Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Like I said during my review of The Hunger Games last year, this wasn't my most anticipated film. In fact, while I was certainly excited for it, I doubt it was even in my top 5 movies that I was looking forward to when 2013 began. I ended up being a huge fan of the original movie and even included it in my top 10 favorite films of 2012. Having said that, I knew there was room to improve from the first film, and the trailers I saw in the months leading up to Catching Fire's release were early hints of those improvements. My only reservation was the somewhat unsatisfying arc in the novel, though it did set the dominos in place for a great (albeit controversial) finale in Mockingjay. I therefore went into this film with moderate expectations, even thinking that the highlight of the night might be the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation Smaug. Now I'm left wondering if that film can even compete with this one.

Katniss Everdeen emerged from the Hunger Games a victor, but is haunted by the traumatic events from the arena as she tries to live a normal life. As she returns from hunting, however, she is surprised to receive a visit from the President of Panem, Coriolanus Snow. While snidely congratulating her on her victory, Snow also warns her that the defiance displayed at the conclusion of the 74th Hunger Games has led to civil unrest and threats of an uprising in many of the districts. Snow wishes her to convince the districts of her loyalty to Peeta as well as to the Capital as she visits Panem for the obligatory victory tour. However, seeing the grieving families of those who died in the arena (particularly Rue), Katniss offers words of condolences that result in a public execution. As President Snow begins to see the victory tour's inability to placate the riotous districts, he concocts another scenario with new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee to eliminate the trouble-making victor - the 75th Hunger Games (or Quarter Quell), which will choose its tributes from the existing pool of victors from each district, giving Katniss no hope of escaping the arena.

For those of you who haven't read the book, I'll refrain from spoiling anything else about the plot. The movie does remain surprisingly faithful to the novel, and the script (written by Academy Award-winning Simon Beaufoy from Slumdog Millionaire and Academy Award-winning Michael Arndt from Little Miss Sunshine) does a wonderful job of fleshing out the thematic richness from the books while setting up the tension of not just the immediate danger, but of the revolution yet to come. It's a terrific screenplay, and everything moves so organically that the two and a half hour screentime flies by.

Though I was a champion of the first film, everything in Catching Fire is an improvement over its predecessor. For one thing, it clearly has a much larger budget (by about $50 million or so), which is evident in every frame. It's so great to see a film franchise that rewards its audience by investing in a sequel rather than penny-pinching and cashing in on unrequited loyalty by series devotees (ahem, Twilight). Also, the tension and the stakes in this film have escalated. It's no longer a simple story of survival, but its themes encompass a broader scope of consequences for the actions of each character. Though Katniss and company are thrust into the arena once again, the tagline "remember who the real enemy is" makes their struggles even more captivating. It's an emotional roller-coaster, eloquently portraying the dire circumstances of each character while making us feel the complexity of what they're experiencing.

This film is also incredibly intense, even before the actual Hunger Games are underway. The fact that the filmmakers can create such a tense experience for an audience who already know what will happen is a true testament to the mastery at work when crafting this film. New director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) keeps continuity with the vision of Gary Ross from the first film, but he also expands on it and improves not just the weak aspects but the strong aspects of The Hunger Games. It's an impressive feat, and thankfully Lawrence will return to direct the final two films in the series as well.

Returning to this film are all of the previous cast members, and none are more impressive than Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Fresh off her Oscar victory for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence brings her A-game to Catching Fire, surpassing her previous performance and the audience's expectations by expertly bringing Katniss to life. The supporting cast are uniformly terrific, with newcomers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman elevating the material with their commanding presence. Of all the characters in this film, the one I was most worried about was Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin. His previous performances (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Snow White & The Huntsman) were the worst things about each of those films. I distinctly remember groaning in agony when I initially heard of this casting, and I went into the theater honestly just hoping that it wouldn't ruin the film for me. Surprisingly, Claflin completely won me over from the moment he shows up on screen offering Katniss a sugar cube. He's a great choice for Finnick, both in selling the physicality as well as the charm of the character and I can't wait to see him in future installments.

It's a pretty frightening experience in the arena this time, as each of the participants are accomplished killers, let alone the tsunamis and poisonous gas threatening the tributes at every turn. But perhaps the most effective and terrifying scene of all comes in the form of a familiar voice shrieking in agony, mysteriously coming from deep within the jungle. The resultant chaos that ensues is spine-tingling and the better sound system you see the movie in the better it will be.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed by this film. It surpasses expectations, deepens thematic resonance and heightens anticipation for the subsequent finales. This is a tremendous adaptation of Suzanne Collins's thought-provoking novel and it's a near-perfect sequel to last year's blockbuster phenomenon. Catching Fire is one of the best films of the year, and I give it a strong four stars.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language

Monday, November 18, 2013

Coming Soon: Nebraska!

Release Date: November 27, 2013
Rating: R (Some Language)
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Music by: Mark Orton

After the success of his last film, The Descendants, Alexander Payne's latest feature tells the story of an elderly man's emotional journey as he and his son embark on a cross-country attempt to collect a one million dollar prize. Filmed in black-and-white and promising the usual quirkiness one can expect from a Payne film, Nebraska is already garnering awards-season buzz from critics. Having said that, most people probably haven't heard of this film or even know about it's upcoming release. For those people I've compiled a list of background information on the people involved with this film to give some idea of what kind of picture they can expect from Nebraska.

Having won multiple Academy Awards for screenwriting as well as receiving multiple nominations for Best Director, Alexander Payne is a perennial awards contender who consistently releases unique and personal films that nevertheless relate to a broad audience. This film marks the first occurrence where Payne hasn't been credited for the screenplay. However, his directorial touch and his apparent confidence in the script makes this effort even more intriguing.

While the choice of black and white might seem strange, Alexander Payne described this choice as an immediate impression when he first read the screenplay. "When I first read the script nine years ago, I imagined it only in black and white," Payne said in a recent interview. "The very austere nature of the screenplay to me suggested a visual style in black and white." Payne is often seen as an "actor's director" and is known to give his cast the freedom to fully explore and deconstruct their characters in order to portray them as realistic as possible. Speaking of Payne, star Bruce Dern said "He doesn't want you to act in the conventional sense - he wants all the characters to become real people. He gets to a level where you are pouring out what's in your heart - and all the emotions and baggage that come with it." Clearly this method is successful, as many of the actors he's directed (Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Kathy Bates and Thomas Hayden-Church) have been given awards recognition for their efforts.

Speaking of awards recognition, Bruce Dern was given the Best Actor award at the Cannes film festival for his portrayal as Woody Grant. No stranger to prestige, Dern has also been nominated for his acting in the 1978 film Coming Home. Speaking of his performance in Nebraska, Dern praised Payne's direction and allowing him to stretch his acting muscles in a role unlike any he'd played before. "For so many years I've been told, 'just be Dernsy"... And I don't want to be Dernsy, and Alexander has brought something more and demanded that of me. He wanted to see the qualities I could bring within Woody, not the qualities Woody brings to me. I relish the chance to do that." For Payne, he appreciated the seeming contradictions that Dern brought to the part. "He was able to be ornery and heartbreaking at the same time," he said. "The thing for which I was most grateful to Bruce was that he trusted me, a phenomenal gift to any director. He would try anything."

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte (right) on their way to Nebraska.

Another slightly unusual addition to the case is Will Forte as Woody's slightly exasperated son, David. Most well-known for his broadly comedic work on TV (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, etc.), Forte plays a much more subdued comedy for his character in Nebraska. If audiences are surprised to see Forte in such a "legit" film, the actor was just as excited at the prospect of stepping out of the box. Speaking of the unique opportunity, Forte said, "I'm used to doing crazy comedies and I didn't even know doing a film like this was in the realm of possibility." Speaking of Forte's never-before-seen quality of subtlety, Payne said, "I believed him. Will communicates a ready sincerity and sweetness, and also a sense of damage. Forte went on to describe this change in tone by saying, "It wasn't lost on me that this was an amazing opportunity to do something different. But it's been a big challenge too... David is actually the straight man."

The only actor of the primary cast working with Payne for the second time is June Squibb, playing Woody's wife Kate. Described as a woman of impenetrable strength with a "razor tongue (and a) wicked sense of humor", Kate Grant is unapologetic and blunt, something that June Squibb thoroughly enjoys playing. "There's no filter with her," Squibb said of the character. "Words come out of her mouth as she's thinking them... But I love her dearly. She's funny, yet she also protects the family and she's quite a formidable person." Without a large number of credits to her name, June has already started to garner awards buzz for her powerful performance in the film.

Coming in a very crowded year of Oscar contenders, it remains to be seen how much recognition Nebraska will receive at the end-of-year ceremony. One thing we can be sure of is that Alexander Payne and company have produced another emotional, funny, and thought-provoking film. Nebraska will be released in theatres this weekend (click on one of the links to your left to purchase tickets at a theatre near you). If Payne's previous efforts are any indication, this film will be well worth your time and money.

*For more information about this film, please visit the official Nebraska web site.

Do you want to see NEBRASKA before it hits theaters? If so, click on the link for your chance to download an advance screening pass for you and a friend on Monday, November 25 at 7:30pm in Salt Lake City! Seats in the theater are first-come, first-serve so PLEASE ARRIVE EARLY! NEBRASKA opens in Salt Lake City on November 27! 

For the full interview with Alexander Payne, click here.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Captain Phillips

Unlike most of the movies I cover on this site, Captain Phillips sort of snuck up on me this year. Despite being a huge fan of the Bourne series (see my review of The Bourne Legacy for more on that), I wasn't even aware of the latest film from director Paul Greengrass until it started to get pre-release Oscar buzz. I made a mental note to go and see this movie closer to its original release, but my hectic schedule prevented that from happening until last night. Just like with Gravity I'm a little late to the game with this review, but I'm very glad to finally have the chance to post about it now.

Captain of a large international transport vessel, Rich Phillips is particularly wary of his latest assignment which will take him around the coast of Africa on his way to Mombasa. Meanwhile, pirates on the shores of Somalia organize groups to take over and hold ransom a large ship in the hopes of earning an enormous payday from the insurance company. Captain Phillips gives in to his unsettled feelings and orders his crew to go through a variety of emergency drills just as two skiffs carrying armed pirates rapidly approach their ship from behind.

From the opening scene in this film, the cinematography and the performance by Tom Hanks combine to make your stomach clench in anticipation. Through subtle camera angles and nervous ticks, the title character's anxiety about the journey infects the audience as well, never letting up until the credits roll. Just like Gravity this is an incredibly intense film, and the real-life aspect of it makes it even more palpable. The casting in this film is tremendous, and only after the film was over did I even think about the characters being portrayed by actors. From the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama to the Navy officers and Somalian pirates, every one of the performances feel entirely genuine.

Of course, even in a film made up of terrific acting there are still standouts in this cast. Tom Hanks gives a tremendous performance as the titular Captain and everything from his tense interactions with pirates to the commands given to his crew couldn't be done any better. Even after all the great acting by Hanks throughout the film, it's his character's final moments on screen that really push this over the edge into Oscar-caliber. While I don't always agree with what the Academy deems worthy of it's end-of-year awards, you can count on Hanks being nominated for Best Actor for this commanding performance. The other standout is Barkhad Abdi, a relative unknown playing the emaciated-looking pirate named "Muse". His twitchy mannerisms and haunting visage give him an almost zombie-like quality that's incredibly creepy. Yet, throughout the film he somehow makes you feel a twinge of sympathy for the drastic measures he is forced to take.

A lot of what gives this film its reality isn't merely the true story on which it's based, but also the hand-held style of cinematography utilized for Captain Phillips. It's obvious that a lot of this film was shot on location, which really puts the audience in the environment that Captain Phillips is struggling to overcome. While this is a great strength of the film, it can also be a detriment to those averse to the "shaky-cam" used in the Bourne films Greengrass previously made. Though I'm not challenging its accuracy, the content in this film is also a bit tough for a PG-13 movie and some of the images and situations may frighten younger viewers.

While this is a great film, there are a few things that bothered me about it. For one thing, this movie is long. Running at almost two and half hours, the tension is so high for so long that it begins to exhaust the viewer by about the two hour mark. There's a tricky balance at play with movies like this, as the longer a film with such high stakes continues without any kind of release (like humor) the more the audience just wants a resolution, regardless of their feelings about the protagonists. The other problem I had was something that will only bother fans of Christopher Nolan's masterful Inception. While that movie is clearly a huge inspiration for almost every action/suspense film made since its release, the score at the end of Captain Phillips almost literally copies and pastes Hans Zimmer's ending music from the mind-bending 2010 film. I'm a big fan of Henry Jackman's work, and I don't necessarily blame the filmmakers for that decision, but it does take me out of the moment slightly when it's such an obvious rip-off.

Other than that, this is a terrific film that will keep you gripping anything within reach until the credits roll. You'll also want to talk about this film for hours after it's over, as there are so many nuances to the performances, characters and dialogue throughout. It's sure to garner a multitude of Oscar nominations, and I have to say that it deserves them. This is another film poised to make my top ten list (though it will definitely be crowded). I give Captain Phillips a strong three and a half stars.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is rated PG-13 for intense sustained sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Marvel Studios has released their second film of "Phase 2", which I've been anticipating for quite some time. Despite many people not loving the original Thor film, I actually thought it was very enjoyable. I admit that there may not be as much action as I was hoping for, but it still managed to crack my top ten films for 2011. Having said that, my opinion of the last Marvel effort, Iron Man 3 continues to fall the longer I've thought about it. With a poster that looked so similar and (though many won't have noticed) the composer from that film working on Thor: The Dark World, I was a little bit nervous that we might get a film of a similar quality. Thankfully, it didn't take long for my worries to vanish once the movie started.

Before the universe began, the cosmos were covered in darkness. Now, thanks to a race of Dark Elves, led by Malekith, and utilizing an ancient force known as the Aether, the elves sought to plunge the nine realms into a second darkness. However, eons ago this plan was thwarted by the armies of Thor's grandfather, Bor, and the Aether was hidden on the Dark World where it remained until the events of this film. Thanks to gravitational disturbances in London, Jane Foster encounters the Aether and awakes Malekith from hybernation. Now, Thor must seek his fallen brother, Loki, to once again stop Malekith and destroy the Aether before trillions of souls are once again flung into darkness.

From that plot summary alone, it's pretty easy to see that the stakes have been raised in this sequel. Not only do the events in this film lend credence to the subtitle, The Dark World, but it's also one of the most well-balanced superhero films we've had in quite some time. There are genuine moments of comedy to lighten the mood after a terrifying attack or a tragic loss. The script is much more put together than the previous film, and the twists and turns that were such a problem for me in Iron Man 3 are done so much better here. Hopefully nobody spoils the surprise for you on this film, as a few scenes will literally make you gasp.

As I'm a fan of movie music, I was a little concerned about the score for this film, as I thought that was one of the more clunky things about Iron Man 3; but I needn't have worried. Brian Tyler does a great job with this universe, which I feel he is much better suited for than the Iron Man series. Not only did the score improve, but the visual effects were far more impressive here than in the last Marvel film. Thor's powers have never been more fully realized and the use of real life locations really helps to sell the reality of a very fantastical universe.

The actors in this film are uniformly excellent, particularly Tom Hiddleston as the mischievous and enigmatic Loki. His nuanced take on the character makes us utterly loath him and somehow feel sympathy towards him in the same scene. Hiddleston takes the audience on a roller coaster ride with his terrific performance, and his interplay with Chris Hemsworth (who absolutely embodies Thor) is one of the best parts of this great film. Even bit players like Rene Russo (Frigga) and Anthony Hopkins (Odin) pepper the film with multi-layered line readings and subtle facial expressions. Some of the most enjoyable and scene-stealing characters are the earthlings, particularly Kat Dennings as  Darcy whose comic timing is absolutely perfect in the few scenes she's in. The only thing I was a little disappointed about was that Christopher Eccleston's voice for Malekith wasn't the way it sounds in the trailers, but he still comes off as very very menacing regardless of this change.

By the way, PLEASE don't leave until after the very end credits! I can't tell you how many people left our theatre early (I mean, have they never been to a Marvel film before?!), but there are TWO after-credits scenes that you aren't going to want to miss.

I could go on and on about all the things I liked about this film, but I'll finish up by saying that Thor: The Dark World is an incredibly entertaining film with great tension, great action and great humor throughout. I've been a little surprised at the critical reaction to this movie, considering how much I and the others in my audience ate up every single scene. This is one of the strongest Marvel films to date, and it will definitely make my top ten list at the end of 2013. I give this a very strong three and a half stars.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content