Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

Studio: WarnerBros. Pictures
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway,
Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt,
Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard,
Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine,
and Liam Neeson

My Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars Rating: 87% 78 out of 100 9.0 out of 10 Stars 
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense
sequences of violence and action,
some sensuality and language.

(★★★★½ out of 5 Stars)The Dark Knight opened four years ago in 2008, the film epitome of the early 2000’s. The highest grossing movie of the year, it was welcomed to a rapturous critical and audience acclaim- never had Hollywood been so agreeable in its stance. It welcomed top prize nominations at the Director’s Guild, Producer’s Guild and Writer’s Guild, even at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. Heath Ledger’s virtuoso performance as the Joker swept the year’s circuit, bittersweet in the fact that he didn’t live to enjoy the pinnacle of his career. He didn’t live to see himself win the Oscar- only the second actor to do so posthumously- or to see the movie itself get snubbed for Best Picture.

Putting aside Heath Ledger’s fantastic performance, I felt it was only one of several cogs that meshed together to reach the perfection that the movie did. No one could deny it was Ledger’s movie, but backseat, it was really Nolan’s. Christopher Nolan, who led the movie to transcend the comic book movie genre and create a thrilling, sophisticated, morally complex and intelligent movie- that just happened to be led by a guy in tights. I didn’t really care for the genre before The Dark Knight came along- and that tells you what a great movie it is. That I suspended my biases of the genre to recognize it as a dark and richly drawn crime saga.

It was Nolan who created this backdrop, his reinvention of the characters vivid and the movie increasing in its brilliance the further it progressed. He made Joker into a monster who sought to reveal the world’s true colors- but he failed when neither the prisoners or the civilians blew up each other’s boats. He of course succeeded in his deformation of the White Knight, Harvey Dent. So, Ledger may have gotten his Oscar but Nolan was left barren, no nods for Best Picture, Best Director, or even Adapted Screenplay. To be fair, the Academy Governors were so upset about the mistake that they widened the field to 10 the next year. When Nolan released Inception, however, it was too left in the dust in major categories.

This isn’t the place for an attack on the Academy, however (for that see here:, here:, or here:

The Dark Knight redefined a genre and garnered a respect never before seen for the genre. With these expectations- and the complete lack of Heath Ledger or the Joker- does The Dark Knight Rises, the final movie in the series, live up?

The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight- to recap, The Joker turned Harvey Dent into Two-Face, who promptly kills five people, nearly kills Commissioner Gordon’s son and then kills himself.  Policemen surrounded the seen, the only known people there Commissioner Gordon, his family, Two-Face and the Batman. Harvey Dent is dead- who’s going to take the blame? Batman fulfilled his final duty by taking the blame- because that’s what Gotham needed him to be, the Dark Knight over Harvey’s legal stand against organized crime.

Only, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a.k.a. Batman, hasn’t moved on. He lives as a Hermit inside of his mansion, his only confidant Alfred (Michael Caine). Age hasn’t been kind to Wayne, finding himself crippled with the lost use of his right leg.  He doesn’t allow anyone to see him, not even philanthropist and Wayne board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who expresses interest to meet with him and discuss the new energy source that Bruce has created. Alfred tells Bruce that he needs to get a life and that Batman is behind him.

Meanwhile, Bane (Tom Hardy) is slowly taking over Gotham in all the ways Joker didn’t. While Joker started from the bottom of Gotham, the villains and the mob, Bane starts at the top. He infiltrates the board at Wayne Industries and the stock exchange reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street. Bane’s takeover is enough to reawaken the Batman, but there are several problems- Bane is physically superior to the aging Batman, and there’s still the fact that the police still think that Batman killed Harvey Dent.  When Batman tries to stop Bane’s invasion of the Gotham Stock Exchange, the police’s attention is diverted from Bane to Batman. Bane, obviously, escapes.

Bruce Wayne tries to integrate himself back into society after learning about the falling standards of Wayne Industry- the company is making no profits so the charities that it supports runs out of money. He goes bankrupt and loses all his money, but not before electing Miranda Tate as head of the board and giving her access to the new power source he and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) developed. With the help of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), an expert cat burglar with a record trying to get a clean slate, he tracks down Bane- and is immediately broken by him. As he slowly rehabilitates in Bane’s prison, Bane takes over Gotham and has turned Bruce Wayne’s energy source into a time bomb. The rich fall and what’s left of the police, idealistic young John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Commissioner Gordon try to stop the bomb before it destroys Gotham.

The opening scene of the film is spectacular, although not comparable to the brilliance of Joker’s prologue in The Dark Knight. The next one-third of the film is pretty slow. I didn’t really buy the whole Batman waiting eight years to come back thing. The eight years wasn’t necessary. In theory, the idea of an aging Batman sounds intriguing, as the entire trilogy is based on realism that other comic-book movies lack. I can see why Nolan would want to wait eight years, as to distance the Joker from the series as much as possible, but then it just takes too long to get the movie on track back from there. The whole energy source turned time bomb plot was a little hard to swallow.

The entire film feels a bit sloppy, perhaps because Nolan’s trying to fit everything he possibly can into his last Batman film and tries to please fans as much as possible- that’s where his error lies. Also, the complete lack of Joker- in fact, he’s not mentioned once- is in respect to Ledger’s memory, but it comes off like Nolan’s ignoring him. I mean, the guy terrorized and Gotham. He blew up a hospital, screwed over the mob, and nearly detonated two ships full of people- shouldn’t that have some lasting impact? In its sloppiness, the film lacks the self-assuredness of The Dark Knight as well. The film paced along with extreme suspense and a constant flow of moral complexity throughout its intricately woven plot.

That’s not to say Rises doesn’t present some big ideas. It presents issues of class unrest, fulfillment, and terrorism- but the film doesn’t tackle its big issues with the ferocity that its predecessor it is. While Joker’s reign made us feel the pure terror we did from 9/11 I didn’t feel the relevancy here; Nolan didn’t present an argument that made me like Bane more than I did Batman- which is what he succeeded in doing with Joker.

Sure, Bane’s brilliant. Schematic brilliant, not Joker’s raving crackpot mind. But what’s the fun in that? At first it’s cool to have a villain that can rival Batman, but it gets old. Tom Hardy is great in the role, but his character doesn’t give him much to really work with- his transformation and role dedication is admirable in that sense.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle was my favorite part of the movie- in my eyes, she beats Michelle Pfeiffer as the character, hands down. She’s sensuous and mysterious, sure- but she brings a complexity to the character integral to the story. She’s vulnerable and morally conflicted, not sure whether she should run away when she can or do the right thing. Her stage presence is magnificent, and she assimilates herself into the character as much as Heath Ledger did.

Christian Bale gives his best performance in the title role yet, his Marlon Brando-esque incarnation of the character haunting. He’s most mesmerizing in his rehabilitation, his character’s very essence shining through his usual charisma in a powerful and refined performance.

Marion Cotillard’s character was the one I bought the least. The part she played in the end felt kind of week, and it deviated too much from her Mal in Inception.

Visually, the film is an undeniable craft experience. The cinematography lacks the darkness of the last film but is crisp, Gotham palpable in its dulled tones and uses of certain colors that catch the viewer’s eye. Each scene is flawlessly framed, snow in the middle of battle and the deep desert sun all skillfully handled. So many things in the film could’ve looked cheesy but are as visionary as Nolan’s direction itself, once again a startling par above other action-movie directors and emerging as something the trilogy has never been recognized as. Deep, black –as-night film noir.

That’s not to say that this is a bad ending to the series. It’s great, in fact. The first portion of the film may feel like a letdown, but the second act engrossed me, especially when Batman enters the pit. The final third of the film is spectacular and makes up for any missteps the first part made. The last few minutes especially pay tribute to the original characters and the ones Nolan developed himself in the series. It is truly and emotional masterpiece, delivered gracefully with Nolan’s deft hands.

Not nearly the work of genius its predecessor was, The Dark Knight Rises is still an epic in its own right- dark and dazzling, skillful in its emotional heft and a virtuoso work of humanity. The film wraps up the series on a high note, assuring Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a cinematic experience for the ages. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Brave Review

★★★½ (3 and ½ out of 5 Stars) IN SOME WAYS, PIXAR HAS IT HARDER THAN OTHER MODERN MOVIE studios. There’s more pressure in maintaining a reputation of producing one classic after another, as datum in subsequent years from their first film, Toy Story, in 1995, until their third to last, Toy Story 3, in 2010. 2 of the 3 animated movies that cashed Best Picture nominations were Pixar films- as more probably would have been had the category been expanded before 2009. Their reviews are spectacular, most being the best reviewed of their year (Toy Story and Toy Story 2 both being better reviewed than any other animated movie on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with 100% each).

They are loved unanimously among the mainstream, Toy Story 3 the highest grossing animated movie of all time and none of the others dipping below $300 million worldwide. All of their films leading up to 2010 were monster hits, each better than the last. Never before had Hollywood been so agreeable. Thanks to Pixar, dignity had been restored to the name of animated films, and it wouldn’t have been a decade before one scored the top prize at the Oscars- and surely it would have been Pixar.

But then 2011 hit and Cars 2 came out- Cars was always at the bottom of the pack when it came to critical acclaim, the only Pixar film not to win a Best Animated Feature Oscar after the category had been established. But its reviews were still exceptional for an animated film and it was Pixar’s most successful film among young children and therefore skyrocketed in merchandising. To the marketers down at Disney, a sequel made sense. But it failed in reviews and among audiences, not seeing any light come award season. But it wouldn’t be the death of Pixar, right? All studios have their bad days. Which is fine, but that’s not what we had been led to be expected of Pixar. They still had Brave next year, we thought.

They still had Brave.

This wherein the industry holds a collective breath, possibly more weighing  on this film than any other movie this year. Brave is only Pixar’s third movie with a cast made entirely of human characters, The Incredibles and Up preceding it.  It’s also Pixar’s first movie with a female lead, after Disney itself has crowned ten princesses. With these new complexities added to the result of this film, we ask- does it live up?

Brave chronicles Merida, a princess living in the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch. She’s the impetuous, horse-riding archer daughter of King Fergus and Queen Elinor. As a teenager, she naturally ignores her mother’s control over her, preparing her for life as a queen, for a life of tradition. Merida wants her freedom, refusing her suitors and publicly declaring her desire for her own hand- moments before blowing away her suitors in archery.

Merida and her mother have an explosive argument, resulting in her mother throwing Merida’s bow in the fire and Merida ripping her mother’s family tapestry. Merida runs away and follows the blue fate lights in search of a way to change her fate.

I’m going to stop the synopsis here because I don’t want to reveal a spoiler. It’s not one that’s particularly big, but marketing did such a great job of covering it up that it would be a shame to ruin it for you now. That aside, I was admittedly a tad disappointed in Brave- perhaps since I hold a higher standard for the fantasy genre (and Pixar in general) that I was letdown. From the trailers and posters, I expected a billowing, sweeping fantasy epic to be the animated embodiment of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, when the film only brushed on the edges of what should have been a complex cinematic world. Only 20 minutes in all focus on the expansive forest and landscapes of the kingdom, when most of the film takes place mostly on the grounds of the castle itself. 

The story was equally lacking in scope, deficient  of the multi-dimension and sophistication of The Incredibles and Toy Story. I felt teased throughout, but with fairness to Pixar, they’re exploring a story they’re comfortable with in a setting that’s completely new. This brings up another point- I’m all for feminist undertones, but Merida’s a bit of an original character- rebellious princesses are all the rage these days and she brings nothing new to the ‘my mother only wants me to get married’ dashed with a typical ‘I want my freedom’. It’s a typical story, one that lacked the adventure that marketing hinted at, so in that way I’m largely dissatisfied.

That said, Brave is still a good movie. Not up to what we’ve come to expect from Pixar but good. I was expecting a retrospective fantasy adventure but was met instead with a sweet, if disillusioning, mother-daughter story at the film’s center. The comedy is mainly slapstick but some spots occasionally shine with Pixar’s signature heartfelt touches- the scenes which show Merida as a child with her mother are heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once.

The opening sequence is perfection, which is probably why the film’s downslope from there is mildly disconcerting. The film held my attention, Merida’s younger brothers amusing characters if ones better expected from DreamWorks. There’s a scene where the boys and their mother share the same fate, shall we say, that caused the audience in my theater to burst out laughing.

The visuals are spectacular. It’s some of the best I have ever seen in an animated film, although regrettably darkened by a 3D that adds nothing at all. Merida’s hair is a work of art on its own. It took two teams and several months to get her hair working, and the effect is mesmerizing- that alone pays off for Pixar’s first female lead. The tidbits of the land that we do get to see are phenomenal, especially at the end, where the sun rises over the pillars on the outskirts of the kingdom. The landscapes are breathtaking, the scene near the beginning where Merida climbs a mountain by the waterfall lush and vibrant. Pixar’s use of textures and tones are exquisite, the lighting of the sun and moon carefully lit to portray the mood. Pixar succeeds in that their animation isn’t a handicap, but a visual palette.

Patrick Doyle’s score boasts a living, breathing Scottish undercurrent, elaborate in its composition but classic in a way that parallels the frenetic fantasy sequences that emerge throughout the film. Kelly MacDonald and Emma Thompson make this an audial treat as well, MacDonald perfect as the vivacious, freedom-longing Merida, her accent perfectly laced with timeless teenage desperation. Thompson is equally skilled as Queen Elinor, demanding the audience’s attention while still maintaining the decorum of a lady.

It doesn’t meet the colossal standards set by Pixar or even those of the fantasy genre, but Brave is a feat to be admired in its ambition alone, succeeding in its heart and Pixar’s usual technical virtuosity –  with a few twists along the way to keep the audience compelled. 

My Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars Rating: 74% 68 out of 100 7.6 out of 10 Stars 
MPAA Rating: PG for some scary 
action and rude humor. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers Review

(3 and ½ out of 5 Stars) TRADITIONALLY, THE SUMMER MOVIE SEASON DOESN’T START until the beginning of June, but according to The Avengers, it starts not even a whole week into May. The Avengers takes advantage of its early release date, staying out of the summer heat so as to make as much money as possible. Without the threat of Men in Black 3, The Bourne Legacy, and Snow White and the Huntsman or rival superhero epics The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spiderman, the film, a la The Hunger Games, is bound to make money in a period starved of commercial hits. The movie has already been breaking records internationally- of course American fans are ticked off that they’re the very last to see the film, but international markets have been a tester for Marvel- not that they need it.

Domestic numbers are the biggest market for films, and the projections already track it to be the biggest domestic opening of all time with $170 million, which would beat the last Harry Potter film by less than one million dollars not even a full year after its theatrical release. The film has been receiving massive pre-release hype. The individual Marvel superhero installments, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and even the last Hulk installment- they’ve all been part of the studio’s plan to get as much of an audience as possible. Therefore is someone doesn’t like Captain America but likes Thor, they’ve got built in fanbases. The film is nothing but a cash cow, but does that mean it can’t be a good one?

The Avengers chronicles the efforts of the government project S.H.I.E.L.D’s efforts to successfully form a team of superhumans that would be able to save the world for superhuman evils shall those evils present themselves. One such crisis arises just as the one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to assemble The Avengers. Loki, the evil adoptive son of Odin, steals the Tesseract, a magical cube of another dimension containing unimaginable alien energy that is the key to multiple universes, making it, of course, the uber-desired object of the movie (FYI: Thor is pretty much the only one of the Marvel movies you need to see to understand the feature). Meanwhile, Fury and Black Widow scour the earth to find Genius/Narcissist/Scientist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Christ Evans, who manages to have suddenly gone from The Human Torch to Captain America…), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

The group can’t stop the forces of the Tesseract yet- as conflict arises, Tony Stark/Iron Man is at constant odds with Captain America. He is also at odds with Thor, basically pissing off everyone present except Hulk, who being a brilliant doctor with anger management issues instantly gains Stark’s respect. The addition of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) presents a new challenge, being under the enemy’s mind control. After one battle after another leads up to the inevitable central confrontation in New York City, the group must learn to work together to save the mortal world has against the evils of the rest of the universe- and if they can’t save it, then they’ll at least have to avenger it. 

Let me just start by saying this: I think this movie is ridiculously overrated. I have seen more than one fanboy cry stating this is “The best superhero movie ever!” in addition to a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, 1% below The Dark Knight. Indeed, a grievous overstatement. Strip down the impressive special effects and A-List actors and your storyline is the basic plot for Disney’s Avengers Saturday morning cartoon. That said, I liked it. I don’t think it’ll go down in history with The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, or the Marlon Brando Superman films (at least not reputation-wise; you can bet it’ll be shattering some of those commercial records), but it’s still a fun, well-acted summer blockbuster that does justice to its characters’ comic book mythology while also pleasing the medium. Its greatest feat is arguably its surprisingly swift pace- it towers at nearly two and a half hours but capture’s the audience’s attention the whole time. I applaud director Joss Wheedon on this one. He covers all his bases in every way that can be expected, infusing the subplots of the central characters into the film and letting the character’s individual conflicts follow them the entire way. Thor’s conflict with his brother, Hulk’s with his anger- he makes this as much as a morality tale as it is an action flick and he does a great job of keeping it breezy while thoughtful. I was really excited to see Hawkeye be more prominent, but he barely gets two lines (“You remember Budapest a lot different than I do” being one of them).

I did have a few qualms. Joss Wheedon structures the film superbly, but I found the meat of it decidedly lacking. The problems that arise were inevitable; since there are so many characters in the story it’s impossible to give each hero the proper time they deserve. Audiences haven’t seen a Hulk movie in years, and as he’s the least present it makes us wish for him more. Wheedon searched for something to keep the audience’s attention amidst the action- I liked the idea of conflict between the characters, but their bickering gets tedious after a while. Their conflict never seemed to have a foundation solid enough that made it believable that that’s what was stopping them from saving humanity. My only problem with the script was that it sounds like some lines were written just to get included in the trailer- Stark’s wit is more annoying than appealing it was in the Iron Man films and some of the humor seems misplaced, some lines also sounding a tad pretentious. My favorite performances were from Ruffalo and Johansson, who made the dialogue more believable.

The special effects are, obviously, the most impressive thing in the film. The set pieces are spectacular, from the collapse of the training center in the first five minutes to the explosion of the plane to the demolition of New York City at the end. It’s action-packed with one battle after another, the fight scenes crisp and well-shot. Credit goes to production designer James Chinlund who elaborately sets the entire film.

The Avengers is definitely as good as anyone had the right to expect. It may lack the profundity, atmosphere, and edge that made the best superhero films, but it’s fun, action packed, solid popcorn- movie escapism that pays tribute to classic comic-book movies with modern cinematic flare. 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

My Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars Rating: 93% 68 out of 100 8.8 out of 10 Stars 
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense 
sequences of sci-fi violence and action
throughout, and a mild drug reference.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games Review

 (4 out of 5 Stars) I’LL SHARE WITH YOU A LITTLE SECRET: I hate hype. I severely detest it and I almost always root for the underdog. Right on the heels of Harry Potter and TwilightThe Hunger Games is a ready-made hit. It was the first literary phenomenon to grab readers since the two aforementioned, and as the two developed massive film followings, why shouldn’t this? With the progression of the media, hype is now triple the expectations made for the original Harry Potter and Twilight installments, pundits already predicting a $130 million- plus haul over the March weekend. Anticipation seems to have reached its peak on the web, people already clamoring for Oscar discussion (seriously? When no one’s seen it yet?). It’s on track to become one of the biggest franchises of all time, and that poses the question—is the hype the media predicting turning into reality because of it? Having loved all of the books (all holders of high critical acclaim), I of course had it on my list of most anticipated. But then again, there were a lot of things set up to go wrong. Would a desire for a PG-13 rating reduce the book’s violence and gore to the point of bloodlessness? Would cheesy CGI effects dominate the book’s blend of fantasy fashion and mutated dogs? For the most part, The Hunger Games successfully dodges these hurdles.

The Hunger Games takes place in a post-war nation in the ruins of North America known as Panem. While those who live in the Capitol bask in luxuries and rich food, the outer-lying twelve districts are laborers, most starving and poor. There were originally thirteen districts, but after they rebelled against the Capitol’s tyranny and lost, the Capitol decided they needed to be punished. They decided to create The Hunger Games- a yearly event where a young male and female victor is chosen through a lottery in each of the twelve districts, the children forced to fight to the death with only one victor. They are fed well in their short stay at the Capitol and trained, dressed like Capitol citizens being the closest the Capitol gets to celebrities.

In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunts illegally on the outskirts of her town to feed her family with her best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They voice rebellion but never act upon it. On the day of the drawing for the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss’ younger sister, Prim, is chosen as the female tribute for District 12, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son who gave Katniss burned bread when her family was starving, is the male tribute. They travel from the slum-like District 12 to the extravagant capitol, where the fashion choices are exotic and the citizens frivolous. They are introduced to their rarely sober mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who tells them of sponsors (who sends life-saving gifts during the games) and ways to win them over. They also meet Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a pitch-perfect product of the capitol between her pink hair and frolicsome concerns.

Katniss and Peeta vary between training and interviews. Training to impress the Gamemakers, and interviews to win over the Capitol audience and potential sponsors. They find ways to quickly become the favorites that include costumes made by designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and announcing unrequited love (courtesy of Peeta), in effect making Katniss desirable and playing a part later in the story. Brief foreshadowing to the rebellion that takes center stage in the next two installments, Peeta and Katniss discuss their desire to not just be a part of the Capitol’s game. This long prelude feels surprisingly swift for something that takes up half of the movie, but soon enough we finally enter The Hunger Games. Katniss tries to stay alive while Peeta joins the Careers (alliance formed by the strongest districts). The Gamemakers try to throw them together in a bloodbath, throwing fireballs at Katniss to move her closer. Plots arise between blowing up a load of cargo and throwing a hive of lethal hacker-jackers at the other tributes. Katniss briefly forms her own alliance with Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl from District 11 who saves Katniss’ life multiple times and reminds her terribly of her own little sister. The Capitol, playing off of Peeta and Katniss’ supposed romance, changes the rules so that there can be two victors if they are from the same district- this changes the stakes entirely, and if Katniss can play it just right, she might just be able to get her and Peeta out of the arena alive.

The Hunger Games not only dodges its obstacles but skirts pasts them with finesse. Director Gary Ross skillfully orchestrates the film, his take on the source material extremely faithful but with his own distinction. His camerawork is deliberately shaky to maximize the realism of the subject. It must have been tempting to paint everything off with polished frames and sweeping shots of the expansive capitol and sets of the Hunger Games, but he’s true to his vision and the effect pays off. With numerous cuts and brief, wobbly images, he manages to keep the PG-13 rating, which if had been lingered upon would’ve certainly earned the movie an R-Rating. The Capitol and District 12 settings are so different that it would have looked uneven had he cut straight to and from each shot, but instead the camerawork sets a tone for the entire film. Credit also goes to cinematographer Tom Stern, startling and raw in his pallet. The constant visual exhilaration goes hand in hand with visceral take on the games, sound dulled at parts to maximize the immediacy of the violence. The perversity of the Capitol’s extravagance is highlighted successfully in this. Violence does occasionally feel restrained, but for the most part it’s handled well.

Jennifer Lawrence continues her rise to stardom in a role that rivals her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone (which was of a very similar nature). Understandably (and regrettably), much of the narrative power that made the book so successful is lost in transition from page to screen, but the careful transparency of emotion that Lawrence displays makes up greatly for it. She’s calculating in what she shows, commanding the audience’s attention with every moment she graces the screen. Her anger, when her mother becomes near-comatose after her father’s death, her palpable insanity when her sister’s name is called at the reaping, anger when Peeta publicly claims love for her. She’s stunning, in a performance not to be forgotten anytime soon. Lawrence is one of the most impressive talents working today, already a master of emotionally-driven roles. The supporting cast is enjoyable to watch as well. Woody Harrelson is probably not as drunk as Haymitch should have been, but nonetheless impressive, Elizabeth Banks excellent in her over-the-top performance as Effie (having come up with the portrayal of the Capitol accent). They pale next to Stanley Tucci, though, who’s a scene stealer as the eccentric Hunger Games host, Ceaser Flickerman. Amandla Stenberg is especially heartbreaking in an immediately compelling performance as Rue, and Alexander Ludwig is particularly crooked in a notable turn as Cato. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth break out of their pretty-boy shells somewhat, both believable in their portrayals but mostly shadowed by Lawrence’s powerful central performance.

It goes surprisingly fast- the movie takes a different execution than the novel, starting with a formal introduction to the games and even adding a few scenes including an uprising in District 11. I particularly enjoyed the way they handled tougher moments, including the tracker-jacker scene. Instead of raiding it with terrible special-effects, they made it hazy and took the opportunity for a flashback of Katniss’ father dying in the mines, playing a showcase for fantastic editing and visual effects in addition to exposition. They also make sure that it was night when they played out the muttation scene, so terrible Twilight-esque werewolves wouldn’t be the impression that audience’s got.

The Hunger Games is ultimately a triumphant piece of Hollywood action, the visceral, superbly acted result of muscular, dedicated film making. The first critical and commercially successful children’s literary adaption since Harry Potter, it may not have the makings of a legend but sure promises to be the next phenomenon. 

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars Rating: 86% 68 out of 100 8.2 out of 10  
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense 
violent thematic material and 
disturbing images- all involving teens. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hugo Review

(5 out of 5 Stars)“This is the place where your dreams come from,” says French filmmaker George Melies, portrayed by Ben Kinglsey. He peers down at a young boy, a fellow film lover, and in that moment they share something- an unabashed love for cinema, an ageless kind of magic. This scene best represents Martin Scorsese’s first family feature, Hugo; based on the Award Winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Hugo is a love letter to the early days of cinema- extravagant in visuals, gorgeous in set pieces,memorable in score, and boasting of cinematic rapture - the pure dazzle that the film so completely exudes is astounding. Martin Scorsese, famous for his violent gangster films such as The Departed, and Gangs of New York, as well as Taxi Driver and The Aviator would not be the first person you’d expect to helm a family- oriented film. But his evident care for the subject matter is what fuels his talent here, young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) seeming to be a reincarnation of the famed director.

Hugo Cabret is a 13-year old boy living in a train station. His father (Jude Law), who was an inventor, one day, found an automaton abandoned in a museum storage closet. His drive to fix things sparks his curiosity of the old invention, bringing it home, where he and Hugo can find out how it works. But before they get too far in the invention, Hugo’s father dies in a museum fire. He is sent to live with his constantly drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who takes him in as an apprentice to wind the clocks in the Paris train terminal every day. Disappearing one day, Hugo has to reset the clocks each day and evade the station inspector (Sacha Baran Coen) so he won’t get sent to an orphanage. Thinking that the automaton contains a message from his father, he steals parts from the toy store owner in the train station, George Meiles, who eventually catches him. He takes Hugo’s notes on the automaton, which he claims to be his own. His goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Mortez), tells him that he won’t burn the book, which he pretends to. Hugo 
persists, and one day, Meiles has Hugo fix a small automaton for him, completing the task admirably, stunning the old man, who still won’t hand over the notes. Hugo finds out that Isabelle’s heart shaped necklace fits into the keyhole of the automaton, and causes it to draw a picture of a bottle rocket in the moon’s face- Hugo’s father’s favorite film. They slowly learn the George Meilies was the famed French film maker, who gave up on his dream of making films. As they try to get him to follow his dreams once more, Hugo struggles to find his own purpose, and finds that the key to finding it just may be found in the heart of an automaton.

I know now why Hugo is so well reviewed. It’s a movie about movies made by a man who knows a lot about movies. Being that most movie reviewers like movies, seeing the revelation of a small boy, lost and alone who finds comfort in watching movies, it may just bring each of us movie lovers who experience this film to feel something magical, so vibrantly expressed, something that precisely fits the definition of what art should be like. I also know why it’s a children’s film- not because it’s fantasy, or adventure, or whimsy, but because the best way to experience this film is with the purity, with the innocence of having an adventure. How sometimes the most perplexing of events can be best comprehended in such simple psychology. It’s also an excellent film because of Scorsese’s obvious love for movies. He handles this movie with care and affection, detailing the events of George Meiles’ life and his movies with an unadulterated platform, the scenes of Meiles’ movies taking a break from the 3D. The film is also excellently acted- Asa Butterfield, best known fror Merlin, is wonderfully childlike but also displays some fine emotional performances when such are due. Chloe Grace Mortez, who’s always been great, is obviously toned down a bit here. But the first scene when she appears on screen- she’s holding a book, she’s using a big word, and she’s looking at her male counterparts like they’re the lowest intellectual life forms possible- it is like the second coming of Hermione Granger herself.  There’s not a flat note in the production, but unlike the rest, Ben Kingsley stands out among Scorsese’s understandably dominant direction. He has a twinkle in his eyes as he remembers his love for film- he shows anger and deep signs of age when he remembers he’s no longer a film maker. He shows sadness when the revelation of the loss of his life’s work comes back to haunt him- an award worthy performance.

Scorsese’s direction is transportive and dramatic. Gorgeously shot with elegant flair, his dark vision is vivid here, illuminating dark backdrops with dazzling imagery and camera shots. He has done his homework here on 3D films, masterfully adding dimension to several scenes. I personally don’t like 3D, but if there is one film this year that actually used it to fullest ability, it is this one. The cinematography is crisp and haunting; flashes of Meiles’ past and films are detailed and actually meld into the film, an evenly polished finish. The art direction is some of the best I’ve seen all year. Elaborate set pieces are carefully detailed and magnify the beautiful streets of Paris, the inner workings of a clock, a crowded train station, and even an apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower are intricate and well-crafted.

This film is Scorsese’s gift to those who love film and still look fondly at its earliest days. It’s dually an introduction to those who know nothing about movies, and if nothing else, will help viewers appreciate anyone who ever had a dream. A truly magical, poignant adventure.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars Rating: 93% 5 out of 5 Stars 85 out of 100 8.6 out of 10 
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic 
material, some action/peril and smoking. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Prestige Review

(4 out of 5 Stars) It’s 1860. 19th century London and the rest of developing societies have convinced themselves that they are at the height of civil progression and have delved into gratifying forms of entertainment. One of the less attractive forms are magic, magicians forming illusions and mind-benders to test the intellect of theater goers. This is the backdrop to Christopher Nolan’s 2006 adaption of Christopher Priest’s celebrated novel. The film revolves around two rival magicians, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).  The two once worked together, finding bigger and more elaborate ways to bend the minds of their theater goers. Angier’s wife was their assistant. One performance is the popular "Escaping the locked water chamber"- they start the pocket watch and the woman

is behind the curtain. The minute’s up, they pull the curtain, and the woman is dead. Angier blames Alfred, who later marries and starts a family. He envies his partner’s life. He quickly returns to magic acts, and utilizes a simple transport sequence. Everyone, including Angier’s new assistant, Olivia,(Scarlett Johannsen) and his manager, Cutter (Michael Caine) say it’s an illusion, using a behind the scenes duplicate. But Angier reads between the lines. He knows that Alfred is doing something different—is it true magic? An optical illusion, or the obvious answer, science? Angier spends years searching for the answer, growing corrupt and insane. Alfred isn’t faring well, all the while leading his ex-partner on a false trail and dealing with his wife (Rebecca Hall) who is tired of secrets. Angier seeks science and researches the possibility of cloning, which Alfred only tricked him into doing, but finds out it really is real. He suspects, however, that what Alfred may be performing is the greatest illusion of all time—or perhaps true magic.

It’s made clear from the beginning that this movie isn’t about magic tricks. The screenwriter doesn’t toy with supernatural elements but cleverly invests most of the plot in character development. Director Christopher Nolan helmed this film after Batman Begins but right before The Dark Knight, so he had already set a tone for himself as a film maker by this time. This, to me, feels a lot like a 19th century Inception. What makes this film engaging to watch is seeing the rival magicians trying to outsmart each other. Christopher Nolan brilliantly balances his multiple time periods in this (much like Inception) so that a wary viewer won’t get confused but is still in for a surprise at the end when the final card is laid on the table. He manages to juggle multiple subplots as well as mold the character psychology into the execution of the story, which in another’s hands would be disjointed. The camerawork is purposefully shaky and the cinematography purposefully dark as to illuminate the story’s tone and conflict.

The film is bolstered by powerful performances from its leading cast, who carry a lot of the weight here. It’s Jackman in particular who holds the viewers’ attention, managing to inject just the right amount of borderline psychosis that his character needs. The little exposition that's is in the story is mostly left spent on him, as Bale’s perspective is purposefully kept in the dark due to plot demands. He’s not only easy to watch but riveting in his role as a man driven to madness by obsession, idiosyncratic in his performance and chilling as an afterthought. This is possibly the most psychologically dark performance he’s given, which according to Hollywood is puberty for actors. 

Gripping, disturbing, and with just the right amount of narrative complexity, The Prestige proves to be a thrilling and unique period piece that racks up another cinematic success for Christopher Nolan. rating: 76% 4 out of 5 Stars 66 out of 100 8.4 out of 10 
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and 
disturbing Images

Saturday, October 22, 2011

'The Three Musketeers' Review 25% 38 out of 100 n/a 6.0 out of 10
My Rating 38% (2 Stars)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of
Adventure action and violence

With the rising popularity of books by Scott Westerfeld and Cherie Priest, steampunk (a sci/fi-fantasy that takes place during a historical time period) has become a popular infusion in literature, and now it seems to be edging its way into theaters. Summit Entertainment’s The Three Musketeers is the first major release revisit to the classic Alexander Dumas book since the 1993 remake starring Charlie Sheen. My expectations weren’t very high for this remake, so I wasn’t too disappointed by the end, but it still doesn’t have enough merit to stand on its own.

The story starts off with the arrogant D’Artagnan, fresh off of leaving home for the first time, one day finds himself in a Paris street battle with the Three Musketeers, an elite trio of warriors ready to defend France from its many political and vindictive forces, when he is in fact trying to join them instead. The Three Musketeers until now have done nothing but sit around and drink, but when the rival British king trespasses on the young king of France’s territory, tensions rise and the Musketeers are prepared. Things worse when a plot arises between Milady (Mila Jokovich) and Richeliu (Christopher Waltz) to frame the Queen of France and the King of England for infidelity, causing a war between England and France and putting Rochefort in a position of power. It is up to the Three Musketeers, Athos (Luke Evans), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and Aramis (Matthew McFadyen) to get to England and stop the plot, as well stop the Richeliu, who just might be more dangerous than they think.

Given all of the ways this could have gone, the film deserves credit for its surprisingly fast pace. We don’t spend too much time mulling over one scene, which is the film’s weakness as well as its strength. The film squanders the brilliant source material, choosing the predictable route for modern movie adaptions and transforming a simple tale of friendship with a few sword fights into an action film with giant airships and guns.

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, which makes the movie bearable. It’s obvious the actors are having fun in their roles, but maybe a bit too much so, as considering the tremendous amount of talent here, it should have been better. Surprisingly, Orlando Bloom gives the best performance overall, using perfect comic timing and looking like a 1700’s playboy. It’s really a shame he doesn’t get more screen time here. Christopher Waltz, who was brilliant in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds is very subdued here, only passable. Of course, it’s always fun watching Mila Jokovich. Her scenes are very much like those in her Underworld movies, except with more lace. Except for one scene, when she has to sneak past the lasers, and of course, she just has to remove most of her clothing so she doesn’t get killed. Just has to. Logan Lerman is given the runt of the litter, so to speak, of the script. He’s the one link to teens who’ll want to view the movie, so of course they stick him in a conversation with a king where they talk about theirfeelings. About girls. About anytime he gets near that one girl who sees past his musketeer exterior, his palms get all sweaty, his heart starts beating through his chest, and he says stupid things. Also, he has long hair in this one- I tell you, there are a lot of women who would pay through the nose for that kind of volume. Mila Jokovich seems to agree with me- her character in the movie says “Don’t kill him. He’s too pretty to die.” And I’m quoting her ad verbatim.

This movie takes the conventional adaptive route, and it’s pretty much executed like Twilight. If there weren’t so many fans of the book, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as popular or well taken. Most of the original fan base of Musketeers is dead, so they saw no reason to follow closely to the book. The execution for the movie was good, so if they just wouldn’t fill the script with so many clich├ęs and muddle the predictable storyline then it might actually be good.

Fight sequences are elaborately choreographed and admittedly fun to watch, but they carry most of the weight here. The message of “being a musketeer is about being true to yourself” wears thin after a while, and  since there isn’t much else in terms of storytelling, the viewer eventually gets bored.

Overall, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but it spends too much time trying to modernize itself and in the end, loses its heart and doesn’t properly reinvent the story that an adaption this recent should have.