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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

        The Hunger Games is not Twilight, and everyone involved Needs You To Know This. Sure, the two share a great deal of similar trappings, both based on wildly popular young adult novels, set in an unfamiliar world, and featuring a love-triangle spear-headed by a female protagonist. Those wholly uninitiated to author Suzanne Collins' universe would be forgiven for mixing up the two, and perhaps this is just why The Hunger Games movies push so damn hard to get out of Edward and Bella's glittering shadow. Steeped in heavy themes, adorned with fine thespians, and featuring production values of an extremely high accord, the franchise has all of the tools to outshine its teen-lit trappings. The odds (and resources) are ever in its favor: Katniss and the gang need only to capitalize on them.

        Catching Fire is the connective tissue of The Hunger Games series, tasked with addressing the aftermath of the first installment while setting up the saga's endgame. The film opens smack-dab where last year's franchise-starter left off, all eyes on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the improbable co-champions of the most recent Hunger Games, going through the motions of a Capitol-mandated victory-tour. Ms. Everdeen, it turns out, has become something of a folk-hero and symbol of hope to the impoverished districts, a notion President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wishes to dismantle in a very public manner. After multiple attempts at media-manipulated character assassination, Snow and game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide on a more literal approach, sending Katniss and Peeta into the arena to fight for their lives yet again.

        This is Francis Lawrence's debut with the franchise, taking over directing duties from the first film's Gary Ross. Those who derided The Hunger Games' eye-turning aversion to violence and liberal use of hand-held cameras will find themselves more at home with Lawrence's smoother look, but parents deciding wether Catching Fire is ok for their pre-teens likely will not. This is a much grittier affair; it shows death, revels in economic and romantic hopelessness, and even makes time to show one of its hunky heartthrobs getting whipped senseless, skin filleted for all to see. Said heartthrobs tend to take a beating in these movies, the gender role-reversal only heightened as Katniss continues to refute both Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta's affections in favor of focusing on the dire task at hand (it's almost like our heroine is a real person with her priorities straight or something?!). There are times when all this gore and misery can feel a bit excessive, but you have to admire a creative team that's actually taking the story at hand seriously, exploring its darker edges, and mostly refusing to pander. A belief and desire to do right by the material is evident in every frame.

        Which really only makes the film's shortcomings that much more frustrating. Errors in continuity abound, a character with a bloody cheek in one shot seen untarnished in the very next. The score is a mess, about twenty different themes all thrown in, not a single one sticking. Occasional scenes feel like pulls from the book that don't actually make sense in the time-limited scope of the film, while others that seem monumental happen quickly, and are never addressed again. The actors, uniformly solid in their roles, have some markedly bad takes that likely could have been fixed with a do-over or two. These are mere cosmetic issues for which quick-fixes are readily available; the film just feels sloppy, like a few more months on set or in the editor's room might have yielded something truly special, but time would not permit. It's like being given the most incredible foods, spices, cutlery, and kitchenware in the world, and only being allotted an hour to prepare it all. It still tastes good, but the feeling that the whole might be lesser than the sum of its parts is difficult to shake. Catching Fire might be more good than bad, but there's certainly a lot of both.

        What strikes one most while watching Panem's latest escapades is just how sturdy and built-to-last this series really is. The Hunger Games franchise has a whole mess of feathers in cap; an intriguing and well-established world, solid actors playing characters that actually make impressions on the audience, an art department capable of working wonders (costume designer Trish Summerville should be working on her Oscar acceptance speech right now), an expert and unique take on your standard juicy love-triangle, and a bonafide superstar in Jennifer Lawrence. She's been worlds better in other films, including the first picture, but 23-year-old has an innate ability to hold the screen, and a kind of charisma that can't be taught. She's a natural, though being flanked by veterans like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Toby Jones, and Jena Malone in minor roles never really hurt anyone. Catching Fire is far from perfect, but it's a solid entertainment, presented with class, intrigue, and excitement. It accomplishes the ultimate goal of any middle entry in a series; it leaves you chomping at the bit for the next one.

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

12 Years a Slave (Limited Release Date: 10-18-2013)

        Quick: name as many movies about the Holocaust as you can off the top of your head.

        (I'll give you a second...)

        All right, time's up. By now, I'm guessing you've listed off Schindler's List, The Pianist, and Life is Beautiful, with Sophie's Choice, Defiance, The Reader, Downfall, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas and The Diary of Anne Frank possibly rounding out the list, depending on how far back your movie fandom reaches.

        Now, let's try the same thing for movies about slavery in America.

        Roots and Django, right? Maybe Amistad? We're coming up on 150 years since slavery was finally abolished in the US, and filmmakers are still gun-shy on the subject, preferring story-lines that work around it, not within it. How afraid is Hollywood of approaching the topic in earnest, you ask? Just last year, we saw Django Unchained (gloriously) fly off the handle straight into fantasy, just as Lincoln found a way to detail the abolition of slavery with nary a slave on screen. Thereby, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years a Slave, a film unafraid to look at the deplorable institution for exactly what it was, is a British import, with only a few Americans involved on any level. It's been a long, sordid trudge for this gut-wrenching movie to finally light up silver screens, but thank god it did. Brutal and difficult as it may be to watch, the world needs 12 Years a Slave.

        Director Steve McQueen's third feature tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African American living the life of a free man in pre-civil war New York until he is drugged, abducted, and sold into slavery. Educated with skills as a carpenter and a violinist, Northup is forced to hide almost every vestige of his intelligence and autonomy on a hellish journey that takes him through the antebellum south. The horror show eventually sees him sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) an alcoholic mess of Christianity-fueled contradictions who harbors a twisted, unrelenting lust for Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a stoic servant constantly subjected to her master's impulses.

        While I usually rally against pictures that are championed on account of concept alone, the trappings and importance of 12 tempt one to into the land of superlatives. Thank god, then, that the execution here is wholly worthy of the tale. Relatively undiscovered cinematographer Sean Bobbitt takes us on a visceral, almost hypnotic trip, captured on gloriously grainy film, colors exploding off of the screen. His use of extended takes, as seen previously in McQueen's other two films, Hunger and Shame, is employed to mesmerizing effect here, detailing the mania of slave auctions, refusing to turn away from moments of jaw-dropping suffering. Hans Zimmer even offers a typically bombastic score, pulling bullets of sweat from your temples with hair-rasing grandiosity. Suffice to say, this isn't your standard, prepackaged, 'important movie,' fair; if you come in expecting nothing more than a dusty history lesson, you're about to get leveled.

         Impressive as its achievements may be, the film is not without fault. The scenes in which Solomon is a free man, witnessed at the movie's opening, and then periodically through-out, play like dream sequences. They neglect to observe the racism that Northup likely faced even as a liberated individual, and, perhaps more damningly, fail to truly establish Ejiofor's character before casting him down into the individuality-eviserating plague that was slavery. As great as the actor is in the film, it isn't until Solomon hits rock bottom that we really understand what he's about, making him a semi-passive bystander for much of the film's runtime. Finally, the movie shows a strange infatuation with stunt-casting, pulling you out of McQueen's all-encompasiing grip with faces belonging to Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire), Taran Killam (of Saturday Night Live fame), and, most distractingly, Brad Pitt. Many of these actors end up justifying their presence, but certainly not all.

        These drawbacks are, of course, a small price to pay when one considers the film's many riches. As previously alluded, Ejiofor is terrific, exuding grace and honor even at his lowest points. Many of the film's most entrancing moments occur when McQueen and Bobbitt simply leave the camera on the thespian and let him work, chilling bones by simply looking off into the horizon, an ocean of feeling in his eyes. Nyong'o is every bit his match, a vision of strength and pride, emotions ever simmering just beneath the surface, only rarely (and explosively) revealed. Then there's Fassbender, the protagonist of McQueen's previous two films, stepping off to the side to play a monster of a man, lighting the screen ablaze every moment he's on it. His character's offenses wouldn't be as vile if we couldn't see the mirth on the actor's face, that twitch of pleasure at having such complete, irrevocable control over another human being. A shot in which his sky-blue eyes, often emphasized in the film, silently bore into Solomon's soul is almost too much to bare.

        12 Years a Slave is a classic on arrival, a sprawling epic and a hero's journey that possesses more than a handful of scenes and moments that will forever more be entrenched in my brain. Its craft alone merits the praise the film has received thus far, but I want to come back to its cultural importance for a second. Movies matter. Really, they do. As the most comprehensive artistic medium there is (sight, sound, photography, technology, etc.), the imagery and feelings elicited by film, for better or worse, come to shape how we perceive events, especially those set in the past. There's a reason that people who don't read about such things think they know how the British Monarchs of old dressed and behaved, or why those who don't remain abreast of world news now know at least something about the Rwandan genocide. Crazy as it may sound, there's little doubt in my mind that the images witnessed in Schindler's List deeply effect the way that most Americans think about and relate to the Holocaust.

        Lament the state of our age if you feel so inclined, but, for most people, film is an easy and extremely impactful method of relaying information. Numbers in text books, the vessel through which history is often relayed to young minds, just don't have the same traction. 12 Years a Slave gives a face to the abundance of suffering that slavery wrought, a visual for which our generation was absolutely starved. Here's to hoping that films detailing other under-examined American crimes, such as the treatment of Native Americans, or the employment of Chinese internment camps, might some day force those who think we've primarily moved past racism and extensive injustice to reflect on their callous perspectives. The past may be the past, but some blemishes don't just wash out.

Grade: A

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (Release Date: 11-8-2013)

        The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be the biggest (see: most profitable) enterprise at the multiplexes these days, but they've also sort of painted themselves into a corner. Of the first six canonized films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers) only one wasn't an origin story (Iron Man 2), the others simply tasked with setting the table. Where most franchises feel a greater freedom to take risks and shake things up in later installments, 'Phase Two,' as folks have taken to calling the studio's present slate of films, seems too inter-connected to dabble in such tomfoolery. With four films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man), four TV shows (centered on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage), and two more untitled flicks on the docket for 2016 and 2017, this is no time to be taking characters and potential plot developments off the board. As enticing as this multi-layered set-up is, the focus on the long game can make individual installments feel like they're just treading water. Oh, hello, Thor: The Dark World; we were just talking about you!

        More so than in any previous Marvel entry, Thor: The Dark World's plot feels more like an excuse to hang out with characters we know and love than a proper page-turner. An alien species once again haunts the gods of Asgard, the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim filling the, 'weird-looking bad guy that we don't really care about,' slot previously occupied by the Frost Giants (Thor) and Chitauri (The Avengers). They have this red stuff ('the Aether'), you see, and it's very bad. So bad, in fact, that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must travel back to earth, reuniting with his lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and eventually being forced into a tenuous team-up with his lecherous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Scary guys try to pull the universe into a state of darkness, Thor swings his hammer, and there are two post-film snippets (one mid-credits, one after) that essentially tell us to buy more tickets to more movies.

         In the name of fairness, the latest Thor does have its pleasures. Asgard, as seen in the first installment and this one, is the most visually engaging place that the MCU has yet taken us, all celestial wonderment, and gold. The film also has a solid sense of humor, and wisely commits a good deal of its obligatory climactic action sequence to coaxing laughter. Hiddleston is a lot of over-the-top fun as well, though those who claim that he, 'steals the show,' ought to reconsider their personal definitions of theft. The character of Thor gives Hemsworth precious-little to work with, Anthony Hopkins looks like he'd rather be taking a nap, and Portman's Astrophysicist still sounds curiously like a Valley Girl. Hiddleston's cast mates are kind of like those people who leave a big bowl of candy on their front door on Halloween with a sign that says, "Please take one": How could he not steal this movie?

        Speaking of Portman, why is she is these movies, anyways? Carving out 20-plus minutes to have your muscly hero fall for a personality-free beauty is a faux-pas that a lot of action movies commit, but casting an Academy Award winner in the role only makes it worse. The whole audience knows Portman can act, and watching her stumble through these movies without a character or purpose to speak of is an unrelenting distraction. This is why the Megan Foxes of the world exist: because pure eye candy with an obvious brain isn't pure eye candy, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Sorry for the aside, but her casting really takes me out of these movies, in a way that even Hopkins can't match. At least he immediately commands reverence and respect. They cast him as a king, right?

         Look, this article isn't intended to be a total take-down of the latest Thor. The two hours pass briskly, are pleasant on the eyes, and I'll doubtlessly be in line for Captain America: The Winter Soldier this spring. Maybe that's just it; I've come to expect a certain level of quality from the guys behind this whole MCU thing, and Thor: The Dark World is one of their few entries to not quite make it. Unlike Iron Man 3, which was surprisingly open to diverging from the playbook, the god of thunder's latest romp is something far less inspiring: just another Thor movie.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Release Date: 10-29-2013)

        There were signs, but I chose to ignore them. There was the high-concept, 'The Reflektors,' side project and/or in-joke. There was that first single, an exciting deviation from the band's normative sound that to this day still feels at least slightly under-cooked. And there was their star-crossed showing on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, a performance miserably botched by the venue's technical and sonic short-comings that nevertheless emitted some weird vibes from the band themselves. None of it exactly screamed out-right failure, but meager success isn't exactly what we come back to Arcade Fire for, now is it? No one makes an event out of their every move quite like the Canadian wunderkinds, and, after winning the Album of the Year Grammy in early 2011, stowing away for 3-plus years, enlisting production assistance from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, and recording the follow-up in an abandoned Jamaican castle, you'd be forgiven for expecting the world out of Reflektor.

        The single aspect of Reflektor's pre-release buzz that had me most excited is, to these ears, the disc's largest detriment; the involvement of Mr. Murphy. The coupling was awfully tasty on paper, a big-band veteran pairing with a sizable roster who consistently harbors the loftiest ambitions in the North American musical landscape. But the things that have always made Murphy's LCD tracks so special (danceable, bass-driven grooves, crisp sounds, repetition, and sass) come at such immediate contrast with Arcade Fire's strengths (guitar-led anthems, fearless earnestness, orchestral sounds, and general BIGNESS) that one wonders how we all didn't see this one coming. Hype Starts Here has a long history of stated love and embarrassing bias in favor of both of these artists, but I also love both cheese and sour candy, too. Not everything mixes.

        Reflektor's 70-minute runtime is divided between two discs, and the break is clear as day. The first, which opens with the aforementioned Reflektor, is the more musically up-front edition, employing simple grooves, and marching along with minimal deviation. While LCD often did this to tremendous effect, Arcade Fire is used to finding its power from guitars and vocals, not the rhythm section from which Murphy and co. made their living. We Exist and Joan of Arc just don't have the bass-and-drums muscle to remain engaging through-out their too-long runtimes, while We Already Know and Normal Person (especially) breath more fire in theory than in practice. While one can't really blame their miss-guided punk ambitions on Murphy (after all, did he have anything to do with Month of May?), it's frustrating to hear them play against their strengths to such a degree.

        Disc Two is much less rocky (pun intended), though the allegedly epic pairing of Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) falls mind-numbingly short of The Suburbs' Half Light double-header, not to mention Funeral's Neighborhood suite. That said, Afterlife is yet another treasure from the band's catalogue, as almost-tacky as all of their best songs, this time unveiled in lush, billowy colors. Same goes for closer Supersymmetry, whose glowing outro might just be the album's highlight. Disappointing as Reflektor's whole may be, dismissing it as an out-and-out disaster would be disingenuous. Flashbulb Eyes deserves credit for propping-up the first act, as do Reflektor and Here Comes the Night Time, though both are more enjoyable in concept than in practice. Listenable as it may be, Arcade Fire's newest is something we've never heard from these guys before: A half-baked concept in need of some extra time behind the scenes.

Grade: B