Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

With the highly popular Harry Potter fantasy film series well behind us and the latest incarnation of Lord of the Rings not living up to its notably high expectations, there’s definitely an opportunity for a fantasy saga to soak in some of the unoccupied Hollywood limelight.

Whilst the first film in the intriguing Hunger Games saga might not have convinced all fantasy geeks of its splendour, the second instalment, Catching Fire confidently cements the series’ reputation as the current leading fantasy adventure franchise. It’s an improvement on its predecessor in all ways possible, proving once again what a dramatic difference a swap in the director chairs can have on a film franchise.

To be honest, I was probably a bit hard on the first Hunger Games movie, mostly because the strong teen romance thread reminded me too much of the aggravating and melodramatic Twilight series. To the benefit of the second film though, the plot is much less concerned with themes of love, and rather opts to delve deeper in the series’ far darker and consequently more intriguing motives.
“The result is a highly enthralling fantasy film that works on a diverse number of levels of storytelling.”
The result is a highly enthralling fantasy film that works on a diverse number of levels of storytelling. Politics are a big part of the fantasy backdrop of this world and thanks partly to stunning performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland, results in an interesting look at the power of propaganda and the darker side of public relations. The film’s exploration of class inequalities also gets more attention this time around and will leave you with some powerful food for thought. However, the human race’s increasingly alarming obsession with outrageous spectacle is once again at the forefront of affairs here but is explored in greater and more terrifying detail this time around.

Don’t however let all the heavy subject matter fool you into thinking that you’re not going to experience any heart pounding action. Whilst the first part of the film is distinctly quiet and dialogue orientated, the second part serves for a satisfying sense of balance thanks to outstanding action scenes. Luckily, these benefit from the same sense of dread and urgency established in the first Hunger Games movie.

Director Francis Lawrence has brought his A-game to the table, as the pacing here is more or less spot-on throughout the film’s lengthy 2-and-a-half-hour runtime. The dialogue heavy scenes are always thought provoking and enthralling, whilst the action sequences are captivating and unpredictable.  Lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence’s effortless shift between dramatic actor and action star is praiseworthy, easily overshadowing some of the weaker cast performances from Elizabeth Banks and Josh Hutcherson.
“The dialogue heavy scenes are always thought provoking and enthralling, whilst the action sequences are captivating and unpredictable.”
Catching Fire is truly a triumph for all involved, accomplishing the rare feat of simultaneously being an intriguing character study as well as an enthralling action/adventure film. What makes it unforgettable though is that it does all of this whilst delivering powerful and highly relevant social commentary.

These kids have much more to worry about than any young adult should...

Highlight: The announcement of a shocking change to the annual Hunger Games tournament breaks the film’s delicate web of hope in a matter of moments, leading the film’s plot in an intriguingly unpredicted direction. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Conjuring

It really feels like it’s been ages since I’ve had the pleasure of seeing an impressive horror crawl its way out of the big screen. And as a fan of horror films, my expectations are quite high, which explains why I feel that there are way too many directors that just shouldn’t bother trying to make authentic and believable horror movies at all. This without denying the fact that the horror genre is an extremely tricky one to master, as the line between cheesy and gory is usually a very shaky tight rope that can easily curve in an unintended way if all elements are not spot-on.

Australian director, James Wan has however managed to deliver a highly pleasing horror film in the form of his latest creation, The Conjuring. And if the name doesn’t ring a bell, it might help if I told you that this is the director of the highly successful, but critic despised ‘Saw’ franchise. With that in mind, you’re probably expecting a very gory and over the top direction for The Conjuring, but I am pleased to announce that The Conjuring is nothing like Saw. And whilst I’m a big fan of the Saw franchise (for non-technical reasons), The Conjuring’s lack of similarity to Saw is definitely a good thing in this case.

From a plotline perspective, there’s not much originality here to get excited about. The victims here are your typical blissfully unaware family that have just moved into a new house. And as you would guess, the house is infested with a bunch of evil spirits that would like nothing but to have the place back to themselves. At first there’s not much bothering the household, but once mysterious and inexplicable events such as the death of the family dog starts happening, they decide to call in the help of a fairly well known ghost busting duo, in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warren’s quickly realise that the family’s issues are caused by a highly aggressive demonic force that threaten the family’s lives. Luckily though, they agree to help the family out to get rid of this very pesky infestation.

Whilst the story certainly doesn’t impress much with its typical horror recipe, the film succeeds in other, more important areas, making for an ultimately great horror film. Firstly, there’s a great sense of pacing here that you aren’t likely to find in a horror film. Director Wan does a masterful job in painting a detailed backdrop of characterisation for his story, before adding generous and well-timed splashes of red blood and dreadful frights. By the time the shit hits the metaphorical fan, you really do feel as if you care for the characters, making their plight and helplessness against the evil forces they encounter that much more impactful.
"By the time the shit hits the metaphorical fan, you really do feel as if you care for the characters, making their plight and helplessness against the evil forces they encounter that much more impactful."
And the scares, don’t underestimate the scares. I tried my best to anticipate the ‘WHA!!’ moments in this one, but I embarrassingly found myself jolting out of my seat numerous times throughout the film. These jolting frights are however used sparingly and never feel like a cheap trick just to get some reaction from the audience. And better yet, these scares are all the more effective as you very quickly get drawn into the story (and your ability to anticipate the frights as a result), thanks partly to the authentic early 70’s setting as well as through believable performances by a strong cast of Hollywood A-listers. Most noticeable here are the performances of the female leads, Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga, both playing very different characters that become juxtaposed later on in the film to great effect.

The best sign of a successful horror film for me is however the sense of trepidation and helplessness it instils in the viewer. I must honestly say, that it’s been a while since I’ve felt such an unpleasant sense of dread in a film. This builds up gradually during the course of the film, ending in a terrifying crescendo that will please both casual horror fans as well as those just brave enough to dare one every now and then. Wan’s success with this film was recently awarded with the recognition that it’s the highest grossing Australian film of all time, as well as the honour of it being recognised as the only the third horror film to gross more than US$100 million in the North American summer.

Highlight: Definitely the climax, where all hell breaks lose... Making Marlena Evans' possession look like child's play.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Man of Steel

If you’re a die-hard fan of superman (like I am), then you probably don’t mind the fact that it hasn't taken that long for Clark Kent to return to the big screen like a speeding bullet through the sky, shortly after the previous film, Superman Returns. For those of you who are less impressed by one of America’s greatest heroes, then it might take a bit more convincing to get you excited for Man of Steel, Superman’s latest outing. But hopefully this review can solve that little issue…

Directed by Zack Snyder, Man of Steel definitely tries to take the series back to its roots, focussing on how Superman actually became the Man of Steel. Because of this, a big portion of the film takes place on Superman’s home planet, the fantastical alien world of Krypton. And this is the moment where sci-fi geeks explode with excitement, as Krypton truly is an amazing world, brought to life in an astonishing fashion by director Snyder, best known for his equally outlandish work on Sucker Punch, Watchmen and 300. Alien races, their spaceships, and their world truly seem mesmerisingly beautiful, but highly threatening at the same time as Kent’s family and loved ones are caught in the midst of a very alarming political war.

"Alien races, their spaceships, and their world truly seem mesmerisingly beautiful, but highly threatening at the same time as Kent’s family and loved ones are caught in the midst of a very alarming political war."

When the story finally gets taken to familiar shores on planet earth, there is a welcome slowing of the pace, as the audience gets the opportunity to learn more about the strong bonds that Clark Kent has forged with his human family, as well as the bigger community he grew up in. This story arc is woven into the entire fabric of the movie as a type of golden thread, imbuing the film with an impactful sense of emotional resonance. Oh and there’s also a nice love story added here for those romantics amongst us. Don't however expect anything groundbreaking in terms of the storyline though, it's all very standard Hollywood fare.

But let's be serious, no one watches a superhero movie for the riveting story or character development. In-between of all those story filler scenes, are also a lot of amazing action sequences that are taken to the next level thanks to out of this world digital effects. There is one scene in particular when Superman faces off with his fellow Kryptonians (peeps hailing from his home planet) that is sure to blow your socks right off, so please make sure to wear proper footwear when you go see this one!

Whilst it’s difficult to argue that Man of Steel is the best film in the Superman franchise, it definitely is one of the most memorable ones. And even if you’re not a big superhero movie fan, I strongly recommend it as a great introduction to this fabled legend that has had an undeniable influence on modern pop culture. It's not as profound as it wants to believe it is, but still way worth the trip to the cinema (even though you can't fly). 

Don't the calm demeanour fool you. This guy has a lot to worry about. 

Highlight: A jaw-droppingly awesome fight scene between Superman and his alien friends made me feel like a little kid again. 

(Note: I would have given this one an 8 if it wasn't for the painfully corny dialogue that rears its ugly head every now and then)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Great Gatsby

I think I actually get Baz Luhrmann now. I do however still think Moulin Rouge is an overstated catastrophe intended as a love letter to gay men and delusional teen girls, but at least Luhrmann’s latest cinematic extravaganza has made me understand what makes Luhrmann films so enthralling. Taking all the mixed reviews the film has received into consideration, it's still hard to deny that there is something truly special and memorable about this version of The Great Gatsby.

Although I have never been a fan of books (or anything with pages for that matter) I am assured that the original novel that inspired this grand undertaking definitely lends itself to a Luhrmann adaptation. If there is one clear triumph here, it is surely Luhrmann’s vision of Gatsby's estate, overflowing with all the grandeur, noise, colour and smells you could hope for in a period film.

At first sight of Gatsby's mansion, I was transported to a world so enviable and enticing that I found myself imagining being one of Gatsby's esteemed guests myself. It will surely bring up memories of Moulin Rouge, but works better due to Luhrmann's opportunity to juxtapose this lavish setting with the desolate outskirts of the industrial side of town, as well as the infectious, but threatening hustle and bustle of the main city centre. Luhrmann is a true artist when it comes to creating atmosphere and setting and I think Gatsby has given him his best canvas yet.

“Luhrmann is a true artist when it comes to creating atmosphere and setting and I think Gatsby has given him his best canvas yet.”

But fortunately, there's much more to The Great Gatsby than spectacular visuals - there's also DiCaprio, Maguire and Mulligan, all brilliantly casted in roles that evolve quite extensively for a screen time of 2 and a bit hours. Whilst we've come to expect greatness from Mulligan and DiCaprio in recent years it's been a while since Maguire has had a significant role to stick his teeth into. It would seem however that Maguire was made for this role as a somewhat detached and confused narrator, swept away in the glorious madness that becomes an inerasable part of him once he meets Mr Gatsby, the film's mysterious, charismatic, but inherently flawed anti-hero.

Even though DiCaprio's achievements in the film come as expected, it would be a dishonour not to single him out. DiCaprio fills the screen with so much conviction and presence that you can't help but get spellbound by the character he portrays (not in a gay way, just in a general 'he is awesome' way). As the film progresses though, the dents in his emotional armour start to become more and more apparent, even though he manages to never totally lose his unwarranted sense of naive optimism. It’s this contrast and internal struggle that seems to become central to the story of The Great Gatsby, which makes it fitting that Luhrmann spends most of his time to develop this plot thread.

“ can't help but get spellbound by the character he portrays (not in a gay way, just in a general 'he is awesome' way).”

Ironically and totally accidental however, The Gatsby character himself becomes a metaphor for Luhrmann's film: As the film progresses, so too does one start to notice the imperfections of the film itself, even though you try hard not to notice them. Whilst most directors would find it hard to condense the very dense source material into a feature film, it is hard not to notice that some plot arcs that get introduced are just not explored in the detail they deserve, with Luhrmann probably spending way too much time on dazzling his audience - screen time that could have been spent giving some 'flesh' to certain characters whilst strengthening the connection between others. While the impact of these decisions might not be that obvious for the most part of the film, they do become noticeable closer to the end, when the film's final moments feel a bit lacklustre and even illogical due to certain character's motivations not being explored to the extent they should have been.

Don’t however get too worried, as the issues with pacing and plot are quite easy to forgive when you realize how mesmerizing this film experience is. A modern soundtrack in this early setting seems like a peculiar choice, but is another part of the Luhrmann formula that delivers in spades. I am still haunted by specific moments of the film that are brilliantly amplified by the amazing musical score that accompanies them. In short, The Great Gatsby is a flawed gem, but one that manages to still shine blindingly bright due to an astonishing sense of atmosphere and strong performances by the ensemble cast. 

The amount of debauchery that this man is responsible for puts Hugh Heffener to shame.

Highlight: The first sight of Gatsby himself is a special moment in the film that becomes somewhat of a haunting image used throughout the duration of the film. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3

A film can sometimes surprise you for both good and bad reasons and when it comes to the film adaptations of my favourite superhero comics, I'm quite a bit conflicted with regards to how I feel about major deviations from the original plotline of the comic itself. It is with this little disclaimer that l start my review for Iron Man 3, the latest and most probably greatest Marvel adaptation yet.

The first thing you need to get excited about is that Iron Man 3 definitely has quite a different flavour from the previous entries in the franchise. This change is definitely a welcome departure in the light of the quite lackluster second installment. Without giving away too much, let's just say that the situations that Tony Stark finds himself in, are quite dire and grim - much more so than any other entry in the series. This give the film a distinct quality and an enlightening look at the man behind the mask, as Stark spends most of his time outside of the suit this time around. Don't however be worried that Downey's signature humour gets sacrificed - even with all the gloom and doom, this installment manages to deliver some of the series' loudest and greatest laughs. There's a great balance between comedy and dread here and director Shane Black has managed to balance this tricky equilibrium quite masterfully.

"...even with all the gloom and doom, this installment manages to deliver some of the series' loudest and greatest laughs." 

Joining Downey is franchise regulars like Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow, who needs to be commended for her physical fitness alone ( It can't be easy to have a six pack at her age). Whilst their actual performances aren't however nothing special to write home about, you will definitely notice the presence of this film's main villains, namely Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce, who is doing a great job in reviving his career after a long absence from the big screen. Pearce plays the role of villain well, with his minimal regard for human life making him an extremely formidable opponent indeed. He is suave, cool and collected - a modern villain that isn't seen rushing face first into danger.

If you're a fan of the Iron Man comics, you will however certainly be more interested in the role played by Ben Kingsley, fulfilling the role of the Mandarin (Stark's greatest villain in the comics). And it's here where the major deviation from the comics comes to play that I mentioned in the start. Unfortunately, I cannot discuss the deviation in too much detail due to spoiler threats, but let's just say that the Mandarin has been severely rewritten for the film and I am still very much on the fence regarding how I feel about this. On the one side, it does give the film a very surprising plot twist, but on the other side, I fear that fans of the original might regard this deviation as a blatant disregard and disrespect for the source material. Nevertheless (trying to be as objective as possible here) it is a very admirable risk, that is used to the advantage of the film's overall impact.

"... I fear that fans of the original might regard this deviation as a blatant disregard and disrespect for the source material." 

But the controversy of this change is soon forgotten in between all of the amazing action sequences, made even more awe inspiring due to exceptional CGI work that should be the new standard for comic book adaptations. It then should come to no surprise that the film will be remembered for its amazing action sequences, which include a clever aerial scene and an applaud worthy final confrontation that involves more than 20 different iron man suits ( yes, you heard right). The action is tight, fast and impactful.

Iron man 3 is definitely the best in the series, as all the elements of drama, comedy and action blend seamlessly into a very polished final product. It does however come with an important warning for fans of the original comic book series - forget the existing perception you have of the Mandarin and be prepared to be surprised. Those however not too familiar with the source material can rejoice and look forward to one of the best superhero movies of modern times.

Highlight: The final battle involving more than two dozen Iron man suits will have you sit up in your seat. It's so well choreographed, that it might just be the Swan Lake of action sequences. Seriously.

Stark has seen better days, but at least Downey's bank account can cheer him up! 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Warm Bodies

For a movie to still feel fresh is quite an achievement in the year 2013. And better yet, if it's a film on a topic that has been thrown around more than a hackey-sack at a hippy music festival. Introducing Warm Bodies, a romantic dark comedy about a zombie that falls in love with a human. If you think about it, it's not really that different to the Frankenstein or Beauty and the Beast concept, but what sets Warm bodies apart is its plaguing sense of dark wit.

Warm Bodies is totally aware of the stereotypes and preconceptions that exists within the zombie movie sub-genre. In fact, the protagonist proclaims from the very first few moments that this particular zombie film is not going to tie itself down with the nitty-gritty regarding where and when people started eating each other. Rather, Warm bodies just needs you to know that there are zombies and that they have been ostracized by their living counterparts, that's it.It rather spends it time to poke fun at its own genre, mocking the way zombies are portrayed on screen in a variety of ways for comedic effect.

There is however one zombie brethren that doesn't seem to blend in as well, due mainly to his dislike of the everyday monotony of zombie life.Yearning for more than an endless supply of delicious brain omelette, zombie Nicolas Hoult (Skins, The boy, X-Men) discovers by chance that that he has an odd fascination with a living girl. What follows is a weirdly romantic and sincere love development between this unlikely pairing.

Hoult's interactions with his new found friend are surprisingly familiar, thanks to it cleverly resembling that of a shy, insecure teenager, chatting with a girl he likes very much .It's an unorthodox simile for real life, but it's because of this comfortable familiarity that most film goers will be able to effortlessly connect with the film's characters.

"It's an unorthodox simile for real life, but it's because of this comfortable familiarity that most film goers will be able to effortlessly connect with the film's characters."

This is not an award winner by a long shot folks, but it does still make for the perfect Friday afternoon popcorn flick with a group of hipster friends or better yet, a chick you badly want to get 'jiggy' with. Not to be missed if you appreciate a fresh approach to an old Hollywood concept.

Don't look so gloom... You've got like 5 films scheduled for release this year, Hoult.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

My favourite movies of 2012

Ok, so, this update has been postponed since January, but late is usually always better than never, right? On the one side, it's also nice to be able to present this list after the end of the awards season, as I can truly and honestly claim that my list hasn't changed one bit since the awards season started. I am however extremely happy that Argo won best picture and I was rooting for it since the day I first saw it. But was it my favourite movie of the year? No, definitely not. And why? Let me explain...

Before you view my list,  it's important to understand that there is a huge difference between what I think the best movies of 2012 were and which my favourite movies were. For a movie to be my favouruite, it needs to touch me on a certain level, and in most cases, the movies that really get to me are those with great imperfections that unfortunately mean they will never receive critical acclaim. So, when it came to choosing my favourite films, I gladly accept these imperfections and instead choose to focus on the one or two elements that made these movies truly memorable to me.

So, without further ado, I proudly present my favourite movies of 2012:

10. The Hobbit

Whilst by far not the best LOTR prequel that could have been made, the Hobbit was a welcome throwback to the enchanting world of Middle Earth.

9. Hunger Games

A surprisingly daring and brutal teen movie that took no prisoners. The theme of survival really struck a chord.

8. The Amazing Spiderman

This hipster take on the Spiderman franchise felt much more true to Spidey's original comic book roots and for that alone, I applaud it.

7. The Avengers

The sheer build-up to this film alone made its inevitable release one of the highlights of my 2012. Loki was a fantastic villain and seeing some of my favourite superheroes joining forces on the big screen was priceless.

6. Silver linings playbook

There's usually one movie each year that resonates with me simply for its amazing character studies and brilliant acting. In 2012 for me, that movie was Silver Linings Playbook.

5. Looper

As a big fan of sci-fi films, I was probably a bit biased about this one. Nonetheless, the interesting new take on time-travel and its practical implications really made me think.

4. Chronicle

Easily the most unique, refreshing and surprise hit of 2012. Chronicle struck me with a unexpected sense of doom that fondly reminded me of the Blair Witch Project. Weirdly enough, this came via the vessel of a teen action movie.

3. Prometheus

Prometheus was definitely the most beautifully terrifying film of 2012 for me. Amazing alien set designs, a powerful score and more than a few horrific moments all made for an unforgettable experience.

  2. Argo

Setting its technical brilliance aside, no other movie in 2012 instilled nearly an equal sense of  cinematic urgency within me. At one stage, I was actually jumping up and down, something I don't even do in the gym. What a triumph for one of my favourite directors.

1. John Carter

Without a shadow of a doubt, John Carter was my favourite movie of 2012. Whilst all of the other films on my list connected with me on some level, the emotional connection I have with John Carter far exceeds any other film of 2012. John Carter transported me back to a time in my childhood that was characterized by amazing protagonists like He-man and Xena. It was a time when storytelling still felt pure to me and a hero truly inspired his audience on more than one level. I also truly appreciated the film's mysterious and complex villain, the authentic set pieces and the simple storyline that was everything it should have been and nothing more. In short, it was all the things Avatar didn't deliver from a story perspective, but sadly, John Carter's conservative use of Hollywood gimmicks meant that mainstream audiences just didn't get the whole experience.

Feel free to read my full review here:

Other honorary mentions:

21 Jump Street
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Cloud Atlas