Friday, November 22, 2013

The Girl Who Played with Fire: You Won’t Be Starved for Entertainment After Seeing “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

There’s an old saying, “Second is best.” When it comes to The Hunger Games film series that just may be right. While the original “The Hunger Games” remains a wonderful starting entry in an increasingly successful series, “Catching Fire” remains the more engrossing of the two by being able to explore the characters and world that was so well conceived in the first film. Katniss Everdeen remains an intriguing, strong, and defiant young female character wonderfully brought to life by recent Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence. Director Francis Lawrence has crafted a tight and captivating motion picture created from an equally fascinating script full of surprises (at least for those of us who haven’t read the best-selling books).

It must be said that the ending of “Catching Fire” is a deliberate, and glorious, rug pulled out from under you moment. It’s an obvious set up for another film, and therefore there really isn’t very much of a “climax.” However, the way it’s handled here is quite exquisite; it kind of works as a twist. It totally catches you off guard. I loved it. Bravo. Everything else that came before it is equally amazing. As you recall from the first film Katniss and her male district Hunger Games counterpart Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were the winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games – the violent kill or be killed televised series that acts as a buffer between an evil totalitarian government and varying districts of wealth and poverty in Panem. The government hates Katniss especially ruler President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and basically wants her removed as she’s become a symbol of hope for the less fortunate districts. To prevent a possible further uprising new game master Plutarch (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) contacts a special version of the Hunger Games in which the players reaped for the 75th annual games will come from previous winners. Unfortunately that means Katniss is basically forced to play again because she’s the only winning female contestant.

The concept of having the Hunger Games involve past champions is utter genius concocted by author Suzanne Collins. It adds a delicious new spin on something that would have been otherwise all too familiar. It also is a way that makes it possible for the series’ heroine to participate. And Lawrence really sells it too – the look of fear, disgust, and sadness that comes over her as this announcement is made is simply heartbreaking. By also focusing on surviving characters Peeta and Katniss we get to learn so much more about them than what was presented with us in the first film. You get the sense of love Peeta feels for Katniss that she doesn’t return. She loves Gale (Liam Hemsworth), another member of her district, who was shamefully underdeveloped in the first film. You finally get a real sense of this love triangle that wear mearly hinted at previously.

Katniss and Peeta are forced into portraying a love for each other that doesn’t really exist. It’s all for show of course. Katniss defied the Capital by forcing a tie between her and Peeta. Snow reprimands her by forcing her to sell this fake love story or her family will be killed. Of course, he plans on her being killed off in the 75th games anyways. However, there is something else brewing in Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s clever script.

The film’s second half which includes a tropical themed Hunger Games is skillfully plotted and highly intense and imaginative. There are some new players that Katniss and Peeta team up with including Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone) who seem like real threats but have other things in mind. And fascinatingly enough, while the Hunger Games are usually played by children and teenagers, since this new version is made of previous winners there are adults her as well. One of which is a wordless old woman played charmingly by Lynn Cohen.

I can’t say enough good things about “Catching Fire.” There are no real words to describe how enthralling it all is. The performances are great especially scene stealing fan favorites Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch. The direction is solid. The film borrows the look of the first film, but the camerawork feels more restrained. The music, editing, costumes and effects are all top notch. The film does a great job of taking what you learned in the first one and playing around with it. You get to learn so much more about Panem and this fascinating yet horrible world. It is such a great conception from Collins that’s wonderfully transplanted to the screen. And oh that ending! I can’t wait for the next entries – bring on “Mockingjay – Part 1.”  GRADE: A

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Old Man and the Sea: The Experimental “All is Lost” is a Gripping Survival Tale

I came to two realizations after watching the harrowing survival film “All is Lost.” One, this is the first time I’ve actually seen a Robert Redford movie in the theater and two, 2013 is one hell of year for great movies. “All is Lost” is essentially a stripped down, more experimental version of the Tom Hanks drama “Cast Away.” Robert Redford stars as a sailing man, whose name we never learn, struggling to survive after his boat is severely damaged. He is the only character. And he hardly ever says anything. We learn nothing about him. We don’t know where he’s going or where he’s coming from or why he’s all alone. The movie instantly places us into his dire situation. And it’s all extremely fascinating. Those who found “Gravity’s” story lacking will be most likely be put off by “All is Lost.” It is, however, enthralling.

“All is Lost” proves one thing: you can have a completely compelling film with only one character and hardly any dialogue. That is of course, if you have the right actor. Robert Redford has been a success most of his career mostly as a heartthrob to middle-aged women everywhere, but here at the ripe old age of 77 he gets a role he can really sink his teeth into. He plays an unnamed man who is on a boat all by himself. The film opens with some voiceover about how something horrible has occurred and that “all is lost.” We then flash back eight days where a giant metal cargo container has collided with his boat causing a large hole in the hull. It has caused lots of water damage but he’s able to dislodge it and repair the hole – which instantly proves that this is a guy who knows what he’s doing. The water has damaged his communication and navigation devices. Before he knows it a violent storm approaches which heavily damages his boat. He eventually abandons ship and takes to his lift raft where things go from bad to worse.

Not much more should be said about what specifically occurs after that. There’s only two possible outcomes: he lives or dies. But that’s not important right now. What writer/director J.C. Chandor has concocted is a truly gripping survival thriller. There is minimal dialogue as one would expect from a film with one character. He doesn’t talk to himself though. He doesn’t need to “narrate” what he’s going for the audiences benefit. Redford is a fine, skilled actor and we get his thoughts and feelings just from looks and gestures. And even if there’s not much to his character it’s obvious this is a guy who knows how to sail and navigate. He’s resourceful.  He uses plastic to collect condensation. He’s able to use some celestial equipment to plot out his location using the sun. His plan is to float into the shipping lanes where he’d have a better shot of being rescued. We know this without ever hearing a word.

The film has a realistic quality that just makes the whole experience almost unbearably intense. You’d really thing they just threw Robert Redford out into the middle of the ocean to survive. You forget you’re watching a film. You forget that there are most likely film crew members behind the camera. It almost feels like we’re watching a screen legend try to survive and starve to death on the ocean. Camera work is fine and not flashy. Music is minimal and subtle. Sound is foreboding and almost otherworldly.

“All is Lost” will most likely not be for everyone. It’s an example of a simple idea executed almost without flaw. And it has what I might call a perfect ending. It just makes sense. It’s a truly stunning and intense film. Anyone who wants to watch a man try with every effort to survive the savage sea will be truly rewarded with such a beautiful and simple film. 2013 is shaping up to be one of the best movie years in some time.  GRADE: A-

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Game of Groans: The Sci-Fi Tale "Ender's Game" Isn't Worth Playing

I’m not quite sure who the audience for Ender’s Game is. The film, based on the 1980s science-fiction novel (and the subsequent series), is a hodge-podge of clichéd sci-fi trappings with a majority of the major character being pre-teen children. It sort of feels like an attempt to jump at the success of “The Hunger Games” which I understand, but I can’t image kids enjoying this futuristic sci-fi tale of children being trained to take on evil alien life forms. It’s a shame too because this has been a pretty decent year for amusing sci-fi films. Even if films like Oblivion and Elysium didn’t exactly wow most people they felt way more interesting than this, what I can only assume, is a watered down cinematic version of a popular award-winning book.

Young actor Asa Butterfield was actually pretty great as the lead orphan in Martin Scorsese’s wonderful tribute to silent cinema “Hugo. “ He was charming and talented enough to carry a majority of that film on his tiny little shoulders. I can’t quite say the same here. As young Ender Wiggin, a boy who is so adept at video games that he’s enlisted in some kind of futuristic space battle school where kids are trained in the art of alien combat. I get the commentary: kids are so good at playing violent video games, why not train them to fight the enemy for real? That’s basically all this movie has to say, but it takes way too long to say it. The set up is also familiar. Bug-like aliens have attacked Earth. Humans have now begun to train the kids to fight back. That would be all fine and dandy if Butterfield had anything to actually do except to look endlessly morose as his commander Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) constantly yells and screams like an old man trying to get young people to respect their elders. Why is Ender so special anyway? Because he’s good a video games?

I have a feeling there is a lot more going on in Orson Scott Card’s book that is severely lacking in Gavin Hood’s mediocre script. There’s nothing particularly horrible about it it’s just that with so many futuristic tales being thrown at us these days, it doesn’t really make much of an impact. Hood, who also directors spends most of his time directing his young actors to look into the camera while they shout military terms as they battle a mostly unseen enemy. Think “Top Gun” with kids, in space. It becomes monotonous. And it’s sad that the best part involves one of the most obnoxious young characters taking a cement step to the head.

 The film is filled with award winning and nominated actors who don’t really do or say anything all that interesting. There’s Hailee Steinfeld, who was so good in "True Grit," who doesn’t really get to do much except brag about being the only girl in her team of young male soldiers. Viola Davis seems to just be taking a break between Oscar nominated roles as does Ben Kingsley who hams it up as a tattooed guy assigned to spout off exposition at a point I just didn’t end up caring about. Abigail Breslin is Ender’s sister. They have a brother and there’s some kind of conflict that feels glossed over.  To be honest, none of these complaints would even matter if the film’s visuals were anything even remotely special.

Perhaps “Ender’s Game” would be more appealing to those who have read the book. Which is fine and all, but movies, even ones based on books, should be able to stand on their own. You shouldn’t need to have read a book in order to appreciate a film. A good adaptation should make you want to read the book if you haven’t already. Let’s just say I won’t be picking up “Ender’s Game” any time soon.  GRADE: C

Friday, November 15, 2013

Drugstore Cowboy: “Dallas Buyers Club” is a Riveting Biographical Drama

The true life story at the center of the terrific film “Dallas Buyers Club” is a truly fascinating story. Ron Woodroof, who is portrayed as a straight Southern party guy/cowboy is diagnosed with HIV. This is at the height of the 80s AIDS crisis when people were very misinformed about the disease. It was known as a gay disease. How could a tough straight guy like Ron Woodroof get this gay sickness? “Dallas Buyer Club” is a story about transformation. It’s about one man’s physical transformation into a sickly weak man slowly succumbing to AIDS. And it’s also the story of a homophobic man who fears gays transformed into a full-fledged hero supporting the AIDS cause by way of his ‘Dallas buyers club.’

Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career as Ron Woodroof. He’s a sickly looking human being. The actor lost lots of weight for his role and it’s pretty disturbing onscreen. He’s a man practically wasted away when he learns that he’s actually HIV positive. The doctors give him thirty days. Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack smartly paint Woodroof has a pretty hateful person at first. He’s a careless human being and it’s extremely difficult to gain any sympathy for him. The film opens with Woodroof having promiscuous sex with two women while at a rodeo. He does recreational drugs. He seems like a person who has nothing to live for and doesn’t care what he does with and to his body. That is until his diagnosis. He refuses to die. And he’s not shy about insisting it’s impossible for him to have HIV because he’s “not a queer.” It’s the realization that a straight person isn’t immune to the disease that sets him out to change not only his life but many others’. He goes from a man spouting out homophobic slurs to a man who violently defends his new transsexual best friend.  

While getting treated in the hospital he meets a young transsexual man named Rayon (an equally exquisite Jared Leto). He’s at first scared to Rayon but this is a film about transformation and soon these two will be working together for the greater good. Ron is prescribed a new drug that has been approved to treat HIV. Unfortunately it’s in its early testing stages and it doesn’t quite work very well. Ron goes to Mexico where he gets his hands on unapproved drugs that help a lot more. Soon he’s illegally importing drugs that aren’t FDA approved and selling them to other AIDS patients. He starts a “Dallas buyers club,” one of many real “clubs” that popped up in the United States during this time, where people paid a monthly membership and acquired the drugs for treatment. This went on for some time until the FDA finally waged a legal war against Ron and his unapproved medicine.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée has made a pretty simple yet beautiful and powerful film. He gets truly tremendous performances from his talented actors. McConaughey is transcendent. He’s a far cry from his days as a rom-com leading man. Leto is great as is Jennifer Garner as Dr. Saks who begins to support Woodroof’s cause. Also, Vallée knows that this story is amazing all by itself and doesn’t need any fancy cinematic trickery. It’s really amazing how much you begin to care about Ron. He begins so hateful and becomes a hero. He’s essentially the Erin Brockovich of 1980s AIDS-crisis America. It’s a truly an amazing and moving experience.

I truly loved everything about “Dallas Buyers Club.” Nowadays there are so many movies that are “based on a true story” that it becomes practically insignificant. It’s hard to realize which stories are the truly rewarding ones that deserve to be told onscreen. This is one of those amazing stories that deserves to be told and it deserves everyone’s time.  GRADE: A 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Loki Charms: “Thor: The Dark World” Feels Familiar But Still Works

Are there enough Marvel movies or what? In all honesty they all seem to be melding together, at least in my mind. Disney’s attempt to create this “Marvel Universe” has sort of made all these movies look and feel familiar. Take for instance the trailer for the new Captain America movie. Doesn’t it just sort of look like Iron Man or The Avengers but only starring Captain America? This homogenizing of superhero films is both fascinating and irritating. Having said all that I have deemed “Thor: The Dark World” a success mostly because it offers enough charming qualities though it doesn’t quite do enough to make it stand out amongst its superhero movie brethren.

Most people will want to know whether “The Dark World” is better than the first "Thor" which was unleashed on audiences not very long ago in 2011. (Is it just me or does it seem like there’s a Marvel movie every 6 months?) I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily “better” or “worse” than its predecessor. The plot involves some ancient evil elves who prefer life in the dark and want to destroy the universe. Some CGI gooey stuff (referred to here as “Aether”) that resembles the black alien life form in "Spider-Man 3" is being sought out to help make this happen. It actually ends up infecting Natalie Portman’s character Jane Foster who we remember from the first film as a too-pretty astrophysicist. Ms. Foster fell in love with the hunky blonde from above called Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who helped save the world not only in the first film but in the “The Avengers” movie as well. There are bad guys whose names or species I can’t quite recall. I don’t really care. I gather most won’t. Thor must call upon his evil adopted brother Loki to not only help save the universe, but to save the movie with his wit and charmed helped by actor Tom Hiddleston.

As someone who doesn’t always quite “get” movies set in fantastical places I found myself sort of lost. Oh my,I thought, is this going to be another John Carter? But as the film began to finally focus on the earthling characters including perky intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), her new charismatic intern Ian (Jonathan Howard), and the undoubtedly crazy Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) who runs around Stonehenge in the nude, the film found a comforting balance of fantasy and reality. And by golly there is actually some chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman (enough to make a silly throwaway post-post-credits scene worth staying for). The film takes a cue from "Star Trek Into Darkness" by having the heroes call upon a bad guy who actually defeat someone far more evil. There’s a reason why Loki is considered one of the best Marvel villains.

I enjoyed “Thor: The Dark World” even if I didn’t exactly grasp every single plot point. I found it got better as the film progressed. There’s a fun sense of humor that sort of feels like leftover jokes from The Avengers, but still gives the film the lively kick it needs. I’m not the biggest fan of Thor in general (most of my previous knowledge of the character comes from “Adventuresin Babysitting”) but I gather the fans will be pleased with this entry. While it tries to emulate the standards set by the Iron Man films this series hasn’t quite reached the quality of those films. For what it is “Thor: The Dark World” is a decent entry in a whole conglomerate of films that is struggling to make themselves distinct enough to be worth remembering.  GRADE: B