Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"The Hunger Games" is a great mix of action and emotion

Year: 2012
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci

Arguably the most anticipated movie of 2012 has finally hit the screens on March 23rd. The Hunger Games, the first installment in Suzanne Collins' best-selling book trilogy came to life with the help of Gary Ross' masterful direction and the strong, emotionally truthful performances from the whole cast, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in particular. As someone who loves the books, I had many worries and hopes for this adaptation, but every doubt I had vanished with the first scene. The movie managed much more than to simply stay faithful to the book (with the few changes that worked just fine).  It is visually captivating and gritty, it pulls you in and might make you hold your breath more than once.

This dystopian story takes place in the country of Panem, where as a punishment and a reminder of the past rebellion by the Districts against the Capitol, the annual Hunger Games were started. Two tributes - a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 - are chosen at the Reaping by lottery from each of the twelve Districts. The sixteen-year-old protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to go instead of her twelve-year-old sister, whose name was drawn during the Reaping.

Casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was a great decision - it was evident already from the trailers. She doesn't disappoint for a second and brings incredible strength and intensity to Katniss. There is something especially visceral about her performance and it comes from a true place. The Reaping scene is one of the more powerful in the movie, as Katniss screams "I volunteer!" to take part in the Games instead of her sister. It is followed by the equally emotionally charged moment, where the people of District 12 salute Katniss in a silent acknowledgment of her sacrifice. "Emotionally charged" can be easily applied to the whole movie - it never lets you catch a break, just like the book.

As Katniss is about to enter the arena, she is shaking - an incredibly realistic touch that makes her very believable and human, and brings her so much closer to the audience. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, the second tribute from District 12, is another great casting decision, and it's especially showing in the cave scene with Katniss. Other very memorable characters are Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the mentor for Katniss and Peeta, and the stylist Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz. Haymitch brings the most of the comic relief to this not-so-funny story, and Cinna seems to be about the only authentic human being in the Capitol. While Donald Sutherland as President Snow has a very limited screen time (the movie's addition, we never see him in the book), he manages to convey a very distinct sense of a quiet, not-well-defined menace, all the more unnerving for its uncertainty. The movie made another interesting addition to the story - we actually see the control room, where the environment of the arena is being manipulated. This only strengthens the sense of the tributes just being easily disposable pieces in a game.

The minimal use of soundtrack turned out to be very effective. After all, silence is sometimes more powerful, as is obvious in the Reaping scene. The "shaking camera" style of cinematography only enhanced the experience, making the action look more urgent and realistic - the combination this story required. The editing was very effective as well, especially in the opening scenes showing the life in District 12, and later on, during the Games, in the sequence where Katniss is hallucinating after being stabbed by the tracker jackers.

The book gets pretty graphic at times and initially, I had a bit of a problem with the PG-13 rating, thinking it would make the movie too "tidy". However, there is no shying away from the violence, even if sometimes it's implied rather than shown. For instance, the fighting at the Cornucopia at the very beginning of the Games is handled very discreetly, if you will. It is supposed to be a bloodbath, and while you don't exactly get one in the movie, there is a very good sense of precisely that going on - again, the "shaking" camera helps immensely.

The Hunger Games in the movie are an ultimate reality show with a touch of gladiator fights - an interesting reflection on our age of obsession with the reality TV. There are many layers to be uncovered and interpreted, and it's great that The Hunger Games seemed to find that balanced combination of action and meaning, only securing its success. Part of that success, it seems to me, is also that it somehow resonates with our ever-changing times.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's all about movie magic

Movie magic was at its highest on February 26th, as the 84th Academy Awards took place. Truly, there wasn't a more suitable theme than film-making itself for a night like this. Hosted by Billy Crystal (who did a great job), this year's ceremony was a greatly enjoyable experience throughout and the production felt very well thought-out.The awe-inspiring performance by Cirque du Soleil was definitely among the biggest highlights of the night, as the performers defied the laws of gravity and stretched the abilities of the human body to the maximum. 

The year of 2011 celebrated movies, and it shows in the major winners. The Artist, the first silent movie since 1929 to be nominated, took home the biggest award - Best Picture. A very well-deserved award, no doubt, for a movie that stood out so much from the rest of the contenders. The Artist and Hugo collected five Oscars each. While Hugo dominated the technical categories (Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing), The Artist, along with Best Picture, took home some of the bigger awards, including Best Actor (Jean Dujardin) and Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius). There were no surprises in the rest of the acting categories, as Meryl Streep went on to receive Best Actress Oscar for The Iron Lady, Best Supporting Actress Oscar went to Octavia Spencer for her role in The Help, and Best Supporting Actor Oscar - to Christopher Plummer for Beginners. The Descendants collected its only Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

This year, the Oscars were all about reminding us why we love movies so much. Everything celebrated film-making - from the major nominees to the performance by Cirque du Soleil. Also, an interesting addition this year was that in some categories (mostly technical), the nominees talked a bit about their work in pre-recorded videos. This added a nice touch and allowed us to get a better look at how the movie magic happens. All in all, this year's ceremony was highly engaging and paid a great tribute to films and film-making.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

10 Noteworthy movies of 2010

Before the Oscars, I thought I'd pick several movies that caught my attention in 2010, since I'm still working my way through some of this year's nominees. I came up with 10 movies, in no particular order:

1. The Social Network (USA)
2. Black Swan (USA)
3. True Grit (USA)
4. The King’s Speech (UK)
5. Never Let Me Go (UK)
6. Hereafter (USA)
7. How I Ended This Summer (Russia)
8. Inception (USA)
9. Centurion (UK)
10. The Book of Eli (USA)

1. The Social Network (USA)
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield

The Social Network is truly the movie of its time, masterfully capturing the internet-socializing craze of our world. Whether it is good or bad is for the viewer to decide. Brilliant dialogue and acting definitely help.

2. Black Swan (USA)

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

This movie is very difficult to describe, with everything that is going on every second and with all the psychological and emotional layers. It has to be experienced. The visuals and camera work are stunning. In my opinion, Natalie Portman's best role yet.

3. True Grit (USA)
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld

I am usually indifferent about Westerns. This one, however, captured me from start to finish. Extremely well-executed and acted. Special mentioning goes to Hailee Steinfeld who, without question, dominates the screen.

4. The King's Speech (UK)
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: David Seidler
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter

The King's Speech truly deserved all of its 12 Oscar nominations, with its exceptional execution and powerful performances. The friendship between King George VI and Lionel Logue is wonderfully and truthfully portrayed.

5. Never Let Me Go (UK)
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Written by: Alex Garland
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield

As hard as it was to watch this movie at times, it was well worth it. A beautifully and carefully crafted atmosphere is one of the best things about Never Let Me Go. This one will definitely keep you contemplating long after the end credits are over.

6. Hereafter (USA)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Peter Morgan
Cast: Matt Damon, Cecile De France, Bryce Dallas Howard

Hereafter is one emotional roller coaster which never takes a break. There are very few movies that made me feel so many emotions over such a short period of time. The theme of afterlife is handled in a very unique and subtle way. Very strong performances from the whole cast.

7. How I Ended This Summer (Russia)
Directed by: Aleksei Popogrebsky
Written by: Aleksei Popogrebsky
Cast: Grigory Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis

A film of two actors with nature as a third character. Very interesting dynamics between the two main characters in a very isolated environment of a station on the Arctic ocean island. Beautiful nature and cinematography.

8. Inception (USA)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page

Inception is a mind twister from the very first scene. Make sure to pay attention to every single detail, as everything is connected in the most intricate ways. The idea of breaking into somebody's dreams is unsettling enough, but combined with the state-of-the-art visuals, it is mind-blowing.

9. Centurion (UK)
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: Neil Marshall
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko

I have to warn that Centurion is exceptionally violent and bloody, and terribly realistic at both of those things. This is completely unavoidable though, when portraying the war between Roman soldiers and Picts. However, the charismatic cast and quality execution make it worthwhile.

10. The Book of Eli (USA)
Directed by: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Written by: Gary Whitta
Cast: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman

The plot is simple: Eli possesses a very important book which he must protect at all costs, as he travels through a futuristic dystopian world. What attracted me were the style of the visuals and the rewardingly deep ideas along the way.

Friday, January 27, 2012

It's that time of the year again...

Oscars are only a month away and the excitement is building up. While waiting, I decided to dig up and dust off my re-cap of the last year's ceremony.

The 83rd Academy Awards Ceremony that took place on February 27th, 2011 sure enjoyed some more diversity in the winners than some of the previous years. While I didn’t particularly care for the opening parodies on the nominated films, the little tributes to the previous winners during the introductions of several categories were quite enjoyable. Ann Hathaway might have as well hosted the ceremony alone, for nothing particularly memorable came from James Franco (except for the sweet exchange with his grandmother in the beginning). Hathaway did a descent job though, and didn’t forget to surprise with the changes of dresses in the process.

A very well-deserved first Oscar of the evening went to Alice in Wonderland for Art Direction. It also went on to receive the Costume Design Oscar later in the evening. Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay went to The Social Network and The King’s Speech respectively. A bit of an upset came with the Best Original Score Oscar that went to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network. It seemed to me that either Inception or The King’s Speech was a bit more deserving. Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Cinematography and Visual Effects rightfully went to Inception.

Best Director came as a bit of a surprise as I was sure it would go to David Fincher for The Social Network as the Golden Globe did. Well-deserved for Tom Hooper though.

The winners in Best Actress/Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress/Best Supporting Actor categories came as no surprise, as they became pretty clear at the Golden Globes. Still, very well-deserved awards for Natalie Portman and Colin Firth for their title roles in Black Swan and The King’s Speech respectively, as well as some of the more interesting acceptance speeches of the evening. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale went on to receive the awards for their supporting roles in The Fighter. I have to say that Kirk Douglas' introduction of the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category was one of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of the evening. 

Here comes the most difficult one – Best Picture. While The King’s Speech is, without a doubt an amazing example of film-making and acting, it is still not quite the movie of its year. The Social Network may pale in comparison with its subject matter but it is still more relevant and is at the same level of execution. The King’s Speech and The Social Network share one similar topic, however – communication between people, and the difficulty of simply talking to a fellow human being (chatting on Facebook doesn’t count). On a lighter note, the montage with the voice over from The King’s Speech introducing the ten nominees was a very interesting and well put together way to present the category.

Staten Island’s PS 22 choir took the stage to wrap up the ceremony with their version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and were later joined by all the Academy Award winners of the evening.