Monday, December 22, 2014

Hard Not To Mock The Mockingjay

With the next installment of The Hunger Games franchise, Katniss & company try really hard to keep audiences engaged. 


ARTH VADER (AV): The numbers are in and The Hunger Games will go down as one of the most beloved movie franchises in Hollywood history. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen–heroine of the downtrodden–takes on political corruption and societal oppression in this landmark series of fiction books–and now films. As installment three in what is (presently) a four-film story arc, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is clearly the set-up for the ‘beginning of the end’ of the terror-riddled reign of the Capitol over the 13 enslaved districts. The story picks up some time after the end of THG: Catching Fire. Speaking of fire, were you burning with desire to see this flick Mr. Pontificator? 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): I was indeed sitting in fiery anticipation of this film, Vader. The third installment of Hunger Games picks right up where the second film left off. In the continuing story of Katniss Everdeen, we are closing in on the final curtain and it will either be the freedom of the oppressed, or their continued subjugation. Personally I’m hoping for the freedom, but wouldn’t the latter be one heck of a plot twist? 


AV: You know, it would, Pontificator. It might even make the franchise more compelling. Like all modern futuristic fantasy flicks of late, the cinematography of the Hunger Games movies is terrific. The visual effects are very good. And the cast is, well, all the usual suspects. J-Law brings her normal well-presented intensity to her Heroine. Woody (I still can’t jump) Harrelson joins all the pretty young faces to reprise their classic roles. The great Donald (President Snow) Sutherland and the late (and also great) Phillip Seymour Hoffman round out the super cast of Mockingjay, part 1. Surprisingly, Vienna-born Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) who has directed such sci-fi hits such as I Am Legend, Constantine and Catching Fire, tries like heck to bring a rather boring, calculated screenplay to a better place but to no avail. Thoughts Mr. P? 

TP: All the usual suspects are back (as you have covered)… with some new faces added to the mix. Julianne Moore debuts as President Coin and delivers the role of a leader that doesn’t have all the answers, but seemingly knows when to take guidance in those times of ignorance. Mahershala Ali (from one of my all-time favorite television series, 4400) also debuts as the premier military man on the side of the people. Natalie Dormer (of Game of Thrones fame) introduces us to Cressida, a defector from the Capitol with a singular talent for film. Admittedly this film takes a different tone than the first two in the series, but the pace is still steady and the buildup to the final film is definitely palatable. 


AV: Oh I wish I could agree, sir. Perhaps you are a more insightful movie watcher than I am. When it comes to SFX, the visual effects in this film are decent but the story is so muddled, I found it hard to simply sit-still and try to endure the onset of wrist-watching, yawning and the fluttering ever-heavier eyelids, For me, Mockingjay just never really took off. There is frighteningly little that can be called a visual effects in this film as everything simply feels like something I've seen in the past. Would you agree P-Man?

TP: I would have to disagree, oh Dark One, about the sentiments in the beginning of your paragraph, but agree on the latter. Great special effects is what I expected, and that’s exactly what I got. There was no new ground broken here, just everything we have seen before done the same way as before. That in itself might be a detraction since with every new film we hope to find better effects than the last, but I submit that it is also a blessing to not be subjected to worse effects than previous films. There isn’t too much to say about explosions and the plethora of aircraft shots except that they were consistent to expectations…as was the set designs and costuming.


AV: What surprised me the most was how downright boring this film was. I watch a good number of films over the course off a year and they range from blockbusters to indie films and beyond. The film seemed to only set the stage for the next one. It served no viable storytelling purpose as the characters sort of saunter from scene to scene. Whats more, I have a ton of additional concerns that were left unanswered that leave this film hanging for me. First, no one else has called it out so I will; it is IMPOSSIBLE to bring down two advanced, state-of-the-art fighter jets  with an explosive tip arrow. Could you do this to an F-35 or an F-22 Raptor? No. In one of the film’s three (yes, 3) action scenes, Katniss brings down two jet fighters with an arrow. Wha–!? 

Here is the deeper issue for me. This film is targeted to young people (mostly young girls), tweens to early 20’s. This franchise speaks to political unfairness. The injustices the elite visit upon the downtrodden and social inequities of a violent caste system that forces young people to eviscerate each other for sport because the government “says so.” Are any of these young women even ‘getting’ this? Do they even care? Or is this just more “cool warrior chick” stuff like a Ripley, Sarah Connor or that dopey Twilight girl that has already faded from memory? And if not, why does this film series even bother? 

And the dialogue, oh God. Listen old friend, I struggle as it is with many of this year’s films in this genre. The two Hercules films, Transformers 4, The Giver and Sin City 2. This has NOT been a stellar year for the spoken word onscreen for sci-fi flicks. This movie is no different. Katniss goes from refusing to be the voice/face of the rebellion to essentially “ok I’ll do it” inside of 20 just minutes. Here’s a hint Hollywood, we already knew she would agree. Please stop wasting our time. Help me out here, Pontificator, please tell me I'm on the wrong track. 

TP: Well… clearly I wasn’t nearly as displeased as you were old friend, so I don’t think I’m going to be much help. This film departs from the disturbing subject matter of children killing children and instead gets grounded in the more palatable struggle of an oppressed society seeking to break free of their oppressors. This is a familiar story that has been seen in reality many times…and it’s just eerie how the film parallels much of the current climate of out of control law enforcement. Just as profound as that is the use of the media in the film (and similarly in reality)  to paint carefully crafted pictures of what special interests want others to believe as truth. This was the draw of the film for me as watching it simply highlighted the state of the world today, although not yet to the degree that Panem is. Yes the film had less violence and action as the previous ones, but the reflection it gave was so much more interesting… and relevant.


AV: Unfortunately, the inane use of the term “Part 1” right in the title implies their are subsequent follow-up “parts.” (Sigh) That means we all have to sit through another 2+ hours of J-Law making more uninteresting speeches about rising up against the capitol, something no one in the world should even need to have to hear. The real depressing news is that we can likely expect more of the same in “Part 2.” 

TP: We all know there is one more film set to drop to complete the series… in 2015, and I’m looking forward to it. 


ARTH VADER rates The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1: Audiences have already spoken with their wallets and their attendance so my review may be moot. However, if you haven’t seen this film, I would encourage waiting for it to come to HBO/NetFlix/Red Box or whatever post-theater viewing venue you prefer. For me, this film is NOT good. Its’ boring with a paper-thin plot, amateurish dialogue, and woefully poor story pacing. And while I freely admit I’m outside the demographic of this film–or even this franchise–I couldn’t stomach giving this installment of Hunger Games more than three (3) Busted Blocks.

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1: With the film moving out of the arena and pulling up alongside real life, it had a different, but no less interesting, tone. The ideologies of right and wrong meet in the middle when the same tactics are used by both sides to advance their narrative, whatever it might be… which is why this film shoots down seven (7) busted blocks in the name of freedom. 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay:  5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Disney Goes Big With Big Hero 6

Disney delights us again with another animated spectacular, this time with a little–known Marvel tale about a boy and his robot.


ARTH VADER (AV): Based on the the short-run Marvel Comic of the same name, Big Hero 6 (BH6) is about a haphazard collection of reluctant, would-be heroes and their quest to do right with skills and powers they newly acquire. Once wrung through the Disney filter of family-centric storytelling, BH6 quickly detracts from it’s original source material but does in such a way as to give the film a unique charm all it’s own. Though stacked with Marvel talent on the consultant and writing side (Joe Quesada & Jeff Loeb we’re looking at you guys) the film feels uniquely Disney and truth be told, there is no Marvel co-branding in the identity and marketing of this movie. An interesting move wouldn’t you say, Pontificator? 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Disney owns Marvel Vader, and they want us to know it. Big Hero 6 is a fun and arguably better departure from the source material. The film differs from both comic iterations with many character details, but the truth is that a straight comic adaption would have been just as lost and ignored as the comic itself. The biggest change, Beymax, is what actually made the film a hit from the miss it was as a comic 


AV: With some decent voice characterization work from some A-List talent, BH6 is a seamless family-friendly story that does not insult the intellect of the adult-minded viewers. The story-centric camera-work of directors Don Hall and Chris Williams do a masterful job of pacing the audience through a new CGI-powered take on the Hero’s journey. The acting was bit campy but we gotta remember it’s a kid’s flick / family film–and ultimately I’m alright with it. V/O performances from Damon (The Other Guys) Wayans Jr., Comedian TJ Miller and Ryan (Hiro) Potter were all great but it was the flat out brilliant voice work of Scott (We’re The Millers) Adsit that was the runaway hit. Portraying the sensible, sublime and low-key robo-oaf Baymax. He was certainly my fav, P-Man. 

TP: The “acting” is really the brainchild of the animators in bringing these characters to life…but more about that in the next section. The actors voicing the characters were excellent choices, despite the biggest name in the cast being James Cromwell (Star Trek: First Contact). Other recognizable names for me were Daniel Henney (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and Jamie Chung (Sin City: A Dame to Kill for) and I had absolutely no complaints with the delivery of their talent. The pace of the film was certainly engaging and displayed everything at the right moment for a solid film. 


AV: The visual effects are quite familiar so I won’t spend much time commenting there. The art direction however (the visual style of the film) is refreshingly original and bundled together with the right amount of style, attention to detail, and originality. I thought the film did an expert job of depicting different ethnicities, genders and personalities. I didn’t feel the animation was particularly landmark but it was a good looking product. 

TP: After BH6 in regular format, I wish I had taken the initiative to see it in 3D.The special effects were great and exactly in line with what I was expecting from a Disney film. Animation is a serious medium and few do it as well as Disney does.


AV: BH6 fires (and hits!) on all cylinders for me. It taps directly into the current insatiable hunger Hollywood and the movie-going public seem to have presently for super hero. Its fun enough for the uninitiated, dopey enough for little kids and delightful even to the hardcore Marvel/DC/Comic industry fan base. The film hit on all the right beats at all the right times; a sense of loss (first w/parents, then w/the brother), the mysterious villain, the bond that develops among warriors, the ‘rainbow coalition’ of characters who band together to overcome an adversary too intense for any one of them to overcome. Modern humor blended with an almost sickening balance ethnicity, BH6 delivers on every front. What did you think,old friend? 

TP: For a children’s film, this movie really takes a profound look at the human condition. My son (he’s 19), after seeing the film, asked me if I thought the villain was evil. It’s an interesting query as I didn’t see the villain as truly evil as I did broken by grief and anger. These emotions don’t prompt evil in a sense of aspirations of world domination, but a specific  and simplistic goal of revenge. Is revenge evil…or is it extremely human? If we label revenge evil, then how do we also label the motivations for it…namely sadness and anger? I think “evil” is Lex Luthor deriving pleasure from causing the deaths of millions of people, but losing some perspective while dealing with grief is something else entirely different. Even the hero of the film showed the same humanity as the “villain” whereas true evil to me, is a lack of humanity. I’d be very interested in how the young children in the theater with me viewed all this. 


AV: While the Disney movie-deployment model tends not to favor direct sequels, I can see either a direct-to-DVD release or even possibly a weekly-installment cartoons series. I did leave the theater with a favorable take on wanting to see more BH6 in the future. And if the post-credit cut scene is any indication, there is loads more storytelling that can come from this world. 

TP: Of course they should go to this well again and get another bucket of success. The challenge will be to have a story as engaging and connective as the first since the very foundation of the team was the driving force behind the film’s relevance. 


ARTH VADER rates Big Hero 6: In case it’s not clear at this point, I really enjoyed this movie. Doing what it does best, Disney has carefully crafted another winner that is a clear modern story that is richly diverse in culture and character that makes a strong case for making more films with this kind of formula. Colorful, fun and insightfully glib, Big Hero 6 is a solid film for everyone. So with a handful of Nano-bots, I toss nine (9) Busted Blocks right through the portal and watch for more films like this in the future.

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Big Hero 6: With great animation, effects, and acting, this film was a lot of fun to watch and was extremely entertaining. Our humanity was captured, not only in the animated acting, but also displayed in the motivations of both the hero and the villain.  Disney has taken an irrelevant team, and given them new life, busting eight (8) super big blocks.

Big Hero 6: 8.5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Monday, December 8, 2014

Interstellar is (somewhat) stellar

With no shortage of quirky speed bumps, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar takes mankind (and audiences) on a trip that is literally out of this world.


ARTH VADER (AV): The big day arrives and interstellar opens to a $50 million (domestic) weekend. Christopher (Dark Knight) Nolan delivers an original but all-too-familiar plot of an Earth dying out and withering natural planetary resources, Interstellar offers a new twist on an old science fiction story, would you agree Pontificator? 
THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Interstellar is a human driven story about extraordinary circumstances Vader. It grounds us with situations we can understand and relate to…like family, but also bombards us with things we can’t quite wrap our heads around…like time paradoxes. That said, the continuity of the film is great, until you try to figure out the “how” of it all…then you’re just lost cause the film never finds this either. 


AV: With an oscar-worthy cast flitting across the screen like so many… (ahem) stars, I had higher hopes for this film’s story. The quality of the screenplay is middle-of-the-road, with enough holes in the plot to foment and entire year’s worth of swiss cheese. The cast is first rate (I will leave the casting call inhale very capable hands of my co-blogger) but the acting was–at best–dialed. The forced ‘your-line-is-read-here’ dialogue is mostly flat and predictable. The story pacing is good and Nolan’s now-famous cinematography does not disappoint. P-Man, tell us more about this (Inter)stellar cast. 

TP: The casting of this film was excellent as was the acting. There was a tremendous amount of talent in this film (Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, even a surprise appearance of Matt Damon) but don’t fool yourself for a moment into thinking this film wasn’t carried by Matthew McConaughey. He absolutely set the tone of the film and the directing gave it a pace that complimented his style and allowed everyone else to present their talent.


AV: If you’re going to journey to the stars, your movie has got to look good. This movie, looks good. What I struggled with was the old Star Wars-esque vision of worlds defined by one geographic feature (Jungle planets, Ice planets, etc,) At first, the explores touchdown on a gravity-dense world defined by 1000-foot tides that sweep across the planet. While that science is horribly flawed, the visual effect is astounding. But all this planet stuff pales next to this film’s biggest visual effect – the robots! Hot damn, if I could have a robot like CASE or TARS I dare say my life would be pretty darn sweet! Well-written and even better imagined, Nolan’s vision of super-funny, supper-enabled ‘bots is a definite film highlight. 

TP: Visually stunning is the only way to describe the effects of this film. From the scenes on a slowly dying Earth to the awesome sequences of deep space, seeing this film in IMAX was the only way to see it. We often talk about how the best CGI is the kind you never think about while watching it. Well, this film delivers that type of quality as everything looks very real giving you a sense of being wherever the film takes you.


AV: There is a lot not right with Interstellar. Too many plot holes, time gaps, implausible science and downright confusing character motivations. For one, I struggle with trying to determine some hard dot ignore points. First, Why would you send so many humans out when you had such sophisticated robots to do the hard stuff better and faster? How did Cooper to stumble across a secret NASA facility just down the road? Why was he then the single most important person for the mission? Do you mean to tell me that after spending nearly 80 (Earth) years struggling to get back in touch with each other that 98-year-old Murph and 124 year-old Coop spend just 3 minutes together before he decides to shoot off into space to find a stranded Anne Hathaway? 

Too many things that don’t come together (which we can expect in Nolan films, remember: Inception, Dark Knight Rises) but there does come a point when I can no longer gorge myself on a steady diet of unexplainable plot points and non-sensical science. I did truly enjoy the film but this one goes onto the shelf for me. Ponty? 

TP: Great points Vader! This was a long film topping out at almost three hours and given that it wasn’t constant action, it’s a testament to the quality of the script an the actors that it was so engrossing that it never felt like a three hour film. The film kept the pressure on as it constantly flowed with an “all is lost” feel even though McConaughey was the constant beacon of hope. The science of the film could have been much heavier than it was and I was glad when they decided to simplify some of it for the audience by simply telling us things like “every hour there is seven years here.” This made for some hefty heart dropping moments when they showed just how the effects of time relativity really works. The only gripe I had was that I really did not need to be treated to another time paradox plot. In the end you are left to question the “how” of it all and the only answer given leads you in a never-ending loop of impossible.


AV: Umm, no. This is a stand-alone film. One that will do particularly well at the box office but I don’t ever need to relive any part of this film or story again. Good film, one and done.

TP: A great film that could certainly stand alone…I can certainly see how a sequel could be made, given the unanswered (or should I say unsatisfactorily answer) of how it all came about and the leaving off of where it all goes from here. That said, given one of the main points of the film was to save humanity, I’d say accomplishing that closes the door on a sequel.


ARTH VADER rates Interstellar: Interstellar is truly an epic, big budget Hollywood juggernaut. Whats more, it will likely be on the lips of the Hollywood in-crowd when oscar season rolls around (Though I am doubtful of its chances). The film is fun, big and kinda dumb (as C Nolan films go). Still, there is solid entertainment and the very 2001: A Space Odessy-like ending is a bit tough to swallow. Still, it is a solid event (enhanced by IMAX) and one that entertains, in spite of its sited flaws. I will venture out into the stars with seven (7) Busted Blocks and move on to the next great sci-fi epic. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Interstellar: A fine film filled with heavy drama and great acting, then accented with killer special effects, there isn’t too that can be said about it that isn’t positive. It takes you on a journey not only into space, but into our own humanity as well…  and delivers eight (8) busted blocks just in time to save us all.  

Interstellar: 7.5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Friday, December 5, 2014

Birdman soars high

Arguably the first true ‘film’ of the super hero genre, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman looks at the triumph, tragedy and awkward redemption of a man who would be hero. 


ARTH VADER (AV): In today’s world, the term hero seems to take many meanings. Hollywood continues to look for new angles to our beloved super-hero genre. In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance) [full title], Riggan, a has-been actor who once played an iconic superhero onscreen works to overcome his own inner voices fueled by an emotionally unstable ego while side-stepping dysfunctional family turmoil as he angles to make a big theatrical comeback with a critically acclaimed Broadway play in hopes to reclaim the past fame and notoriety he sorely misses. The film boasts an original screenplay that spins a super-charged original screenplay. 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Birdman is an original and offbeat story of a superhero actor trying to gain relevance by making it on Broadway. His journey to discover his place in the world of acting, after being a celebrity, is dogged by his troubled relationship with his daughter, rocky interactions with the other actors, and resistance to the ever present voice within himself screaming to be a hero once again… for real (or not).


AV: Pontificator, I can’t think of a better actor to portray the trails of a used-to-be super hero film great than Michael (“I’m Batman”) Keaton. The beauty of this film is the plethora of acting talent that reads like a who’s who of superhero film acting talent. Talent like, Naomi (King Kong) Watts, Emma (Mary Jane) Watson, and of course Ed (Hulk) Norton. Damian (Unbreakable) young with Zack (Hangover) Galafinakis. The director’s vision was potent, so unique so incredible, it is I would argue, the most important storytelling component of Birdman, wouldn’t you say Pontificator? 

TP: The tone of this film being one long gigantic take was refreshing and kept the story rolling along at a steady pace Vader. The acting was tremendous with stellar performances by the lead Michael Keaton, and supporting cast, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone. Actors playing actors is always fun (especially when it’s Ed Norton playing the kind of actor he is known for being like in real life), but the delusion of Keaton (or not) is superb… as is the dysfunction of Stone (while recovering from, but getting, stoned).


AV: The real ‘hero’ of Birdman is no actor though, Ponty. It is–by far–the visual direction and cinematography of the film. As the entire film presents itself as one continuous moving shot, I can honestly say I have not seen a movie like this before. The camera work is so flawless, there were times I actually caught myself looking for scene transitions where the editor’s could make cuts form one shot to the next. This is some the most inspired filmmaking I’ve ever witnessed. While this movie came in–reportedly–at a modest $22 million budget, it feels like it cost so much more. The end sequence features some stunning CGI and flying effects that are so seamlessly integrated, the viewer is immersed without knowing it. A real triumph of modern moviemaking, would you agree P-Man? 

TP: I’ll tell you Vader, this wasn’t a big budget special effects summer blockbuster film…but the little bit of effects it did have were absolutely awesome! The brief scene of Birdman and the giant bird destroying the city easily stands with other summer film effects and although the story was great with superb acting, I could’t help wishing there were more Birdman scenes in the film…purely from an effects point of view.


AV: It was a stroke of genius to have Michael Keaton in the starring role of Birdman. For the obvious reasons of his status in Batman and Beetlejuice, but also because he is an amazing actor. His comedy typecasting and family-movie roles from the 1990’s may have shrouded his real acting chops from the majority of movie-goers but Keaton’s portrayal of the lost Riggan cuts to the core of Keaton’s iconic standing. In truth, this movie–if we’re lucky–is the beginning of a whole new take on where movies take audiences in the super-hero arena. 


TP: From the very beginning this film has you questioning what is real and what is not. Riggan (Keaton) starts the film off levitating in is dressing room and continues with small and private displays of telekinetic power. This was fantastic.… except if you really pay attention, there are a plethora of clues to suggest he really doesn’t have any power at all, except the power to see and experience things and events that are not there or going on. This makes the story that much more interesting as Riggan’s struggle for relevance and self actuation through the desire to put on a broadway play, is really a struggle with his ego and coming to terms with how he has been defined by Birdman. The demise of Riggan has led to many theories, specifically at what point did he actually pass (assuming you are of the opinion that he did, and really didn’t suddenly gain real powers) and I have yet to settle on what exactly I believe… giving this film even more value as it continues to tantalize long after the screen goes dark.


AV: To put it bluntly, this movie would be destroyed by a sequel though I for one do hope it is the beginning of a deeper exploration of the super-hero genre as a serious, viable realm of more serious super storytelling. Kick Ass, Watchmen and Sin City have all been (solidly successful) franchises that go there–with an honorable mention to Chronicle. We can have stories of super powered people that aren’t simply re-visited comic book content but tales that offer fresh new perspective on the modern vision of the hero’s journey. 

TP: I can’t see a sequel to this film… simply because the film doesn’t really leave any room to continue the story, just loads of room to ponder what was already given.


ARTH VADER rates Birdman: A surprisingly charming film with a spot-on cast that would make any geek proud, Birdman will delight every movie goer. With some of the best original cinematography I’ve seen since District 9, this movie is an instant favorite of yours truly as it shares a very human perspective on the effects of stardom, fame, the fallibility of man and the road to redemption, no matter how awkward or unorthodox that everyone of us can relate to. Gripping, gritty and unpretentious, Birdman with delight anyone with half a brain and full love of experiencing the human condition. For that, Birdman hatches a solid nine (9) Busted Blocks and I cross my fingers at the hopes of more films like this in the near future.

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Birdman: A great film with superb acting and plenty of material to have you discussing it into the wee hours of the night, this film is profound as it is entertaining and delivers seven (7) feathery delusional blocks to take us soaring.

Birdman: 8 / 10 Busted Blocks