It would be so easy to dismiss the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, as just another in a long line of Hollywood money grabs, churned out too quickly to capitalize on the frenzied popularity of the original, which broke box office records just a year ago. After all, it’s got everything an eye-rolling cynic would expect: a massive fan base made up of mostly “young adults,” drawn from the trilogy of Suzanne Collins bestsellers that captured the demographic’s imagination, a populist star in Jennifer Lawrence who is a favorite not only with the masses but with the critics (and has her Oscar to prove it) and it features a fantasy setting with a love triangle, which allows far too many easy Twilight-comparison jokes. Yes, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a late-night joke waiting to happen.
If only it weren’t so good.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not lining up to give Hunger Games any Oscars here. Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderful actress, but she does nothing to show you that she’s an Oscar winner in Catching Fire. Nor does Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is also featured. Nor does Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, or Donald Sutherland, other actors who I think should have Oscars. Because The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not a movie about performances. And it shouldn’t be. Because if you’re going to see Catching Fire for the performances, you are missing the point.
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I could tell that Chris Hemsworth was playing Thor, because he carried a big hammer and kept flinging his blond hair around and had that big, red cape, but those are the only connections I could make to anything logical in this big, beautiful conundrum of a movie that left me dazed. There must have been some kind of garage sale going on at Marvel Studios because everything plus the kitchen sink went into this movie, including every possible movie genre trope, from gladiator movies to science fiction to cheesy romance movies to superhero movies. Throw in every relationship stereotype from mother/son to father/son to brother/brother, even intern/boss and this screenplay feels like it was written specifically to be translated into all the other languages of the countries where it will make its real box office money. All the real effort was put into the effects, of course, which are stunning, but none of it made a bit of sense to me because I had absolutely no clue what was going on. Still, none of that matters if this is your cup of tea. Tom Hiddleston is a delight, no matter what he’s doing, as are Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings, so the experience was far from a total bust.
Don’t get me wrong, Thor: The Dark World is escapist entertainment in its purest form. It’s kind of like jazz: a whole lot of noise, but completely nonsensical.
It is way too easy for me to forget that I grew up during the time of a plague. The ‘80s shaped who I am, after all, I was age 10 to 20 during the ‘80s, so it’s understandable that my biggest—and longest lasting—personal influences were from that decade. The music of the era is still with me today (much to the gleeful torment of my friends), the films are still some of my favorites, and the events of the decade are still emblazoned on my memory, especially those involving the end of the Cold War (no doubt the fact that I lived behind the Wall in West Berlin from 1980 to 1984 would prompt my great interest in all circumstances that led to its crumbling demise in 1989).
But, through it all—MTV and Glasnost and Reagan and Cabbage Patch Kids and Duran Duran—there was another “event” of the decade that never directly touched me, and yet, it is—and should be—the defining snapshot of the time but it is too easily forgotten even by those of us that lived through it: AIDS.
To this day I am horrified by my ignorance back then of the magnitude of the crisis. The information I remember having at the time I now know to be completely false. How does this happen in the 20th century? How does a plague rip through a first-world, economic power and nothing but misinformation, apathy and bigotry follow? I see now that I was a willing consumer to the lies we were being fed. I wonder if this is how it was during World War II. What was the rest of the world being told about what was going on in those “work camps?” I know, I sound like an anti-government wacko right now, which is exactly what I’m not, but what happened during the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, when thousands of lives were lost due to misinformation and, let’s face it, bigotry—it makes you angry. No matter what side of the aisle you sit on, nothing should ever be accepted blindly. This should be the lesson of the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s. And this is the power of the new film Dallas Buyers Club.
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In the feverish television marketing campaign leading up to the new movie The Counselor (no doubt intended to earn as much money as possible from opening weekend, before word gets out), the one pull quote they use from the Rolling Stone review is “expect the unexpected!”
Boy, I’ll say.
The unexpected is all you get in The Counselor, the new movie from director Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. That’s right, 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy waited until now to try his hand at screenwriting. In case there’s some confusion, No Country For Old Men, the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2007, was based on McCarthy’s novel, but was actually written for the screen by co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, not McCarthy. Turns out there was a reason for that. Seems there’s a big difference between writing a classic American novel and a screenplay.
The Counselor is one of the most convoluted, meandering, narcissistic, pointless, sexist and head-scratching experiments in big-budget filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
Challenge: Let’s see how many A-list actors, directors and writers we can get together to make the worst piece of drivel possible. GO.
Winners: Stars of The Counselor Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, because they have their other movie 12 Years a Slave out at the same time, so they can hide behind that good movie and pretend this one doesn’t exist.
Losers: The rest of us.
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Director Steve McQueen makes hard movies. He’s only made three so far, but those three have been three of the most dark, brutal, uncomfortable, hard-to-watch and challenging movies I can remember. But they have also been riveting, captivating, chilling, mesmerizing, revealing, honest and—dare I say it—beautiful as well.
I remember back in college there was a very specific and animated discussion going on about art. “What is art?” was the topic—naturally, it being college, the question was an unanswerable one, designed to prompt the most philosophical and thought-and-conversation-provoking responses. There was one response I remember quite distinctly: “I don’t care what it is, just make it honest.”
When you really think about that, there’s so much to it and yet, it’s so simple. But, when it comes to narrative film-making, honesty in art is a rare commodity. So let’s be, well, honest—if you want honest filmmaking, you should probably be watching documentaries (and, rumor has it, sometimes blurred lines exist there as well). But there are some filmmakers who choose to run towards the more honest side of narrative (i.e. fictional) filmmaking, or at least try to. I consider Steve McQueen to be one of these directors. At least in my mind’s eye, when I look at his relatively small body of work—the Irish hunger strike drama Hunger, the sex addiction drama Shame and the just-released slavery drama 12 Years a Slave—I see a man wanting to tell three very different stories. But not just stories—these movies are deep explorations of humanity, in all its darkness and truth. You know how James Cameron took that deep sea submersible down to find the Titanic? I imagine Steve McQueen in his own little metaphorical deep-diving submersible, delving deep into the human psyche—sort of like Dennis Quaid inside Martin Short in Innerspace, but in a much more dark, twisted and psychologically devastating way.
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Would you watch a football game if you already knew the final score? I mean, there’d be no drama, right? When it comes to film, it’s an interesting proposition, asking an audience to sit down to watch a movie for the first time if they already know the ending—you wonder how involved they could really get. I imagine it would be challenging. Director Paul Greengrass, however, has already undertaken that challenge once, with his first movie, United 93. And now he’s chosen to make a second movie based on a well-publicized international incident—this time it’s Captain Phillips, based on the pirate attack and subsequent kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia in 2009. The most interesting thing for me was that, just like United 93, with the suspense of the ending stripped away, I found myself watching Captain Phillips differently than I would any other movie. While I’ll admit there were moments I found myself distracted because I was anticipating what I knew was coming next, for the most part I was still able to sit back and enjoy the ride.
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There aren’t many movies that leave me speechless. Or breathless. In fact, Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity, felt like it sucked every vital organ out of my body for 90 minutes, except for my eyes and ears—the only ones it needed—and those it held in glorious captivity throughout one of the most compelling, if not the most visually stunning cinematic experiences I’ve had.
The basics: Gravity is set in space and stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who play two astronauts who must try to survive an accident that destroys their space station while they are literally floating in space, orbiting Earth. I myself was dubious as to how a full-length movie was going to sustain on a premise of floating in space (I mean, what else is there to do, really, out there), but every doubt I had evaporated from the first moment. To say this film is an immersive experience is to understate its power, its beauty and its transcendence. Do not be concerned with what it’s about or whether you might be bored by it or whether it might be too scary or how it’s been marketed. None of that matters.
What matters is everything between the credits. Everything that is the experience of this film.
It may be a space movie, it may not have the strongest story or the most riveting (if much at all) dialogue, or character development, but what Gravity lacks in traditional narrative elements, it more than makes up for in the most fluidly arresting visual storytelling I’ve ever seen on screen. I can’t remember the last time I was so absorbed by a film as I was by this one. The visual effects are so affecting, they just may make you gasp more than once and will certainly make your jaw drop. The details of the technical achievements don’t matter (although they are absolutely astounding), what matters is the end result and the result, for me, was and always is the experience. I love movies because of movies like Gravity. I love being drawn into another world (or, in this case, the world above our own), and living there—and believing it—for two hours, absorbed, captivated and emotionally entwined with it and the characters. And I’ll tell you another thing…I certainly don’t mind being in sheer awe of what I’m seeing either.
If you love movies, see Gravity. If you crave transcendent experiences that just may give you a whole new perspective on art, cinema, technology, humankind and our place in the universe, run to the nearest theatre that has the largest screen and the best sound system, wait for the next showing and just….breathe.
Yes, there are some moments in sports that prompt a broadcaster to exclaim, “That was so amazing, even Hollywood couldn’t have written it better!” But chances are, when they are reaching all the way back to 1976 for a true story that hasn’t been put to film before, there might have been the need to “goose” the details a bit, for excitement’s sake. It may not have been quite the humdinger of a pulse-quickener on its own—the “instant classic” in today’s parlance—to permeate popular culture with such relevance that it needed three-plus decades to simmer in our consciousness before being put to screen. Ah, hell, forget all that, Rush is a racing movie, Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, is drop-dead gorgeous, and director Ron Howard puts every bit of his Backdraft muscle-memory to use here in creating a made-for-the-guys, looks-good-for-the-ladies movie that is a solid and entertaining, if a bit empty, piece of Hollywood moviemaking.
There’s really not even a lot of pretense here. There’s no “based on a true story” card at the beginning of the movie (even though it is), and there are no summary cards at the end, filling in the audience on the “where are they now” of the characters, as per usual for movies based on real people and events, as Rush is. But from the beginning, even though I knew nothing going in about 1970s Formula One race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, their cinematic stories felt stretched and exaggerated. I wasn’t sure how or why, but I just knew I was experiencing some genuine artistic license. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m just saying this sets you up for a different kind of experience. As an audience member, you let yourself go down the director’s path of telling their stories, you allow yourself to be set up to be told a story, knowing you will be manipulated and you either buy into that or not. And for Rush, it works, for the most part, because the movie doesn’t bite off more than it can chew and it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. All artistic license is taken to serve the greater good of the story: raising the stakes of the car race sequences. And isn’t this what we came to see?
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Remember the good old days when the most mind-numbing thing in a movie was Superman and Zod slinging each other into buildings endlessly? Ah, I miss July.
Summer is officially over. The dark clouds of serious movie season have descended upon us. The running gag is the more depressing a movie is, the more the critics love it and the better its chances at awards glory, so the studios save their sad, morose, open-your-vein tales for the end of the year—to coincide with awards season—which is perfect for holiday get-togethers with the family. Well, folks, the fun is starting early this year with Prisoners, a movie so uplifting and filled with sunshine it makes Requiem for a Dream look like a “Saturday Night Live” skit. [Side note: if you haven’t seen Requiem for a Dream and are intrigued, don’t be. Desson Thomson of the Washington Post called it “A graphically, depressing downward spiral to hell.” That’s generous. I don’t even think it was graphic.]
Ok yes, I’m exaggerating, but here’s the thing. Requiem for a Dream was the most depressingly miserable movie experience I’ve ever had, but at least I can say Darren Aronofsky’s film had a stylistic resonance; the experience of the film was influenced by its characters’ drug-addled states of mind, so a fantastical, dream-like film lay over everything, providing a bit of a distance from the misery for the viewer. Prisoners, however, offers no such reprieve. Director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) goes for realism in his tale of a father’s grief following an apparent abduction of his six-year old daughter and her friend. And while Prisoners is nowhere near the “downward spiral to hell” that Requiem for a Dream sets out to be, its true-to-life-ness makes its intensity that much harder to bear over the course of its two hours. There is no escape into stylistic elements here—this is just brutal honesty: the world is a cold, hard place. And that makes this a cold, hard movie to sit through.
click here to keep reading Prisoners »
It’s been a quiet year so far, but the Oscar race is about to heat to a raging boil. If early buzz is any indication, this Oscar season could shape up to be one of the most competitive and exciting in recent memory, with lots of films generating critical acclaim at festivals and early hype for the March 2 Academy Awards already at full blast.
Here’s my total buzz-and-gut-based guide of what you should have on your movie-viewing radar if you are an Oscar-movie lover and want to be completely prepared for the coming awards-season blitz:
ALREADY RELEASED AND AVAILABLE FOR HOME VIEWING:
-Stars Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Jeff Nichols.
-From the writer/director of Take Shelter, a drama about two boys who meet a mysterious fugitive on an island on the Mississippi River near where they live in rural Arkansas and pledge to help him evade bounty hunters who are on his trail.
Possible nomination: Screenplay
-Stars Chadwick Boseman, T.R. Knight, Harrison Ford. Directed by Brian Helgeland.
-Based on the true story of Jackie Robinson.
Possible nomination: Supporting Actor
CURRENTLY IN THEATRES:
SHORT TERM 12
-A drama about a twentysomething couple who work at a home for at-risk teens.
-Stars Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr. Directed by Destin Cretton.
Possible nomination: Best Actress
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER
-Stars Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack. Directed by Lee Daniels.
-Based on the true story of the White House butler who served eight presidents.
Possible nominations: Picture, Best Actor
-Stars Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins. Directed by Woody Allen.
-A troubled New York socialite flees to San Francisco to stay with her estranged, lower-class sister while she tries to sort out her life.
Possible nominations: Picture, Best Actress, Screenplay
-Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
-A revealing documentary about Tilikum, the killer whale responsible for the deaths of three people, including a Sea World trainer.
Possible nomination: Best Documentary Feature
-Stars Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. Directed by Richard Linklater.
-The third in a trilogy of films following a couple through their romance over two decades.
Possible nominations: Best Actress, Screenplay
-Stars Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer. Directed by Ryan Coogler.
-Based on the true story of the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old man by Oakland transit police officers on New Year’s Eve, 2008.
Possible nominations: Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay
click here to keep reading Oscar Season Preview »