Drama

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

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Director: Gary Ross
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 142 min.

In a dystopian society, a wealthy Capitol City rules over twelve impoverished Districts, home to the laborers who keep the Capitol supplied with food, clothing, and other luxuries while their own families starve.  In punishment for a previous rebellion, each District is required to send two of their children–a boy and a girl–to the Capitol each year where they will be forced to engage in a televised fight to the death.  When her little sister’s name is selected as the female contestant from District Twelve, sixteen year old Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  She and the boy from her District, Peeta, travel to the Captiol and prepare themselves for the brutal fight for survival in the Hunger Games arena.  Katniss is determined both to survive and to retain her dignity, and the Capitol officials soon realize that they have a potential problem on their hands.

I was very impressed with the quality of this adaptation, particularly in terms of the screenwriting and acting.  The writers made few major changes to the story, and while some of the slight changes did have a noticeable effect (Katniss’ ambivalent feelings toward Peeta were somewhat Hollywood-ized), I felt that other changes were incredibly appropriate to facilitate the transition from novel to film.  The actors had clearly studied Suzanne Collins’ portrayal of their characters and were able to convey the rich complexities that could have been lost without Katniss’ narration.

The cinematography was less impressive.  While at times the shaky camera effect emphasized the chaos of the Games or Katniss’ anxiety and unfamiliarity with her surroundings, the technique would have been more effective if used more sparingly throughout the film.  In addition, some of the action sequences were fairly dark, and the images were nearly impossible to track; the audience was left watching a dark blur of motion, sometimes for thirty seconds or more.  Still, the overall artistic design and costuming created an appropriate atmosphere for the story and closely mimicked the descriptions in the novel.  The filmmakers’ imagining of Collins’ story was enjoyable and effective, both as an adaptation and a stand-alone film.  In this case, I do think the book was better, but I still highly recommend the film!

SERENITY (2005)

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Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 min.

Science fiction fans everywhere wept when Joss Whedon’s phenomenal television series “Firefly” (2002) was canceled after just one season.  The 2005 film Serenity picks up roughly where the show left off and ties up some of the most frustrating loose ends of the plot.

When the Earth’s environment began to die out, the human race colonized other planets, terraforming them to support human life.  When the governments of the wealthy central planets decided to unite all planets under one Alliance, the “less civilized” border planets fought back.  Among the Independent soldiers were Mal Reynolds and Zoe Washburn.  After their crushing defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley which ended the war, Mal and Zoe got themselves a ship (a Firefly class ship that Mal named Serenity) and a crew and began to travel, picking up any jobs they could get, most of them illegal.  Among the crew members that they assembled over time were Simon, a former Alliance doctor, and his little sister, River, who he had rescued from some sort of Alliance medical testing facility where she had been the victim of experimental brain surgery.  No one knows exactly what the Alliance had been trying to do to River, but she seems to have lost her sanity.  It also quickly becomes clear that she has special abilities, in martial arts and possibly mind-reading.  As Alliance officials try to hunt Simon and River down, Mal has to decide whether protecting the fugitives puts the rest of his crew at risk.  Complicating Mal’s loyalties, it seems that River subconsciously remembers a secret that could bring the downfall of the hated Alliance. The only catch is that in order to uncover the secret, the crew will have to face the bloodthirsty Reavers.

Although intended for both devoted “Firefly” fans and newcomers, Serenity is likely to fall flat if you haven’t seen the series first. Important plot details are conveyed, but the relationships in the film are less meaningful without knowledge of the depth and nuance of the character development in the series. That said, I highly recommend both the series and this film.  “Firefly”/Serenity is character-driven sci-fi at its best, building on conventions of the genre but with new twists (a series set in outer space, but with no aliens, the feel of a Western, and an emphasis on social and political conflict in addition to traditional gun fights and spaceship chases).  The characters are realistic and complicated, the scripts filled with a blend of hilarious comedy, romance, action, and heartache.  Joss Whedon is well-loved for a reason, and “Firefly”/Serenity is his masterpiece.

But watch “Firefly” first . . .

A MIDWINTER’S TALE (1995)

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Original Title: In the Bleak Midwinter
Director: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99 min

Joe feels like his life and his acting career have both gotten away from him, and as Christmas draws near, he feels compelled to do something about it.  His plan to find employment and the meaning of life is simple: gather a group of passionate actors together to put on a stage production of Hamlet in a condemned church building.  If all goes well, they may save the old church and get noticed by some casting directors.  Unfortunately, the group of actors that Joe rounds up are at best quirky, and quite possible mad.  Together they embark on the journey of a collaborative Shakespeare production, and it may be a miracle if they all get out of it alive.

As someone who has done a lot of theatre, I find this film both hilarious and touching.  The characters are all entertaining stereotypes who by the end of the film have become quite human and real.  Through the process of producing the show and building relationships with one another, the characters draw meaning out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet beautifully.  It is not strictly-speaking an adaptation of Hamlet, but themes and lines from Shakespeare’s play are interwoven with the story of the actors in an accessible and thought-provoking way.  The film is also laced with an abundance of witty lines and slapstick humor.  Not one of Branagh’s best known, but one of my favorites!

MONEYBALL (2011)

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Director: Bennett Miller
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 133 min.

The Oakland A’s had a pretty good season in 2001, but their post-season loss to the Yankees was depressing for everyone–especially the A’s general manager, Billy Beane.  The A’s can’t compete with big money teams, and now they’re losing three of their best players.  Billy knows their current scouting strategy isn’t working, and when he meets Peter Brand, a recent Yale graduate who believes in putting together teams based on the statistical probability of players scoring runs, he decides to give the “economics” approach to baseball a shot.  To the frustration of the traditionalist scouts and coach, Billy and Peter pack their team with cheap players that none of the other teams want, but who Peter insists will get on base.  As the season starts off with a series of crushing defeats, Billy begins to question his decisions and whether or not he will have a career at the end of the year.

No surprises from this underdog sports film, but the predictable plot didn’t make it any less fun to watch.  The acting is great, suspense is built up well, and significant attention is given to Billy’s character development and his conflicting roles as a general manager and a father.  Some of the shots were too dark and difficult to make out, and on a couple of occasions the audience needed more context as to the score and what inning they were playing to truly understand the stakes of the moment.  But otherwise, it was a really enjoyable film.  I would be surprised if it won the Oscar next week–there are some really impressive contenders this year–but we’ll see what happens.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)

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Director: Tomas Alfredson
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 min.

It is the early 1970s and British Intelligence is immersed in the Cold War.  When a top-secret operation in Hungary goes fatally wrong, the head of Intelligence and his right-hand-man, George Smiley, are forced into early retirement.  The remaining members of Intelligence continue business as usual, dealing with a secret source called “Witchcraft” who provides them with significant and seemingly credible Russian secrets.  It is then that the Prime Minister approaches Smiley with the information behind the ill-fated Hungarian mission: a mole has infiltrated the highest levels of British Intelligence.  Smiley is now in the best possible position to uncover the mole’s identity and find out what really happened in Hungary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  Not an action movie–although it has its share of blood and guts–Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a slow broiled spy thriller.  The mystery is what keeps you in suspense.  The acting was great, and the use of oranges and browns, a smoky atmosphere, and crowded, stationary shots made me believe I was watching a film made in the 70s, not just about them.  I definitely recommend it to mystery lovers, spy lovers, or history lovers who can stomach R-rated violence.  It was great!

PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

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Director: Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119 min.

Ofelia loves to read books–especially fairy tales.  She brings a whole stack of them when she and her pregnant mother travel to visit her stepfather, a captain of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.  Ofelia dislikes her stepfather, who she (rightly) believes to be a sadist, and thus she is constantly looking for ways to avoid him.  When she meets a real-life fairy, she eagerly follows the creature into a stone labyrinth.  There, a sinister looking faun tells her that she is really a long-lost princess of the underworld, reborn in a mortal body, but destined to rejoin her father the king after she undertakes three challenging tasks.  However dangerous and grotesque, the faun’s tasks become a welcome distraction as Ofelia’s mother falls ill with pregnancy complications and Ofelia grows increasingly aware of her stepfather’s cruelty and the dangerous predicament of the guerrilla resistors hiding in the forest nearby.

Guillermo del Toro tells this story beautifully, weaving together a dark and traumatic historical fiction plot with an equally grotesque fantasy vision.  It is not surprising in the least that this artistically stunning film took the 2007 Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup.  Fair warning: the film is very, very dark, with particularly upsetting violence.  (And if you are not a Spanish-speaker, you will need subtitles.)  But I was completely blown away by the visuals and the storytelling.  I highly recommend it to anyone who likes dark, artsy films.

 

HUGO (2011)

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Director: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 126 min.

Twelve-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Paris train station where he minds the clocks.  Always trying to avoid the clutches of the zealous but mildly incompetent Station Inspector, Hugo steals what he needs to survive, as well as little clockwork toys from the station toy shop which he uses to repair the mysterious automaton that he and his late father had been fixing.  But the old toy shop owner catches Hugo stealing and confiscates the notebook with his father’s instructions and drawings.  The shop owner seems to have a strong emotional connection to the drawings, but he will not explain himself to Hugo.  In order to earn the notebook back, Hugo takes a job at the toy shop and befriends the shop owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle.  Together they embark on the adventure of uncovering the automaton’s secrets and the old man’s past.

Scorsese and John Logan, the screenwriter, truly hit the mark in this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  This was a story that needed to be made into a film.  The cinematography was simply beautiful and tried to capture the original drawings from the novel (which were supposed to imitate camera shots themselves).  The beginning of the film is slow and the “mysteriousness” of the plot will drag on if you have not read the book.  But the beginning of the book is actually much slower and more mysterious, and the film is very pretty to look at even if you are confused.  I also loved how Scorsese and Logan created the milieu of the 1920s Parisian train station and wove the vignettes of the shop owners into Hugo’s story.  Of course it is when film history begins to figure prominently in the story that the true power of the film begins to come through.  Full marks to Brian Selznick for the creativity of this story and his innovation in weaving films into his book through illustrations, but this aspect of the story was especially powerful in the film adaptation.  Scorsese’s and Logan’s “moral of the story” angle was a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise a truly great adaptation.

If you liked the book, go see the movie!  If you didn’t like the book, but found the concept/story interesting, go see the movie!  If you have no idea what I’m talking about with this book but like artsy, visually stunning films, go see the movie!  It’s a good one.