Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games Movie Review

There has been a substantial amount of buzz about The Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross. I was worried that the pre-release hype was going to be better than the movie itself. I think the marketing hype set us up to expect this generation’s Blade Runner (1982), but gave us something a little less than the hype prophesied.
Set in a dystopian future, North America was ruined by drought, fire, famine, and war to be replaced by Panem. This country is divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year two representatives (one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12-18) are selected at random to participate in The Hunger Games; part sports entertainment, part brutal intimidation tactic of the subjugated districts, and part reality television broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate each other in a fight-to-the-death while all the citizens watch. When 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) younger sister is selected as the mining district’s female “tribute,” Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), involuntarily attain a celebrity status but will not likely live through The Hunger Games as they are pitted against other participants who are bigger, stronger, and have trained their whole lives.
One would suppose that a movie with the word “games” in the title would have at least some level of joyous frivolity. The tone of this movie is actually quite somber. There are children bent on killing each other in any way possible. Children! That alone is a disquieting concept. There are also subjects of oppressive dictators, starvation, and inequality. With all of Panem glued to their televisions watching The Hunger Games, this dystopian future brings to mind visions of present day reality television; no one in The Capitol seems to think anything of youngsters killing one another, they are simply caught up in the entertainment value with no consideration of ethics or subject matter.
Jennifer Lawrence did quite well for her first appearance. Katniss is a quiet introvert, but still a strong, independent young woman. Her character is well developed early on, and we can believe why she is so skilled with a bow and arrows; she doesn’t simply pick it up and discover a predisposition towards it. Katniss doesn’t speak very much, fortunately we have The Hunger Games commentator Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) explaining some complex concepts that Katniss isn’t verbalizing. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy is a depressed alcoholic from District 12 who previously won The Hunger Games. He is meant to mentor Katniss and Peeta before they compete. His cynicism doesn’t seem to help either one.
Peeta has a romantic interest in Katniss, but it is not reciprocated. Peeta confesses this interest in a pre-game interview and then there is pressure for this love interest to grow, not only to please the viewers but to attract attention from sponsors who will send survival gear. Nothing brings a couple closer together than trying to survive a barbaric blood sport. Yet, I didn’t buy their romance. The actors just didn’t seem to have the right chemistry. And even though they are in the middle of a violent life or death situation, Katniss and Peeta still find time to smooch. I don’t mind smooching, but movie characters always seem to find the most inopportune moments to do so.
The art design and subject matter was interesting enough to watch, but the way the cinematographer captured it made me physically nauseated. There were a lot of shaky camera shots; as if there were cameramen running around trying to capture the action. That’s applicable, given the reality television theme of The Hunger Games, but on the other hand it made me feel pretty queasy watching it on the big screen. There were also close combat scenes where the camera was much too close to the actors to tell what was happening. There’s a struggle, obviously, but I couldn’t tell who was doing what to whom or even who was winning until the fight was over. Parts of this movie were pretty sloppy in terms of cinematography, but I don’t think it detracted too much from the movie overall.
I am constantly told by the fans of The Hunger Games that I need to read the books in order to appreciate the movie. I think that is a horrible thing to say about a movie! If the success and credibility of a film requires it’s viewer to read a book to make the movie palatable and understandable, then the movie itself can’t be solid or good enough to support itself as a good movie. Certainly I encouraged people who enjoyed the Harry Potter films to read the books, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) did not require the book to be read beforehand for the movie to be good. I have not read The Hunger Games (yet), and I think the movie is good enough to stand on its own.
The Hunger Games wasn’t too bad. While it was lengthy, it still seemed rushed and didn’t give enough time to develop some characters enough for the viewers to feel sorry for their losses. The child-on-child butchery is watered down with shaky camera work and careful edits, which ultimately weakened the adrenaline and cheapened the prolonged killing. Most of deaths just didn’t have much significance. I think Gary Ross simply assumed viewers wanted to see man-hunts and survival scenes more than they wanted to see commentary about how a cruel political system uses its subjects in a sick and twisted way. The Hunger Games was entertaining enough, and I recommend seeing it. I think it’s an above average renter, and possibly worth a matinee theater ticket; it’s not quite what they hype promised us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Limitless Movie Review

Myths and urban legends that are widely perpetuated as alleged scientific facts are pretty irritating. One of the more common ones is that we use only 10-20% of our brain. There really is no scientific basis for this; every part of the brain has a known function. These myths do make for some interesting fiction, though, such as in Neil Burger’s Limitless (2011).
When out-of-work writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), he realizes he has no future and no hope of escaping his circumstances. Morra’s despair vanishes after meeting his ex-brother-in-law who introduces Morra to NZT, a top-secret pharmaceutical that makes its user hyper-focused and allows him to recall everything he has ever learned, read, or heard. While on NZT, he is able to use all of his brain and his possibilities become unlimited.  As a former nobody, Morra starts rising to the top of the financial world which draws the attention of business tycoon Carl Von Loon (Robert De Niro). Von Loon sees this enhanced version of Morra as a tool to make billions. As he climbs the corporate ladder, Morra finds other former users of NZT. Some have withered away to sickly versions of their former selves, most are dead. Others discover Morra’s secret and try to remove him. As drug dealers, business men, and old contacts close in on Morra, he finds his supply of NZT dwindling. What happens if he runs out? Will his stash last long enough to outsmart the enemies he has made?
I think Limitless has a lot of appeal; who hasn’t wished they could be more focused and motivated? Moments after Morra’s first time using NZT, I was wondering where I could possibly get such a miracle drug myself! Morra finishes the novel he is writing in days, he invests in the stock market, and makes millions in a matter of days. He fascinates women, and knows how to handle nearly any situation. It seems Morra’s initial plan, with his new found mental proficiency, was to impress women so they’ll have sex with him; Sigmund Freud would have plenty to say about that. But Morra’s scope expands to loftier goals and more reputable endeavors.
Visually depicting a character's thought process can be tricky. Internal dialogue and flashback are usually implemented, but are almost cliché from being overused. There were some creative visuals used while Morra was on NZT to show how time seems to pass differently for him and how solutions to his problems materialize before him. It was interesting to watch.
There are some problems with the movie. Having an actor like De Niro should heighten the quality of the movie, but he was given a very dull, one-dimensional character that could have been played by just about anyone. De Niro should be reserved for complex, interesting roles; his talent was superbly undermined in this movie. The NZT drug is supposed to perfect the user's memory recall. If making big bucks only takes the ability to remember everything that is heard about Wall Street, what is to keep someone with access to the internet from doing the same thing? Limitless assumes that perfect memory is all that is required, and that intelligence and reasoning skills are irrelevant. There is also a matter of a subplot not being resolved. Morra is a suspect in a murder; we never learn whether or not he was guilty. Nor do we see how this affects his climbing the corporate ladder. Nevertheless, Limitless is exciting and fun to watch; just don’t get too hung up on some technicalities.
Limitless was not a terribly profound movie. It has it’s weak points, but is has a very interesting premise. I think the premise is what drove the movie forward more than the characters or story did. It was certainly enjoyable enough to merit seeing once. It’s a renter; I didn’t like it enough to want to go out and buy a copy, but I did like it. I wouldn’t suggest watching it with impressionable viewers; it does sort of glorify drug use. Limitless could be used as a segue into a discussion about drug use, I suppose.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Movie Review

Nazi Germany and World War II history has become a point historical interest for me in the past couple of years. I took the opportunity to visit the site of the Dachau concentration camp during a trip to Germany one year; it was a good experience, though not a particularly happy one. Such as been my reaction about movies set during the holocaust; good, but not happy. I actually heard about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) at the Dachau concentration camp, and wanted to see it after my harrowing and humbling experience there.
Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) lives in prewar Germany with his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), his mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga), and his high ranking SS officer father Ralf (David Thewlis). They move from their affluent lifestyle and home to a spot out in the country where Bruno’s father is to take command of an adjacent prison camp. Bruno Is curious about what he believes to be a farm, where the farmers wear striped pajamas; his parents try to keep him away from what is actually the prison camp. But being the ever curious and bright-eyed child that he is, Bruno ventures out in the trees behind his house until he comes upon a barbed wire fence with a boy on the other side wearing the same striped pajamas he saw the “farmers” wearing. This Jewish boy in the striped pajamas is named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Despite warnings to Bruno from his family other SS soldiers that frequent his house, Bruno and Shmuel become friends; neither one understanding that this is a prison camp for Jews awaiting extermination.
There are a lot of holocaust movies that have been made; it’s universally agreed that the Nazi’s inhumanity to man was a bad thing. It has almost become a cliché that Nazis are unquestionable villains; kind of the go-to organization when you need a pre-established group of reprobates that everyone already hates. They were used this way in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and in the upcoming movie Iron Sky (2012). In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the Nazi’s are certainly depicted in an unflattering light, but also shown that they are still human. They had families, they had hopes and dreams, and they wanted to live comfortably and safely. I think this was shown best through Bruno’s mother; while she was anti-Semitic, her primary concerns were her family and how the war might affect them. Even she was horror-stricken when she learned what her husband was doing to the Jews at the camp, and it put a serious strain on their marriage.
While this is a holocaust movie of sorts, it’s fairly unique. This is because it was Nazi Germany and the Holocaust seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. Most young children do not understand political alignments, religious affiliations, or the idea of war. Bruno simply saw his father go to the office every morning and return in the evening; just like most children do. There were great political movements that Bruno witnessed, but couldn’t grasp how they might affect him personally. Shmuel told Bruno that he was in the camp because he was different, but even Shmuel didn’t understand why being Jewish was grounds for imprisonment. We, the viewers, know what certain events mean and their repercussions; but since everything is seen through a child’s eyes, the movie doesn’t always develop these events to be meaningful to Bruno. We see Bruno’s sister posting pictures of The Führer and newspaper clippings of Nazi victories on her wall. We see black smoke billowing from the dreaded crematorium. We see Nazi soldiers dragging Jews off screen to yell at them (or worse). Bruno sees all this, too, but has no concept of what it all means. It’s not as though the movie is trying to hide these things, but rather to look at them through the eyes of an innocent child.
Interestingly, all the actors in this movie speak with crisp British accents, not with German accents or subtitles. I think that overall it strongly represents the formality and business-like attitudes of the Nazis, which is the aspect of the war that Bruno sees. It’s all charts, plans, organization, numbers, promotions, and uniforms. It seemed odd at first, but I think it was more effective to present the Nazis this way, given the context and perspective of the film.
As you may suspect, as a holocaust film it has a tragic ending. It’s very sad and powerful, but the movie itself is good. It is not a watered down holocaust movie, but it is a less graphically intense one. I think this is a very important part of history that we should not allow to slip into obscurity. I worry these horrific events may not be communicated well enough to the younger generation. While dramatic and tragic, I think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas would be a good, safe movie to introduce the ideas of the holocaust and genocide to a younger audience (maybe 10-years and up), and be followed up with a discussion about the evils that transpired during World War II.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Hugo Movie Review

I see some movie trailers and think, “Yeah, I’ll catch that on DVD someday.” Once in a while I make that assessment and when I finally see the movie I kick myself for not taking the chance to see it on the big screen. I don’t think I was even 5 minutes into Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) before I began lamenting that I had missed it in theaters.
In the middle of 1930’s Paris, orphan boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives within the walls of a train station. He maintains and repairs the stations many clocks, a skill he learned from his father (Jude Law) and uncle (Ray Winstone). The only thing Hugo has left from his father is an automaton that doesn’t work. Hugo works to repair the automaton but he has to find its heart-shaped key to activate it. While eluding the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), he meets a cranky old man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who works at a toy booth and his god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo finds that they have a surprising connection to his father and the automaton. As the mystery unfolds, the old man begins to remember his past and his significance to the world of film-making.
The first half of the film centers around Hugo’s escapades as the mystery unfolds. The second half is almost a tribute to Georges Méliès who was a real historical figure and an infamous French magician. He actually did use his magician skills to make some of the first special effects used in the very early days of film. You may have seen his most famous short film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), about travelers in a space capsule which is shot from a cannon to the moon, and their capsule pokes the Man in the Moon in the eye. The backstory depicted in Hugo actually did happen to Méliès. Méliès’s life is depicted in a loving way to show the magic and wonder that films can have, both in making them and viewing them. Therefore, Hugo seems like a love letter from the masterful director, Martin Scorsese, to the art of film.
Hugo seems like a family film on the surface: child protagonists with skills beyond their years, a seemingly slapstick villain, and secrets that only the kids are able to uncover, etc. But each character in this film is deep and complex, far more so than the usual exaggerated kid characters in family films. Hugo is talented for a reason; he was an apprentice under two clockwork masters. Isabelle is knowledgeable because she is so enamored with books. This even comes out in her vocabulary-enriched dialogue. Even the bumbling station inspector is not just a goofy slapstick antagonist; there is a reason for everything he does. Every single character is delightfully deep and complex.
The visuals in Hugo were just astounding; everything was beautifully designed. There was a lot of CGI and other techniques that made up the train station and 1930’s Paris. The opening shot starts with a swooping tour of Paris, through the train station, and ends on Hugo peeking out of a small opening in the clock face high above the station floor. Every shot has so much beautiful detail that it’s almost hard to drink it all in, and yet it’s so masterfully incorporated that it doesn’t seem like it’s a gratuitous display of special effects. Even the automaton looks like a beautiful mechanism that will work if Hugo can just find the key.
Generally, I see 3-D movies as being very gimmicky. Even when watching their 2-D counterparts, you can often tell what scenes were tailor made to have things pop out of the screen at you. I did not see Hugo in 3-D, and I’m regretting it. 3-D shouldn’t be gimmicky, but should enhance the sensory experience of watching a movie. I think that in the hands of a master director like Scorsese, 3-D technology would be beautifully implemented. I want to get a 3-D Blu-Ray copy of this movie and find a 3-D TV I could watch it on. I really felt like I was missing out on Hugo’s full potential.
The pacing was a bit slow for younger children. It will probably bore some kids, but I think this is a fantastic film to introduce children to high quality cinema and wean them off  garbage like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011). Hugo was so exquisitely done that I could see this being used to teach film students. I highly recommend seeing this movie; it will be especially magical if you are a cinephile like me. I’d also urge you to consider owning a copy. Possibly even a 3-D Blu-Ray copy, just in case.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bewitched Movie Review

Remakes of old television shows into movies generally aren’t phenomenal. These remakes seem to be an attempt for the baby boomer generation to enjoy one last fling with a show they enjoyed growing up with, and to possibly spark some interest in a younger audience. For example, The Addams Family (1991) was not bad, but the whole novelty behind it was that it was an Addams Family movie. Nora Ephron’s Bewitched (2005) seemed to be vying to rekindle interest in the classic 1960’s television show, but it seemed more like a poorly disguised promotional advertisement rather than a nostalgic trip down television lane.
Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) is a naïve, good-natured witch who is moving to San Fernando Valley to reinvent herself and escape from the superficiality of the witch world. Her Father (Michael Caine) doesn’t think this is a wise move for her, and tries to convince her to come home. Washed up actor, Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) is attempting to save his career and pursues an updated version of the well known sit-com, Bewitched. Jack insists on getting no name actors to fill the cast to ensure that he looks all the better in contrast, especially for the role of Samantha; they need the nose wiggle to be just right. After encountering each other at a bookstore, Jack persuades Isabel to play Samantha for Bewitched. Isabel tries to keep it a secret that she is a witch while she pretends to be a witch trying to keeping it a secret that she is a witch. Isabel gets frustrated with Jack’s shallow superficiality, but keeps given him second chances until the end up falling in love and start making the show a success. Finally, Isabel reveals to Jack that she actually is a witch but it doesn’t go over as well between them as it did between the two television characters they portray.
Bewitched is a meta-Bewitched movie. It’s a movie about making a television show based on a television show. Nearly every character with any significant dialogue mentions how much they loved the original show; Isabel wonders to herself what Samantha would do in her situation, Jack talks about how he loved Bewitched as a kid, and so on. It’s clear that in writing Bewitched the TV show was well consulted for content, but it is only talked about, not incorporated. The only real similarities are that there is a witch trying to be normal who falls in love with a human. All of the references and set recreations from the old television show seem to expect the viewer to recall fond memories, but when coupled with such a cliché love story, the fondness is besmirched.
Some of the actors were well cast, but had an additional character to play between them and the ideal role. Nicole Kidman would have made a good Samantha, and Shirley MacLaine would have made a good Endora (Samantha’s mother), but instead they were cast as actors portraying those characters. They didn’t get to play those roles that they were well suited for and instead got to play some uninteresting character trying to play Samantha and Endora. Will Ferrell once again is typecast as a stupid, rude, and conceited loser. Ferrell always seems to try very hard to convince the audience that he’s funny by acting over the top and by rapid-firing weak gags and juvenile jokes. When he’s in a role like this he seems to be acting toward the audience rather than getting a natural interaction between him and the other actors. Will Ferrell is great in his counter-typecast roles, such as in Stranger than Fiction (2006), but he ends up being obnoxious in his usual casting.
Lots of cameo appearances show up in Bewitched including Stephen Colbert, James Lipton, and Conan O'Brien. Among the more bizarre cameos is Carole Shelley playing Aunt Clara, and Steve Carell playing Uncle Arthur. Both characters are relatives of Samantha from the original Bewitched show. The original TV series is stated a number of times that it was “just a TV show.” But somehow Samantha’s relatives show up for no logical reason. Aunt Clara helps Isabel cast a spell on Jack, but Isabel thinks nothing of the doorknob stealing character from television. Uncle Albert is Jack’s favorite character who shows up out of nowhere to help Jack race after Isabel.  The movie even draws attention to the surrealist situation. Uncle Albert is driving Jack recklessly through traffic in pursuit of Isabel and Jack cries out, “I'm going to be killed by a fictional character!” It never explains why these two characters from a television show that is established to be a work of fiction appears in real life. The movie’s setting violates its own rules this way.
The all star cast had such potential to make a decent Bewitched movie, but the additional level of separation in this “meta-movie” really weakened the impact of the story’s potential, and Will Ferrell’s typecast role only made the movie more annoying. This movie is not Bewitched, it is about some actors trying to make a Bewitched remake. If you’re a really big fan of the old TV show, you might enjoy hearing the characters talk about the TV show, but you will be disappointed by the fact that your favorite characters aren’t in the movie that it is claiming to remake. If you’re not already a Bewitched fan, you would probably be better off spending the evening with The Addams Family.