Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Is Bigger, Better, But Still Lacking Some Spark


- There's a lot to like about THE HUNGER GAMES. Unlike some of its teen-lit inspired peers, this is a franchise that has a beating heart beneath its attractive leads and soap opera love triangles. This is a franchise that actually has an interesting sci-fi narrative, and that isn't afraid to mix in some legitimate social commentary between all the teen drama. On top of that, this is a franchise that has perhaps the single best young actress working today as its lead, and it can't be understated just how much star Jennifer Lawrence brings to these films, and how she shapes Katniss into a true female-empowerment icon, a direct middle finger to all those who say a female action hero can't carry a major Hollywood franchise. Lawrence, with her top-notch action chops, carries the weight of Catching Fire on her shoulders, although here the burden is slightly less than in the first film. Now, she's helped by great new cast additions like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone.

Still, as much as I want to get fully onboard the Hunger Games bandwagon, I just can't fully commit. Why? Because the movies have yet to be great. Lawrence alone gets them halfway there, and Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) brings some visual wow-factor to the table that wasn't present previously. A beefed-up supporting cast also helps this sequel feel like a notch above the first film. But a couple of problems prevent Catching Fire from being, in and of itself, an A-level movie.

One major issue: adaptation-itis. Yep, you heard me. This is yet another book-to-screen translation that feels jumpy, incomplete, and hyper-compressed. The hyper-compression factor is lessened by the fact that actors like Malone and Wright are able to do so much with such relatively miniscule screentime - making their characters feel fully realized by sheer presence and force of will. But what suffers is that, even as the movie seems to want to go big, to show us the larger effect that the Games are having on this world ... it still feels like a very narrowly-focused story, to the detriment of the narrative. THE HUNGER GAMES is all about Katniss' experience in the games - about a teen girl thrust into this kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial scenario. But CATCHING FIRE is about the aftermath - the seeds of revolution being planted. It's about, in theory, Katniss no longer being just a reactive contestant, but a proactive revolutionary. Cool? Yeah, very cool. But between the poorly thought-out plans of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) - whose schemes to make Katniss a symbol of the government's might seem doomed from the start - and the lack of visibility we get into the reactions of the average person-on-the-street in Pan Em, it feels like we're missing something here.

I'll first touch on the scheming that takes place between Snow and his new gamesmaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (Seymour Hoffman). They plan to create a sort of all-star version of The Hunger Games that would see still-alive past winners of the games compete in yet another every-man-for-himself (and every-woman-for-herself) deathmatch. This is the catalyst that forces Katniss and Peeta back into the fray, cutting short their extended good-will tour after the previous year's Games. While touring the various Districts, the two had to pose as a couple to match the expectations of Snow, and of the adoring populace - who sees them as symbols of a coming revolution. Even though Katniss and Peeta play their roles well, and don't do or say anything too incendiary, they still manage to show glimmers of rebellion, and also don't necessarily do anything to discourage the growing cult of personality developing around them. But here's where things get a little nonsensical ... basically, the movie makes Snow seem like a total moron. First, he keeps Katniss and Peeta in the public eye despite being revolutionary symbols. Then he and Plutarch plan to distract from the politics around the two by making them into tabloid celebrities, using their mouthpiece, talk show host Ceaser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to distract the populace. But then, Snow agrees to cut his own plan short in order to go ahead with the all-star Hunger Games, essentially condemning the world's two most popular celebrities to death, in addition to dozens of other past winners who were nearly as beloved. And the point of this is ... what, exactly? Yes, Snow wants to squash the hope of the people and show his strength ... but throwing Katniss and Peeta into another battle royale feels pretty half-baked. And you have to wonder - why doesn't every character follow the example of punk-rock Games entrant Johanna Mason and use the forum of Ceaser's talk show to give a hearty "f-you!" to Snow and his government?

And that leads me the second point, which is that it feels like we're watching all of this in a vacuum. The first part of the film does a nice job of showing us the rank-and-file residents of Pan Em, and their hopeful reactions towards the touring Katniss and Peeta. But once the Games start, we go dark. To be honest, I wasn't even sure if citizens were watching / were able to watch or follow the Games via Ceaser's show. The movie never really tells us. So all the build-up that's in the first half of the film - about the peoples' march towards revolution, is completely left by the wayside in the second hour.

As for the Games themselves, they are much more visually exciting this go-round, thanks to Francis Lawrence's more dynamic direction. But the fundamental problem is the same as in Part 1 - the way the Games play out lack the kind of tension and moral ambiguity that a battle-to-the-death should have. The whole point of these Games is to force the combatants to shed humanity and morality and kill in order to survive. But Katniss, and Peeta, and every other "good" character in the film never really does anything objectionable. In Part 1, okay, love conquers all. But the way the Games play out here, it might as well just be Team Good vs. Team Evil. I feel like the real truth at the heart of these Games - that ultimately, in theory at least, someone is going to have to murder many innocent people in order to win - is always sort of avoided. It's like the movie is hiding its own premise in the name of being a blockbuster-movie-for-the-masses.

All that being said, CATCHING FIRE is still a very entertaining yarn that hits the big, dramatic beats with much more aplomb than its predecessor. Katniss gets to be the badass action hero here thanks to some applause-worthy scenes, where Frances Lawrence really depicts her as a fully-formed action hero. A training sequence that shows off her archery skills against an onslaught of virtual opponents is one of the movie's best scenes. Later, Jennifer Lawrence gets a big hero moment, as she brings the Games to a climactic finish with a desperate arrow-to-the-sky moment that left my theater clapping hysterically. Basically, Lawrence makes this film feel much more effortlessly big and epic than the first. The Districts feel more populated, the sets feel bigger and better, and the stakes, also, feel much more elevated. Even though I complained about the movie often feeling like its story plays out in a vacuum, there's still a pervading sense of bigness to it all (or maybe it's partially just the knowledge that events here will segue directly into a presumably even *more* epic Part 3).

Again, Jennifer Lawrence is the anchor. The movie isn't Oscar caliber, but her acting is. She sells every moment to perfection, brilliantly depicting the horror and the agony of being forced back into these Games - and she transitions seamlessly from drama to action to romance to levity. Speaking of romance, this is where the movie does fall into some of the same traps as Part 1. Peeta is a little more tolerable here than before, and Josh Hutcherson does a decent job of making him seem a little more worthy of Katniss' affections. But he's still sort of a boring/bland character. Worse is Liam Hemsworth's Gale - devoid of much in the way of personality, he's a forgettable character seemingly only in the picture to give the story its requisite love-triangle.

But like I said, CATCHING FIRE is pretty stacked with talent, new and old. Jena Malone, as mentioned, is a huge highlight. Her character lends the movie a much-needed dosage of attitude, and the character's gritty, semi-nihilistic nature is a welcome change of pace (and seemingly, much more fitting to the story's violent premise) than the other more cartoonish goofballs who populate Pan Em. Jeffrey Wright is another guy who's always fantastic, and I liked the idea of his character, Beetee (for the love of god, is there any franchise out there with *worse* character names?!), lame name and all, as a man of science who thrives in the games via elaborately-constructed traps. Finally, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a guy whose mere presence lends gravitas to a film, and he makes Plutarch into probably a way better character than he's got any right to be. The movie doesn't give us much to go on in terms of what makes Plutarch tick, but it's okay, because Hoffman is good enough to fill in the gaps with his acting. Sam Claflin also makes a strong impression as a Games entrant who has more to him than meets the eye. Claflin is an MVP of many of the film's big set-piece action scenes, and is another welcome addition.

On the action scenes, Francis Lawrence directs some pretty intense sequences - a few in the Districts before the Games begin, and several that are part of the Games themselves. Highlights include killer mist and rabid killer monkeys (that's right) - each a suitably scary threat, and each useful as a way to distinguish these Games from the previous film's. 

CATCHING FIRE, on its own, is entertaining and action-packed. And the talent behind and in front of the camera is (mostly) good enough to elevate the material. But these movies are still just a bit frustrating, because they feel like they approach greatness, but don't quite knock it out of the park. The Hunger Games has a great, iconic hero in Katniss, and a strong central premise. But the details don't feel properly filled-in or thought out, and there's still too much that feels sandwiched into the story so as to properly conform to teen-lit convention (what, really, does Gale add to the story, for example?). CATCHING FIRE touches on some really cool big-ideas, the stuff of great speculative and science-fiction, the kind of stuff that comments and satirizes our own society. And there are glimpses of that social satire here that are actually pretty great (at the giant pre-Games feast in the Capitol, the elite down a drink that causes one to expunge the food in their system, thus allowing them to indulge in even more food - even as people just outside are starving). Perhaps what I'm getting at is that all of the movie's really cool, challenging, or even subversive impulses seem to get drowned out by the need to be a billion-dollar PG blockbuster. There's a dark heart at the core of THE HUNGER GAMES, but these movies seem unwilling or afraid to really go to that place, to go all the way. Maybe some of that is just lost in translation from the books, maybe some is just inevitable in the world of big-budget movies. But there's also a certain irony here. After all, isn't it the film's sinister President Snow who tries to distract the populace from the real issues via soap-opera romance and celebrity tabloid gossip? By this same token, CATCHING FIRE at times seems too distracted to fully explore the real-deal issues at its core.

My Grade: B

Monday, November 18, 2013

NEBRASKA Is A Sad, Sweet, Hilarious Triumph


- NEBRASKA takes a while to fully envelop you, but man, by the movie's end, I was all in. Alexander Payne's latest directorial effort, from a script by Bob Nelson, is, perhaps, Payne's best film yet. Shot in mood-setting black and white, Nebraska is a deeply funny, deeply affecting film that is absolutely packed with stunning, career-best performances. What's more, there's an authentic humanity to this film that has, at times, been elusive in Payne's work. On more than one occasion, Payne's films have had, for me, an unsympathetic quality - a feeling that there's a disconnect between what the movies want us to feel about its characters, versus what we actually do. But NEBRASKA is a perfect blend of Coen Bros.-style surrealistic humor with genuine-but-understated sentimentality that, yes, left me a bit misty-eyed as the credits began to roll. I can't help but feel that this will go down as one of the all-time classic movies about fathers-and-sons, and family, and the passing of the torch from one generation to another. In short, I completely loved this movie.

Bruce Dern, at 77, gives the performance of a lifetime as Woody Grant. Woody is an old, addled, cranky drunk. We can assume that he's always been an ornery sort, but that soft-spoken gruffness is only accentuated by old age. Woody is now hard of hearing, slow to react, has to be helped up stairs, and is not quite all there mentally. But if nothing else, he remains a stubborn bastard. And so, when he receives a standard-issue letter in the mail, one of those "you've been selected for a million-dollar prize" letters sent out as a way to sell magazine subscriptions, Woody gets it in his head that he's actually won a million dollars, and refuses to believe otherwise. Woody wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska (nearby to the old farming town that he lived in for much of his life) to claim his cash, but he can't drive, and his wife Kate (June Squibb) won't take him. And so, Woody repeatedly sets out to walk his way from his home in Montana to Nebraska, only to be stopped by concerned cops and even more concerned family members. His older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) thinks these walking trips are a sign that it's finally time to put his dad in a nursing home. But Woody's younger son, David (Will Forte) - dissatisfied with his job and frustrated after a break-up with his longtime girlfriend - sees a trip to Nebraska as a way to appease his dad's stubborn insistence that he's won a million dollars, and as a way to spend some time with his often-distant old man.

So David and Woody set out for Nebraska on a a trip that includes detours to lonely bars, hospital rooms, and an extended stop in Woody's old neighborhood - where he and David are joined by Kate and Ross for an impromptu family reunion. Hilarity - and tension - ensues, as family members bring up old debts in an attempt to squeeze Woody for a share of his winnings (everyone in the town believes - or wants to believe - that Woody's million-dollar win is legit, with David and Ross' denials interpreted as an attempt to cover up their newly-acquired riches). The biggest bottom-feeder, however, isn't a member of Woody's family but his old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who gets pretty aggressive about shaking down Woody and his family for what he believes is payment owed.

The hilarity and poignancy of NEBRASKA is how Woody's immediate family rallies together around its patriarch. At the start of the film, Woody's wife and sons are just about at their wits' ends with him, but they're forced to stand up for him when all the vultures (misguided though they may be about his finances) come to scavenge. But what makes it all hit home is how we discover this whole life that Woody lived - a life that included friends and family, love and death, rivals and wrongdoings, hurt and heartbreak - that David knew little of from his man-of-few-words father. Inadvertently, the trip to Nebraska causes the whole of Woody's previously hidden life story to unfold and unravel before his son's eyes.

And Bruce Dern, like I said, is phenomenal. There is absolutely no ego in his turn as Woody - he plays him as a man whose thoughts are muddled, but who clings to his few remaining goals with the ferocity of a person who realizes he's nearing the end of the road. Dern brilliantly uses Woody's mental fog to both hilarious comic effect (some of his delayed reactions are priceless), and to make us feel for Woody and his determination to see his quest through to its bitter end. Wispy-haired and glassy-eyed, there's an honesty and rawness to Dern's performance that is incredible. This is awards-worthy stuff, no doubt.

I have to say though, my favorite performance in the film might actually be June Squibb as Woody's long-suffering bulldog of a wife, Kate. As spare as Woody is with his words, Kate is never lacking for something to say. She nags, no question, but she's also as fiercely stubborn as Woody is, in her own way, and also fiercely protective of her family. Squibb is so good as Kate - she is the heart and soul of the film, because Kate is the character who's had to stand by Woody for all his faults. She gives him a hard time, but is also his most loyal defender. Kate is sassy, sharp, and doesn't take crap from anyone. And Squibb is both tears-streaming-from-the-face hilarious, and also has the movie's biggest moments that will make you flat-out lose it, because she's so real and honest and devoted. I'll be honest, I couldn't help but think of my own grandma as I watched Squibb defiantly tell off anyone who disparaged her husband. If anyone was entitled to disparage him, it would be her. But anyone else? Watch out.

Will Forte is the actor who will be lauded for his breakthrough performance here. He's fantastic, so the kudos are well-deserved. I guess I'm just not that surprised that he knocks it out of the park. To me, Forte has always been one of those guys who created his comedy characters from a real and at-times dark place, and who was capable of doing more subtle and offbeat humor, when not making us laugh with his more over-the-top characters (and hey, even his comedic performance in MacGruber is sort of brilliant in its own way). Suffice it to say, Forte is great as David. David is the quiet son who was everyone's favorite as a kid, but who now finds himself grown and lacking direction, adrift. You get the sense that David still lives in the shadow of his dad, and part of the theme of NEBRASKA is David learning to be his own man - to toughen up, to stand up for himself.

There are a number of other great performances in the film, but I'll mention Bob Odenkirk as Ross - the more-accomplished of the two brothers, who works as a local news anchor. Odenkirk is always great, and he's great again here. He and Forte have a great brotherly chemistry, and Odenkirk's city-slicker edge helps provide a nice contrast to the myriad of farmers and country folk we see throughout the film. I've also got to give a shout-out to the great Stacy Keach, who is one of my favorite actors, and who is a lot of fun here as the smarmy, slightly-sinister Ed Pegram. You can't ask for a better antagonist than Keach, and his heated moments with Forte are priceless.

Now, about all those farmers and country folk. Some seem to be scolding Payne for looking down at the Nebraskans who populate the film. I don't think that's warranted. Payne looks upon these small-town Americans with a bit of a satirical eye, sure, but there's also genuine affection in his portrayal. Some of the characters (particularly Woody's extended family) are sort of cartoonish, but that's par for the course, and in keeping with the film's left-of-center, quirky tone. Mostly, I'd compare the way that Payne looks at the characters that populate his film to the way the Coens crafted the world of Fargo. Yes, the local color is at times played for comedy. But it's also used to great effect to create a sense of place, and to paint a picture of a particular slice of American life. There's satire here, but there's also deep admiration.

With NEBRASKA, Payne mixes the dry wit, smart satire, and understated minimalism of the Coens with an emotional undercurrent that is hard to deny, even as it sneaks up on you slowly but surely as the movie progresses. The movie plays out like a great folk song - sad, funny, and wise - gaining power from its truisms. Dern, Squibb, and Forte are all Oscar-worthy. Payne's direction has never been more sure or more confident - this, so far, is his masterpiece. And so, in what's shaping up to be a banner year for movies, NEBRASKA is an absolute can't-miss.

My Grade: A

Thursday, November 14, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD Is Cosmic Craziness That Ushers In Marvel's "Phase 2" Era


- And now we get to the fun part. I mean, let's face it, we all love superheroes, but I could live without another origin story anytime soon. Especially when said origins tend to be told in such a by-the-book, cut-and-paste manner on the big-screen. But man, Marvel seems to have a lot of ambition these days. They've moved firmly into "Phase 2" of their Marvel Cinematic Universe plan, and they are going boldly into the fringes and not looking back. THOR: THE DARK WORLD has a lot of the familiar elements that have made Marvel movies so popular and accessible: the light and bouncy tone, the mix of epic action with liberal doses of humor, the blending of fantastic fantasy with street-level authenticity. In short, the Marvel movies are emulating the formula that made Marvel comics so successful back in their Stan Lee-written heyday. But now, we're getting to the Jack Kirby of it all. The larger-than-life stuff, the cosmic stuff, the flat-out weird stuff. The kind of stuff that, until now, has still largely been confined to the pages of comic books - a format blissfully unconstrained by budgetary concerns and delightfully conducive to the sorts of mind-melting ideas that emanated from the mind of Kirby, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, and the other iconic writer/artists who made superhero comics into cosmic space-opera on an epic scale. So yes, THOR: THE DARK WORLD has quippy dialogue, inventive action, and a much better-developed romance between its leads than we got in Part 1. But I have to confess, what endeared it to me so much was that, above all else, it seemed to be about big and weird and cosmic ideas in a way that most live-action superhero movies have not yet dared to approach.

All that said, I don't want to act like this movie is the second coming of superhero movies. It's still got a couple of issues that, ultimately, keep it a step behind the best Marvel movies like The Avengers and (in my opinion) Captain America. But before I dive into what doesn't work, let me talk about what does ...

First and foremost - Chris Hemsworth. Before the first Thor was released, I think I and many others wondered how the character could translate to screen without seeming like a big, goofy joke. I think about 80% of the answer to that question lies with Hemsworth. He pretty much is Thor, and not only that, but he's slowly but surely been developing as an actor (case in point: his excellent turn in this year's Ron Howard film, Rush). His Thor is larger-than-life and Olympian, but also believably human. And he glides rather effortlessly between charged-up superhero action, Shakespearean melodrama, self-deprecating comedy, and more earthbound romance.

Not far behind Hemsworth in the "Franchise MVP" category is Tom Hiddleston as Loki. You couldn't have THOR without Hemsworth, but THOR would be a lot less awesome without Hiddleston, who simply kills it in this sequel. If anything, you're left wishing that the movie didn't take so long to get Loki involved in the story. Here's the thing about Hiddleston - Marvel movies, and superhero movies in general - have had their share of stars-playing-villains who still, at the end of the day, felt like movie stars playing comic book villains. Hiddleston, to an even greater extent than Hemsworth, pretty much IS Loki in these films, and that full-scale transformation is even more pronounced here than in Part 1. The guy seethes with such otherworldly villainy that he alone helps you buy into THE DARK WORLD's general cosmic craziness. Hiddleston sells it because he's so darn believable as Loki that he, in turn, lends a credibility by osmosis to all of the other gods and monsters in the film. I never would have expected this, but Thor vs. Loki is now the best hero/villain rivalry in the entire Marvel MCU.

Overall, I think THE DARK WORLD makes better use of its supporting cast than the first film did. Natalie Portman gets a larger and more filled-out role here as Jane Foster. She's much more pivotal to the story than before, and her rleationship with Thor is less the annoying schoolgirl crush of Part 1, and more of a genuine-seeming affection that puts her on more equal footing with the God of Thunder. Sir Anthony Hopkins is once again a lot of fun as Odin, and Rene Russo actually gets some substantive (and, surprisingly kick-ass) moments as Thor's mom Frigga. Meanwhile, Jamie Alexander makes the most of warrior-woman Sif's limited dialogue - in only a few key scenes, she establishes an "it's complicated" status with Thor that lends the character an air of tragic bad-romance. And as for everyone's favorite broke girl, Kat Dennings - she seems less annoying and more funny than in the first movie, working well as genuine comic relief. Stellan Skarsgård is also quite funny this go-round as nutty professor Erik. While it's a shame he doesn't get more dramatic moments (given the actor's chops) it's still fun to see him rant and rave like a crazy person and share a great moment with Stan Lee (appearing in his now-customary cameo, True Believers). Finally, I'll mention the great Idris Elba as Heimdall. It seems odd to have such a fantastic actor in such a minor role, but hey, Elba makes Heimdell super badass in his brief appearances.

One note on Portman though. Look, I'm a huge fan - she kills it in movies like Black Swan and is a top-notch actress. But one thing about Portman ... I just don't know if she's at her best in these types of comic-booky roles. Her default mode of acting is super-serious and intense. That works well in a dark drama like Black Swan, or even in a comedy that makes fun of her seriousness, like Your Highness. But she doesn't necessarily nail the sort of slightly self-aware quippiness needed to knock it out of the park in a Marvel movie like Thor. And so, as in the first film (and as in other pulpy sci-fi fare like Star Wars), she feels a bit wooden here. Like I said, Jane Foster is written better and has more to do than in Part 1. But if I had to point to one actor who just feels a bit out-of-place amid the epic comic book hamminess of Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Hopkins, etc., it'd be her.

So Portman's Jane Foster is sort of a mixed bag, but overall, it does feel like this movie is much more chock full of substantial female characters than the previous film, and as compared to most Marvel movies. Less substantial, however, is the movie's big bad - the dark elf (yes, you heard me) named Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston (unrecognizable behind transformative makeup/costuming). Malekith is a visually-cool villain - a monstrous, otherdimensional creature who leads an army of raygun-wielding evil warriors that look like Kirby drawings come to life. Awesome in concept, for sure. But the problem with Malekith is that he's just sort of there. We know that his realm was destroyed thanks to a magical MacGuffin known as the Aether, and that he now seeks to reclaim the Aether and use it to cause major destruction (to further complicate things, the Aether has been absorbed into Jane's body, making her invulnerable, but also slowly killing her). The thing with Malekith is that all he really needs is an extra scene or two to really sell his appetite for cosmic destruction. And I've heard that these scenes may exist, but were cut for time - in which case I'd be very eager to see them as originally shot. Because, hey, sometimes having an evil dark elf who just wants to %$&@ $%&# up is fine ... 'nuff said (to quote Stan The Man). But just a little something to make this dude pop as a character would have gone a long way.

Luckily, there's more than enough conflict and intrigue between Thor and Loki - who must forge an uneasy alliance to take on Malekith - to make up for Malekith's lack of personality. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are the engine that makes the movie go, and, by having him in the background for much of the film, THE DARK WORLD builds him up into that much of a greater (and cooler) potential threat.

Where THOR gets sloppy is in its plotting. There are a metric ton of cool ideas in this movie, but a lot of it feels sort of fast and loose. I talked about Malekith being sort of a nebulous character, and about the Aether being your typical sci-fi movie MacGuffin. But there are lots of other things that stand out as feeling not-fully-thought-out. One example I'll toss out there: the use of Loki's (admittedly cool) illusion-creating powers. While this ability leads to some cool moments, it also feels overused - to the point where something happens, and then you immediately expect it to be revealed as an illusion. Another example is a cliffhanger-y element of the ending that is sorta cool, yet also feels like a bit of a cheat. Who knows if and when the how's and why's of the reveal will be explained, but I was left with a bit of a feeling of the movie not quite playing fair with us. Overall, THE DARK WORLD packs in so many characters and plot points that it's no wonder it elicits the occasional "huh?". The fast pace is a blessing and a curse - giving the film a sugar-rush sensibility, but also a feeling of giving potentially great moments and scenes short shrift.

At times though, there were moments that truly wowed me. A viking-like Asgardian funeral scene - rife with eye-popping imagery and looking like a fantasy painting brought to life - may actually be my favorite scene of the film. Conversely, the final battle between Thor and Malekith's forces is pretty imaginative - with Portal-esque location-warping hurtling Thor and his adversary from place to place in a flurry of action-packed, dizzying jumps. Director Alan Taylor does a great job with the action, infusing the CGI f/x-fests with a degree of old-school fantasy feel, with moments that evoke the iconography of classic 80's fantasy films. Whereas the first film sometimes felt flat visually, this one has much more comic book grandeur, and the fantasy worlds of Asgard, etc. seem full of life and fully-realized.

The movie perhaps feels a little more disjointed than it should thanks to some oddly-placed post-credits scenes, with one in particular feeling like it should have simply been the last few minutes of the movie. But the other post-credits scene - a prelude to Guardians of the Galaxy, of sorts - left me giddy from its sheer cosmic weirdness. This scene helped reinforce the sentiment I expressed at the beginning of the review - that Marvel's "Phase 2" was ushering in an era of full-on Kirby comic-book weirdness, an era in which the kinds of things that fans thought they'd never see outside of the comics are actually materializing on screen. Now, I don't just say that from the fanboy perspective of "look, an obscure character from the comics is appearing!" I'm not even enough of a Marvel geek to be able to say that credibly. But I do say it from the perspective of a fan who's been growing weary with superhero films - adapted from stories that tend towards the weird and out-there - becoming increasingly cookie-cutter and generic and bland. What I love about these stories is the imagination, the weirdness, the colorfulness, the subversiveness, and the idea that anything can happen. For Lee, Kirby, Shooter, Simonson, and the like - there were never any limits. The universe itself was the canvass. And to see these movies get to that point, embracing all this stuff (I'm still traumatized from the second Fantastic Four movie's "cloud" Galactus) ... it's incredibly cool.

So yeah, THOR: THE DARK WORLD's got flaws, and it feels overstuffed at times, and its main villain is undercooked. But its got an infectious sense of fun that won me over. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, flaws and all. If this is the beginning of the new anything-goes, post-Avengers era of Marvel movies, then hell, alls I can say is "excelsior."

My Grade: B+

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

ENDER'S GAME Is Entertaining But Bland Sci-Fi


- Somehow, Ender's Game (the book) was something of a cultural blind spot for me. I'm not sure how or why, but I knew of it only by reputation before going into the movie adaptation. I'm always a little weary of movies like this suffering from compression problems that seem to so often go hand-in-hand with the adaptation process. And I think ENDER'S GAME does indeed suffer from the sort of jumpiness and rushed-feeling narrative that can plague this sort of endeavor. Overall, I found this to be a decently enjoyable film - and in some ways, it's an interesting departure from the kind of story that is typical of a big Hollywood franchise-starter type movie. But at the end of the day, the movie never 100% sold me on its basic premise, never fully made me buy into its world. And for sci-fi, that is an issue.

ENDER'S GAME tells the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), an outwardly meek but inwardly strong young boy who - in a world that is picking itself up and putting itself back together after a devastating alien invasion - is part of a corps of child-soldiers being trained to decimate earth's enemies. It's believed that only children possess the mental dexterity and intuition to properly wage the space battles of the future. However, not just anyone makes the final cut to actually become an active soldier. Children in the program are put through a rigorous series of tests and challenges (including being separated into teams that compete in various competitions), and only a select few make it past the various stages of training. From the start, the Big Brother-like leaders of the International Army have their eye on Ender. One, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes Ender to be a messianic figure who will lead the army's fight against the bug-like alien Formecs. And so, the seemingly unassuming Ender moves up from rank to rank - leading his own team, gaining respect, and displaying an increasing amount of cold calculation, tough-but-fair leadership, and knack for military-style strategy on the simulated battlefield. Intrigue also begins to build around the true nature of the war between humans and Formecs, and the real agenda of Graff and his cohorts.

Before I get to Asa Butterfield, I'll say that one of the clear and geek-out worthy highlights of ENDER'S GAME is the fact that it's got a very game, very engaged-seeming Harrison Ford in one of the lead roles. It's a lot of fun to see Ford in this sort of sci-fi story again, and this is easily one of his more memorable performances in years. We're not talking Oscar-caliber or anything - this is sort of Ford doing the classic Ford gruff-but-lovable thing, at times in semi-cartoonish fashion. But it's a fun performance, and a lot of the movie's best moments arrive when Ford brings the gravitas. One other guy who I'll sort of lump in with Ford in the awesome category is Nonso Anozie, who you will probably recognize from Game of Thrones. Anozie plays one of Graff's top lieutenants, sort of the drill sergeant for Ender and the other kids. And he pretty much rules it, stealing many scenes as a badass hiding a heart of gold.

As for Butterfield, he's pretty good as Ender, but not mind-blowingly good. Some of that can probably be blamed on the script - Butterfield, as Ender, is forced to make a lot of character leaps that feel like a stretch. The jumpiness of the script demands that Ender evolve from quiet loner to charismatic leader of men in what feels like a very abbreviated timeframe. What Butterfield does bring to Ender is a slightly American Psycho-esque feeling of possible evil intent lurking beneath. I don't know if that's in the book at all, but Butterfield does a nice job of making you wonder if Ender is one of those "could save us all, could destroy us all" types. I suspect Butterfield has got the chops to make a great Ender, but it may be that the script is asking too much of him and sort of undermining his performance with its leaps.

Moises Arias is an actor who got on my radar this past summer with his scene-stealing comedic turn in The Kings of Summer. Here, he's the Biff to Ender's Marty McFly, the somewhat cartoonishly vile rival kid-soldier named Bonzo. I have mixed feelings about Bonzo in the movie. I like Arias a lot, but his presence sort of reinforces the movie's slightly silly nature. Arias makes Bonzo a memorable villain, but the performance is perhaps a little broad, especially as compared to Butterfield's more serious version of Ender.

Other excellent actors seem to do the most with what they can, but they're stuck with underwritten parts. This is true of Hailee Steinfeld's Petra. I wanted some more exploration of her character, but she is mostly there to be a friend / crush for Ender. I'm pretty confident that Steinfeld is going to really wow us with her acting in the year's ahead, but this, alas, is not a showpiece role for her. A similar go-nowhere role belongs to Viola Davis, who seems to be slumming it as an army therapist, who is mostly around to challenge Ford's views on Ender and the other kids. One more sort-of-pointless part for a big-name actor goes to Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, a legendary soldier with a mysterious past. Rackham seems randomly thrown into the movie to be yet another Obi-Wan like figure for Ender, but he sadly adds next to nothing to the film.

I've been talking about the jumpiness of the film, and I'll elaborate a bit. Everything just feels very rushed and hyper-compressed, but in a frustrating, head-scratching sort of way. I don't know if writer/director Gavin Hood was forced to make last-minute cuts or something, but too often it feels like we're watching the Cliff's Notes of the book, and not a story that works on its own. Ender seems to leap from rank to rank, from station to station, from unit to unit. It almost becomes comical as the movie goes on. He goes from army scrub to supreme leader in what feels like half an hour. What this means is that the film sets up certain key plot elements - like the team competition among the kids (a sort of capture-the-flag in zero-gravity game) - as major events, but then seems to rush through them, making us wonder what all the build-up was for in the first place. It's funny, you'd think the movie would do more to denote the passage of time, but things play out in a very linear manner. So again, it feels like the entire movie plays out over a few days' time, when the implication is that we're seeing something that should feel longer, more drawn-out, more epic.

On the premise itself: again, I'm just not sure that the movie does a great job of selling it. It feels like only brief lip-service is paid to why, exactly, the world has decided that only kids can fight this war. And it's never really shown or reinforced why the experienced adults shouldn't be involved. As the movie presents things, it starts to feel a little absurd. Ender knows next to nothing about real war, and yet the grizzled vet Graff just stands by and lets him fight, without even giving advice or input on tactics? Visually, the movie doesn't do a great job of selling this at all. Okay, sure, I could see why the older Ford might have a tough time competing in the zero-gravity games. But when subsequent battles simply involve kids sitting at manned battlestations and pulling triggers when called upon - why not have experienced sharpshooters in those positions? Finally, without spoiling anything, the end of the movie feels to me like a major cheat. Perhaps it's explained better in the book, but here, the tactic used in the end-game (hmmm ...) of the final battle ... it feels like the sort of thing that *someone* would have thought of before Ender spontaneously decides to go in that direction. And it feels like the kind of thing that wouldn't exactly require a messianic kid to think of / carry out. Am I missing something? Either way, the big finale, to me, feels decidedly undercooked.

Overall, I still enjoyed ENDER'S GAME in that it's a relatively breezy, sci-fi-lite film with some cool visuals and fun performances. Certain scenes, taken individually, are a lot of fun as eye-candy set-pieces (all the zero-g stuff looks great, and these scenes are shot with immersive fluidity by Gavin Hood). And there are some interesting socio-political elements to the plot that I found intriguing. Still, I was left with a feeling that this could have been something more - a truly thought-provoking and disturbing sci-fi story - if only the adaptation was done with a bit more elegance and with a better eye towards making this work as a standalone story (and less as a calculated, all-things-to-all-people franchise-starter). As it stands, Ender's Game is worth checking out, but not the must-see it might have been.

My Grade: B

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE Is Brilliant and Poetic Depiction of the American Nightmare

 12 YEARS A SLAVE Review:

- 12 YEARS A SLAVE is such a unique, in some ways unusual film, that I honestly wasn't sure what to make of it, exactly, upon leaving the theater. This sprawling tale of American Slavery doesn't feel at all like what we've come to expect from films dealing with this era or with this narrative. Director Steve McQueen includes absolutely no flourishes of Spielbergian grandiosity in his film. Instead, he uses long, unwavering takes to create a film filled with artfully-depicted brutality, and positively overflowing with a feeling of overpowering, existential dread. The mix of unfiltered ugliness mixed with lyrical, poetic storytelling (and some sprinkling of gallows humor - both literal and figurative) creates a movie that plays out like a waking nightmare for its protagonist, the sold-into-slavery Solomon Northup. The result is a film that's utterly engrossing and endlessly praise-worthy. This is a film that has literary depth and subtext, but that also crackles with memorable visuals and cinematic sweep.

Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and it's a career-making performance. Ejiofor brings a soulful, restrained dignity to the character that I don't think I fully appreciated until late in the film. I describe the performance in these terms because Solomon starts the movie as a free, educated black man - a man who enjoys a relatively decent and undeniably joyful life - with a loving wife, two young children, and respected in his upstate New York town as a knowledgeable and trustworthy builder. However, it's his hobby that gets him into trouble - his skill as a fiddle-player attracts the attention of two traveling entertainers who convince Solomon to accompany them for a few of their shows. When Solomon is deceived by the musicians, he suddenly wakes up in a dark prison, having been abducted, taken down south, and sold into slavery. And from that point on, he has to hide who he really is. Because all the things that helped him get ahead up North - his smarts, his eloquence, his education - are liabilities as a slave. In order to survive, he has to show restraint, hide his thoughts, hide his intellect, hide his rage. And that is what makes Ejiofor's performance so remarkable. We see hints of what's going on in his head - in Solomon's eyes. But only rarely is he free to say what he really thinks. The dichotomy between who Solomon was and who he is forced to become is absolutely jarring. Because the white slave owners view him as lesser, animalistic, primitive - so too is this how he must act. And Ejiofor pulls off this tricky balance - this performance full of subtle expressions and telling glances - with aplomb. His Solomon never fully loses his dignity or his almost regal-like aura of calm and wisdom. But it's not for lack of trying on the part of the slave-owners who want to strip him of his humanity. What's remarkable about the film is the push and pull in that dynamic. Despite all efforts to break Solomon, to make him the prototypical, subservient slave - it's just impossible. The guy is too smart, too resourceful, too full of life for that sort of reductive psychology to fully take hold.

As good as Ejiofor is, he's surrounded by a remarkable supporting cast that is filled with equally award-worthy performances. There's two additional turns that really stand out to me though. One is Michael Fassbender as slave-owner Edwin Epps. Epps is the second slave-owner that Solomon is sold to (following a stint with the kinder and more sympathetic Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch), and he's a monster. The violence and rage he directs at his slaves is indicative of deep-seated psychological issues. Further complicating Epp's mania is his lustful obsession with one of the female slaves, Patsey. Epps puts Patsey on a pedestal, routinely praising her as his best worker in the fields. He also routinely rapes her, sapping her soul and demoralizing her to the point where she is hopeless and suicidal. Epps' disturbing relationship with Patsey drives his wife (a great turn from Sarah Paulson) off the wall, and Patsey and the other slaves find themselves caught in the volatile couple's tumultuous relationship. Fassbender is riveting as Epps though. He's a thoroughly despicable villain, but also a deeply complex character - a strange brew of madness and rage. But he is also emblematic of the disease of the mind that permeated throughout the antebellum south. How was it, we wonder, that so many could condone slavery, or even sadistically take pleasure in it? Epps', as a psychological profile, is case in point. Fassbender does wonders with the character - scary yet fascinating.

That leads me to Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey. Similar to Solomon, she must outwardly seem subservient and appreciative of her masters. But in Patsey's eyes, we see the bubbling sadness and hopelessness. We see the remnants of youth and girlhood, which we see all but stripped away by Epps. And when Patsey is pushed to limit, when she can take no more, Nyong'o turns in a gripping, jaw-dropping performance when she, as Patsey, lets the emotions flow freely in a rare moment of open expression. She and Solomon are two sides of the same coin. Solomon's lived the life of a free man, and so knows what it is that he lost as a slave. Patsey has known nothing but slavery, and can't even fathom what life outside of it is like. Suffice it to say, Nyong'o makes Patsey into the film's unlikely star - a supporting character whose horrifying treatment under Epps shows slavery at its worst and most soul-crushing.

So many other great little performances are scattered throughout the film. I mentioned Cumberbatch and Paulson, who are both excellent. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly but memorably as a sleazy slave-trader. The great Michael K. Williams, of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, also makes a brief but badass cameo. Another small but crucial role is played by Garret Dillahunt (whose presence reinforces my perception that the film actually has a lot of stylistic and thematic similarities to the HBO series Deadwood). Dillahunt does here what he does best - he plays a slightly crazy and unhinged guy who Solomon takes a big risk in trusting. Alfre Woodard is another iconic actress who shows up for a small but vital role, playing a favored slave who has grown quite comfortable with her status. Now, I've heard some criticism of Bradd Pitt's role as a Canadian journeyman who provides a crucial bit of help to Solomon. I thought that Pitt's freewheeling persona proved a good fit for the part, and he provides a crucial counterpoint to characters like Epps. Pitt's puzzlement at slavery helps to paint the obsession that men like Epps have with it as a sort of infectious disease that had taken root in the minds of the antebellum south. At the same time, what seems like simple sanity to us now was, in that time and place, the very definition of radical and subversive thought. Finally, I've got to mention Paul Dano. Dano is just the best at playing loathsome, weaselly characters who very much deserve the punch-to-the-face that they inevitably receive. He's played that sort of character a lot, but this might be his best overall variation on that theme since There Will Be Blood.

Thinking about Dano's character, and Fassbender's, and other aspects of the film ... there is something slightly, undeniably pulpy about 12 YEARS A SLAVE. I keep mentioning this when I hear people say they're not sure they can stomach the film. It is violent, it is brutal, and it is at times disturbing. But to McQueen's credit, it's also an incredibly entertaining film. That takes nothing away from the seriousness of the subject matter, or the emotional weight of the movie. But McQueen also doesn't shy away from giving his film style and atmosphere, and even a bit of over-the-topness. I'll say that the movie's best scene is a weird mix of darkly funny and oddly disturbing. In the scene, Solomon is all but left for dead, set to be hung, before the men doing the hanging are stopped before Solomon can be fully strung up. And so Solomon is left with his toes just barely touching the ground, straining to keep himself from strangling to death. Solomon is gasping, panting, flailing. And all around him - as McQueen keeps his camera still and centered - we see others, black and white, simply going about their business - paying absolutely no attention to the guy right there, in front of them, on the very precipice of life and death. It's a scene that goes from scary to funny to scary again, and it's a weird Twilight Zone moment that, in its own way, completely summarizes the entire movie in miniature. Because yes, this is Solomon's story, but it's also the story of a supposedly civilized nation that had become a country of brainwashed zombies, stuck in a purgatory-like state in which, somehow, this sort of atrocity wasn't worth batting an eye over.

And so the film does have that pulpy aspect, that dark humor,  and that slightly skewed aesthetic that makes it more than your typical Hollywood-ized history lesson. There are a lot of layers here. And McQueen proves himself, above all else, a great storyteller - not telling his narrative in a completely linear or traditional sense, but in a way that's incredibly gripping, yet different from what one might expect from this sort of story. He doesn't talk down to the audience, or oversimplify things. He uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to create a sense of disorientation, to reinforce that nightmare feeling. He uses long takes many times - fixing his camera's lens on nature, on faces, on images - to make us pay attention to detail, focus on juxtaposition, and soak in the emotion of a moment.

I also think that John Ridley's screenplay is worth mentioning. Ridley also wrote Red Tails - a movie that is full on pulp (whereas 12 Years A Slave is only pulp-tinged, I'd say), but also one that I don't think really telegraphed Ridley's full potential. I mentioned the comparison to TV's Deadwood earlier, and that comparison comes to mind when I think of this film's colorful dialogue - a sort of formal prose that lends a certain gravitas to the words that are spoken. The mix of poetry and vulgarity, formality and brutality, is in keeping with the weird dichotomies of the movie's setting.

The whole film, in fact, is one of dichotomies. Its central story is that of a worldly and well-regarded man suddenly plunged into a hellish life of slavery, in which it is assumed that he is sub-human. In this world of degradation and humiliation, Solomon is surrounded by brutal men who also regard themselves as god-fearing Southern Gentlemen. And then there's the absurdity that always strikes me with stories about slavery - the fact that the slaves that were so looked down upon were, despite that, so ever-present and such a constant and integral part of their owner's lives.

12 YEARS A SLAVE does not fit the template of what a big Hollywood Oscar-bait movie is supposed to be, and I think that's what makes it so great. This is a film that's genuinely challenging and thought-provoking. At times, I'd even call it an art-film in certain respects for the non-traditional ways that some of its key scenes unfold. At other times, I agree with the sentiment that it plays out almost like a horror film or a Twilight Zone episode - with an ordinary man suddenly thrust into a nightmare scenario that completely turns his world upside down. There's that noir-ish feeling of fate conspiring against him, of being trapped in a dark void from which escape is a near-impossibility. But when you couple that creepy vibe with the fact that this is real history - an adaptation of a real person's autobiography - there is, again, that dichotomy: of real-life-meets-unreality. Life as waking nightmare. A warped, backwards version of the American Dream in which, instead of upward mobility, a man is dragged from the middle class all the way down to the bottom, made a slave, forced to endure hell, as part of some mass delusion about skin color determining one's worth as a human being. 12 YEARS A SLAVE doesn't give you that swell of emotion and triumph when it ends. It's not a crowd-pleaser that sends you home happy, or in tears for that matter. No, the feeling you get at the end of this film is one of waking up from a strange dream. A dream that you pinch yourself to make sure that, yes, it was, in fact, only a dream. But here's the brilliance of the movie - this wasn't just a dream. This happened. That took a while to register with me. It took a few days for the full achievement of this film to fully sink in. But now, I can look back and recognize the unique brilliance at play here, and I can heartily recommend this film as one of the true must-see movies of 2013.

My Grade: A

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Is Difficult But Powerful True-Life Story


- Dallas Buyer's Club is a gut-punch of a film that is hard to get out of your head. I'd call it ugly. Ugly in that this is a film that doesn't shy away from harsh truths. Visually, Matthew McConaughey is almost hard to look at in the film. Playing real-life AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, McConaughey looks like the walking dead - bone thin and emaciated. It's also ugly in that Woodruff is no role model, despite the arc of personal redemption that he goes through over the course of the movie. Ron starts the movie as an ugly human being - a drug abuser and womanizer - crass and vulgar in the worst of ways. Finally, this is an ugly movie in that it sheds a harsh light on HIV, AIDS, and the seemingly futile war to fight it upon its rapid spread in America in the 80's. In no uncertain terms, the film shows how corporate bureaucracy - drug companies and the FDA - slowed the development and availability of effective treatments for the disease. Ron Woodruff starts the film as an ugly character, but his brand of ugliness is one that seems wholly American - the kind that has a strange sort of nobility in this country - the asshole cowboy who does what he wants, when he wants. But soon enough - diagnosed with AIDS and a death sentence - Ron experiences the ugliness of others. Branded an outcast and a virtual leper, he is forced to become the "other" that he always looked down upon.

This is a fascinating real-life story, and it all starts when Ron realizes that he has contracted the AIDS virus after engaging in unprotected sex with a prostitute. The diagnosis comes when Ron is already beginning to suffer severe symptoms of the illness - symptoms which he had ignored for a long while, before he finally collapses and wakes up in a hospital bed. Ron goes through a period of denial about his condition, but denial turns to frustration when he realizes how ineffective the drugs he's being prescribed are. He hears stories about better treatments in Mexico and other countries that are not approved for distribution in the US, and so he makes it his mission to track down these drugs ... not only for himself, but for the growing community of AIDS patients that he reluctantly finds himself a part of. Selling the drugs without getting caught proves to be difficult, so Ron finds a loophole: creating a buyers' club where members get the drugs for free as part of their membership fees. Soon, Ron is a thriving businessman, and a source of hope for a community that for a long time had no reason for optimism.

Ron's unlikely business partner is a sassy drag queen named Rayon - brilliantly played by Jared Leto. The two meet in the hospital, and Ron is initially disgusted and repulsed by Rayon, and wants nothing to do with him. The bond and friendship that eventually forms between the two is undoubtedly one of the movie's most emotionally resonant elements. Leto is absolutely fantastic as Rayon. His drag-queen persona is flippant and flamboyant, but Leto also shows us the sad and tormented side to the character. This could easily have been a one-note role, but Leto embodies it so fully that Rayon practically steals the movie. The film does a masterful job of depicting the sense of risk and danger that outsiders like Rayon felt in this not-so-long-ago era (and today, to a large extent). What might be more in-the-open today was, then, part of a fringe movement, a shadowy and hidden world. Rayon may have a flamboyant personality, but he was still a person totally confined to the margins - his suffering, and the suffering of his peers, was very much swept under the rug by most Americans at the time.

Back to McConaughey for a second ... he too just nails it in this film. While his grotesque physical transformation here threatens to overwhelm his acting, the acting is so good that that never happens. McConaughey has been on an absolute tear recently, in movies like Bernie, Killer Joe, and this year's Mud. But this has to be his crowning career achievement thus far - an acting job that confirms his status in the upper echelon of actors working today. This is full-body, full-commitment acting - the kind that gets down to the micro-level of twitches. And this is not something we've really seen from McConaughey  before. Often, he's the cool pulp badass, larger-than-life. Here, he's complicated, grimy, ugly - a firestorm of emotions and motivations.

Perhaps that's why the one part of the film that drags things down a bit is Ron's unlikely relationship with Jennifer Garner's Eve, a doctor at the local hospital who treats Ron, and who finds herself increasingly sympathetic to his fight against the medical establishment. It makes sense that she might be drawn to Ron the patient and his fight, but it's hard to see why she might have this connection with Ron the person. It's probably the only semi-false note in what is otherwise a note-perfect character study.

Otherwise, Ron and Rayon's relationship is built to perfection. And there's also a great relationship between Ron and his old buddy Tucker (Steve Zahn), a cop who's always had a some friction with Ron, but who now is forced to reexamine both his friendship and his concept of right and wrong. Similarly, Kevin Rankin - of Breaking Bad and Justified - does a great job, as a pal of Ron's who has a harder time accepting that his partner in crime has now become an AIDS-carrying outcast, who hangs around with folks like Rayon. I also thought that Denis O'Hare of True Blood was excellent, as an antagonistic doctor who doesn't have Ron's best interests in mind.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée gives the film a gritty, dangerous vibe that captures 80's-era, Southern-noir grime quite effectively. At times, the film has a nightmarish, almost horror-movie quality to it. At the same time, there is surprising heart. The film doesn't go for artificially-inserted Hollywood endings or anything like that. But the organic evolution of Ron - his outlook on life and death, his determination to help others, and - most movingly - his slow but gradual acceptance of Rayon and others like him, makes for several scenes that are genuinely affecting.

In terms of the movie's politics, I'm sure that particulars of what really happened vs. what's in the film will be picked apart by those looking for an agenda on the part of the filmmakers. But to me, the details are less important than the call-to-action in a broader sense. Ordinarily, I (and most of us, I suspect), don't dwell too much on the inner workings and politics of modern medicine. But the movie is an eye-opener, a reminder that we should be aware and awake to the political and financially-motivated decisions that affect disease research and treatment.

Separately, the movie is also a stark, powerful reminder that it's easy to keep our backs turned to those who are suffering, until helping them has some sort of meaningful financial or other reward for us. In a strange way, Ron having to work with the same sorts of people that he once shunned may have been a blessing in disguise. Ron was a guy who was used to living within a system that catered to him, that accommodated him. So he had very little tolerance or patience for being an afterthought. And that stubborn egotism is what fueled his fight against AIDS.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is, at times, a hard movie to watch. I had a constant feeling of unease while watching it. But it's also a memorable, powerful film that is well worth experiencing. On one level, it's got amazing performances - a career-best for McConaughey. On another level, it's a searing story of recent American history that still very much resonates in 2013.

My Grade: A-

ESCAPE PLAN Is Nostalgic, 80's-Style Slice of Cheesy-Awesome


- While the most recent efforts from Sylvester Stallone and a back-to-acting Arnold Schwarzenegger have been met with mostly indifference at the box office, I've got to say: I've really been enjoying this recent spate of late-career action flicks from the two titanic stars. And it annoys me to no end that amidst the endless age jokes, and the weary critical eye from reviewers, some of these legitimately enjoyable films are getting overlooked. Maybe it's Expendables fatigue. Stallone's uber team-up movies have been only-okay at best, and have contained an odd mix of old-school stars with mediocre attempts to emulate modern action movie aesthetics. So yeah, the Expendables movies have yet to 100% live up their potential. But that doesn't mean that they haven't indirectly spawned some worthy films from Stallone and Schwarzenegger. This year alone, Arnold's The Last Stand was a badass, uber-enjoyable action/comedy, and Stallone's Bullet to the Head was a decidedly old-school, hard-nosed effort from Walter Hill. And now, there's ESCAPE PLAN. A dream-team team-up of Sly and Ahnold that, yes, would have been more exciting twenty years ago and pre-Expendables, but still ... for anyone who grew up in (or who has an admiration for) the pumped-up era of 80's action films, this particular pairing is one that's been a long, long time coming.

And you know what? ESCAPE PLAN is cheesy, it's silly, but man, it's entertaining. It's a total throwback film. Yes, Sly and Arnold are older, but the film itself feels right out of 1985. Mostly, that's a good thing. They don't make 'em like this anymore. In the world of Escape Plan, a knockout punch is accompanied by a deadpan one-liner. A handshake between our two stars is filmed, Predator-style, like a meeting of cinematic superheroes. Explosions and gun battles are doled out liberally, with little regard for body count. And when all is said and done, our heroes laugh and walk off into the sunset, freeze-framed into cinematic immortality. What's fun about this film is that it treats the meeting of its two leads as a mega-epic team-up. Sometimes these kinds of movies don't want to overemphasize the pairing of two icons, but that pairing is Escape Plan's raison d'être. The film has no qualms about going big, goofy, and over-the-top. There's absolutely no subtlety in Escape Plan's DNA.

In the movie, Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a master of escape who makes a living by breaking out of maximum security prisons - thus exposing their vulnerabilities and showing where security needs to be beefed up. However, Breslin is faced with nearly insurmountable odds when he's hired to break out of The Tomb - an off-the-books super-max that's outfitted with high-tech cells, and patrolled by masked, anonymous guards who look like rejects from GI Joe's Cobra. To make matters worse, Breslin realizes that there may be more to his stay in The Tomb than meets the eye - namely, this may be less about him testing the facility, and more about him being set up as a fall-guy by his shady employers. Suddenly, Breslin's need to escape is less about doing a job, and more about his very survival.

Breslin's one ally in The Tomb is Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzeneger). Rottmayer is a burly German who is of particular interest to The Tomb's sinister warden, Hobbes (an ice-cold Jim Caviezel). Hobbes believes that Rottmayer has valuable intel on a wanted terrorist (Rottmayer calls him a freedom fighter), and is determined to extract said intel by any means necessary. So Breslin and Rottmayer form an alliance: hatching the titular escape plan by combining Breslin's MacGuyver-esque escape skills with Rottmayer's knowledge of the prison, value to the warden, and of course, brute strength.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are both a lot of fun here. Stallone is doing a variation on his recent hard-nosed characters in The Expendables and Bullet to the Head, but Schwarzenegger is really doing something interesting. He's got a certain mischievous gleam in his eye that we haven't seen in quite some time, and he plays Rottmayer as funny, almost jovial, despite his dire circumstances. This actually makes for a great chemistry between the two leads - Stallone as the serious one, all business, Schwarzenegger as the quippy troublemaker who will still come through in a jam. What's more, Schwarzenegger actually has some moments where I was flat-out impressed by his acting. One sequence in particular, where he tauntingly screams out German to his captors, in order to avoid revealing sensitive info under duress, is downright awesome. If this is what crazy-old-man Ahnold can offer us in the years ahead, then my god, bring on the crazy old-man roles for Ahnold.

Caviziel is good and properly loathsome as the warden. Sam Neil also appears, lending some bonus gravitas to a small but crucial role as the morally-conflicted prison doctor. Vinnie Jones surfaces as the warden's sadistic enforcer, though he's actually a bit more restrained than per usual. Finally, Amy Ryan is in the mix as Stallone's colleague/sometimes-love-interest. All do a nice job and lend a lot of personality to the film (less impressive: rapper 50 Cent as another, more bland, slightly more useless associate of Stallone's).

Where ESCAPE PLAN stumbles is that its sense of fun is, at times, offset by a hamfistedness that inspires unintentional laughs, and the occasional eye-rolling/face-palm. When Stallone attempts to win the loyalty of Sam Neil by reminding him of his Hippocratic Oath, the film then segues into a melodramatic montage where we see Neil literally reading through a book of medical ethics, deliberating over the Oath. That's one example of several in which the movie - which walks a fine line overall between camp and stupidity - veers wildly into the realm of stupidity. Mostly, there's nothing so offensive that you can't just go with it, but I also think the movie could have benefited from a tad more self-awareness of its own ridiculousness (not too much though - wouldn't want to mess around with the gloriously oblivious 80's vibe).

The other main problem with the movie is that for a movie centered around a high-tech, super-max prison, the design of The Tomb simply isn't all that inspired. Other than a couple of futuristic touches, it feels pretty standard-issue. It feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity for cool visual design. It's funny though, because based on the rather bare-bones design of the prison, I assumed that the entirety of the movie would have sort of a low-budget, B-movie feel. But the producers seem to have saved their dough for the third act, in which we're treated to some surprisingly massive set-piece action scenes that recall 80's-era excess.

Ultimately, Escape Plan feels like a perfect movie to place on one's bookshelf alongside the likes of endlessly watchable 80's Stallone/Schwarzenegger cheese like Commando or Tango & Cash. There's a certain unapologetic aesthetic here that I just find incredibly refreshing in the world of the postmodern action film. Maybe not a new classic - and this won't win over any new converts - but Escape Plan remains a fine bit of nostalgic action escapism, for those who long for the days when action movies and action heroes were truly larger than life.

My Grade: B+