Saturday, November 23, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" Review

It feels as though we've seen countless adaptations of young adult novels this past year — the most recent of which was Ender's Game. All of the protagonists in these stories are forced to make hard choices, but in Catching Fire those choices feels real. While Harrison Ford shows up for nothing more than a paycheck in Ender's Game, the stars of Catching Fire help to legitimize the inherent goofiness of its story.
Fresh off her big win at the Oscars for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence returns to The Hunger Games with other Oscar-caliber actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, who pops up as the new gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee.

As Katniss starts to realize the repercussions of her actions of the first film, Lawrence seems more up to the task of carrying a big-budget franchise. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Northern Kentucky's own Josh Hutcherson) find themselves dodging both the heat from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the growing unrest among the districts while on their victory tour.
It's this unrest - this threat of revolution - which damns Katniss and company back to the arena for the third Quarter Quell. 
What sets this apart from Gary Ross's mopey, Appalachian take on the first film is that Catching Fire feels much more streamlined. Gone are the days of the shaky cam and gone are the headaches that came along with it. While the film's running time clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, every action moves the plot forward.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) feels well-suited to handle the sheer grandiosity of some of the sets and characters, including a Gatsby-esque party at the President’s home and the vibrant, Candy Land chic of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).
While screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) pack the script with a heavy dramatic punch, they still relish in poking fun at many of the ancillary characters.
But this time, Banks' Trinket and Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy feel as if they're in on the joke, making their comic relief even funnier. The cast of supporting characters are rounded out with loads of series newcomers, including Jeffery Wright as Beetee, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason and a middling Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair.
And for the record, if judging on acting prowess alone, I have to go Team Gale. Liam Hemsworth brushes up on his American accent and becomes a stronger presence in Katniss's life in this sequel whereas Hutcherson has felt awkward as Peeta since the last movie. If you think about it, he's kind of the proverbial "bitch" in this story - always conforming to what the Capitol wants him to say and always getting gravely injured in the arena to emphasize Katniss's badass streak as she bravely defends/revives him. That, plus the fact that Lawrence is nearly half a head taller than Hutcherson in real life (heels, schmeels) doesn't help his credibility in my eyes. 

Moviegoers will have to wait until next Thanksgiving (and the Thanksgiving after that) to find out what becomes of Katniss and Peeta. But, in honor of the holiday, I'm thankful I get to spend another couple of hours with my friends in Panem.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"About Time" Review

As if the Delorean had lost any of its nerdy staying power, Love Actually director Richard Curtis brings us a Marty McFly for the Nicholas Sparks generation in About Time - a charming romantic comedy that both guys and girls can dig.
Upon turning 21, Tim (Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson) learns that he’s inherited his father’s ability to travel back in time. Lonely and unsatisfied with his existence, he uses his gift to get a girlfriend and right the wrongs of every embarrassingly awkward moment along the way. After moving to London and courting Mary (Rachel McAdams), things get even more complicated when his family life begins crumbling. It’s here that Tim realizes that there are some events he can’t fix without undoing the outcomes of others.
Curtis’s script chronicles several years of Tim’s life – focusing primarily on the 20s and early 30s – to show the lessons he learns from his newfound power regarding life, love, acceptance and the importance of family. But the sappy sentimentality balances out with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, making About Time much more appealing to both sexes than the melodramatic The Time Traveler’s WifeBoth films are conceptually similar and feature McAdams in starring roles.
While About Time takes a more lighthearted approach to the formula, Mary is never privy to her man’s special ability like Clare is in The Time Traveler’s WifeI found this to be the biggest issue with the former because it just seems far-fetched. Mary never asks, so Tim never tells. There isn’t so much as a hint or inkling of desire to share his secret with her. If Mary had questioned it, or if Tim had shared at some point, a fascinating dimension would’ve been added to the relationship between these two characters.
As it stands, the film still thrives on Gleeson’s comedic timing and everyman appeal, which together prove that not all gingers lack souls. The chemistry between him and McAdams remains believable throughout, which makes their interactions a blast to watch.
Bill Nighy gives a typically affable performance as Tim’s father – a retired academic who spends his days reading Charles Dickens, practicing ping-pong and drinking tea on the beach. But the real scene stealer is Tom Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) as Harry - a lowly playwright whom Tim moves in with in London. His scathingly pessimistic attitude warrants some of the film’s best lines, including a Monty Python reference and the comparison of Tim’s mother to an Andy Warhol lookalike.
Where Tim's life is going, he doesn't need roads in the literal sense. But you'll be thankful for the one that ends at the movie theater when you and your date go to see About Time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" Review

What would you do if everything you ever knew was taken away in a single moment, like a rug suddenly yanked from beneath your feet?

Such is the tale of Solomon Northup – a free man from Saratoga, New York who finds himself wrongfully kidnapped and sold into slavery. As he awaits justice to be wrought in his favor, Solomon spends twelve years trying to retain his dignity in the face of both wicked cruelty and unexpected kindness.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, 12 Years a Slave is one of the year’s best films. Mr. Northup’s incredible true story gets due presentation from Steve McQueen's careful, reverent direction. He cradles each frame like a long lost child. The way he lingers on certain shots lends the film a palpable, affecting gravity. 

The production design makes the film feel as if it were actually filmed on location in the mid-19th century. Together with John Ridley’s colloquial script, “12 Years a Slave” boasts a tremendous sense of historical accuracy, even though the brutal acts committed against the slaves are difficult to watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his career as Northup and leads a stellar ensemble cast including Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson. As he reacts to the injustice done to him, Ejiofor places the audience right by his side for the ups and downs of this emotional roller coaster. Look for him at the front of the Best Actor pack this coming Oscar season.

As Master Epps, the film’s most notable antagonist, Fassbender slithers around his plantation like a snake, wrongfully invoking the name of God to justify his evil. This makes Epps easy to loathe as a character but Fassbender perfect for the role.

My favorite scene features Argo’s Scoot McNairy and SNL’s Taran Killam doing their best Barnum and Bailey impersonations as the entertainers Brown and Hamilton respectively. Their lighthearted demeanors lend flair to a conversation they have early on with Solomon. This serves as a jovial juxtaposition against the heavy-hearted content that follows.

12 Years a Slave is not the feel-good movie of the year. 

Such graphic, realistic depiction of life in the antebellum south is not for all casual audience members. This film is emotionally taxing with unsettling words and actions that nearly moved me to tears on several occasions.

But it is as worthy a testament to the human spirit as audiences have seen all year. Ejiofor’s career-defining performance, McQueen’s careful direction, Ridley’s excellent script and period-appropriate production design make 12 Years a Slave an unforgettable cinematic experience.  

Don’t miss this sure-fire Oscar contender that should garner nods in the acting, directing, screenwriting, production design, and best picture categories.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World" Review

After the super-sized disappointments that were Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel, my once-pristine faith in comic book movies has been severely tarnished. So it’s no wonder that I felt a splitting headache when I watched the first preview for Thor: The Dark World earlier this year.

All I saw was another chance for Hollywood to hammer audiences in the noggin with a cataclysmic, metropolis-leveling climax and a greater concern for the special effects budget than the story or characters.

That being said, Marvel has succeeded twice in bringing the God of Thunder to the big screen: once in his first solo adventure and again for the Avengers team-up. But in such a year where the blockbuster theme seems to be style over substance, why risk seeing if three’s company?

With all due respect to the late John Ritter, I think Thor kicks a bit more ass.

I say that because the Asgardian is now 3-for-3 with Thor: The Dark World - a loose science fiction/fantasy epic bolstered by the charismatic performances of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston and a screenplay full of some of the funniest, most clever gags in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That said, Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor brings a diminished sense of awe compared to Kenneth Branaugh’s 2011 film. The initial fly-over reveal of Asgard feels less exciting here than it did then, despite strong visuals overall.

Thor: The Dark World picks up in the midst of a cosmic “convergence,” in which each of the Nine Realms of the universe become perfectly aligned. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, given precious little to do but scowl under layers of B-movie makeup), the leader of a race known as the Dark Elves, sees the convergence as a chance to cloak the entire universe in darkness. To do that, Malekith must recover the “Aether” – a powerful weapon that looks like a giant, floating spill of CabernetConveniently, the plot thickens when Thor’s scientist girlfriend, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), unwittingly becomes host to the Aether, making the consequences more dire and personal for the God of Thunder.

Are your eyes getting heavy yet?

If the story sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is, even by Marvel’s standards. What makes it so enjoyable, however, is the voracious pacing and clever humor that scribes Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Chris Yost lend to the story. The film never seems to take itself too seriously, which is refreshing for a blockbuster as monumental as this.

Give most of the credit to Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki once again steals the show.
Now condemned for his actions in The Avengers, Loki seems as conflicted and crafty as ever. That smirking fa├žade lets audiences know that sinister gears are always turning inside Loki’s head. This makes him, arguably, the most dynamic character in the Marvel canon thus far.

I like the way Chris Orr put it in “The Atlantic” – “Hiddleston’s Loki is a hero for the antiheroic age of Don Draper and Walter White."  That's why I believe audiences love him to the point of clamoring for Loki’s own spin-off movie.

As for Hemsworth, he brings a larger-than-life charisma, not just to Thor, but to every role he plays. That type of talent screams big-screen success. He embraces the role of Thor in such a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. 

In the end, Thor: The Dark World falters with a slightly generic plot but still managers to hammer its recent super-powered competitors on the strength of charismatic performances and a fun script that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Don't miss it this weekend, and don't forget to stay for the credits.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Ender's Game" Review

It’s a dilemma that science fiction stories have grappled with for ages: how do you solve a problem like the end of the world?
Recently, Guillermo del Toro’s solution was to fight it with giant robots. Marc Forster thought Brad Pitt could be the one to curtail our apocalypse. But for filmmaker Gavin Hood, the issue is thrust upon a battalion of 10-year-olds.
Based on the classic novel by Orson Scott Card, “Ender’s Game” picks up in the wake of a thwarted alien invasion of Earth. In order to prevent future attacks, America’s increasingly paranoid, trigger-happy government initiates a training program for the best and brightest children to become weapons against the insectoid alien invaders known as Formics. Ender Wiggin (“Hugo”’s Asa Butterfield) is the greatest of these weapons, a 12-year-old tactical genius who is hand-picked by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to lead his fellow child soldiers in an impending fight against the Formics.

Like the book, Hood’s script is fraught with the same political undertones for which Card himself has come under fire. Parallels can still be drawn between Ender and Adolf Hitler, though more current themes of geopolitics and homophobia can clearly be discerned from Hood's presentation.
Butterfield fares nicely as Ender, whose hardened attitude never gets in the way of empathizing with him. No child should have to face the circumstances that Ender finds himself in, which makes him easy enough to root for. I just wish I understood more of his backstory. Hood doesn’t do a great job with character development, and instead chooses to push our tiny heroes directly into action, stopping only briefly to explain things as they go.
The only other significant players are Davis and Ford, whose Colonel Graff barks orders in such a garbled manner that he should’ve been called Colonel Gruff. Davis’s motherly disposition shines through only slightly when discussing Ender’s special training procedures with Graff.

In terms of special effects, “Ender’s Game” looks like a video game, which is decidedly appropriate. Animations are gorgeously detailed, yet slightly cartoony — similar to the style of “Borderlands” or “Red Dead Redemption.” Most of the action in “Ender’s Game” centers around a zero-gravity training arena in outer space in which the kids essentially engage in the most elaborate laser tag matches ever conceived. Combat enters an even larger, more frenetic scale in the last half-hour when Ender’s lightning-quick movements look as if he’s in the middle of a sugar-addled “Call of Duty” marathon.

Though it’s decently acted and choreographed, “Ender’s Game” proves to be yet another middling entry in a year full of mediocre sci-fi movies.