The Hunger Games has earned the reputation of being the best franchise… MoreThe Hunger Games has earned the reputation of being the best franchise based on a YA book series aimed at a young female audience. That's not saying much, as all other franchises in this category are shit. Its primary underlying flaw is the fact that the central premise has been cannibalized from almost every post-apocalyptic, dystopian, or "game of death" book, film, or video game ever made. This was heavily apparent in the first adaptation, The Hunger Games, and proved an even greater problem than the cartoonish and badly rendered CGI dogs and flaming dresses, watered-down violence, and joke of a love triangle. That being said, I did enjoy it quite a bit. I love the fact that young girls finally have a heroine who shoots people in the face with arrows. I also enjoyed the emotional punch of certain scenes like the death of Rue or the general themes of self-sacrifice that came off as quite dark for juvenile fiction.
This is surpassed a decent margin by the sequel, Catching Fire, which is a bit darker, a bit more fun, and bit more interesting in general. A large portion of the entire venture rests on Jennifer Lawrence's lovely cheekbones and she is up to the task, even if she does cry half the movie (she is a PTSD wreck, understandably). This fragility manages to go hand-in-hand with her tough hard-as-nails persona. The supporting cast is more than adequate (and WAY too vast to list here) but particular praise goes to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Jena Malone, and Lenny Kravitz. Also, the first act's depiction of martial law and almost indiscriminate executions were interesting and probably shocked an audience not used to this kind of thing (most have not seen Children of Men or similar films). Though, I do detest the general design of the denizens of the capital, looking like some garish cross of eighteenth century French aristocracy with the more obnoxious characters of The Fifth Element. Now being a 20-something red-blooded male and a pseudo internet critic I should feel obligated to make the oft-repeated assertion that this franchise is grievously inferior to Battle Royale and to recommend that instead. But doing so ignores the fact that the intended audiences for Royale and Hunger Games DO NOT INTESECT AT ALL. Battle Royale is great but it would scare and traumatize the crap out of the YA crowd. Furthermore, Catching Fire must be considered on its own merits and it is enjoyable, even if we are being set up for more sequels. Yes, two installments of Mockingjay are on the way, when one would have sufficed. Hollywood is getting desperate for franchise money.
I have long been waiting for a serious, stripped-down depiction of… MoreI have long been waiting for a serious, stripped-down depiction of American slavery. If you take time to look at previous attempts most have either been melodramatic (anything to do with Uncle Tom's Cabin), fraudulent (Roots), or...something else (Django Unchained, which I liked anyway). This need has finally been satisfied by 12 Years a Slave, a film that pulls no punches and delivers a perfect stick-to-your ribs experience that one must see once in their lifetime. What makes this brutal, yet earnest movie more effective is that most of the events on screen actually happened: it is a relatively faithful adaptation of the story of a free northern African-American sold into slavery via treachery and his struggle to survive in bondage. Obvious to my historically minded readers is the Fugitive Slave Act and the growing sectional crisis that forms the context for the time period in which the autobiography was released (1853). But on a more personal level it is an examination of misery, suffering, and death.
12 Years a Slave is a perfect example of a performance-driven film, aided by subtle direction and an unobtrusive score by Hans Zimmer. The protagonist, Solomon Northup is played deftly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who somehow refuses to give in to despair, despite the circumstances he finds himself in until a particular moment late in the movie (you will know it when you see it). These performances also go hand-in-hand in showing the complexities and absurdities of the "peculiar institution." In other words, a slave was completely at the mercy of whatever owner purchased the deed to his life, and could have wildly different circumstances because of it. Under one master underplayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, Northup finds himself on the equivalent of a hard labor camp with an opportunity to utilize his carpentry skills and his intellect, which is recognized and respected by his master. Under another master (Michael Fassbender) and his sadistic, jealous wife, Solomon is working in a place something short of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. Said master is an alcoholic, unhinged psychopath, an unapologetic rapist, and incidentally somewhat incompetent in running the day-to-day business of a plantation as he is more concerned with torturing his slaves while justifying it with scripture. 12 Years a Slave also bears one striking similarity with Django Unchained in that both correctly depict American slavery as a trade built on bills-of-sale, debt exchange, ledgers, freedom papers, and shady backroom deals in which human lives were traded in a comparable manner to livestock.
I was also impressed with the subtle feel of the movie. There is no melodrama or overacting to be had. The simple humidity-drenched environments are punctuated with the sounds of cicadas and black field spirituals, both singing a somber chorus. Obviously all these elements make it a shoe-in for this upcoming awards season, but I would ask viewers not to dismiss it outright as Oscar bait and try to evaluate 12 Years on its own merits, which are considerable.
While it may appear to be another day, another Disney/Marvel Avenger… MoreWhile it may appear to be another day, another Disney/Marvel Avenger movie, Thor: The Dark World stays sufficiently entertaining and brings a taste of summer blockbuster excess to general audiences who are probably bored by this season's offerings. Upon analysis I found this sequel to be of comparable value to the original Thor, as both largely adhere to a formula. The original was a slightly self-important version of the "hero's journey" (see Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces) while Dark World adheres to the "epic fantasy movie" formula (see every fantasy movie since LOTR). And while Thor was bit more tightly written, it suffered from a weak second act, bad CGI, and pointless minor characters. Dark World is MUCH schlockier but more consistently entertaining. The action is better shot, the environments are more aesthetically pleasing, the CGI is superior, there's less obnoxious Dutch angle cinematography, Asgard looks more like a lived-in real place and less like a Star Wars prequel location, and the humor is on par with the original. Which is great because the plot makes no sense and almost doesn't seem to matter.
Chris Hemsworth's Thor is always up to the task, but it was nice to see that Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings were given something to do here. Christopher Eccleston is exceptional as Malekith, flawlessly sporting a primordial alien language like it was his native tongue. Yet, he is criminally underused even though he is the main villain of the damn movie. This is probably due to the fact that Tom Hiddleston's Loki is absurdly popular, and just more interesting. It really baffles me though, why he is one of the breakout favorites of this franchise. If you may recall, every Avenger has either outwitted, seriously inconvenienced him, or outright kicked his ass at least once so far. (But then again I'm not a 14 year old fan girl who spends half the day on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.) Don't misunderstand me - he is thoroughly entertaining, but he shouldn't be the star of this movie. That being said, the core relationship of the film is the love-hate knife's edge bond between Loki and Thor. Everything else, including romantic subplots and universe-ending villains barely seems to matter in contrast and it's what people will probably remember years later. Lastly, Thor: The Dark World manages to play it safe while bringing all the universe building continuity and over-the-top action Marvel fans expect, and will definitely be more popular with said fans than the controversial Iron Man 3. I would recommend this, but there's a 60 to 80 % chance you have seen this already, so there you have it.
Being one of the most popular science-fiction novels of the 80's, it's… MoreBeing one of the most popular science-fiction novels of the 80's, it's surprising that it took this long for Ender's Game to finally get a film adaptation -- nearly three decades later. Part of the problem might be that Ender's Game was always considered an "unfilmable novel," much like Watchmen, or Starship Troopers before it was made into a series of schlocky B-movies with little connection to the original plot and the dense themes throughout. In this case Game is similar to Zack Snyder's Watchmen as it largely plays true to the book and has had a mixed reception by critics and audiences. But as Watchmen proved controversial and remains hotly debated to this day, I doubt few people will bother to argue over this movie beyond ongoing debates over whether or not Orson Scott Card is a quasi-fascist and homophobe. It's just too generic and perfunctory to stay in anyone's consciousness for very long.
There are merits to be recognized here, buried in what is an un-notable, slightly above-average effort. Asa Buterfield is simply miscast. (He was the annoying kid from Hugo you forgot about because you were too busy gawking at underaged Chloe Grace Moretz half the movie. Pervert.) He performs...adequately, playing popular fiction's most famous space cadet, but is generally outshined by everyone else he shares his scenes with. Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, and Hailee Steinfield fit in perfectly, but this really is Harrison Ford's show to own. It's been a long, long, LONG time since we saw him in a movie where he was given room to act and remind us why he used to be one of our favorites. Ford's character is both sympathetic to Ender and at the same time deliberately uses him for his Machiavellian scheme: Easily the reason to see this movie.
The visuals are well-rendered and you will see millions of dollars burn on screen, but this is all let down by a genuine lack of original aesthetic design. All the technology, ships, space stations, and even the organic alien planets look plastic and artificial. Nothing looks lived in or practical. It's all a $100 million light show. The zero-gravity mock battles have moments of entertainment, even if they are only a fraction of the second act. Ender's Game also does a poor job of hiding the novel's famous twist. Though almost EVERYONE knows the gist of the plot and the aforementioned revelation through cultural osmosis, and the statute of limitations against spoiling it probably ran out long ago, I won't bother doing that here as the movie spoils it at least three times before the actual reveal. And I didn't read the actual book but from what I understand isn't Ender's douchebag brother supposed to be in this a little more? I mean he is supposed to be a big deal in the later installments of the series, but he's only here once the entire time. I supposed we were going to see that in sequels, but Ender's Game is underperforming and Thor 2 smashed the shit out of it with Mjolnir at the box office, so I'm going to say that is out of the cards.