Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Film Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" (2014).

"I have a message for President Snow: If we burn, you burn with us!" This sums up part 1 of this season's anticipated installment in the The Hunger Games Series, Mockingjay - Part 1. Once again directed by Francis Lawrence (I am Legend and Catching Fire) with a screenplay, adapted from Suzanne Collins' novel Mockingjay, by Peter Craig and Danny Strong. It is the first of two films based on the novel. The story continues to follow Katniss Everdeen; After having twice survived the Hunger Games and when she destroys the games, she finds herself in District 13 after District 12 is destroyed. She meets President Coin and under her leadership, Katniss is convinced to reluctantly become the symbol of a mass rebellion against the Capitol, while trying to save Peeta from the Capitol.

The film stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Natalie Dormer. The film contained superb but not the best performances in the series. As the film “talked the talk” but did not “walked the walk”. Lawrence’s performance in this film was solid but felt rather weak than the previous installments even though she is the central character that we’re supposed to follow all the way. Which made it very hard for me to follow. This was the same with some of her fellow cast members Hemsworth, Harrelson, Banks, Wright and Tucci. Like Lawrence, solid but weak performances. However there were some cast members who did shine and brought more to their roles than the previous chapters, Hutcherson, Hoffman and Sutherland. Hutcherson brought more edge to his performance as Peeta, which made his journey unshakable. Hoffman gave a brilliant performance in one of his last performances (whom the film is dedicated in loving memory) and Sutherland never felt more threatening than he did in this film. Especially when he delivered the line “Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.” And kudos to new cast members Moore as President Coin and Natalie Dormer as Cressida (who has now become my favorite character in the series).

It can't help but feel like the prelude it is, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I is an amazingly filmed, emotionally satisfying penultimate installment for the series. For the most part the action weakens along the way, spurred by somewhat chatty sequences. It's just slightly disappointing that, with the momentum having been established so effectively, we now have to wait until next year to enjoy the rest of the ride. It is alternatively funny and touching at some moments. The film sets up the franchise finale with a penultimate chapter loaded with solid performances and smart political subtext, though it comes up short on the action front. Even though it is beautifully shot, it is a soulless cash machine, and that it delivers no dramatic payoff, no resolution and not much fun. It may not be the most cinematically rewarding chapter yet. However, it will prepare you for it.

Simon says The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I receives:

Also, see my review for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Film Review: "Serena" (2014).

"Some loves can never let you go" in Serena. This drama film directed by Susanne Bier, adapted by Christopher Kyle, and based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Ron Rash. In Depression-era North Carolina, the future of George Pemberton's timber empire becomes complicated when he marries Serena.

The screenplay for this film was featured in the 2010 Blacklist; a list of the "most liked" unmade scripts of the year. The film was originally to be directed by Darren Aronofsky, with Angelina Jolie as the title character. Ultimately, however, Bier replaced Aronofsky as director and Lawrence was cast in the title role. Lawrence recommended Bradley Cooper, with whom she had worked previously on Silver Linings Playbook; they had got along so well that they often spoke about working together in the future. When Lawrence read the script, she sent a copy to Cooper and asked if he would do it with her. He agreed and was ultimately cast. By late March 2012, Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris, Toby Jones, Sam Reid, David Dencik, Conleth Hill, Ned Dennehy, and Kim Bodnia rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in mid June. Filming took place at Barrandov Studios in Prague, Czech Republic. The production was supported by the Czech Republic's State Cinematography Fund under the Film Incentives Programme. According Bier, the film was mired by a complicated post-production period due to the need for dialogue dubbing, due to airplane noise during the shoot in Prague. Lawrence was unable to show up for dubbing sessions. The producers of this movie tried to buy Lawrence out of filming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) for one day, but that proved to be more expensive than the budget of this movie.

The film stars Lawrence, Cooper, Ifans, Harris, Jones, Reid, Dencik, Hill, Dennehy, and Bodnia. The cast, especially Lawrence and Cooper acted with heartbreaking efficiency. Lawrence is brilliant here, as good as she’s ever been. With this performance, Cooper may have managed to top even himself. The film shows that Lawrence and Cooper are Hollywood most charismatic actors right now. Their scenes are scenes equal, but in a split second they can dramatise the canvas to make the throat lace itself. Also they is good as love-stricken but conflicted individuals.

Serena is a well-acted, beautifully filmed reflection on love, loss, and power from life's obstacles. It is an impeccably constructed and perfectly paced drama of domestic and internal volatility. The film will probably be most American moviegoers' version of the Dogma-flavored direction of Bier. Newcomers probably won't be as irritated by Bier's more restrained hand-held camerawork, desaturated colors and odd obsession with random close-ups, especially of characters' eyes. For the rest of us, Bier's new directorial tics will begin to wear thin. The film makes some missteps, most of them in pacing and length, and the story veers occasionally into melodrama, but it is saved by the powerful performances of Lawrence and Cooper, who are hypnotically watchable.

Simon says Serena receives:

Also, see my review for Love Is All You Need.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Film Review: "Interstellar" (2014).

"We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we've just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we've barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us." This sums up the whole premise of this summer's gargantuan Science-Fiction Epic Interstellar (2014). The film is directed by the great Christopher Nolan. Based on a screenplay co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. The film follows a group of explorers who make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage in order to save mankind.

Though the film was one of the most original Science-Fiction films, as well as one of the most original films of the year. For its ode to the genre, the influences on Interstellar, said by Nolan, included the "key touchstones" of science fiction cinema; Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Blade Runner (1982). He also cited the space drama The Right Stuff (1983) as an example to follow, and screened it for the crew before production. For the visual and design aspect of the film, he said Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) also influenced Interstellar immensely. With the emotional human drama, Nolan also compared Interstellar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), as a film about human nature. In addition, he also sought to emulate films like Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi and Ellen Burstyn. The cast gave their finest performances yet. But I felt the best performances in the film came from McConaughey, Chastain and Foy. McConaughey gave the pinnacle of his acting career in this film. McConaughey gives the film much well-needed heft. He is the center of gravity. Chastain and Foy both gave remarkable performances as both adult and young Murph. It was these performances and their relationship between father and child that was the emotional core of this film.

Interstellar is a great film and an unforgettable endeavor. It is an awesome realization of interstellar space-travel. The film is a dazzling 170-minute tour on the Nolan film ship through the universe out there beyond our earth. The film is perhaps the first multi-million-dollar super colossal movie since Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 Science Fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which can be regarded as the work of one man. It joins a short list of recent American movies that might be called experimental epics: movies that have an ambitious reach through time and subject matter, that spend freely for locations or special effects, but that consider each scene as intently as an art film. The film is as exciting as the discovery of the mysterious and beautiful black hole itself. The film succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale. The film is an epic film about mankind, brilliantly directed by Nolan. The special effects and the IMAX cinematography are mind-blowing.

Simon says Interstellar receives:

Also, see my review for The Dark Knight Rises.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Film Review: "This Is Where I Leave You" (2014).

"Welcome Home. Get Uncomfortable" for This is Where I Leave You. This comedy-drama film directed by Shawn Levy, adapted by Jonathan Tropper, and based on his book of the same time. When their father passes away, four grown siblings, bruised and banged up by their respective adult lives, are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens. Confronting their history and the frayed states of their relationships among the people who know and love them best, they ultimately reconnect in hysterical and emotionally affecting ways amid the chaos, humour, heartache and redemption that only families can provide-driving us insane even as they remind us of our truest, and often best, selves.

By mid May 2013, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Abigail Spencer, and Ben Schwartz were cast. At the same time, with a budget of $19.8 million, principal photography commenced, and took place throughout New York. In early October 2013, Michael Giacchino was hired to score the film.

The film stars Bateman, Fey, Fonda, Driver, Byrne, Stoll, Hahn, Britton, Olyphant, Shepard, Spencer, and Schwartz. The film is about grown-up siblings who are so selfish they ensure that the other are as unhappy as the audience. Despite the talented cast, the characters (including Bateman's hopeless Judd and Driver's immature Philip) were many shades of dreadful. Good comedy is derived from the characters, but this film doesn't establish its characters well enough to be effective on that level.

This Is Where I Leave You is yet another fast-food film, going through the motions of a plot with milk-and-cupcake dialogue that leaves you dry and crusty. A rarely funny comedy that's unlikely to keep even the lowest common denominator amused. Levy directs what amounts to an almost plotless - and entirely pointless - slice of controlled chaos as if it were an expensive pilot for a TV soap opera. It's not that the film is awful. Worse than that, it's just plain dull. I wish it has been more sweet, syrupy and corny. Openly unpleasant to sit through. Despite one too many of the gags and plot points being old and unfunny, it's good-natured and nicely suited for family viewing. Although flawed and far-flung from the novel, the film is still a sweetly saccharine alternative to some of the "heavier" films out there this holiday season, that does have some very funny family moments. What a surprise: beyond the gloss of this formulaic Hollywood comedy about the importance of family, lies a heart-felt and hilarious treasure chest filled with home truths. It's a good film if you think your family needs to be brought together. This isn't a film made for reviewers, it's made for mature kids, and for them it's just barely successful. Who should see this film? Anyone that is looking for a family film.

Simon says This Is Where I Leave You receives:

Also, see my review for The Internship.

Film Review: "St. Vincent" (2014).

"With neighbours like these, who needs family?" This is St. Vincent. This comedy-drama film written and directed by Theodore Melfi, in his feature film debut. The film centres on Maggie, a struggling single woman who moves to Brooklyn with her twelve-year-old son, Oliver. Having to work very long hours, she has no choice but to leave Oliver in the care of Vincent, a bawdy misanthrope next door. Vincent takes Oliver along on his trips to the race track, strip club and dive bar, and an unlikely friendship is born. The man is a mentor to the boy in his hedonistic way, and Oliver sees the good in Vincent that no one else can.

In 2011, the script was written, and was eventually included on the Hollywood Black List (the best unproduced scripts) of 2011. Jack Nicholson was originally offered to star in the film, but he declined. But, in July 2012, Bill Murray signed on to play the title role. By early July 2013, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Howard, and Jaeden Martell rounded out the film's cast. Watts originally thought she was reading the script for the role as Maggie (Oliver's mom) as it was more similar to her actual personality. Watts would go on to stay in character during filming even when she wasn't shooting in order to protect herself from feeling insecure around Murray. At the same time, with a budget of $13 million, principal photography commenced, and took place throughout New York. In late December, Theodore Shapiro was hired to score the film.

The film stars Murray, McCarthy, Watts, O'Dowd, Howard, and Martell. Though his character is seriously disturbed, Murray acquits himself admirably. But his charm isn't enough to make up for the film's jarring shifts between crude humour and mawkish sentimentality. Though Murray possesses an innocence that makes the mean-spiritedness inherent in much of his work surprisingly palatable. There's no doubt Murray is talented, but if he persists in believing that, like Elvis, his presence alone covers a multitude of omissions and inconsistencies, he will squander his gift and make a series of forgettable films in the process.

Amiable, schizoid and disposable, St. Vincent is just as formulaic as you might imagine. Worst of all is the way Melfi and Murray wants to have it both ways: to muck around in gross-out humor one minute and then turn schmaltzy the next minute with some fraudulent business about how much he loves the kid. It's not one of Murray's best films, but not one of his worst either. The film is somewhat a step forward for Murray, as well as a strategy to expand his audience. While the loyal male-teen audience core will not be disappointed with the spate of gags just for them, story contains solid date-movie material. This light yet earnest comedy-drama starring Murray deals openly with one of the most insidious elements in popular filmmaking - the male screenwriter's relationship with a father figure. Funny-sweet, understand, not bleccchh sweet.

Simon says St. Vincent receives:

Series Review: "Olive Kitteridge" (2014).

"There's no such thing as a simple life" in Olive Kitteridge. This television miniseries directed by Lisa Cholodenko, adapted by Jane Anderson, and based on Elizabeth Strout's 2008 novel of the same name. A look at a seemingly placid New England town that is actually wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, all told through the lens of Olive, whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center. The story spans twenty-five years and focuses on Olive's relationships with her husband, Henry, the good-hearted and kindly town pharmacist; their son, Christopher, who resents his mother's approach to parenting; and other members of their community.

Shortly after its initial publication in 2008, Frances McDormand bought the film adaptation rights of the novel. She then hired Anderson to pen the adaptation, Cholodenko as director, and cast Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge.

The film stars Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Bill Murray, Zoe Kazan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Cory Michael Smith, Ann Dowd, and Jesse Plemons. The cast provides an insightful examination of town life through the prism of McDormand's character, with wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center, combines sardonic humor with poignant drama and comes up with a unique tone and style, in itself quite an accomplishment for any miniseries. Best of all, though, is Olive's introspection and the insight she provides about society and relationships. In the center of it McDormand occupies a place for her character and makes that place into a brilliant show of its own. There is nothing wrong with who she is and what she does, although all around her actors are cracking up in strangely written roles.

Worthwhile as both a well-acted ensemble piece and as a smart, warm statement on Americana town values, Olive Kitteridge is remarkable. It is a smart, brooding, fanciful character-driven ensemble piece about a New England town that is wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, all told through the lens of the show's titular character. It is fearless in its approach to storytelling and, far more often than not, succeeds in the risks it takes and there is much to admire about this series, including top-notch performances, artful direction and creative storytelling that employs various techniques. It centers on a family, but is not about one. It's a film about families in general, as well as communities in general, an institution with challenges that are universal. Just imagine: You're expected to live much, if not all, of your married life with another adult. We're not raised for this. I'm not sure there are many recent releases that understand and explore the American town dynamic better than this. That alone makes the film worth a look. Cholodenko gives so much depth and realism to this modern-day-American-town drama, you can feel the humanity pouring out of her for each one of these unconventionally authentic characters. It certainly got enthusiastic reviews, almost universally glowing notices about the rich characterizations and quirky humour shaped by the show's celebrated playwright and screenwriter, Jane Anderson, and director, Lisa Cholodenko.

Simon says Olive Kitteridge receives: