I like THE HUNGER GAMES: series, and the second installment, CATCHING FIRE–despite a colleague’s calling it “a long slog”–absolutely held me. Once again, the charismatic Jennifer Lawrence as the reluctant firebrand Katniss Everdeen continues to rebel against the capitol. Having out-witted the powers that be in the first Hunger Games–a TV spectacle in which children compete to the death for the entertainment of the privileged few– and survived with her ostensible romantic partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), deepens her rebellion here.

This installment begins with Katniss and Peeta on a victory tour to the starving masses, trotted out as living symbols of everything they hate by cold President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But Katniss inevitably stirs up the rebellion at every stop until she finally, in one quintessential moment, takes charge of her own symbolic power on live TV, hosted by that sneering popin-jay of a game show host, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Katniss emerges in an elaborate white wedding gown, when suddenly it bursts into flames to reveal a midnight blue, feathered ballgown with wings — she’s the mockingjay incarnate and the crowd goes wild. So do her enemies who plot her demise in another game to the death, a special quarter quell that pits former victors against victors. As a female viewer who’s had it up to here with male superheros, I relished the moment when the image of “the bride” gave way to that of the warrior goddess, and haute couture signalled universal empowerment. Katniss is one kickass woman whose beauty and skill fires up the masses to rebel in the name of freedom. Later, with a well-placed arrow, Katniss will literally and figuratively puncture the hypocritical veneer of those in power, with the truth of her physical and intellectual acumen.

Lawrence is ravishing in the surreal costumes and make up; her complicated interplay with and growing affection for Peeta heats up her inner life as the rebellion gains momentum outside. The battle in a tropical jungle orchestrated by a new game-maker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) includes a vivid assortment of characters, and a series of diabolical plagues: poison fog, killer orangutans, and a rain of blood. None of this is in 3D which I did not miss. The stage has been amply set for the next installment!

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB–there are two reasons to see it: FIRST–Matthew McConaughey who gives the performance of his career as the real life Ron Woodruff a hard drinking, womanizing rodeo Texan who’s suddenly diagnosed with HIV, much to his own shock and the disgust of his cowboy friends. SECOND–Jared Leto as Rayon, a cross-dressing homosexual whom Woodruff meets in a hospital where they’re both trying to get treatment for a disease about which little is known in the mid 80’s. The two become unlikely partners in rebellion against a common enemy when Woodruff crosses the border into Mexico to procure yet-unsanctioned experimental drugs to fight the disease. Together they set up a buyers club to help the growing numbers of people struggling to survive the epidemic.

McConaughey who lost a reported 47 pounds to play the role is barely recognizable as the gaunt, dark-haired Woodruff who’s given but 30 days to live. Beyond his physical transformation, McConaughey negotiates an even trickier line between a feisty, flirty, wisecrackin’ redneck with no use for “faggots,” and a scientifically savvy entrepreneur whose illness opens a pathway to a deeper humanity. Woodruff’s knack for playing the angles is suddenly harnessed not only to save himself, but a whole host of people he would otherwise never have met or developed empathy for.

Alas, the film around McConaughey flattens out dramatically midway through, with awkward scenes involving Jennifer Garner as a traditional doctor who eventually comes over to Ron’s side. Her character is never more than a contrivance to flesh out a story that didn’t need her, and which limps to a muddled ending.  But McConaughey’s graphic and gutsy portrayal of a man on the edge, who replaces his cocktail of alcohol, coke, and sex, with vitamins, herbal supplements and contraband AZT, will earn him an Oscar nomination by the end of the season.

NEBRASKA is an instantly mesmerizing tale directed by the man who gave us THE DESCENDANTS, Alexander Payne. This time, instead of the tropical paradise of Hawaii, we’re in the wide, often desolate landscape of Wyoming, Montana, and eventually Nebraska where an aging alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) has set out on foot to reclaim his supposed million dollar winnings in a sweepstakes. His estranged son David (Will Forte) returns home to help his burdened mother, and decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to help him claim his prize. The outer landscape may be different here, but the inner terrain Payne explores is much the same: mortality, the pull and transience of the past, the impotence of money, the enduring power of the land, and the value of what we leave behind.

The father simply means to secure some kind of legacy for his son, the son is finally trying to grasp a father he’s never been close to, and a really strange road trip ensues. This is Alexander Payne by way of Jim Jarmusch (STRANGER THAN PARADISE) and the Coen brothers. The film is shot in black and white, and the plain midwestern folk we meet are captured in all their stark, monosyllabic, American Gothic glory. When we first see old Woody Grant trudging up the highway alone with no bags on a thousand mile trek to claim his sweepstakes winnings, a sheriff pulls over and asks the old man where he’s headed; Woody points forward. When the sheriff asks where he’s comin’ from, Woody points backward — then keeps on walking out of frame. The audience burst out laughing.

This scene sets the tragi-comic tone to follow. A wild-eyed Bruce Dern plays the war-wounded drunk Woody. He’s addled and angry in between fits of blank lucidity. I felt for this straightforward guy on a mission, vulnerable to taking people at their word, in a world more sophisticated than he could ever be. His wife Kate, (June Squibb) is a raunchy truth teller who looks like a toad, catalogues every drunk, whore, and lech in the family, and takes no guff. When push comes to shove– it’s clear why Woody has her on his side.

Son David who has a dull job and whose girlfriend has left him, is played with hangdog poignancy by the usually funny SNL regular Will Forte. Big brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is a balding, up and coming local TV anchorman in a no-news town. Down the road we meet more extended family and long lost friends, including a pair of low-life cousins, and an old crony played with cagey charm by Stacy Keach: the action is sandwiched between a blackly comic side trip to the family graveyard, and a slapstick “air compressor caper” at a neighboring farm. I’ve never been to Nebraska or Hawaii, but Alexander Payne manages to find the deeply familiar in the superficially strange– and it’s always worth the trip.