Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Catching Fire" Proves That "The Hunger Games" Has More To Say Than Other YA Franchises

Directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman - Rated PG-13

Much like the unfortunate deputy, the Capitol has no idea what's about to happen.

The first Hunger Games movie was a welcome departure from the usual young adult adaptation fluff.  Typically, a young adult (or YA) series is either skewed too specifically to its young audience (the Twilight series), or its world is too complicated, or wacky, for the non-readers (insert any of the failed YA franchises here).  The Hunger Games worked because it had something for everyone, and the setting was recognizable.  You had the love triangle business for the tweens, but you had the social satire for the adults.  Sure, the satire wasn't very subtle, but it left you with something to think about.  Plus, there was a strong cast that made you care about the characters.

Catching Fire doesn't simply continue the story of The Hunger Games, it enhances it.  The appropriately titled film (and book) takes the injustices hinted at here and there in the first installment and puts them at the forefront.  Heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) can no longer be the quiet pawn in the government’s game.  She has become a symbol, and it’s impossible for her to keep a low profile.  Because of this, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has to push Katniss back into the spotlight, so he can destroy her and any hopes for a revolution that she might represent. 

This is a fairly basic story as far as dystopian films go.  An impoverished populace must fight their rich overlords.  What makes it different is that this is not a film about planning.  Katniss is truly a game piece that each side uses, often without her knowledge.  Since she is kept in the dark, the audience is as well, for the most part.  The film diverts from the book (which is told only through Katniss’s perspective) with a few scenes with Snow and the new head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but the bulk of the film is told through Katniss’s eyes.  This is important because it leaves some mystery to what could have been a very boring story.  Katniss is an unwilling symbol of freedom that needs to see firsthand the atrocities being committed throughout society.  Instead of boring secret meetings in which plans are hashed out then performed, we get to see Katniss react to the extreme poverty gap.

The Hunger Games is a series that requires you to suspend disbelief and accept that this world, in which the nation’s youth are forced to kill each other for entertainment, exists.  As a free society, the audience may find it hard to believe that humans could ever let things get so bad, but historically, it happens (some would argue it’s happening right now).  Some might think, “How is Katniss so gullible?”  But she is the product of the world she was born in.  There is no grand revolution to celebrate because it hasn’t happened yet.  In fact, it was attempted years ago, and the district that rebelled doesn’t exist anymore.  So her frame of reference for revolution is the opposite of, say, an American’s.  To Katniss, revolution means everything you know and love will be destroyed.  So it’s important for her to see the discontent firsthand.

Director Francis Lawrence, writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (credited as Michael DeBruyn, for some reason), and author Suzanne Collins have done a fantastic job of showing the divide.  Collins, of course, laid the groundwork, and Beaufoy and Arndt focused on the best examples, but Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer) should get most of the credit for presenting it all in a very effective way.  He sticks with the first film’s style by following most of the characters from behind as they walk into scenes, but he has improved upon the original.  Perhaps it’s only because there was more money available, but Catching Fire simply looks better than the first film, which means that the differences between the rich of the Capitol and the suffering of the poor are that much more realistic and powerful.  The staging of most of the film in general is quite effective with the characters small in the frame and the surroundings towering around them.  It created a feeling of the world bearing down on all of these characters.

Who cares about the world bearing down if you don’t like the characters, though?  Thankfully, Catching Fire has enough talent for you to get on board with most of the characters involved.  There are some great actors involved with this, including two Academy Award winners (Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and two more nominees (Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci).  These four acclaimed actors are joined by returning stars Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, and Liam Hemsworth, to name a few, and a few newcomers in Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, and Lynn Cohen.  The fact that there are even this many roles to be filled by recognizable actors shows that this is no throwaway movie for tweens.  Because of the size of the cast, however, most of the roles rely on screen presence alone. 

Most of the actors are given at least one scene to show off a little bit, but there’s not enough for them to do to stand out in any way.  But it is certainly nice to see the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer in small roles.  The most high profile new addition would be Philip Seymour Hoffman.  His character takes the place of Seneca Crane, aka the guy with the crazy beard, from the first film.  Hoffman looks pretty much like he does in any other movie, but he gets to play up the ruthlessness in this role.  Hoffman is perfect for any role that requires him to seem indifferent to characters around him. 

As for the returning stars, nothing much is going on with them.  Lawrence and Hutcherson both do fine in continuing their fake romance while realizing how bad things are around them.  Banks is still pretty much a walking costume, which is kind of the point with her character.  And Harrelson is still the comic relief as the constantly drunk, but wise, former victor.  If there is a slight fault to the film, it is that his character’s alcoholism is treated so lightly, but laughs are hard to come by in the bleak world of the film, so it’s not a terrible transgression.

Catching Fire, despite the love story and social commentary, is still a bit of an action film, as well.  Since the focus is more on the problems with society than it is on the titular Games, the action is pretty scant until the last hour or so.  But that last hour is filled with plenty of tense moments.  Once again, this might be because of a larger budget, but the action looked better this time around, especially the special effects.  Director Francis Lawrence has used computer effects to his detriment before (I Am Legend), but that may have been simply because the technology was not yet up to snuff.  Either way, it looks great now, as nothing in the Arena segment seemed overly fake or manufactured.

Overall, Catching Fire improves upon the original and solidifies the series as something more than the passing fad that other series were.  There are some big themes about society and life in general behind the blood and love of the story.  Will the tweens focus more on the love triangle and pick which “team” they are on?  Probably.  But for those of us who don’t care who Katniss ends up with, there is a seriously enjoyable movie beyond that love story. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" Is Miserable and Hard to Watch, but That's No Excuse To Miss This Amazing Film

Directed by Steve McQueen, written by John Ridley, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Fassbender - Rated R

A suffering Vader seemed appropriate for this one.

Slavery is a topic ever present in many historical films, but it is rarely given center stage treatment.  Even last year's phenomenal and fun Django Unchained was more of a revenge fantasy than it was a movie about slavery (the fact that it can be described as "fun" should tip you off that it's not a serious take on the institution of slavery).  If Django was fantasy, then 12 Years a Slave is the miserable reality.

12 Years a Slave is the first film in a long time to deal with slavery head-on.  Slavery can be a tricky subject for a film because it can easily delve into a preaching, hackneyed affair.  Another problem with slavery on film of late is the seeming need to include the white perspective of the time period.  It seems that many filmmakers feel that guilt over slavery is so inherent in our culture that they must include some white character in the proceedings to help save the day.  For what would have happened with Django without Dr. Schultz?

12 Years a Slave rises above these problems with ease.  First off, it's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free family man in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Since Northup wrote about his account, the film must follow things from his perspective.  There are still the stereotypical elements of a slave story, such as whipping and sympathetic whites, but it's different because of the perspective.  A story told from the slave's point of view is not an easy story to follow.  It's disjointed and confusing, which is the point.  Solomon Northup became a slave in utter confusion and remained uncertain of his future throughout his ordeal.  In fact, it's unfortunate that he named his account as he did because it gives the audience the knowledge he never had: that he would one day be free again.

Chiwetel Ejiofor handles the uncertainty of Northup's situation perfectly.  Ejiofor is great for all the normal reasons an actor receives praise, but in the quiet moments of the film he truly shines.  12 Years is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), a director who embraces the awkward, quiet moments in life and allows them to play out on screen.  What this means is that the long moments of waiting or thinking that normally are implied are instead shown.  Ejiofor has to perform through his eyes and his overall expression for many long, tense moments to convey Northup's situation, and he's a natural at it.  His sympathetic eyes not only convey his dire situation, but also make him one of the most sympathetic characters in recent memory.

As easy as it is to root for and get behind Ejiofor's Northup, it's even easier to abhor Michael Fassbender's Epps.  The character of Epps, a drunken, brutal slave owner, is inherently unlikable, but Fassbender brings such realism and deep ferocity to the role that it becomes more than just your standard mean racist.  Fassbender has this look in his eyes throughout the film that you cannot trust.  You know that at any moment he could lose control, and a man in his position is doubly dangerous in such a state.  Both Fassbender and Ejiofor deserve all the awards they will most likely receive.

Another name that should come up for awards is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey.  Patsey suffers a terrible existence on all fronts, and Nyong'o conveys the strife in a powerful way.  Her performance could easily just be loud sobbing, but, once again, the expression on her face is what makes it stick with you.  You can see misery in her eyes, and that speaks much louder than any sob.  Sarah Paulson as Patsey's torturer (and Epps's wife) does a great job, as well.  The cold hatred is written all over her face.  She is almost as detestable as Fassbender.  Almost.

Performances aside, McQueen contributes in some very important ways.  His shot selection is effective throughout.   Beautiful shots of nature are juxtaposed with the unnatural circumstances of slavery.  The conflict of beauty in nature and hideousness of humanity is constantly present.  This goes for the use of music, too.  Northup is a musician, so he is requested to play the fiddle many times during the film.  During some of these sequences the diegetic sounds coming from Northup's fiddle, which are jovial, are overpowered by the non-diegetic score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer), which has a much more foreboding sound.  The conflicting sounds express the mood of both the time and the film itself.  A good score is supposed to go unnoticed (or so the saying goes), but a brilliant one, when used properly, is not only noticeable, but intricate to the mood and theme of the film.

Despite the conflict expressed in the sound design of the film, the actual world presented was unfortunately normal for the time.  Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film (I suppose this counts as a SPOILER) consists of Northup struggling to breathe after a lynching was halted.  Northup is left trying to keep his feet on the ground while the owner is fetched.  You expect someone to cut him down soon after the lynching is stopped, but the scene goes on for an excruciatingly long time.  As we wait and watch Northup fight to breathe, life goes on.  Kids play; slaves go about their work.  This is "normal."  McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have captured the utter absurdity of a slave-owning society.  A society in which a human life can hang literally by a thread, and hardly anyone seems to notice.  It's upsetting to imagine what can become "normal" in daily life.

Because of the disturbing ideas about humanity and the brutality of slavery, 12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch.  It is a film that needs to be watched, however.  Slavery is all too often glazed over in history.  It's the cause of war, and it's awful, we're told, but how often is it truly thought about?  Of course, a documentary can help you remember the evils of slavery.  Emotion is what makes 12 Years a Slave so great.  This film will not only remind you how terrible humans can be, it will also give you hope.  Solomon Northup mentions many times that he will not "fall into despair" because terrible things cannot last forever.  There is always hope.  It's impossible not to feel something as you watch a man witness and be part of such brutality, yet remain hopeful.  12 Years a Slave is a history lesson, a statement about humanity, and an emotional onslaught all rolled into one.  It is also one of the best films of the year. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Who Needs the Avengers When You Have Thor, Loki, Elves, Spaceships, Lasers, a Sort of Hulk Monster, a Hammer, and All Kinds of Other Cool Crap?

Thor: The Dark World - Directed by Alan Taylor, written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, and Tom Hiddleston - Rated PG-13

This gets a Kurgan simply because if the Kurgan showed up in the middle of a scene, no one would bat an eye.

Thor is certainly the strangest character in the mainstream Marvel universe (or at least he is for someone like me, who is not well read when it comes to comic books).  He is equal parts Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and, well, superhero. Because of this, Thor's standalone films can be quite different from the other Avengers' more Earth-related adventures.  This is a good thing because in a film like Iron Man 3, you wonder just what all the other Avengers are up to as the world comes to the brink of annihilation.  In Thor: The Dark World, Earth factors in very rarely, so it's conceivable that the other Avengers wouldn't even be aware anything was happening until it was too late.

The new Thor movie is entertaining for many more reasons than simply its setting.  The first film was surprisingly, and appropriately, comedic as it was essentially a fish out of water story.  This film retains that comedic spirit while not relying on the same gags from the first film.  To be fair, there are still some easy jokes made with Thor's scenes on Earth, but the majority of the humor is earned through character moments, especially those between Thor and his brother-turned-nemesis Loki.

Loki steals the show as one of those villains you love to hate.  During his first appearance in the first Thor movie, Loki didn't seem all that amusing or menacing.  Somehow that changed with his role as the main baddie in The Avengers.  He still seemed a little bland as far as super villains go, but credit Tom Hiddleston for breathing some real life into the character. His constant smirk and witty banter make him an honestly likable character, despite his goals of world domination and whatnot.  Apparently his role was initially smaller, and Hiddleston was brought in later for some additional scenes.  That turned out to the correct move as he is one of most enjoyable parts of the film.

The focus on Loki doesn't mean that the titular character is any less fun.  Chris Hemsworh picks up right where he left off as Thor.  He's a bit more somber in this film, since his love interest is stuck on Earth, so there are fewer fun scenes with him this time around.  The performance is fine; it's just that the character required a quieter performance, which is why Loki picked up the comedic slack.

As for the rest of the cast, all the returning players perform admirably.  It was nice to see Idris Elba, as Heimdall, get a few more scenes this time around, although he is still the most underutilized aspect of the franchise.  The new faces are few, but serve the film well.  Chris O'Dowd produced a few laughs in his few scenes.  And Christopher Eccleston is decent as the villain, though that was more of a prosthetic performance.

Of course all of these characters are involved in a plot, but that doesn't really matter in the Marvel universe, does it?  Some strange being is threatening to use some vaguely described powerful substance to destroy the world for even vaguer reasons.  That isn't meant as too much of a dig against the film (or entire Marvel universe for that matter), but let's face it, these plots are mediocre at best.  It's a good thing the characters are so great because the stories for these movies just keep getting more and more nonsensical and boring.  Not to mention the fact that shadow of the next Avengers looms over everything as if to say, "This is all well and good, but just wait until you see me!"  It dramatically lowers the stakes of all the standalone films  because you know the real threat and all the coolest stuff is being saved for the group effort.

Thor manages to rise above all of that, though.  The movie works on its own and is just as entertaining as the first.  As action movies go, Thor should keep you happy.  The beginning was a little on the weak side, with a lot of exposition and bland battles, but it picks up in the middle and has a thrilling climax.  Director Alan Taylor (of HBO's Game of Thrones fame) turned out to be the perfect fit for the franchise, providing a straightforward action movie devoid of all the random Dutch angles (which I actually liked, despite their randomness) of Kenneth Branagh's previous entry.  Although it would certainly be interesting to see what Taylor would have done if he had been allowed to be as graphic with this film as he is with Thrones.

Thor: The Dark World is yet another solid movie in the Marvel franchise.  It doesn't take any risks with the storytelling or anything, but it doesn't really need to.  Thor satisfies the craving for that specific character (and a few of his friends and enemies) that will keep you sated until Thor teams up with the rest of the gang again.  It is a bit troubling that the film feels less important now that the Avengers are around, but the movie is just fun and outlandish enough to make you forget about those other guys for a little while.