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23
Nov

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

With seven out of the eleven remaining districts revolting against the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), it is most critical, according President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the rebellion, that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) embraces her role as the prime symbol of the uprising. But with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) presumably dead and the post-traumatic stress of having to kill innocent people for two consecutive years looming overhead, Katniss may neither be willing nor ready to help take down the Capitol’s totalitarian regime.

Like David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and Bill Condon’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” a question worth answering is whether the material, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins, is necessary to be split into two. The answer is not a resounding “Yes!” but a case can be argued that this approach for this film does make room for details that otherwise might have been lost. This is an example of delayed gratification and it is severely under appreciated especially if what we come to expect is rousing action scenes.

First of these details is the emphasis on the escalation of war. This makes the first half particularly powerful because we see entire communities in raggedy clothes, bloodied, exhausted, with nothing left to lose except for their lives. We see the wreckage of infrastructures and burnt bodies underneath and amongst the rubble. The camera is not afraid to show the wounds, the trauma in people’s eyes, corpses wrapped in sheets. There is talk of a mass grave in District 8.

Another point the picture conveys successfully is Katniss being just another pawn. Although the oppressed have embraced her as the symbol of the revolution, she is also just meat to be placed in front of the camera and she must do what she is told. Despite being the most grim entry of series so far, there is room for humor in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay, particularly the scene in which our protagonist is filming propaganda to feed to the masses. Though she knows the script word-for-word, the feelings or emotions required to make an impact are simply not there. She is meat without flavor and that won’t do.

The Achilles heel of this installment is its curious lack of character development when it comes to Snow and Coin. Already three movies in, there is no good reason for us to not understand Snow completely. While we know he enjoys having power and the amenities that come with it, there must be something more to him than looking stern and trying to keep his frustrations under wraps when things do not go his way.

We also do not learn much about Coin. We observe that she is right to the point when delivering speeches and there is room for compromise behind her leadership, but what does this uprising really mean to her? Because her more private motivations are so vague, there is an undercurrent that maybe we are not supposed to trust her. Both characters are solidly played by Sutherland and Moore but I wished they had been challenged to do more.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is accused for not having enough payoff. I agree—to an extent. For many, payoff in sci-fi dystopian future action-dramas goes hand-in-hand with deaths of characters we have grown to like or love. But for some, payoff means scenes that we take with us, those we are able to remember vividly after the picture ends. For me, there are three: a visit to a hospital, a surprise in the forest, and a destruction of a dam.

22
Nov

…E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà


…E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà (1981)
★★ / ★★★★

Liza (Catriona MacColl) from New York City considers it a great fortune when she is informed that she has inherited a hotel in Louisiana. Although the hotel is in a dilapidated state, she remains optimistic that once it is fixed and cleaned up, it will attract enough customers to make her financially stable. But the history of the hotel involves murder.

Many years ago, angry neighbors broke in and killed a painter, Schweick (Antoine Saint-John), believed to be a warlock, who happened to find a key that opened one of the gateways of hell located directly underneath the establishment. Despite eerie warnings and strange deaths since the restoration of the hotel, Liza remains intent on throwing a grand opening.

The real star of “…E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà,” also known as “The Beyond,” is neither the actors nor the director but the special effects coordinator and the makeup artists. Without the grotesque and bizarre images, the film offers close to nothing worthwhile because there is a dearth of logic in the screenplay and the direction, at best, is desultory, relying too much on patterns that, although somewhat effective at times, made me question if there was anything else to the filmmaker’s vision.

For instance, once a character encounters something curious or horrific, there is a beat or two and then onto the extreme close-up. There is particular attention to the eyes, understandable because they are said to be the windows from where fear is reflected. The actors excel in looking shocked or scared. So once the camera zooms in, the terror at times comes across as believable.

However, this fascination with the eyes does not stop with close-ups. Eyeballs are forced out of their sockets in rather creative ways. There is even a blind character in which her iris is almost completely covered by a clouding similar to a cataract. There seems to be a theme going on but the material appears to be more focused on how to make the gore look good.

When characters start to die, I found myself not caring about any of them. In many great horror movies, one reason why we feel scared is because we have formed a connection to our protagonists. We want them to overcome that of which threatens their being. Since we are connected to them, when they struggle, we can feel their pulsating fears. Here, we know nothing about the characters other than they take up space every time they are in front of the camera.

Furthermore, there are certain events or reactions so unbelievable, it is comedic. For example, at one point, Emily (Cinzia Monreale), a blind woman, meets Liza and warns the New Yorker against opening the hotel. Still, Liza remains unconvinced and chooses to ignore Emily’s warning as the body count increased. Out of the blue, Emily proclaims that it is now the perfect time to tell Liza absolutely everything she knows about whatever was going on. None of it is supposed to be funny or even slightly amusing but my reaction was… a guffaw. If the situation were so dire, why wait until the point of no return until revealing what should have been unveiled in the first place?

Directed by Lucio Fulci, “The Beyond” is not without potential. The atmosphere inside the hotel is appropriately dingy, claustrophobic, and creepy. It really looks like nobody has been there in years. If the screenwriters, Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Lucio Fulci, had focused more on the flow between scenes while offering explanations that made sense within the story’s universe, it would have been an enjoyable experience rather than a struggle to decode an obfuscation of imageries and symbolisms.

20
Nov

Night Moves


Night Moves (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Director Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Movies” should have been called “It Drags” instead because sitting through it is like an unending torture, a bore down to its bone marrow. It tells the story of three environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who decide to blow up a dam. When news circulate the following morning that a camper has gone missing since the night of the terrorism, guilt and paranoia begin to take control.

An understated realistic drama does not equal boring. It is the opposite: great movies that fall under this category are engaging because the characters are smart, the script offers no easy solution, and the direction demands the viewers to pay attention very closely because at times someone else’s plight may reflect a version of our own.

The film seems to pride itself through maintaining a level of detachment. The problem is, its subjects, environmentalists who are not above employing violence to get what they want, are already figures that are inaccessible. Instead of opening them up—what they think, why they come to think a certain way, how they plan to go about executing the changes they wish to see in the world—the material keeps us in the mist by utilizing soporific techniques.

It has a penchant for sticking with long takes—even if the scene leads nowhere or fails to offer an important detail about a character or a situation. Worse, the silences are supposed to be thoughtful, I suppose, but the script itself is devoid of insight. Yes, this is one of those movies where it puts close to nothing in and yet expects us to extract a lot from it. I do not know much about eco-terrorists or eco-terrorism other than the repercussions of their actions. By the end, I did not feel like I understood them a little better. The pictures introduces the idea that they are humans, too: capable of fear, guilt, and remorse. But that is too obvious.

The climactic scene is so poorly lit that it forces us squint through the darkness. It takes place at night in the middle of a body of water. It is understandable that the characters decide not to use flashlight in order to avoid getting caught. But it is the director’s responsibility to ensure that the audience are not struggling to watch a critical scene unfolding. Reichardt needed to reshoot the boat scene. Because it is so dark, the climax comes across flat rather than suspenseful. Realism does not equal incompetence.

“Night Moves” will be forgotten five years from now—and it deserves to be. What is shown here is not art in any way, shape, or form but an inexcusable digression aimed to waste everybody’s time. Despite its attempts to come across as “real,” there is no thought or emotion here worth sitting through. I was disgusted by its brazen attempt to tell a dead dull story for almost two hours.

18
Nov

Begin Again


Begin Again (2014)
★ / ★★★★

John Carney’s “Begin Again” needs to go back to basics and simply tell its story straight without the unnecessary gimmicks such as flashbacks that comprise of about fifty percent of the first half and showcasing overproduced songs that are supposedly performed live. I found it exhausting because it tries so hard to be authentic but it comes across very superficial and often in the doldrums with respect to pacing and overall mood.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is approached by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former head of a record company, after singing in front of an audience whose reaction is lukewarm at best. Dan sees potential in her; he thinks she just needs to change her image a bit so people will find it easier to relate to her and her music. But Gretta is not interested in being signed because she wishes to be recognized for her talent, not the image she is selling. Eventually, however, the two find a common ground and decide to make a record.

Knightley and Ruffalo share absolutely no chemistry. Over the course of the two characters working together, there is supposed to be a whiff of friendship and possible romance blossoming between them, but neither connect in such a way that we feel, deep down, they are kindred spirits. The scenes that do work somewhat are short exchanges where Gretta and Dan disagree and create friction. However, these are supposed to be “mature” people and so an argument ends just before the scene ends.

A subplot involving Dan’s wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is a minefield of boredom. Keener’s character is written to be as dull as possible. Meanwhile, Steinfeld’s character is not given anything to do other than to look sort of moody and hormonal—a stereotypical movie teenager—while wearing skimpy clothing. Surely Keener could have signed up for a project that is equal to her talent. I was more disappointed, however, that Steinfeld chose this role because she is usually pretty good at selecting characters with substance to them.

I will not even begin to describe the contrivance of Adam Levine’s character who starts off as a humble artist and becomes a complete jerk—all within a span of a month. As with Ruffalo, Knightley shares no genuine connection with Levine and so when their characters are supposed to be bonding, sharing things with one another, or having fun, it appears completely disingenuous. To me, their relationship is one that exists only in the movies.

I did not enjoy the songs—with the exception of “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” the first track featured in the film. The rest of the soundtrack is nothing special, most of them sound exactly like other female singer-songwriters on MySpace trying to break into the music industry. Because of this, we are never on board that Gretta is truly an undiscovered diamond who should become the next big thing.

“Begin Again” is largely unfocused and quite depressing in spots—not because of the content but because the work should have been more alive, executed with a sense of urgency, capturing that excitement of introducing an artist that the world should know about. Instead, what we are given is sub-mediocrity packaged in a dull box with the writer-director’s name written on the tag.

16
Nov

Room 237


Room 237 (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Room 237,” directed by Rodney Ascher, is a documentary that commands immediate appeal, at least for me, because “The Shining” is one of the movies I revisit just about every year. There is something about Kubrick’s film that demands to seen, to be experienced again and again, from the sinister space the director creates—both in terms of physicality, the interiors of the hotel, or headspace, the mental breakdown of Jack Torrance—to stylistic flourishes such as the famous unbroken shot of Danny big wheeling around the hallways of the Overlook Hotel as an increasing sense of dread runs parallel with every turn he takes.

The documentary is not about the horror classic. It is about people who love the film so much and have seen the picture so many times that they began to see patterns and felt compelled to construct themes that may or may not be there in the first place. It is about how these elements snowball into theories—some very wild—and how the theories, through word-of-mouth, have become a part of the collective unconscious of those who admire or find the film enigmatic, a puzzle to be solved.

Various unseen narrators—Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Bill Blakemore, John Fell Ryan, Geoffrey Cocks—present entertaining theories. I enjoyed how one of them pointed out that one can find a detail of impossibility in just about every scene. For example, a television is up and running but it has no cord that is plugged into an electric source. Another shows a room that appears to receive sunlight through a window… but the layout of the hotel suggests that the room is surrounded by other rooms. Now, I had seen Kubrick’s film at least fifteen times. I like to consider myself as an observant person so I was surprised—and tickled—that I never noticed such details.

Perhaps the most far out theory involves the movie being meant to be seen forward and backward. That is, images are superimposed so that the story is told from the beginning (moving forward) as well as from the end (moving backward). Certain frames captured are genuinely creepy—or silly, depending on one’s perspective—like Jack Torrance’s face looking like a clown when superimposed with the shot of two murdered girls in the hallway.

Though we never see the narrators’ faces, their voices are friendly and welcoming. It is important that they do not sound like they are lecturing the audience. After all, even if they have managed to link numerous elements that seem to support their theories, no matter how improbable, not one of them knows—or will ever get a chance to know—Kubrick’s intentions. Instead, it is appropriate that they sound like fans of the movie who are open to discussion even if a person disagrees with their proposed ideas.

Is the movie really about the genocide of Indian-Americans? The Holocaust? Demons being sexually attracted to humans? How Kubrick helped to fake the Apollo moon footage? I don’t know. Nor do I care. What I do know is that if a movie manages to inspire or get people talking for several decades, then the filmmakers have done something right.

14
Nov

Lola Versus


Lola Versus (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Everything appears to be going well. After weeks of planning their wedding, Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and Lola (Greta Gerwig), who met junior year in college while studying abroad, are set to partake in one of the most important days of their lives. However, a day before their wedding, Luke confesses to Lola that he just doesn’t feel ready. Heartbroken, Lola moves out of their apartment and attempts to reset her life. This proves especially difficult because as she spent a decade nourishing a relationship that she thought would last forever, the world she thought she still knew is now completely different.

Based on the screenplay by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones, “Lola Versus” is yet another story about a newly single woman trying to recover from a bad break-up, but it has just enough off-kilter sense of humor and honesty to be considered somewhat believable.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed that Lola, as quirky as she is, is slightly annoying because her negative qualities make her less cute and more interesting. If the protagonist had been written as a typical sweet girl who did everything the “right” way, it would have made Lola a victim. We would have felt sorry for her most of the time instead of wanting to reach into the screen and shake some sense into her.

I also enjoyed the idea that people in their pre-30s can very well act like teenagers. Sure, adults are more mature in plenty of ways, but a handful of pre-30s that I know are not immune from acting out like children once in a while. This idea is reflected by the bipolar dialogue. For instance, conversations between Lola and Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), the riotously funny best friend, start out slowly and calmly then suddenly we find ourselves barraged by sitcom-like words of wisdom that feel completely out of place yet nonetheless hilarious.

However, about halfway through, I started to wonder if the material had more ambition in its bones. While it remains close to the theme of Lola constantly wanting men by her side (Kinnaman, Hamish Linklater, Ebon Moss-Bachrach), defining her existence around them, her interactions with them fail to reach a sense of variation not in terms of personalities on screen but mood. We rarely get the feeling that she is torn among these men without the camera having to rely on putting Lola front and center while looking sad.

Furthermore, since Lola’s scenes with them are not given appropriate time to unfold or relay the messages that need to expressed, a lot of the scenes feel unnecessary. The sitcom-like comedy sprinkled in between eventually works against the film because situations begin to feel exactly that of a sitcom—boring, superficial, and expected.

Directed by Daryl Wein, “Lola Versus” is playfully intelligent at its best, its one-liners sure to draw a smile on the viewers’ faces, but unbearably eager to be dramatic at its worst. Certainly there are better ways to communicate shame and resentment without showing our protagonist naked and crying just after unexceptional sex.

11
Nov

The Paperboy


Paperboy, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

The summer of ’69 is a turning point in the life of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) because it is the season he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a forty-year-old woman who has fallen in love with a man on death row. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was charged for killing a cop but there might be something more to the story. Ward (Matthew McConaughey), Jack’s brother, and Yardley (David Oyelowo), Ward’s co-worker in the Miami Times, pay a visit to Moat County, Florida to investigate and possibly expose a potential crack in the justice system.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Peter Dexter, “The Paperboy” is to admired on one level because it does tell a straight story. Yes, it is about two investigative reporters—one driven by idealism and the other by ambition—but it is not just about the truth. Perhaps more importantly, it is about characters so blinded by what they wish to attain that they fail to acknowledge the dangers or evils that are staring directly at them.

It is compelling to sit through at times. Two characters stand out. First is Ward, a man who loves his brother but is hiding a private shame. As the story unfolds, it becomes more difficult to keep it covered. In one of the most memorable scenes, in execution and content, we are tested how much we care about him. One might flinch at the scene or one may feel compelled to look away, but it is near impossible to not ask any questions.

The sudden burst of violence is not put on the screen for mere shock value. It builds and stirs until something must give out. McConaughey exhibits great control. The camera has a penchant for close-ups—for better or worse—and so just about every time it focuses on his face, we are left wondering where his character is looking, how he is looking at something or someone, and what he is thinking exactly. However, many of the other performers cannot communicate with just the eyes and so the close-ups end up distracting at times.

The second standout is Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family’s housekeeper. She gives the picture a layer of humor and heart. Anita’s interactions with Jack are meaningful—much warmer than Jack’s interactions with his father and the woman he is dating. Given that Jack’s mother had abandoned him, Anita recognizes the pain and suffering in the boy—not always outwardly present but there nonetheless—and so she treats him like a friend. Sometimes Jack takes this for granted. But Anita understands.

The picture is driven by an important subplot that is often swept under the rug—a critical miscalculation. Although there are many scenes where Ward and Yardley talk about the case and a few where the convict is interviewed, there are not enough details as to how the investigators manage to connect the dots. In a way, the screenplay must function as a procedural so that the case makes perfect sense. Thus, when the disorder that unfolds during the final quarter is presented, our expectations are swept away.

Instead, we get scenes involving Jack being sexually attracted Charlotte. Although Efron and Kidman are game for the ridiculous things their characters say and do, it all feels like a performance. In other words, when they are on screen together, most of the time I felt taken out of the sweltering heat of that small town. I was too aware that I was watching actors rather than complex characters who happen to be caught up in something they do not completely understand. Less scenes of Jack and Charlotte and more scenes of Ward and his partner might have produced a better movie.

Directed by Lee Daniels, “The Paperboy” is not as trashy as many people build it up to be. These are likely to be the very same people who have not had much experience with foreign or independent movies. It is trashy to an extent but there is a story here worth telling. The level of focus in terms of which story is best explored is where it falls short.

9
Nov

Interstellar


Interstellar (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days, when a Christopher Nolan film comes out, it is an event. The reason is largely because he is willing to set the bar quite high for himself as a filmmaker and storyteller that sheer ambition and verve usually tend to inspire or impress many. But those willing to inspect closely will notice a chink in the armor: Like his weaker pictures, “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar” is beautifully shot and photographed, even exciting superficially, but it is overlong and overblown.

Most problematic is the so-called revelation during the final quarter which delves into a perceived supernatural presence acknowledged early on. It is entirely predictable. At that point, I felt my body sinking into my seat, almost embarrassed but certainly in disbelief that Nolan, despite his admirable quality of constantly striving for boldness or originality, has actually utilized one of the oldest tricks in the book. Worse, it is employed for the sake of sentimentality. I did not buy it and neither should any intelligent viewer. It is important that we know we deserve more.

What should have been done instead is to leave a bit of mystery for audience. Clearly, the film is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s challenging “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It is disappointing that the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan has chosen to traverse a more accessible path, easily digestible, some might argue spoon-fed, providing all the answers by the time the screen fades to black. The final thirty minutes comes across messy, amateurish, and not fully realized.

The basic premise is this: Earth’s atmosphere is now largely composed of nitrogen, rather than oxygen, and so the planet is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable. As a result, a shortage of food spans the globe. It is without a doubt that mankind is facing extinction. When ten-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) begins to receive strange messages in her room, she and her father, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), are led to a hidden facility where scientists (led by a character played by Michael Caine) have come up with a plan to save the species. Cooper, currently a farmer but formerly a test pilot and engineer for NASA, is asked to participate on a mission which involves visiting potentially habitable planets outside of our known solar system.

Perhaps the most suspenseful sequence takes place on a bizarre planet where it appears to be composed of only water. The sequence demands attention because of two factors: we do not know what to expect from the seemingly calm environment and we are not yet aware if Cooper and the team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) will be able to work together effectively. On top of these, spending time on this particular planet carries a special risk. Cooper has promised to return to his daughter.

One of the picture’s limitations is its tendency to jump back and forth between the intergalactic mission and the happenings at home. While it is important we are consistently reminded that time is of the essence, both on a personal and a global level, we need not observe the drama between Cooper’s grown children (Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck) because it all seems so insignificant compared to the decisions their father must face. Video transmissions aboard the ship would have sufficed. Sometimes showing less communicates great sophistication while more is just overindulgent.

“Interstellar” is well-acted by the performers across the board; they deliver what is expected of the roles they must play. A few images are a marvel, particularly those of icy mountains that seem to go on for miles and a spacecraft set against the darkness of space—with no sound. But the picture fails to drill completely into Cooper’s roles as a father and a potential savior of the human species. It goes to show that although a filmmaker is provided a sizable budget to employ talent that will grace the screen and hire technicians to make images look just right, when the screenplay is not sculpted to near perfection, an otherwise ambitious project that can potentially set a standard may end up just satisfying rather than transcending.

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