The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review

          The Hunger Games franchise made a strong cinematic debut in the spring of 2012 as The Hunger Games turned out to be a sturdy introduction to an interesting world.  While most people will say that the Harry Potter film series is the closest we have ever gotten to the Lord of the Rings film series in terms of book series adaptations, The Hunger Games is giving it a run for its money (and making it look easy).  The latest film in the franchise, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, only further supports that.  With a cast that is only getting better, Catching Fire is able to fill the weak points of the book with an expanded budget while still keeping the strengths of the book intact.

            The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up a months after the first film as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) prepare for their Victory Tour.  When the tour commences though, they realize that things have changed in Panem, and that the seeds of rebellion have been planted after Katniss’ actions in the first film.  Katniss and Peeta must now deal with the consequences that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will no doubt unleash against them.  The film is directed by Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) and is written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine).

            While Panem certainly looks similar in this sequel, there is something notably different in the visuals of the film.  Gone is “shaky-cam” (the most notable aspect of Gary Ross’ visual style for the first film) and in its stead is a much smoother visual style.  I was one of the few that thought shaky-cam worked in the first film, and allowed Ross to create a gritty style despite the film’s PG-13 rating.  Yet Francis Lawrence’s direction is equally as good as his predecessor’s work.  Lawrence still finds a way to keep the style of the film gritty without the shaky-cam and the PG-13 rating still intact.  It also helps that Lawrence got a very good script from two Oscar winners in Beaufoy and Arndt.  Beaufoy and Arndt do a great of carrying over the themes of the book to the screen even if they leave out a major part or two (especially in the case of a scene that would have helped combat the inexplicable suddenness of a major plot point near the end of the film).

            Meanwhile, the cast of the film is better than ever.  Jennifer Lawrence continues to give a career best performance as Katniss.  Forget about Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, this is her best performance as she combines such intensity with a lot of subtle moments.  The supporting cast around Lawrence is also really good with performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman (making it look easy as the new gameskeeper with a hidden agenda), Jeffrey Wright (perfectly cast as the braniac contender in the games), Stanley Tucci (hamming it up to wondrous effect), Sam Claflin (surprisingly good as the charismatic Finnick), and Jena Malone (doing strong work as Johanna, who seemed like a tough character to portray on the page).  The weak link of the cast is once again Josh Hutcherson, who can’t bring an ounce of charm to the guy who is supposed to be the most likeable in the world.

            The Hunger Games: Catching Fire sets up the Hunger Games series as one of the best in recent cinematic history.


Frozen Review

          In reference to the new animated Disney film Frozen, I’ve heard numerous critics say it’s the best Disney Animation Studios film since The Lion King.  That’s a big statement, but when you sit down and actually think about it Disney Animation Studios hasn’t really delivered a knockout punch since that film (although I like a lot of the studio’s films since then including Pocahontas, Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, and last year’s Wreck-It Ralph).  So is Frozen a knockout for Disney Animation Studios?  Probably not, but it certainly is good and its style harkens back to the age of the Disney Renaissance whereas more recent films (such as Wreck-It Ralph) have attempted to take the studio in a different direction.

            Frozen follows the future Queen of Arendelle, Elsa (voiced by Broadway star Idina Menzel) and her sister, Princess Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell).  Elsa has the ability to create snow and ice, and it has been an ability she has been unsuccessfully trying to control her entire life.  When Anna falls for a Prince (voiced by Santino Fontana) and asks for her sister’s blessing in marrying him, an accident happens that plunges the kingdom into eternal winter.  Anna must now find her runaway sister in order to save Arendelle.  The film is directed by Chris Buck (Disney’s Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (a screenwriter on Wreck-It Ralph making her directorial debut) and is written by Buck, Lee and Shane Morris.

            Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris do a great job of capturing the spirit of what made the films of the Disney Renaissance work.  The pacing is perfect and they know the right moments to break out into song (while I don’t think I will be remembering many of the songs, “Let It Go” is the best moment in the film).  While clearly trying to harken back to the glory days, Frozen feels most similar to Pixar’s Brave.  The world building and the character building of the leads are the highlights in both, but Frozenseems like a sturdier film from beginning to end (probably due to the switching of directors during the production of Brave).  It was also nice to see a more female-centric storyline in this film too.  While the film seems to ruin this in order to go with a clichéd “true love” climax, keep faith as the creative team has a few tricks up their sleeve.

            Frozen is easily the most memorable animated film of the year, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this become a holiday classic.


Prisoners Review

            Thanks to a large variety of programming, television recently (or still is, depending on who you ask) experienced a Golden Age.  Yet with all these new avenues to explore television there still are way too many crime thrillers on television.  Even with films the genre of crime thrillers has almost become a cliché.  So it was quite interesting to recently see an acclaimed foreign director make his American film debut with a crime thriller.  While there are more nuances within the characters of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners than your typical crime thriller, the clichéd twists and turns of the genre only allow the film to go so far.

            Prisoners follows the hunt for two missing girls from the perspective of the families of the two missing girls (Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard) and the dedicated detective assigned to the case (Jake Gyllenhaal).  The Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated Incendies) directed film is written by Aaron Guzikowski (who wrote the Mark Wahlberg film Contraband).

            Denis Villeneuve is clearly a talented director.  He gives so much depth to the characters of these films just through tiny visual cues.  There were probably too many to catch on just one viewing so repeated viewings of this film will be quite fruitful to viewers.  However, the rest of his style becomes problematic as it doesn’t translate into anything original or edgy (which is clearly what he was going for in this film).  The dark atmosphere just comes across as bland while scenes of gore come without any shock value now that we see these two things on such a consistent basis on television and film.  As interesting as these characters may be there just isn’t a strong enough visual style or storyline (which becomes filled with clichéd twists in the final act) to sustain them.  To make matters even worse the film suddenly ends on a cliffhanger ending that doesn’t add any depth to the film.

            Luckily, the cast of the film is quite exceptional.  Hugh Jackman plays a cliché-riddled protagonist, but these clichés give a lot of room for Jackman to act.  He makes the most of those opportunities.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives a great physical performance.  His character may be a bit dry, but Gyllenhaal does everything he possibly can to make him interesting.  Viola Davis and Terrence Howard do solid work as the secondary couple in the film.  Davis, especially, makes the most of her time and really nails a scene that has her character meeting a character of interest to her.  The supporting cast is led by an outstanding performance from Melissa Leo.  She takes a backseat for most of the film, but she was so unrecognizable that I didn’t realize it was her until she became front and center in the film’s final act.  Meanwhile, Paul Dano is perfectly cast as a suspect and Dylan Minnette continues to show why he may have a bright future in this business.

            Prisoners features some strong performances, but there is not enough within the film to separate it from the large pack of recent crime-thrillers.


Before Midnight Review

            As someone who only just began watching the Before…Trilogy this year, I was quite surprised by how much it took a hold of me.  Before Sunrise was a fascinating exploration of love and its role in the world today.  Before Sunset was a strong continuation of not only those themes but of the journey of Jesse and Celine.  This year saw the release of the film that officially made this series of films a trilogy: Before Midnight.  Before Midnight is easily the most risk-taking of the three films, and this easily could have ended badly.  However, thanks to sturdy direction and a strong cast, Before Midnight not only ends up becoming one of the best films of the year, but also a film that can be argued as the best of an already great trilogy.

            Before Midnight picks up nine years after the conclusion of Before Sunsetwhere it was left ambiguous as to whether Jesse (Ethan Hawke) was going to miss his flight back home and stay with Celine (Julie Delpy).  The film begins with Jesse dropping his son (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) at the airport to go back home to America after a summer spent together (anymore explanation of the plot could be considered a spoiler).  The film is directed by Richard Linklater and is written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy.

            For almost all of this trilogy, Richard Linklater has relied on a simple formula: have two characters talk to each other about life and love through tracking shots in gorgeous foreign landscapes.  Yet a lot of credit has to be given to Linklater for sticking to that formula.  It’s an extremely effective formula, and while it’s simple and laidback in appearance, it takes a lot of effort from Linklater and company to get it to work as well as it does.  That being said it was also interesting to see Linklater stray from the formula in the darker moments that occurred in the first and last acts of this film.  Linklater still found a way to make the trademark themes of this film series work even in those scenes.

            Jesse and Celine are easily Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s signature roles.  With every film they seem to find new ways to make their characters even more interesting and complex.  That is especially the case with this film.  Ethan Hawke delivers his best performance in the series yet as he makes Jesse so sympathetic despite taking some of his much damaging actions yet.  Meanwhile, Julie Delpy (through both her acting and screenwriting) succeeds in the truly difficult task of creating a feminist character onscreen.  In the first two films of the series, there was no room at all for a supporting cast so it was an odd sight to see some supporting characters get some screen time in this one.  While none of the supporting actors give performances of particular note, Walter Lassally gets a nice scene as the owner of a Greek retreat for writers.

            Before Midnight is a stunning exploration of fading love.


Eastbound & Down: Season 4 Review

            With Breaking Bad arguably having the greatest final season in television history, you would think it would be a lot tougher for shows in their final seasons to get any attention this TV season.  Add in a high-profile final season such as How I Met Your Mother’s, and there is almost no attention left to spare.  Yet Eastbound & Down has quietly had a fantastic final season (again after it was resurrected from the dead last year).  The show found loose ends where there seemingly was none and gave Kenny Powers his greatest character journey yet.

            The final season of Eastbound & Downpicked up with Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) trying to find meaning in retirement.  However, his daily nine to five job isn’t cutting it for him.  When sports talk show host Guy Young (Ken Marino) offers Kenny a guest spot on his show, Kenny thinks that his return to fame is about to begin.  Ben Best, Jody Hill and Danny McBride continued to run the show while the season was directed by Jody Hill and David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express).

            Eastbound & Down has always straddled the line between outrageously funny and outrageously uncomfortable, and I think that line got even thinner for the show’s final season.  There were definitely moments this season (especially early on) that were too uncomfortable and just crass in nature.  However, as the show finally figured out what direction they were going to take Kenny Powers, the series experienced what might be its best run of episodes in its entire run.  Beginning with an episode that focused on a family and friends vacation to a water park resort, the show finally decided to become a comedic version of Richard III (something a bit more sinister than the show has attempted before).  While many shows have attempted a similar storyline (Breaking Bad and House of Cards to name some recent big ones) none have attempted it in such a comedic fashion so it not only worked but also actually strengthened the show.

            Danny McBride has never been better as Kenny Powers, and if it weren’t for the fact that this series is so under-seen, Kenny Powers would be an iconic character of television thanks to McBride’s work.  Kenny has never been as outrageous or as sympathetic as he was this season, and that is a tough mix to master for an actor.  McBride made it look easy.  It was also nice to see Katy Mixon as Kenny’s wife, April, and Steve Little as Kenny’s sidekick, Stevie, actually get real storylines for once.  Their characters have been used in service of Kenny in the past so it was a bit of fresh air to actually see Mixon and Little get material to work with for once.  Ken Marino was also quite good as the antagonist of the season.  Despite the series’ love of fitting in A-list star appearances, Marino ends up being one of the more memorable guest stars the show has had.

            Eastbound & Down ends on a high note once again.


All is Lost Review

            So the big reoccurring theme in awards season films this year is survival.  Gravity began the season with a story of a woman trying to overcome dilemmas in space and get back home.  Captain Phillips followed that up with a story of a captain trying to survive the hostage situation he finds himself in.  12 Years a Slave continued with a story of a man trying to find his way back to being a free man after being abducted into slavery (a state of life portrayed as barely living at all).  With so many films following such a similar theme (and in many cases, similar story beats) it would be hard to get behind another film this year that had the same theme.  That unfortunately puts All is Lost in a bad situation.  The technical aspects of the film are amazing, but that’s the same (and even more so the case) with Gravity.  It has a powerful lead performance, but so too does 12 Years a Slave.  On it’s own All is Lost is a very good film, but it is very hard to fall in love with a film that is so similar to so many films that only just came out in the past few months.

            All is Lost follows a man (Robert Redford), who finds his life in peril after an adrift cargo container strikes his yacht.  The film is directed and written by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call).

            This film is a two-man show.  It’s J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford from beginning to end.  It’s amazing how long these two are able to maintain the audience’s attention (the film has a runtime over ninety minutes).  Chandor’s direction isn’t afraid to be creative despite a lot of the film being filmed out at sea (where it is notoriously difficult to film a movie), and this film proves he is a director to be reckoned with.  It’s also quite exciting to see Chandor put so much faith in Redford.  Chandor seemed perfectly fine with resting the camera on Redford’s face for long durations of the film, and this does wonders for the film.  Redford is an actor capable of doing a lot with very little so these long stretches of just focusing on Redford actually come across not only as natural but also as very revealing.

            Other than such a large film being rested upon such a simple story, this film doesn’t really have much else to offer.  Everything else that it does we have seen before (and very recently at that).  Due to this, the film’s weaknesses seem to be even more glaring.  For instance, Murphy’s Law always being applied to the main character is more irritating here than it was in Gravity(it also helped that the film’s ambitiousness helped to mask that problem in the latter).  The same can be said with the bits of melodrama that are thrown out of nowhere into the closing moments of this film.  Something similar also happens in Gravity, but Alfonso Cuaron adds it in much more deftly than this film does.

            In a year filled with very good survival dramas, All is Lost just happens to be the weakest of the best.


The Kings of Summer Review

            I keep mentioning this but it’s worth repeating again: 2013 in film is the year of the coming-of-age film.  This summer had four major films set around coming-of-age stories.  The Spectacular Now (released in August) and The Way, Way Back (released in July) were not only great coming-of-age films, but also just great films in general (don’t be surprised if you see them show up in my top 10 lists or personal awards).  Then there was Mud (released in May).  While not as good as the first two, Mud was a solid film featuring great performances and another strong effort from one of the most promising up-and-coming directors.  With three films as strong as these three it was hard not to notice the trend.  Backing those three films up, though, was a film that did not receive the same amount of attention: The Kings of Summer.  While The Kings of Summer is not as good as those three films, it is a coming-of-age film that does enough right to overshadow its weaknesses.

            The Kings of Summer follows Joe (Nick Robinson), a high school freshman, who is fed up with living with his divorced and pessimistic father (Nick Offerman).  While running away from a disgruntled neighbor during a kegger, he stumbles across a quiet and open place in the woods.  He comes up with the idea to begin a new life there with two friends (Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias).  The film is directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (a television comedy director) and is written by Chris Galletta (making his screenwriting debut).

            This film has an interesting and enjoyable storyline.  The writing is strong enough to make it easy for you to become invested in the characters despite most of them having numerous flaws.  You actually want to know what will happen to these characters.  The problem is that it seems like Jordan Vogt-Roberts didn’t have enough faith in the script or the young actors he casted.  He uses a variety of visual gimmicks that ultimately take away from a film that would have been better off with a laidback directing style. 

            That’s a shame because the script and (especially) the cast are strong enough to work on their own.  Nick Robinson has received a lot of attention in Hollywood as of late (so much so that he landed a lead role in Jurassic World).  After seeing this film it is easy to see why.  Robinson acts like a natural as the lead character.  He showcases a lot of charisma while giving a lot of depth to his performance.  Robinson delivers such a strong performance that he almost plays Gabriel Basso off the screen despite the latter giving a solid performance as Joe’s best friend.  Meanwhile, Moises Arias delivers an interesting performance as the quirky third lead.  There’s really nothing of note coming from the supporting cast.  Nick Offerman just isn’t that interesting in his role while Alison Brie doesn’t get enough screen time to really matter.  However, Erin Moriarty is solid as the female lead.

            The Kings of Summer has its problems, but it gets by thanks to a strong lead performance and a script that has its moments.


Thor: The Dark World Review

            It is quite amazing to think that through seven films and a TV series (the seventh being Iron Man Three, which started “Phase Two”) that Marvel hasn’t made a major narrative mistake with their ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.  Everything has worked to some degree.  Even the lesser films in the franchise had something to offer.  Iron Man 2 has that fantastic opening act while Thor featured some top-notch performances from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.  So it’s quite disheartening to say that Thor: The Dark World is the first film where the Marvel Cinematic Universe stumbles.  With a storyline that seems to completely hinge upon made up concepts that don’t make sense and a load of dues ex machinas, Thor: The Dark World is almost completely incomprehensible.  Not even a talented cast and one of most visually stunning aesthetics for a Marvel film yet can save this film.  For the first time, I am worried about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

            Thor: The Dark World picks up where The Avengers left off with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard to face punishment for his crimes on Earth.  However, Thor realizes he may need his brother’s help when an ancient race of beings returns when Thor’s love on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), accidently unearths a powerful force.  The film is directed by Alan Taylor (who directed some of Game of Thrones’ stronger episodes) and is written by Christopher Yost (a comic book writer), Christopher Markus (Captain America: The First Avenger), Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger), Don Payne (who is credited posthumously) and Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan).

            Thor: The Dark World definitely seems like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.  So many concepts are put into this film and yet it seems like no one ever asked if this would all make sense in the end.  It doesn’t, and as funny as this script can be at times, there is just not enough strong material in this script to make the film interesting.  Alan Taylor and a team of talented artists try their hardest to at least make the film look visually appealing.  For the most part they succeed.  The sets, costumes and improved visual effects make Asgard and the other areas of the universe more fully realized than they ever were in the first Thor film.

            With so much nonsense going on in the script, most of the performances are lost in the fray.  The normally reliable Chis Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are never given a chance to stand out (especially the later who is left with a character that decides to switch motives every five seconds).  Meanwhile Natalie Portman continues a performance that may be the worst in her career.  There is just nothing interesting about Jane Foster, and Portman is left once again delivering a few cringe-worthy lines.  The only interesting parts about the cast end up being Kat Dennings and a few performances that always only amounted to little more than cameo appearances.  Kat Dennings gets additional screen time as Jane Foster’s intern in this film, and she ends up being the most reliable source of comedy in the film.  Meanwhile, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander and a certain Oscar winner (whose appearance is meant to be a surprise) are quite good in very small roles.

            Thor: The Dark World is easily the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series.


12 Years a Slave Review

            Last year when I reviewed Amour (a film that I did not like), I asked something along the lines of whether a movie could be good while at the same time not being enjoyable.  I’m in the camp that a film has to be enjoyable in order to be good.  There’s no point in calling a film great if I have no intention of ever seeing it again.  Director Steve McQueen has a history of making these types of movies (ones that straddle the line of being able to pull any enjoyment out of them while being masterfully crafted).  Take Shame for instance, which was amazingly acted and featured some top-notch directing, but ultimately became too much to handle with its bleak portrayal of sex addiction.  So when I heard that Steve McQueen’s latest film was being heralded as not only one of the best films of the year but possibly ever, I began to worry I was going to be left out of the celebration.  McQueen’s portrayal of slavery in 12 Years a Slave sure is unsettling, but there is something there that films like Amour and Shame don’t have: hope.  It also helps that McQueen has upped his game to the next level as a director and has assembled what might be the ensemble of the year.

            12 Years a Slave follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York in the mid-1800s.  On the promise of a well-paying job, he accompanies two men (cameo performances from Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam and Argo’s Scott McNairy) to Washington D.C., where he is drugged and kidnapped.  Northup wakes up to the brutal reality that he is now a slave.  The film is directed by Steve McQueen from a script by John Ridley.

            While 2013 hasn’t quite been a banner year for cinema (it’s actually probably one of the weakest in recent memory), it has been a great showcase for this generation of directors.  Just look at Alfonso Cuaron’s directorial achievement on Gravity for proof.  Stunningly, Steve McQueen’s work on this film might be just as good.  Whereas Cuaron redefined the boundaries of cinema, McQueen reveals what can be done within the limitations of cinema.  McQueen isn’t trying to invent anything new, but, whether it is through the slow reveal of a character’s surroundings or a tracking shot used to stunning effect, he reveals that he is a master of his craft.

            It also helps that McQueen has this film casted to as close as perfect as you can get.  Small turns from Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams and Benedict Cumberbatch elicit the intended effect from audiences.  However, this film really comes down to three of the most powerful performances you will see in cinemas this year.  Michael Fassbender delivers what might be the most monstrous performance to grace the screen since Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List as the plantation owner Epps.  The performance easily could have been cartoonish in lesser hands, but Fassbender makes Epps a complex figure: a man who deep down knows what he is doing is somehow wrong yet is too addicted to it to even think about stopping.  Sharing a lot of screen time with Fassbender is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as the slave Patsey.  Nyong’o delivers an intense and very physical performance that makes it appear as if she is a veteran actress.  However, this film really belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor.  In many ways Solomon Northrup is the least complex of the main roles, yet Ejiofor makes sure to take the few things of note about Northrup (his determination to live and his good nature) on a journey as long and arduous as the character’s actual 12-year ordeal.

            It’s a brutal watch, but 12 Years a Slaveis about as well acted and directed as a film can get.


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