Monday, April 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an outstanding example of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. It offers an engaging story, an outstanding cast, and production design that's second to none.

The story picks up from the first Hunger Games movie, opening with a beautiful shot of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) silhoutted against a sunrise, quiver on ther back and bow in her hand as she scans a nearby riverbank for game. Struggling with PTSD and trying to get back to normal, our heroine is in no condition to enter the whirl of celebrity life as a Hunger Games survivor. Enter it she must, however, and she soon finds herself the nexus of a nascent revolution.

This is just the first act, but it does an outstanding job of reorienting the audience to its world, laying down the story's themes, and setting up the larger conflicts playing behind the scenes of the smaller scale, yet no-less important, conflicts awaiting our heroine as she's thrust back into the world of the games and forced to compete again. In effect, it shifts the focus of the franchise from “Teenager sticks it to the The Man” to “Scrappy rebel comes to grips with her new status as a leader.” It's wonderful, and wonderfully realized. And we haven't even met most of the supporting cast.

Speaking of which, look at that cast: Amanda Plummer (who Can Do No Wrong), Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci (CDNW), Jeffrey Wright (CDNW), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, and Woody Harrelson, just to name a few. Folks, these are the big guns: the top-shelf talent a studio is willing to pay for when it knows it has an almost certain hit. They do not disappoint, and neither does Lawrence (CDNW), once again proving that she's as capable of carrying a major studio sci-fi action franchise as she is anchoring a moving and horrifying modern noir (That last sentence brought to by Winter'sBone, which you should see right away.). That said, I'd like to take a moment to single out the always wonderful Stanley Tucci (What? You haven't seen Big Night? What's wrong with you?). Here, he plays a television personality who's all spray-on tan, ultra-white teeth, silly hair, and bull$#!^. Watch him closely, however. Beneath the veneer, his character is a consummate professional who happens to be extraordinarily good at his job. It's a layered, subtle performance for a character who could easily be nothing but a two-dimensional placeholder. That's what the best can bring.

But wait – there's more. This film's costume, makeup, and set design, as well as its computer-generated animation, is seamless, beautiful, and brilliantly realized. It delivers the spectacle one expects of a major blockbuster combined with the care and artistry required to deliver a convincing, organic, yet slightly alien world. This picture is nothing short of marvelous, and marvelous to behold.

In my review of TheHunger Games, I wrote that I looked forward to the further adventures of Katniss Everdeen. Catching Fire did not let me down. Bring on more sequels!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sleepless Night

Sleepless Night is a French thriller about a cop who may be corrupt, who may be stupid, and who must be indestructible. Unfortunately, what he is not is a fully-realized character.

Here's the setup: French action star Tomer Sisley (Well, he was born in Berlin, but his movies are French. It's the EU, people!) is a cop who has stolen a bag of narcotics. The original owner wants it returned, so he's kidnapped Sisley's son. Now, all Sisley has to do is rescue his son, evade the Internal Affairs officers who are hunting for him, and get home safely. Where must he accomplish these tasks in one (you guessed it – sleepless) night? A nightclub so loud, so labyrinthine, so crazy that nobody runs when various good – or – evildoers pull guns and start shooting.

That's fun stuff, and it offers well-staged fights, plenty of twists and turns, and almost everything one could ask for from a film entitled Sleepless Night. But there's a hollowness at the center of Sleepless Night that saps the film of its energy: at no time does the viewer feel he or she is watching real people. The cop is just that – a cop of questionable integrity who turns into a fighting machine when his son is threatened. The thugs are just thugs, the kingpins kingpins, and the child in distress just a child in distress. One can't shake the feeling that this film could have been more, had it dared to give us people rather than notecards.


Ah, well. They can't all be winners.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier fuses the paranoid political thriller and the superhero action showcase. That it does so well, in part and in total, is a remarkable achievement.

Here's the setup: Cap & Black Widow (Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson) are the two most attractive people in government service. They're also a superhero team that flies around the world doing secret missions for SHIELD. SHIELD is basically the DHS, but competent, international, and much better funded. SHIELD, however, may have a hidden agenda. Will Cap & BW sort things out in time?

Well, yeah, of course they will. That's not the point. The point is how well the film tells their story. Robert Redford (as, basically the Secretary of SHIELD) and Samuel L. Jackson (as himself) carry the political thriller aspects of the picture with aplomb. Evans & Johansson, who team up with Anthony Mackie (of the criminally underrated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) to battle Frank Grillo (Warrior) and Sebastian Stan (Black Swan), make a great action duo. They combine athleticism with real acting chops, selling both their battles and their dialogue.

That said, the real star here is the story. It's like a finely tuned machine, shifting from character beats to action set-pieces and back again smoothly and gracefully. It parcels out information at just the right pace to allow us to keep up, and it hangs together well enough that it still makes sense a few days later.

In short, this is a successful motion picture. It clips along briskly, it's well engineered, it involved me in the lives of its characters, and it kept me engaged the entire time.

But that isn't what I'll remember about it.

I'll remember two particular moments (the second of which is a spoiler). The first is minor piece of set-dressing. When Redford's character opens his kitchen refrigerator, the astute viewer will notice that he stocks his fridge with Newman's Own marinara sauce. That's a nice touch. The second is the most powerful scene in the movie. Villain Frank Grillo, all muscles, veins, and menace, is pointing his gun at the back of a computer technician's head, commanding him to enter a code that will make bad things happen. The technician, whom I'm guessing is played by Aaron Himelstein, squirms with terror. Nevertheless, he refuses to enter the code. That's fine, but the part that sells the moment is that he doesn't refuse nobly, standing up to the meanie and telling him to get stuffed. He practically squeaks his refusal, trying to melt into his chair and probably $#!^ting his pants. It's the bravest damn thing I've seen in a movie all year.


Well done.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Valhalla Rising; Jurassic Park

Valhalla Rising


Valhalla Rising is Nicholas Winding Refn's tribute to Terrence Malick. A beautiful, almost langorous, film, Valhalla Rising isn't so much about compelling narrative as it is about atmosphere and mood. This is a film meant not to be seen, but absorbed.

Mads Mikkelsen (of the excellent Flame& Citron) plays One-Eye, a Viking slave who lives like a dog, released from his pen only to fight for the enrichment of his owners. After escaping, he falls in with a band of Christians on a journey to fight in the Holy Land. Things do not go well.

That's all you need to know. The rest of your rental (or streaming) choice will come down to two questions: 1. Do you like Terrence Malick? 2. Do you like Mads Mikkelsen? If you answer yes on both counts, hit “play.” If not, all the atmosphere and mood in the world won't keep you from checking your watch. Fortunately for me, I answer yes. I enjoyed Valhalla Rising.

Jurassic Park

Last week, my beautiful bride & I realized we hadn't seen Jurassic Park since its initial release. Worse, we hadn't shown it to our kids. We were bad parents!


Having rectified the situation, I'm happy to report that Jurassic Park holds up remarkably well. Though some of the actors' makeup calls attention to itself on a large HD screen, the dinosaurs look as realistic as ever, the story (which basically consists of a series of missions – Tour the park! Escape the pen! Get to the whatsit and turn on the thingamajig! Etc.) moves right along, and the whole endeavour is just as engaging, scary, and fun as ever. We loved it, our kids loved it, and we are good parents once more.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Emperor

Emperor is a homework assignment.

By 'homework assignment,' I mean that the film faithfully recreates a place and time (Japan in the immediate aftermath of its surrender in WWII), dramatizes the experiences of actual people who lived through events there, and offers its audience an hour and a half of living history.

It even taught me a few things. While I've read many books on the War in the Pacific, I'm not sharp on what happened in its aftermath. Emperor, for example, taught me that MacArthur first landed in Japan at the Atsugi airfield, where I've served in many detachments as a Navy C-130 pilot. “A-ha,” I thought as I saw the film, “That's why there's a statue of MacArthur near the front gate!” It taught me about Brigadier General Bonnner Fellers (Matthew Fox), whom MacArthur ordered to investigate Emperor Hirohito's complicity in the war's commencement. It taught me about many of the members of Japan's ruling class, their relationships, and the power dynamics among them.

More importantly, it depicted the devastation of postwar Tokyo, a devastation that old, still, B&W photos can only suggest.

So, yes, Emperor is a homework assignment, but it's a good homework assignment. Tommy Lee Jones (whom you really should see in TheThree Burials of Melquiades Estrada) makes a fine MacArthur, the production values are top notch, and you're bound to learn something. I'd show it to my class.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Planes; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Planes

As a pilot, I was primed to enjoy Planes. It features lots of details that aviation folk will understand, it tells an inoffensive “believe in yourself and all will be well” story, and it does as fine a job of skirting the horrifying realities of the post-singularity world it portrays as its predecessor, Cars.


Here's the setup: a crop duster wants to be a racing plane. It races. It wins. The kids pass out in a Red Vines -induced coma during the closing credits. Done.

And that's pretty much it. Planes is an inoffensive, effective entertainment with a nice eye for aviation detail. You could do worse.


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Hey, do you like puns? Do you like visual puns? Do you like food-related visual puns?

If so, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is for you. It's pretty much one pun after another, and your enjoyment of the film will vary directly with your enjoyment of that kind of humor. Personally, I like that kind of thing and, while it didn't make me laugh out loud, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 put a smile and my face and kept it there for 95 minutes.

The story? It doesn't matter, as it only exists to keep things moving along between gags. The performances? Professional. The animation? Great fun in conception, acceptable in execution. The entire package? A perfectly fine way to spend an evening on the couch with your little one(s).

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Separation

Movies like A Separation are why I love movies.

Yes, shoot-em-ups are great, and everyone loves a well-executed romantic comedy. But films like A Separation remind us what the medium can do: it can surprise, instruct, entertain. It can make us better people.

A Separation begins crisply. We're in a judge's chamber in an Iranian city. It's intimate and unintimidating, at least on its face. A man and woman sit before the judge. She wants a divorce; he does not. The couple's emigration visa has finally come through, but he has cold feet. He doesn't know who will take care of his Alzheimer's-afflicted father.

“Why,” the judge asks the woman, “are you in such a hurry to leave?”

“Because I want my daughter to have a better life.”

“Your daughter can't have a good life here in Iran?”

“Well, yes, um, of course she can.”

And here it is, right in the opening scene: the central conflict between the spouses, the everyday (and manageable) fear of living in a totalitarian state, the grinding, crushing weights of conflicting responsibilities.

As the ripples of this couple's conflict spread, many around them will be faced with difficult emotional, religious, and legal dilemmas. Their young daughter will have to make tough choices as she balances her duties to her parents with her own judgement and needs. The woman they hire to look after the father as they sort things out must face cultural and religious challenges that would never occur to a Westerner (In one poignant scene, she calls a religious adviser to ask whether it's permitted for her to change the old man's soiled clothing.). Their families, friends, and co-workers will get wrapped up in the situation. Everyone gets hurt, and it's devastating.

There's more: I don't think I will ever set foot in Iran, much less an Iranian courtroom. Even if I could, it would be as a tourist, an escorted guest. Since I don't speak Farsi, I'd never understand what people were saying and I'd never get the flavor of their experience. A Separation gives me onscreen what I could never get in real life: an empathetic, detailed sense of what it would be like to be these people in this place; to eat in their kitchens, drive their cars, and sleep in their beds. It's wonderful, if just for that opportunity.

Most importantly, A Separation is a carefully written, devastatingly performed, beautifully shot film that surprises and challenges its audience at every turn. Yes, the film is basically a domestic drama. Nevertheless, it had me biting my nails and hanging on every word. It's domestic drama, but it's also great drama, the kind of movie that makes you forget about the passage of time.

In short, A Separation earns its Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a masterpiece, and not to be missed.