"Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." -Inception

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games was probably my second most anticipated film of the year after The Dark Knight Rises and I'm so pleased that they've both lived up to expectations.  As fun as the Harry Potter films were, the inner fan in me was always disappointed in the scenes they did leave out in the films.  No such problems here.  The Hunger Games delivers on all levels especially in the screenplay that touches on all the main points from the books and visually brings to life the spectacle of the gruesome games.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a name we all now know as well as Harry Potter or Bella Swan, is a determined young woman who lives with her mother and sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in District 12 in Panem, a dystopian future where the Capitol rules over Districts just like the one Katniss lives in.  In this future, two tributes (i.e. children) from each district must be sent to the Capitol to participate in The Hunger Games to remind people of the uprising against Panem and serve as a reminder never to be occurred again.  The Hunger Games has echoes of the Greek tales of Theseus and the Minotaur as well but it borrows most of its themes from reality television we have grow so accustomed to.

Author Suzanne Collins takes the competition to another level with children fighting to the death to survive and bring stability and food to their Districts for a whole year.  And yes, with a title like The Hunger Games, there's a whole lot of focus on food.  When Primrose's name is picked the first year she's eligible for the games, big sister Katniss volunteers herself and sets up events that will change the history of Panem.

The other tribute and her competitor essentially is Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom she has a complicated moment when she was younger and feels at her lowest.  The movie dwells on it and it's extremely important as it sets up how Katniss treats him.  Within no time, the pair is whisked off to the Capitol to participate in the games.  On the train, they meet Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), their mentor and previous winner from District 12 along with their perky guide Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).

The games are grueling, mentally and physically and the film does a good job of showing how you have to compete not just in the arena but to be savvy for the sponsors that will aide along the way and be liked by the public that supports you as well.  Isn't that the case with any reality show participant? It's not how good you are, it's how well you play the game.  Peeta has a better handle on this as he knows it's his best chance to survive while Katniss is focused on her survival skills for the arena.

Both of them are up against formidable foes like Glimmer (Leven Rambin) and Cato (Alexander Ludwig) who won't think twice before killing and possible allies like Thresh and Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who are just like them trying to stay alive. Like in any reality show, alliances are made and then cruelly broken when it becomes clear, it's all about you in the end.

Haymitch, who tries to procure sponsors so that his tributes stay alive, tries to spin "the star-crossed lovers" angle for Katniss and Peeta.  They have to rely on each other to make it through the ordeal.  Besides the clueless public and the sponsors, overseeing the games is Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who throws in fire and wild animals to prod the contestants when he thinks the action onscreen isn't interesting enough.  However, the man running them is all, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), is a shrewd leader who's sees beyond Katniss' minor rebellions on the show and the effect it has on the people in the outer districts.

The movie deals with all these characters well, introducing them and setting up their character arcs, only Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' best friend and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), her stylist and designer aren't given enough time to develop fully.  But as is the case with any big Hollywood film, it'll all be dealt with in the sequel.  Katniss' story is told through three books that make up The Hunger Games trilogy and the second film is due out next year.

The differences between the Capitol and the outer districts is staggering.  The Capitol is a bustling city of tomorrow whose citizens are obsessed with plastic surgery, color and fashion while in the outer districts, every day is a struggle to survive for basic needs like food and shelter. The bleakness vs. the vividness of the Capitol is seen right away and I'm guessing we'll see more of it in the movies to follow as well.

The costumes are pretty much what I imagined except I thought the flames on Katniss' Girl on Fire dress would be higher.  The movie makes them more realistic.  The mutations were also less scary than they are described in the books; they have the eyes of the fallen tributes and they taunt Katniss, Peeta and Cato.  I guess that would have made it into a stronger rating for the film maybe that's why the idea was dropped.

And lastly the reason why the film was so enjoyable was due to Jennifer Lawrence.  She almost has the same journey as Katniss.  Even though she's an Oscar nominee last year, many people didn't know who she was.  Now, with the promotion and the kind of money the film has made, everyone knows who Lawrence is.  She portrays Katniss' survival instincts and her fear of losing her sister like second skin.  She really is a fine young actress and you identify instantly.  The rest of the actors are all well cast and this becomes the rare case in the film where the actor is cast for the acting and not because he/she looks the part as can be argued for Josh Hutcherson for Peeta Mallark.

The movie will bring in new fans who obviously haven't the books and while the film is very thrilling and exciting, the books have this urgency and fear that can't be translated onscreen.  The Hunger Games has given us a new heroine to root for in Katniss Everdeen and I can't wait to see the rest of her journey as she leads an uprising against Panem.  Trust me, you'll be hooked too.

Directed by Gary Ross; Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray; Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; Cinematography by Tom Stern; Edited by Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfing; Music by James Newton Howard


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Movie Review: Bernie

Before choosing to view Bernie, I remembered Roger Ebert's positive review of it and decided to give it a try.  Ebert says that director Richard Linklater's "genius was to see Jack Black as Bernie Tiede."  It's for precisely this reason one should watch Bernie.  Jack Black becomes Bernie and just as he casts a spell over the town of Carthage and Majorie Nugent, he manages to endear himself to the audience as well.

Bernie Tiede is the assistant funeral director in Carthage where he become an indelible part of the community.  He sings at funerals, Sunday church services and at the local theater company productions.  He knows just what to say to a grieving relative and how to make the recently deceased look "at peace".  He also sees the good parts of everyone and is generous to a fault.  In contrast, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the most hated woman in town.

He meets the disgruntled widow at her husband's funeral where she's feuding with virtually everyone in her family.  Bernie tries to befriend the lonely old woman and after some time finally succeeds.  Everyone in town is surprised at their friendship, they take trips to the Broadway, to the spa and travel abroad to Europe.  Bernie's time is usurped by his friendship to Marjorie; he gives up his job and basically becomes Marjorie's caretaker to the extent where he handles her finances as well.

Over time, the cracks in their relationship start to show.  There's a reason why Marjorie is the most hated woman in town and even Bernie can't spin her behavior towards others and himself.  She is possessive and jealous of him and time he spends apart from her.  There comes a day when Bernie breaks down and shoots Marjorie in her house.

And that's when the story get weirder.  Bernie covers up his crime and makes everyone believe she's alive for the next nine months! The film is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede who is now serving life in prison for Marjorie Nugent's murder.  Director Linklater includes testimonies of the real townspeople into the film and they give their honest opinion on Bernie, the case and the verdict.  They never believed Bernie had it in him to kill Marjorie and thought he was provoked.  I thought this was the most fascinating part of the film and great way to incorporate the feelings of the divided town.

That's the reason why the over-zealous district attorney David 'Buck' Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) makes it his personal mission to make sure the town doesn't automatically acquit Bernie and get the trial moved to another place.  The DVD cover reads: A story so unbelievable, it must true.  The most fascinating stories come out of real-life events and as it's said often, you can't make this stuff up.

One of the main reason I enjoyed Bernie was because of Jack Black's performance.  He brings a real humanity to the role and you begin to discover the Bernie the townspeople of Carthage knew.  Black's last few screen roles have been disastrous.  I'm still trying to forget Gulliver's Travels and he's better off heard than seen in the Kung Fu Panda films but with this film, he brings back the actor we once liked again.  And that's a good thing.  Welcome back, Jack Black.

Directed by Richard Linklater; Written by Richard Linklater and Hollandsworth; Cinematography by Dick Pope; Edited by Sandra Adair; Music by Graham Reynolds.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Catching Fire: Sam Claflin as Finnick!

So it's official now.  Sam Claflin will play Finnick Odair in the sequel to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire.  Out of all the casting news for the film that came out within the last few weeks, this was the one that fans were eagerly awaiting, including me.

After Peeta and Gale, Finnick's the one character people will tell you that they love.  You can't judge a character by their looks and when Katniss first meets him, he's wearing nothing but a fishing net and a trident!  It doesn't help that he's described as drop-dead gorgeous.  But as author Suzanne Collins reveals Finnick to us slowly over the last two books and his backstory is known, you'll come to like Finnick even more.

Thanks to the fan-vids out there, I'd already imagined Garrett Hedlund (Tron) in the role.  I don't know what Claflin will bring to it as I've only seen the one movie of his, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he will do justice to the role.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Movie Review: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It's not.
                                                                                                                                            -Dr. Seuss

This message which appears at the end of the film sums up this film perfectly.  This is what you'll remember about the film long after you've seen it and it's a great message to start to introduce to young children about the environment and what we can do to help it.

The Lorax is the story of the town of Thneedville where there are no more trees, just plastic ones which inflate with air and have the setting of spring, summer, fall, winter and disco.  The people of Thneedville are also controlled by O'Hare Air since there are no longer any trees to create fresh air.  Most people have even forgotten what a tree looks and feels like.  Except Audrey.

Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) paints them in her backyard and longs to see just one again.  Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) wants to impress her and decides he should find out how to get trees back again by speaking to the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms).  His Grammy (voiced by Betty White) encourages him as she remembers as a young child how it used to be.

At first, the Once-ler doesn't want to talk.  But he opens up on his folly of making Thneeds out the trees that grew all over the valley until every last one was gone.  He was warned by the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), a mythical little creature who spoke for the trees and the rest of animals who lived in the forest but the Once-ler chose not to listen and now here they are, unless there is someone who cares.

Ted does, so does his family and Audrey and eventually they show the people of Thneedville on what they've been missing out on.  The film is sweet and optimistic, filled with happy colors and scenery.   The animation is great and has many comic moments.  This is the same studio that created Despicable Me and they certainly have improved from that film.  The fur and hair of the characters is very well done and especially the cotton candy-like trees that look like they stepped out of the books and world that Dr. Seuss created.  

However, there are many portions where the film lags.  Not every animation needs to be a musical you know.  I feel these days they are just sequences to make the animation more fantastical but it just grew boring.  I did appreciate the message being told in the film and would recommend it for younger kids.  It's about time someone spoke up for the trees.

Directed by Chris Renaud and co-directed by Kyle Balda; Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul; Based on the book by Dr. Seuss; Editing by Claire Dodgson, Steven Liu, Ken Schretzmann; Music by John Powell.


Movie Review: The Dictator

What can you say about a film that opens with a dedication to the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il?  That should give us a big clue of the direction this film is headed.  After Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brings us another new character in The Dictator.  The film is set in the fictional country the Republic of Wadiya where Admiral General Aladeen rules with an iron fist.  Well, that's he would like you to believe.  In actuality, Admiral Aladeen is about as clueless as Dr. Evil in the first Austin Powers on his country and its people.

Aladeen played by a farcical Baron Cohen is really just an overgrown child who doesn't know what he wants. Due to some very strange circumstances, he is stranded in New York City where he is supposed to giving a speech at the United Nations.  How he ends up working for an political activist Zoey (Anna Faris) who wants Wadiya to become a democratic nation and falling for her becomes the rest of the film and story.

Aladeen no longer has his trademark beard and becomes just a regular Joe wandering the streets, who thinks that a homeless man with a shopping cart is actually "average American shopper".  This is all a conspiracy of his Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) who wants democracy for Wadiya just so he can sell the oil to the highest bidders and pocket the money.  He should be the actual heir to the throne and by replacing Aladeen on with a dimwitted double (also played by Baron Cohen) who he can control, he'll finally get what he deserves.

Meanwhile, Aladeen doesn't want Wadiya to be democratic just so that he do what he pleases.  He wins every race at the Wadiya Olympic Games and actually shoots at his fellow competitors, he wins all the awards at the Wadiya Golden Globes where he stars in such movies as 'You've Got Mail Bomb', he changes most words in the dictionary to Aladeen and he tries to get his scientists to make a nuclear missile that will attack Israel.  Appalling whims of a dictator but Baron Cohen makes it work as only he can do.

Anyone who displeases the dictator, however, heads to execution as one gesture indicating a throat slip is the signal to be sent away to the gallows.  So when Aladeen finds his formerly executed nuclear scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) working as a Genius at the Apple store (nice touch!), he finds an ally in his former nemesis.  It turns out that not everyone was executed as presumed; they all just migrated to 'Little Wadiya' in America.  Well, then.  Our dictator is not much of a dictator than just a petulant and spoilt man.

As is the case in most Baron Cohen films, there is humor involving nudity (male and female) and those of the gross out kind.  And because it is him, we almost expect it as well.  But there were some genuinely funny moments where I could not stop laughing and parts where I was waiting for the laughs to come.  Unlike his previous characters, Borat and Bruno, the humor in this film is scripted while the humor in the other films came from people reacting to those characters.  That's what made them even more hysterical.  They just didn't know what to make of him.

The supporting characters all have a fantastic chemistry with Baron Cohen especially the scientist Nadal.  I found their scenes together most hilarious.  What was poor Sir Ben Kingsley doing in this film?  It's good to know that he does have a sense of humor though.  There's a funny cameo by Edward Norton and I thought the covers of songs like Dolly Parton's '9 to 5', REM's 'Everybody Hurts' and the love anthem 'Let's Get It On' with an Arabic twist was truly inspired.

With director Larry David, Baron Cohen has created a character who shocks with his words and actions, a foreigner in a strange land who just doesn't know any better.  But we've seen Bruno and Borat and while The Dictator will definitely entertain and amuse you, I still feel there was something missing.

Before I end, there is this one great speech by Aladeen on the virtues on having a dictatorship which is worth sharing:

Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship.  You could let 1% of the people have all the nation's wealth.  You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes.  And bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education.  Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family.  You could wiretap phones.  You could torture foreign prisoners.  You could have rigged elections.  You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain.  You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests.

Directed by Larry David; Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer; Cinematography by Lawrence Sher; Edited by Greg Hayden and Eric Kissack; Music by Erran Baron Cohen.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

New Pixar Short: Partysaurus Rex

Partysaurus Rex
It's not quite Toy Story 4 but the newest Pixar short,  Partysaurus Rex, that's due to debut in front of Finding Nemo 3D will feature on an unlikely hero.  This time, it's the anxiety-ridden dinosaur Rex who gets chosen for bath time and meets some new friends.

(Photo: Entertainment Weekly)
This latest short in the Toy Story Toons series will be directed by Mark Walsh who says in this new bath time scenario, Rex gets to reinvent himself.  What do we think of the new stills?  It's very much in keeping with the bright and happy colors we last saw in Toy Story 3 and I do believe those stickers on the bathtub are an in-house nod towards the main feature, Finding Nemo.

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