalgic in me, but when I’m asked about what my ideal Thanksgiving would comprise, I can’t say that embracing the freezing cold while standing outside of Best Buy ready to participate in the American consumer equivalent of Spain’s Running With the Bulls, preparing to trample or be trampled in the angry throng of fellow bargainers who are ready to toss even children aside just to make a clean beeline for the Samsung for $300 off, does.

Coming from an avid music, movie, books, and electronics lover such as myself, I get wanting to take advantage of some fantastic deals to help keep your wallet a little thicker this shopping season, but watching my neighbors morph into uncivilized animals in the process isn’t my idea of a good time.

Following logic, one would think that when the very title of the sale special specifies “Black FRIDAY,” that having it infect the holiday on the day prior seems utterly ridiculous, but what do I know? Unfortunately, I’m still left to ponder, what happened to Thanksgiving?


Friday, November 1, 2013

My Book is Out!

Today is the day! I literally just went through Kindle Direct Publishing, and my book is in review to be posted onto the Amazon store. It’s out of my hands now. And what a scary, exhilarating, and extremely tumultuous ride it has been.

Thinking back to that very first day, when I started this journey with nothing but a blank Word Document page and a mind full of chaotic ideas, it almost seems surreal. This book is like my BABY. I gave it life, I nurtured it, and I put in the time and effort to raise it properly. Now I have an inkling as to how my mother felt on that first day of Kindergarten, having to put her faith in the bus driver and grade school to take care of me as I took my first steps into the world by myself.

Unlike my mother who discretely followed behind the bus all the way to the school to make sure I got inside the building safe and sound, I’m not allowed to be overprotective about my “baby.” Now, all I can do is hope for the best as I wave farewell to it as it is released to the general public. When you’ve poured so much of yourself into the whole writing process, it only leaves you with the inclination that any possible negativity towards your work may reflect directly upon your very soul. My ship, Divine Vices, has set sail. I’m terrified, but what’s a girl to do except pray for clear waters and no icebergs?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pet Peeves and Pet Names

What is my biggest pet peeve? Well, I don’t think I could nail down a single topic to the Number 1 slot, but one of them just happens to be about pets. Don’t worry, no need to hide Fluffy and Spot when I’m around. I like animals. What I hate are Pet Names… for people! You know what I’m talking about: Those cutesy, gag-inducing nicknames exchanged between couples.

I grew up in a household where my parents rarely ever called each other by their names, but always used those sweet identifiers like Babe and Hon (sometimes “Honey”). I respect that, but others take it to another level entirely. Admittedly, on rare occasion the whole “Pumpkin/Honey Bunny” thing can be cute, but for me that’s only when having just watched Pulp Fiction. (Yes, I’m a total freak for finding romantic sentiments in association with Quentin Tarantino. Tell me something I don’t know.) Outside of that, I like the nicknames short, sweet, and simple.

Despite the fact I can control what pet names are exchanged in my relationships, I cannot do the same for others. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s out at dinner, in the store, or on the streets, you’re bound to cross paths with those nauseating, nose-rubbing, finishing-each-other’s-sentences couples that call one another the most absurd things!

Unfortunately, women are the worst when it comes to Pet Names. Sorry, ladies, but you know it’s true. So here are some helpful tips to keeping everyone around you happy, including your man. (Because let’s face it. No self-respecting male wants to be called “shnookums.”)

1. Try not to make the pet name much longer than the person’s name. The point to nicknames is to make it shorter. So if your man’s name is Scott,  “Mookie-Pookie Bear” is COMPLETELY out of the question!

2. That’s brings me to my second point. No hyphens! Nothing good came from a hyphened pet-name. Leave hyphens to their respective owners with REAL names like Joseph Gordon-Levitt where they belong.

3. Thirdly, test your pet name out on a Microsoft Word document. If when typing out the moniker and spell-check underlines it with red, please reconsider! Worse, if you right-click on the word and the spell-check has no suggestions (because what you typed isn’t even anything closely resembling a single word in the entirety of literature), toss it! Toss it, kick it, throw it out a moving car, 86 it like a flaming brown paper bag on your front porch!

Do this, and I can guarantee your partner and your common passersby will appreciate the gesture.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Sequel Conundrum

With my first book about to hit shelves on the Amazon store, my mind has been running on overdrive in preparation for writing the second installment. Unfortunately, what I initially anticipated to be a “hurdle” to overcome has seemed to manifest into facing the Ironman Triathlon of writing monsters.

Let’s face it. When it comes to sequels, whether it be in book or movie format, the odds of matching or surpassing the original really aren’t in one’s favor. We’ve all watched or read that masterpiece of a product, waiting anxiously in anticipation for the follow-up to arrive so that we can satisfy our enthusiastic cravings of plunging back into the ingenious world created by its maker, only then to be dealt the devastating blow of being introduced to a less than satisfactory outcome.

The moviemaking world is notorious for this. When a well-executed, primed scripted, perfect casted film that turns a healthy profit at the box-office and is well received by critics, it’s destined to have a sequel spawned from it, despite the fact that the story was good and solid for only one go-around. The next film is typically rushed, has a haphazard screenplay, is riddled with clichés, and always has a higher body count if it falls in the action genre. This leads clever, inventive films such as Jaws to shudder at the agonizing thought of the disasters like Jaws: The Revenge that seem to follow.

Now, for those in the boat such as myself, filmmakers and novelist do on occasion go into the process of making an initial product, knowing very well that there will be a continuation. In intended series, it is key to hook the audience in with a solid first installment. When that’s been achieved, you head into the dangerous waters of the “sequel conundrum.” How does one overcome this obstacle?

Especially in regard to mapping out trilogies, the second installment generally falls short due to the fact that it usually serves simply as buildup for the grand finale saved for book/movie number three. So in the midst of some two hours of screen time or four hundred pages of a book, we come to find that nothing really substantial happens. Its mere function is to be the upsurge in information that is going to be paid off in the next/final installment.

This conundrum can be fatal to a book series, and it is far too common. Let’s face it, in Twilight Saga: New Moon, what’s the plot? Really? We constantly read books where the author is trying to keep readers entertained with the style and world they’ve created, so much in fact that we wind up being reintroduced to the exact same story being retold. The main characters were already well-defined in the first book. The reader knows who they are. We don’t need to do it again. The tribulations that were established in the first book are still the same at the beginning of the second. The world surrounding your protagonist was already invented. So where do you go? There needs to be a genuine and entirely new inner plot for book two, while at the same time, it needs to advance the series’ overall story line that leads into the third book.

The Breakdown:

Book One: The Introduction. It’s about setting the playing field. You need to know the players, a.k.a. the main characters. You need to create the stadium, the world in which all this will be taking place. You need to know the stakes. What is on the line?

Book Two: The Battle. When executed to perfection, this is The Dark Knight. We know Gotham. We know all about its cast list. It’s time to let the games begin. This is when everything implodes and explodes, from characters’ inner turmoil to the physical events taking place. Some resolve is found, some lessons are learned, but there’s still a storm brewing, a storm whose ferocity is growing the closer it comes. 

Book Three: The War. Time to strap on your armor and unsheathe your sword. This is what everything has be leading up to. It’s the climax of the story, what two previous installments have been foreshadowing. The bloody, tragic, heart wrenching, devastatingly beautiful conclusion of this imaginary world.

So, here’s the challenge: How does one go about writing The Dark Knight of a second installment amid the many problematic issues hindering so many others’ works? How does one construct a solid, separate work of art that is just as captivating as its predecessor without falling into the trap of simply redressing the same story and retelling it? How do you create the perfect midpoint of the series, saving the best for last, without making the book feel like it’s dragging (like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, *cough)?

Hmmm… What a challenge indeed.