Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

108361_galIt’s been a year and a half since The Hunger Games broke box-office expectations, gifting Lionsgate studio with a formidable franchise. Based upon Suzanne Collins’ series of young adult novels, the first film was an agreeable adaptation that was occasionally hobbled by poor direction, rushed plotting, and budget limitations. Catching Fire, the second film, improves upon the established groundwork in almost everyway with the chief drawback being a terminal sense of dystopian déjà vu.

In the months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games, the two victors from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling across the other districts of Panem as part of their victory tour. What better way to endear yourself than visiting other districts to remind people that their children are dead and you survived? On the tour, there is growing unrest throughout, and the people have turned Katniss as their symbol of defiance against the tyrannical Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens Katniss to control her media image, to convince the people that she’s madly in love with Peeta and not a fledgling revolutionary. In order to check the power of the victors, Snow introduces a rule change for the 75th games, the Quarter Quell. This year the participants will be culled entirely from previous past victors, meaning that Katniss and Peeta will be plunged back into the deadly games and this time their competition aren’t children.

97801_galWhat a difference a director with a sense of cinematic visual command can make. Early into pre-production, the original director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) decided to bow out for sequels, and so Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was hired, and goodness does the movie benefit from this change at the helm. Lawrence has a much stronger visual authority, having cut his teeth in commercials and music videos (remember those, kids?) before feature films. The man couldn’t frame a lousy shot if he tried. With a stronger visual lens, the world of the Hunger Games is able to stretch, given a proper budget, and the visual grandeur unfolds around you, especially the largess of the Capitol. The movie doesn’t feel like they had to cut corners with their budget or special effects, and part of that is credited to the skill of Lawrence. And with this new visual stylist comes the demise of shaky cam. Dance and celebrate that Ross’ misapplied docu-drama approach has been abandoned; this time, when there is onscreen action, you can comprehend what is happening. I read the book years ago but even I was feeling twists of tension, notably the start of the Quarter Quell. The action isn’t terribly developed but it’s sufficient, though again the kill-or-be-killed extremity kept to PG-13 safety is starting to chafe. My only visual complaint is that much of the action within the games takes place at dawn/dusk and thus low-light environments. It feels like someone threw on a muddy filter, though perhaps this was just my theater’s light bulb-saving projection setting.

Now that the world of Panem is established, Catching Fire does a nice job of showing the various social conflicts coming to a head, bubbling into uprising. The pre-games victory tour opens up the world, allowing us into other districts and viewing the different strife befalling them. It’s jolting to watch the public defiance met with summary executions and yet the people will not be stopped. Now the class conflicts of the haves and have-nots get pushed to their breaking point. There’s a great contrast provided with a Capitol party so lavish, with food so sumptuous and plenty that the Capitol denizens have cocktails on hand to induce vomiting. That way you can continue eating (historical fact: vomitorium is actually not what you think but instead a passage below a tier of seats for easy exit, like in modern stadiums). The themes and the points aren’t subtle, that’s for sure, but they are effective and intriguing. Katniss, who only wanted to survive, has been thrust as the face of revolt, and now she has to walk a delicate line to again save her loved ones. The fascist politics and media manipulation hinted at in the first film are given more examination, providing a richer narrative. What works in the first Hunger Games is generally expanded upon and what faults the first film had have been, generally, nipped and tucked. There’s nothing as eye-rollingly awful as Peeta’s human rock sculpture camouflage. The burgeoning love story elements again are abbreviated the harshest, but when the world is coming apart, you have to spend more time on revolution than love triangles.

The film also benefits from a slew of new characters that have strong personalities. We’re introduced to other formers winners of Hunger Games past, and they make the most with their limited exposure. Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) is an axe-wielding woman given to speaking her mind with devil-may-care attitude. Her first scene in the film involves her stripping naked in an elevator with Peeta and Katniss. Malone (Sucker Punch) really has fun with the blithe approach of the character and manages to come across as comical while still being a credible badass. She’s a terrific character and you’ll be seeing more of her in the sequels to come. The other famous victor is Finnick (Sam Claflin) who bathes in the celebrity limelight, luxuriating in his media image as a suave playboy. Except there’s more under the surface and you’ll be given peaks throughout the film. I’m not as sold on Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) as I am on Malone; he’s got the requisite chiseled physique, but I don’t feel the charismatic pull the character demands. Also, when I close my eyes and listen to him speak I hear James Franco, and I don’t know what to make of that. Then there’s the new head game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is presented as an enigma. He leans on President Snow to spare Katniss rather than turning her into a martyr for the cause. However his alternatives are sinister and media savvy. Hoffman is one of our best working actors today but he seems to sleepwalk through the role, perhaps because he’s meant to be vague. However it’s played, it’s hard to get a read on Plutarch until the very end.

Strong as ever, Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is the rock of this franchise. The Oscar-winning actress has been on a tear as of late and her acting and overall presence elevates the material. They struck gold when they hired her. There’s more fire to her and more devastation, as she’s going through the PTSD, plagued by nightmares. She’s haunted by the horror she’s escaped but also by the continuation of the threat from Snow, the ongoing charade that she will have to keep up for the rest of her life. There is no time out of the spotlight as a victor let alone a national celebrity like Katniss. Lawrence can convey so much wordlessly and she can convincingly play the different dimensions of her wounded warrior.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)Many of the criticisms one can hurl at Catching Fire are the same from Collins’ book. There is a repetitive plot structure, where the games themselves feel like too much of a retread. It feels forced to serve up what worked the first time. The problem with throwing Katniss and crew back into the Hunger Games is that all the real consequential action is taking place outside of them. We’ve been watching the stirrings of revolt all movie, watching the cracks take shape, and then the movie returns to its deadly TV competition when the audience just wants to leave to see if the revolution will be televised. Breaking free of Katniss’ first-person perspective from the book allows the filmmakers to add scenes fleshing out the world and the characters, with some nicely malevolent conversations between Snow and Plutarch. But that also means we don’t have to be locked into watching Katniss’ every move (I know this sounds like sacrilege). It’s not like the creatively torturous games are boring, but it’s hard to ignore an increasing sense of been-there-done-that. When there are so many larger, wider-reaching consequences happening outside throughout the various districts, you can’t help but feel a bit antsy. Another reason the film doesn’t break free from the games repeat is that it purposely keeps Katniss, and in turn the audience, in the dark about the larger outside machinations. The collective ignorance has a purpose but it also makes the plot frustrating.

Really, Catching Fire is more a setup for the series greater conflict rather than a complete film/story. Things are unraveling in the country of Panem, but if you want resolution you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the next movie, or more likely 2015 for its concluding half. What Catching Fire does is tease out the plot change and then transition to it, but only in the final minute. As my pal and colleague Ben Bailey notes, it ends in similar fashion to 2003’s Matrix Reloaded, and you’re left on a cliffhanger that doesn’t seem like a natural resting point for the story. Again, these critiques can be waged at the book as well as the film is a fairly close adaptation that will satisfy the die-hard fans.

From here on out, the Hunger Games movies are going to get more interesting. With two remaining films to cover the ground in one book, it should allow for greater development of characters, conflicts, dramatic themes, social commentary, or just larger kickass action sequences now that we’re in a larger arena, so to speak. Under the screenwriting expertise of Danny Strong (HBO’s Recount and Game Change) I’m anticipating a more politically astute and intellectual dystopian drama. Francis Lawrence has brought visual dynamism and stability to the franchise, just in time for when things are poised to get really interesting. As a film, Catching Fire is a step above the previous entry, ironing out some of the shortcomings and presenting more subtext when it comes to its social unrest. It introduces a bevy of intriguing new characters, escalates tensions throughout the realm, and promises greater suffering and strife ahead. However, the repetitive plot structure of throwing Katniss back into the games for an hour eats away at time that could be better spent watching the revolution ferment. It’s still a reliably entertaining film with a sharper visual gloss, so fans should go home happy and audiences should be suitably thrilled. The alterations from Collins’ book are all for the better. Catching Fire will slay the box-office with little trouble but I’m most thankful that we’ll be leaving the games behind for good.

Nate’s Grade: B

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42 (2013)

42-poster-2__spanStaid and square, a bit like its lead, 42 is a biopic on Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, and while it’s reverential to a fault, it could have used more life. As a character, Robinson is simply not terribly interesting because he’s being trapped within a limited prism of inaction. Robinson the man could be fascinating, but Robinson the character of this movie is a bit of a bore. That’s why the film is just as much about Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a far more colorful character that gets to chomp cigars and lecture people with countless speeches accompanied by heroic piano cues. 42 is crammed to the gills with messages but they’re so transparent and overdone, occasionally ham-fisted, where every important thought is spelled out and underlined and repeated for the audience. The corny sentimentality clashes with the danger and hostility Robinson bravely faced. We got stuff like a little kid praying to God that Robinson hits a homer to “show what we can do,” a white guy trots up to Robinson and he seems dangerous… only to want to wish him well, and then there’s all the white players learning lessons of tolerance, treating Robinson as if he’s some prop for their own self-actualization. The greatest acting in the movie, a bit that may take your breath away, is from Alan Tudyk who plays a competing team manager. He is like a racist Foghorn Leghorn and he just… keeps… going. This sequence is the film’s best because it feels earned, complete, and lastly emotionally resonant. 42 is an acceptable biopic, effectively triumphant where it counts, but it feels too dated, too safe, and overburdened with doling out a slew of messages rather than telling an engaging and difficult story.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

blue-is-the-warmest-color-(2013)The French drama Blue is the Warmest Color has been bathed in publicity and controversy ever since its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It’s a three-hour lesbian romance about sexual awakening and finding a deep human connection, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the graphic sex. The drama split audiences down the middle, with people like Steven Spielberg praising its unflinching examination on the craving and heartache of young love, and others like New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the director/writer Abdellatif Kechiche “oblivious to real women.” It’s an impressive film, a rapturous love story for the twenty-first century that defies swift categorization. This isn’t just a gay film. This isn’t just a romance. This is a highly relatable, appealing, and heartbreaking movie of the first-order; however, both the defenders and detractors of Blue have substantial merits to their claims.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a normal 17-year old girl trying to gather a sense of her self. Her peers are pressuring her to lose her virginity with a popular guy, but it’s another person, a mysterious blue-haired lass, that Adele can’t stop thinking about. This woman, the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux) is an art student and an out lesbian. One night, Adele follows her into a lesbian bar and they strike up a friendship, one that quickly translates into something more romantic. Over the rest of the movie, we cover several years of Adele and Emma’s lives together and learn that each has left an indelible mark on the other, for good and bad.

109202_galLet’s tackle the portion that’s gotten the most coverage in the media, the graphic sex sequences that earned the film the rare stateside NC-17 rating. You may have thought 2011’s sex addict drama, Shame, earned its NC-17 rating, but Blue trounces it. Short of unsimulated sex scenes in movies like Shortbus and 9 Songs, I doubt many audience members have experienced sex sequences this explicit and this lengthy (you may start checking your watch at some point). At its Cannes premier, the critical response breathlessly hyped a sexual encounter that went on for 18 minutes. That number may be the total onscreen copulation time; the longest sex scene is seven minutes or so, but you do feel the vigorous extension. Is there a particular reason the steamy sex scenes needed to be this long or this graphic? Kechiche likely wanted to communicate an explosion of immeasurable passion unlike anything Emma or Adele will experience in their lives. But did this need to be communicated with seven minutes of orgasmic fingers, lips, and tongues exploring every crevice of their bodies? Would six minutes of enthusiastic sex prove insufficient? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I found little entertainment in watching Exarchopoulos and Seydoux clinging to one another’s sweaty naked bodies, entwined ever so passionately. I just don’t think the film demanded as much drawn out sex when the drama is this strong.

And that’s the mass appeal blurb when it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color: come for the intensity of the sex, stay for the intensity of the feelings. You will swiftly feel the nervousness and sexual tension that comes from the exploration of attraction. All those high school butterflies come fluttering back. The depth of feeling is easily relatable. The characters are searching for unparalleled human connection but also discovering more about who they are. This is a moving, absorbing, and crushing love story, but it’s just as much about two people falling out of love. That was a major surprise for me. What’s more is that the forces behind their breakup are completely understandable and you can see them coming; at heart, they are two different people that operate in different worlds, and they do change over time. That’s excellent storytelling when one can feel for both sides of a breakup, comprehend how this moment arrived, and looking back, see how inevitable a conflict like this would be. Emma’s sphere of friends is one that Adele does not feel a comfortable place within. Emma worries that Adele needs to find a sense of identity outside their relationship. Adele is still too timid to admit the truth about her relationship with a woman to her colleagues and family. These are major conflicts and they simmer and gestate in ways that feel like real life. Beyond some of the specifics in the bedroom (more on that later), there isn’t a moment that feels unbelievable in the entire three hours. This is a naturalistic love story that unfolds in small waves, allowing us to get to know the characters and their lives.

blue-is-the-warmest-color-poster1-e1381173193485The two actresses are outstanding and bare much more than their flesh for this film. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux disappear into their characters. These are richly developed characters, and each actress does her best to bring them to startling life. Exachopoulos (who looks like a Parisian Maggie Grace) has so much of the film riding on her 19-year-old shoulders since her character is the film’s major point of view; we often see the world through her perspective. She’s excellent as the curious, anxious, bashful young woman, and her encounters with Emma open her world up, allowing Adele to broaden as a person. She’s still not confidant, given to doubts that Emma seems to lack, but Exarchopoulos convinces you of the difference. Every step along her journey is credible, acted with poise, even the uncontrolled weeping. In a just world, this French newcomer would be up for serious acting award consideration. Seydoux is the more assured character, the one who sizes up her interest, but when hurt, the ferocity of Emma’s fury is staggering. This is not a woman to scorn, and Adele will learn this the hard way. Later in the film, as the history hangs in the air between Emma and Adele, we get a powerful sense of how conflicted both women are, having never turned off their feelings but trapped by circumstance and consequences. You feel each member cycle through the myriad of emotions, fumbling between desire and desperation. The actresses work together beautifully, raising one another’s performance, and giving one another the environment to get truly intimate, emotionally and physically.

Allow me to wade into some awkward territory and address some questions I have with the logistics of the graphic lesbian sex scenes. Now I have never been a lesbian but I am friends with a few, though I have never interrogated them on the subject‘s specifics because, well, that would be weird. With that said, I’m fairly certain that there are several positions and sequences between Adele and Emma that defy reality and, more so, practicality. For the more timid readers, please skip to the next paragraph. Much has been made about the breathy, energetic sexual activity on display, but some of it is just baffling. First off, I’m pretty certain that scissoring is not a terribly drawn out and essential part of lesbian lovemaking. Again, not having the equipment in discussion, I do believe that forcibly mashing one’s gentials, unsheathed, for long periods, against another harder surface is probably asking for some rug burns (I suppose this could work the same way for either gender). Then there are incidents like Emma’s head placement when it comes to performing cunnilingus. Rather than having Adele lie on her back, she instead lies flat on her stomach and Emma shoves her face into Adele’s rear. She doesn’t need to take the scenic route; there is a shortcut that works far better.

There is a larger point in my rehashing of the prurient details in Blue, and that is chiefly that the film is more a representation of a man’s fantasy of lesbian sex. The male gaze, a term referred to often in feminist film criticism, is trenchant in this film. Kechiche’s camera doesn’t just love his two young stars; it fawns over them, lusts over them. The camera is always within inches of Adele’s face, glued to tight shots lingering over Exarchopoulos’s pouty lips. Seriously, the actress has her mouth open the entire movie, her lips forever pillowy, forever pouting. It’s a sensual movie, yes, but does every shot of young Adele need to be so tawny and voyeuristic, her hair always slightly askew in her face, her body positioned just so that her assets are featured? Critics like Dargis are correct about Kechiche’s fawning camera pushing over into the boundary of erotic fetishism. This is where my questioning of sexual positioning comes back; going ass backwards when it comes to cunnilingus (and yes, I will intend that pun) is aesthetically pleasing in a sensuous manner, and that feels like the dictum of Kechiche’s intimate camerawork. It’s heterosexual male pleasure represented on screen, at least in its depiction. Otherwise, with the camera always tethered inches away from Adele’s face, why don’t we remain focused on her face during all this physical pleasure? It can be just as erotic. However, with all that out there, why can’t lesbian sex be given the same ridiculous fantasy depictions of heterosexual sex in the movies? I can almost guarantee that pool tables are not a prime location for indulging one’s urges. And just showcasing lesbian sex onscreen between a committed couple (not just girl-on-girl flings like in Black Swan) and normalizing it, whatever intention, is a virtue.

-1But it’s not just the sex scenes that could use some judicious snipping; the entire three-hour enterprise could be easily consolidated. The film is replete with loping scenes that sort of drift along, recreating the ordinary rhythms of life rather than the plot beat connect-the-dots we associate with most film narratives. That’s fine, you need time to establish characters and setting, but do we need people interpreting poetry at length and indulging in gender philosophy for minutes on end? Perhaps if I watched Blue is the Warmest Color a second time I’d be more tolerable of the narrative bloat, finding added subtext and metaphor to all those ponderous philosophical discussions over the nature of the self and gender identity. Of course seeing a three-hour movie, again, is going to take a significant time commitment.

Sensual throughout, beautifully developed, richly observed, and brought to life with bristling and audacious acting, Blue is the Warmest Color is a love story that hits hard with emotional force. By nicely realizing the characters, providing them depth and fallibility, we can empathize with them along the different stops of their romantic journey, seeing where each is coming from and understanding the yearning, frustration, and passion. When things are good, there’s a frisson on screen, a palpable sense of desire accentuated by Kechiche’s loving (and occasionally obsessive/fetishized) camerawork. The acting by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is as raw and fevered as their onscreen lovemaking. I doubt it needed to be a full three hours long, and I doubt the notorious NC-17-earning sex scenes needed to be as graphic to communicate delight, but I’m most pleased that Blue is offering a full movegoing experience, watching the formation of two characters over time and how they change. It’s easily watchable even during its more ponderous, dare I say French-y, sidesteps. The ending is a slight misstep, calling out for greater certainty, but the French title for the film was, Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, the implication being there may be future cinematic adventures that await these people. I don’t know if this will ever come to fruition considering the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh is a mere 160 pages, rather shrift considering the medium, but I can hope. Romances this involving, observant, and intense don’t come around too often and deserve to be cherished. Just consider the sex a bonus.

Nate’s Grade: A

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

108745_galIt’s been a while since Hollywood really tackled the AIDS crisis and the prejudices associated with it. Thanks to better understanding and tolerance, and a rise in life-extending drug treatments, AIDS is rarely stigmatized today as it once was, as a death sentence, as a gay disease. It’s faded into the back of most people’s minds. It’s been twenty years since Philadelphia and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance. Has it been too long? The drama Dallas Buyers Club returns to the early years of the AIDS crisis and the ignorance of the age, illuminating a lesser known true story about one of the most unlikely activists to emerge.

In 1985, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo bull rider. He’s drinking, snorting cocaine, and sleeping with every woman he lays eyes on. Then one day he collapses and wakes up in the hospital. He’s told he has contracted HIV/AIDS and likely only has 30 days left to live. Ron is aghast, instantly defensive, declaring, “I ain’t no faggot.” Rather than wallow, he fights to live as long as he can, refusing to be part of a hospital drug treatment for AZT unless they can tell him, definitively, he’s getting the actual drug and not the placebo. Ron travels to Mexico and finds a sympathetic doctor with alternative treatments involving vitamins and other natural drugs, none of them illegal, just unapproved by the FDA. Ron returns to the States and runs into trouble trying to sell his wares to the afflicted gay community. Raylon (Jared Leto), a kindly transvestite suffering from AIDS, agrees to help Ron make inroads, for a percentage of the sales. Ron and his unlikely business partner skirt legal loopholes to sell “memberships” into the titular Dallas Buyers Club. With monthly dues, every member gets a dose of attentive medicine, and it’s having remarkable results.

106809_galThe bulk of the attention Dallas Buyers Club has received is from the transformative performances of its two lead male actors, and they are exceptional. McConaughey (Mud) begins as the sort of character we’ve seen before, the swaggering cowboy who’s a natural ladies’ man, but as his life quickly falls apart and his circle of friends turn on him in gay panic and ignorance, Ron is pushed to the brink. McConaughey’s weight loss, which garnered plenty of ink in tabloids last year, is startling and instantly echoes his character’s dire state. Likewise, when you see a late scene of Leto (Lord of War), his frame is so gaunt, so frail, and so evocative of the few remaining moments these men have left to them. It’s no stunt or gimmick because their performances, even without the weight loss, are enormously affecting and powerful. Both men project a blustery confidence they themselves occasionally buy into, but both men are, naturally, scared witless, fumbling, scrambling against the clock. McConaughey is the strong face, the wheeler-dealer who has to use his live-wire charm and bag of tricks to get the meds. As roadblock after roadblock is thrown his way, we readily watch the toll is takes on Ron, the heaviness of his burden that becomes more about people than money. Leto is the conscience of the film and as he shrinks away, you can’t help but feel the inescapable tragedy. Leto will break your heart. I fully expect both men not only to be nominated for Oscars but likely to be favorites to win.

Despite the strength of those two outstanding performances, the film itself doesn’t measure up in a disappointing number of ways. The script by Craig Borten and Melissa Walleck misses far too many opportunities to round out the characters and the central conflict. The second half of Dallas Buyers Club feels a tad rudderless, and this is mostly because of a general sense of sameness in Ron’s conflicts. He butts heads with the FDA, finds a loophole, keeps going. This pattern repeats but it never escalates until the very end. As a result, the film feels like it’s treading water when it shouldn’t be. The portrayal of the FDA and other antagonists is decidedly one-note, almost to a ghoulishly degree. The movie sets up the piñata of Big Business/Pharma to take easy whacks at a faceless, money-driven entity that put profits before human lives. I get it, but it’s too easy and a movie that gropes for emotional depth should not have to stoop to caricatures of bureaucratic evil. The truth of the matter is that there was plenty of legal intransigence and feet dragging when it came to the response to AIDS, and that’s why it feels almost callously wrong for Dallas Buyers Club to reduce this dramatic point in history, where 95% of people who contracted HIV/AIDS had a month left to live, to an us vs. them/slobs vs. snobs underdog tale. That reductive condensing is a disservice to the real people but also a greater dramatic story at heart here.

I’d also like to note that the characters themselves are lacking. They held my interest, certainly, but what can I say about them? What moments revealed nuance or progression? The character arcs are dramatic with a capital D: homophobic Texas good ole’ boy becomes unlikely AIDS activist and friend to gays. The parameters are clearly mapped out, the start and the finish, but what’s lacking is substantive growth that I can acknowledge onscreen. Beyond the ongoing presence of Raylon, the movie doesn’t provide enough evidence for me to move Ron from homophobe to activist. I think this is due to the script meeting the basic requirements of what it thinks are the big signposts along Ron’s personal journey. So we get a scenario such as Ron refusing to enter a gay bar, then cautiously entering, then feeling comfortable around gay people. I don’t need people to trip over soapboxes to blurt out their inner feelings, their changing perspectives, but there has to be more than what’s presented in the interest of time and narrative cohesion. Likewise, Raylon is portrayed as saintly, your prototypical movie gay man with flamboyance and attitude, and he is certainly charming, but much like the main character in 12 Years a Slave, Raylon is more tragic martyr than fully-realized character. His service to the script is to push Ron forward on his own humanizing arc, and I’ve already stated my problems with that. The remaining characters are underwritten, with the unfeeling Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) served up as a stooge. Except he’s trying to get a sample size to test a drug’s viability, the same process with all medicine. Yet because he’s looking at the big picture, and lacks bedside manner, he’s the enemy to harrumph. Jennifer Garner’s character is more an exposition spout than person.

109550_galWeirdly, the movie drifts into an extended subplot, almost a secondary antagonist after the FDA, against the preliminary AZT drug treatment. This was the first major drug produced to combat HIV/AIDS. It had major backing with huge pharmaceutical industries. Opposition to the conventional norm of the time (AZT is our only medical hope) provides a snug storyline to garner our rooting interest in Ron, but this fight seems too impersonal and one-sided. We’re given reams of stats on the effects of AZT on AIDS patients, presenting a picture that AZT breaks down the patient’s immune system. Dallas Buyer’s Club becomes a sermon against AZT. The movie doesn’t have to be apolitical but it needs to mask its sermonizing or at least be more passionate about its case. Then in the end credits we’re served a short post-script saying that a low-dose AZT, in combination with other drugs, saved millions of lives. After hearing two hours of how terrible and stupid AZT is for treatment, it’s a surprising endnote. Does that justify the doctors that the film so easily vilified?

Ultimately a good film worth watching, I can’t help but continue finding problems as I reflect upon my Dallas Buyers Club experience. If it wasn’t for the excellent acting onscreen, I would have noticed the flaws of Dallas Buyers Club even earlier, but strong acting has a way of being a soothing balm with the deficiencies in a film. The narrative, with easy one-note villains and a runaround of repetitive conflicts, needs more development to match the caliber of performances of McConaughey and Leto. Both men give it their all, breaking your heart in the process, and their performances are even more commendable and impressive when you realize that the film’s characterization is wanting. I feel like the complexity of this volatile time, and Ron Woodroof as a human being and unlikely activist, have been simplified into a rah-rah mass appeal underdog vehicle. I think this does a disservice to the characters and their personal drama, and I wish the filmmakers presented them better as well-rounded individuals rather than tools for the re-education of Ron Woodroof. There’s enough good here to balance out the could-have-been-better, chiefly the power of the central male performances. However, if you want a passionate account of early AIDS activism, I suggest checking out last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

MV5BMjc1OTEwNjU4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUzNDIwOQ@@._V1_SX214_Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

105636_galLoosely based off the Norse mythology, Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero isn’t exactly the easiest character to relate to even as a superhero. Thor is a god after all. Not to be outdone, the man is also royalty, next in line to be king, so he’s in a special class of privilege. And yet 2011’s Thor was a pleasant surprise, a superhero movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, had modest aims, and embraced its sci-fi fantasy mélange. It was a movie where the sillier it got the better it worked. Now Thor: The Dark World, a.k.a. Thor 2, is ready to dominate the fall box-office and prove that Joe and Jane Popcorn can cheer for a pagan god.

Following the events of The Avengers, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is taken back to his home world of Asgard and put in prison. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is trying to get back to Earth to reunite with his love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is being groomed for the throne of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, the nine worlds are nearing a convergence and dimensional gateways are opening, including one that infects Jane with an ancient biological weapon, the aether. The aether was used as a weapon by the dark elves, a race of creatures that was long ago defeated but its general, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), has been dormant and in hiding. Alterted, he assembles his surviving army to attack Asgard, kidnap Jane Foster, retrieve the aether, and destroy all life in the universe.

109997_galThor is still a second tier character when it comes to Marvel superheroes (the guy just isn’t that interesting) but his franchise has, in only two starring films, become the most interesting. The scope of the Thor movies seems infinite. Whereas the other Marvel heroes are Earthbound and straightforward, Thor transports an audience to all sorts of alien worlds/cultures/conflicts, all of which open up more tantalizing storytelling avenues. Nothing seems out of place in a setting such as this, and so the surprises are more satisfying. I thought the best parts of 2011’s Thor were the Asgard moments, less the strained fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor assimilating on Earth. Thankfully, almost all of Thor 2 takes place off Earth save for a rousing, creative, inter-dimensional hopscotch of a climax. The realm of Asgard is given suitable scope thanks to the screenwriters and first-time feature film director Alan Taylor, who worked in TV for years. Taylor’s notable work on HBO’s Game of Thrones is probably what got him this gig, and his vision with fantasy is given significant breadth here. The Thor universe is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi, reminiscent of Star Wars, and Taylor provides the necessary sweeping visuals, exciting action, and glorious shirtless close-ups we come to expect from our fantasy vistas. I was consistently impressed with Taylor’s command of visuals and shot selection, particularly how the man was able to juggle the various tones and needs of the script while still keeping an exposition-heavy film fun and light.

With rainbow bridges, dark elves, and enchanted hammers, thank goodness that Thor 2 keeps a steady and welcome sense of humor, never getting too serious even with the end of existence on the line. This jovial tone is refreshing when properly executed and contributes to the overall fun of the picture. We’ve had such sturm und drang when it comes to our superhero movies, particularly last summer’s Man of Steel misfire. I appreciate a dark and gloomy superhero tale like Nolan’s Batman films, or a satirical swipe like the original Kick-Ass, but we need stories that fit with their tone. When it comes to Thor, he’s still saving the world, rescuing his damsel, but the attitude, while on its face regal and serious, is anything but. The Thor movies accept the absurdities of its setting and just shrugs, plowing along. And now with Jane on Asgard, the fish-out-of-water comedy gets a different perspective. She gets to meet Thor’s parents (awkward) and an Asgardian who has a thing for the hunky Norseman (double awkward… I’ll stop the 90s catch phrases now). Thor 2 also gives Jane Foster much more to do, placing her front and center as a person integral to the stability of the universe. During the snazzy climax, she gets to run around and contribute in a meaningful manner. The there’s the plucky Kat Dennings (TV’s 2 Broke Girls) who gets to rattle off one-liners like a pro, many of them grounding the elevated levels of silliness. Much of the humor comes from the cocksure characters and their quips, particularly Loki.

And that’s as good as any place to interject my notion that Thor isn’t truly the main character in this film, despite what the title preceding the colon may lead you to believe. That honor goes to Loki, the greatest villain in any modern Marvel movie by far. He’s got the clearest arc in the movie, going through arguably the most personal pain, coming to a crossroads, and his conclusion certainly sets up sizable ramifications down the road for the presumptive Thor 3. Played by Hiddleston (War Horse), the character draws you in, even when he’s throwing his self-aggrandized temper tantrums you want to spend more time with him. He’s far and away the most developed and interesting character onscreen, and Hiddleston has such a gleeful malevolence to him that makes the character all the more electric and unpredictable. Thor 2 is really the story of Loki coming to terms with his life’s choices, the choices his adopted parents made, his sense of self and birthright, and moving forward, becoming his own man again. This is why Thor 2 ascends another entertainment rung by tying Loki into the main story, forcing him and Thor to work together against a common enemy.

106046_galIn a film dominated by a charismatic Loki, it’s no wonder that Thor 2’s real bad guy falls woefully short. Malekith is a confusing and altogether lackluster antagonist in every conceivable way. He has no personality to him; he’s simple-minded with the goal of eradicating the universe. I don’t know about you, but my bad guys better have a pretty good reason for destroying the universe since they kinda live there too. This is one of the lazier villain plot devices because it has no nuance, no shading. Apparently before there was a universe there were dark elves. I don’t want to get caught in a chicken-egg paradox here, but was there a universe before the universe, cause I look at the universe like existence’s garage. The cars inside may change but the garage was standing before it all. Anyway, Malekith wants to destroy all life because he wants to, because certainly you’d think there would be enough space in space. He’s not even that threatening or given any particular advantage beyond some firepower. It’s no wonder that Loki runs circles around this chump in the villain department. Eccleston (Unfinished Song) is not at fault. The heavy makeup he’s under smothers the actor’s ability to polish this terrible character.

The rest of the acting fares better. At this point, we know what we’re getting with Hemsworth (Snow White and the Huntsman) as the title character. He’s a sturdy leading man with just enough appeal to satisfy, though part of it is that Thor is just dull as a hero. He was more entertaining when he was cocky and irresponsible. Portman (Black Swan) holds her own though the romance between her and Thor feels more forced. Hopkins (Red 2) strikes the right mix between regal and camp. While their roles aren’t exactly integral, it’s nice having a superhero movie stuffed with great actors like Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Russell, and there’s even an amusing appearance by Chris O’Dowd, who effortlessly oozes charm (take note, Thor).

This a superhero movie that separates itself by its sheer sense of fun. Thor: The Dark World takes what worked in the previous movie and provides more of it. The campy, silly Asgard stuff is given even more time, the mischievous sense of humor is renewed, the fantasy worlds given more depth and better action/effects, and fan favorite Loki gets a big starring role this time with extra brotherly bickering. It’s not the best superhero movie, nor is it the best Marvel film of recent years, but Thor 2 knows what kind of movie it wishes to be and how to best achieve this. It’s a loopy, droll, and rather imaginative big-budget superhero film, while still finding ways to be somewhat generic with its overall plotting and character turns. While the action is suitably epic, it’s the character interactions that are the most enjoyable aspect. It seems excessively lazy to say that if you enjoyed the first Thor, you’ll probably enjoy the second one as well, but there it is. Perhaps next time the storyline won’t be as convoluted and we can get even more Loki. Barring that, I’ll accept additional Chris O’Dowd screen time.

Nate’s Grade: B

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave-posterIn 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could  be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.

12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):

Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”

12-years-a-slave-trailerThis brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.

There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.

With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.

12-years-a-slaveFrom a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.

The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.

Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.

twelve-years-a-slave-michael-fassbenderTo criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Ender’s Game (2013)

o-ENDERS-GAME-POSTER-900Honestly I know more about Ender’s Game thanks to the swirling rabble about boycotting the film thanks to author Orson Scott Card’s homophobic personal views. I didn’t even know this book existed until I heard about the movie. With my cloud of ignorance, as well as some lingering worries that the director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was at the helm of this expensive would-be franchise, I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining I found the movie. It’s set in a future where children are culled and trained to be super soldiers against an alien race that has been in seclusion after a failed invasion of Earth. The emphasis is on strategy and manipulating your opponent, which leads to many military training sequences. At one point I wondered, “Is this whole story going to be training sequences and zero-gravity laser tag?” It’s not, thankfully, but even those sequences are fun. Writer/director Gavin Hood does an excellent job of fleshing out this world while giving enough time in between the games to also flesh out his ragtag group of characters. There’s something inherently satisfying to watching a team come together, and the film has plenty of small payoffs. The visuals are astounding to soak up. The zero gravity fun, backlit by the stars, is dazzling. The acting is strong across the board, with special appreciation that Harrison Ford has a good role that he’s actually well suited for. The pacing does start to slag toward the third act, mostly because the plot feels like an escalating series of games, until it’s not. There’s a measured degree of ethical ambiguity and contemplation to the film that’s admirable. Whether you plan on boycotting Ender’s Game or not, it’s a successful, thrilling, and visually engaging sci-fi flick that deserves to be seen at some point.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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