Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Catching Fire, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave Reviews

Hey folks, sorry I haven't been keeping up with my blog lately, but I've been inundated with schoolwork this whole month.  Keep on the lookout at the end of the year though, as I'll be posting both my annual movie superlatives (including a new category: Best Guilty Pleasure) and my Top Ten of 2013 - which is going to be a bitch this year because of all the fantastic films I've seen and yet to see!  As always, thanks for reading, and I hope your holiday plans include watching a movie or two (or twelve).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Dir. Francis Lawrence

Although it has the general reputation as being the next "Twlight" or "Harry Potter," I think The Hunger Games series is a much richer young adult sci-fi series.  It deals with government regimes, brainwashing media, violence against children, and being caught in a literally life-or-death love triangle.  It's almost as if Battle Royale and Brazil had a teenage daughter.  I enjoyed reading the books, and while its budget was noticable, I thought the first Hunger Games film was a serviceable adaptation to the book.  However, I think Catching Fire is not only a great adaptation, it's a much better film than the original.

Catching Fire doesn't fuck around with telling you what happened last time - it drops you right into the world we previously left off in (something I love in sequels).  District 11 is still a wasteland, but the ridiculous shaky-cam stuff is all gone, and in its place is absolutely gorgeous cinematography from Jo Willems (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy).  Also back is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Academy Award win for Silver Linings Playbook, and totally gives an equally powerful performance, if you can believe it.  In fact I think Lawrence is not just great at playing her character, but her own life parallels that of Katniss Everdeen - she's constantly having to put up a front for the media, and though she's remained a relatively "normal" person by Hollywood standards, she's been thrust into the jungle of show business and forced to survive (only without the poisonous fog or killer baboons).

For a movie that's almost 2.5 hours, it moved extremely fast. Maybe it's just because I'm so used to these books being broken into a billion parts to milk more money out of them (ahem...The Hobbit), but I was engaged the whole time, and the only problems I had with the film were problems I had with the source material (such as the logically questionable, but still satisfying ending).  The special effects are clearly better, with almost double the budget of the first - $130 million vs. the original's $78 million - and the cast and crew really made this into something more than what you'd expect from a young adult novel brought to the screen.  This is a fantastic sequel and as soon as it ended I was excited for the next one.

Rating: B+

Dallas Buyers Club
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

Matthew McConaughey continues his winning streak in Dallas Buyers Club, the film in which he lost 38 pounds to transform into the rough-and-tough Texas bull rider Ron Woodruff, who contracts the AIDS virus during its height in the 80's.  Doctors tell him he has 30 days to live, and the drugs they're prescribing are making matters worse.  Taking a cue from Walter White, Woodruff gets in the drug business, acting as a back-door pharmacist for meds not yet approved by the FDA, but have proven to ease the symptoms of the virus.  While the subject of the film is fascinating, and McConaughey gives one of his best-ever performances, the film fell a little flat for me on certain levels.

First off, Woodruff's projected journey is supposedly taking this violently homophobic man and turning him into a more sympathetic person.  But the film makes this shift so suddenly; one second he's pinning a doctor to the wall for "insinuating" that he might be gay, and the next he's playing a friendly game of cards with a man in drag (Jared Leto), who will soon become his business partner.  This issue is at its worst during a scene taking place in a grocery store.  Woodruff at this point has been cut off from his friends and job (because AIDS was synonymous with homosexuality), and bumps into his former work buddy.  Now instead of having some sort of deep psychological conflict between the two, they just get into a short brawl and Woodruff forces his friend to apologize to Leto's character.  Moments ago Woodruff would have beat the shit out of some guy for hinting at his being gay, and now he's defending a drag queen at the drop of a hat - it's just too much too soon (made even worse by the big jumps in time via title cards, e.g. 28 months later).

Everything in this movie is played for the most obvious beats, and we don't really get a close perspective on the AIDS epidemic (if you wanted that check out the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague).  McConaughey is magically cured after he takes the unapproved drugs from Mexico, and he might as well not have even had the disease.  And Jennifer Garner was pretty much wasted as one of the few "good" doctors and also acts as a sort of forced love interest.  Still, Dallas Buyers Club is never boring, and like I said, McConaughey is worth price of admission alone - it's just that this could have been a spectacular film, and it's merely a good one.

Rating: B

12 Years a Slave
Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) took on a monumental task for his third feature film. 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of a first-hand account, written in 1853, of a free man and virtuoso violinist, Solomon Northup, who was captured and forced into slavery for 12 years of his life - taken away from his wife and children.  12 Years a Slave is McQueen's biggest film yet, with an ensemble cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and of course Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a "give-this-guy-an-award" performance as Northup himself.

We've seen many films about slavery as it is, and at this point in time, you may ask if it's even relevant to make a film about the horrors of slavery when everyone in their right mind knows it's wrong.  But 12 Years a Slave is definitely not just an ambitious exploitation feature; this film, for the first time, truly put me in the mindset of a slave in the antebellum south.  In much the same way Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan gave you a visceral experience of WWII, 12 Years a Slave is just as brutal and beautiful.  There are certain shots in this film that will probably never leave me (including one long take that snakes around the building where slaves were bought).  It is not an easy film to sit through, but it's an important historical document, and it shows the depths of human depravity without getting preachy.  The film knows how to make you feel something without turning to sentimentality; a lingering shot of Northup's face tells you all you need to know.

I thought everything in this movie is worth adoration, and it's probably the best film on this subject matter.  Hans Zimmer's score was also pretty impressive, always adding to the scene without making too much of an impact (Zimmer isn't normally one to be subtle).  The end of the film hit me hard and I could've cried if I wanted to.  12 Years a Slave is a serious achievement in film.  It's not at all fun to watch and will probably take a lot out of you, but to me it's necessary viewing for this year, or any year, in film.

Rating: A
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