Sunday, April 8, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES...UNDERWHELMING!


Like much of America, I too saw The Hunger Games the Friday it opened.  I read the series (twice) and loved it.  Let me clarify, I loved books one and two (The Hunger Games and Catching Fire) and did not love book three (Mockingjay), but at least it gave me some sense of closure with characters I had come to love.  And so I eagerly monitored the casting choices and other developments, as The Hunger Games became a movie. 
I had high hopes, but am sad to say that I was underwhelmed and am completely confused by the rave reviews from fans and critics alike.  Those feelings aside, I still enjoyed the movie and give it a grade B/B+, but I am so disappointed that what could have been AMAZING was only GOOD.
Here are my problems with the film:
  • The Mockingjay pin.  The pin is a significant item that comes to symbolize Katniss and the revolution in books two and three.  A pin bought on a whim at the market has no meaning.  In the novel, the mayor’s daughter gives Katniss the pin and we later learn that it belonged to her aunt, the girl who participated in the games the year that Hamisch won.  Not sure how they will be able to resolve this issue in the next films…maybe they will simply avoid it altogether.
  • The Capitol was not impressive.  Yes, it contrasted District 12, but I wanted something extraordinary.  This Capitol seemed not far removed from Hong Kong or Times Square.  And they people who lived in it were only wearing make up and colorful clothing.  In the novel, citizens of the Capitol actually change the color of their skin permanently and go to extremes in plastic surgery. 
  • Katniss’s makeover at the Capitol was like a trip to the salon—lacking the menace and terror of the novel.  The New York Times review compared Katniss’s makeover to Dorothy’s makeover in The Wizard of Oz and I agree, it was too cheery and insignificant.
  • The Game stakes were not high enough.  Other than the opening bloodbath, the pace of the game felt a little pedestrian.  I wanted every actor/tribute in the game to raise his/her stakes so that I was on the edge of my seat.  No one seemed to feel the terror that this was a life or death situation…they were just a little frightened.  I could not put the book down, but would be able to turn the movie off.
  • Where were the faces of the dead tributes on the dogbeasts?  That was so eerie and memorable in the book—it made the dogs so much more horrifying.  Being chased by big dogs was innocuous in comparison.
  • No hovercrafts!  In the novel, every time a tribute dies, a hovercraft appears and snatches the body out of the game.  At such a moment, the other tributes stay away or risk losing their own life being snatched by the craft.  This helped make Katniss’s flowers for Rue more meaningful.  It also gave the book an other-worldliness that the film lacks.

My only hope for the next movie, Catching Fire, is to change the production team to folk with bigger imaginations who will raise the stakes!  With the third Harry Potter movie (Prisoner of Azkaban) there came a much-needed change in director…Chris Columbus stepped away and Alfonso Cuarón took the helm…and finally the world of Harry Potter was realized.  I am holding my breath that Gary Ross has an epiphany and new vision or steps away.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY is Worth Watching, But Lacks a Little Magic


I read The Borrowers the summer of fourth grade when I lived at my Grandma’s house for the summer simply because I found it on her bookshelf. I loved it!  Since then I have frequently imagined actual little people living in my floors and walls that “borrow” everything that seems to go missing in my house.
So when I saw that Hayao Miyazaki’s newest movie, The Secret World of Arietty, was based on the childhood book that I love, I began reading it out loud to my children.  Was this a good idea?  Not so sure.  Although we all enjoyed the movie and my kids told me that they would rate it 7 or 8 out of 10, we felt that the magic was missing.  Mostly we missed the “borrowed” items that are described in such detail in the book and that make up the house of Arietty and her parents.  They sit on stools that are actual spools.  They have a postage stamp on a wall as a picture.  Their drawers are made from matchboxes.  Arietty’s name is even “borrowed” and a derivative of Henrietta.  These are the details that remain with the reader after finishing the book…the details are more permanent than the action.
But in the movie, Arietty’s house already looks quite the perfect dollhouse…no need to exchange any of those furnishings for the grandeur of an actual dollhouse because the evidence of “borrowed” household items was not there.
Otherwise, departures in the actual storyline did not bother us.  Without spoiling anything for you, a “bean” (human being) boy sees Arietty and they become friends.  This friendship leads to danger when the household maid also discovers the family of Borrowers and cannot leave them alone, but calls an exterminator to deal with them.
The movie kept my kids attention—even the little ones.  I definitely recommend it even though it is lacking a little bit of magic and is probably the first Hayao Miyazaki in which where I didn’t choke up a bit for some reason or another.  Grade B.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BIG MIRACLE is a Fine Family Film


Big Miracle is the true story of a monumental effort by the Inupiat Indians, Greenpeace, an oil executive, politicians, the National Guard and a Russian ice-breaking rig to free a family of California gray whales trapped in the ice in Alaska.
Anything that deals with whales and their rescue, I find moving and it was the same with this movie. 
We took our entire family and we all enjoyed it.  I especially loved the nostalgia of the 1980’s hairstyles!  The most spectacular part of the film is the whales.  Everything else is ordinary.  Yet, nothing gets in the way of the story too much and it is great to see how groups with varying interests were able to put aside differences and come together to work a miracle.  My seven year old and nine year old enjoyed it and the two little ones fell asleep. 
I recommend this for Family Movie Night or DVD rental.  No need to rush to the theater to see it, but if you are looking for a family night out…this movie may suit your needs.  Grade B-.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

SUNDANCE - 2 DAYS IN NEW YORK

Scene from 2 Days in New York
The last film I saw at Sundance was Julie Delpy’s, 2 Days in New York.  I LOVED it!  It is well written and charming and oh, so very funny.  I only wish that I could see it now rather than wait until the fall when Magnolia Films will release it.
2 Days in New York is a sequel to Delpy’s 2007 film, 2 Days in Paris.  However there is no need to see the prequel to enjoy the current film. 
Delpy’s character Marion is living in New York with her son and her boyfriend (played by Chris Rock) and her boyfriend’s daughter.  Marion’s Parisian father and sister come to visit right when Marion is supposed to open a new art installation.  They bring with them a surprise guest (Marion’s old boyfriend) and two days of mayhem ensue.
Cast of 2 Days in New York at Sundance (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
The film feels very real and non-scripted…a bit reminiscent of a good Woody Allen movie.  That question was actually asked during the talkback and Chris Rock and Julie both said that “no, the dialogue was scripted.”  I found all of the material relatable and Marion said things that I want to say, but don’t dare.  
Not only did Ms. Delpy direct, write, co-produce and star in the movie, but she also wrote much of the music!  I’ve been keen on following Ms. Delpy since I saw her in Europa Europa in 1990, and I truly enjoyed her work in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset with Ethan Hawke.  But I didn’t realize that along the way she went to NYU Film School and is no longer just an actress, but a wonderful filmmaker.  I can’t wait to see what she does next.  Grade A.  I wouldn’t nominate this movie for an Oscar, but I wouldn’t change a single thing—pure popcorn pleasure!  I assume that it will get an “R” rating for a few “F” words along with “cunnilingus” discussion.
While you wait for 2 Days in New York to come to a theater near you, you can watch its prequel, 2 Days in Paris.  It is also well-made and witty fun.  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

SUNDANCE - THE HOUSE I LIVE IN...Great Subject Matter, But Not a Great Film


The House I Live is the only documentary film that I chanced to see at Sundance this year and it won the grand jury prize for US Documentary.  This is a second Sundance win for Eugene Jarecki who previously won in 2005 for Why We Fight.  Of all the movies I attended this was the hottest ticket and did not have a single empty seat.  The subject (failure of the war on drugs) is extremely thought provoking and sadly it took so long to get everyone seated that there was very little discussion time afterward and we all wanted to sit and discuss the information we had just digested.
I don’t think that I can summarize the film any better than the film description on the Sundance website:  In the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, made America the world's largest jailer, and destroyed impoverished communities at home and abroad. Yet drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever. Where did we go wrong, and what can be done?”
BUT, and this is a huge BUT, though highly informative and important in revealing the absurdity about mandatory drug sentencing and unfairness in the current laws, the movie is TOO long!  At almost 2 hours running time, the last half hour becomes rehashing which lesson the overall impact of the film.  I was flabbergasted that it won at Sundance because I am sure there were other documentaries that were at least better edited.  That would be politics for you…nothing in life is ever a fair contest.
Oh well, I definitely think you should see this film, but my advice is to watch it at home on your own television so that you can see it in segments or forward through the ending.  Grade B-.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

SUNDANCE -LIBERAL ARTS is a Delightfully Fresh Romantic Comedy

Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor in Liberal Arts

Pre-Sundance, I was not very familiar with Josh Radnor because I do not watch his TV show, How I Met Your Mother.  But after seeing the film he wrote, directed and starred in—Liberal Arts—I am huge fan.
After seeing, I Am Not a Hipster, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Father’s Chair, (honest dramas where I cried my eyes out), I had a massive headache from bawling and couldn’t bear the thought of another drama.  But, lucky for me, my next film was the light-hearted romantic comedy, Liberal Arts.
In Liberal Arts, Josh Radnorplays, Jesse, a thirty something and newly single man who is invited back to his alma mater to celebrate his favorite college professor.  On the visit, he falls for 19-year-old student Zibby, played by Elizabeth Olsen and they develop a Victorian type romance by writing letters and sharing classical music.  In the end, the relationship leads Jesse to self-discovery and greater maturity.
I love this movie!  The best word I can use to offer flattery is tight.  There is nothing superfluous: it is well written, well acted, well filmed, well edited. None of the sub-plots felt tedious.  I smiled and chuckled frequently at the fresh new romantic angle that was easily relatable, but not tired. 
In my favorite scene, Jesse sits at his desk contemplating his and Zibby’s age discrepancy:  19 and 35 looks bad and so does 3 and 19 and even 27 and 43 but once you start hitting old age, say 72 and 88, age no longer seems to matter.
Allison Janney has a brilliant cameo as Professor Judith Fairfield.  She steals every scene even without dialogue.  And I also liked Zac Efron’s cameo as Nat, a free love hippy fount of wisdom.  Nat is always seems to be in the right place at the right time to offer pithy advice…or just a bop to the head. 
Funny thing…while my friend and I were waiting in line, we started chatting to the man in front of us, Ryland Englehart, and we found out that he was a friend of Josh’s and that Josh based the character Nat on him!  (Ryland is the manager/owner of Café Gratitude in Los Angeles, where the menu is organic vegan with gourmet raw or cooked options and the choices are named for blessings, “I Am Magical” or “ I Am Warm-Hearted”, etc.  Ryland actually left the line because Josh texted to say that he had a seat saved him.  That is what I love about Sundance—the people you meet in the most casual places.)
That was quite a digression; but, in short, this is a delightful film—perfect for a night out with your partner or your girlfriends.   Variety reports that Liberal Arts will be released by IFC films later this year.  Grade B+.
Now that I know and respect Josh Radnor, I plan to check out his first Sundance film from 2010, Happythankyoumoreplease.
Here is a fun Sundance interview where Josh and Elizabeth discuss the film (click here).

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