Quick Takes: 12.04.13 – November Blockbuster Edition

You may not have noticed this as openly as I have, but we’re not always so quicksilver with our thoughts on all the films making theatrical rounds. Whether they’re ones we’ve been disappointed or surprised with, sometimes it’s just tough to get words out on all of them, particularly when combating a work/college schedule as our primary preoccupation. All that said, I’d feel remiss in not calling some mention to these discoveries of the past month, be them in the mainstream theatrical chain or at the top of the indie box office charts. Not all are worth recommending – as is often the case, some are quite horrid – but all are worth some level of discussion.

Hunger Games - Catching FireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Dir. Francis Lawrence | Grade: B-

The Hunger Games is a surprisingly indispensable series as far as YA fan franchises go, obsessed less with tumultuous love triangles (Twilight) or boyhood magic (Harry Potter) than it is with the crisp, cruel harshness of the world. Panem is no significant distance away from our own world, only with issues of poverty and class difference amplified to their extremes. It’s a shocking, surprising world that feels perfectly suited to the cinema, but that thematic weight is not necessarily an ideal match for its target audience, at least as far as studios are concerned. We talk often of how filmmakers don’t take children seriously, but teen audiences may be at an even greater risk of being underestimated by mainstream cinema.

To the first Hunger Games‘ credit, it far from rendered Suzanne Collins’ world as anything close to fluff. The cracked harshness of books was translated to an effective, but overused shakiness in Tom Stern’s pale, handheld cinematography, which often edged on misery porn. The script, too, failed to meet the most jarring elements of the arena, specifically the amputation of Peeta’s leg or the significant tidbit that those hideous CG dogs were genetically built from the corpses of murdered tributes. So heading into Catching Fire, the film is already building on a shaky, not so convincing foundation. So how better to cope than by rebuilding from scratch?

Hunger Games - Catching FireThat’s exactly what the film does and is actively about, moving beyond the gaunt wreckage of the previous film to start fresh and clean the slate. Our interest isn’t so much in titular games as it is upon the world and the characters living in it, and the impending tone of rebellion strikes a distinctly Princess Mononoke vibe, with Katniss’ Mockingjay filling in for that titular wolf girl. The practically nonexistent love triangle becomes an odd point of resonance for how benign it is, particularly to Katniss. Neither Gale nor Peeta is an overly interesting option, though Peeta is given a more sympathetic quality to his optimistic naivety. Katniss, meanwhile, is such a compelling protagonist on the simple basis that there’s nothing truly extraordinary about her. That’s an issue in sagas like Harry Potter which place so much stock on its characters’ every action, but Katniss is not the force motivating the revolution that’s building in Panem. Her status as a symbol of defiance comes as a complete accident to her because she’s not doing anything consciously heroic. Wear Katniss down to her core faculties and she’s just a terribly frightened girl burdened with the responsibility of life, grief and guilt, something Jennifer Lawrence embodies with a remarkable emotional honesty.

What limits the film, sadly, is the changeover from focusing on the fascinating smaller details of the district to heading once more into the hunger games, an event which nullifies the stakes by losing that crucial sense of “who the real enemy is”. The sense of spectacle is certainly improved by an enhanced production, complete with glorious IMAX for the arena-set scenes, which offers a stunning iconicism to the 2nd half. Unfortunately the script struggles to build the stakes as we head towards a conclusion, throwing threats at the characters without an ever more crucial apocalyptic tension building. Catching Fire is an undeniable improvement on its predecessor, complete with a luminous glow added by Francis Lawrence’s perfume-commercial loveliness, but it still pales in comparison to the potential of its source material. Most improved from its predecessor, though, are the more pointedly daft costumes of Trish Summerville, not just ridiculous for their own sake, but tuned often briskly to theme.

Thor - The Dark WorldThor: The Dark World (2013)
Dir. Alan Taylor | Grade: C-

Unfortunately not all expansion-set sequels seem capable of amplifying the stakes as much as they’ve expanded their scenery. Thor: The Dark World also worried itself with the tumult incited across the nine realms, yet decided to limply fall back on the old villain-seeks-MacGuffin device. Here that comes in the form of an all but invisible Christopher Eccleston as Dark Elf Malekith, who seeks the Aether, an amorphous cloud of red smoke with the power to blot out the universe. Yeah, seems kind of major. Maybe we call the Aven… nope. Doesn’t matter if all of everything is going to implode. Tony Stark’s on honeymoon. Captain America’s busy palling around with Scarlet Johansson (sincerely, who wouldn’t?), and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D…. fuck that show and all its unnecessary periods.

The stakes are monumental, but the sense of threat is oddly inert. Part of that is a side effect of the film’s comic tenor, which occasionally produces a potent giggle in mixing the different social conduct of Thor and Jane Foster’s worlds. “How do I get to Greenwich,” Chris Hemsworth booms with hilarious purpose. Unfortunately the film never properly decides whether it’s light or dark entertainment, nor does it strike a balance between the two. It makes it feel bloated and utterly disposable, creating no discernible change in the world or the characters by the end. The Marvel universe is one that can’t afford to set its world on fire. It has to keep it nice and tidy for Avengers 2, which only gets us wondering if there’s any worthwhile point at all to these Phase 2 films.

Ender's GameEnder’s Game (2013)
Dir. Gavin Hood | Grade: B

I wish I’d been more vocal in my admiration of Ender’s Game, the one blockbuster installment of this thoroughly satisfying mainstream November that’s really needed the boost. I guess I could blame my silence on an overwhelming flush of college work – something I should probably prioritize above boosting my already swollen 2013 film catalog – but I’ve honest just haven’t been confident enough to broach the subject of the controversy that surrounded the film. By now Orson Scott Card’s sideways personal beliefs have been safely separated from the film, but at the time of its release there was more discussion about Card’s politics than there was about the film itself, a bright and busy futurist saga with an adventurous streak, in spite the plot’s lack of conventional adventuring.

Its titular protagonist, played by a fiercely perceptive Asa Butterfield, recruited in Earth’s last ditch defense plan to fight off the Formics, an insect-like alien race (what other kind is there?) whose initial siege on Earth failed. Naturally, he’s only 12, the military’s new plan relying on video game generation kids’ aptitude for skillful, hyperactive warfare on a decidedly inhuman level. Rather than launch our kid protagonists into an exciting, glorified warfare, the film mostly spends time pitting these kids against each other during training. Typical YA fare, though with a healthy dose of empathy and understanding between characters and sympathy for even the most disastrously misguided wannabe antagonists such as Moises Arias’ impishly irritating Bonzo.

Of course being nice and understanding is just unhealthy frosting if not attached to weightier moral consequences, which come to haunt Ender almost immediately after every victory he achieves. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” This quote preceding the film may well trick viewers (myself included) into thinking it some wise phrase from our own history, but it in fact belongs to the history the film is creating along the way. The film undercuts its futuristic landscape with a feeling of inescapable misguidedness that’s more indicative of a period piece. The film even puts off something of a Tarkovsky vibe, be it glossed up with over-simulated effects and kept on a regimented dosage of Ritalin. Ender’s Game shows it’s never too late to make mistakes that future generations will grow to hate you for, no matter how much grief you shed over them.

Enough SaidEnough Said (2013)
Dir. Nicole Holofcener | Grade: B

As a Nicole Holofcener virgin, her natural, patient filmmaking style may well impress me more than it does others, but I was quite strongly encouraged by how underplayed the drama and humor is in this movie. It may feel a tad stilted, but Holofcener doesn’t force dialogue where it wouldn’t naturally occur, making her characters all the more awkward and the ludicrous situations they find themselves in… well, they still feel rather ludicrous. It may all feel natural, but don’t call Holofcener a realist. The situation that the characters of Enough Said find themselves in is one any reasonable human being would manage easily in a heartbeat. That Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Eva fails to in the slightest says more compelling things about her character than dissuasive things about the film.

A masseuse juggling her relationships both romantic and platonic, briefly unaware that the two key parties are ex-partners, could be the grounds for mediocre melodrama, but here it’s the grounds for analysis of relationships aborted, adopted and in transition. As Eva’s unconventionally handsome and wholly loveable lover Albert, James Gandolfini does little above his usual work, which is to say he’s just as magnetic a screen personality as he’s always been. The underplayed quality of his character filters that charm through a more minute sincerity, as both Eva and Albert approach their relationship with the tentative nervousness that exemplifies many a post-divorce romance. That unease perhaps makes her lack of honesty to Albert excusable, but only so far as to earn our sympathy; not to get her off the hook for this most obvious misstep.

There’s automatically an element of unintended heartbreak to the film lent by Gandolfini’s death, though that only causes us to further cherish those universal qualities of his brand; the warmest and his heavy imposition. We’d be just as unlucky to lose the other spry members of this incredibly sympathetic cast, from TV veterans Louis-Dreyfus and Toni Collette to relative newcomers Eve Hewson and Tracy Fairaway as Albert and Eva’s defiant daughters, respectively. They all feel part of a close-knit family, and the sublimely simple end credit of “For Jim” speaks simply and sweetly to that.

What did you see in November?

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  • After finishing up my “Good Wife” marathon, been making a concerted effort to see more movies over the past few weeks. Have seen just a ton of stuff recently (hence this super lengthy post) as a result, including quite a few terrific films from the current year.

    “Skyfall” and “Casino Royale” (A)

    Both terrific films, with a level of successfully realized thematic and emotional impact that I haven’t seen from a mainstream action blockbuster since “The Dark Knight”. The former especially is some seriously bleak, haunting stuff.

    “Army of Darkness” (B)

    The weakest of the trilogy by far, though still good. Starts phenomenally well, with the same deranged sense of humor that characterized much of “Evil Dead
    II”. Ends with a rather dull and protracted battle sequence, unfortunately. Also, alternate ending is WAY better than the original.

    “Spring Breakers” (B)

    Fascinating in its scathing critique of various aspects of
    America life, and of cinema in general. And as an exercise in pure style,
    remarkable. But the narrative elements do not work at all.

    “Frozen” (A)

    Going to watch this a second time this afternoon. Loved it so much. Great
    songs (though I wish there had been one more), great characters, and a
    wonderful and resoundingly feminist story. (The preceding short Get a Horse”
    gets an A as well. Spectacular and hilarious.)

    “The Kid with a Bike” (A)

    Becomes more and more involving as it goes on and starts to delve into the reasons (though not in any way excuse) for its young protagonist’s often loathsome behavior. By the end, it has become a powerful, resonant masterpiece, with some extraordinary long takes.

    “Bridesmaids” (A)

    Funniest comedy I’ve seen from this century so far. A tour de force comic
    performance from Kristen Wiig (the cookie-destroying scene is one of the
    funniest things I’ve seen in ages), and consistently hilarious writing.

    “The House of the Devil” (B+)

    Wish the last couple of scenes had measured up to the
    tense, beautifully chilling build-up. Alas, no. But overall, good stuff. West
    is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

    “Much Ado About Nothing” (A)

    Loved this. So fun to watch these actors have a ball
    performing Shakespeare’s delightful dialogue, and there are a number of
    absolutely exquisite compositions.

    “Frances Ha” (A)

    Simply a joy from start to finish, thanks to a smart, funny, thematically rich
    script and fantastic performances from Gerwig and Sumner. One of the very best
    films of what’s been a simply fantastic year. Seriously, I haven’t even seen
    most of the awards contenders, and I’ve already got a top 10 made up entirely
    of absolute, grade-A masterpieces.

    “Computer Chess” (D+)

    And then there’s this. Starts off interestingly enough (the subject of computer chess is a fascinating one), but soon becomes about a number of half-realized ideas. One would think its lack of focus would make it at least interesting to watch, but no, that’s not the case either. The cinematography has its moments, and there are one or two flashes of wit in the script, but other than that, this is an awful, awful film.

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