Wednesday, November 27, 2013

BREAKING THE AVERAGES: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is What a Sequel Should Be

To say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be a box office hit is a no-brainer. After all, the Suzanne Collins penned books are national best sellers and the 2012 film grossed over $400 million domestic alone. However, there remains the question as to whether its sequel is deserving of the same success.

Suffice it to say, it is. 

As the film opens, we find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, bearing a marked resemblance to Lynda Carter with her raven locks) returned to District 12, unaware that her success in the 74th Hunger Games has planted the seeds of civil unrest and burgeoning revolution. This fact has not escaped President Snow (a sublimely oily Donald Sutherland) who realizes that Katniss, and by extension all the other surviving game contestants, are a danger to the current regime. Therefore, he invokes a "little known reserve activation clause" that forces all winners to compete against each other in the 75th Hunger Games to the death.

In many ways, this film is superior to its predecessor. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) imbues the film with an overwhelming, oppressively fascist tone. The Capitol's futuristic, opulent USSR/Nazi architecture is evocative of those historical periods while at the same time serves as counterpoint to the impoverished squalor that pervades the thirteen districts. Technology is ever present, used in tracking the movements of all citizenry. It is a world that satirizes our own in terms of where our society is headed. Its power and horror comes from how it reflectively resonates in our own everyday lives. However, in this world, that regime is completely personified in President Snow, and thus gives our archer protagonist a suitable target to focus upon.

It is not an easy job for any actor, male or female, to shoulder an entire franchise. Yet Jennifer Lawrence seems to be able to do so effortlessly. Her performance is as fresh and vital as in the first film, and not one scene rings false. She carries you along and makes you care for not just her, but what concerns her; primarily, the safety of her mother (Paula Malcomson, whose character still has no name), her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields in a surprisingly mature performance), and boyfriend No. 1, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). However, Lawrence’s performance is supported by a fine cast of returning regulars. As annoying as he was in the first film, Peeta is given surprising depth by Josh Hutcherson. For a character that straddles the line between fully realized persona and ersatz Christ figure, Hutcherson does a very good balancing act. He makes the character humanly relatable, thus given an added spice to the story's love triangle. Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket also undergoes a surprising character shift, going from superficial to poignant; one that is perhaps emblematic of the revolutionary changes within society itself. In terms of acting, Woody Harrelson usually does no wrong, and he continues that streak here. His role as drunk mentor Haymitch is somewhat diminished compared to the first film but he makes his mark. As new Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the film's Lando Calrissianesque-cypher who leaves the audience guessing as to whether he is friend or foe (if one hasn't read the book, that is). I would be remiss if I did not mention Donald Sutherland, who actually manages to present a character who is both disarmingly charming yet coldly malevolent; providing the perfect foil for our heroine. Other notable additions to the class include Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen; all of whom elevate their "second banana" characters into individuals who, despite minimal screen time, the audience comes to care for.

Jo Willems' cinematography and Phillip Messina's production design makes for a fully realized world. If there is a sour note in the production, and granted it is not much of one, it is in John Newton Howard's score. It is essentially a rehash of the first film's score with barely any new themes or motifs of note. However, it does work within the context of the film, underscoring each scene’s import and meaning without overpowering it.

The film skillfully follows the second rule of trilogies in that it is more of the same, only heightened. Unlike other trilogies (I'm looking at you Matrix, of which this film's end is remarkably similar), Catching Fire whets one's appetite for this trilogy's conclusion. This film is intelligently, soulfully well-crafted. It tells the story of one girl's reluctant and seemingly hopeless battle against a tyrannical system. It packs an emotional punch that leaves the audience clamoring for the conclusion. Let's just hope that the forthcoming Mockingjay (Parts 1 and 2 - don't get me started on that one), is more The Lord of The Rings - The Return of the King and less Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in terms of conclusory satisfaction.

Friday, November 8, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a Bright Light In a Sea of Dark Cinematic Super-Heroics - [POSSIBLE SPOILERS]

In advance of this film, the folks at the satirical “Honest Movie Trailers” (only a YouTube search away) began their tongue-in-cheek summarization of Thor (2011) thusly: “Prepare for a film that only exists so non-nerds can recognize the blond guy in The Avengers.”  If one adheres to the postulate that the best satire always contains a glimmer of truth, then this is a sad indictment.  However, the same cannot be said for Thor: The Dark World, a film which, despite its missteps, is as close to “epic” as the Marvel Universe series of films have gotten.

Two years have passed since “The Battle for New York” as chronicled in 2009’s Marvel’s The Avengers.  “Thor” (Chris Hemsworth) along with “The Warriors Three” (“Fandral” (Zachary Levi), “Volstagg” (Ray Stevenson), and “Hogun” (Tadanobu Asano)) and “Lady Sif” (Jaimie Alexander), has been defending the nine realms from the forces of darkness.  However, the Thunder God who once lived for battle and glory takes no pleasure in his adventures, choosing instead to pine for mortal scientist "Jane Foster" (Natalie Portman) as he has been forbidden by "Odin the All-Father" (Battle-Armor-Santa-Claus Sir Anthony Hopkins) to return to Midgard (otherwise known as "Earth") for her. However, Jane comes to be possessed by the Aether, a destructive force of red energy that is sought after by the arch-nemesis of the Asgardians, the Dark Elves, who are led by "Malekith" (Christopher Eccleston). Thor must then forge a dark alliance with his half-brother "Loki" (fan-favorite Tom Hiddleston) and race against both time and the dark elves, who wish for nothing less than the annihilation of all creation, to find Jane before the Aether consumes her utterly.

Taking over the directoral reins from Kenneth Branagh, and working off a script from Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, sometime Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor forgoes the ersatz Shakespearian "Henry V" take and puts the characters and situations squarely in the space opera milieu with the only thing missing is the proverbial "singing fat lady".  

The film is a visually sumptuous feast.  As befitting a story about quasi-alien/mythological gods, the sets, the costumes, the scenery, are full of grandiose pageantry even if the 3-D renderings are somewhat off, especially with backgrounds that lose clarity.  Though not quite done in the distinctive style of Thor’s co-creator Jack Kirby, in many respects the set designs would have made him proud.  The realm of Asgard is a cornucopia of brilliant, primary-colored hues. By contrast, the Dark Elves and their ships are stark, earthy, and darkly green.  Whereas Asgard is the epitome of life in all its excess and splendor, the elvish world is a macrocosm of stark death and decay. However, the elvish side of the film is way too reminiscent of the Reman race in Star Trek: Nemesis, from the starkness and capabilities of the vessels to the relationship between the antagonist and his right-hand man. In fact, there’s a lot in this film that is evocative of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises; unsurprising since, through the course of the source material’s inception (especially under the watch of comic creator Walt Simonson, upon whose stories some of the film’s elements are based), "Thor" has been a grand space opera. To say more about the visuals would be to give away too much.  Suffice it to say that in that regard, this is one of the better comic-to-film translations. At times, it really does look and feel like a comic book come to life. 

For all that, though, the film is uneven. When the action takes place, it’s, pardon the expression, thunderous.  However, the action is, at times, injudiciously placed. Other scenes are juxtaposed against each other in a jarring fashion. One scene in particular, which should have carried potent weight, while visually stunning, is devoid of any real heft. Much of this has to do with the treatment of a certain character.  The audience is never given enough time to identify with the players. That, coupled with the almost perfunctory length of said scene, causes it to fail. This despite Brian Tyler’s surprisingly nuanced score, which ranges from brass nobility (with echoes of John Williams from another franchise by Marvel’s “Distinguished Competition”) to quieter, almost spiritual moments. The story's flow is disjointed, but this narrative aberration mostly takes place between the first and second acts. Once the second half of the film takes off, the ride continues until the very end.

What sets this film apart from most other super-heroic fare of late is that, while the stakes are high, the film doesn't take itself so seriously that it forgets to be fun.  Yes, there are battles in which there are civilians in danger, but this film reminds us that the hero is working to save lives, not just contribute to the collateral damage. The film also manages to balance out its proceedings with a liberal dose of organic humor which never seems forced, from Thor's use of mundane, every day items to "Darcy Lewis'" (Kat Dennings) ad-libbed quips.

Though his direction is somewhat off in certain scenes, credit Taylor towards his direction of the actors.  Chris Hemsworth cannot be dismissed as just another pretty face or muscular body. Between the events of the first film and the aforementioned Avengers, his Thor has matured as a character, and Hemsworth's performance is a far cry from the super-powered frat boy from the first film.  Hemsworth's Thor has grown to be a much more responsible, seasoned, nobly heroic character. He's just damned heroic (Much more so in this presentation, daresay, than another crimson caped, nihilistically-reimagined pseudo-demigod with his own film this past summer). It's an internal as well as physical performance; it's not so much what Hemnsworth says, or rather what he doesn't, but how he does it...a look here, a stance there.  Hemsworth is an actor of surprising depth and emotional acuity. Unfortunately, while there are moments that he seems lost in his own film, that issue has more to do with script concerns and direction than his actual performance.

As the villain "Malekith", Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) looks like a refugee from the Forgotten Realms fantasy series by way of the Borg (a comparison made all the more tongue-in-cheek given that the Borg Queen herself, Alice Krige, has a cameo in this film). Given that he's playing a character that solely exists (narratively and meta-textually) for the destruction of everything, there's not a whole lot to be expected by way of character nuance or development. He is appropriately driven and menacing, though his expression does seem more befuddled than actually menacing. As a villain, one could do worse.

Of course, fan favorite Loki is in the mix; his role expanded due to the character's rise in popularity. Ordinarily this would have been a source of concern, as more often than not re-writes to justify an actor's/character's expanded role can compromise the script, it's certainly not the case here.  Hiddleston gives a performance that deftly adds to the proceedings without overshadowing his co-stars, particularly Thor.  Loki's moral ambiguity remains intact throughout the tale, making him more compelling than his villainous turn in The Avengers. He provides the few genuine surprises to be had. Hiddleston knows when to be big and when to dial it back.  Even when he's being bad, he's oh, so good. He also has a quiet moment that is both shocking when juxtaposed with his normal carriage but understandable within context. Hiddleston gives a laudable presentation.

Natalie Portman's "Jane Foster", though still the film's damsel-in-distress, is not quite helpless.  However, for a scientist, her character doesn't seem to have sufficient chemistry with Thor. Hemsworth and Portman acquit the couple well, but quite frankly the passion that the couple is supposed to feel for each other is not quite there. We know the characters are in love because the story/script tells us they are, but the audience should feel this come viscerally from them. This is not in evidence; especially given the fact that Hemsworth seems to have more palpable chemistry with Jaimie Alexander.

Though many of the secondary characters have scant screen time, they never seem two-dimensional.  In fact, they fell more three-dimensional than they did in the first outing.  Possible-"Wonder Woman"-in-Training Jaimie Alexander infuses "Lady Sif" with an Amazonian regality which masks an unspoken yet emotionally palpable romantic pining for the Thunder God, for example. She has very little to say, but one cannot forget her presence when on screen. The tragedy of unrequited love evident in but a glance. Rene Russo, who portrayed "Frigga" in what amounted to a  blink-it-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the first film, is given the opportunity to play with the big boys and she makes the most of it to such an extent you find yourself wishing there were more of her.  Idris Elba makes up for his Pacific Rim overacting by infusing Heimdall with a noble-yet-stately and powerful quiescence. His character is not one to be trifled with.  Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and newcomer to the series Jonathan Howard provide the human and welcomed comic relief.

If there is any sour note to the performances, it surprisingly comes from Sir Anthony Hopkins as "Odin". While his character is the epitome of the distant and unapproachable, never-pleased father figure, half the time Hopkins' performance (at times seemingly phoned in) seems to reflect an attitude that the material is beneath him; despite this, there are moments of nuance in his performance; especially in one scene that would fall apart without it.  In that one moment, Hopkins earns his assuredly-costly paycheck. 

While Iron Man 3 was the most highly anticipated Marvel film of this year, Thor: The Dark World is arguably the superior film. While it doesn't quite live up to its potential, it is by no means a failure. Not in recent years has a super-hero production seem to embrace its source trappings without seeming embarrassed by them.  It's a big, loud and, yes, epic spectacle with a genuine heart and something that has been lacking in super-hero films of late: A hero to truly root for. At the film's conclusion, it is said that Thor will return.  This is one promise this reviewer hopes is kept.

[Oh, as for the now-requisite Marvel credits/post-credits scene...the mid-credit scene seems slipshod and hastily put together.  Definitely stay for the end credit scene. You'll be glad you did.]