The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’m sure this review will have a significant impact on the film’s box office results. Movies like ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ are essentially critic proof. Six days into its release, and the film has already crossed the $200 million mark.

As most of you know, last time Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was the teenage winner of a televised battle to the death competition known as the Hunger Games. She broke the rules by not killing the last competitor (or tribute) Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Just when you thought she was out…

The president of her capital Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is concerned that she might become a figurehead for a resistance against him. With the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), he brings back all the previous winners of the Hunger Games and they have to kill each other all over again – Hunger Games All Star.

I’m not surprised by the financial success of this series; the first film also had a lot of built-in hype and people had high expectations. The film series is based on these hugely successful books that go beyond the young adult crowd at which they are aimed for. As far as franchises built around a stubborn teen heroine debating endlessly between two inexplicably patient lovers as she battles to save the world, one could do far worse than what’s offered here.

I do, however, slightly fault the film for not adhering to its own subtitle of really catching fire. Both ‘Hunger Games’ movies are on the safe side, creating dark worlds with its kids-killing-kids scenario but without any real sense of dread or horror.

Sitting in the director’s chair this time is Francois Lawrence who has already established himself as a filmmaker of dystopian futures thanks to ‘I Am Legend’ fame (a completely misunderstood masterpiece in my opinion). ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is a marginal improvement over the first film (which was directed by Gary Ross); I am thankful that the intimate “you are there” shaky-cam approach has been abandoned this time around. The end result is a strikingly more fluid sense of motion; the camera does zero in on the faces of its performers – this gives the picture the intimate feel the first movie was going for but gives us the satisfaction of not having to reach for our barf bags or motion sickness pills.

The film is a triumph of production design; costume designer Trish Summerville is operating at the top of her game – the scene with Katniss’ glittering wedding dress transforming into a symbolically relevant black gown is exceptionally handled. A similar degree of invention is found with the cinematography and the expensively detailed settings which illustrate a futuristic dystopia without providing us with too much discomfort (which circles back to my criticism or at least personal preference in wishing the filmmakers had gone beyond the boundaries of its PG-13 constraint).

As for the performances, it certainly helps to have an Oscar winning performer (thanks to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) at its center. I think she is an immensely likable and versatile star – she can pretty much do anything from comedy and romance to drama and action. Her character here is a teenager and she is accessible and wise beyond her years; Ms.Lawrence seems to effortlessly project supreme durability and humble vulnerability. With a lesser performer, this offering (and its predecessor) would not work as well as it does. The supporting performances are also quite strong – the best being Stanley Tucci who dazzles as the overly flamboyant game show host.

Once the games contestants are deposited into some tropical environ with a host of dangers including (but not limited to) lightning storms, poisonous fog, rampaging baboons, and bloody rain, the picture does become special-effects heavy. The budget is nearly twice that of the original and it shows – much of the avoid-the-obstacles action is excitingly staged and beautifully shot; yet, at the same time, I feel there is little to distinguish itself from the other big budget action climaxes of this movie year.

The titular action does not kick in until the 85 minute mark (and the movie runs way too long at 146 minutes). Fans of the book will disagree, but I believe there is an enormous amount of exposition in the first half of the film. With the machinery of the plot established in the first film, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ should be better paced than it is. Though the first half isn’t entirely a retread of what we have seen in the first film, it does feel awfully familiar; perhaps a shift in locales and settings might have shaken things up a little bit. The movie also liberally borrows elements from ‘Star Wars’ – the unlikely hero who becomes the figurehead for a resistance movement against an oppressive government that wants to eliminate the rebels and use storm troopers at their disposal; the “storm troopers” here even have the same armour as the ones in ‘Star Wars’. The abrupt cliffhanger ending is also very reminiscent of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (though to be fair, the second entry just about any trilogy ends as abruptly).

My overall reaction to the experience is mixed – but ultimately, I am giving this movie a pass simply for delivering what it promises to its main target audience. QED.

Short Term 12

With movies like ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ in theatres this weekend, ‘Short Term 12’ will probably not be on your radar. But, you owe it to yourself to see this film, either at TIFF Bell Lightbox where it will be playing this week or when it becomes available for home viewing on January 14th, 2014.

I enter every movie with an open mind but I must say I wasn’t expecting ‘Short Term 12’ to be the emotional rollercoaster experience that it is. It came totally out of left field (at least to me). I know that the movie premiered at a number of film festivals, but there wasn’t much buzz about it. Until now…

Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, ‘Short Term 12’ follows Grace (Brie Larson), an early-20s supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Passionate and tough, she seems to have it all under control; but, with the arrival of a new intake at the facility and the impending departure of another, her life is shaken up.

This is a great movie; not merely a “very good” one but a “great” one. It’s a very original film with uniformly excellent performances. The entire thing feels natural and there isn’t a single inauthentic moment in the entire picture. Mr.Cretton is said to have worked in a foster-care home; this, coupled with the fact that he comes from a documentary background gives the movie its naturalistic feel. He uses close-ups and long takes and there is very little music forcing you to feel a certain way. The script avoids placing its young actors into feel-good gooey cutesy territory. The relationship between Brie Larson’s character and John Gallagher Jr. (who sports the five-year boy haircut here as he has on ‘The Newsroom’) is terrific; their relationship (and everything about this movie) feels honest and real.

Now, the idea of this movie sounds like a downer; you would think a movie about teenagers who cut themselves and have substance abuse issues would put a heavy amount of weight on serious issues (on paper, this may seem like a laugh-free experience). Not the case; the filmmakers finds some absurd humor in the intensity of these characters’ situations and the oddity of their lives. But, the film does have its upsetting moments.

What’s interesting about the adult characters is that you find out the different motivations as to why they have chosen this line of work. The John Gallagher Jr. character grew up as a foster child himself and was raised by great foster parents – there is a lovely scene where we meet his foster parents at their anniversary party (as well as the many foster kids they raised throughout the years). It’s clear that this character’s motivation comes from a place of love and that he wants to pay it forward. Grace’s motivation is entirely different; she’s a formerly troubled teen herself now hoping to guide others along the right path. Her character is one some of us can relate to – one that puts herself on the back burner for the sake of other.

What a performance from Brie Larson – you probably don’t recognize her by name. In fact, I had to refer to IMDB to recall some of her previous work. Don’t misinterpret this as a negative – this, to me, is what makes a great performer. She has this chameleon quality in which we register the character she’s playing because we get lost in the performance. I didn’t like ‘Don Jon’ but she was probably the best thing about the movie. She was in ‘The Spectacular Now’ which received critical acclaim and was a hit at Sundance. And she was also in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’. Let me just say it – she is great in everything. There is something about her that just grabs you; if I had to pinpoint what makes her so appealing in this movie, I would say that she seems grounded and accessible but also has secrets.

The film has a large ensemble and no one gets lost in the shuffle – every actor has their moment to shine. But, this is Grace’s story and Brie Larson’s film to carry. I already look forward to next film and I know that she has a long and terrific film career ahead of her.

‘Short Term 12’ isn’t just one of the best films of the year – it is one of the most honest portrayals of troubled youth I have ever seen. It provided me with the opportunity to truly appreciate the people who dedicate their lives towards helping the underprivileged. ‘Short Term 12’ is a small gem and the lump it leaves in your throat feels earned.

Note: Despite my praise for the film, I have a friend who refuses to see the movie because of the shaky cam aesthetic. This should not be a deterrent; ‘Short Term 12’ is not a Paul Greengrass film (as much as I loved ‘Captain Phillips’, I could see how the technique could render many seasick). QED.

Ender’s Game

Directed by Gavin Hood, ‘Ender’s Game’ is the long-awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name (which was released in 1985). It’s been 50 years after an ant-like species known as the Formics attacked Earth. Thanks to the heroics of fighter pilot Mazer Rackman (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. But, it wasn’t enough – the Earthlings are still concerned about another attack and have created a battle school for kids in the hopes of finding their next great leader. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes that Ender Weggin (Asa Butterfield) is the chosen one – I thought Neo from ‘The Matrix’ was the chosen one? Then, there is Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) who wants to know what’s inside the boy’s head. Ender is taken away from his family (his sister is played by Abigail Breslin) and taken to a military training station – one in orbit around Earth. There, he meets a bunch of kids – none of whom register as fully fleshed out characters. Ender must contend with the escalating intensity of his training and the consequences of his actions and decisions – yes, he might be Earth’s only chance against the potential return of an alien invasion. *shrug*

‘Ender’s Game’ was the top movie at the box office this past weekend – that doesn’t surprise me. There are fans of the novel who rushed out to see it opening weekend. I’m hoping ‘Thor: The Dark World’ dominates the box office this weekend – I don’t know if the Marvel picture will be a good one, but at least it would substantially reduce the possibility of there ever being a sequel to ‘Ender’s Game’. The picture feels like the table-setting first chapter in a series; but even with a production budget of $110 , ‘Ender’s Game’ would have to prove to be a significant return on investment in order for those sequels to take place. Let me be clear about this – I do not want any sequels to ‘Ender’s Game’.

But to review the picture as is – How/why/ wherefore did the movie turn out this way? How does a movie like ‘Gravity’ (with its comparable $100 million budget) get bumped just weeks after its release by ‘Ender’s Game’?

‘Ender’s Game’ is rated PG-13 for “some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material”. Whatever – this is aimed at the pubescent masses to keep them occupied until November 22nd, 2013, which is when the new ‘Hunger Games’ movie opens. But nothing of any consequence happens in this expensive looking picture until the plot takes a ridiculous twist. At this point in the movie, issues such as the immorality of war and its preventive measures lend second-hand depth to a needlessly complicated story.

To begin with, I simply didn’t buy the premise. Why are these kids the best option Earth has? Is it because they play a lot of video games and could thus strategize an impenetrable attack? I’m willing to suspend disbelief often – especially, in a genre such as this; but, I felt Mr. Hood didn’t supply me with a reason to believe in this concept.

To make matters worse, ‘Ender’s Game’ squanders an extremely talented cast; there is Asa Butterfield who played the blank-faced boy in ‘Hugo’. His character is supposed to be in command but I found him to be insufferable; there is nothing likable about his manipulative qualities. Abigail Breslin isn’t given much to work with. Hailee Steinfeld is only there as a potential love interest that sees greatness in Ender. Viola Davis is only there because the frown-faced Harrison Ford needs someone to bark at. The only thing Sir Ben Kingsley has going for him is his heavily tattooed face which rivals that of Mike Tyson; that aside, most of his time is spent staring into space from a skybox watching Ender in action.

What does Graff see in Ender? What makes Ender so brilliant? Why is he able to move up the ranks quicker than any of his battle school colleagues? Ah, it must be because Harrison Ford’s character says so repeatedly – “It is what he was born for.” I didn’t get the sense that Ender was a smart kid. He approaches a roadblock with the same level of creativity and methodical thinking that any eleven year old gamer would: “If X does not work, I will try Y. Y doesn’t work either. Is there a Z?”

We should feel that there is something at stake in ‘Ender’s Game’. Not the case. The movie is filled with more training montages than ‘Rocky IV’ – they provide minimal excitement not just because they are overcrowded war-game simulations but because we don’t know what exactly these characters are being prepared for. What is this picture building towards?

‘Ender’s Game’ is one of the most humorless pictures I’ve ever seen – it takes itself way too seriously; there is absolutely no levity. The only laughs present are that of the unintentional variety. ‘Ender’s Game’ wants to be in a similar space (puns always intended) to ‘Starship Troopers’ – a movie that was able to capture some of the satirical elements of the book. Unfortunately, a tale of this complexity is not best suited for a 114-minute motion picture. Maybe it would have worked better as a mini-series. Maybe. Probably not. The movie’s zero gravity setting doesn’t excuse it from having zero humor, zero drama, and zero thrills. Zero stars from me…Zzzzero. QED.

Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (the wonderful ‘Café de Flore’, and ‘C.R.A.Z.Y’), ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is based on the true-life tale of an accidental AIDS activist. In 1986 Dallas, homophobic drug addict party boy Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with HIV and is given thirty days to live. He starts taking the FDA-approved experimental drug AZT supplementing it with a beer chaser and a snort of coke. When the AZT drug makes him sick, he seeks out alternative medicine; and then smuggles the unapproved anti-viral medications over the border from Mexico. Along the way, he pairs up with Rayon (Jared Leto), a troubled drag queen to sell the treatments to the growing numbers of HIV and AIDS patients forgoing hospitals, doctors, and AZT.
This is a career-best performance for Matthew McConaughey who has really transformed himself from being a disposable prop ( ‘Sahara’, ‘Fool’s Gold’) to one of the best actors working in American film today (‘Mud’, ‘Killer Joe’). Much has already been said about Mr.McConaughey’s physical transformation for this role – he dropped 47 pounds. Those mighty abs featured many a time on the cover of ‘People’ magazine have melted away, and have been replaced with a thin layer of skin over bones. Surely, his beach body will return for his next commercial project. This role is perfectly suited for Mr.McConaughey’s swaggering charisma – he is extravagantly funny and deeply affecting.
Jared Leto lost 30 pounds for his role and delivers the “braver” performance – his character has a brunette wig, his eyebrows are removed, and his wardrobe is one that I won’t even bother to describe. Similar gender-bending transformation roles have led to Oscar nominations historically (recall Jaye Davidson in ‘The Crying Game’, Chris Sarandon in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’). But this is not part of an Oscar-chasing stunt; since both performers are at the top of their game, however, we can expect a Best Actor nomination for Matthew McConaughey and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Jared Leto for their terrific work here.
This real life story has been reduced to a David versus Goliath tale. There is where my two-sided review comes into play. I’m giving the movie a recommendation for the excellence of its performances. However, I do feel that ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ doesn’t stray far from its dramatic conventions – setting up a quasi-romance between McConaughey and doctor Jennifer Garner and establishing the government and pharmaceutical companies as clear-cut villains. The script even goes as far as having the FDA try to shut down Ron’s operations; but, this is a biopic so maybe that’s what really happened. Though the AZT drug is still used today to delay the development of AIDS, the movie outright damns it as a venomous non-solution that should be flushed down the toilet.
Mr.Vallée also puts a light comic spin on some of the material – for instance, as Ron drives through the U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint with a trunkful of unregulated drugs from his Mexican connection, we see that he is disguised as a cancer-stricken priest. There is a light, breezy flow to this picture with a heartbreaking subject. But, there is something a little unsettling about having this subject of our recent past (which has killed over 25 million since the first cases of AIDS were reported) so neatly engineered as crowd-pleasing entertainment.
And yet despite those reservations, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is an unquestionably moving experience. This is because of the believable relationship between Ron and his transsexual business partner. Their odd-couple pairing results in some laughs (in order to assure the heartache remains minimal), but it’s watching Ron’s discomfort and homophobia fade into an affectionate fighting spirit; and, one that never loses his wildly profane lust for life – his cowboy hat stays on. Mr.McConaughey transforms (a word I know I’m using often in this review) his character into a wholly empathetic figure.
It has been 20 years since ‘Philadelphia’ was released. Excluding documentaries like ‘How to Survive a Plague’ and ‘We Were Here’, cinema has almost shied away entirely from the topic of AIDS. I admire the film for having the courage to take on such a difficult subject; I wish the script had gone a little further in exploring some of the complexities faced from an FDA and medical standpoint (rather than simply supplying us with boo-worthy villains). But, this criticism may in fact be a little harsh – it just might have been a case of profit-chasing at the expense of patients’ lives. To be sure, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is a fine film thanks to the outstanding (and surely nomination-worthy) performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. It opens in limited released today and is playing at the Varsity. I suspect positive word of mouth will push this over to a wide release in the weeks to come. QED.