Aug 31 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 5:18 pm

Ever since Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy became a global publishing phenomenon, the inevitable film version has been feverishly anticipated by its legion of fans.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the remains of North America have been divided into twelve districts under the thumb of an authoritarian capitol. Every year, two children from each district are selected to compete in a televised blood sport known as ‘The Hunger Games’. The actual competition is a mix between Battle Royale and The Running Man, with an eager populous glued to their screens watching this sport with only one rule: survive. When her baby sister is randomly selected for the Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young girl from the impoverished coal-mining district, volunteers to compete in her place. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a local baker’s boy, she is whisked to the nation’s capitol where they are trained by drunken ex-champion Woody Harrelson and feted as celebrities in front of the cameras. Which is where things get interesting.

Whereas many publicists have heralded this film as ‘the next Harry Potter’ or ‘the next Twilight’, there’s an interesting satirical streak to this story that sets it apart from those franchises. The movie arrived at an interesting time, what with the ‘Occupy’ movement still in full swing and a class warfare sentiment emerging on the back of the banking crisis. And the notion of rebellion is certainly present throughout the film as Katniss sees how the ‘1%’ live so wastefully while she struggles desperately to feed her own family. There’s also a wicked strange culture of celebrity on display in the capitol, personified by Stanley Tucci’s chiclet-toothed talk show host. There’s also some commentary of how modern audiences have become inured to violence on TV, but with the number of on-screen deaths in this film, this message is either very meta or slightly hypocritical. Either way, there’s more than meets the eye with this teen adventure.

On top of that, we have a fantastic heroine in Lawrence’s Katniss. With her natural beauty, sharp mind and resourcefulness, she’s a killer competitor with a compassionate streak that sets her apart from her opponents. Not to mention that she has archery skills to rival even Ki Bo Bae (sorry, we’re still on an Olympics comedown). Young boys and girls will enjoy seeing her get out of scraps with her wits and talents while other viewers will enjoy her will-they/won’t-they relationship with her District 12 compatriot, Peeta. Lawrence herself was a great piece of casting, with Katniss’ back story bearing incredible resemblance to Winter’s Bone. In that film, her character was also a young woman from a backwater town who would do anything to protect her siblings. Lawrence brings the same kind of resolve and grit to her role in The Hunger Games, a far glossier production.

Apart from the r young actors, there are a number of great supporting performances from well-known character actors thrown in for good measure. Elizabeth Banks has a lot of fun playing Katniss’ escort like some extravagant lady in the court of Louis XVI. Woody Harrelson is, as always, good value. With future sequels looking to expand the universe of The Hunger Games, stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman have already been lined up to join the franchise. This could very well be an American Harry Potter in the way that every British actor of note has taught at Hogwarts at some point in the last 10 years.

Much was made of the version screened in the United Kingdom. In order to earn a 12a certificate instead of a 15, the studio was forced to digitally remove blood from a key action sequence. While this is not detrimental to the overall impact of the scene, it does strike us as strange how a little blood can be isolated as the offending element of the story — especially when a lot of kids get killed over a span of 45 minutes. Whether this is enough to make you want to buy the 15 Certificate version, we don’t know: it’s good that viewers have the option, though. The Hunger Games is still a strong adventure film with a dark edge: it’s probably inappropriate for viewers under 12 but is a strangely ideal film for family viewing. It’s got a little bit of something for everyone and parents will also find themselves drawn into this violent and colourful world. Happy Hunger Games, indeed!

Both the 12a Theatrical and Unseen 15 Certificate versions of The Hunger Games are available at blinkbox.

Aug 23 2012

Review: Brave

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 5:06 pm

The 13th feature film from Pixar sees the studio break away from their own traditions while revisiting many of their favourite themes. At its heart, Pixar has always seemed like a company full of fathers: their most popular films including Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and Up have dealt with the relationships between men and their children (or surrogate children). Whether its Woody coming to terms with Andy growing up and leaving him or Nemo’s father learning that he can’t be too over-protective of his son, these films are enormously commercial films that feel like intensely personal projects as well.

Brave, surprisingly, is the first of their movies with a female lead character. For a company that prides itself on invention and innovation, it’s a little baffling how it took that long for them to make that leap. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a Highland princess who struggles with the life her mother (Emma Thompson) has laid out for her. The queen has made plans for her to marry into one of their allied clans while Merida wants nothing more than to control her own destiny. The rest of the plot is something that Pixar has managed to keep largely under wraps, so we shan’t spoil it here, but we will say that it involves magic and owes a lot to European fairy-tales.

At its core however, the story is about mothers and daughters and the mutual misunderstandings that are present in most family units. This central conflict doesn’t always seem as fully developed as it was in Finding Nemo, perhaps because the characters all fall into certain archetypes: the domineering mother, the strong-willed child, the gregarious yet passive father. This almost falls in line with its fable-like tone, but some of Pixar’s devotees may take umbrage with the simplicity. By the time the story reaches its third act however, any resolutions feel well earned and in the meantime, Brave delivers on the thrills and the laughs.

This being a Pixar film, the visuals are of course exceptionally beautiful, creating a picture-perfect version of Scotland’s glens and forests that will surely shore up the Caledonian tourism trade for years to come. The Scottish characterisations could easily have gone down the Shrek route, but the mostly-Scots voice cast lend a sense of authenticity to the dialogue: a young lord voiced by Kevin McKidd, speaks in a broad Angus dialect that can’t even be deciphered by the other characters.

This is not a ground-breaking piece of work from Pixar, but it still is head-and-shoulders above anything their rival animation houses are producing. Kids will definitely love the action and the humour and adults will appreciate the beauty in its cra­ftsmanship. But by not pushing the envelope as aggressively as they have in the past, Pixar have left themselves open to the criticism that they’re being anything but brave.


**Note: As with all Pixar pictures, make sure you arrive early so you can catch La Luna, the animated short that precedes it. It’s really good.**

Aug 10 2012

Review: The Vow

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 4:14 pm

Author Nicholas Sparks tells stories of a very specific type: the kind of tragic romance that so easily translate into Hollywood weepies. Without wanting to spoil A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe and The Lucky One, the characters in those films are affected by (in random order) Alzheimer’s, PTSD, Leukaemia and death by mudslide. In each one of these stories, love overcomes (or fails to overcome) enormous obstacles. To some people, these are unbearably schmaltzy chick-flicks but to others, these are the staples of movie nights spent tucked under a duvet with a box of tissues.

Now understand this: The Vow is not a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, but it might as well have been written by some automated Sparks screenplay-writing simulacrum. In fact, this was inspired by a real-life story.

Newlyweds Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams have their perfect lives shattered when she is critically injured in a car accident. Emerging from a coma, she has absolutely no memory of her husband or their life together. What good are marriage vows when one party cannot remember making them? There are a lot of plot contrivances involved, of course and we’re not sure how medically feasible her condition is: she reverted to exactly the person she was before she met him, like someone pushing a ‘factory reset’ button. Instead of being an idealistic starving artist that Tatum feel in love with, she’s a materialistic, aspiring lawyer who’s still in love with her Patrick Bateman-esque ex-fiancé (Scott Speedman).  “I’ve got to make my wife fall in love with me again!” Tatum says out loud at one point, signalling his primary objective.

This begins a very short and meandering series of events where Tatum tries to re-jog her memory by taking her to all their favourite places. These scenes are not particularly fun and slavishly follow the same structure: Tatum shows her something, she does not remember it, he feels hurt, she feels bad. Those scenes are almost heartbreaking, but they’re peppered between scenes with McAdams’ rich, obnoxious parents. Sam Neill’s villainous mustache-twirler of a dad is the biggest obstacle in Tatum’s way and seems out of place in this film. Note: if your girlfriend’s rich father shares some of his prized whiskey with you, he’s probably about to say something really threatening.

If you were to look at the plot rationally (which we do not recommend), you’ll find loads of illogical silliness. The big upside is the inherent likability of the films’ leads: they manage to find the emotional truths amidst the saccharine plot turns. In only the last year, Channing Tatum has quickly turned into one of favourite leading men, taking roles that rely on more than just his muscled physique and ridiculous lantern jaw.

This is one of those films that you’ve already made up your mind about. If you love your swooning romances and are regularly willing to look past plot contrivances, you’ll find much to like in The Vow.

Aug 02 2012

Review: J Edgar

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 12:51 pm

In this latest film from Hollywood legend (and all-round Hall of Fame bro) Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous founder of the FBI and in his day, one of the most powerful men in America. The action takes place in the sixties, through the Kennedy/Nixon era, with Hoover dictating his memoirs to a revolving cast of young bureau agents. He recounts his experiences including the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, (dubbed The Crime of the Century by the press) and the rise of the G-Men in their war against organised crime.

However, 50 years on, the enduring part of Hoover’s legacy may be the rumour that he wore women’s clothing in private. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black explicitly supposes Hoover as a closeted homosexual. With Black having won the Oscar for penning Gus Van Sant’s Milk, one would expect J. Edgar to be an examination of a powerful man’s repressed sexuality but it turns out to be much more than that. Hoover is played as a man obsessed with his public image: desperate to be feared, respected and adored in equal measure.  He raises his office chair with hardback books so that interviewees would literally have to look up to him and he commissions a series of comic books featuring himself as the hero. His vanity takes over as he insists on publicly taking credit for bureau successes and high profile criminal arrests. He is staunchly anti-gay within his own department but relies heavily on his deputy and number one bro Clyde Tolson, (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) whom the film has also clearly defined as gay. A fascinating bag of contradictions, Hoover is played sharply and persuasively by DiCaprio, whose eternally boyish features still remain his worst enemy as he continues to develop as an actor.

Eastwood directs as he always does – with purpose and strength. The elegant design seamlessly moves from the 20s through to the 60s without drawing attention away from the performances – the sort of restraint that that has defined Eastwood’s latter-day career. As a portrait of a historically enigmatic character, J. Edgar digs beneath the surface of the legend – dramatising details that almost certainly cannot be proven as fact. Eastwood and Black may not reveal the absolute truth of the man, but they certainly make a compelling argument.