Tag Archives: Hunger Games

The Belko Experiment (2017)

I had heard a lot about this mysterious, low-cost movie (US$5 million budget) called The Belko Experiment last year, primarily because of the big name attached: James Gunn, director of the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realised it actually wasn’t directed by Gunn (who wrote the script), but by Aussie Greg McLean, best known for Wolf Creek. Nevermind.

I didn’t really know what to expect from it, given that its premise is not exactly one we haven’t seen before — a group of people forced into a game of kill or be killed. After Battle Royale and more recently The Hunger Games, another film with the same idea feels somewhat risky, though to Gunn and McLean’s credit, The Belko Experiment manages to distinguish itself through the confined office setting and a distinct horror slant.

The characters in the film all work for a branch of a massive but vague nonprofit company called Belko Industries on Colombia. On this day, after all the local hire are sent home, the company building is suddenly locked down, after which a voice through the loudspeaker begins to dictate the rules of a deadly game. At first, of course, most don’t take it seriously, but soon they realise — through a method requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief — that they better start killing or they will die gruesome deaths.

The Belko Experiment is not as memorable as Battle Royale or as epic as The Hunger Games. That said, it’s a nice little movie that’s both scary and fun. Credit goes to James Gunn for keeping the script swift and tight. At just 88 minutes, the film has a great pace and effectively introduces a whole bunch of characters on the run without excessive exposition. It doesn’t take too long before the ball gets rolling and by then you already have a good sense of the key characters and their relationships and dynamics. At no time was I confused about who was who and what their agenda was.

The cast is another strong point. Led by protagonist John Gallagher Jr (I know him best from The NewsroomHush, and 10 Cloverfield Lane), the ensemble features plenty of recognisable faces delivering powerful performances, in particular Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) as the boss in charge, John C McGinley (Scrubs) as a creep, Adria Arjona (Person of Interest), Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) as a torn family man, Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a repairman, and James Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn (Kraglin in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a stoned cafeteria worker. There are a lot of characters in the movie, and quality performances help the important ones stand out and rough up the edges of what would have otherwise been stereotypes. For me, Goldwyn — with his mix of charm and intimidation — was the clear highlight.

McLean’s directorial style meshes well with Gunn’s script. For those who have seen Wolf Creek, you’ll know McLean has a knack for the visceral, the violent, and the primal. You get all of that in The Belko Experiment, along with well-crafted tension and dashes of timely black humour. The tonal shifts are not perfect, but the film mostly does a good job of balancing the horror and the humour.

Unfortunately, The Belko Experiment is still somewhat a missed opportunity. For all the intrigue, tension and crafty violence it pulls off in the first two-thirds, the final act resorts to cliches we’ve seen all too often. I don’t know how else it could have played out, though I know I would have welcomed a bolder route that offered more surprises, not just shocks from the extent of the violence. I also felt they could have set up more enticing showdowns between characters by creating additional sources of conflict earlier on.

On the whole, however, The Belko Experiment still turned out to be better than expected. It’s not a memorable entry in the genre or a concept that makes us think deeper, but it’s certainly a sharp, well-made horror-thriller that scares and entertains without taking itself too seriously.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

mockingjay

I didn’t have high hopes for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Apart from having heard mixed things about it, Mockingjay is my least favourite book of the trilogy, plus I felt Part 1 was a relative disappointment given the bar set by the first two entries. Bearing that in mind, the final film instalment turned out better than expected, superior to Part 1 but still a few grades behind The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

The biggest problem I had with it still stems from the fact that the final book was split into two films. It’s no secret I hate such greedy decisions, especially when the third book is, in my mind, the weakest and least action-packed of the lot. And yet, they somehow managed to base two movies on it, resulting in a whopping 260 minutes of screen time — 123 minutes (Part 1) + 137 minutes (Part 2).

I still believe they could have easily adapted Mockingjay into a 150-minute movie, or even a 165-minute movie, and the result would have been spectacular. It’s not hard to see where they could have trimmed the fat. The vast majority of Part 1 was pretty much all fat. I can’t even recall three significant plot points from that entire movie.

Similarly, the first part of Part 2 was a little slow for my liking, even though it picks up right at the cliffhanger Part 1 left off (the two films were actually shot simultaneously). For those who don’t remember, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has gone nuts, and Katniss the Mockingjay (Jennifer Lawrence) is still obsessing about killing the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), while Gale (Liam Hemsworth) continues to be the equivalent of Taylor Lautner from Twilight, and Woody Harrelson continues to look drunk. In the meantime, Julianne Moore’s President Coin continues to rally the rebels as they prepare for a final assault on the Capitol. Oh, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to look very much alive as head gamesmaker Plutarch thanks to the wonders of modern technology.

The star-studded cast of Oscar winners has always been one of the biggest strengths of the Hunger Games franchise, and in this final film they certainly don’t disappoint. As trite as some of the verbal confrontations are, these great actors manage to make them as dramatic and believable as they could have been.

Watching this film, however, I got the sense that it was made with more the hardcore fans in mind, as real time and effort was put into building the dynamics between the characters for maximum emotional impact. There is no shortage of long, lingering takes for those who want to savour every last second these characters appear on the big screen. That’s great for fanatics who are genuinely and emotionally invested in the story, but for casual viewers like me, who may have read the books but can’t remember much about them, all that shit is kinda boring.

The pace and excitement do pick up considerably as Katniss and her propaganda film making crew led wonderfully by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer make their final journey toward the centre of the Capitol, but there are a lot of things about this part of the movie that don’t make much sense if you think about it. The execution might be strong, but there’s no denying that the plotline is somewhat contrived and filled with a sense of inevitability. Maze Runner: Scorch Trials got ridiculed for following the typical “point A to Point B” template, so I don’t see why the Hunger Games should get a free pass.

Anyway, while the production itself is top notch as always, I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities. Some of the “big” moments could have been handled better — at times it was rushed, others were telegraphed miles in advance. Further, we also don’t get to see all the action because the entire film is based around Katniss’s point of view. So much of the climatic large-scale action I would have loved to have seen was only told to us after the fact or implied. I understand that’s how it was with the book too, but that’s an instance where I wouldn’t have minded had they deviated from the source material.

That said, the smaller-scale action scenes we ended up getting featured some excellent set pieces that were more thrilling and frightening than I had anticipated. It fits in well with the dark tones and melancholy draped over the entire movie. I actually quite liked how a major young adult franchise went for a realistic and bittersweet note in its finale rather than the typical sentimental and uplifting one, and I even found myself a little moved by the end of it all.

Ultimately, Mockingjay – Part 2 is a mixed bag. I had no problem with all the “character  development” sequences that ate up much of the screen time, though I couldn’t help feel that there were too many superfluous scenes and moments that just dragged on a few seconds too long. It may be a speckle of shit here and speckle of shit there, but eventually the shit adds up. I will admit that I liked the film a lot more by the end of it than at about the halfway mark. If I had cared more about the story and characters I might have not minded the “shitty” bits as much, but either way I still think Mockingjay – Part 2 could have been a lot better.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

maze

Like most people who had never heard of the book series, I was hugely sceptical about The Maze Runner, which looked suspiciously like yet another young adult sci-fi action flick trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Even the film’s very first scene, which I won’t spoil, was rather Hunger Game-sy. But I’m going to defend The Maze Runner against a lot of the unwarranted criticism it has received because it’s actually — despite its rather minuscule budget of $34 million — a very intriguing and original story with a good dose of suspense and action. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but in terms of quality and the overall experience it delivers, The Maze Runner deserves to be in the upper tier of films in the same genre along with The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

The story follows the adventures of an initially unnamed 16-year-old boy (Dylan O’Brien), who is delivered into a large open space enclosed by a giant mechanical maze. With no memory of who he is or where he is from, the boy is forced to co-exist with a bunch of other boys of all ages, races and sizes, who all appear to have been put through the same experience. It’s a community where everyone has their own duties and roles, and one of the roles is a Maze Runner, someone who spends most of their day in the maze trying to map it and find a way out before the giant metal doors close for the night, ensuring certain death for anyone who fails to return in time.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the group trying to solve the mysteries of who they are, why the have been put in this bizarre maze and how they can possibly escape it, and of course, what lies on the other side if they do. Like any community, there are conflicting personalities and desires, and a significant portion of the film’s near-perfect 113-minute running time is spent on the protagonist trying to find his place among his peers and the group’s leaders.

The Maze Runner is part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Flies and part Labyrinth, with a big dash of that underrated 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror flick Cube, but I never got the feeling watching the film that it was simply a mishmash of the above. Director Wes Ball, probably best known as a visual effects and graphics artist, does an enviable job of keeping the focus on the character development and playing up the intrigue of the maze by not spending too much unnecessary time in there. The effect is that when the characters are finally in there and running for their lives, the action is that much more riveting and exciting.

The film is not free from usual problems such as plot holes, occasional contrivances and unexplored opportunities, and the ending is largely unsatisfactory because answers are scarce (it is, after all, the first film of a series), though on the whole I had a great time with The Maze Runner. I found the maze to be an interesting and thought-provoking concept, and the action sequences were executed with ample exhilaration. The performances from the young and largely unknown cast was also unexpectedly strong. Dylan O’Brien I knew vaguely from TV’s Teen Wolf , Will Poulter I recognised from the Narnia movies and We’re The Millers, and of course Thomas Sangster is from Game of Thrones, but I was not familiar with most of the other kids (like Aml Ameen, Kee Hong Li, Blake Cooper and Kaya Scodelario), all of whom were solid.

Which is why I take issue with some of the scathing reviews from critics, most notably from Andrew Parker, who called The Maze Runner “one of the worst films I have ever had the immense displeasure of ever sitting through.” Now, Parker is entirely entitled to his own opinion, but the vitriol he spewed out against an adaptation that was technically sound and with holes no worse than most films of its kind was clearly hyperbolic and likely predetermined. No wonder Will Poulter found it difficult to hold back in starting a public feud with Parker on Twitter over the review.

Let’s face it, The Maze Runner probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of films like The Hunger Games, but it’s not fair to single it out for being derivative and opportunistic because just about every film made these days is guilty of that in some respect. The book by James Dashner on which the film was based was actually written before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games (though published a little later). In the hierarchy of teen flicks released in recent years, I’d place The Maze Runner alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. It might not come with the same fanfare as Twilight, but it’s definitely above the second-tier adaptation franchises such as Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass), the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow, When the War Began), and Red Dawn (which should really be third-tier).  I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze Runner and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in September next year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Divergent (2014)

divergent-poster-1

Divergent is, by all accounts, the next big thing after Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. It’s based on the bestselling sci-fi novel series by American author Veronica Roth and stars one of the hottest up-and-coming stars in Hollywood, Shailene Woodley. The film was a commercial success and a sequel, Insurgent, is slated for a March 2015 release.

So is Divergent the real deal, or is it yet another pretender in the vein of The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four and Vampire Academy?

To be honest, I don’t think I can make my mind up — yet. It has a fairly typical post-apocalyptic premise, in which the world — as far as we know — is essentially decimated but there are elements of extremely advanced technology, kind of like The Hunger Games.

What sets the premise apart is the introduction of the idea that all human beings can be categorized into one of five factions: Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent. When someone turns 16 they are given a personality test which tells them the faction they belong to, though they are still given the freedom to choose whatever they want. Once you choose a faction, however, you are there for life.

Say what? I hear you say. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either. First of all, how can humans only have five personality traits? Second of all, how can a person be deemed to have only one of the traits? Thirdly, what is the point of the test if you get to choose whatever you want anyway? And lastly, how does any of this help create a more peaceful, more organized and more advanced society?

Anyway, our teenage protagonist, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who coincidentally plays Shailene’s lover in The Fault in Our Stars — awkward!) reach that age whenthey have to undergo the test and pick their faction. But of course there’s a twist — we find out that Beatrice is “special”! She joins a faction regardless, and the first half of the film revolves predominantly around her group training to become a badass, and the budding romance she develops with a team leader (Theo James). Later on, stuff inevitably happens, leading to a climactic showdown in which — you guessed it — only Beatrice can save the world.

When I put it that way, Divergent sounds like a pretty stereotypical teen/sci-fi flick, not all that different from The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, both of which have similar plot points and progression.

Having said that, I still found Divergent to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging experience (especially during the tense and exciting training sequences). That can happen when you have an $85 million budget and a first-class production team and cast.

Neil Berger is a solid commercial directors proven track record in making test intelligent thrillers such as The Illusionist and Limitless. And regardless of the future of this franchise, Shailene Woodley is poised for big things. Despite her age (22), she has a remarkable screen presence, which she uses to carry the film from start to finish, and she also has this face that’s not immediately attractive or appealing, but somehow grows on you as her personality starts to shine through. Most young actresses would be thrilled to be called the poor (wo)man’s Jennifer Lawrence, but in Woodley’s case it would be an insult. She’s for real. (And while we’re at it, Beatrice Prior is a good enough character to not be called a poor (wo)man’s Katniss Everdeen either.)

English actor Theo James won’t be getting hype like the Twilight boys because his character is fairly lame and secondary, but he does what he can with limited material to work with, and Zoe Kravitz, Lenny’s girl, adds some sass as Beatrice’s closest friend. Ansel Elgort is decent, but he doesn’t have much screen time. The rest of the supporting cast is A-list, with Kate Winslet playing a key government official, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as the parents, and Jai Courtney as a faction member, with minor characters portrayed by the likes of Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer.

The problem with the film lies ultimately in whether you can stomach the illogical premise. Most sci-fi films have plot holes and things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in many cases audiences can look past the flaws as long as the film works within the confines of its own rules. The Hunger Games, for example, had several issues with logic, though nothing stood out to the point where the whole film was at risk of collapsing. With Divergent the situation is a lot more iffy. We get what the premise is trying to say about free will and how people tend to be judged and grouped by appearances or a single characteristic, but when it fails what I like to call the “smell test” you have to ask yourself whether you can accept anything else in the story.

I haven’t read the book, but perhaps the author did a better job of fudging the premise than the movie did. In any case, given that there’s more to come in the story that might provide some much-needed explanations and context, I’m going to withhold my judgment for the time being. In reviewing Divergent as a standalone movie, however, I admit the premise did bother me, perhaps not to the extent that it ruined the film, but it certainly tempered what would have otherwise been a solid first entry to a series capable of competing with the Hunger Games franchise.

3 stars out of 5

My 15 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014!

While I am still a fair distance from completing my “worst of” and “best of” lists for 2013, I am already getting very very excited about the movies that are going to hit our screens in 2014. This year promises to be an epic one in terms of big screen blockbusters, much-anticipated sequels and remakes, high-profile projects of top directors and some intriguing fresh stuff. I’m excited.

Without further ado, these are my 15 most anticipated movies of 2014, ranked in descending order. Stick around after the list for an even longer list of movies that missed the cut (that I really want to and will probably see anyway) and more!

15. Jupiter Ascending

jupiter

The Wachowskis (The MatrixCloud Atlas) always tackle big, ambitious projects, which is why I am really looking forward to their next one, Jupiter Ascending, about a universe where humans are at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder. It stars Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum and Sean Bean, who will almost certainly die in it.

14. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

amazing spider-man-2 poster

The second installment in the Spiderman reboot should be better than the first, which I felt was a little too similar to the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire one from just a few years ago. I do like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as the leads more, and this time the villains are played by favourites Jamie Foxx (Electro) and Paul Giamattie (The Rhino). Also good to see the kid from Chronicle (Dane Dehaan) score the Harry Osborne role. The trailer looks awesome too.

13.Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Even though I had anticipated it to be lame, I ended up really enjoyed the first Captain America, and I think the sequel, set after the events in The Avengers, has the potential to be even better with an old buddy coming back as the enemy and the addition of screen legend Robert Redford. I think it will dovetail nicely into The Avengers sequel and provide more grit and emotional impact than its predecessor. Despite all of this, I wouldn’t have put it in my top 15 had I had seen the trailer, which blew me away.

12. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

mockingjay

No trailer out yet but if the first two films in The Hunger Games trilogy are anything to go by, then the first half of the finale, Mockingjay, promises to be one heck of an ending. I must admit, this was close to missing the list because I had already read the book and I’m still peeved that it has it been split into two parts for greedy reasons. And the second reason makes me concerned that there could be a lot of fillers and not a lot of action. Still, I am really looking forward to it. Besides, anything with Jennifer Lawrence in it makes this list.

11. The Hobbit: There and Back Again

gandalf

After about 100 hours of on-screen drama and action, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit will finally conclude, and I don’t doubt that it will be awesome. Admittedly, some people have been disappointed with the first two installments, but I remain highly intrigued as to how Jackson will continue to expand the LOTR universe and bestow upon us the final chapter, which is where all the action is — at least in the book — anyway.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

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Tom Cruise may be certifiably insane, but he still knows how to pick good roles in blockbuster movies. Edge of Tomorrow is pretty much Independence Day meets Groundhog Day/Source Code — a soldier fighting against aliens is caught in a time loop of his last day. It could be bad, but it could also be spectacular, and my guess is leaning to the latter. Check out the trailer and try to tune out the annoying music.

9. Godzilla

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I know, I know, Godzilla has been done a gazillion times and the last time Hollywood gave it a go in 1998 it was widely panned. But there is cause for optimism this time because it is directed by Gareth Edwards, maker of the critically acclaimed Monsters from 2010, and stars Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as well as Heisenberg, Bryan Cranston. And after a slew of successful monster movies in recent years such as Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, it may be that Hollywood has finally figured out how to tackle the iconic beast.

8. Transcendence

transcendence

The premise is a bit iffy — a terminally ill scientist downloads his body into a computer — but because it stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Kata Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany I’m very interested in seeing how Transcendence pans out. At the very least it should be a visually stunning film as it is directed by Wally Pfister, cinematographer of Inception and The Dark Knight. If they approach it intelligently it has the potential to be this year’s Inception or a stylish cult classic.

7. Non-Stop

Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson

It’s no secret that I think Taken is one of the best action flicks of all time, which is why I am sooooo looking forward to Non-Stop, which may have a lame title but reunites Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra. In short, this is shaping up to be Taken on a plane (and all the passengers are Maggie Grace), and while I doubt it can re-capture the magic of Taken it should still be a white-knuckle adrenaline ride that promises to feature a lot of serious ass-kicking.

6. Robocop

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I’ve been hearing about the Robocop remake forever, and this year it’s finally hitting our screens. The original is a classic and one of the films I loved as a kid, and reports claim that this will be a clever reboot that is fresh while paying homage to its predecessor at the same time. And of course it will have spectacular special effects and tremendous action sequences. The trailer definitely raises the expectations.

5. Exodus

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Director Ridley Scott, Christian Bale, Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton. There’s no trailer yet and not a lot of information about it, but Exodus is gearing up to be one epic “interpretation” of the exodus of jews from Egypt as led by Moses. Batman, by the way, is Moses! I’m not exactly sure what to expect from this but I am definitely intrigued because the names attached to the film indicate that it should be totally excellent.

4. Interstellar

interstellar-2014_teaser-trailer

Anything Christopher Nolan makes, I watch. And how’s this for a synopsis: “A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.” Oh, and the film stars Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine. ‘Nuff said. Could be the movie of the year.

3. Gone Girl

gonegirl

One of the best books I read last year was Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl, which promptly made me go out and read her other two books, Dark Places and Sharp Objects. I was interested when I heard about a film adaptation and exploded with excitement when I heard David Fincher was directing it. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, believe it or not, seem like excellent casting choices too. Done right, this story about a housewife who disappears and leaves her husband as the prime suspect could leave my jaw on the floor just like the book did.

2. X-Men: Days of Future Past

xmen

I’ve been a fan of all the X-Men movies and thought the “young version” with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) was the best one yet. This one promises to blow all of them away. It’s an extremely difficult and ambitious project to include pretty much all the characters from the old and new franchises — yes, that includes Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and everyone else — but if director Bryan Singer can pull off the time travel concept it has the potential to be the best superhero movie EVER.

1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Of all the films coming out this year, there is one I want to see more than any other — and it’s not even close! After the mindblowing awesomeness of Rise of the Planet of the Apes — which was surprisingly my favourite film of 2011 — can you blame me? There’s no James Franco this time but Andy Serkis’s Caesar still is, and he’s joined by the likes of Gary Oldman, Kerry Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jason Clarke. With improving special effects, the apes are looking better than ever, and the action appears ready to take off from the get-go. I can’t wait!

Read on to see the 21 movies that missed the cut.

Continue reading My 15 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014!

Top 10 Films of 2012

All those 2012 movie blitzes bring us to this point — the top 10 films of 2012!

Out of the 109 movies from 2012 (released in 2012, not necessarily watched in 2012) I have reviewed on this blog, these are the cream of the crop. To be honest, I’m fairly disappointed with this list. Looking through it again I think 2012 was a rather disappointing year, with some very good films but nothing really leaving a lasting impression (2011, for example, gave me Drive, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, all films that would have topped my list this year).

Anyway, I’ve decided to stick to my guns and prepare this list based on my ratings at the time I reviewed the films rather than what I think of them right now having had time to contemplate them in more detail or in some cases watch them again. Here they are, in reverse order (click on film titles for full review):

10. Prometheus (2D) (2012)

Yeah I didn't get this either, but he's really buffed
Yeah I didn’t get this either, but he’s really buffed

Despite what you might think, this is not my “worst of” list. Yes, I have selected Prometheus, notwithstanding all its well pointed out flaws, as one of the top 10 movies of the year. All I can say is: bite me. OK, allow me to explain. First of all, I don’t really care about how the film fits in or doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Alien universe (mainly because I don’t know it well enough). I watched Prometheus as a standalone film with elements from that universe, but more importantly as a film with scary creatures and cool special effects. I am frank in my criticism of various parts of the film in my review, but I still think, without having watched it again, that it delivers as an enjoyable horror sci-fi flick. Expectations aside, I really liked it when I saw it, and there aren’t any other films that scored higher than this film apart from those on this list. So there.

9. The Hunger Games (2012)

 

Jennifer Lawrence rules
Jennifer Lawrence rules

This is a film I wonder if I would put on this list had I watched it for a second time, but alas, here it is anyway. Having not read the books when I watched it, I found The Hunger Games to be a lot of fun, driven by a cracker performance by the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence and some stellar special effects. While the premise is not the most original, the execution was strong and the action was dynamite. The set up was a bit overlong (a problem repeated in the sequel, Catching Fire), but once they hit the game arena everything was forgiven. After Twilight, watching The Hunger Games was a real pleasure.

8. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Did I mention Jennifer Lawrence rules?
Did I mention Jennifer Lawrence rules?

Two entries this year for Jennifer Lawrence, who won the Oscar for best actress in Silver Linings Playbook, the best romantic comedy of the year. As I said in my original review, I’m not usually too high on rom-coms, but this one resonated because of the sweet chemistry between Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, the string supporting cast (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver), the witty laughs and its ability to take a quirky angle on the very serious topic of mental illness. Ahh…Jennifer Lawrence…

7. Life of Pi (3D) (2012)

Ang Lee rules
Ang Lee rules

What more can you say about Ang Lee? The man knows how to make movies. Life of Pi, based on one of my favourite novels, far exceeded my expectations given that it was previously considered unadaptable. And yet Lee somehow manages to deliver one of the most magical, visually stunning and heartfelt movies of the year without drowning us in boredom, philosophy or pointless 3D. I admit it’s the type of film that can polarise audiences for its sometimes preachy tone and fantastical premise, but if you’re in the right mood for it then Life of Pi could turn out to be one of the most rewarding film experiences of the year.

6. The Invisible War (2012)

So sad
So sad

I’m not ordinarily a huge feature docomentary watcher but this one left such a lasting impression on me. The Invisible War documents sexual assault in the US military, and it’s one of the most shocking, harrowing and infuriating movies you could ever see. And it’s all true. Directed with a steady hand that doesn’t sensationalise the claims, allowing the victims to tell their own stories in their own words, The Invisible War is one of the most important movies of the year, or any year.

5. This is 40 (2012)

This is 40 is so good it makes you forget Megan Fox is in it
This is 40 is so good it makes you forget Megan Fox is in it

This is an entry that will probably surprise a lot of people given that it received a lot of mixed and negative reviews. I have been a very outspoken critic of most of Judd Apatow’s movies, so it came as a surprise to me too that I fell in love with This is 40, featuring a seemingly perfect couple played by Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann and one of my fave actors, Paul Rudd. The jokes, often brutal but not as crass as some of Apatow’s other works, are painfully honest and spoke straight to my funny bone. Perhaps they resonated with me more as I am also a husband and father with similar pressures, but whatever the reason I just thought it was one of the most hilarious movies I had seen in quite some time.

4. The Avengers (2D) (2012)

Fun and games
Fun and games

Was The Avengers really one of the top four films of the year? In retrospect, I don’t really know, but at least when I watched it towards the start of the year I was in awe of the magnificent feat that director Joss Whedon was able to pull off, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else capable of putting together an ensemble superhero movie with so many big names and making them all fit together and play off each other so perfectly. Not to say I don’t love the growing trend of gritty, “realistic” superhero flicks, but it was also great to see an old fashioned one like The Avengers, where the mood is more relaxed, the jokes are sardonic and the tone a lot less grim. A super popcorn movie that didn’t disappoint despite near-impossible odds.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Percy Jackson the perv
Percy Jackson the perv

When I look at all the movies from 2012 a few years from now, The Perks of Being a Wallflower will probably be my fondest memory. Having not read the book (yet — my later review of it is here), I didn’t really know what to expect from it, but I came way thinking that it was the best coming-of-age movie I had seen in years. Directed by the guy who wrote the book, Stephen Chbosky, Wallflower is a sensitive, heartwarming and heartbreaking tale about a damaged boy (played marvellously by Logan Lerman) trying to figure out his place in the world. Emma Watson and Ezra Miller were also brilliant as his soul sister and brother, demonstrating that their acting range is far from limited to the characters they’re best known for. While it is far from perfect, Wallflower has that uncanny ability to creep up on you and latch itself onto your emotions. It’s a sentimental film, sure, but it’s a sentimental film of the best kind.

2. Django Unchained (2012)

Leo being Leo
Leo being Leo, which means being awesome

Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction? I’m not sure about that, but I think it is arguably his most entertaining. Django Unchained is an apologetically violent Tarantino-esque fantasy spaghetti western, and I enjoyed the ride immensely. Like most Tarantino films, Django is a unique experience — you don’t really know where you’re heading but you feel like you’re in safe hands, AND you’re having a lot of fun along the way. A story about a wronged black man who goes on a killing rampage is a premise that probably won’t work in the hands of any other director, but for Tarantino it feels apt. Powered by some awesome performances by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leo DiCaprio, Django is quintessentially Quentin, filled with slick dialogue, unflinching violence, memorable characters and a truck load of coolness. Yeah, it’s far too long, but most movies are these days.

1. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Rubugrobumarubu Batman!
Rubugrobumarubu, Batman!

I only awarded one film the full 5 stars in 2012, and as it turned out, that movie was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, without a doubt the best superhero franchise of all time. While many parts of the film either didn’t make sense or were only possible in comic land, The Dark Knight Rises offers the payoff audiences have been waiting for since Batman Begins hit our screens in 2005. With Batman more mentally and physically fragile than ever, plus a formidable adversary in Bane and an intriguing subplot in the emergence of Catwoman, The Dark Knight Rises elevated the stakes to new heights before ending with a fitting bang. Strictly speaking, however, I don’t think this is truly a 5-star film, but it felt right to award it the maximum rating after placing it in context as the finale of a magnificent franchise. As I said elsewhere, I think The Dark Knight, which I initially awarded 4.5 stars, is the better overall film, and if I had a do-over I probably would switch the ratings. But The Dark Knight Rises is like how everyone treated LOTR: The Return of the King. Does it really deserve to be one of three films in history with 11 Oscars (the others being Ben Hur and Titanic, though Return of the King was the only film to sweep all its nominations)? Probably not, but voters felt it fitting to reward it because of the quality of the franchise as a whole. That’s how I look at it anyway.

So there you have it, the top 10 films of 2012. I’ll endeavour to put up a worst and best of list for 2013 in the next 3 months! Seriously!

Missing the cut: Argo, Zero Dark 30, Compliance, End of Watch, Pitch Perfect, Jack Reacher, Looper, The Cabin in the Woods

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

catchingfirekatniss
Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read any of the books yet.

I’ve seen all eight Harry Potters and all four Twilights, and none of the 12 films could compare with the experience I had with The Hunger Games. I suppose the only reason I’m comparing them are because they’re all based on bestselling young adult books that have crossed over to mainstream readers, but The Hunger Games was just so much more up my alley than the other two — dark, gritty, violent and bleak, and with no sappy romances in sight.

Set in a post-apolcalytpic dystopian society, The Hunger Games is a yearly reality TV contest where a boy and girl from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a kill-or-be-killed contest where there can only be one winner (don’t worry, there is a reason for it). The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough girl from District 12 who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is thrust into this nightmarish world where she must use all her skill and wit to survive. The premise is similar to the Japanese novel Battle Royale (which was also adapted into a film) — I’ve read the parts of the manga version — but I certainly wouldn’t call it a rip-off.

Despite its running time of 142 minutes, The Hunger Games didn’t feel nearly as long. The set up could have been shorter, but it was executed brilliantly, slowly peeling away the layers as the true nature of the games is revealed to the audience. The genuine action doesn’t really begin until halfway through, but the tension is maintained and built up right from the beginning, and when the brutal and bloody games finally start, the jolt of exhiliaration hits you like a kick to the stomach (at least it did for me).

The Hunger Games would not have been anywhere near as good without the outstanding performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Apparently Suzanne Collins, the author of the book who also adapted the screenplay, said Lawrence was the only actress out of the dozens that auditioned for the role that truly captured the character, no mean feat considering some of the other candidates included Hailee Steinfeld, Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz and Emily Browning. In the end, it was the right decision to go with the Academy Award nominated Lawrence, who chanelled the inner strength of her character from Winter’s Bone to give bring Katniss to life. She dominates just about every scene in the film and it’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Just compare that to the years of growing pains endured by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter before they became respectable actors, and the respectability that still eludes the likes of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in Twilight!

Lawrence is backed up by a strong supporting cast including Josh Hutcherson (you might remember him from Bridge to Terabithia or Journey to the Center of the Earth), Woody Harrelson (who was a little weird at first but eventually found his mark), Elizabeth Banks (freaky performance), Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley (remember him from American Beauty?), Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Hemsworth (in a surprisingly small role). And a special mention to Isabelle Fuhrman, who was horrifying in Orphan and is pretty scary in this one too.

If there are any complaints, it would have to be the shaky camera employed at times — though I must admit my annoyance was somewhat mitigated because it kind of served a purpose — and the lack of explanation for some of the mechanics of the games (such as how the “sponsorship” and “virtual reality” systems worked). The violence was  unfortunately not displayed very clearly on screen because it had to pass the censors, but I think director Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) did all that he could to maintain the raw brutality of the games under the restricting circumstances. The film also probably could have fleshed out the political themes strewn throughout a little more but I didn’t find it a big deal considering the target market.

On the whole, The Hunger Games is a compelling, thrilling and often terrifying action-drama that hit almost all the right notes. Given the impossible expectations it carried from the moment it was announced,  I think it did all right. Looking forward to reading the books and Catching Fire (the sequel) when it is hopefully released next year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Huge kudos for not releasing this film in 3D.