Monday, 16 December 2013

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire', 'Blue is the WarmestColour', 'Jeune & Jolie', 'All is Lost', 'Diana', 'Nebraska', 'KillYour Darlings'; and 'Frozen': review round-up

Not got a functioning computer at present, so here's some belated reviews as written on an annoying touchscreen keyboard on a tablet... for that reason they will be short.

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' - Dir. Francis Lawrence (12A)

The first film in the series was a solid, if unremarkable, adaptation of Suazanne Collins' teen fiction novel The Hunger Games, which succeeded mostly due to the marriage of a highly watchable, young star (Jennifer Lawrence) with an engaging high concept (a dystopian future sees poor communities forced to sacrifice their children to a Battle Royale-style deathmatch, which is then served back to the populace as a gaudy reality TV show) - further boosted by memorable supporting turns from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. However, this follow-up - based on the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire - is much improved, providing a superior dose of hi-octane blockbuster entertainment, cranking up the stakes far beyond just the survival of the principle cast, and doing a lot of interesting world-building along the way.

As with the novels, this is the chapter in which the wider world of Panem is fleshed out and the political ramifications of Katniss' defiant attitude during the last games are explored - and it makes for more interesting viewing as a result. With Katniss now touring the various dishevelled districts of her world as a reluctant, all-conquering champion, the book's first person narrative - and in turn the film's - can now take in a far broader world view. And now that her arena rival/love interest/neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), well-meaning PR guru Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and alcoholic mentor Haymitch (Harrelson) are established characters she's known for a year (as opposed to sources of varying levels of irritation), there is more room for fun and warmth amidst the story's oppressively bleak setting.

This is a teen-focused blockbuster in which riot police shoot a helpless old man in the head for whistling, in which handsome bore Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is bloodily flogged to within an inch of his life, and in which a frail old woman is corroded to death by a cloud of poisonous gas. So being able to care about the central relationships, and take a certain amount of pleasure in them, is a huge plus. Lawrence is terrific again in the central role, playing a Strong Female Character TM whose strength is not solely found in her toughness and aptitude with a bow, but in the fact she is written with considerable character flaws. She's stubborn, calculating, sometimes extremely cold, but no less a hero, and that combination unfortunately warrants pointing because multi-faceted female characters are still so rare in mainstream blockbusters. Katniss likes bows and hunting and boozing with Haymitch and tormenting her country's sinister president (Donald Sutherland) on national TV, but she also enjoys dresses and hunky boys and adores her young sister. She's a wonderful creation and one that seems particularly well suited to Lawrence's strengths as an actor.

'Blue is the Warmest Colour' - Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (18)

Loosely adapted from a well regarded graphic novel by Julie Maroh, this tale of the rise and fall of a romance between two young women garnered the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Fittingly Steven Spielberg's jury took the unusual step of giving the prize to the lead actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, as well as director Abdellatif Kechiche, and it's easy to understand why as both are superb. Particularly Exarchopoulos, who plays her namesake Adele over a span of several years - taking her from naive, teenage schoolgirl to lovelorn, primary school teacher, subtly adapting her mannerisms and posture along the way. Seydoux is comparatively under-served by the story - as the blue-haired Emma she's a tempestuous object of affection, as seen through Adele's eyes - but she's nonetheless an engaging presence.

The film's quieter character moments, as Adele deals with the different stages of her relationship with Emma, navigating interactions with her friends and family, are great work. Certainly the two "dinner with the in-laws" scenes, that do so well to contrast Adele and Emma's backgrounds, education, interests and aspirations, all through attitudes to food and parental interactions, are miniature masterpieces. However, the film falls down when it comes to some extremely long sex scenes that stretch the running time in an unfavourable direction and which break from the film's otherwise naturalistic tone by presenting sex in a way which suggests you've stumbled onto Channel 5 post-watershed.

It feels as though (perhaps commendably) Kechiche has sought to confront viewers with a lot of quite graphic sex so as to honestly portray this on-screen homosexual relationship, without presenting this passionate love affair as chaste or being seen to shy away from the subject matter. But that approach backfires spectacularly when sex ends up being presented in such a perfectly posed and idealised way, without a hair out of place or merest suggestion that bodily fluids are involved. As a result it's a far from perfect, Jekyll and Hyde of a movie, that goes disappointingly from intense, emotional and immaculately acted scenes of dramatic honesty to tedious and downright laughable depictions of the physical act of love. Adele Exarchopoulos might have given the year's best performance, but the film itself falls some way short of her greatness.

'Jeune & Jolie' - Dir. Francois Ozon (18)

Perhaps this one's 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' in reverse, as frank depictions of and attitudes towards sex are undersold by a lacklustre drama which feels a little too detached and bloodless. Writer-director Francois Ozon's portrayal of an underaged prostitute named Isabelle (Marine Vacth), whose apparent indifference to love and sexual intimacy leads her to exploiting her obvious sexual power for quick cash (or perhaps in a self-destructive bid to feel something), is certainly non-judgemental and interesting enough to sit through, but there's definitely something missing. A bit of commentary or satire or maybe even a bit of fun.

My podcast co-host Toby King commented that it wasn't trashy enough to have much fun with or serious enough to really satisfy on a dramatic level, and there certainly is a strange tone to the piece that makes me wonder if there's a bit of sly, nuanced humour involved here if you're a native French speaker. Something lost in the translation perhaps? I certainly wouldn't put that past Ozon, a director who usually crafts much more cerebral and provocative films than this, such as this year's incredible 'In the House'. There's an interesting opening shot which sees Isabelle's brother ogling her on a beach through a pair of binoculars as she bathes topless, hinting at something about voyeurism and the gaze of male audience members, themselves invited to gawp at this gorgeous and frequently-naked 22 year-old model, portraying a girl just turned 17. Yet there's nothing in the rest of the film which seems to suggest an ambition to challenge the spectator in any way. Not a failure, but an unsatisfying watch in retrospect.

'All is Lost' - Dir. J.C. Chandor (12A)

I'm generally a great admirer of movies like this. Little movies that feel like exercises in discipline and restraint, with a couple of limited sets and a few characters. Polanski's 'Carnage' was a terrific example last year, with four great actors arguing in a New York apartment for just over an hour. A few years back 'Moon' similarly entertained me with its two Sam Rockwells, old fashioned special effects and the disembodied voice of Kevin Spacey. This time it's veteran Hollywood star Robert Redford alone on a small boat for a whole movie, trying to survive tidal waves and hold off the inevitable suggested by the title. It's a solid premise, backed by a seasoned screen actor - a bona fide movie icon. There's no dialogue or contrived human drama: it just begins with a random accident and we follow the steadily worsening aftermath. It sounds brilliant.

It isn't.

Being a tight, disciplined little movie of this kind only works if you have enough compelling story to tell or enough of a character to develop over 90 or so minutes. 'Moon' packed in a high concept and a devestating emotional twist, to go with an interesting aesthetic. 'Carnage' uses four variously bitter and unlikeable human beings to explore social mores, affectations and middle class hypocrisy, with a savage wit. By contrast 'All is Lost' is, for the most part, a man in tan chinos looking increasingly grumpy as he stares out to sea, eating beans from the tin. Director J C Chandor, who also made the execrable Wall Street drama 'Margin Call' (a film similarly concerned with the plight of the wealthy and the WASPy), has so little to actually say in this film that several different scenes play out multiple times in a way which would be a veritable screenwriting crime in a movie with more business to take care of (note the two identical scenes in which Redford sees a big ship, fires a flare, shouts, and is not rescued).

It opens with a little monologue in which Redford talks about a life of mistakes and wanting to make amends and achieve forgiveness and ends (SPOILER) with a flash of white light as he's (take your pick) rescued by fisherman or taken into the afterlife by God. So there's a bit of strained religious guff in there if that floats your boat - pun very much intended - but otherwise this film, marketed as being about "endurance" and "survival" is really just an extended, unwelcome glimpse into the life of an uninteresting older chap as he looks very confused at sea.

'Diana' - Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel (12A)

From the director of 'Downfall' comes another drama about the final days of a mad person with a strange cult of personality, as Naomi Watts joins a no-star cast for mass career suicide in 'Diana'. A film so bad and so funny that it caused me to reevaluate my position that so-called "funny-bad" movies don't exist. It's tone deaf (strange Richard Curtis style rom-com that ends in a fatal car crash), absolutely bonkers (Diana becomes a stalker and, at one point, disguises as a scouser she calls Rita Johnson), gravely offensive (British people stop whenever she enters a room and gawp at her, with a maddening degree of reverence. One man even says "cor blimey!"), and very likely entirely made up. "Wall to wall 22-carat bollocks" to quote Watts' Diana, and surely it must be as one of the world's most famous, continually followed people (whose death was perhaps even caused by the hounding of paparazzi) spends every other sequence alone in a London park or wandering around a public hospital talking about how operations are "exciting". At one point she stands outside her lover's house shouting in the middle of the street. I would bet my 22-carat bollocks none of this ever happened. It's pretty funny though. Destined for cult status, perhaps.

'Nebraska' - Dir. Alexander Payne (15)

A late-career highlight in the career of star Bruce Dern, 'Nebraska' sees the veteran actor taking on the role of Woody Grant: a retired, cold and hard-drinking Montana resident who develops an unhealthy obsession with a sweepstakes letter that claims he's due a $1 million prize, to the consternation of his concerned family. After several attempts to walk to Nebraska on foot - in order to collect his winnings from the company that sent the letter - his extremely meek and kind-natured son, played by comedian Will Forte, agrees to drive him to the offices himself. Along the way Grant Snr passes through his hometown, running into old acquaintances and seldom seen relatives, all of whom suggest they are due a portion of his winnings.

Though not written by director Alexander Payne (the film was penned by Bob Nelson) the film has a great deal in common with his other work, being most successful as a low-key character piece. Scenes involving the extended Grant family are especially funny, and feel very true, whilst Dern's guileless, bewildered character becomes heartbreaking as his son uncovers more about his past and compromise of a relationship with his cantankerous mother (played to great effect by June Squibb). It hits a few bum notes along the way, with some of the more outlandish comic beats feeling out of place and with one subplot resolved in a way that jarred against the otherwise affable spirit of the piece, but Dern's performance is something special and there are moments of genuine greatness.

'Frozen' - Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (PG)

Taking obvious and direct cues from the recent success of 'Tangled' - arguably the first computer animated movie to really click for Disney Animation Studios following a string of mediocre (and consequently forgotten) duds - 'Frozen' is the tale of a another princess who is forced to grow up locked away from the outside world by her parents. This time, however, there isn't a wicked crone in sight, with this film's kindly monarchs spiriting away Elsa, their eldest daughter (and heir to the throne), because of fear about her magical ice powers. Meanwhile their younger daughter Anna, who's (through no fault of her own) also been raised in this slightly abusive 'Dogtooth'-esque set-up, is a perky, Manic Pixie Dreamgirl type who longs to marry a prince and can't understand why her older sister is so remote and serious. Then the ice powers make a mess of coronation day, people freak out, Elsa runs away and a succession of Broadway-style power ballards of variable quality begin. There's a toyetic talking snowman called Olaf and a reindeer named Sven, because Disney animated musical.

If I seem uncharacteristically dismissive here - given my love of quality animation (which this undoubtedly is) and classic Disney musicals - it's because 'Tangled' and 'Wreck-It Ralph' have raised the bar after years of relative disappointment and 'Frozen' doesn't quite hit the mark. It feels like a nakedly cynical attempt to replicate 'Tangled' and cross it with the runaway Broadway success Wicked (about a good and a bad witch, the latter having been most famously portrayed by Elsa voice actress Idina Menzel). I love a good musical, when the songs hit their mark, but I left 'Frozen' humming the songs from 'Tangled' and honestly couldn't remember how any of the many power ballads went if pressed. That's not to say it's a bad movie. In a disappointing year for animation it's probably the pick of the bunch, at least out of Hollywood's output. It's also fair to say that the ending is satisfying and fairly progressive.

'Kill Your Darlings' - Dir. John Krokidas (15)

Chronicling the beginnings of the Beat Generation of writers and poets, from the early meeting of the key figures up until David Kammerer's murder at the hands of Lucien Carr, 'Kill Your Darlings' focuses on the relationship between Carr (played by the unsettling young Michael Shannon that is Dane DeHaan) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) - though it also makes a feature of their friendship with William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). It's solid and unspectacular stuff about a group of interesting people though, as with that recent abysmal adaptation of 'On the Road', it does make all involved seem like irritating pricks as opposed literary pioneers or great wits. That's not to criticise the performances though, with Radcliffe, DeHaan and Foster all putting in a good shift. It's just not that stunning a film, despite revolving around a bunch of 20th Century celebrities and their involvement in a grizzly murder.

There's a little bit of half-hearted stuff here about anti-semitism (Ginsberg is mocked for being Jewish, whilst WWII lurks in the background, as gleaned from radio bulletins) and homophobia (gay men being arrested in clubs and Carr using a hideous "honour killing" law as his defence against having killed his male lover) but it never comes to anything particularly and the film doesn't ultimately feel as though it has a point it wants to make about anything. Just another bit of "weren't the Beat Generation interesting?" guff and, to be honest, I'm starting to doubt that they were...

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