Posted on 12/19/13 11:52 AM
Philomena is a strange mixture: a mystery, British comedy, and buddy road trip all rolled into one. Director Stephen Frears remains honest to the original story while making it a little more cinematic. Philomena isn't anything revolutionary or topical, but it does bring to light some past wrongs and remain consistently compelling, thanks in great part to the duo of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.
Philomena (Dench) is an old woman served a wrong by the Irish Catholic church. Her child was taken from her by the local convent, and she never actively followed up on the matter due to her faith. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a frustrated politician/writer who decides to write a "human interest story." The two then follow the story down some strange holes through Ireland, the United States, and even through Ronald Reagan.
The layers of storytelling keep Philomena consistently moving and interesting. Anchoring the story is the mystery surrounding Philomena's son, which takes many surprising turns; none are Twitter-worthy #OMG moments, but there are multiple little unexpected directions the story goes in that keep the viewer guessing. It is amazing the Catholic Church in Ireland can keep secrets so life-damaging to many young women for such a long time. In addition, the mystery is baked into the dramatic beats of the movie, which let Judi Dench and Steve Coogan show how polished they are as actors to the Oscar committee.
During the downtime, the story nicely shifts into a buddy road trip comedy. The two are polar opposites: Philomena is innocent, religious, and amused by the world; Sixsmith is erudite, agnostic, and very cynical. What makes Philomena (the movie) great is that these two are very much humans and understand emotions well. Sixsmith, while bored by Philomena, rarely condescends to her and even has moments where he admires her strength of character. Philomena in turn walks the line between simple but well-reasoned (a testament to Dench's acting). The dichotomy does pay off with some great jokes, ranging from romance novels to hotel room movie rentals. The British accents also make the jokes just a little bit funnier as well. When the time comes for the mystery to take center stage again, the comedy quickly transitions to drama, since the missing child story is well situated as the primary narrative thrust.
There are not many peripheral characters here, outside of a few flashbacks, some of Sixmith's journalist friends, and Philomena's family. Therefore, it is vital that the relationship between Coogan and Dench work, and it delivers and then some. Coogan and Dench's chemistry is great, easily conveying the many emotions they are forced to express sometimes in the same scene. Coogan's journalism credibility is nicely established by the man, but his other relationships are useless subplots. Dench one-ups here though, since she has to act with no person in the room(through visions of her past and home video of someone).
British movies usually come off as super silly or deadly serious. Philomena takes a little from both sides creating a very solid film with a pleasant mix of jokes and drama. And unmerciful showcases of Nuns. Yeesh, I haven't seen a more cantankerous nun since Nuns of Evil (this movie is real. The tagline is: Meet the Sisters who have sworn a vow... of violence!).
Posted on 12/19/13 11:46 AM
The Desolation of Smaug, more like the desolation of the Lord of the Rings brand. Ok, it's not that bad, but the downward trajectory of the fantasy franchise isn't rectified by the 2nd part of the trilogy. In fact, this film could better be titled The Hobbit: Filler Before the Third Film Which Will Be Better, I Promise.
Our story picks up where the first film left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) becoming more confident now that he found the one ring that makes him invisible. The focus isn't really on him in this segment though, it's more about Thorin (Richard Armitage). Like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films, Thorin is a direct descendant and heir to the throne at Erebor, which his relatives lost due to greed to Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) the dragon. Thorin is determined to win back his kingdom and family legacy, which forces him into conflict with the wood elves, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). After escaping their dungeon, the dwarves travel through West Town with the help of Bard (Luke Evans), on their way to Erebor, where Bilbo must steal the arkenstone from Smaug's treasures. During the dwarf adventures, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) splits from the company to search for the source of growing evil in Middle Earth.
What was problematic in The Hobbit: An Incredible Journey is just as problematic in the Desolation of Smaug. The dwarves are woefully interchangeable, with minor development of only a couple of them. Tonally, the dichotomy of the Hobbit compared to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is much lighter; the extra gravitas due to the Gandalf subplot distracts and hinders the main narrative from gaining more steam. Character development is a little better outside of Bilbo and Thorin: Tauriel and Bard will be major players in the third installent and this film that made me care about them. Overall, the Desolation of Smaug amounts to mostly padding of a thin story with subplots that don't fit into the narrative well and CGI spectacles.
But boy oh boy are those spectacles amazing. There is a barrel chase on a river involving dwarves, orcs, and elves that flow together like ballet dancers. The dragon, in all its glory, is a behemoth of a beast; no wonder he is so sure of himself. The battle between the dwarves, Bilbo, and Smaug in the depths of Erebor is by far the film's highlight. There are also talking spiders, a necromancer, a changeling, and several chases. Bigger spectacles have been seen in a Middle Earth movie, but not to the challenging level seen in the Desolation of Smaug. These scenes keep the picture moving when it so easily could get bogged down in stuffing.
The acting is put on the backburner here in favor of special effects. Martin Freeman, when given the chance, is very solid as Bilbo, combining growing confidence with intelligence and naivete. Richard Armitage appears regal and enigmatic enough to give Thorin some necessary texture (he gets some nice beats defending himself from the elves). Evangeline Lilly and Luke Evans fit right in as Tauriel and Bard. Lilly gives Tauriel some wisdom and sadness in her tragic love story subplot, and Evans gets to be a little Aragorny himself with family sins to remedy (plus his intensity hits just the right note). Orlando Bloom and Ian McKellen are back but not given much to do, and Benedict Cumberbatch is menacing enough as the titular dragon.
The Desolation of Smaug adds a little Michael Bay into Peter Jackson's director chair. Those scenes are pretty amazing, but they disservice the story to the point that it is surprising how few characters the audience has a vested interest in. However, we can now dispense with the filler and finally get there and back again with the third Hobbit film, and give Middle Earth a proper farewell.
Posted on 12/17/13 08:02 AM
21 and Over feels like either the first draft of the Hangover, or a cheap knockoff trying to launch careers. Mostly repeating the central conceit of its predecessor, 21 And Over mostly fails to capture the magic and mystery of The Hangover, with brief moments of success. Fortunately stars Miles Teller and Skylar Astin have solid roles under their belt, or they would be forced to use this on their resume.
It is Jeff Chang's (Justin Chon) 21st birthday. Coming to school to celebrate with him are underachiever Miller (Teller) and goody-too-shoes Casey (Astin), friends from high school. Jeff Chang unfortunately gets really wasted, and has a big med school interview in the morning, so it is up to Miller and Casey to bring him home. Hijinks ensue in the form of hazing, pep rallies, drinking games, and drug use.
21 And Over more often than not makes the critical mistake of using nudity, drugs, or swearing as shock and awe cinema without any context. Context gives specificity to the shock factor: would Ken Jeong's cameo in the Hangover be as funny or shocking if we did NOT expect it and have it tie heavily into the mystery and plot? In this case, randomness dominates the crazy scenes, which diminish their impact. There are a couple exceptions, one involving a pep rally and a bull, and the other involving a merging of drinking games/video games. These scenes work because of the specificity of the situation and the ties to the plot that are lacking in most of the other T&A.
The characters/acting are also broad types imitated by actors who admire some of their predecessors. Miles Teller goes for the Vince Vaughn type: fast talking, blunt, arrogant but sweet. He's got the beats down, but the script doesn't give him any charisma; he mostly comes off as too smarmy and bipolar (to service the plot). Skylar Astin is going for one of the Wilson brothers here; shy but sweet with a wild side and capable of loving. He has even less personality than Teller, though their banter together is believeable if uninteresting. The wild card here is Justin Chon, who is kind of Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but more oppressed by his parents. He is the lost potential of 21 And Over, as his character has the most interesting beats that remain mostly in the background in favor of the obvious joke.
21 And Over is pointless passable entertainment. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes, but there are far more better ones. 21 And Over, like the 21st birthday in general, will be forgotten the instant it is completed.
Posted on 12/14/13 05:41 PM
Much like author P. L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks spends the majority of its time trying to get us to like it. You poor film: you're trying WAY too hard. When focused on the creative process in bringing Mary Poppins to the screen, Saving Mr. Banks lives up to all the praise being given to it. However, an overlong and meandering backstory distracts and diminishes the emotional impact of the film. Save yourself the time, and just rewatch Mary Poppins; Saving Mr. Banks did remind me how wonderful that film makes anyone feel.
Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson, forever reminding everyone that is how she wants to be called), is very hesitant to turn over the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). However, she does agree to aid in the writing process helmed by Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (BJ Novak) Sherman. The 3 clash with Travers immediately, since authenticity is more important to her than entertainment. The process makes travers think back to why she chose to write the book: in the hopes to achieve the recognition she wants from her father (Colin Farrell).
This movie really tries to pour on the sadness with its flashbacks. Any chance at subtlety is thrown out the window at the very start; every scene is designed to elicit the most obvious emotion possible in the scene. They may be true, but cinematically they come off false; there is one scene in particular involving Travers's mother at her lowest point that reeks of manipulation and unnecessary gravitas. The movie as a whole is pretty light-hearted; these scenes jar the viewer from the tone in a very forceful manner that keeps Saving Mr. Banks from ever reaching the same stratosphere as the movie it is describing. The only saving grace of the flashbacks involve the score, which is so beautiful, moving, and simple that it should be listened to in times of sadness to lift your spirits (credit goes to Thomas Newman, for putting a very wide smile on most audience members).
The strongest parts of Saving Mr. Banks involve the creative process, when Mary Poppins is being translated from book to screen. During these scenes you can see the dedication the author has to the character, and that the screenwriters and song writers have to the story. The process does not come without complications though; Travers story is so personal that giving up a piece of it is like giving up a part of her past she does not want to. However, watching her embrace the song numbers is a joy to behold; the flashbacks here help supply context and meaning for her letting go, and give Saving Mr. Banks emotional payoffs. It's nice seeing a two-way street process as well; the writers and Disney himself reread Mary Poppins at the behest of Travers only to discover the true meaning of the story and rewrite the ending accordingly. Saving Mr. Banks mentions magic a lot, and the scenes bringing Mary Poppins to life give the movie its magic.
Emma Thompson, like any true Brit, can act appalled at American behavior with the best of them. Though she overacts a bit (an comes off too grating in the first part of the film), she earns the catharsis coming to her as PL Travers. Thompson has to make the audience root for her, and by the end I was firmly in her corner. Tom Hanks is getting the most buzz here playing Walt Disney, but I found the role lacks complexity. Hanks gets to wax poetic about storytelling and show off in front of a lot of people in the most charismatic way possible, very much in Hanks's wheelhouse. Paul Giamatti gets a one note role and makes great work of it as Travers's driver. BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford, and (especially) Jason Schwartzman play frustrated but enthusiastic writers very well. Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson, though disserviced by the writing, are solid and believable as Travers's parents.
For a movie describing the magic of storytelling and moviemaking, Saving Mr. Banks feels surprisingly inert. If more attention were paid to the creative process and less attention to Colin Farrell riding horseback through the countryside, then the movie would have to try less hard to win over the audience. Stroke of genius on Disney's part though: Tom Hanks will make people forget just how merciless Walt Disney actually is; all it needed was Hanks smiling and a beautiful soul touching soundtrack.
Posted on 12/07/13 10:36 PM
Looks like Christian Bale is spending his retirement from Batman decaying in the Rust Belt. Out of the Furnace tries really hard to be like the Deer Hunter, focusing on the outsourcing of the steel industry and the plight of the working class. However, the movie switches tone in the second half into a thriller of sorts that veers away from the themes in the first half of the film and focus on Bale's character. Out of the Furnace wants to say something, but gets so angry it has to shoot something and gets lost along the way.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is one of those "moral code" leads who is clearly dealt a bad hand. His father is dying. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from several tours in Iraq. He goes to prison for involuntary manslaughter and loses his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) to the Braddock police chief (Forest Whitaker) during his sentence. Things get worse when he returns home; his brother becomes in debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), forcing Rodney to fight in Jersey under local druglord Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). DeGroat obviously takes advantage of Rodney, forcing Russell to take matters into his own hands with the help of his uncle (Sam Shepard).
When focused on the plight of Braddock, Out of the Furnace is a fascinating motion picture. The movie opens with shots of steel mills and a drive in movie. Braddock feels like a place out of time, where lethargic, deliberate day-to-day activities are commonplace. It feels hopeless and inescapable. People trying to earn an honest living are finding less and less resources and a future available for them. When Out of the Furnace compares the diverging paths of Rodney and Russell (while also showing how similar they can be at their centers), the movie ripples with intensity and pathos. Is Russell's life really more practical than Rodney's when there is no future really in either? These types of themes are what made the Deer Hunter interesting and Out of the Furnace's first hour comes near the ballpark of that classic.
However, the second half of the film betrays the first half. Harlan is less a character than a plot device, with anger and blackness at his center (he is fun to watch though). Because Harlan becomes the focus of the second act, themes expressed in the first half take a back seat to Russell's quest for justice. The mistake Out of the Furnace makes is that it cannot apply the setup of the first half of the film to the second half. The setting was so integral to the movie's success, that abandoning it for Jersey escapades diminished the power of the final act of Out of the Furnace. The setting could easily have been placed near the outskirts or in a different section of the city for a more impactful ending. More importantly, any statement about the Rust Belt gets lost in the thriller aspects and is nonexistent by the final ten minutes.
The disappointment of the story doesn't diminish some of the acting performances in Out of the Furnace, particularly from the leads. Christian Bale is actually a Welsh man, but he infuses Russell with the steel resolve and pride often given to those areas of the country. Bale dominates every scene he is in, giving force and tension to scenes that probably don't deserve it. It falls short on the Oscar front, but at least draws consideration. Casey Affleck gets to be a little crazy here, and he isn't bad at it (but not great either). Zoe Saldana gives some emotional heft to the story; her scene on the bridge with Bale is the film's highlight. Woody Harrelson can play a lunatic as good as any of the greats; just because the script doesn't warrant it doesn't mean he isn't terrifying. Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, and Sam Shepard are minor characters who don't get much to do unfortunately.
Much like last year's Killing Them Softly, Out of the Furnace tries to be transformative and falls short. The movie mistakes visceral violence as the selling point when the town that contains the violence is so much more interesting. Also, why is everyone a meth cooker? Thanks a lot Breaking Bad for making that the go to drug in movies for the next decade. For once, I want to see someone into hallucinogens for some more interesting consequences.
Posted on 12/01/13 03:20 PM
Frozen is delightfully old school. The latest production from Disney is based on an old fairy tale, features a couple cute creatures, has some fun song/dance numbers, and builds its story around a princess. While not breaking ground in any way, Frozen plays with the Disney format enough to provide a fresh spin on a tried and true formula. Glad to see Disney's studios picking up where Pixar has been dropping the ball.
Frozen is a story about two sisters: Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa has the ability to create snow, but she has trouble controlling her powers. After a near-tragic accident involving Anna, Elsa agrees to hide herself from her sister to protect her (Anna also has her memory wiped.). Years pass until Elsa's coronation ceremony requires her to appear to her kingdom. At the ceremony, Elsa's powers create an eternal winter, and she flees to the mountains to prevent further harm to the kingdom. Anna then takes it upon herself to bring about the return of Spring by confronting Elsa. Along the way, she enlists the help of 13th heir to a neighboring kingdom Hans (Santino Fontana), Iceman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven (his trusty reindeer), and Olaf (Josh Gad) the snowman brought to life by Elsa.
Frozen is one of the most beautiful animated movies I have seen in a long time. The kingdom is alive with beautiful blues and greens, giving the Scandanavian setting natural energy and brilliance. When the storms hit, the snow looks and feels very real with the way the hair flows and individual snowflakes can be seen. The ice vacillates seamlessly between menacing and extraordinary (the ice castle rivals the beauty of the kingdom). Credit goes to the animators for fully fantasizing the Scandanavian setting, giving Frozen a larger than life feel that services the story very well.
The story itself contains a frustrating mix of clichés and ingenuity. For instance, the central conflict doesn't involve a man, or over-the-top villain: it is an uncontrollable force that focuses the conflict on the two sisters, easily the backbone of Frozen. However, as the story moves on, traditional Disney storytelling gets manufactured in: a pointless love triangle is created with three of the characters, one of the characters is forced into a villainous role for no reason, and the songs in the third act feel very out of place for some cheap laughs. These choices are especially frustrating because of the care taken for the early part of the story. There would have been so many better directions to go. For example, Olaf is carefully constructed that threats to him would carry emotional heft, or the final realization for Elsa and Anna could have been reversed for a more emotional catharsis. I feel like one or two more drafts would have put Frozen into rarified air in the Disney animated realm.
The voice work falls on the good side of animation: no one is really noticeable as themselves (except maybe Josh Gad). Kristen Bell gives Anna some spunk and optimism that the effervescent Bell possesses in numerous amounts herself. Idina Menzel sells Elsa's melancholy, but is otherwise nothing too special. Josh Gad approaches the too cute line with Olaf, but stays on the right side, pushing his innocence and joy in his words. Alan Tudyk also shows his voice range with another loopy character (an old duke).
Frozen is being compared by some to the great Disney films of the last era: The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, etc. Though the storytelling and songs are not quite on that level, Frozen is just as beautiful (if not more so) and in the discussion. If you have a little niece, daughter, cousin, etc, just go out right now and buy either a Princess Anna or Queen Elsa doll for Christmas.
Posted on 11/28/13 07:41 AM
When watching The Book Thief, I was more often than not reminded of Pinocchio. Not because they are both beloved stories written with children in mind, but because they have a lead searching to become a real person and the feeling of being maneuvered toward what feelings I should be having. Even though its heart is in the right place (because of a low hanging fruit story about the Holocaust), The Book Thief stays around too long and places the least interesting character at its center. If this is based on a true story, I'm glad the story exists in book form; it is disserviced by its big screen adaptation however.
Narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) and her life in World War II era Germany. The girl is given away by her mother (who doesn't know what else to do) to Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), two non-supporters of Hitler's regime. Liesel then begins her new life: she starts school, befriends a boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), and learns how to read. Reading becomes an obsession for Liesel, even going so far as to steal banned books from book burnings and other people's homes. Meanwhile, the German purge of Jews is taking force. One day a boy named Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up at Hans's door, where Hans places him in the basement and hides him from the Nazis. Liesel takes interest in Max, who encourages her to use words she's learned to describe her days so he can picture it. However, threats continue to grow as the war gets closer to home.
The Book Thief makes the sin of making characters do stupid things in hopes to make the audience cry, laugh, cheer, etc. During a bombing, with NO explanation, Max just leaves the house and dances around outside; you're supposed to feel his elation for leaving the basement, but you mostly laugh at how stupid the decision is. Rosa updates Liesel about Max's condition in the middle of school to show how good of an actor Emily Watson is, but not for any good reason that couldn't wait until Liesel got home. These decisions add up over the course of the film until eventually any quality moment (like when Liesel describes the day to Max) is undercut with skepticism and searches for logic flaws.
Also working against The Book Thief is the meandering nature of the story. The director thinks that time is enough of a throughput for The Book Thief, but the fascinating side characters need more of a central theme to appear. The toils of war would have been a good one: an escalation of personal sacrifice that would make the character evolution more believable. It would also nicely tie in each character to Liesel's struggles. However, the story can't seem to find a direction to go down and mostly throws everything from the book on the screen to see what sticks. The book's choice of narration also makes the story run way too long, almost to the point of ruining any sense of payoff in the third act. A more focused narrative would do wonders toward making The Book Thief's storyline more compelling, but as is it comes off to herky-jerky to the audience.
It's sad that a child actor has to take most of the blame for The Book Thief, but Sophie Nelisse falls into the child actor role of cute but not interesting. She falls between the stoic/emotional line a lot lessening the impact of the many chances she has to win over the audience. The supporting cast fares MUCH better. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson give dimension to what appear to be dimensionless characters: Watson especially does wonders with a one-note role. Nico Liersch is really good as Liesel's best friend Rudy. He finds the right note between understanding beyond his years and confusion at the world around him. Ben Schnetzer gets the most satisfying emotions out of the audience as Max; his scenes with Liesel crackle with simplicity and profundity simultaneously.
The Book Thief could have been a torrential tribulation study, but is instead a loquacious, pedantic lament of what could have been. The book is beloved, but the movie can be maddening. One last word of advice; if your setting is Germany in the 30's, don't make everyone speak English with German accents and a few German words. It makes NO sense.
Posted on 11/26/13 11:13 AM
Nebraska oscillates between being a relatable study of aging middle America and a coastal account of what they believe happens in the heartland. Director Alexander Payne brilliantly shoots (in black and white) the small downs and ceaseless horizon, creating a sense of laziness and slow movements, but outside of his two leads, Payne (and writer Bob Nelson) do a poor job showcasing real people and mostly opt for caricatures. The tug and pull between artifice and reality gives Nebraska a disjointed meandering feel that is partially intentional but mostly distracting.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps walking (since he is forbidden to drive) towards Nebraska from his home in Billings only to be picked up by police everyday. Woody does this because he believes he has won a million dollars (it is obviously a scam) through a letter in the mail. To shut him up and get him away from his mother (June Squibb), Woody's son David (Will Forte) takes his dad to Lincoln, stopping along the way in Woody's hometown to learn more about the man his dad once was.
Alexander Payne is actually from Nebraska. His intention here is not to lament the downfall of the hard working middle of the country, but to show how similarly stubborn and crazy people from the middle are as opposed to the coasts. It's in the little details Payne gets it right. TV (especially sports) are watched almost ritually. Stories spread like wildfire since everyone knows everyone in a small town. There is a story about an air compressor that has several different versions because people have chosen to believe their idea of events. The façade of likeability that fades as you get older or get around people who know you. Most of these details when tied to someone (Buddy or Dave usually) give Nebraska a clever understanding of how the world functions in a small town. However, Payne often undercuts himself with simplistic portrayals of a cousin who has obvious criminal tendencies or Kate's (Dave's mother) overt truth-telling. Had Payne had some restraint, Nebraska would have succeeded more. Perhaps his time in Hollywood has dulled his memory of where he came from.
However, Payne (and writer Nelson) nail the father/son relationship. Most people have had a relative at some point who is coming close to losing it mentally, and Nebraska shows the plight of the people forced to take care of the now helpless. You can see in Dave's conversations with his dad that Woody never fully appears quite there anymore; he really has to push his dad to give up any information about his past, and even that doesn't work well since Woody's memories are mostly shot. Watching a relatively nice patient person forced into frustrating circumstances because of an unresponsive aging loved one gives Nebraska a very ubiquitous feel and understanding beyond time, and results in the strong payoffs of the third act, especially for Dave.
As Woody, Bruce Dern walks the tightrope of being sympathetic but not likable. The "lost" look on his face helps make up for some of the really mean words he uses towards Dave, Kate, and anyone who gets in his way for his million dollars. This balance is hard to maintain, and Dern does a great job at it. However, to me, the surprise and strength of this film is MacGruber himself (one of his SNL characters), Will Forte. Watching him many years on Saturday Night Live, Forte never gave any indication that he had these levels of dramatic acting inside himself. Forte gives Dave the right mixture of patience, likability, and inner self-awareness. Nebraska is at its best when Dave and Woody are traveling across the Midwest together. June Squibb gets the scene-stealing Payne role here, but she goes too far over the edge to be taken seriously as a character. Stacy Keach isn't bad as an old acquaintance of Woody's, and probably doesn't get enough screen time. Bob Odenkirk needed more time as well as Dave's older brother.
Shot in beautiful black and white, Nebraska is meant to make the audience think of an older simpler time that is often looked upon with rose colored lenses. However, Alexander Payne undercuts the nostalgia with some biting satire around what has become of the relics of that era. He then undercuts his satire with broadly drawn types that lessen the impact of the film. Seriously, how many old people can live in 1 small town? I counted 3 people under the age of 60. I did find out one interesting piece of information though: I guess Nebraskans get Chicago Bears games on TV; good to know the Bear fan base exists across the Midwest.
Posted on 11/24/13 09:55 AM
Fire fire everywhere, and no water to put it out. The pop culture zeitgeist has been swirling around The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for months now. Fortunately for the Internet, it delivers the goods. For a young adult story, Catching Fire has some very adult themes about governance and media surrounding what is essentially a battle to the death. Catching Fire is a strong enough film to excite ALL people, not just tweens debating Team Peeta vs. Team Gale (seriously guys, its obviously Peeta).
Fresh off her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, the girl on fire) enjoys her brief time back home with best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) before she must depart on her victory tour with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her co-victor. They have been given strict orders from the President (Donald Sutherland) to keep up their charade of romance: the districts are bordering rebellion and openly confronting the government. As the tour rolls on, the President realizes that Katniss has become the rebels' symbol for hope, so he enlists the help of Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the chairman of the 75th Hunger Games, to eliminate her. Plutarch suggests that previous winners of the games compete against each other, thus using the games to eliminate Katniss. So again, Peeta and Katniss enlist the help of former winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and liaison Effie (Elizabeth Banks) to figure out how to survive the 75th Hunger Games.
The first hour is the strongest of Catching Fire. The insurrection and government suppression creates a tone of dread and powerlessness. At the first stop on the victory tour, someone gets shot after defying the government. With each little act, anger and defiance to the government grow bigger and bigger across all the districts. When the media intervenes with trite storylines, the contestants openly mock the stupidity of the host. The shift in tone succeeds in creating a weird feeling when the games start. Gone is the terror of the unknown in the first movie, replaced by weird coincidences and alliances. The movie cleverly drops hints at its endgame but not enough to give away its little bombshells in the third act. Credit goes to Director Francis Lawrence (and fantastic screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) for establishing tonally how widespread the citizens' resentment of the government is and the many ways the government attempts to quell it.
No young adult novel would be complete without some sort of love triangle. What makes the Hunger Games's triangle so enjoyable is that Peeta and Gale are both positioned in Catching Fire to be quality choices. Gale clearly is Katniss's link to the world and people she relates to, and their value system is shared. Peeta gives Katniss a level head when the confusion and threats create a sense of hysteria (whether it is from the government or from the games themselves). Neither forces her to choose one or the other, but they both make themselves available to her if she needs help. Katniss's decision is obviously put on hold because of her circumstances, but the decision is one of the compelling subplots started by Catching Fire and hopefully resolved in Mockingjay.
Much like the superhero movies, The Hunger Games cast is loaded with talent, elevating even minor roles into the spotlight. The anchor here is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Oscar win. Katniss starts off with PTSD, and slowly grows more angry and defiant of the President because of the threats on her family and friends. I watched some interviews of Lawrence promoting the film; her personality demands the attention she rightly deserves. Here, the writers/director mostly get out of her way and let her just be, with great effect. The closing shot of her is a testament to how many emotions she can create with just her face. The surprise to me was Josh Hutcherson, who was the damsel in distress in the first Hunger Games. Here, he is every bit as strong as Katniss but in a quieter complimentary way. Hutcherson gives Peeta a very casual media affront, but when the setting is more intimate, he genuinely tries to connect and understand the people he talks to. Liam Hemsworth gets to be something other than pretty as Gale; the fact that I had to consider him in the love triangle is well earned by Thor's brother. Woody Harrelson is always welcome as a condescending drunk, a solid role for him. Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz are surprisingly affecting as Effie and Cinna, clearly caring for their winners but stuck in the system. Stanley Tucci needs to be an MTV host at some point because of how great he is here. Donald Sutherland will be a very intimidating villain as President Snow: his one big scene with Katniss sizzled with powerful menace. The newcomers also acquit themselves pretty well. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright bring a sense of cold intelligence and logic in their two roles. Jena Malone needs to be in more things, but she easily steals every scene she is in as unhinged Joanna. The big gamble here is Sam Claflin (who almost ruined Snow White and the Huntsman by himself) as key tribute Finnick Odair. Fortunately, the writers flesh him out enough and give him enough personality that he doesn't embarrass himself around better actors.
Catching Fire is being called the Hunger Games's Empire Strikes Back in some circles, high praise justified by the collective efforts of the Catching Fire Team. The movie builds upon the themes of the first movie and expands them to help set up a powerful fight in the two part finale. It also creates an intriguing oral question: who does Stanley Tucci's teeth in the movie? They were as bright as high beams on a dark road.
Posted on 11/16/13 01:55 PM
AIDS was a plague for the gay community. When you are infected with a plague, you become ostracized, victimized, and isolated by the general populous as they try to quarantine it. There aren't too many positive stories about AIDS victims, but How to Survive a Plague is about as optimistic about the future of AIDS victims as I have ever seen. More than that, it is a well crafted and edited documentary that contains some mystery, some humor, and tons of hope for anyone who wants to stand up for what they believe in.
How to Survive a Plague is about the fight to get drugs on the market more quickly as mass casualties turned AIDS into a pandemic from 1987 to 1996. The film focuses on the efforts of an underground NY group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which contained many homosexuals, but also some activists and doctors supporting their fight. Told mostly in footage they themselves took, we get to see their effective use of the media as they hold several nonviolent protests or debate issues with important players in the AIDS game. We see how some members of the group become highly educated on their disease and create TAG (treatment action group) that partners with the FDA doctors to research a cure. As TAG becomes closer with the FDA, ACT UP starts to mistrust the group since they are far away from the front lines. Along with the internal struggles and FDA fight, we get other fights from George Bush, Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, Ed Koch, St. Patrick's Church, and other people who feel the need to comment on the "behavior" of the community.
Where did they store all this footage? ACT UP was well ahead of its time recording all of its doings, inside and out, on camera. Like Ghandi and King before them, ACT UP used nonviolent and pointed protests which they filmed themselves alongside the media, thus controlling how their message got across. In addition, we learn just how well verse the group was in learning about the various cures that became available. Like any good documentary, the end goal grows from a simple search for an AIDS treatment into a study of how to band together to accomplish a political goal. Using knowledge, publicity, and education as the backbone, a two-pronged attack with boots on the ground and using institutions already in place succeeded in finding a successful treatment for AIDS. How To Survive A Plague is wonderful at showing the evolving struggles of accomplishing a goal through government/political means.
What elevates How to Survive a Plague over a normal documentary is the various storytelling methods that keep the movie consistently interesting. For the mystery lover, the movie keeps hidden who dies and who lives among the principals until the end. For the dramatics, the protests carry lots of thrills and leave you on the edge of your seat plus the potential ACT UP schism becomes a very terrifying possibility midway though. For the comedian, there is a very humorous use of condoms and a house. Credit director David France for successfully editing the story to fit into a very linear narrative, using the subplots to build upon one another until the AIDS treatment is discovered.
Mark Harrington. Peter Staley. Bob Rafsky. Ann Northrup. These names deserve to be remembered alongside some of the other great social activists like Martin Luther King Jr. or Jane Addams. Their ceaseless effort and pragmatic approach is on display in How to Survive a Plague, a wonderful documentary successfully weaving together numerous topics like gay rights, the AIDS epidemic, the political process, the FDA, and religion. I hope one day down the line that these brave pioneers get some sort of holiday-type recognition for the changes and results they achieved.