Friday, November 29, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It's hard to believe that it was only a year ago when The Hunger Games was released. A little over a year later The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) hit theaters with what seems like even more hype and excitement than there was with the first movie. This time, I think the hype was justified.
After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return home to District 12. On the day the two are set to begin a Victory Tour of the country of Panem, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) visits Katniss. He explains that her approach to ending the last Hunger Games, where she and Peeta attempted a suicide pact after learning they could not both survive, inspired a rebellion in the districts. He orders Katniss not only to convince the entire country of her and Peeta's supposed love as their reason for their actions, but to convince Snow himself. Last year's mentors, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), escorts the two victors and try to help act as distractions from the Panem's real problems, even as law enforcement cracks down on the districts. Fearing this is not enough, President Snow announces that for the 75th Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, all tributes are selected from the existing pool of victors. Not only does this ensure that Katniss and Peeta will be returning to the televised fight to the death, but they will also be pitted against older, stronger, and more experienced killers including Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).
The budget for Catching Fire was nearly twice that of the first movie, and it really shows. It's simultaneously more of what we liked about the first movie combined with a bigger story. There are a lot more sets as we get to explore more of Panem, there are bigger and more detailed CGI effects seen when the tributes train against holographic opponents and are faced with insane dangers in the games. Everything about Catching Fire is bigger, better, and more dramatic. It's not just a group of fellow kids after Katniss in an arena this time. The Hunger Games is a tool to tell a bigger story, with the story being a nationwide revolution. With the political intrigue, a nation in turmoil, and an oppressive government tightening its grip, it's not Katniss versus the televised death match contestants; it's Katniss versus an entire world that wants her dead.
One of my favorite scenes was just before the Quarter Quell games when Katniss is being interviewed by Stanley Tucci's TV host Caesar Flickerman. Katniss twirls about in her would-be wedding dress meant to distract the downtrodden populace of Panem. What initially looks like a multi-tiered, white-frosting cage is engulfed in flames and transforms into a midnight blue winged symbol of insurrection that emulates the Mockingjay, the mascot of Panem's growing rebellion. One gown represents female entrapment and expectations, the other human freedom and opportunity. It's like a Barbie meets Joan of Arc moment. Lawrence silently conveys the haunted psyche of Katniss's post-traumatic state of mind beautifully in this scene. The poor girl from District 12  grows into her role as an inspiration and a rebel fighter. She's a good, strong female protagonist, and a delightful change of pace from the surplus of male superheroes out there.
When I saw The Hunger Games, I had not yet read the book trilogy. I have since read them all, and I can honestly say I'm a fan. Now as a newly converted fan I can say they did a remarkable job transitioning the two books into movies. There is very little in the Catching Fire book that did not make it into the movie, and even then I could see why the relatively minor details were left out. The purpose of such story detail were either insignificant to the overall story, the same idea was established in other scenes, or it would have revealed a little too much too early in the story. Still it was a truly excellent transition from the book.
Catching Fire exceeded my expectation in nearly every regard. The visuals were better, the scale was bigger, the actors were excellent, and the story was more dynamic. Even the camera work was better than in The Hunger Games; no more obnoxious shaky cam to blur the brutality of the combat scenes! The costumes were phenomenal as well; seriously I want that shirt Peeta is wearing during the reaping scene. I can't think of anything meaningful that is negative to say about this movie. Catch this in theaters if you can, but make sure you've seen The Hunger Games first. I plan on getting a copy of Catching Fire on Blu-Ray once it's available.

What's the best book-to-movie transition you've ever seen? What are a few runners up that you liked? I think Catching Fire is a pretty darn good one. Comment below and tell me some good ones!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ender's Game Movie Review

For years people have told me to read Ender's Game. The book was released when I was two years old and the book has been on my "to read" list for ages, though was a pretty low priority. Well, along came the movie version of Ender's Game (2013). I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was pretty cool.
In the near future, a hostile alien race called the Formics have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) and the International Miliary are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), a shy, but strategically brilliant boy is pulled out of his school to join the elite. Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military's next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he is trained to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.
For being a product of the 1980's, Ender's Game has a whole lot of components that are popular trends among contemporary young adult literature. This movie is what would result if the Harry Potter series and the  Star Wars series had a baby. There's that "I'm a what?" moment where the seemingly unassuming and bullied kid ends up being special and superior to his peers. The character is whisked off to a school where they learn a super special power. There is the intelligent token female friend character, the goofy male friend character, and the bully at the new school. The character learns they are the chosen one, etc. They did this in Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and X-Men just to name a few off the top of my head. Except Ender's Game has the protagonist go to a sci-fi school to learn about commanding battleships by playing video games and zero-gravity laser tag, which makes it very different from the other stories.
We've got some pretty good actors in this movie. Harrison Ford is amazing and plays the tough mentor and military leader  very well. I love Asa Butterfield; he was amazing in Hugo and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He's pretty good here, too. There are moments that he, like the other young child actors, are hard to take seriously. The kid actors are usually in their mid-teens, but many look younger than twelve. When these kids try to look hardcore and serious, they just end up looking funny. I actually laughed out loud at how ridiculous these prepubescent kids looked when they tried to act like hardened tough military soldiers. But when Butterfield has a meltdown, he plays it well. When he is horrorstruck, he means it. All the actors who played major characters were exceptional. The few minor character kids were less skilled and were harder to take seriously.
The special effects are phenomenal. That space battle toward the end is really a sight to behold. You get a broad scope of the fight scenes and a feel for how everything flows. It was neat seeing how Ender was a strategist; he was thinking several steps ahead of everyone and while not physically superior, he managed to get the upper hand by thinking the situation through. The only part of the story that confused me is how playing zero-gravity laser tag is supposed to prepare the kids for commanding fleets of spaceships. It would have made more sense if they were being trained as zero-gravity foot soldiers, not for the command seat in a battleship.
I have no idea how the movie compares to the book, I still haven't read it. Offhand, I didn't feel inspired to run off and pick up a book after seeing the movie. I've heard lots of bad things about Orson Scott Card (the book's author), none of which I have bothered to verify. I've read other books by Card, and if Ender's Game is like his other works, it could probably be half as long and still get the whole story across. I understand that Card's stance against gay marriage has caused a lot of people to boycott the movie. To me this sounds exactly like the religious groups boycotting The Golden Compass movie back in 2007; a group of people doesn't like the opinion of the author, therefore the movie based on the book written by the person they don't like should be refused by all. Ender's Game is pretty good on its own. While The Golden Compass did have some anti-organized religion themes in it, Ender's Game makes no commentary about homosexuality, antisemitism, or any of the other views I've heard the author has. Think what you want about Orson Scott Card, but the movie isn't bad.
Ender's Game is a decent movie. The acting is good, the story isn't bad, the special effects are great, and the complex theme of children's natural compassion clashing with the adult-mandated need for decisive power-plays is interesting. Story gaps aside, the action sequences tend to take center stage. If I was eleven, I'd probably think this is the best movie I'd ever seen. It's a much better space opera than the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy was. Regardless of your views of Orson Scott Card, I think this is worth seeing. The movie didn't endear me enough to buy a copy, or read the book for that matter. It's a decent science fiction fantasy that will be a crowd pleaser.

What is your favorite movie adaptation of a book? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gravity Movie Review

Back in elementary school we were asked, "What would you like to be when you grow up?" There was always at least one kid who would emphatically declare "astronaut" as their career choice, never mind that they will probably all end up working in cubicles. For the kids who said they wanted to be an astronaut comes Gravity (2013), which will likely make anyone set on remaining earthbound.
Dr. Ryan Stone  (Sandra Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) in command of his last flight before retiring. During a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Mission Control in Houston warns the team about a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has caused a chain reaction forming a cloud of high speed space debris. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone - tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness.
We are reminded at the beginning of the movie that living in space is impossible, with the extreme temperature fluctuations, lack of atmosphere, oxygen, or anything that could carry sound. The movie goes on to prove all of these things--he lack of sound most specifically. The sound was amazing in Gravity. Horrible catastrophes go on around the characters but we hear no explosions, scraping metal, or anything. The sound effects we hear are the slightly muffled sound of objects that are picked up and manipulated by the astronauts, which they would probably hear through their oxygen filled suits. Even when an alarm is going off in a shuttle, we begin to hear it gradually as the chamber fills with air and then at full force once the chamber is safe to breath in. That was a really neat detail that I was highly impressed with.
Another fascinating aspect about Gravity is that is basically runs in real time. There's no real scene changes that suggest a passage of time ("The next day..." or "several hours later"). We are lead to believe that all this is happening in one continuous stretch of time. To be fair, trying to get from the crash site in orbit to a distant space station is probably going to take quite a bit longer than what the hour and a half film implies. Still, we're experiencing every moment of the story, along with the characters since we never leave them and it gives the movie this quality of truthfulness that I don't recall experiencing in a movie before.
The camera work is amazing. The opening sequence in particular is absolutely incredible! It is one long continuous shot that lasts for thirteen minutes, making it one of the longest "tracking shots" in Hollywood history. It introduces the characters, how they work as astronauts, shows us the crisis, the shuttle being wrecked, and Stone being hurled off into space. The camera snakes in and out the shuttle, wreckage, and into space suits to give us a first person look at what it looks like to be spinning around without a stable point of reference in sight. The thought of drifting off aimlessly into oblivion with no chance of stopping or slowing down is terrifying, and Gravity captures that feel beautifully. Cinephiles will absolutely drool over this trailblazing bit of cinematography and everyone will be on the edge of their seat by the time it's over.
There are other calmer scenes that defy imagination. The story takes place in space and of course there is no gravity in space. There were many scenes that I cannot tell how they were filmed. There is so much movement and flailing around that hanging the actors on the end of suspension cords and harnesses simply wouldn't have been possible. It's not like they could actually film in outer space, but you never would have guessed it.
Several people insisted that I watch Gravity in 3D, and I'm glad I did! I haven't seen 3D effects quite that detailed and believable since I saw Avatar. A majority of the movie was filmed in 3D, which gives it outstanding detail and even subtlety in the 3D visuals. Having objects and debris float around in zero gravity was excellently rendered in 3D, including a pen floating toward the screen in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a rare case where I think the 3D truly enhances the movie and makes it better.
Gravity was amazing to say the least. The acting was great, the story was tense, the visual effects were second to none and draw you in quickly. It's not so much of an action film as it is a disaster/survival sort of story. There's no antagonist apart from Murphy's Law. It's a story about psychological change and resilience in the aftermath of a catastrophe and the will to survive in the face of inevitable death as well as the futility of rescue. It's exciting, thought provoking, and beautifully filmed. I think this is a must see movie, catch this in theaters if you still can, preferably in 3D. This is also one to watch for on Blu-Ray 3D once it's available.

Can you think of another "tracking shot" that you were particularly impressed by? I mentioned a really good one in The Avengers. What are some others? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, November 8, 2013

FairyTale: A True Story Review

This movie keeps coming to mind lately. I remember seeing FairyTale: A True Story (1997) shortly after it hit home video and not being particularly impressed by it, but even after sixteen years I can still distinctly remember some of the visuals.
It's 1917 in West Yorkshire, England. Arthur (The Doctor Paul McGann) and Polly Wright (Phoebe Nicholls) and their twelve-year-old daughter Elsie (Florence Hoath) are still grieving over the death of Elsie's younger brother. Polly's eight-year-old niece Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl) has come to stay with them after her father was declared missing in action during World War I. Polly longs for some sort of proof that there is a life beyond our own, while the two girls zealously believe in fairies and enthusiastically study legend and lore. One day, Elsie and Frances produce photographs of fairies that they claim were playing in their garden; Polly believes that they are real, and soon the snapshots attract international attention. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and a confirmed spiritualist, declares the photos "as genuine as the King's beard," while illusionist Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), who has devoted much of his time and energy to exposing phony mediums and psychics, takes a more skeptical view.
It's true that two English girls produced photographs that showed themselves with fairies in 1917. The photographs were published in a national magazine by  Conan Doyle, who vouched for their authenticity. The "Cottingley Fairies" created an international sensation , though there were many doubters. Many years later, when the two girls were old ladies, they confessed that the photos were a hoax. Everything else that makes up the bulk of this movie was produced as "creative liberties" to tell a fun story. That little tidbit makes the subtitle, "A True Story," effectively a falsehood.
On the other hand, that's kind of the point of this story; questioning truth. There is truth and there is falsehood, and they are not always easily distinguishable. Somewhere between what is true and what is false lies the nebulous grey area that we often like to call magic. That magic is very enticing and can grant us hope in the face the ugly truths and the enticing falsehoods. This movie is about that "magic" and how everyone responds to it in different ways. It would be very easy to extrapolate religious themes from this movie, but thematically it remains firmly rooted in the whimsical.
Yes, there are fairies in this movie. We see them. We even see them when there are no human characters around. That should suggest either that they actually do exist in the world of this movie or we, the audience, believe in fairies. It would make more sense if the fairies only appeared to the girls. The movie may have been trying to get the audience to reflect on how they react to mystical things, but if that was the case, it didn't do a very convincing job. The fairies don't do much; they are so busy expressing their fairy-ness that don't seem to have time to be anything else--like interesting characters for example. While we do see the fairies on screen once in a while, they tend to be a McGuffin (an object or device in a work of fiction that serves merely as a trigger for the plot) rather that something that affects the story directly.
What wins me over so much in this movie is the sets. We're in post-World War I England and the sets and costumes are astoundingly convincing! We get some gorgeous views of the British countryside, some old cottages and buildings that were probably built before the early 1900's and are likely still standing and functional today. The Wright family cottage looks highly detailed but has a very believable lived-in feel to it. It really captures the lifestyle of the time and looks so pleasant and quaint.
FairyTale: A True Story is a nice, cute, innocent story that features some pretty good actors, some amazing sets, an acceptable script, an interesting theme which draws no discernible conclusion, and some decent special effects which seem only slightly dated sixteen years later. This is a nice, clean movie that the whole family can watch. Children will not be concerned by the vagueness of the theme or with the questions the movie doesn't quite answer. If you've got kids at home this is worth catching on NetFlix Instant Play to watch with them. Overall it's not a bad movie, but I wouldn't spend money on purchasing a copy.

I like the idea of a movie based on a famous hoax. I would love to see a movie about Orson Well's 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast, where everyone thought the world actually was being invaded my Martians. A movie about that production and the ensuing panic would be really interesting. What's another famous historical hoax you would like to see a movie about? Comment below and tell me all about it!