Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I was not overly fond of the first Hunger Games movie, but I didn’t dislike it. I thought it was a good idea (like it was the first time they made it, when it was called Battle Royale) and had some good acting, but it was let down by an obvious low budget. And this characteristic lack of enthusiasm was exacerbated by trailers that didn’t seem to be advertising to anyone but people who were already fans of the books. So perhaps it was merely lowered expectations but I was unprepared for how agreeable I found Catching Fire to be.

The plot is…basically a more in depth retread of the first movie. As the story opens, Katniss and Peeta (names haven’t gotten any less stupid, but we can roll with it) are basking in the glow of having been dual winners of the last Hunger Games, via pretending to be a couple. This is complicated however by Peeta’s actual feelings and the fact that their stage managed post-victory tour has them in the spotlight a lot. But when Katniss starts becoming the symbol of a brewing revolution, the new games master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) decides that the best way to remove her is to make the next games be a big free for all between previous victors, with the plan for Katniss to die fighting.

The main improvement over this film is in the pre-games part of the movie. The social satire is still on the clumsy side, but it’s a lot more naturally weaved into the story in this one, mostly because the stage show/media side of things is front and center, rather than a side thing. The rebellion stuff is mostly well handled, although obviously hampered by the PG-13 rating and sequences involving Katniss’ PTSD from the first Games and gradual push towards playing along are sparse, but well done.

The acting is mostly good across the board. Hoffman is good in a downplayed and restrained performance and it’s nice to see Sutherland looking more engaged and awake than he did last time. Jennifer Lawrence is throwing herself into her role with the same gusto she usually does and it’s nice to see a little more range from Josh Hutcherson than we did last time. Series MVP is still Woody Harrelson to me, and it’s quite frankly criminal that they lost the opportunity to have him be involved in the games, at least in my opinion.

The games themselves are up and down. See, with the cast of fighters being more ‘seasoned veterans/colorful murders’ than frightened high school kids this time around, I was hoping the action would skew more Running Man than Battle Royale. Unfortunately, while the few action sequences we do get are well put together and engaging, most of the more colorful psychos are killed off off-screen. Between the girl who files her teeth into fangs, the drug addicted goths who hide and the married couple who use science to kill people, you’ve got enough to populate the boss fights of a Metal Gear Solid game. You honestly expect me to believe that you can’t get a couple good fights out of that.

Still, review the movie you’ve got, not the movie you want. The action sequences we get are sparse, but well put together. Most of them involve the group running away from or fighting a hazard inside the arena, but they’re still pretty good. Francis Lawrence is definitely a better director of action sequences than Gary Ross (even if Ross has done generally better movies) and more importantly he owns a tripod. The production values and dramatic involvement have definitely improved as well, so I actually care what happens to most of the secondary characters and the monsters in question don’t look terrible this time around.

There are still flaws, even with the improvements. It suffers a bit from being the middle child, so there’s no real beginning and no real end, and it’s clearly just marking time for the big finale. And while the movie clearly has very little interest in the love triangle, it keeps pushing it and Liam Hemsworth doesn’t get enough screen time for me to care about what happens to him.

I didn’t expect a lot from Catching Fire. Maybe it was the crappy marketing, maybe it was how mediocre the first one was, maybe it was just that the blockbusters this year have been on the weak side. But there’s a lot to like about Catching Fire, even if you’re not a huge fan of the books. So if you need an action movie to see, and you’ve already seen Thor, this would probably suffice.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept expecting The Fear to show up as one of the fighters.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

I think I’ve been looking forward to liking a movie with Matthew McConaughey. There’s no particular reason for it, other than the fact that we have the same last name (mine is spelled slightly differently) but I’ve always wanted to like him. Of course the problem is that, up until very, very, very recently, everything he’s done has been absolutely terrible. But as of late, that’s been changing a bit. Maybe Matthew realized he’s not going to be young and hot forever and should try actually acting, but he’s been appearing in more mature and difficult roles lately. And this has culminated in Dallas Buyer’s Club, a movie and a performance that all but guarantees that the star of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is going to be an Oscar Nominee.

The plot is about Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a womanizing drug addicted homophobe living in Dallas in the 80s, who contracts AIDS after a night with a heroin addicted woman. Given 30 days to live, he eventually finds himself in Mexico, seeking non-FDA approved treatments, as AZT, the only FDA approved treatment appeared to be killing him. When he improves he returns to the US and starts a Buyers Club, designed to work around the laws keeping him from selling this treatment to other AIDS patients with the help of a transgendered woman named Rayon (Jared Leto).

All of the ads for this movie are selling McConaughey’s performance as the main draw, and in that the movie certainly does not disappoint. The best moments are in the first half, between when Woodroof gets his diagnosis and when he begins getting treatment, as his performance is extremely raw during that period and all the more compelling for it. After that his performance becomes a little more conventional, along with the movie which shifts into a fairly straightforward ‘issue, fight the power’ movie at this point, but it’s still nice to see McConaughey, an actor I’d once dismissed as a one note pretty boy, disappearing into a role. The quite frankly more impressive performance comes from Leto, as his character has more problems and winds up with a lot of darker and more depressing sequences to sell, and he does an incredible job…that I can’t really tell you about as it’s full of spoilers. Oh and I guess Jennifer Garner’s in it, but that really should tell you all you need to know about her performance.

Of course the fact that McConaughey gets upstaged a lot by Leto might be because the director or screenwriter dropped the ball a bit. The issue is mostly in the editing, what we get shown vs. what we don’t. We end up seeing Ron at the beginning and end of a lot of his arcs but we see very little of the middle. Ron is homophobic at the beginning and he’s not at the end, but we see very little of the transformation in the middle. We don’t get to see Ron bond much with Rayon, which is depressing as their relationship is an interesting one.

This is par for the course in issues movies, and the film is overall a lot more interested in the battle over AZT as an AIDS treatment then it is in the relationships between the characters. The upside is that, this time around the sequences involving the ‘issue’ are a lot more entertaining than they usually are, as the film chooses to stage and shoot them in the vein of comedic hustling sequences, with Ron going around the world to find non-approved medications and supplements and talking his way around the feds. These scenes are fun and engaging, but it’s a shame that the relationships at the center have to suffer for it. Less fun is Jennifer Garner’s character; She’s saddled with playing the Sympathetic Doctor ™, who winds up Woodroof’s Unlikely Ally ™. This doesn’t need to be a bad thing, but the movie both over and under commits to her, letting her eat up way too much screen time but not giving her enough to have a proper character or arc. I also saw hints of her being the Love Interest ™, an aspect that should have been dropped entirely.

Other than that, there’s not a ton to say. The direction runs a little on the by-the-numbers side for my taste, but it’s competent and it commits fully to its time and setting with a nicely appropriate soundtrack and a washed out desert color palate. The screenplay is good, with each character having a unique voice and all of the character arcs that we get to see well thought out. The supporting cast all do their jobs admirably and it seems to have real empathy for the plight of the AIDS affected in the late 80s.

The end of the year means Oscar Season ™ is upon us, and character driven actor movies are swiftly becoming the norm (how long till the new Coen Brothes again?). Dallas Buyers Club is, unfortunately, on the low end of this November’s Oscar crop, and with both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity still hanging around theaters, I can’t say it anywhere near the best thing playing right now. But, taken on its own merits and not compared to those two, it’s a well executed, if occasionally flawed, issue movie and biopic centered around a pair of Oscar caliber performances. So if you’re in the mood for an actor movie this will easily scratch that itch.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he had to keep checking to make sure he wasn’t spelling Matthew’s last name like his own.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World

The first Thor, it has taken me a lot of maturity as a filmgoer to admit, is not a very good movie. Not a bad one mind, just not a very good one. It’s got some good action and some good performances, but it’s mired by a weak script and some shoddy character work. It’s good then, that Thor: The Dark World is actually much better, still mired down by some of the same issues, but overall an improvement.

The plot is going to have you mostly lost unless you’ve seen both Thor and The Avengers, as it leans heavily on those two movies and doesn’t slow down much to explain it. Thor it seems has been on a bunch of missions to repair the damage Loki did in the first Thor, and true to Thor’s personality these missions mostly consist of him hitting shit with hammers (it seems his presence in The Avengers was one of those missions). But back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character…yeah her) has been looking for Thor and winds up accidentally possessed by the Aether, an ancient super weapon of some kind, which causes Malekith, the king of the Dark Elves, to come looking for it.

As with all superhero movies and Thor in particular, we’re mostly here to see Chris Hemsworth hitting things with a hammer, and this movie delivers quite a lot more than it’s more direct prequel. The movie is in quite a hurry to get to the action beats, and it’s quite understandable as they’re all quite well put together. The big final action sequence in particular is rather entertaining and inventive, for reasons I won’t spoil, and the lead in action beats are also a lot of fun. It was directed by Alan Taylor, best known for directing a bunch of episodes of Game of Thrones, and he does a good job, even if the color scheme is a tiny bit too reminiscent of Thrones, especially on...well the planet from Prometheus.

It’s just a shame that they had to eat into a lot of the story to get it. The movie is in such a rush to get to the action sequences that a lot of story and characters gets rushed or skipped entirely, which kinda hurts the emotional stakes. It also causes them to telegraph twists or chekovs much too obviously (a character shows off a previously unmentioned ability, gee wonder if that’s going to be important), which cuts the tension a bit. Oh and I guess the tone is a little jarring at times (what’s supposed to be a major character moment is undercut by being followed by a comedic sequence).

The other major casualty of this rushed approach is some of the minor characters. Some of the secondary characters are mostly just reduced to sitcom characters, a single sentence character sheet description defining them entirely (the most obvious one is Kat Denning’s Darcy, but Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Selvig, the Warriors Three and even Loki get hit by it too) and Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith is the worst off, basically just a generic psycho villain with nothing else going on.

Still as I said earlier, I like the movie and for more than just the action scenes. The acting is overall quite good, with Hemsworth still occupying Thor very well. Hiddleston and Hemsworth have a good back and forth during their inevitable teamup (Oh come on, that’s not a spoiler, it was in the freaking trailer). Natalie Portman is still obviously enjoying herself and while Kat Dennings’ hipster chick shtick has gotten old by the end of the movie, she gets a solid number of laughs, and all of the laughs in the movie are genuinely earned. It’s also got a fun aesthetic, with the often bizarre mixing of medieval and sci-fi, and while they can occasionally clash, the movie is highly committed to the aesthetic, which makes it feel more engaging.

Ultimately I don’t know what I can say about this movie. Reviewing the Avengers movies are largely pointless these days. If you’ve been enjoying the Avengers lead ins and follow ups, and Thor in particular, you’ll probably enjoy this and have, odds are, already gone to see it. And if you, for whatever reason, haven’t been enjoying the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, this isn’t the movie to change your mind. But for what it’s worth, I quite enjoyed Thor: The Dark World and if you’re reading this, it’s likely you will too.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks it’s hard to take a villain seriously when he literally gets beat up by the main character’s mom.