I’m sure this review will have a significant impact on the film’s box office results. Movies like ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ are essentially critic proof. Six days into its release, and the film has already crossed the $200 million mark.
As most of you know, last time Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was the teenage winner of a televised battle to the death competition known as the Hunger Games. She broke the rules by not killing the last competitor (or tribute) Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Just when you thought she was out…
The president of her capital Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is concerned that she might become a figurehead for a resistance against him. With the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), he brings back all the previous winners of the Hunger Games and they have to kill each other all over again – Hunger Games All Star.
I’m not surprised by the financial success of this series; the first film also had a lot of built-in hype and people had high expectations. The film series is based on these hugely successful books that go beyond the young adult crowd at which they are aimed for. As far as franchises built around a stubborn teen heroine debating endlessly between two inexplicably patient lovers as she battles to save the world, one could do far worse than what’s offered here.
I do, however, slightly fault the film for not adhering to its own subtitle of really catching fire. Both ‘Hunger Games’ movies are on the safe side, creating dark worlds with its kids-killing-kids scenario but without any real sense of dread or horror.
Sitting in the director’s chair this time is Francois Lawrence who has already established himself as a filmmaker of dystopian futures thanks to ‘I Am Legend’ fame (a completely misunderstood masterpiece in my opinion). ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is a marginal improvement over the first film (which was directed by Gary Ross); I am thankful that the intimate “you are there” shaky-cam approach has been abandoned this time around. The end result is a strikingly more fluid sense of motion; the camera does zero in on the faces of its performers - this gives the picture the intimate feel the first movie was going for but gives us the satisfaction of not having to reach for our barf bags or motion sickness pills.
The film is a triumph of production design; costume designer Trish Summerville is operating at the top of her game – the scene with Katniss’ glittering wedding dress transforming into a symbolically relevant black gown is exceptionally handled. A similar degree of invention is found with the cinematography and the expensively detailed settings which illustrate a futuristic dystopia without providing us with too much discomfort (which circles back to my criticism or at least personal preference in wishing the filmmakers had gone beyond the boundaries of its PG-13 constraint).
As for the performances, it certainly helps to have an Oscar winning performer (thanks to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) at its center. I think she is an immensely likable and versatile star – she can pretty much do anything from comedy and romance to drama and action. Her character here is a teenager and she is accessible and wise beyond her years; Ms.Lawrence seems to effortlessly project supreme durability and humble vulnerability. With a lesser performer, this offering (and its predecessor) would not work as well as it does. The supporting performances are also quite strong – the best being Stanley Tucci who dazzles as the overly flamboyant game show host.
Once the games contestants are deposited into some tropical environ with a host of dangers including (but not limited to) lightning storms, poisonous fog, rampaging baboons, and bloody rain, the picture does become special-effects heavy. The budget is nearly twice that of the original and it shows - much of the avoid-the-obstacles action is excitingly staged and beautifully shot; yet, at the same time, I feel there is little to distinguish itself from the other big budget action climaxes of this movie year.
The titular action does not kick in until the 85 minute mark (and the movie runs way too long at 146 minutes). Fans of the book will disagree, but I believe there is an enormous amount of exposition in the first half of the film. With the machinery of the plot established in the first film, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ should be better paced than it is. Though the first half isn’t entirely a retread of what we have seen in the first film, it does feel awfully familiar; perhaps a shift in locales and settings might have shaken things up a little bit. The movie also liberally borrows elements from ‘Star Wars’ – the unlikely hero who becomes the figurehead for a resistance movement against an oppressive government that wants to eliminate the rebels and use storm troopers at their disposal; the “storm troopers” here even have the same armour as the ones in ‘Star Wars’. The abrupt cliffhanger ending is also very reminiscent of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (though to be fair, the second entry just about any trilogy ends as abruptly).
My overall reaction to the experience is mixed – but ultimately, I am giving this movie a pass simply for delivering what it promises to its main target audience. QED.
With movies like ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ in theatres this weekend, ‘Short Term 12’ will probably not be on your radar. But, you owe it to yourself to see this film, either at TIFF Bell Lightbox where it will be playing this week or when it becomes available for home viewing on January 14th, 2014.
I enter every movie with an open mind but I must say I wasn’t expecting ‘Short Term 12’ to be the emotional rollercoaster experience that it is. It came totally out of left field (at least to me). I know that the movie premiered at a number of film festivals, but there wasn’t much buzz about it. Until now…
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, ‘Short Term 12’ follows Grace (Brie Larson), an early-20s supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Passionate and tough, she seems to have it all under control; but, with the arrival of a new intake at the facility and the impending departure of another, her life is shaken up.
This is a great movie; not merely a “very good” one but a “great” one. It’s a very original film with uniformly excellent performances. The entire thing feels natural and there isn’t a single inauthentic moment in the entire picture. Mr.Cretton is said to have worked in a foster-care home; this, coupled with the fact that he comes from a documentary background gives the movie its naturalistic feel. He uses close-ups and long takes and there is very little music forcing you to feel a certain way. The script avoids placing its young actors into feel-good gooey cutesy territory. The relationship between Brie Larson’s character and John Gallagher Jr. (who sports the five-year boy haircut here as he has on ‘The Newsroom’) is terrific; their relationship (and everything about this movie) feels honest and real.
Now, the idea of this movie sounds like a downer; you would think a movie about teenagers who cut themselves and have substance abuse issues would put a heavy amount of weight on serious issues (on paper, this may seem like a laugh-free experience). Not the case; the filmmakers finds some absurd humor in the intensity of these characters’ situations and the oddity of their lives. But, the film does have its upsetting moments.
What’s interesting about the adult characters is that you find out the different motivations as to why they have chosen this line of work. The John Gallagher Jr. character grew up as a foster child himself and was raised by great foster parents – there is a lovely scene where we meet his foster parents at their anniversary party (as well as the many foster kids they raised throughout the years). It’s clear that this character’s motivation comes from a place of love and that he wants to pay it forward. Grace’s motivation is entirely different; she’s a formerly troubled teen herself now hoping to guide others along the right path. Her character is one some of us can relate to – one that puts herself on the back burner for the sake of other.
What a performance from Brie Larson – you probably don’t recognize her by name. In fact, I had to refer to IMDB to recall some of her previous work. Don’t misinterpret this as a negative - this, to me, is what makes a great performer. She has this chameleon quality in which we register the character she’s playing because we get lost in the performance. I didn’t like ‘Don Jon’ but she was probably the best thing about the movie. She was in ‘The Spectacular Now’ which received critical acclaim and was a hit at Sundance. And she was also in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’. Let me just say it – she is great in everything. There is something about her that just grabs you; if I had to pinpoint what makes her so appealing in this movie, I would say that she seems grounded and accessible but also has secrets.
The film has a large ensemble and no one gets lost in the shuffle – every actor has their moment to shine. But, this is Grace’s story and Brie Larson’s film to carry. I already look forward to next film and I know that she has a long and terrific film career ahead of her.
‘Short Term 12’ isn’t just one of the best films of the year – it is one of the most honest portrayals of troubled youth I have ever seen. It provided me with the opportunity to truly appreciate the people who dedicate their lives towards helping the underprivileged. ‘Short Term 12’ is a small gem and the lump it leaves in your throat feels earned.
Note: Despite my praise for the film, I have a friend who refuses to see the movie because of the shaky cam aesthetic. This should not be a deterrent; ‘Short Term 12’ is not a Paul Greengrass film (as much as I loved ‘Captain Phillips’, I could see how the technique could render many seasick). QED.
Directed by Gavin Hood, ‘Ender’s Game’ is the long-awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name (which was released in 1985). It’s been 50 years after an ant-like species known as the Formics attacked Earth. Thanks to the heroics of fighter pilot Mazer Rackman (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. But, it wasn’t enough – the Earthlings are still concerned about another attack and have created a battle school for kids in the hopes of finding their next great leader. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes that Ender Weggin (Asa Butterfield) is the chosen one – I thought Neo from ‘The Matrix’ was the chosen one? Then, there is Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) who wants to know what’s inside the boy’s head. Ender is taken away from his family (his sister is played by Abigail Breslin) and taken to a military training station – one in orbit around Earth. There, he meets a bunch of kids – none of whom register as fully fleshed out characters. Ender must contend with the escalating intensity of his training and the consequences of his actions and decisions – yes, he might be Earth’s only chance against the potential return of an alien invasion. *shrug*
‘Ender’s Game’ was the top movie at the box office this past weekend – that doesn’t surprise me. There are fans of the novel who rushed out to see it opening weekend. I’m hoping ‘Thor: The Dark World’ dominates the box office this weekend – I don’t know if the Marvel picture will be a good one, but at least it would substantially reduce the possibility of there ever being a sequel to ‘Ender’s Game’. The picture feels like the table-setting first chapter in a series; but even with a production budget of $110 , ‘Ender’s Game’ would have to prove to be a significant return on investment in order for those sequels to take place. Let me be clear about this – I do not want any sequels to ‘Ender’s Game’.
But to review the picture as is – How/why/ wherefore did the movie turn out this way? How does a movie like ‘Gravity’ (with its comparable $100 million budget) get bumped just weeks after its release by ‘Ender’s Game’?
‘Ender’s Game’ is rated PG-13 for “some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material”. Whatever – this is aimed at the pubescent masses to keep them occupied until November 22nd, 2013, which is when the new ‘Hunger Games’ movie opens. But nothing of any consequence happens in this expensive looking picture until the plot takes a ridiculous twist. At this point in the movie, issues such as the immorality of war and its preventive measures lend second-hand depth to a needlessly complicated story.
To begin with, I simply didn’t buy the premise. Why are these kids the best option Earth has? Is it because they play a lot of video games and could thus strategize an impenetrable attack? I’m willing to suspend disbelief often – especially, in a genre such as this; but, I felt Mr. Hood didn’t supply me with a reason to believe in this concept.
To make matters worse, ‘Ender’s Game’ squanders an extremely talented cast; there is Asa Butterfield who played the blank-faced boy in ‘Hugo’. His character is supposed to be in command but I found him to be insufferable; there is nothing likable about his manipulative qualities. Abigail Breslin isn’t given much to work with. Hailee Steinfeld is only there as a potential love interest that sees greatness in Ender. Viola Davis is only there because the frown-faced Harrison Ford needs someone to bark at. The only thing Sir Ben Kingsley has going for him is his heavily tattooed face which rivals that of Mike Tyson; that aside, most of his time is spent staring into space from a skybox watching Ender in action.
What does Graff see in Ender? What makes Ender so brilliant? Why is he able to move up the ranks quicker than any of his battle school colleagues? Ah, it must be because Harrison Ford’s character says so repeatedly – “It is what he was born for.” I didn’t get the sense that Ender was a smart kid. He approaches a roadblock with the same level of creativity and methodical thinking that any eleven year old gamer would: “If X does not work, I will try Y. Y doesn’t work either. Is there a Z?”
We should feel that there is something at stake in ‘Ender’s Game’. Not the case. The movie is filled with more training montages than ‘Rocky IV’ – they provide minimal excitement not just because they are overcrowded war-game simulations but because we don’t know what exactly these characters are being prepared for. What is this picture building towards?
‘Ender’s Game’ is one of the most humorless pictures I’ve ever seen - it takes itself way too seriously; there is absolutely no levity. The only laughs present are that of the unintentional variety. ‘Ender’s Game’ wants to be in a similar space (puns always intended) to ‘Starship Troopers’ – a movie that was able to capture some of the satirical elements of the book. Unfortunately, a tale of this complexity is not best suited for a 114-minute motion picture. Maybe it would have worked better as a mini-series. Maybe. Probably not. The movie’s zero gravity setting doesn’t excuse it from having zero humor, zero drama, and zero thrills. Zero stars from me…Zzzzero. QED.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (the wonderful ‘Café de Flore’, and ‘C.R.A.Z.Y’), ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is based on the true-life tale of an accidental AIDS activist. In 1986 Dallas, homophobic drug addict party boy Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed with HIV and is given thirty days to live. He starts taking the FDA-approved experimental drug AZT supplementing it with a beer chaser and a snort of coke. When the AZT drug makes him sick, he seeks out alternative medicine; and then smuggles the unapproved anti-viral medications over the border from Mexico. Along the way, he pairs up with Rayon (Jared Leto), a troubled drag queen to sell the treatments to the growing numbers of HIV and AIDS patients forgoing hospitals, doctors, and AZT.
This is a career-best performance for Matthew McConaughey who has really transformed himself from being a disposable prop ( ‘Sahara’, ‘Fool’s Gold’) to one of the best actors working in American film today (‘Mud’, ‘Killer Joe’). Much has already been said about Mr.McConaughey’s physical transformation for this role – he dropped 47 pounds. Those mighty abs featured many a time on the cover of ‘People’ magazine have melted away, and have been replaced with a thin layer of skin over bones. Surely, his beach body will return for his next commercial project. This role is perfectly suited for Mr.McConaughey’s swaggering charisma – he is extravagantly funny and deeply affecting.
Jared Leto lost 30 pounds for his role and delivers the “braver” performance – his character has a brunette wig, his eyebrows are removed, and his wardrobe is one that I won’t even bother to describe. Similar gender-bending transformation roles have led to Oscar nominations historically (recall Jaye Davidson in ‘The Crying Game’, Chris Sarandon in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’). But this is not part of an Oscar-chasing stunt; since both performers are at the top of their game, however, we can expect a Best Actor nomination for Matthew McConaughey and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Jared Leto for their terrific work here.
This real life story has been reduced to a David versus Goliath tale. There is where my two-sided review comes into play. I’m giving the movie a recommendation for the excellence of its performances. However, I do feel that ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ doesn’t stray far from its dramatic conventions – setting up a quasi-romance between McConaughey and doctor Jennifer Garner and establishing the government and pharmaceutical companies as clear-cut villains. The script even goes as far as having the FDA try to shut down Ron’s operations; but, this is a biopic so maybe that’s what really happened. Though the AZT drug is still used today to delay the development of AIDS, the movie outright damns it as a venomous non-solution that should be flushed down the toilet.
Mr.Vallée also puts a light comic spin on some of the material – for instance, as Ron drives through the U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint with a trunkful of unregulated drugs from his Mexican connection, we see that he is disguised as a cancer-stricken priest. There is a light, breezy flow to this picture with a heartbreaking subject. But, there is something a little unsettling about having this subject of our recent past (which has killed over 25 million since the first cases of AIDS were reported) so neatly engineered as crowd-pleasing entertainment.
And yet despite those reservations, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is an unquestionably moving experience. This is because of the believable relationship between Ron and his transsexual business partner. Their odd-couple pairing results in some laughs (in order to assure the heartache remains minimal), but it’s watching Ron’s discomfort and homophobia fade into an affectionate fighting spirit; and, one that never loses his wildly profane lust for life – his cowboy hat stays on. Mr.McConaughey transforms (a word I know I’m using often in this review) his character into a wholly empathetic figure.
It has been 20 years since ‘Philadelphia’ was released. Excluding documentaries like ‘How to Survive a Plague’ and ‘We Were Here’, cinema has almost shied away entirely from the topic of AIDS. I admire the film for having the courage to take on such a difficult subject; I wish the script had gone a little further in exploring some of the complexities faced from an FDA and medical standpoint (rather than simply supplying us with boo-worthy villains). But, this criticism may in fact be a little harsh – it just might have been a case of profit-chasing at the expense of patients’ lives. To be sure, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is a fine film thanks to the outstanding (and surely nomination-worthy) performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. It opens in limited released today and is playing at the Varsity. I suspect positive word of mouth will push this over to a wide release in the weeks to come. QED.
The Toronto International Film Festival opener this year was ‘The Fifth Estate’ and admittedly I was pretty psyched for it. But, when I realized that the 30-year anniversary for ‘The Big Chill’ (which won the People’s Choice Award in 1983) was showing at the same time, I decided to wait for the film’s theatrical release. It is now here. And boy, what a disappointment.
Directed by Bill Condon, who helmed the last two ‘Twilight’ films (heh, you won’t see that in the quote adds), and based on two novels about the information-transparency site WikiLeaks, ‘The Fifth Estate’ doesn’t offer anything to interest its viewers until its final twenty minutes (which by then is too little too late).
Benedict Cumberbatch was not much of a household name prior to this year. Mr.Cumberbatch was in three pictures that premiered at the TIFF this year (most people will recognize him as the villain in the latest ‘Star Trek’ movie). I enjoyed his performance as the editor and founder of the WikiLeaks site Julian Assange – the arrogant crusader spin and the intriguingly creepy ambiguity he brings to the character; though the white hair and flamboyant body language are Volturi-esque. The movie focuses on the relationship between Assange and German programmer partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl).
Mr.Condon is now tackling more mature material though his MTV filmmaking sensibilities remain pubescent. The sight of seeing someone type away at a computer isn’t all that interesting; but the filmmaker’s fantastical attempts – whenever Julian and Daniel work, they are transported to some sort of sandy beach with a seemingly infinite number of desks and monitors– makes me feel that Mr.Condon hasn’t left the ‘Twilight’ zone. The script is able to create an international drama out of the hacking material, but there is nothing to involve the viewer – the movie is more interested in telling us what happened rather than showing. It supplies the subject, but not the inspiration.
The bouncy camerawork and electronica-filled montages (I recognized ‘M83’) only make the proceedings all the more painful. With a budget of $30 million, the filmmakers have no excuse not to use a steadicam.
The movie doesn’t provide us with a sense of its position on WikiLeaks – how the watchdog site’s unauthorized release of confidential information belittles state secrecy and government accountability. Such equivocation in theory should supply the film with moments of tension; but I would say that this is a muddled attempt at achieving fair-mindedness. The movie showcases the thrill of the WikiLeaks initiative but also points the finger when things have gone too far – this makes it difficult to determine what Mr.Condon is trying to achieve. Instead, the only existing tension is between the filmmaker and the subject. At the very end of ‘The Fifth Estate’, the filmmakers offer Julian Assange a chance to tell us his thoughts about the film. Not the actual Assange – Mr.Cumberbatch. He replies with “*snort* The Anti-Wiki Leaks Movie”. The real-life Mr.Assange has been quoted to call the movie “a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love” – him and I aren’t too far off on this one.
To me, it’s ‘The Anti-Social Network’. I admit, I like Aaron Sorkin more than some of you do (I watched eight episodes of ‘The Newsroom’ back to back this past Sunday). Despite whatever reservations you may have, there is no denying that his dialogue crackles with intelligence – the characters in ‘The Social Network’ spoke in a believably elevated way. This movie is in desperate need of that witty writing; there isn’t a single memorable line to be found here. The movie throws a lot at its central character – in terms of the freedom of the press and the future of the media; as good as Cumberbatch is, he just doesn’t have the necessary range to play the XL-version of Assange created by the screenplay. Boring. QED.
The hype is real. Though cinema has been around for over a century, there has never been a motion picture like ‘Gravity’. I wouldn’t exactly call it a perfect film; but it’s a perfect filmgoing experience, which is equally satisfying.
Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist onboard a space shuttle to repair the Hubble Telescope. Out on a spacewalk to do that work, Ryan must not only contend with motion sickness due to lack of gravity but also the never-ending yammering of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who’s on his last mission. But because this is a movie, the fact that he is on his last mission means that something bad will happen – and does it ever. Soon, all space hells breaks loose in the form of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. Before they can get inside, the debris destroys the spacecraft and cuts off communication back to Earth.
The movie had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is where I was hoping to see it but tickets were off-sale almost instantly. I thought about waiting in the Rush line on the day of the premiere but took note of the fact that it would open in theatres in October; so, I sought out less commercial pictures (that did not have a distributor or a North American release date). In retrospect, I wish I had waited in the Rush line on the day of the premiere if only to get some insight into the filmmaking process behind this. What I do know (based on what I’ve heard from TIFF-goers): Cuarón said the movie took 4.5 years to make (a miscalculation given that the initial forecast was that this would be a one-year project). Mr. Cuarón was also pleased by the questions relating to the characters and themes as opposed to the technical questions – he saw the technical elements as a backdrop but wanted the thematic elements to bare more weight. His most difficult technical challenge was “gravity” – both the film and being bounded by gravity as the film takes place in micro-gravity. How does one make this happen? Once the theoretical constructs/figures were realized, how do the actors perform in these conditions? Cuarón confessed the challenge was more for those around him rather than himself – he said his job was easy.
I was blown away by ‘Gravity’. This is a gorgeous film and it does just about everything right in both big and small ways. From a technical standpoint, it’s astonishingly beautiful and intimately detailed; but, it is also precise in tone and a masterwork of controlled acting. The movie opens with a 13-minute tracking shot which is amongst the longest in Hollywood history and certainly the first of that length in 3-D. There is a speck in the distance surrounded by the infinite blackness which grows closer and closer until we realize that we’re looking at actual people. We get the sensation that we are actually watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and as I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder “How did Alfonso Cuarón (or his technological wizard) do that?”
When the collision in the movie takes place, the camera moves so fluidly, gliding through the debris (and technical conventions of filmmaking) before closing in on Ryan – going right through the visor on her helmet to demonstrate the stark terror on her face. What a thrilling experience this was – I was tense the entire time.
The bravura opening makes the camera the star of the picture. But, we need to talk about Sandra Bullock – she won an Academy Award four years ago for her work in the ‘The Blind Side’ and she will be nominated again for her work here. For a long period of time, this is a one-person show and the movie relies on Bullock’s performance – she is incredible. Her character is a scientist, not an astronaut (though she was trained as one); she is in the most stressful situation anyone can possibly imagine. But, my goodness, what an impact she leaves simply through breathing, her voice modulation and her facial expressions. She conveys her character’s history, arc, and “battle of will and can’t” in the most subtlest of ways in the most extraordinary of circumstances. This is the performance of Ms.Bullock’s career; perfectly illustrating the impact of a catastrophe on the human psyche. George Clooney (as always) is charming and charismatic – but these traits aren’t used for character exposition here. His appealing character qualities help calm Bullock’s petrified character. This isn’t just Danny Ocean floating in space ready with the perfect line for any situation. The performers’ faces and voices bear the burden of carrying all of the meaning.
We do learn a lot about these characters – it is essentially just the two of them (unless you factor in the voice speaking into their ears – Ed Harris; an ‘Apollo 13’ nod there). They have to learn about each other in a situation where every second counts – they’re tethered together, cut off from the Earth, and running low on oxygen. These two play off each other brilliantly.
Some idiots have complained to me about the movie’s believability and some incorrect science. This is a science-fiction movie. We don’t go into a movie like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ looking for realism. To quote a tweet from @peterhowellfilm “It’s a backwards compliment to the believability of #Gravity, a fictional space drama, that so many people are debating the science of it.” I noticed an “error” early on in the film – the proximity of the international space station relative to the Hubble Space Telescope; I believe they are actually in different orbits – knowing this, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment in the slightest. This could be why I’ve chosen to describe Gravity as an imperfect movie but a perfect moviegoing experience. Is there even such a thing as a perfect movie?
‘Gravity’ was the top-grossing movie at the box office last weekend and I suspect it will have many repeat viewings. I’ve expressed my loathing for 3-D in many previous reviews, but I strongly recommend that this movie be seen in IMAX 3-D; it is as mesmerizing an experience as you can ever hope for in this format. In fact, the 3-D is essential to the storytelling – this isn’t a gimmick to charge a premium for an inferior experience. Nothing in the movie — whether it be human bodies or space stations maintains a state of rest either on a vertical or horizontal plane. The 3-D renders the enormity of outer space – if a character recedes, they appear to be falling into a void. If someone approached me with $13.50 in their hand and asked “What movie should I see today?”, I would reach my pocket for $6.00, give it to the person and say “Go see Gravity in IMAX 3-D. You’re welcome.”
The budget for ‘Gravity’ was $100 million – this is less than half the budget for many of 2013’s big summer blockbusters. With $100 million, Mr.Cuarón was able to show us (ahem, Hollywood, take note) what wondrous things cinema is capable of. Cinema is still a young art form and I think the possibilities of film are unbounded; a film like ‘Gravity’ makes me believe that. This past summer, I may have been a little more cynical – for the most part, I saw expensively made pictures featuring great explosions but little heart or humanity. The “thinking man’s blockbuster” is a rarity – I hope ‘Gravity’ sparks this new genre.
Note: Having been to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I was lucky enough to see many of the big Oscar contenders; based on the universal critical acclaim that ‘Gravity’ has received, many have offered me their prediction saying that this is the movie that will win the Best Picture Oscar. I still think it will go to ’12 Years A Slave’ (which was a great movie for very different reasons). Only time will tell….QED
If nothing else, ‘Don Jon’ will go down in movie history as one of the most perversely exaggerated uses of New Jersey accents. Given that his a movie about porn addiction, I’m surprised that I’ve chosen to use the word “perverse” to describe the accents in this movie – people don’t “talk”, they tawk in an ova da tawp sort of way.
I didn’t like ‘Don Jon’ as I was watching it and now that a few days have passed and I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience as I write this review, I dislike it even more. The movie is sort of like a comedy version of ‘Shame’. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears three different hats – he’s the main star, writer, and director of ‘Don Jon’. I like him. I wish him all the best in the future as a filmmaker. He shows signs of promise but this is an entirely misguided effort – a failure of a film that is bad enough to make the purely innocent and untouched open their laptops and download gigabytes of obscene X-rated pornography.
Jon is a buff young dude. He hits the clubs on Saturday night, ogles some girls with his boys – they score the hotties on a scale of 0-10 and Jon makes his move on the one scored the highest (I don’t know if this is based on Jon’s score or the arithmetic mean of the three) . His technique is so good, his friends call him “The Don”. One day, he lays his sights on Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson in a Razzie-worthy performance). Jon tries to overcome his pornography addiction when he enters a committed relationship with this woman.
The club moments are shot like montages; and so are Jon’s routines – we see him go to the gym, vacuum his place, dish out road rage en route to church, confess his sins to the Priest again and again and again. The quick cuts of these scenes are annoyingly repetitive.
Jon is addicted to porn because he can’t lose himself in another person. When the big moment between him and Barbara happens, he complains about the fact that she wanted to do it in the missionary position; and in a way, he believes that is how all women would like to have sex. Given his luck at the nightclub, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that he wasn’t able to find anyone who was willing to do anything even remotely freaky. Maybe he should try picking up at another club (at least it would permit a minor variation in the club montages).
Most of the women in the movie are unlikable. Jon’s overbearing mother seems only concerned about not having any grandchildren. Barbara as the arrogant, high-maintenance girlfriend is easy on the eyes, but when she speaks, it is the sound of nails on a chalkboard. I haven’t even mentioned Esther (Julianne Moore); but, because she is Julianna Moore, we know that this character is not going to be played for laughs. And Jon’s sister (Brie Larson) remains muted until the very end when she delivers her one line of dialogue – because she has only one line of dialogue, what she says has to be profound; am I right?
At least we get to hear Tony Danza droppin’ f-bombs – such are the meager joys of ‘Don Jon’.
‘Shame’ was a great movie – we were viewing the Michael Fassbender character from under a microscope and the close-ups on his face show us a man exorcising his sexual demons. We didn’t like him but we didn’t want to see him continue along the course of self-destruction. ‘Don Jon’ wants you to love its protagonist and tries tirelessly to get you to love him. The more the film tried, the more I resisted. As a filmgoing experience, the movie’s commentary about the pleasures and limitations of masturbation didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Even more unforgiving is the fact that this is a comedy and I didn’t laugh very much. QED.
Shockingly, ‘Rush’ isn’t a documentary about everyone’s favorite Torontonian band. Those of you who love Formula 1 (I do not) should be familiar with the story: two 1970s era egotistical drivers – James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) compete for first place in the fast and furious world of Formula One racing. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t require you to know anything about Formula One or what took place in this sport during the time period – this is a very thrilling picture.
Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl capture the physical look of their real-life counterparts and deliver great performances (particularly Daniel Bruhl who I predict will be receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination – and it is worthy). Both perfectly capture the characteristic traits that make them rivals; Hunt – the playboy who drives recklessly and Lauda – calculating the odds and mitigating the risks accordingly.
This is an extraordinary film from a director (Ron Howard) who has had some big hits (‘Apollo 13’) and some big misses (‘The Da Vinci Code’). The terrific script by Peter Morgan (who also collaborated with Ron Howard on ‘Frost/Nixon’ in 2008) hones in one what makes these guys risk their lives each time they go to work – Lauda’s character states that he calculated a 20% chance of getting killed during each race. Hunt describes his car as a coffin surrounded by high-octane fuel – a bomb on wheels.
‘Rush’ is a great-looking movie – the pic looks and feels like it was made back in the days before disco. Credit cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he’s worked on Danny Boyle’s movies) for his grainy cinematography that transports us back in time. There are some horrific car crashes (the movie earns its R-rating) – there is very little between the driver, the metal, and the flames. I saw ‘Don Jon’ the same weekend and dumped on that movie for its overly repetitive quick edits. It is a challenge to make a movie about racing not feel repetitive and Howard succeeds admirably in this regard – whether it is the use of close-ups to make a grand sport like auto racing feel intimate or the first person point of view camerawork from inside the car. This is a stylish picture that never (pardon the pun) feels like it is just spinning its wheels.
I ended up caring about the main characters (which is uncommon in today’s moviegoing world) and how things would unfold for them. Mr.Howard doesn’t pick sides – this mano-a-mano between two very different people fighting for the same thing; you don’t want either of them to lose, despite their many human flaws which have been brought forward in this story. I think the real-life James Hunt would have loved this movie. QED.
I think we can all agree that violence against children is pretty terrible; if not, do not read any further and seek help immediately. Filmmakers have often used the child-in-peril setup to tell revenge stories; no punishment seems too extreme on those who cause the innocent to suffer.
Denis Villeneuve directed ‘Incendies’ (which was on my Top 10 of 2011) and he has now created another masterpiece. ‘Prisoners’ is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had – I will never forget this movie.
Two neighboring western Pennsylvania families get together for Thanksgiving dinner. The Dovers: father Keller (Hugh Jackman) and mother Grace (Maria Bello) visit the Birches: dad Franklin (Terrence Howard) and mom Nancy (Viola Davis). After dinner, as the adults are chatting and the teenagers are watching television, the two young girls - Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) - go outside. Time passes and they don’t return. The parents frantically search the two houses, run up and down the streets calling out their daughters’ names. The girls don’t turn up so they call the police. We then meet Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal); the initial clues point to a suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) – an adult with the mind of a 10 year old, but there is no hard evidence to charge him. Keller, the now-enraged, grief-stricken father goes to extreme measures to find and save his young daughter.
“He is not a person” Keller says of the man he believes to be responsible for the abduction of his young daughter and her friend. He believes what he says; this honorable family man will resort to torture and contemplate murder. He takes Alex to an abandoned building, beats him to a bloody pulp and locks him in a makeshift cell where scalding and freezing waters severely burn/freeze the occupant. Does Keller believe he will be able to get an answer out of Alex? Or is this just some form of rough justice? The other girl’s parents believe Keller is reacting irrationally – “We’re not going to help you but we won’t stop you either.” says Viola Davis’ character. Keller can’t understand why they’re failing to act – he views it as a sign of weakness.
But, ‘Prisoners’ isn’t a straight-forward revenge thriller. There are complications at every corner – and the uncertainty with the direction of the plot makes the experience all the more devastating.
Alex seems mentally unstable, there is a dead body in an elderly priest’s basement, and there is a dude with a haunted look and nervous mannerisms who shows up at a vigil with a stuffed animal – there are moments that are truly creepy and frightening. Though not exactly a horror movie, ‘Prisoners’ stands alongside ‘The Conjuring’ in terms of genuine scares; much of what transpires is suggested and little is seen – our imagination taps into some deep fears.
And while the movie also works as a whodunit, Denis Villeneuve is more interested in establishing creepy atmospherics and mood. Every scene in the film is permeated with a creeping sense of dread, a sense that something sinister lies beneath the surface and those bad things may turn worse at any moment. ‘Prisoners’ is every bit as grim as Mr.Villeneuve’s last picture ‘Incendies’; he appears to have a keen interest on philosophical/biblical themes – the nature of good and evil, faith, and fallen belief. Keller recites the Lord’s Prayer prior to committing acts of violence; we see crucifixes dangling from rear view mirrors. The name of the missing girl is Joy and her mother’s name is Grace.
Even when the crimes are stated and the criminals revealed, that sense of dread remains over the snowy landscape. The expressive qualities of the picture are in part due to the always excellent cinematographer Roger A Deakins (best known for his work on the films of the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes); a scene where Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters tails Hugh Jackman (the color palette consisting of dark grey and blue) shows rain transitioning into snow – perhaps inspired from Mr.Villeneuve’s hometown of Montreal.
What viewers may forget as they exit the theater is that the entire film takes place over the course of a single week. Most of us will feel as if it were longer – the movie expertly illustrates how slowly the moving hands of a clock rotate during moments of crisis. Few filmmakers working today can employ this level of discipline without feeling the need to punctuate such long quiet stretches with moments of action. It’s shot in such an intimate way that you are with these characters discovering pieces of the puzzle as they are; and (if you get as involved with the movie as I did), you will be startled from time to time, crush your popcorn into little bits and realize that you shouldn’t crush your popcorn because you don’t want to distract Loki or Keller from their investigation.
Mr.Villeneuve has always been able to draw amazing performances from his cast and ‘Prisoners’ is no exception. This is the performance of Hugh Jackman’s career – it’s solidly grounded and persuasively intense. Friends of mine have complained about the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal twitches a lot in this movie; whatever – his character is strongly written. His relationship to the kidnapping is on a professional level, but it has clearly impacted his personal life because it seems nonexistent; the only social conversation he has is with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant where he talks about the Chinese Zodiac; he also has Zodiac signs tattooed on his knuckles (interestingly enough, he starred in David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ in 2007). The performances from the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent.
‘Prisoners’ is a white-knuckle masterpiece of a thriller – it is an unforgettable experience. Just as Mr.Villeneuve’s ‘Incendies’ was on my Best Of list a couple of years ago, ‘Prisoners’ will certainly be on my Top 10 of 2013. Since many of you haven’t seen ‘Incendies’, I suggest giving it a rent. And see ‘Prisoners’. And maybe an animated Disney film to compensate for all of the unsavory material afterwards. QED.
‘The Butler’ tells the story of – oh wait, let me backtrack. Lee Daniels has got Tyler Perry Syndrome and has decided to call his latest film ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’. I guess he didn’t want to put his name on his previous film ‘The Paperboy’. Thankfully, Nicole Kidman doesn’t urinate on any former US presidents in this movie.
‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ has been #1 at the box office for the last two weekends and it might just be the highest grossing film again this weekend (or just behind the One Direction documentary). I decided to finally catch up with it to see what the fuss was about.
Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, Forest Whitaker is the fictionalized Cecil Gaines, an African-American who eyewitnesses key events of the last century during his 34 year tenure as a White House butler. Such events include the Civil Rights movement, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal – things we’re not particularly proud of.
As we head into the Fall season and with the Toronto International Film Festival just around the corner, I can confidently say that this movie is total Oscar bait and may receive some accolades (especially in the acting categories). To be sure, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ is a good movie – I’m giving it a positive review; but, part of me wishes that the filmmaker didn’t try so hard to get my tears. Even though he almost succeeded in that attempt, the moments where he is trying to make us feel uplifted, proud, and have us reach for our Kleenex are the weakest parts of the film – I was surprised that the “For Your Consideration” caption didn’t appear at the bottom of the screen during such scenes. This is a movie filled with powerful scenes and great performances and I think a little more subtlety could have made this a great film instead of a good one.
But, it is a good film and good movies should be celebrated. The movie’s most powerful moment for me: The Butler and his kitchen coworkers (played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr) are setting up a state dinner; intercutting this scene is David Oyelowo (as The Butler’s son) and a group of nonviolent protestors occupying a racially segregated lunch counter in Nashville. So, we’re seeing this fancy dinner taking place in Washington D.C. while at the same time in the southern part of the States, we’re seeing black people being provoked and beaten by the diner’s customers. Police officers show up to defuse the situation by also beating on the black folks.
It’s refreshing to see a movie that tackles important subjects like the civil rights movement and racism from the black point of view. ‘The Help’, which has a big hit in 2011, sort of scratched the surface on its racial themes and though it was a respectable (and good) motion picture, it lacked daring – the entire story is told from the white point of view; the Emma Stone character begins this writing project when she discovers the maltreatment of black housekeepers. Lee Daniels is an African –American filmmaker and I really liked seeing this story about black people going through this movement.
The performances are great all around. I think it’s safe to say that Forest Whitaker will be a lock for a Best Actor nomination – he is dignified, elegant, and strong playing the inspiring title character (the kind the Academy likes to reward). Oprah Winfrey (as the butler’s wife) shows great range and even gets to be a little trashy here (given that there were some incredible lead female performances this year, she may not receive an Oscar nom for her work here). But, to me, the real star here is David Oyelowo – his character has the most interesting arc and we see him grow as a 17 year old high school student to a 60-something supporter of the Democrat party. The script does occasionally put him in Forrest Gump-like situations – he is always at the wrong place at the wrong time; the aforementioned diner incident, then he’s attacked by the KKK while traveling on the freedom riders bus, then he’s with the Black Panthers, then he’s there when Martin Luther King gets shot. But, I suppose that’s what this movie is really about – us being able to witness our recent past through the eyes of this family.
More actors: Robin Williams is Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden is John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan, and Obama is Obama on the television sets in the background. Of all the presidential impersonations, James Marsden’s Kennedy is the best – Marsden pulls this off effortlessly – he looks the part and he has the accent down. John Cusack is able to find the insecurities within Nixon and build on that – it’s not a great imitation but the method makes for an unexpectedly good performance; one that doesn’t turn him into a caricature.
In any case, the actors playing the presidents are all background players and inconsequential to the story. What Lee Daniels and his screenwriters do really well here is take these defining political moments in American history and boil them down to human-sized experiences (which is also what ‘Forrest Gump’ did effectively). ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ isn’t a perfect film – I found the film’s episodic structure to be a little messy and found some of the Oscar-clip moments to be somewhat forced. But, this is an important movie and all the members of this large ensemble cast bring their A-game. I’m sure we’ll be talking about this movie again during Awards season. QED.