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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One Film Review

I really enjoyed seeing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One today. The film centers on Katniss' PTSD post-Games and her trying to hold on to her sanity as she is caught in the middle of the war between the Capitol and the rebels. It is also about the rebels trying to save and protect their people using propaganda the way the Capitol would use propaganda, and having selfish interests at heart even while being the "good guys." They put Katniss as the "Mockingjay" and hold up her as a symbol to further their cause, but likely would be just as satisfied if she died, a martyr for their cause.

The film was very bleak, but I thought it fit the mood of the story very well, with a lot of gray and blue tones, and focusing on other districts and their battles besides Katniss as the narrator.

Acting-wise, everyone did well. The usual cast members put in good to decent performances. Jennifer Lawrence did well in playing a damaged teenager with no real power trying to hold onto her interpersonal relationships because it was the only control she had (Prim, Peeta, Johanna) while being in a war she didn't want to be a part of. Elizabeth Banks did really well as Effie, balancing her character between being a citizen used to her Capitol luxuries and being a sympathetic person towards Katniss and the rebels' cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch was on the "good" side, but marketing Katniss' pain to the masses. Still, I miss Hoffman because of his voice and warmth that he brought to his roles. And Julianne Moore as Alma Coin was icy and cold and brittle, but was an interesting character in using Katniss to further the rebels' cause and possibly becoming another President Snow in the future.

I know Rambo gets made fun of as an 80's action movie, but this final scene where Rambo has a breakdown about his traumas from the Vietnam war and living with the memories for 15 years was very powerful and moving. I was reminded of it sometimes during the movie with Katniss dealing with her PTSD while being used as a symbol for the rebels' cause and being put in fake-looking propaganda videos. The speech begins at 2:30.

Ricochet Film Review

I watched Ricochet, this movie from 1991 starring Denzel Washington and John Lithgow. It's a dark and messed-up crime thriller. Washington plays Nick Styles, a rookie cop who shot a killer named Blake (Lithgow) and put him behind bars. Eight years later, Styles became a big-time cop and assistant D.A., and Blake has been obsessing over vengeance all this time. He breaks out of prison, kidnaps Styles, drugs him, and humiliates him on camera in various ways to ruin his career and public character. The plot continues as Styles tries to clear his name and get Blake, who is terrorizing people in order to get to Styles.

The movie was just very gritty. Washington's star was still rising at this time, as he hadn't become a leading man movie star yet, and his character is the hero, but also spends part of the movie doped up on cocaine and heroin, then is still out of it even after he is rescued, just drinking, disoriented, and slurring his words. It's a very different performance to see with Washington where he's not playing the confident hero, but a protagonist who can't speak or see straight and is losing his mind in trying to beat the killer.

Lithgow was really good in this. I thought he was hammy as the villain in Cliffhanger, but excellent as a serial killer in Dexter. Here, he finds a good balance between playing a psychotic killer and saying cheesy lines (often menacingly repeating the last words of whatever the hero said on TV) while not being ridiculous with it.

Ice T was also pretty good in this movie. He plays Odessa, a big-time drug dealer who was a childhood friend of Nick's, and acts as support to nab Blake, delivering some of the best lines of the movie in his uniquely raspy voice.

I enjoyed watching it, but can see why it's not well-remembered of Washington's movies. It is more of a B-level crime movie that doesn't showcase Washington as a typically handsome leading man. And often times, really violent crime thrillers like this are usually left to air on cable channels late at night, this gets pretty dark for mainstream Hollywood movies.

Prancer Film Review

Prancer was one of my favorite Christmas movies when I was a kid, I don't know how well-remembered it is. It came out in 1989 and was directed by John D. Hancock, written by Greg Taylor. It's about a little girl named Jessica who lives on a rural farm with her widower dad and brother, and she finds an injured reindeer in the woods and is convinced that it is Prancer, one of Santa's reindeer. She takes care of it in the barn, and is trying to save it while keeping it a secret from her dad (despite telling her brother, her best friend, the local vet, and a townswoman). 

I loved this movie as a kid, and I'm trying to think of why. I liked that the father (played by Sam Elliott) was gruff and unsentimental. He loves his kids, but he is a father who doesn't have patience for immaturity, and is more concerned about saving his farm and getting his kids to behave, go to school, and do their chores than be soft with them. I really liked his voice, it felt tough yet comforting at the same time.

Jessica wasn't annoying, she acted like how a real kid would act. Curious, inquisitive, smart, pestering adults, and believing in a mix of fantasy and reality. The actress who played her, Rebecca Harrell, gave her a lot of heart, she didn't seem like a cutesy movie kid. I looked her up, and she is an environmental activist who makes documentaries with her husband about preserving the environment, so that's pretty cool.

Despite the movie being a holiday film and with fantasy elements, it felt realistic to me, grounded in ordinary people living a rural life and just being average. The actors looked very natural in their roles, and it didn't look like "stars" who looked too "pretty" for the small town or out of a Hallmark movie. The other name actors in this movie were Abe Vigoda, Cloris Leachman, and Ariana Richards before she was famous from Jurassic Park.

Roger Ebert states it best as to why this is a good little movie, and phrases it better than I can as to why this movie was special to me as a child: "The best thing about "Prancer" is that it doesn't insult anyone's intelligence. Smaller kids will identify with Jessica's fierce resolve to get Prancer back into action, and older viewers will appreciate the fact that the movie takes place in an approximation of the real world."

Foxcatcher Film Review

I enjoyed seeing Foxcatcher. It is a true-crime drama starring Steve Carell as a sociopathic billionaire who coaches and sponsors an Olympic wrestling team, including brothers played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who had both won the gold medal in wrestling in the 1984 Olympic Games.

It was a slow movie, but well-acted and had this haunting feeling to it, like a sense of dread. Not because the billionaire ended up murdering one of the brothers in 1996, but because he was such a creep in his rich palace that it seemed obvious that the brothers shouldn't have done business with him. They really wanted to win gold in the 1988 Olympics, and his money and state-of-the-art wrestling space was too good to turn down.

All three stars did great in this movie. I normally think that Channing Tatum is really wooden in drama, but he went deep for this role, and was really good. Steve Carell was very unsettling and intimidating in this role, rarely raising his voice but being very manipulative and monstrous. And Mark Ruffalo did well as the mediator, the good guy, the nice family man who cared about ethics in wrestling. The director, Bennett Miller, did Capote and Moneyball, so he was able to combine true crime with a sports movie. I wouldn't be surprised if this story of the Schultz brothers and John du Pont was an episode of ESPN's 30 For 30 documentary series. I recommend this film if you like true crime stories and can sit through a lot of quiet scenes.

My Film Review of Serenity from 2010

I watched the Blockbuster Buster's review of Firefly and Serenity, and remembered that I wrote a review of Serenity in 2010. It is still one of my favorite science-fiction films ever, and I am re-posting it here. Since I wrote the review, I did watch Firefly in 2011, and really enjoyed it, and appreciated the movie much more.

January 26, 2010

Science fiction has had many interpretations of the future. There’s the future where the world is controlled by strict eugenics (Gattaca), where people are persecuted for crimes they haven’t committed yet (Minority Report), and the ever-popular dystopian future (Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Road Warrior). Often the science fiction genre takes itself very seriously, warning its audience of the dangers of relying on technology, the consequences of racism, and the inner destruction of humanity. While science fiction can tackle these issues with intelligence and gravitas, the manner leaves little space for humor or brevity, which can sour a sci-fi fan where everything is life and death and nothing in between.

Joss Whedon, the celebrated creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, created characters that were intelligent, witty, and unique in a slightly quirky way, portrayed by actors who, while all physically attractive, got the oddball outsider sensibility of their characters, and played it up with grace and humor. Whedon’s characters gave viewers heroes who weren’t perfect, were personally conflicted, and while possessing a quick tongue and amazing hand-to-hand combat skills, were just regular people in extraordinary situations.

In 2002, Whedon created the now cult-classic Firefly, a TV show on Fox about a spaceship crew on the ship Serenity who had lost a civil war and were now living on the outskirts of society. It closely resembled a Western, with an Appalachian bluegrass song as the theme and an outlaw hero in Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former sergeant with a Southwestern accent, a long browncoat, and guns at his holsters. The Serenity crew fights criminals, the combined U.S./China government known as the Alliance, and the dangerous Reavers, a cannibalistic group of nomadic humans that have turned savage and monstrous. The show was unique for its mismatched cast of unusual but interesting characters, a sense of wry humor, and not being as heavy-handed as its precursors in sci-fi, as stated in the opening paragraph.

Unfortunately, due to low ratings, Firefly was cancelled after one season,despite fans’ attempts to keep the show on the air. But its cult status grew somuch that, as a gift to the fans and as a season finale, Whedon wrote and directed the feature film version of Firefly in 2005, entitled Serenity.

Serenity works as an introduction to those who did not see the show, detailing the civil war that happened five hundred years into the future, where Earth’s resources have been used up, and humanity has moved into living in space and on other planets. The Alliance controls all of the planets, yet there is a rogue justice league that operates far from the core planets, where the Serenity crew survive. Their world is put into jeopardy when a young girl named River Tam(Summer Glau), who is a pupil of the Alliance and holds dangerous secrets that she obtains through psychic abilities, escapes with her brother Simon (Sean Maher) to Serenity, hiding away from the Alliance, including a dignified but ruthless agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor). River’s abilities make her a deadly weapon for the Alliance, and her allegiance to the Serenity crew is questioned, if she is truly one of them or if she will turn based on her government programming.

The language of Serenity is very sharp and smart-alecky, keeping with the Western motif. Both Mal and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) are very much like cowboys, quick with a pistol and a one-liner, men who have seen death and destruction firsthand. If they’re not being movie heroes, they are tech-savvy intellectual nerds, in the forms of shy mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) and pilot Hoban (Alan Tudyk). Zoe (Gina Torres), the first mate and Hoban’s wife,holds this loyalty and deadly strength, thinking with her head and following Mal’s orders with “Yes, sir.”

Serenity undoubtly pays homage to its sci-fi predecessors, for their grungy and rough exteriors recall the crew of Alien, just regular people with intellectual and technical skills who eke out a living working on a ship. They band together when they fight, laugh over drinks, and just take it as hard, tough work, like average working class joes.

Serenity stands out as one of the most original and interesting sci-fi films to come along, simply because it has talented and unique actors, compelling characterizations, and a closer sense of modernity than other sci-fi films overly concerned with the future and not the present.