Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review; hope will always triumph over fear

Last year, The Hunger Games was a phenomenon.  A book adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence, in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen.  The film was based on the book written by Suzanne Collins.  Fast forward a year and a half and we've got the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Director Francis Lawrence has taken over the franchise, and the entire original cast has returned.  If the first film was only the spark to something greater... this film totally catches fire!  Let's go!

What I liked about the film:
The Acting/Characters
Jennifer Lawrence just keeps getting better and better.  Seriously, this young woman is an incredible actress, and she shows it in this film.  She perfectly portrays what Katniss is dealing with internally.  The character is dealing with the fact that she has killed people.  She will never be able to shake that off, and she's essentially been trapped in a fake life.  Lawrence has to juggle confusion, anger and compassion without having the character fall apart.  It's only because of Lawrence that the film's narrative can be carried out so flawlessly.  Not only is she a beautiful actress, but she's an incredibly talented one as well.  And the final frame of the film will have you mesmerized by her performance until the next film.

The supporting characters get to shine in this sequel, without taking away from the main characters' arcs.  Josh Hutcherson returns as District 12's other tribute, Peeta Mellark.  While I felt Hutcherson came off as a whiny, love-struck woos in the first film, that's not the case here!  Hutcherson is strong, confident, and knows who he is.  I really enjoyed this character's growth!  Liam Hemsworth returns as well, as Katniss' hometown love interest.  I think Hemsworth did a fine job with the little material he had.  Now I've never read the books, but I sure hope there's something more for him to do in the future of the series.

Woody Harrelson plays a terrific mentor to the tributes.  He's still battling alcoholism, but has a fondness for Katniss and Peta that he can not deny.  Elizabeth Banks returns as a fashion loving socialite that also loves the tributes, but can do little to stop the events in the film.  She figuratively, and literally, adds a lot of color to the film.  Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci are just awesome in their respective roles despite limited screen time.  And then there are the men of the Capital.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the new 'Game Master' running the new Hunger Games.  He's devious and has a plan much bigger than The Hunger Games themselves.  And lastly, the amazing Donald Sutherland.  His portrayal as President Snow is, well, perfect.  He's a man hellbent on staying in power, at any cost.  He will kill, he will burn entire cities to the ground, to ensure the people of the Districts fear the government.  If Katniss Everdeen is the spark to a revolution, he will diffuse it with all the water in the Great Lakes if that's what is necessary.  He's creepy, and absolutely brilliant.  I love it.

Everything is Stepped up a Notch
The Set Design, the special effects, and even the stakes are bigger, better and higher in this movie.  Granted the budget was twice that of the original film, but it truly shows.  You can see that every penny was well spent.  New costumes, a new 'arena' where the tributes battle, as well as new challenges within the Hunger Games, all give you a sense of an elevated scope.  Ignoring the bigger and better special effects, you get a sense that something BIG is happening off-screen.  And that has nothing to do with budgets or CGI, he has to do with great storytelling.  Francis Lawrence and company really brought their A-game.

It is my favorite aspect of the series so far, and has so much to do with Suzanne Collins writing in the books.  The first movie was symbolic of a spark, the beginning of something greater.  Director Gary Ross and company, only hinted at an uprising among the people of the Districts.  He captured signs of hope, and defiance, towards the Capital.  This movie, symbolically, catches fire with that hope.  It's a movement that President Snow, and the Capital in general, are not ready for.  I would find it incredibly difficult to personify hope, and fear; but Francis Lawrence has done exactly that.  I really can't wait to see what the next film has in store, when it comes to this amazing concept of hope always winning over fear.

The Director
Francis Lawrence made so many great choices int his film.  The pacing and storytelling are superb.  There is no time wasted; every word spoken means something, and there's very little filler. Often times sequels feel like a re-telling of the first film, with more money thrown at it.  Lawrence made the film his own, without alienating fans of the first film.  I am SO happy he will be back to direct the two movies based on the third and final book, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay!

What I didn't like about the film:
The Tone/Comedy
Ok, hear me out after I make this statement... the movie is too funny.  I'm serious about this.  The film deals with very very serious subject matter.  A dystopian government that does everything in its power to keep its people oppressed.  A reality-show, based on a game where kids are expected to kill each other, as a 'tribute' to the government.  Now, I'm ok with sprinkling in a bit of humor here and there, to lighten up the mood.  But in a theater packed full of people, the audience was laughing at certain scenes that I doubt the director intended to evoke laughter.  That was a problem for me because it took me out of the experience.  I'm curious to discuss this with my Twitter followers, did anyone else get that feeling?

The Verdict:
Can't Wait For Mockingjay
There are some movies that are nothing more than a setup for a final film.  Take Iron Man 2 building up towards The Avengers; or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1 for example.  I'm sure people would argue those are good films, but they just felt like a setup picture.  And Catching Fire does an amazing job of avoiding this.  The story itself is self-contained, and on its own, manifests an eagerness to see what happens nexts.  The direct and the cast are just awesome in this movie.  I really can't wait to see what the next two films will bring us.  I'm totally in!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Quickie: Disney's Maleficent teaser trailer and poster, starring Angelina Jolie

Check out the poster above, and the first teaser trailer below, for the Angelina Jolie starring film, Maleficent.  The film is of course based on the villainess in Disney's Sleeping Beauty animated film.  The film was originally going to be directed by Tim Burton, who directed Disney's other live-action adaptation, Alice in Wonderland.  Burton stepped aside due to a busy schedule, and in came Robert Stromberg.  Check out the trailer.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen reunite for The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I have sort of avoided posting this 'rumor' for a few months now.  Back in July, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel officially announced the sequel to it's mega-hit, The Avengers.  The sequel is titled, The Avengers: Age of Ultron.  And none other than James Spader would be playing the primary villain in the title.  That was the big headline news as far as the movie; but there was some other drama brewing that concerned some lesser known characters.

It's a long story, but we've got time and I'm not going anywhere.  Before Marvel was making it's own films featuring its characters, they were licensing them out.  Sony Pictures has made 4 Spider-Man films so far, while Fox made Daredevil and numerous X-Men films.  Here's where it gets interesting.  Joss Whedon, who directed the first 'Avengers' film, and is set to direct the sequel, wanted to use a character named Quicksilver.  Well Fox ALSO has the rights to the character, as he has sometimes been featured in X-Men comic books.  So in a classic case of ego-driven charm by the two studios, the character will be featured in two different movies, with two different actors, in two very different franchises.  Evan Peters got the part of Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and it was recently announced that Aaron Taylor-Johnson would play the same character in the 'Avengers' sequel.

We all know that Johnson has a history with comic book films.  He starred as Kick-Ass in two films based on the character of the same name.  I really enjoy Johnson's acting and I think he will be a terrific addition to an already star studded affair.  The character is an interesting one, as long as he doesn't get sidelined by the bigger named heroes in the film.  I really like Johnson's casting here.  But wait, there's more!  Quicksilver has a twin sister!

There's not nearly as much drama with this casting choice.  Quicksilver's sister, Scarlet Witch, will be played by Elizabeth Olsen.  Olsen has been rumored for months to be playing the part, but only today it was made official when she let it slip in an interview.  I have to be honest, I don't really know any of her work.  I have never seen any of her films; but every time I read a review by a film critic I respect, they are usually raving about her acting skills.

Olsen, Johnson, Cranston at SDCC 2013
Another really fun fact is that this is a reunion of sorts for Johnson and Olsen.  They've already filmed the re-booted, Godzilla, set to be released next year.  The film stars the two young actors, as well as the incredible Bryan Cranston.  The Godzilla film may be yet another re-boot/sequel/prequel thing going on; but it can't be any worse than the 1998 debacle starring Matthew Broderick can it?  Can it?  Let's hope not.

Funny thing is, in the Godzilla film, the young actors play husband and wife; while in the 'Avengers' film they'll be twin siblings.  Eesh!  Wierd.  But a fun movie fact nonetheless.  I'm obviously very excited to see the sequel to The Avengers, and what director Joss Whedon has up his sleeve for us this time around.  The Marvel universe of films has not let us down yet, and I don't expect this film to be any different.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World review; Marvel does it again

Marvel just can't miss.  Since 2008's Iron Man, they have had one success after another.  Their films offer up a great balance between action, comedy and drama.  2011's Thor was no different.  It took the Marvel cinematic universe to outer space.  Our mighty hero Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, in all his muscular glory.  His brother, the God of mischief, Loke... played by the devilishly handsome Tom Hiddleston.  Their dad, the Allfather, Odin, was played by the incredible Anthony Hopkins.  There was something so gracious and grandiose about the film.  Something Shakespearean.  While the first film felt a bit 'small' compared to other Marvel films; that is simply not the case with the sequel.  Thor: The Dark World is bigger, better and funnier!  Let's go!

What I liked about the film:
The Tone
In my opinion, the Marvel films do well because of their tone.  Not too serious, not too light.  As I mentioned earlier, their movies have the perfect balance of action, comedy and drama.  And adding to that point, 'The Dark World' may be Marvel's funniest film yet.  The movie never gets too serious.  After all, this is a film set in modern time about the God of Thunder.  C'mon!  It shouldn't be too serious.  The action in this film is much much better than that of the original stand alone film.  The set pieces are bigger, but lend themselves to the story.  It's not Thor vs. 1,000 guys for the sake of eye candy.  It's Thor and his men vs. an army to move the story along.  And the drama is wonderful in this film.  I got choked up a few times when the director and company toyed with my emotions.  Great, great tone in this film.

The Acting
Not to beat a dead horse here, but no one appeared to take themselves too serious in this film.  Hemsworth demands attention as the titular character.  And I love what the writers did with his story arc, following the events of The Avengers.  Hemsworth presents the audience with a nobility, few young actors could pull off.  And it doesn't hurt that he's totally chiseled in this film.  Whoa!

Tom Hiddleston is amazing in this film!  Unlike his mono-tonal performance in The Avengers (which I loved), he has much more to work with in this film.  Even more so than the first Thor film.  He portrays angst, anger, sympathy and more.  Hemsworth and Hiddleston's banter in the film felt genuine and real.  I have a little brother, and I could imagine saying some of the things the characters were saying to each other.  Just great stuff written for these two tremendous actors.

Supporting roles are executed fairly well here.  Natalie Portman returns after her absence in The Avengers.  The writers found a clever way to make her integral to the story (which I'll discuss in a moment).  Jaimie Alexander returns as Lady Sif, and has a few wonderful hints of jealousy towards Portman's character.  While they don't have much to do, Alexander and Ray Stevenson play great friends of Thor.  Kat Dennings again gets the funniest lines in the film.  She does wonderful in this goofy role that I can't really picture anyone else playing.  Stellan Skarsgard also brings some comic relief, as he reprises his role as Dr. Selvig.

Idris Elba gets an expanded role from the first film, and does well (as he always does mind you).  Christopher Eccleston joins the franchise as a very cool villain.  Really liked his performance; and it shined through even with all the makeup he had to wear in the film.  This cast is great.  Each actor brought something to the table; and was able to add something to the film.  While not all the characters have a notable arc, the ones that do, really shine through.

The Music
Brian Tyler delivers one of the most emotionally charged scores I've heard in a long time.  There is one particularly sad scene that had no dialogue whatsoever.  Just a few scenes with Tyler's music playing in the background.  I was nearly in tears.  The action packed leitmotif, and the slowed down drama pieces were very well done.

The Director
Alan Taylor elevated the franchise to new heights.  Most of his choices are spot on!  The tone, the editing, choice in music, set design, costume, etc.  He took the world built by the previous director, Kenneth Branagh, and took it up a notch.  I really admire a lot of his choices on this film.  Let's think about this for a second.  This is a superhero film, that takes place in outer space with a ton of CGI; what could go wrong?  Green Lantern, that's how it could go wrong!  Taylor keeps the film grounded, but light on its feet.  He has the protagonists showing off his abilities much more than the first film where Thor was stuck in a small town in New Mexico.  So happy with Taylor's decision to direct this sequel.

What I didn't like about the film:
The Insanely Stupid Story
How many times have a seen a movie that begins with an event that happened years ago (5,000 years in this case); and the current time of the film is the next time this great, big, huge event is going to happen again.  And our hero needs to stop it before the villain takes advantage of this once in 5,000 years great, big, huge event?  I can think of 5 films off the top of my head that use this generic, gimmicky, creative-less story telling device.  Writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did so many things wrong, I had a hard time appreciating what they did right.

The story is dumb, and certain characters' motivations for their actions are dumb.  I left the theater asking, 'well why would that character do that?  It seems like an awful lot of trouble for that.'  Certain characters are written into the film just to ensure they have a reason to be there.  And there's quite a bit of there he is!  No he isn't!  THERE he is!  And I really hate when writers get lazy and default back to those creative-less ways of moving the story forward.  I do have to give the writers credit for two thing.  The first being that most of the film took place on Asgard, and I loved that!  The fish out of water bit worked in the first film, but would have been redundant in this film.  And the second; as the trailers have given away, Loki helps Thor in his mission.  The writers did an amazing job giving him motivation to ignore their past, and have the two brothers help each other.  And we never really know which side of the fence Loki stands on.  That was good!  See, not that harsh right?

The Verdict:
An Extremely Entertaining, yet Formulaic Film
'The Dark World' is an extremely entertaining movie.  The tone of the film is just right for this character.  It has found its place in not only the Marvel cinematic universe, but in the comic book film genre as a whole.  It was never afraid to make fun of itself, which I really loved.  There is action, comedy and drama; but the poor story stopped me from making this an top-five favorite comic book film.  Stilled enjoyed it very much and would recommend everyone checks it out!