The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 22, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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I did not think too highly of the first film in this trilogy, giving it a scant one and half lozenges.  It all felt a bit run-of-the-mill to me and it reminded me of how silly I thought the story was.  This time, perhaps I was feeling more generous but I also liked each book more than I had the previous one.  This story is darker and a bit more developed as it explores the beginning of a revolution that Katnis finds herself, unintentionally, at the center of.  While this is by no means what I would call brilliant writing, I did find it quite entertaining.  The film tended to lapse into sentimentality a bit more than I would have liked but it also had a clever and sometimes biting social commentary.  The action built toward a purpose and the film ended with a strong set up for the next one.  As far as young-adult-fiction blockbusters go, this was a pretty enjoyable one.

 

Dallas Buyers Club

November 18, 2013 at 10:26 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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I confess that I am a sucker for the starving actors club.  Any time an actor gets all emaciated for a role, count me in: Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” or Michael Fassbender in “Hunger” or the daddy of self-starvation, Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” “Rescue Dawn” and ( with the grand prize at 63 lbs lost!) in “The Machinist.”  I have to say, I haven’t been let down.  Perhaps the commitment to takes to starve yourself for a role really gets you invested in the character. This time, it’s Matthew McConaughey’s and Jared Leto’s turns.  Both men play characters with full blown AIDS and their appearances are unsettling.  McConaughey lost 40 lbs for the role and Leto lost more than 30 lbs, weighing in at just 114 lbs during the shooting.  Both men also gave incredible performances.  McConaughey may well have given the best performance of his career to date, capturing Ron Woodroof’s complexity: the bigotry, bravado, fear, desperation and courage were often all present in the same scene.  Leto, who is probably known to most audiences for his role in “Fight Club” and the short lived tv series, “My So Called Life,” has a history of interesting roles (“Black & White,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Chapter 27,” in which he plays an obese Mark Chapman) and has always has a raw vulnerability in his acting that is abundant here in his role as Rayon; even when he is laughing, he looks haunted.  Unfortunately, they are not served as well by Jennifer Garner, who does not have the same drive in her acting that these two men do.  I have never seen her dig as deep as they have both done in a half dozen roles.  Small quibbles aside, this was a powerful and sometimes genuinely funny film.  I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a nomination for McConaughey at the Oscars and perhaps one for Leto as well.

 

Thor: The Dark World

November 18, 2013 at 9:48 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Meh.  I have so little to say about this sequel, it almost doesn’t warrant a review.  I was tempted to leave the one single word and be done with it but decided some explanation was in order.  This wasn’t a terrible movie; if it had been, I would have had plenty to write.  It was just exactly what it appeared to be: the exact same special effects and action as was in the last Thor film.  It had a ridiculously convoluted and silly plot but who cares.  Really everything was par for the course for you standard superhero film.  It lacked the clever dialogue and humor that has lifted some recent films in the genre (eg “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” films).  And, despite it’s title, it lacked any of the darkness that makes the “Dark Knight’ sage or the recent “Superman” film worth watching.  It did find a bit of humor during the final battle scene but not enough to make me want to recommend it.  So, if you liked the first one, you’ll like this one.  If not, don’t bother.

 

 

Blue is the Warmest Color

November 10, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This film is based on the French graphic novel whose name translates to “Blue is a Hot Color,” which is actually a slighter better name for the story of a teenage girl who falls in love with a blue haired older woman.  The film, which inexplicably is called “The Life of Adèle” in France, has been the source of much controversy, since winning at Cannes, for it’s sex scenes. Interestingly, no one has said anything about the fact that the sex occurs between an underage girl who is perhaps as young as 15 and a woman in her late twenties. Rather, there has been much discussion about how explicit the scenes are. There are indeed four very explicit sex scenes, once of which is 7 minutes long. This in itself is not a problem. However, in a film that clocks in at over 3 hours, every scene had better be justifiable and these were not. In fact, that is the whole problem this movie faces. I loved it at first but it just wore me out. The acting is truly fantastic and the two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, are a joy to watch. Exarchopoulos, as young Adèle, is particularly stunning. There is a scene early in the film where her friends accuse her of being a lesbian. She visibly flushes with embarrassment and anger; Exarchopoulos seemed to live inside her character so well that every emotion felt real. Additionally, the script is stellar. The dialogue feels completely natural as do the situations the women find themselves in. Scenes beautifully illustrate class and educational differences between the two women without being heavy handed. However, most of these scenes go on too long.  By the end, I was fatigued and just ready for it to be over. If director, Abdellatif Kechiche, had trimmed all of the scenes (the sexual ones included) to get the film down closer to two hours, he would have had a fantastic film. In fact, the sex scenes could have been left out almost entirely. I noticed that virtually all the men in the film (besides the two fathers) were of Arabic descent, as is the director. In a film set in France, where all the women are white but all the male romantic hopefuls are not, I wondered if Kechiche wasn’t playing out his own fantasy in some way. While I am certainly no expert on lesbian sex, I could not help but feel those scenes were less about the women in them then they were about the men watching them. There was so much spanking going on that I started to laugh at one point. In fact, the sex scenes were the only ones that did not ring true in this otherwise amazing film. I am reminded of “Keep The Lights On,” a 2012 film that follows a very similar story in a gay male relationship. While this film is superior to that one in every other way, at literally half the time, it was just so much tighter and, for that reason, I think it’s the better film.

Ender’s Game

November 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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I have chosen to set aside the controversy of author Orson Scott Card’s close to hysterical homophobic ranting and whether it might represent, particularly in light of certain aspects of his novel, a deep need to compensate for something.  That discussion would eclipse this entire review.  As for the film itself, sadly it suffered from exactly the sort of short comings I was afraid of.  The book is a compelling story of a young boy (6 years old when the book starts) who is taken off to a military training facility where the commander very deliberately, over many years, goes about turning the kid into a killing machine with no regard for his well-being; it’s sort of a “Lord of the Flies” meets “Harry Potter.”  It’s chilling in parts and raises provocative questions about when the ends justify the means.  However, there is scarcely time for all of that complexity in two hours.  So, what we get is a muddled affair that dips briefly into components of the book (training sequences, peer conflicts, battles and the aforementioned psychological manipulations) without spending any satisfying time in any of them.  Also, the darkest elements of the book were toned down, such that the brutality ended up looking like little more than run-of-the-mill high school bullying. All of this might have been more frustrating had I found the acting more compelling but these young kids were not much up to what was expected of them.  Only Moises Arias (who drew rave reviews for “The Kings of Summer” earlier this year) seemed to be having any fun.  Arias, as Ender’s chief antagonist Bonzo, played his school yard villain with great relish.  Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) was unable to bring any passion and complexity to Ender.  He did fine at looking distressed but I never quite bought him as cunning and his rage amounted to simply shouting his lines at Harrison Ford.  Even clearly talented actors, like Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin seemed uninterested in their parts.  What this film does have is some consistently beautiful effects.  The scenes in the weightless training room are particularly compelling; it’s too bad they’re too few of them.  Throughout the film, I could not help but think that HBO or Showtime or AMC could have done it better.  As a multi-part series with the acting caliber and risk taking we now see on television, this story might have actually been impressive.  More than anything, what this film needed was a good dose of Vince Gilligan.

Kill Your Darlings

November 3, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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I have quite a bit of luck with films lately.  I’ve seen so many good ones, I almost wonder if I’m going soft.  But saying a film was good is not quite the same as saying that I enjoyed it.  In fact, this one left me quite undone. The old tropes of first, unrequited love and the passions of youth have rarely felt as real for me as they have in this film. I’m not sure I can say why other than to say that I know this was a wholly subjective experience. That disclaimer aside, I was drawn in early on by the strength of the key performers.  Daniel Radcliffe does a fine job as Allen Ginsburg, producing a far better than expected American accent.  Radcliffe has proven himself fearless as an actor and absolutely determined to prove his mettle.  Here he shows how far he has come since his “Harry Potter” days.  But, the real strength of this film lay in Dane DeHaan’s performance. This little known actor came to my attention as the star of the very indie superhero flick, “Chronicle.” Since then he has had bit parts in various big films, though he will likely come to national attention with a major role in next summer’s Spider-Man movie. Here he plays Lucian Carr, the magnetic young man around whom everyone else orbits. This film could not have worked if DeHaan had not been convincing as the charismatic, troubled and sexually ambiguous Carr.  The sexual tension between him and Radcliffe is almost breathtaking at times and much of that energy is carried by DeHaan’s eyes, which can appear both evocative and insouciant at the same time. By all accounts, Carr was a brutal character to be friends with.  He drew stunning minds into his orbit (Ginsburg, William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac) and introduced them to each other.  Though he contributed not a single piece of literature himself, his iconoclasm shaped the key minds of the Beat Generation. This film is the story of how Carr, who was arguably Ginsburg’s first love, made him the poet he became.  It’s sweet and touching and deeply melancholy.  But then, I guess, true love stories always are.

12 Years A Slave

November 3, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Throughout this film I found it hard not to compare it to Tarantino’s 2012 film, “Django Unchained.”  This is that film’s older brother.  Far less splashy than “Django” but also, because it’s grounded in the real world, far more disturbing. I left “Django” a bit in awe of the spectacle of it; after “12 Years,” I felt exhausted. This is not an easy film to see.  It is truly brutal in parts and has the worst scene of a person being whipped I think I have ever seen. That said, there are powerful performances here.  Virtually every little speaking part has somebody of note: Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt.  It seems everyone wanted to be in this film and it shows in their performances.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has been on my radar since 2005’s “Serenity,” has finally gotten the vehicle to show off his talent; I fully expect his star to rise rapidly from here.  If director Steve McQueen (who’s first two films were the shockingly brilliant “Hunger” and “Shame”) has a muse, it’s Michael Fassbender.  He throws himself into roles in a way few actors do and his intensity is unnerving here; he oozes a sort of ugliness that many actors would be afraid to portray. He will likely get an Oscar nod for this (The Academy loves flashy performances), though I think he was more deserving for his brilliant portrayal of the sex addict in “Shame.”  The real star of this movie, and I fear she might slip through the cracks, is Lupita Nyong’o.  In her first film role, Nyong’o stole every scene with the raw emotion and vulnerability she put into her role.  I have no idea how she was able to become that character, so strong and so broken at the same time; that’s the performance that deserves the awards.  This is not an easy film to watch in any way but it is a beautiful one, none-the-less.

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