January 28, 2016

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Francis Lawrence, 2013
I have to start this review with a bit of an apology. After seeing the first Hunger Games film, a lot of memories of the 2000 Japanese bloodbath thriller Battle Royale surfaced. It felt so similar. I went on to do a little research, discovering that The Hunger Games books actually stirred a bit of controversy because of the similarities to the Royale films. Some argued that because of the Royale films being released before the books, that author Suzanne Collins must have lifted the premise. I was one of the people who felt that Collins had ripped off Kinji Fukasaku’s idea. The whole kids getting put on island forced to fight it out to the death couldn’t have been conceived by both purely on coincidence. But the second installment of the Hunger Games comes into it’s own. It builds off the first film, and takes on a different form that sets itself apart. The detailed dystopian landscape, as unforgiving and tragic as it is, is alluring. The film does what so many of the great dystopian films (Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix) do so well. It creates a dreadful end-of-days scenario where the state of humankind is haunting. Through fascist political overreach and highly evolved technology, we see what humans are capable of doing to each other in such horrid circumstances. You continue to stay invested in Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen character as she tries to find independence / solitude from the Snow regime. But because her character has become an iconic figure, it becomes evident that she is forever changed and unable to escape the public spotlight. A symbol of hope for the poverty-stricken people but a symbol of rebellion to the leadership. Francis Lawrence does a good job of making you completely despise the Snow regime and really get behind the plight of Katniss. From the detailed visual effects to the sound design, Catching Fire feels very much like a Battle Royale meets Snowpiercer meets novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (soon to be adapted to film by Steven Spielberg). I am glad I gave the second one a go. I plan on continuing on. Catching Fire certainly leaves you hanging, eager to see what happens next.

January 25, 2016

Infinitely Polar Bear

Maya Forbes, 2015
While everyone is spending the year gushing over Mark Ruffalo's performance in Spotlight, they really should instead gush over his performance in Infinitely Polar Bear. And just like Spotlight, he plays a conflicted man in a dysfunctional marriage living in Boston. But while his Spotlight performance is a more subdued one, his Polar Bear performance is anything but.

Ruffalo plays Cam, a father struggling with bipolar disorder while trying to raise his two young daughters while his wife is in law school. The first moments of the film show him in the middle of a manic episode, chasing his wife down the driveway mostly naked on a bicycle while they rush to drive away in their old car to escape his chaos. Funny, but serious. Which is sort of the tone for the rest of the film. Funny at times, serious at times. Ruffalo manages to juggle the two quite remarkably. The back and forth, the ups and downs are displayed on screen like a constant battle he endures on a daily basis.

Ruffalo really steals the show, as he is capable of doing these days. There are black comedy elements, especially when approaching the whole problem of codependency that the family faces. The two daughters are clearly not brought up in a healthy household, but there is a distinctive tumultuous energy that keeps them engaged with each other. Kind of sweet but also unsettling. It's sweet how Cam stays up all night to piece together a dress for his daughter but also very unsettling how he can so quickly run out of the apartment to go drinking while they vulnerably sit at home.

That's the one of the problems with Infinitely Polar Bear. It's a little too indecisive, too disorganized. It gives you something to laugh at and something to ache for, but doesn't balance the two enough to make a lasting impression. Zoe Saldana, who plays Cam's wife Maggie, is not as composite as Cam's. Her ability to constantly (and conveniently for the story) leave the family feels unbelievable. Part of the film is Cam filming things on a handheld camera, with constant jumps to the amateur footage, but it feels kind of unneeded. But one thing it does do is approach mental illness in an endearing, non-judging way that isn't so often done, and for that it definitely deserves some praise.

January 20, 2016

The Walk

Robert Zemeckis, 2015
Robert Zemeckis has had a long career of directing unique / interesting films that have a lasting impact. Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away.. the list goes on. So much of his work is open for multiple viewings. So for me personally, he’s someone who I will see everything he does.

His latest work is a biopic of famed wire-walker Philippe Petit. Petit gained recognition for his daring stunt when he walked on wire between the two Twin Towers shortly after their construction in 1974. The stunt was the focus of the popular 2008 documentary Man on Wire. So going into the film you already know that it’s going to be a period piece / computer-generated simulation of the event, seeing as virtually everyone on Earth is aware that the Towers are no longer in existence. The casting of Joseph Gordon Levitt is welcomed, seeing as he is one of the more consistent modern working actors. 

But The Walk isn’t able to maintain that lasting impression that Zemeckis’ other films do. It’s a CGI-scape filled poor accents and not enough substance. First off, the Petit character comes off a purely arrogant, selfish man who doesn’t appreciate the people around him. One of which is girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) who is nothing more than a extension of Petit’s huge ego. She, like the other partners, are barely allowed to show any identity. Petit is a person with tunnel vision. He cares about nothing more than walking the wire and making the front page. So you are forced to spend a great deal of time with someone who is really not all that like-able and challenging to become invested in. The only redeeming qualities of Petit’s character is really Levitt’s natural charm that sneaks through. 

It becomes obvious that the only real reward of the film is going to be his inevitable wire-walk in the end. At that point it’s just frankly hard to believe that Levitt is suspended above anything but a green screen. And his defiant back and forth across the wire while the police wait anxiously on both buildings actually feels dragged out and aggravating. Not to take away from the quality of the effects. It's quite amazing that buildings like the Twin Towers can be so beautifully reconstructed on film. It all looks real, no doubt about that. The cars below, the 1970's Manhattan skyline, the ant-sized cars slowly moving 100 stories below. Maybe it's the fact that the buildings themselves cause such an visceral reaction because of their historical importance, that it's difficult to the trick the mind into believing what you are seeing - specifically with those buildings. It’s understandable that Zemeckis would be interested in making the picture because it’s certainly an interesting story. But maybe it’s better preserved in the documentary category.

January 19, 2016

White God

Kornel Mundruczo, 2015
Somewhere between Stephen King’s Cujo and the newly rebooted Dawn of the Planet of the Apes films lies foreign thriller White God. The film focuses on young girl Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her mixed-breed dog Haden. When Lili is forced to stay with her biological father for three months, her dog tags along with her. Soon after arriving at the apartment, a nosy neighbor spots the mutt and contacts the authorities. In Hungary, mixed breed dog owners must pay a tax to maintain possession of them. When her father refuses to pay the fee, tension builds between him and his daughter. When Lili gets in trouble for bringing the dog to school with her, her father angrily kicks the dog out of the car - abandoning it in the streets. Poor Haden is forced to fend for himself. While Lili is struggling to get along with her father, Haden is taken in by a dog fighter who begins conditioning him for battle. It doesn’t take long for Haden’s friendly, benign demeanor to become taken over by pure aggression. That sense of aggression follows Haden to the animal shelter when he is finally captured. He manages to break loose and attack one of the shelter workers and frees all of the incarcerated dogs. Their pack mentality kicks in, and they begin wreaking havoc on the city.

The duality between Lili and her lost pup is really the basis of the film. They had an affectionate balance with each other. When they were separated the aggression and defiance began to build in both of them. The dynamic between her and her father is a difficult one. We see her fathers sad eyes early on when he is in the middle of a meat inspection. You can tell he is disgusted by his job, constantly having to wash blood away from his clothing. He is still nursing the wounds of his heartbreak from the divorce. When Lili is cold to him, it must be unbearably frustrating for him.

White God plays with some uncommon elements. It’s not often that we see a large pack of dogs brutally attacking a city. An indictment on the Nazi-like purebred dog ideology, it’s a revenge film for the great mutts of the world. The film ends satisfyingly, even if its nothing more than letting the dogs finally get their momentary say.

January 17, 2016


Ryan Coogler, 2015
When people heard that there was going to be a Rocky reboot, they probably let out a sigh of disappointment. They probably said to themselves oh great now Rocky isn't even safe. The sponge was about to be wrung out again, beating an American classic to death. Then they saw the film. Creed goes on to defy the rebooting culture that we have grown accustomed to. It doesn't just try to repurpose a classic for a quick moneygrab (cough Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Creed isn't a bastardized version of the classic Rocky films. It has its own personality, its own youngness. It's own style. It's own energy. It's an inspiring film about past and present. Old and new. The old - Rocky Balboa, who warms the screen when you first see him. The legend of Rocky is evident throughout the Philly streets. The new: Adonis Creed - the young offspring of the late Apollo Creed. Rocky has a long career behind him and Adonis is an aspiring boxer who can't escape his genetic urges to fight in the ring. He tracks down Rocky and is persistent in his attempts to take him on and train him. They say that kids that do not have active fathers will look for fathers in life. And you can sense the feeling of obligation that Rocky feels, having been personally affected by Apollo Creed's death in the ring. Rocky at this point is tired, beaten, still grieving. Time has caught up with him, and as he says so poignantly time is the real "undefeated champion".

One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is it's not built on the tired premise of the kid from the streets who comes from nothing and has something to prove. has something to prove. Adonis comes from money, could easily have stayed in his desk job in the corporate world. He would have had success without fighting. But he just couldn't resist. So he ultimately has to defy expectations that he's just a son of a hero that was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Stallone does an amazing job of carrying his history with him. He walks slowly, his mumbling voice reminds you of all of the punches to the head that Rocky has had to endure. He's an aged man. Humbled by father time. You see them both fighting themselves on some level, although the fights are so different in nature.

There's something so truly American about the Rocky films. The struggling working class man pushing yourself to he limit, overcoming the odds. The underdog story. Everyone has the images ingrained in their memory of Rocky at the tops of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his hands in the air in that classic shot. And although Adonis isn't necessarily a working class hero, he does have something to prove and something to personally overcome. Creed even has it's own version of the "top of the steps shot" that is actually quite moving. What is a Rocky film without the epic big fight scene? Creed doesn't hesitate to create its own David vs Goliath, Country VS Country scene. USA Vs. England. The film builds to that final fight so remarkably. The final twenty minutes will have you on the edge of your seat, shadowboxing and biting your nails.

January 2, 2016


Tom McCarthy, 2015
There are some films that have a sole purpose. A sole purpose to highlight a particular moment in time, a notable event of sequence of events. Spotlight is one of these films, fulfilling a duty to highlight the Catholic sex abuse scandal of the (year) that was uncovered by the Boston Globe. When new editor Marty Baron is hired from Miami, he immediately starts to put pressure on the staff to maintain core readership. He urges the Spotlight investigative team to focus on some accusations of local priests abusing boys. When they start to realize that there is some validity to the accusations, he urges them to follow it higher and higher - not really concerned about which powerful figures he angers along the way. The fact that this is going on in the city of Boston adds even more weight to the scandal, as half of the city is Irish Catholic and holds their Priest's in very high regard. 

The Spotlight team itself is a showcase of solid acting by Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery and Brian D'Arcy James. There is such balanced chemistry between them all, it's just alluring to watch them all just work their craft. Perfect casting decisions in that regard. Stanley Tucci is also remarkable as attorney Mitchell Garabedian. They are all laser focused on the task. Some of them working longer hours than others. Some of them having families to go home to, some of them choosing career over family. But they are all thorough. 

They manage to maintain their journalistic professionalism while also taking the abuse claims to heart. When Matt Carroll's (D'Arcy James) character is scouring through the pages of the Catholic directory and discovers that one of the "treatment centers" is around the corner from his house, he realizes how close to home this problem really is. It is not wrong to draw comparisons of Spotlight to All the President's Men. They are both serious films, impactful in nature, covering scandals that everyone was already knowledgeable of. Both films feel academic to a certain extent. They both remind us of the importance of whistle-blowers in American culture. But sometimes its a film's duty to simply highlight a negative event in history. This way it will have it's place in cinematic history. And as the Spotlight staff realizes, some things should not go unnoticed. No matter how big the cages are that are about to get rattled. Spotlight isn't a movie filled with stylistic flair. It's a movie, completely serious in tone, with a job to do. And just like the Spotlight team, it maintains that steady pace until the job is done.