Sunday, November 24, 2013

Catching Fire is Still Fast and Fierce

     It's becoming harder and harder to not take film adaptations of Young Adult books seriously. Though cinemagoers still see plenty of less inspiring works (like The Golden Compass or Beautiful Creatures), the success of the solid Harry Potter films and a resurgence of great Young Adult literature has caused a chain reaction in Hollywood: with the treasure trove of recent books to adapt, no one (of any age) should feel ashamed to be caught reading Ender's Game or The Fault in our Stars in public. Looking at last year, two adaptations particularly come to mind: the completely wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the entertaining first part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Flash forward to now, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in which Katniss Everdeen faces other major challenges, has stormed into theaters. It's even better than the first. Showcasing surprisingly strong direction from series newcomer Francis Lawrence (director of Constantine and I Am Legend), updated special effects, and a running thread of tension for the entire run time, Catching Fire turns out to be a great adaptation--and a great movie in general.
     Since winning the Games in the last film, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) are back in District 12, but they're not in love anymore (if they ever were). Katniss still has feelings for Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but when the annual Victory Tour date inches closer and closer, Katniss and Peeta must put on a kissy face to please the public and especially President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who feels particularly pissed off about how the last Games ended and how Katniss is starting to become a symbol of hope throughout the government-controlled districts. If this all sounds a little Twilight love-triangle-ish, don't fear: these scenes speed by and aren't cheesy like Bella and Edward's vampire tryst.
     The winners of last year's games--trailed by a previous District 12 winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, clearly relishing his booze-soaked role)--go from district to district, pretending that they are in love to please President Snow, but then something interesting starts happening: the crowds, becoming more and more unruly, begin to clash with the Capital-issued troops, and Katniss incites a growing rebellion. Snow has other plans: you see, this year's games is a Quarter Quell; which means that it is a once-in-every-25-years version of the games that encompasses something more special than normal. This year (to quash any uprising), new head-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), working with President Snow, comes up with a crazy idea: the 75th annual Hunger Games will be between a pool of all of the previous victors, all but ensuring that Peeta and Katniss are thrown back into the deadly mix.
     At this point, there's no denying Jennifer Lawrence's talent. Though the Hunger Games films--at least the first two--don't allow her to showcase her range like in some of her other roles (notably Silver Linings Playbook or Winter's Bone), you would be hard-pressed to fulfill the role of Katniss Everdeen with a better actress. This new arena, primarily water-and-jungle based, poses many new threats for our heroine: forming alliances with a new cast of characters, most notably Finnick (Sam Claflin), an expert warrior in water, Katniss fights off the other victors and a revolving set of dangerous conditions set up by gamemaker Plutarch. Since we know that Katniss must survive this edition of the games in order to truly become a powerful symbol for the men and women of the rebellion, it adds a tension to the proceedings that surpasses the first film's battles. Instead of Katniss Vs. the other tributes, it's more Katniss Vs. the government (specifically President Snow), and it makes every gasp for air and near death all the more intense.
     Director Frances Lawrence really surprised me with Catching Fire. His two other major films, Constantine and I Am Legend, showcased his ability to tell a story involving special effects, but neither of those films match the skill in which this Hunger Games incarnation was created. Though the audience realizes that this film is only the second in a trilogy (though Mockingjay will be split into two films, with a typical studio money grab), the two Lawrence's--Jennifer and Frances--showcase an innate ability to creature tension during the entire run time. Sure, you could take some of the plot points of Catching Fire and turn them into metaphors that pertain to a seemingly more-possible future America. But there's no need to: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is stellar blockbuster entertainment, a film that's made with a passion to the source material and enough excitement to make the 2.5 hour run time fly by as fast as one of Katniss's arrows.      (A-)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Transfixing 12 Years a Slave

     Without seeing the film, many will classify 12 Years a Slave--just by watching the trailer during television commercial breaks--as typical Oscar bait: an incredibly emotional subject matter that takes place in a past period of time, an all-star cast with its main star performing one of the best portrayals of the year, and all types of devastating moments that the Academy gets incredibly excited about.  But they would be wrong. A movie featuring a story about slavery that focuses on realism instead of humor or revenge (like last year's Django Unchained), 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching, blinders-off look at one of America's most shameful times. It also cements the status of its director and two of its stars as contemporary greats.
     Based upon the autobiography of the same name (Twelve instead of 12) written in 1853, the film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, working on plantations in Louisiana for twelve years. A husband and father of two young children, Solomon is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a career-defining role, one that will be tough to beat in the upcoming awards season. The entire film's success rests firmly on his shoulders, and he performs admirably. Doing just enough to survive and not stick out to the (mostly) evil plantation owners, Ejiofor is wonderful at showing us his inner devastation and confusion at the insane situation that he finds himself in. It's completely unbelievable--we see it in his face, his body language, his actions.
     It's not easy for the myriad of us to relate to being in bondage, because most of us haven't experienced it. But since Solomon seems like such a good and normal (and free) guy before he drunkenly gets kidnapped, we're thrown into the chains with him. After a short introduction, it's not long before Solomon wakes up in a dank prison cell and is beaten without mercy. He's told to forget his old name and profession and admit that he's a slave. He adopts a new name, Platt, and is shipped down to Louisiana to be sold to the highest bidder. From here on out, 12 Years a Slave takes a dream-like (or nightmarish) quality, focusing solely on Solomon and a cast of nefarious characters in an odyssey of torment and incredible acting.
    Solomon is passed between owners at first after being sold at auction by Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti in a uniquely unlikable roll). He starts with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is about as likable as a slave owner can be--deep down, it's easy to understand that he thinks what he is doing may be completely wrong. But when Solomon crosses paths one too many times with Plantation overseer, John (Paul Dano, showcasing plenty of that There Will Be Blood intensity), Mr. Ford pawns him off to a new owner: Edwin Epps. Epps is portrayed by Michael Fassbender, and any friend or constant reader of these reviews knows how intense my man-crush for Fassbender is. And in 12 Years a Slave, he's arguably never been better. Epps is a drunkard who takes it upon himself to break any slave that stands up against his ways: he's brutal and terrifying. He has a mad-eyed intensity and a penchant for molesting a young black female who picks him the most cotton in the fields. It couldn't have been easy portraying such a character, yet every scene with Fassbender is electrifying and full of tension-- the work of one of the best actors working under the age of 40.
     British film director Steve McQueen created two films before 12 Years a Slave, and both were exercises in originality and greatness: 2008's Hunger (in which Fassbender starred as Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands) and 2011's Shame (in which Fassbender also starred and showcased the dark side of sexual addiction). He solidifies his position as an always-watch director with 12 Years a Slave. McQueen is a cinema artist: of course this is a completely brutal film at times, but McQueen only shows us what we need to see. Never more. One particularly want-to-turn-away-but-can't scene involves Epps forcing Solomon to perform a lashing on Patsey, whom Epps is particularly fond of. The combination of first the sounds and then the quick turning of the camera to watch to outcome of the whip is like a shot of adrenaline that you don't want. And McQueen's handling of Solomon's ever-changing status between wanting to escape and wanting to survive is beautifully done.
     12 Years a Slave is not a perfect film. It follows a path of other ensemble period pieces that have dozens of recognizable character actors and huge stars that doesn't quite allow it to reach a level of naturalsim that transcends cinema (something the subject of slavery could someday do). Even Brad Pitt shows up late--in a small role--to potentially help our main character. He seems a little out of place. And the film never truly exceeded my expectations, though it met them head on. But these small things never truly deter 12 Years a Slave from being an Oscar movie to seek out. With two great performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, and confident direction by Steve McQueen, it's one of the best films of 2013.     (A-)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thor: The Dark and Average Sequel

     Marvel knows what they're doing: after the success of the Iron Man films and then the gigantic The Avengers, they realize that any fan of their work will shell out a dozen dollars to witness the next spectacle in their different "phases". The problem with this situation is that the company has to keep surprising and satisfying us at every turn, or else the movies start to feel stale. Thor: The Dark World--unfortunately--falls into this category: featuring the powerful titular character and his brother Loki, this sequel to the (amusing) first film falls a bit flat, failing to exceed any expectations and failing to be funny even when it tries to be--a problem the first film didn't have.
     Thor as a film has a much tougher sell than most of the Marvel universe: it's necessary to balance the scenes in Asgard (where Thor is from) and the scenes on Earth, and the symmetry has to be seamless for it to work--unlike Tony Stark in Iron Man, who is much easier to relate to due to his snarky humor and based-in-reality (to an extent) situations. The Dark World jumps all over the place: the nine realms are about to converge, which is a sign of trouble when some Dark Elves (led by Malekith [Christopher Eccleston]) take the opportunity in this rare event to try and take control of a dangerous force to turn the galaxy to darkness.
     What turns out the lights? This mystical floating substance called the "Aether", that when consumed causes the consumer to become incredibly powerful and power-hungry, looking to rid the world of everything beautiful. This is where Thor's love interest from Earth, Jane (Natalie Portman, probably regretting that she has a contract to keep appearing in the sequels), comes into play. Accidentally coming across this substance in some sort of weird inter-dimensional warp thingy, one that allows people to switch back and forth between worlds, she gets fully consumed like a ghost entering a host in a horror movie. Going on a road trip to Asgard after Thor comes to the rescue, the battle for the Aether that's inside of Jane between the Asgardians and the Dark Elves becomes the main focus for the second half of the film.
     One of the main problems with this new incarnation of Thor are the poor attempts at humor. In the first film, Thor's brutish and confused nature when first coming to Earth was charming and funny (like his uttering of "I Need Sustenance!" when eating at a diner). Since that novelty has worn off, and Thor the character is familiar to us now, he's just not too funny anymore. Sure, there are moments that induce chuckling--like when he hangs his trusty hammer on a coat rack--but they are few and far between. And Jane's assistant, Darcy (portrayed by one of the Broke Girls, Kat Dennings), is incredibly annoying at every turn, trying to make us laugh with bad jokes and an irritating nature. That's the script's fault--but her delivery does it no favors. Thor: The Dark World does have some interesting aspects: the story can be interesting and Loki (wonderfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston again) is always entertaining, and the climax involving a multi-world battle where Thor and his foes switch between worlds through numerous invisible warps is well done and clever. But nothing comes close to the battles in The Avengers.
     And this is Marvel's problem now: because of The Avengers, it feels like every standalone film involving their characters is more of a place holder than an actual event of awesome entertainment. Well, maybe not Iron Man, but the others. Take the trailer for the new Captain America film that enters theaters in March: does it look cool? Maybe. Does it look good? Sure, it has potential. But it doesn't feel like an "event" anymore, and my wallet is starting to get the feeling that Marvel has sucked me into paying for all of their films. And maybe it has: I just wish my return on investment was more than just average.     (C+)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ender Plays A Decent Game

     Adapting a very popular novel is hard for many reasons, the major one being the old saying, "There's no possible way the movie can be as good as the book." Ender's Game, in particular, has more hurdles than most: its sci-fi setting, its ideas of pushing young children headfirst into battle, its author's (Orson Scott Card) asinine--and very public--views on today's society. So when the film adaptation was announced, my interest was solid yet my expectations were kept in check. There's no possible way the film adaptation could be as good as the beloved book, right? Right. Ender's Game the film version loses something in translation, a thoughtfulness and subtlety that made the book about powerful (but naive) children so potent. But it still succeeds as solid sci-fi enjoyment, a film with great acting by its lead Asa Butterfield and a story that exceeds most other tween-geared entertainment.
     Earth has been attacked by a bug-like Alien race. Years later, after the initial attack that ended in a daring suicide mission by a selfless pilot, the military grooms children into becoming powerful commanders to fend off future alien forces. Rumor has it that the aliens have begun preparing for another battle on their distant planet, so Ender (Butterfield), a 12-year-old with all the right characteristics of a commander, is chosen by Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, a gruff military man who is putting all of his hope in young Ender) to figure out a way to squash the buggers.
     Ender becomes Earth's Great Hope as he progresses through Battle School, which consists of different teams playing a zero-gravity version of paintball only with guns that shoot stun lasers instead of exploding balls. It takes a lot of strategy: random blocks float around the room (as obstructions) and teams have different formations and ideas about how to win. One problem with the film version of Ender's Game are these scenes: in the book, these battles were numerous and exciting--but the film only shows a couple, and they never come close to holding the tension that the book's battles have.
    When reading Ender's Game, you form a vision of the character of Ender in your mind (obviously). He might not look like the film version. But there's no doubt that Asa Butterfield is growing into a good actor who can command a scene--anyone that has seen Scorcese's Hugo already knows this. In the film, as he becomes more and more confident, the changes in him are portrayed with skill by Butterfield: whether he's standing up the older, higher ranked characters, forming a friendship with a young squirt named Bean (Aramis Knight), or starting a maybe-more-than-friendship with a fellow cadet named Petra (True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld), he portrays Ender with passion. If you don't enjoy Butterfield as Ender, than it's your own pre-conceived notions that are holding back your enjoyment.
     Orson Scott Card is moronic, with his personal views on homosexuality and science. But there's no doubt that his books have interesting plots that deal with bullying, notions of age and power, empathy about other species (metaphorically, other races). The main problem with the film version is that it quickly glazes over any real thoughts on these issues, and instead focuses on looking good with slick camera work and special effects. I cant imagine filmmakers would ever figure out a way to adapt the second book of the series, Speaker for the Dead--which is short on visual spectacle and filled with complicated issues about colonization. The adaptation of Ender's Game is entertaining and permeated with solid performances, but it's basically a good-looking Cliffnotes version of the book that leaves a little to be desired.     (B)