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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Is Catching Fire the Empire Strikes Back of the Hunger Games series?


Improving on its already very good predecessor in every conceivable way, The Huger Games: Catching Fire only further establishes the Hunger Games as by far the best young-adult smash sensation since Harry Potter. I haven't read the Suzanne Collins novels on which these films are based but with adaptations this good, I don't particularly feel the need to - especially since most people who have read the books seem to far prefer the movies.

Enough people have ripped into the Twilight franchise over the years that it's probably unfair, redundant even, to resurrect that particular dead horse for another solid beating, but the Hunger Games' artistic success shows just how far short the Twilight series came to reaching its own goals. Mark Kermode, in his own, obviously superior review of the film notes that the success of the Hunger Games is in large part because Twilight paved the way and, though I hate to disagree with the good doctor, I can't help but feel that, though the Hunger Games should be viewed in context of Twilight, it's successful in spite of Twilight, not because of it.

Unlike many of the Twilight rip offs and wannabes that have largely fallen by the wayside, the Hunger Games has challenged Twilight commercially, while far exceeding it in terms of critical and audience reception. The way it's done this hasn't been by copying Twilight but in almost all cases going in entirely the opposite direction. Both films have at their centre already iconic female heroes, but while Bella Swan was noted for her grating passivity and penchant for spending literally months moping over her unbearably drippy suitors, Katniss Everdeen has been created much more in the mold of Buffy Summers, as a tough but vulnerable - not to mention flawed - young woman who understands that her own love complications are secondary to the crushing, world-changing responsibilities that weigh down on her.

This is especially true in Catching Fire as Katniss finds herself elevated from mere survivor to virtually a messianic figure whose every move can cost innocent people their lives or lead to a revolution that will topple the fragile totalitarian government that oppresses them. Katniss does have to deal with her feelings towards Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemswroth), but they place a definite second place in comparison to the reality that while she may not be quite as done with the Games themselves as she might have hoped, she somehow became someone who holds the very future of her people in her hands.    

Monday, November 25, 2013

Detachment

Almost forgot to post this. Look out for my Hunger Games review coming very soon.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about


A career substitute teacher finds his general detachment from his assignments challenged as he is engaged by the students of his latest class, while his personal life also takes a turn as he meets and befriends a homeless teenage prostitute.

What we thought

If ever there was a film that is perfectly encapsulated by its title, it's this one. Detachment both perfectly describes the main theme of the film as we meet a group of characters who are detached from their own lives and, unfortunately, its primary flaw: the sense of detachment that the audience feels from what is going on in the film itself.

Here we have yet another in a long line of films where a disengaged teacher enriches the lives of a group of misfit students who in turn enriches his or her own life. It doesn't matter whether we're talking School of Rock, Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society, we have seen this story before and we have seen it often. I am willing to bet, however, that we haven't quite seen it done like this before.

At the heart of most of these films is a real sense of inspiration and upliftment as teacher and students affect each others lives for the better, but Detachment thoroughly and relentlessly refuses to follow this model. Forget having your heartstrings tugged or your tear ducts jerked because Detachment is easily one of the bleakest, most oppressively harsh films to come out this year. Or, at least, in 2011.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Enough Said

I don't know why the hell this took so long to come out but it's well worth the wait.

Also reviewed at Channel 24

What it's about


Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorcee facing the reality of a very empty nest as her only daughter prepares to go off to college when she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), who is going through much the same thing. It's not long before their commonality turns into a real romance, but at the same time Eva, a masseuse by profession, befriends one of her clients, poetess Marianne (Catherine Keener) whose surprising link to Albert threatens to kill her newly blossoming romance in mid-bloom.

What we thought

Enough Said may have a very generic, very forgettable title, but, as it turns out, the film itself is easily one of the year's greatest cinematic pleasures. It may not seem like much at first glance, but it is precisely the film's willingness to play with its own genericness and the audience's own expectations that makes it the surprise hit that it is. Well, that and the fact that this is one romantic comedy that is both genuinely funny and achingly romantic.

The first master stroke of the film is that it has, at its centre, a storytelling device that could easily have backfired and turned the film into an oddly Seinfeld-esque bit of comic madness, at best, and just another dopey, unbelievable rom-com at worst, but is instead the emotional focal point of the whole story. What starts off as a very believable, very warm-hearted story about two people falling in love becomes something even more intriguing as the film starts to question how we allow outside perceptions to taint our relationships and our own happiness – and it does all this without ever losing sight of the copious amounts of heart and humour that made it work in the first place.

The second and perhaps even greater master stroke of the film is the way it makes use of its two lead actors. It is perhaps true that we critics may at times spend just a bit too much time talking about the quality of the performances in a film when there is usually so much going on that makes or breaks a film that shining the spotlight so heavily on the actors may well do a disservice to the other departments charged with bringing a film to life – especially our tendency to overlook the importance of the role itself. It takes a film like Enough Said then, to remind us just how crucial a performance or performances can be in bringing an entire film together.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Imogene (Girl Most Likely)

So, I'll get to this week's genuinely good movies in a bit.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about


Imogene is a failed playwright who moves from New York to live with her dysfunctional family in New Jersey, but what she finds there may just be even worse than she remembers.

What we thought

Imogene, or as it known in most other territories, Girl Most Likely has a good cast led by one of the funniest actresses of her generation but is the sort of quirky indie movie that gives quirky indie movies a bad name.

OK, that's probably a bit unfair as the worst examples of quirky indie films are usually horribly pretentious (see Greenberg for a particularly egregious example of this) so Imogene is hardly the worst that the genre has to offer but it's still a bit of a noodly, directionless mess that badly wastes the talents of Kristen Wiig, Matt Dillon (where has he been hiding?) and Annette Bening. Worst of all, for an alleged comedy it's sadly pretty free of laughs.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Insidious Chapter 2

... This time it's personal. Well, not really.

This review is also up at Channel 24


What it's about:

Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, we once again find the Lambert family trying to deal with malicious spirits as they uncover connections to their own past and the ghosts that haunt them.

What we thought:

Coming hot on the heels of director James Wan's own The Conjuring, it's hard to get past the feeling that even Wan doesn't really see the point in a sequel to Insidious

The Conjuring may fit into much the same genre, indeed the same sub-genre, as theInsidious films and it may have plundered freely from many often better horror films from the last five decades or so, but it at least found Wan on noticeable revitalized form as the film had a vitality and freshness – not to mention creepiness - that so many modern horror films so sorely lack. It was probably the best horror flick he has done yet and indicated that there might actually be some life left in the old haunted house sub-genre. 

Sadly, Insidious Chapter 2 is every bit the tired, shameless cash-in that its title would suggest - utterly lacking in any of the scary energy that Wan brought to his last film – or even this film's own flawed but decent predecessor. If The Conjuring looked to the past to point towards the future, Insidious Chapter 2 does nothing but look back at the many better films that came before it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Butler

Just a few words about a movie that isn't afraid to flaunt its ambition.


The Butler uses the well-worn and normally pretty effective trope of examining large swaths of history through the life of a single character. In movie terms, the most famous and best example of this is Forrest Gump (I don't care what its detractors say, Forrest Gump is a modern masterpiece) but, though The Butler is clearly going for a similar, if decidedly less irreverent, effect, it's nowhere near as good.

The history being examined this time centres around the lead up to and the fallout from the American Civil Rights movement that reached its apex in the 1960s, with the character through whose eyes we view these tumultuous times is Cecil Gaines, the eponymous butler who, while working in the White House since the 1950s, saw presidents come and go and major changes sweep the country.

It's a smart premise, but the film fails to entirely deliver on its premise. The history it deals with is fascinating - especially if, like me, you're interested in the great social changes that swept across the US and the rest of the developed Western World during the 1960s - and it has, as its focal point, yet another blisteringly good performance from Forest Whitaker, but as a piece of dramatic storytelling, it's somewhat underwhelming.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

It's already out in the UK and is being released to most countries this Friday so, for a change, I thought I would share my thoughts on a movie before it is actually released. As is usually the case, I will be avoiding spoilers, but if you want to be extra prudent about this highly awaited film, lets just say that, despite it's fairly terrible plot, Thor 2 is seven shades of awesome! Check out the film or read on to find out how...


Trying to sum up the plot of Thor 2 is something of a thankless task, but I am going to try anyway. First we have Thor himself who is all set to be the next king of Asgard who spends his days fighting the good fight across the nine realms, while pining for his earth-bound lady love, Jane Foster. The latter, of course, is doing some good old pining in return, while trying to figure out what a weird spacial anomaly is doing in the middle of London (what, is this Star Trek: The Next Generation or something?), before being sucked off to the eponymous Dark World (I think) and getting infected with a really old and really powerful weapon that for some reason has taken on the form of black-red goo (what, is this the X-Files or something?). At the same time, Loki is serving a life sentence in an Asgardian prison for his bad behaviour in The Avengers and a brand new but very old threat has come to plunge the universe back into darkness... for some reason or another. Who knows? Who cares?

It's convoluted and, in the case of the baddie and his nefarious scheme, bland and nonsensical respectively. Here's the thing though: the film's frankly wretched plot barely takes away from the film at all. The unmemorable villain is a bit of a problem, to be sure, but he and his evil doings seem to have been inserted into the film as an afterthought, as little more than something on which to hang all the great gags, characters and imaginative action scenes. And ya know what, this seemingly stupid idea actually works perfectly. Thor: The Dark World is simply the most fun I had at the cinema since the seemingly daft but enormously, breathlessly entertaining (and inaptly titled) Star Trek Into Darkness.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Catching up

So, with my regular paying jobs, I've fallen a bit behind on the blog. I have actually managed to cover most of the major movies, but there were still a number of other films that deserve at least a few words said about them, whether good or bad. 

First a couple of slightly longer short reviews...

About Time: I really hate that I overlooked this little gem as it is easily the best film to date that Richard Curtis had directed and is one of the year's most charming, funny and seriously moving cinematic pleasures. It's true the time travel dynamic in the centre of the film is barely thought out and that people who don't share Curtis' unabashedly sentimental outlook have really taken against the film, but honestly, I just absolutely love this movie. I love how the film uses admittedly loose time travel to explore romance, family relationships and the importance of living life to the fullest. I love the performances, I love the script and I love how warm and funny it is. Rationally, I probably shouldn't give it so high a rating as it is long and t is flawed and I understand how it could rub people the wrong way, but this time I'm going to allow my subjective feelings on the matter to totally override my critical judgement. And I doubt I'll be the only one to do so. (9/10)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Austenland

More bouncing off the wall than la dee daa, I didn't see this one coming.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


A lifelong Jane Austen fan spends all her savings on a holiday in Austenland – a theme park that celebrates all things Austen, where she hopes to find romance and a world that isn't so much extinct, as one that never really existed in the first place.


What we thought


The poster, the trailer and the general critical reception may convince you to give Austenland a miss as it looks, for all the world, like just another lightweight romantic comedy. Well, it is lightweight, it is romantic and it is a comedy but there's nothing “just another” about Austenland. No one would confuse this film for a masterpiece – frankly, it's too self-consciously underachieving to even want to be such a thing – but it is very charming, very very funny and very very very very weird.


It's not weird in the way an avante garde film but it's still such an odd little movie. Mind you, that's hardly that surprising since it's directed and co-written by Jerusha Hess, the writer of such deadpan oddities as Nacho Libre and, oh yes, Napoleon Dynamite. With this kind of pedigree behind it, it's pretty easy to see why so many people have taken against Austenland as Napoleon Dynamite is unquestionably one of the most divisive comedies of the century, with its deadpan, quirky sense of humour makes Wes Anderson's ouvre look like the Police Academy movies.

The Family

Oh, Bob.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


The Manzoni family is relocated to Normandy, France as part of the witness protection program after the family's patriarch (Robert Deniro) testifies against some members of his extended mob family. The members of his family soon come to find that old habits die hard though, much to the consternation of the case officer (Tommy Lee Jones) in charge of them.


What we thought


The crime-comedy genre is generally a pretty tough nut to crack. Its two constituent elements are by nature diametrically opposed in terms of tone and style so, invariably, for a crime-comedy to work, it has to either darken the comedy or lighten the crime aspects – or, alternatively, use the conflict between the two genres to ironic, even satirical effect. The Family's greatest sin is that it's never sure enough of itself that it never gets this balance right, which is made even worse as it tries and fails to be a family-comedy/drama at the same time.


It's a serious disappointment and is not a film that I could in good conscience recommend to anyone at all, but it's not like it doesn't have good things about it. There are moments here and there that are amusing enough and the cast is generally pretty solid in their roles, with a typically curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones being the obvious stand out. It's also interesting to see Luc Besson take a crack at something that brings him closer to his breakthrough film, Leon (aka The Professional), rather than the inadequate stylistic shift of The Lady, his well-intentioned but lackluster previous film.


For all this though, The Family just never looks like it knows what the hell it's doing. It's too cutesy and jolly to work as a scathing black comedy, but too bitter and hateful to work as a light family comedy. It's also never clear whether we're supposed to pity, sympathise with or despise its main characters, but they're generally so shallowly drawn that the easiest thing to feel towards them is apathy.

Closed Circuit

Late, late, late, late, late....

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


After a terrorist attack in central London, two ex-lovers are reunited as part of the defense team for those suspected of perpetrating the attacks, but only one is privilege to evidence that is deemed a threat to national security.


What we thought


Closed Circuit is the sort of film that really has no excuse to be as rote and uninspired as it turned out to be. Putting aside the solid creative team both behind and if front of the cameras that includes one of the more interesting British directors of recent years; an erratic, but often brilliant British screenwriter and a dependably good to great cast, the story it's telling overflows with potential.


Think about it, we have the always, if you pardon the expression, explosive topic of terrorism vs. national security at the centre, but that's only the beginning. We also have a peak into a very unusual and morally and ethically complex legal case in a legal system that we don't actually see that much of in mainstream cinema. Plus, added to all that we have the two characters caught in the middle of it, whose previous affair is contrasted against the secrecy and distrust of the conspiracies all around them. One of these things should be enough for a top-notch thriller, but all of them? It should be unstoppable.


Sadly, rather than being the greatest romantic/ legal thriller/ drama of the decade, we have one of the year's dourest and, excepting for a short ten minute chase sequence at the end of the film, relentlessly dull films. It's the sort of film that is packed to the gills with plot, with shady characters, with broken romances and with the still touchy subject of terrorism, yet I spent the vast majority it admiring the scenery.