Movie Reviews
8:56 am
Fri November 22, 2013

Two Very Different Movies, Two Heroines With Spine

Originally published on Sat November 23, 2013 5:07 pm

It's a fact of Hollywood life that the movie industry is dominated by men. Male stars make more money. Male executives make more decisions. And the vast majority of films are about what men do, or think, or blow up. But this weekend, two heroines are the backbone — the impressively sturdy backbone — of two very different pictures.

When it comes to dystopian fiction, there aren't a lot of characters I'd rather have on my side than Katniss Everdeen. The 17-year-old warrior heroine of Catching Fire — Part 2 of the four-part Hunger Games "trilogy," if you can get your head around that — may wear more eye shadow than Cleopatra this time, but that doesn't mean she's not fierce.

Sent to do battle in the life-and-death TV ritual her totalitarian society uses to help subjugate its citizens, Katiss (Jennifer Lawrence) is an archer who can take out a saber-toothed baboon at 50 paces — and a strategist who you just know will get the better of Donald Sutherland's evil dictator, President Snow, and his new strategist, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

The first Hunger Games movie was a jittery, hand-held-camera affair, but Catching Fire has a new director, Francis Lawrence, and plenty of money for special effects. (Taking in $700 million will do that for a series.)

Being a sequel, it starts in the middle, without much exposition, though there's still an hour-plus of flaming-costume fittings and chariot parades before Katniss gets to kick behind. Personally, I'll be happier when she ditches the eye shadow for the revolution, but that's the third Hunger Games book, not the second; it's going to be split into two movies, and given the strength of this installment, I'd say the box-office odds continue to be, in that Hunger Games catchphrase, "ever in its favor."

Katniss tends to look skeptically at the men in her life, but she does take advice from a hard-drinking fatalist, Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson. And in Philomena, a true story about battling a dictatorial society in the recent past, the title character (Judi Dench) also has a male fatalist around to nudge her into action: Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist turned government spokesman who'd fallen on hard times in 2004.

Once the BBC's "man in Moscow," Sixsmith has been reduced to scrounging at cocktail parties for a way back into journalism, mostly hearing story ideas he immediately resists.

One story, though, sticks with him: an unmarried Irish teenager sent by her Catholic family to have her baby in a convent. The child is then taken from her and put up for adoption, and the nuns stonewall her questions for decades.

The two meet, and click — awkwardly — and there they are, a humor-challenged, working-class grandmother yearning for her long-lost son, and a snarky, upper-crust writer yearning for redemption. Matched recovery stories: How's that for human interest?

Director Stephen Frears, working from a book by the real Martin Sixsmith, isn't about to let the Irish church off the hook for a monstrous (and well-documented) chapter in its history. In flashbacks, he pictures the young Philomena as a sort of proto-Katniss, doing battle with a tyranny of nuns. That this rebel grew up to be Dench's chatterbox of an older Philomena does exasperate Coogan's Martin.

But he'll discover there's steel in her, too. And that allows a story that might have been mined purely for tears and anger to inspire both laughter and a startling degree of forgiveness.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's a fact of Hollywood life that the movie industry is dominated by men. Male stars make more money. Male executives make more decisions. And the vast majority of films are about what men do or think or blow up. But this weekend, Bob Mondello is focusing on two movies that do not fit that pattern: radically different films that he says have surprisingly similar heroines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE")

DONALD SUTHERLAND: (as President Snow) This is the 75th year of the Hunger Games.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When it comes to dystopian fiction, there aren't a lot of characters I'd rather have on my side than Katniss Everdeen. This 17-year-old warrior in "Catching Fire" - part two of a four-part "Hunger Games" trilogy, if you can get your head around that - may wear more eye shadow than Cleopatra this time, but that doesn't mean she's not fierce.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE")

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (as Katniss Everdeen) No. No. Stop.

MONDELLO: Sent to do battle in the life-and-death TV ritual her totalitarian society uses to subjugate its citizens, she is an archer who can take out a saber-toothed baboon at 50 paces and a strategist who you just know will get the better of the men bent on tormenting her, notably Donald Sutherland's evil dictator and his new strategist, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE")

SUTHERLAND: (as President Snow) Katniss Everdeen is a symbol.

PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Plutarch Heavensbee) You don't have to destroy her - just her image. Show them that she is one of us now. Let them rally behind that. They're going to hate her so much they might just kill her for you.

MONDELLO: Where the first "Hunger Games" movie was a jittery, handheld-camera affair, "Catching Fire" has a new director and plenty of money for special effects. Taking in $700 million will do that for a series. Being a sequel, it starts in the middle, without much exposition, though there's still an hour of flaming costume fittings and chariot parades before Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss swings into action in the arena. Personally, I'll be happier when she ditches the eye shadow for the revolution, but that's the third "Hunger Games" book, not the second.

The movie "Philomena," which is based on a true story from Ireland's recent past, has a different brand of dystopia at its center, but it's also about a strong heroine battling a cruel and dictatorial regime. Before we're introduced to her, we meet the man who wrote a book about her, Martin Sixsmith, a journalist turned British government spokesman who had fallen on hard times in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILOMENA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Your wife tells me you think you're mildly depressed.

STEVE COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) Well, I've got the sack. I'm unemployed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Yes, but it wasn't your fault, was it?

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) That's why I'm depressed.

MONDELLO: Once the BBC's man in Moscow, Sixsmith has been reduced to scrounging at cocktail parties for a way back into journalism, mostly hearing story ideas he immediately resists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILOMENA")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) I know this woman. She had a baby when she was teenager, and she's kept it secret for 50 years.

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) And what you're talking about would be what they call a human interest story. And that's - I don't do those.

MONDELLO: Usually. This story, though, sticks with him: an unmarried Irish teenager sent by her embarrassed Catholic family to have her baby in a convent, forced to stay there as slave labor, her child stolen from her, the nuns stonewalling her questions about him for decades. Sixsmith senses an expose and agrees to meet this woman wronged, then discovers they're on slightly different wavelength.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILOMENA")

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) So, Philomena, how are you?

JUDI DENCH: (as Philomena) I had a hip replacement last year, Martin.

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) Right.

DENCH: (as Philomena) It's much better than the bone one I had before. And it's titanium, so it won't rust.

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) Oh. It's a good job. Otherwise, they'd have to oil you like the Tin Man.

DENCH: (as Philomena) Is that right?

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) No. I mean, you know, like "The Wizard of Oz."

MONDELLO: So there they are, a humor-challenged, working-class granny yearning for her long-lost son, and snarky, upper-class writer yearning for career redemption. Matched recovery stories - how's that for human interest? Director Stephen Frears isn't about to let the Irish church off the hook for this monstrous chapter in its history. In flashbacks, he pictures the young Philomena as a sort of proto-Katniss doing battle with a tyranny of nuns - her faith versus their piety. This rebel will grow up to be Judi Dench's buoyant chatterbox of an older Philomena, which is a testament to faith but does exasperate Steve Coogan's Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILOMENA")

COOGAN: (as Martin Sixsmith) You told four people today that they were one in a million. What are the chances of that?

DENCH: (as Philomena) Oh.

MONDELLO: Still, he discovers there is steel in her too, and that allows a story that might have been mined purely for tears and anger to inspire both laughter and a startling degree of forgiveness. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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