Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Case for More Flammability

Hunger Games: Catching Fire reunites me with Jennifer Lawrence.  It is a match made in heaven.

Well, not quite.  Watching Lawrence on screen is a blessing, and she continues to impress with the role of Katniss Everdeen, though sometimes I wish she got the chance to smile just a little more. 

Catching Fire picks up where the Hunger Games left off: Katniss torn between the man she loves and the man who loves her and the whole world thinks she loves; the oppressive Panem state clamping down on all dissent in the outlying slave "districts", and the ongoing repercussions of her involvement in the 74th Hunger Games. 

Donald Sutherland returns and is awesome as the cold President Snow, determined to keep Panem - and his rule - in control.  His calm voice and hard eyes almost sent shivers down my spine, his portrayal of a man making brutal decisions not because he is (necessarily) insane, but more that he is convinced that he is right, as is the way things are.  He is joined in the adult stakes by the incredible Stanley Tucci, with his startlingly white teeth and extreme TV persona, Elizabeth Banks showing a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt despite the layers of makeup and mad clothing that make her into Effie, and Woody Harrelson is also back as the jaded ex-winner Hamich, though this time he seems to have more of a plan to his drunkenness than before. 

Of the younger cast, it is Lawrence who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, except for Jena Malone as another near psychotic ex-winner, as Malone has always been a personal favourite.  The love guys, Peeta and Gale (Josh Hutchison and Liam Hemsworth), are fine.  Despite the influence they have on Katniss' life, their on screen characters don't really shine, either due to the writing or perhaps also due to the actors own limited abilities.  Finnick the Merman (played with a winning smile by Sam Claflin) seems to have a lot more on screen spark of all the young males, but again he too is eclipsed by the amazing Lawrence (and, to my perception at least, the hilarious Malone). 


The movie itself is well constructed, though it does seem to drag at times.  It spends a lot less time in the Hunger Games arena than I would have thought, instead building up the world of Panem a lot more, and skilfully skipping a lot of detail in the book that, quite frankly, it was wise to do.  Still, when it gets to the games, any slowness is forgotten as the killing begins... but where will it end? 

While I loved reading the second book, the movie seems to make the point a bit clearer how the story is moving away from Katniss's story of survival and more towards how the world is reacting to her actions.  The books were all first person narrative, but the movies by necessity are third person, and so when things start happening to Katniss or around her, it is much easier to weave that into the story than when it is Katniss who needs to experience or understand them.  Still, it will be interesting to see how the third (and weakest?) book is translated into two movies.  And I shall say no more. 

Verdict:  If anything, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a step up from the first Hunger Games film.  Lawrence is inspirational in so many ways, bringing a real actor's "soul" to a driven yet conflicted character.  This film has a whole lot of elements that combine brilliantly together, with only the necessary world building at the start of the film slowing things down a little.  8.5 mockingjays out of 10.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Case for More Thor

Dolby Atmos!  The Sound System of the Future!  Added to the Embassy's 3D offerings on its massive screen, and I ended up feeling as if I was swimming in a cinematic sight and sound experience, which is probably entirely the point.

And it was great to be able to appreciate this to Thor 2, or Thor The Dark World.  Even just waiting outside in the cafe area, the explosions and music thumped and thudded through the walls and floors; within the hall itself, the sound was not overwhelming, but definitely hard to ignore. 

And there are lots of explosions and hittings and violence and quite a bit of humour in this Thor as well.  While it never reaches the levels of engagement of the first film, mainly as there is a disturbing lack of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film is nonetheless a lot of fun and action, a welcome combination considering the darker and more relentless offerings from movies from the Distinguished Competition comics.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is as tall, buff and manly as ever, though his deep voice was occasionally quite hard to make out, possibly because of the extra bass in the Atmos, or as Hemsworth had a bit of difficulty maintaining his Asgardian accent.   

Nathalie Portman as Jane Foster is as stunning as ever, and has a lot to do in this movie, though a lot of it is running around and chasing after her action man.  Most of the other characters are mainly just decoration, though Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo have a lot more presence than actual screen time, and Idris Elba is given a bit more to do than just look intimidating in the doorway.  On the bad side of things, Christopher Eccleston is a bad-arse bad elf, scowling a lot and being as menacing as one would expect, though it is mildly surprising that the Asgardians hadn't advanced during the thousands of years that the Dark Elves were asleep. 

But then, this film really does not stand up to a huge amount of logic.  That's not what it is about.  There are some mild attempts at technobabble to explain what is going on with the alignment of the worlds and the like, but these are kept short and sweet and really not discussed at length - explanations are accepted as good and true, and fact rather than conjecture. 

However, the screen really comes alive when Loki comes to the fore.  It is strange, but while Loki seems a lot more likeable (even if he is evil) in this film, Thor seems a bit more distant, not just because of the problems he has loving an earthling.  While the film lingers over his well defined torso for one gratuitous scene, and the cheesy grin is whipped out a few times to very likeable effect, Thor doesn't really engage very much with the other characters in the film (well, excepting Jane) besides what seems necessary to forward the plot.   

That is being quite harsh though, because, as much as Loki steals the film, Thor The Dark World is still a lot of fun and everyone puts on a good show.  At times, the film does seem to drag a little, and it could have done with a good edit here and there (and perhaps a map of London; I have been told the Underground directions given by an Aussie traveller are completely incorrect), but that's a minor quibble (there is another bigger one, but I won't mention that here for spoiler reasons) and, while I probably won't see it again at the movies, I am looking forward to getting this on BluRay in a few months time.

Verdict: Thor The Dark World is a great sequel to the original, and keeps Avengers continuity in mind too.  As much as Thor is the headliner though, it feels like Loki should be the lead character, and I hope we get to see more of him when Thor next returns.  7 hammers out of 10.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Case for Somalidays

I was not initially keen on Captain Phillips, a film in which I was sure Tom Hanks would cry and would be all very worthy, but a few amazing reviews convinced me that I should put my preconceptions aside and give it a try.  And, like after my change of heart for Rush, I was glad I did. 

The film is a “based on true events” story of Captain Rich Phillips (Hanks) is the commander of a freighter attacked by Somali pirates and who is then kidnapped to be held for ransom.  The film also briefly follows the story of the leader of the Pirates, Muse (played by the incredible Barkhad Abdi), and the events that brought him to this place and time.

The tension rachets up early on in the film, as the pirates chase down the Maersk Alabama, and from then on, it rarely eases up.  The Captain does everything by the book and, somewhat surprisingly how these things are often portrayed in film, the book works pretty well, though eventually the pirates board and events become less text book and more improvised.  Eventually, the pirates leave with Phillips in a life boat, and then the US Navy steps into the chase. 

It’s odd that the military seem the least human of anyone in this film.  The pirates are given depth, and as their mission becomes more and more doomed, I even found myself rooting for them given their underdog status.  Meanwhile the military seem to be completely reactive in an almost incompetent way (the US Navy “911” number seems engaged to start off with and then they seem to wait before someone is kidnapped before they even send ships anywhere near the cargo freighter), but once they are on the case, they are an efficient and ruthless machine, almost completely devoid of humanity – and all the better as soldiers for it.  The speed with which they identify the Somalis is surprising considering how poor intelligence seems to work back in the US itself, but then they have been gathering a lot of information for a while now so perhaps I should have expected it.

The Somalis are shown as great improvisers and desperate, though not always the sharpest sticks in the forest.  Their extreme skinniness and poor teeth are a stark contrast to the soft padding of the mostly white Alabama crew (or the heavily muscled and mostly white Navy SEALS for that matter too), and Phillips and Muse exchange the odd bit of banter that emphasise the differences between the two cultures, and the driving forces behind them. 

Overall then, the film is really quite incredible.  It does drag though.  At over 2 hours long, and with the tension of the final confrontation drawn out for what seemed like half an hour, I reached a point where I went past entertained and into “just get it over with”.  Trying not to give too much away, the quick cuts between scenes on the lifeboat and on the navy ships may make things seem more “action”, but I found it detrimental to the sense of tension, as there was more tension on the lifeboat than anywhere else, and the ending to the situation was inevitable.

Verdict: Captain Phillips is a tense film with amazing performances (Hanks crying is expected but also understandable, given the circumstances his character finds himself in), the Somali actors in particular making their characters both terrifying and sympathetic, while Max Martini also stands out as the Navy SEAL commander, portraying a Terminator in his complete robotic interpretation of the military.  The film does drag in the end, Phillips character becoming a bit grating in the attempts to make him seem a good guy, and the tension bubble bursts a long time before the film draws the action to a close, but it is still a really good film.  Not as good as Gravity though.  8 Captain’s pips out of 10.