Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill)

Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

The Basics: Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with Steve Rogers (aka the eponymous Captain America) still struggling to adjust to the modern world after being awoken from a frozen state that he remained in since the 1940s. His sense of unfamiliarity in this colder, bleaker world is made worse by his growing sense of distrust for S.H.I.E.L.D., the government intelligence and defense agency he’s a part of. Steve’s suspicions turn out to be more than just unfounded fears; a faction within S.H.I.E.L.D. is planning to use advanced surveillance methods to kill millions in the name of the greater good. Steve—along with Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) and Sam Wilson (aka Falcon)—must confront old and new enemies, but one new enemy (the mysterious Winter Soldier) might not be so new after all. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds not just as a highly entertaining superhero blockbuster; it also feels darker and more thematically complex than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film that came before it, while still being driven by the sharp writing, strong character development, and charismatic performances that have made Marvel films huge box-office draws season after season.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Catching Fire

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Just as a warning, this review is not spoiler-free, so read at your own risk if you haven’t seen the movie yet! 

Title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee)

Director: Francis Lawrence

The Basics: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second of what will be a four-film franchise based on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of Young Adult novels. This installment focuses on Katniss Everdeen’s inadvertent role as the spark behind a revolution in the 12 districts of Panem after she defied the Capitol to keep herself and her partner, Peeta Mellark, alive in the 74th Hunger Games. While still plagued by crippling nightmares and PTSD after the Games, Katniss attempts to return to life back home in District 12 after a grueling Victory Tour, but a surprise twists sends her and Peeta back into the arena to fight amongst other former victors in the 75th Hunger Games. Catching Fire was my favorite book in Collins’s trilogy, and this film met even my high expectations. The special effects, the character development, and the chemistry between all of the major players was even better than it was in the first film in the franchise. And it doesn’t hurt to have Jennifer Lawrence leading the way with a performance as fearless and as faithful as any fan of Katniss could hope to see.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Jennifer Lawrence was born to play the role of Katniss Everdeen. In the novels, everything we experience comes from Katniss’s point of view, but the films don’t have that luxury (and thank God we haven’t had to deal with cheesy voiceovers to make up for that fact). Somehow, though, Lawrence makes you feel every single one of Katniss’s emotions—from the most painfully open ones to the ones she hides even from herself. Lawrence acts with every fiber of her being; she’s such a physical actress—her whole body shakes with fear in one scene and rage in another, and she makes both feel so completely different from one another. Lawrence’s eyes are a character all on their own; pay special attention to the very end of the film when they are her only tool to convey what’s going on in Katniss’s head and heart, and marvel at how she makes you want to cry, cheer for, and even fear this girl on fire who has everything and nothing to lose. The Hunger Games franchise is Katniss Everdeen’s story, and it’s not a simple story to tell. It requires an actor whose fearless pursuit of honesty makes every moment she’s onscreen crackle with an intensity that dares you to look away all the while knowing you will never be able to take your eyes off her for a moment. Lawrence is such an actor—perhaps the best one of her generation.

Scene Stealer: Every member of the supporting cast of Catching Fire was wonderful, but I have to give special recognition to the actor who surprised me the most. That was Elizabeth Banks, who gave Effie so much depth and compassion in this film while still maintaining the same sense of overbearing propriety that made her such a strong source of comedic relief in The Hunger Games. Banks manages to bring both the laughs (another excellent “mahogany” reference) and the tears in this film. Her work in the reaping scene is incredibly powerful in its subtlety. The war waging in Effie between her need to maintain decorum and her overwhelming sadness at watching these people she’s come to care for go back into the arena has to stay just under the surface, but you can feel it in every second the camera spends focused on her tear-filled eyes. And her goodbye to Katniss and Peeta was one of the most moving moments in the film. Banks’s control over her emotions was brilliant, and it made those rare moments when Effie’s prim and proper exterior begins to crack all the more powerful. I didn’t care about Effie all that much while reading the books, but Banks makes it impossible not to care about this woman who has grown from an annoying symbol of the Capitol to a beloved member of a team bonded by love and loss.

Bring the Tissues? If you think the answer could possibly be “no,” then you have no idea what this series is about. The big emotional moments deliver with a breathless kind of power, but there’s a special kind of potency to the film’s smaller moments of love and friendship, too. A show of unity among the former victors, Peeta’s face when the Quarter Quell is announced, Haymitch hugging Katniss, and Peeta helping Katniss through her nightmares with a perfectly-delivered “Always”—each of those moments blindsided me with how much they moved me. And if you’ve read Mockingjay, some scenes will be almost brutally sad to watch because you know what’s coming for these characters in the next films. (I’m thinking especially of Peeta and Katniss’s last kiss and an early conversation they have about favorite colors.)

Most Memorable Scene: It was almost impossible for me to choose just one scene. I could have picked the District 11 Victory Tour scene for its emotional impact, the announcement of the Quarter Quell for the great performances put on display without any of the actors saying a word, the jabberjay scene for its ability to bring one of the most powerful scenes in the book to life, or the beach scene between Katniss and Peeta for its quiet intimacy. However, the scene that is still haunting me a day later was the scene between Katniss and Haymitch near the end of the film. I didn’t think anything could equal the power of that scene in the book, with Katniss trying to scratch Haymitch’s eyes out over his part in saving her and letting Peeta become a prisoner of the Capitol, but this scene matched it in every possible way. Lawrence astounded me with how fearlessly she attacked that moment; she made Katniss’s pain, grief, and anger so palpable it made me grip the armrests of my theater seat.

The whole film builds to this moment of Katniss lashing out in response to people controlling everything about her life, and it’s even more powerful because she’s lashing out at Haymitch, one of the only people she trusted. Lawrence makes you believe that losing Peeta has finally pushed Katniss over the edge; he was her anchor in this film, keeping her from getting lost in the darkness because she had someone to navigate that darkness with her. And now he’s gone, a prisoner of the Capitol because others—including Haymitch—deemed Katniss more important to save. The sense of betrayal Katniss feels knowing Haymitch left Peeta to die—or at least to be tortured—is so visceral, and it hurts even more because we understand it. The juxtaposition of that scene and the earlier beach scene puts everything into perspective; Katniss is the only one who needs Peeta, and when he’s gone (with Haymitch being partly responsible), she has no one left to trust. The absence of Peeta for mere moments has such a profound impact on Katniss, and it’s an impact that will reverberate through the rest of the series. To see both Lawrence and Woody Harrelson approach this brutal scene with such honesty was something special. It broke my heart, but it made me feel proud that such brilliant actors were bringing to life a book I love so much.

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