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The End of the Tour is Thoughtful and Freeflowing (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 29, 2015 | Add Comments

The End of the Tour (2015)“I cherish my regular guyness” comments David Foster Wallace, the author of the sprawling literary phenomenon Infinite Jest. “You don’t crack open a thousand-page book because you hear the author’s a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant” reporter David Lipsky replies in the new film The End of the Tour.

This is a movie full of competing contradictions – between novelist and journalist, celebrity fame and average obscurity, colleagues and friends. Yet the most important one might be the distinction between undoubted genius and unremarkable “regular guy”.

The End of the Tour begins in 2008, when news of Wallace’s suicide reaches Lipsky, and then flashes back t0 1996. David Lipsky is a novelist living in New York, unsatisfied by the insubstantial writing he publishes as a contributor for Rolling Stone. Then he reads Infinite Jest, a massive and massively praised new novel, and becomes determined to interview its author, David Foster Wallace. Though Rolling Stone hasn’t published an interview with a writer in the last decade, Lipsky’s editor let’s him have the interview. He travels out to Wallace’s Illinois home, nervous about meeting his newfound idol. Over the course of a weekend, Lipsky accompanies Wallace on the final stop of his book tour. Together, they binge on fast food and action movies, ponder the state of American life at the Mall of America, and talk about, well, pretty much everything.

Adapted from a 2011 memoir by Lipsky and directed by James Ponsoldt, the movie is vastly different from most films about famous people: it spans a few days, follows only a few characters, and never rushes to highlight landmark events. Instead, it follows the casual rhythms of conversations and the slow tempo of everyday life. Most scenes are simply Lipsky and Wallace talking – in cars, on a plane, at the movies, and in a cheap chain restaurant. They touch on a wide range of subjects, including television, addiction, suicide, entertainment, and even singer Alanis Morrisete, Wallace’s secret crush.

Before continuing, I will confess to having never read Wallace’s work or having seen him talk before watching The End of the Tour. The film has elicited much criticism, from Wallace’s family (who claimed he never would have agreed to the film) and friends. I won’t comment on historical accuracies or whether or not the film’s existence is offensive to the legacy of it’s subject because I simply don’t know enough about the facts surrounding the movie.

I do know that I found The End of the Tour endlessly thought-provoking, thoughtful in it’s depiction of both Wallace and Lipsky, and rivetingly conversational. There isn’t much flair to the filmmaking here, but there is a natural, subdued unfussiness to Ponsoldt’s style that fits the film.

The End of the Tour (2015)It’s likely you won’t notice that, because the movie’s strength lies on its two main actors more than the cinematography and editing. I can’t comment on the truthfulness of Jason Segel’s portrayal of Wallace, but it is a startlingly lived-in performance.  He generates nervous energy and social awkwardness, but also generates casual spurts of brilliance. He’s introverted and opinionated and thoughtful. As Lipsky, Jesse Eisenberg is intellectual and self-aware, but also hides a bundle of self-doubt. Both performances are terrific, but watching the actors play off each other is a true treat. Lipsky, with his reporter’s poise and comfortable NYC life, conforms to the social norms Wallace ignores, yet he pines for the success and meaning of his interviewee’s writing. The relationship between the two is sometimes prickly and often uncomfortable. They seem to have little in common, but their differences form an unusual bond.

This is a quiet and conversational movie, unshowy in style and simplistic in its plotline. Its constant chatter is likely to bore most audiences (so far, very few people have gone to see it). If you’re open to the film’s unique charms, and there are certainly some who will be, The End of the Tour is the sort of film that doesn’t try hard to grab you but sticks with you long after.

Skyfall: An 007 Adventure with a Sense of Mortality (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | 1 Comment

Skyfall (2012)In many ways, Skyfall (2012, streaming on Netflix) embodies many of James Bond’s signature qualities. It’s suave, sophisticated, and sexy, wryly and quietly amusing but also grandiloquent and self-indulgent, yet somehow still sleek and stylish to the end. It’s quite the ride: 143-minutes of set-pieces, locales, a couple of Bond girls, and a whole lot of things going bang.

In the opening shot, we see an out of focus figure slowly approaching; we slowly realize he’s James Bond, with gun pointed and steely gaze directed up ahead. He quietly prowls around an Istanbul house littered with dead colleagues, searching for a computer that holds the identities of all MI6 members. That search leads him across city streets on a car chase, which segues into a motorcycle pursuit. Finally, one on one on the top of a speeding train, he confronts his nameless, who holds the keys to the downfall of MI6. With barely a trace of remorse, the bitter and acidic M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot”, sending Bond falling into the ocean and leaving the organization in jeopardy. But because we’re only twenty minutes of the movie, Bond survives, and is “enjoying death” while staying far away from anything relating to espionage.

When a deadly organization starts leaking the identities of MI6 members, however, he pulls himself back into the game. For once, Bond is seen in less than perfect condition: during target practice, his arms shake and he misses the shot. Lucky for him, M shows a trace of compassion by letting him stay an agent, even though he’s failed all of his tests. Bond’s adventures lead him to Shanghai skyscrapers, a Macau casino, and, after an hour of set-up, face to face with the villain of the picture: the psychotic Silva (played by Javier Bardem, with a head of bad blonde hair and a deliciously nasty smile). Physically, he’s not too much of a scare for 007 but, like the best bad guys, it’s the psychological game of wits he plays with our protagonist that makes him so lethal. Part hacker, part terrorist, he shows no mercy in taking out agents and endangering everything and everyone Bond holds dear.

Plot-wise, this Bond flick is a twisty, layered delight. The stakes have rarely been higher, the villain nastier, the surprises more surprising, or the Bond more flawed. But much like the overrated but enjoyable Casino Royale, the film often suffers from insufferably prolonged action scenes that last up to fifteen minutes. The shootouts, explosions, chases, and fistfights are certainly spectacular, occasionally balletic, and technically impeccable. But these sequences are so ceaselessly tiring you start to wish director Sam Mendes had picked a Bond-averse average joe off the streets and had him snip off a solid 45 minutes of the final cut.

Skyfall (2012)

Still, there’s plenty to marvel at. Despite the flaws, it’s hard to imagine director Sam Mendes having constructed a better Bond movie. There’s a terrific opening credits montage, scored by Adele’s foreboding “Skyfall” song. And the film has a fine sense of the franchises’s history, with familiar cars, characters, and, of course, music popping up at just the right moments. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the images a mathematical precision with clean, sharp framing, along with an artsy and atmospheric sense of color and shadow.

Skyfall also has a fine supporting cast. Judi Dench, as M, finally gets a chance to be a character (and not just a one-note bit of crusty cynicism) and she relishes every second of her screen time. So does Ben Winshaw as a new, tech-savvy Q. Thank goodness he’s in this movie, which might be entirely lacking of fun without him. Bardem, however, simultaneously lightens and darkens the mood with his instantly creepy performance. His one-take entrance, both dreadfully disturbing yet lightly playful, is utterly unforgettable. In his first confrontation with Bond, he manages to frighten, seduce, and reduce  him all at the same time. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes gets a plump part as an old-school Intelligence Committee chairman, though I spent most of his scenes thinking he might’ve made a fine Bond twenty years ago.

What about the Bond we’ve got, Daniel Craig? With his immaculate build, threatening stare, and reluctant smile, he’s the most self-serious and brutally efficient Bond I’ve seen; a Dark Knight 007 for the 21st century. Yet Craig, a man of few words, is lacking in the lively personality that made audiences fall in love with Sean Connery all those years ago. Beneath the muscles and menace, there’s not much there, or at least not enough. I’m not suggesting we need the droll jokiness of 60’s Bond; Craig doesn’t seem to know the meaning of humor, let alone have any sense of comic timing. But it would be nice to see some him show more layers of character.

Skyfall (2012)Luckily, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have concocted a doozy of a finale. With few options left, Bond and M travel, by way of the trusty old Aston Martin, to his childhood Scotland home. For once, Silva will be the one playing catch-up. Bond, M, and a paternal figure (Albert Finney) from 007’s past hide in the dusty old mansion, and face Silva and a team of henchmen. As Silva and his henchmen approach the house, Mendes and Deakins imbue the confrontation with a classic Western vibe; the bad guys severely outnumbering the good. But once inside the house, the tone shifts to that of a horror movie climax, replete with shadowy atmosphere, around-the-corner scares, and delightful booby traps.

What ultimately makes the film, and the final sequence, so powerful is its surprisingly knowing sense of mortality, an awareness of the limits of Bond’s endurance (for once, the time-to-get-back-in-shape training sequence isn’t completely ridiculous). Hey, the later scenes give us the best sense of Bond’s backstory we’ve ever gotten, detailing a Batman-like origin story. During 50 years, 007 hasn’t shown any signs of aging; rarely does he allow us glimpses of weakness, either. But this time, we’re faced with a shocking revelation: he’s still human.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: A Pointles Farewell to Middle Earth (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2014 | Add Comments

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesAt 144 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest Middle Earth movie by fifteen minutes. That’s a puzzling fact, because of all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, none have been as deafeningly, tediously pointless as this one. It’s 144 minutes too long, and you’ll be wondering what has happened to Peter Jackson, who so brilliantly pulled off the Rings trilogy but left audiences puzzled and exhausted by a numbing three-part Hobbit trilogy that dwindled in quality as it continued.

Jackson picks up right where we left off, with a dragon face-off that hits you over the head, sets the bombastically dull tone, and made me wonder why this scene wasn’t included in the last film. Perhaps Jackson was fretting over a lack of action? Nope. The entire film, as evidenced by the title, revolves around one long battle. After Smaug the dragon is killed by a shot to the neck from Bard the Bowman, the gold-filled lair of the dragon is up for grabs. Thorin, leader of the dwarves, is obsessively determined to keep it all for himself, but Bard and his group of humans from the recently destroyed Laketown, demand their fair share, which Thorin promised. The elves do too, and they have an army to back them up, which leads to (you guessed it!) war. How could I forget the title of the film? There are five armies, which means orcs and more dwarves and Gandalf and some other nasty creatures appear for the solitary reason of stretching the film’s running time to ridiculous lengths.

Throughout this Hobbit finale, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Peter Jackson and his Hobbit trilogy has failed at nearly everything that made The Lord of the Rings great. Remember the characters (Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir) and all the tiny moments of friendship and humor and bravery they shared? Remember the battle scenes, (Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields) which Jackson filled with a scope and seriousness lacking in most blockbusters? The trilogy wasn’t without it’s flaws (The Two Towers was a deeply overrated sequel), but audiences were left with unforgettable scenes (“My precious”; “Here at the end of all things”; “Not this day”) that put the series in the pantheon of blockbuster franchises that Star Wars reins over. Alas, Jackson followed in the footsteps of George Lucas’ galaxy too well. Not content with ending the series on a high note, he delivered his own trilogy of completely inferior prequels.

The dwarves in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesFive Armies puts Jackson’s two greatest weaknesses at the fore: dull, talky build-up and action sequences that just don’t stop. He has a self-indulgent penchant for relishing in every extraneous detail in Middle Earth (these movies involve excessive amounts of battle-planning, alliance-making, and fantasy politics). Worse, he expects non-Tolkien diehards to care (or so one would suppose, based on these running times). The previous Hobbit films haven’t held a candle to The Lord of the Rings with their action scenes, but Jackson had a big chance to stage some engaging, impressive fight scenes with this big finale. Instead, we get blurry, incoherent slashing, hammering, yelling, and crying involving characters we’ve barely gotten to know over eight hours. If the IMAX audio systems weren’t so deafening, you might fall asleep.

Jackson’s attempts at emotionally attaching audiences fail too. The film’s non-action scenes involve an awkward elf-and-dwarf love triangle, speeches of loyalty and courage, and many scenes of Thorin moping in the dragon’s lair. The script’s dialogue, never his strong suit, is clunky, obvious, and laughably humorless, while the ensemble cast of dwarf and elf actors blend into the hollow CGI universe surrounding them. Martin Freeman, who brought wit and charm to the other films, is relegated to the backround and refused opportunity to lighten up the film.

Too bad. The Battle of the Five Armies could’ve used some laughs, or some originality, or some intelligence, all of which it is lacking. There is one rewarding sequence, though. When Bilbo returns to his Shire home at the end of the film, you feel Jackson’s filmmaking muscles ease up with the familiarity of returning to a location often seen throughout the series. For a few moments, the film has the lovable warmth of The Fellowship of the Ring‘s early scenes. Ultimitaely, it just reminded me how much better those Lord of the Rings films were, and how much of a failed opportunity The Hobbit is.

Poignant Family Dramas and a 3-D Food Adventure at TIFF Kids 2014: Flack’s Day 2 Report

Posted on | April 23, 2014 | Add Comments

Lauren and Harvey are on-the-run-siblings searching for a lost grandfather in Side by SideA heartrending family adventure, raining hot dogs, and shorts from up-and-coming (kid) filmmakers rounded out our second day (April 19) at the Toronto International Film Festival Kids. Here’s my thoughts on everything I saw.

Side by Side 4 1/2 Arthur Landon’s coming-of-age family adventure, is easily one one of my favorite films of the year so far. Lauren, a skilled runner, and her younger brother/obsessive gamer Harvey, are tired of their mundane and tragic lives. When their elder grandmother moves to a retirement home and Lauren enrolls in a distinguished running university, Harvey runs away. He’s soon joined by his sister-and a life-changing adventure begins. Filled with Scottish vistas and wonderful cinematography, Side by Side is a poignant drama that’ll have you laughing, crying, and smiling in equal measure.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) realizes his food making machine actually works in Cloudy With a Chance of MeatballsTIFF Kids isn’t just about “watching” movies; it’s about thinking, enjoying, and connecting with film on many levels. Storymobs, a Canadian organization where “great kids’ books meet flash mobs”, worked with families to create costumes and props for an exuberant reading of Judi Barret’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. During the final performance, kids and adults took turns reading, as the audience looked on with hunger. Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s zany 2009 blockbuster adaptation was screened (in mouth-watering 3-D) later that day.

Films like Side by Side and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs are made for children but the Jump Cuts Young Filmmakers Showcase: Grades 7 and 8 featured films made by children. The featured shorts were all over the place, from a claymation commentary on global warming to a live-action zombie thriller. Some were made by schools, others by individual kids. The range of themes, stories, and mediums was incredible and a joy to watch. Precious Cargo, a touching tale about an elder man contemplating his future, had stunning cinematography and a thoughtful plot that could have you convinced the film was made by a professional. Safety Man and Man VS School were also standouts, with inventive, amusing stories signaling a bright future for film.

It was an impressive day at TIFF but there’s still more to come…

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 8, 2014 | Add Comments

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) skateboards to a volcano in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 3 1/2 Stars

This was a great year for movies, but have any films made you laugh out loud from beginning to end? Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films. Stiller is excellent as director and actor, and the film is as bizarrely funny as it is cheerfully delightful. It’s not perfect but it’s still one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) lives his quiet life daydreaming about romance, adventure, and co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). He works as a Negative Assets Manager in LIFE Magazine’s photography department.  But as LIFE moves online, and prepares for it’s final issue, Walter’s job is threatened.  Legendary photographer Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn) sends in some possible cover photos for Walter to look at. Negative 25 (which Sean declares to depict “the quintessence of life”) is immediately selected for the cover. But when Walter can’t find the photo, he flees his job and flies to Iceland, to search the world for Sean. As he tussles with sharks, scales the Himalayas, and falls in love with Cheryl, Walter discovers living is a lot more thrilling than dreaming.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) with his co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fine achievement for Ben Stiller, both as actor and director. As actor, he’s absolutely hilarious playing Walter. Stiller portrays Mitty as a hardworking daydreamer in search of excitement and gives the character soul and meaning. His performance is thoughtful and moving, and yet his deadpan delivery and quirky physical humor will make you burst out laughing. Even in the dramatic scenes, he’s wonderful. The supporting cast is solid too: Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn (in a 5 minute role), and Adam Scott, as Walter’s obnoxious boss Ted, are all fine. But this is Stiller’s show and he’s subtly hysterical in a great role.

Stiller’s work as director, however, is even more impressive. From the gorgeous visuals to the layered script, his mark is all over the movie. He’s plenty experienced at making audiences laugh, and that’s quite evident here: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is easily one of the funniest movie of the year. But it’s not the jokes that surprise; it’s the fact that Stiller proves himself as a truly talented director. The movie is equal parts comedy, romance, and adventure and Stiller is equally adept at all three. The film is beautiful, moving, and enthralling, not least because of Stiller’s direction.

Ben Stiller’s directorial voice is eccentric, funny, and and adventurous, and his unique style often works…but not always. Stiller occasionally indulges in his comedy roots a bit too hard, as if he’s as afraid of the unknown, like Mitty. Some of the broader slapstick humor just isn’t funny and a few scenes feel weird for the sake of it (a Benjamin Button spoof, for example, is amusingly strange but has no reason being in the movie). As the film tries to wrap up, some scenes meander and drag. Though the poignant ending is perfect, Stiller takes too long getting there.

Despite its flaws, the film’s technical side is flawless. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is ravishingly expansive, while the special effects are remarkably effective. The soundtrack is a soulful compilation of catchy tracks including Of Monsters and Men, Jack Johnson, and others. Best of all, the appropriation of David Bowie’s Space Oddity in a key scene is perfectly hummable. Only Greg Hayden’s editing needs a little work; the film, as previously mentioned, is overlong at 114 minutes.

Steve Conrad’s script is also terrific. It feels timeless and topical at the same time, and the characters are well developed. The story is captivating and surprising, and I found the LIFE magazine and photography story-lines engrossing.  Still, plot points like these often get jumbled around. Conrad and Stiller sometimes have more food than they can chew, with all the one-liners, characters, locations, set-pieces, and product placements. Though most of this is entertaining, some scenes could’ve been expanded.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) meets master photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a funny, enthralling adventure that marks the arrival of Ben Stiller as a true director. Stiller is also hilarious in the title role, leading a fantastic cast. While it sometimes drags and Stiller’s directing skills still need a bit of work, Walter Mitty is as inspiring, hilarious, and heart-warming as any other film this year. There’s no need to dream. This is one of the most entertaining films of 2013.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2013 | Add Comments

Martin Freeman is back as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2 1/2 Stars

With his latest film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson puts on full display the best and worst of his own filmmaking styles. The film is pretentious, noisy, overlong, and half-baked. It’s also spectacular, beautiful, thrilling, and brilliant. Desolation is cluttered but exciting. It didn’t always hold my attention, but there’s always something jaw-dropping to look atIn short, it’s a Peter Jackson movie.

Evangeline Lily dons elf ears to play fierce fighter Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Unlike others, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series. I’ve read The Hobbit (good fun), read a tiny bit of the first Lord of the Rings (a.k.a. LOTR) book (kind of boring), and seen the the LOTR film trilogy (good fun, brilliant, and kind of boring). Of course, I’ve also seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The latest Hobbit film starts before the last one, which is confusing and unnecessary, with a somber meeting between head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and master wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Next, we’re back to the now, where protagonist Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who needs more screen time), Gandalf, Thorin, and the other eleven dwarves are still on their quest to enter a mountain, steal some treasure, and slay Smaug the dragon. Along the way, the heroes must fight spiders, argue with elves, ride barrels, and rally a village. There’s also some notable new characters, including down-on-his-luck rebel Bard (Luke Evans), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), fierce elf fighters.

Peter Jackson lets his commercial side come out and play in action scenes like these in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Peter Jackson’s direction is full of clashing instincts makes the movie the messy thrill ride that it is. The artist inside him knows that it’s the small character driven moments, that there are too few of here, that makes his movies great. But the corporate producer battling for control realizes that CGI drenched battles (perfect for 3-D, and IMAX, and 48 frames a second, and therefore making more money) that sell tickets. In Desolation, it’s the business oriented side that wins out too often. Which is a shame, because we know Jackson can do better.

The decision to split a 300 page children’s book into a thunderously thrilling trilogy of 3 lumbering 3 hour CGI extravaganzas often shows. Unlike LOTR, Peter Jackson takes a lot of liberties this time around. And sometimes they work. The elf scenes may feel like sacrilege to many, but they actually provides a human (well, elvish) element to the plot. But apart from Tauriel (a strong female character invented for the film) and Legolas (who gets more to do than in LOTR), there are less outright changes and more just extended versions of scenes from the book. Every two page episode of gentle adventure from the book has been stretched into a 15 minute battle sequence featuring beheadings, jump-scares, and explosions. I often found myself questioning Jackson, “Is this really necessary?”

An astonishing river chase in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Basically…no it’s not. An early spider fight feels tedious and (considering we basically saw a better version of the same scene in the final LOTR film) a little “been there, done that”.  Actually, early all of the action scenes rely heavily on impressive but excessive CGI and gimmicky, halfhearted story concepts made to stretch out the running time longer than a dragon. I’m still not even mentioning all the improbable escapes that’ll make you think twice about the film’s logic. All that said, there are moments of true awe. The elves’ fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, the (CGI) locations are incredible, and there is one set-piece that truly feels exhilaratingly immersive. At around the halfway mark, we’re treated to an extended chase/fight/battle involving barrels, dwarves, elves, and orcs. Unlike the other action scenes, this one feels fun. You sense Jackson letting his inner 10 year old get out and play with all the fancy toys at his command, not get bogged down by them. The sequence ends up being far-fetched and overlong but it’s also, for once, entertaining. It’s easily the most riotously enjoyable 15 minutes of the movie.

Bilbo stands up to Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

That sense of imagination is almost entirely squashed an hour later, by the time we get to the dragon’s lair. The Smaug climax could’ve been just as fun as the barrel scene. But, alas, no. It’s as lumbering and lengthy as anything else in the picture, and twice as preposterous. Honestly, why doesn’t Smaug just blow Bilbo on fire the moment he lays his beating red eye on him? Nope! Instead, we’re forced to endure another 45 minutes of running and jumping and hiding and yelling and fire-breathing. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice performance is disappointingly bland. Yeah, Smaug the dragon does look kind of awesome. But by the time we get to see him stand up to Bilbo (a startlingly gorgeous image) you might be asleep.

So overall I wasn’t too happy with the film. It’s simply too long and features too many scenes that have no reason being in the film (i.e. every time Gandalf appears). But, that doesn’t mean die-hard fans won’t like it. And if, for some reason, you’re starting miss the summer movie season (the time of year when 3 sci-fi action epics are released every week) then this is your film. Even though I’ve read the book , the world of Middle Earth is one that’s worth visiting every so often. Sadly, this visit isn’t a satisfying one. So, I guess that means I’ll have to wait to see Peter Jackson smother every hope for a good Hobbit movie with dragon’s breath…next December. Nonetheless, I’ll be there to see it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 7, 2013 | 1 Comment

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) ready for battle in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 4 1/2 Stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the satisfyingly exhilarating follow-up to The Hunger Games, is easily one of the most entertaining sequels to come out of Hollywood in a long time, thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s riveting lead performance and director Francis Lawrence’s phenomenal adaptation of Suzanne Collin’s bestselling book.

The plot is sophisticated and multi layered but the basic gist is this: The previous year, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) won the Hunger Games, the televised death match where kids fight to the death, along with love interest Peeta Mellark. Now, her and Peeta have caused a revolution against the rich and evil that live in the Capitol. Things get even worse when the dictator behind the Capitol, President Snow, announces that the 75th annual Hunger Games will have previous winners compete. Now, Peeta and Katniss are forced back into the arena for a death match with more enemies, more suspense, and more action than before.

All this sounds very heavy handed but director Francis Lawrence never loses sight of the depth and heart that makes this series special. Unlike the previous installment, Catching Fire doesn’t race to begin the Games. In fact, it’s not until halfway into the film that the Games begin. Lawrence takes his time setting the scene. We get to know Katniss better this time around, but we also get to know the supporting cast, as well.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Katniss Everedeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There’s certainly a lot going on here: a love triangle, old grudges, politics, fashion, and bloody death matches and it’s a surprise everything stays together. The secret is that Suzanne Collins (author of the book series) served as one of the screenwriters. Collins obviously knows the story best and you can tell. Shockingly, there weren’t any big scenes I missed from the book and some added witty dialogue.

The cast, here, is spectacular, starting with Jennifer Lawrence. As Katniss, she’s bold, tough, and conflicted. The character is a heroic one but Lawrence also paints her as a wounded, flawed, somewhat tragic hero. It’s this nuanced heroine that makes this series unforgettable.

The only slight disappointments are Peeta and, the other love interest, Gale. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, respectively, are decent actors and do a fine job, but unlike Lawrence, they don’t exactly resemble the book’s descriptions. In fact, some of the smaller characters threaten to steal the show (not a problem). Jena Malone, as fierce and funny Games competitor Johanna Mason, is sharp and hilarious, thanks to some memorable moments that make her small role stick out. Sam Claflin and Jeffrey Wright are also fantastic, as fellow Tributes (the name for Hunger Games competitors).  Rounding out the cast is Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the deceptive mastermind behind the Games.

Catching Fire has a number of heart string tugging moments but there’s also enough bravura set-pieces to rival most summer blockbusters. Once the Hunger Games begins, it’s all action-all the time. But that doesn’t matter because the fights are filmed beautifully and careful and are a thrill to watch. It also doesn’t hurt that there is real suspense here.

Another strong aspect of the film is the look. Lawrence doesn’t try to mimic previous director Gary Ross’ shaky-cam shots nature shots of hazy beauty, nor the over-the-top Capitol fashion. This time around, things are more down to Earth. The sets look lived in and the everything is snowy and dark. Before and during the Games, the dominant colors are gray, blue, and white. Unlike other franchises, The Hunger Games seems to be developing a new, singular look for each film.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire is thrilling and thoughtful. It serves as the perfect antidote to this summer’s lackluster crop of ho-hum blockbusters. Ending with a massive cliff-hanger, Catching Fire is the must-seed blockbuster of the season. The odds are certainly in this franchise’s favor…

Sci-Fi and Survival Abound in Fall Film Offerings, Out Now

Posted on | November 10, 2013 | 1 Comment

Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013)Before Gravity opened on October 4, this year was seeming like another rather ho-hum year for movies, after the very good year for cinema of 2012. But perhaps this sudden flood of great movies should be expected; after all it is awards season. So far, I’ve seen three fall films: Gravity, Robert Redford boating drama All Is Lost, and sci-fi book adaption Ender’s Game. Sci-fi and survival seems to be the current trend in movies, because all three films focus on staying alive under the hardest circumstances and/or jaw-dropping special effects with a dash of scientific smarts. Here are my takes on these three films.

Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning science-fiction masterpiece, Gravity, is one of those films that comes along every so often and simply blows your mind. It’s incredible, beautiful, thrilling haunting, and full of heart; not to mention special effects filled set pieces that you’ll be replaying in your head for weeks. The premise here is fairly basic: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first trip to the moon. Leading her mission is seasoned space vet Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). Everything is going fine when, you guessed it, things start to go wrong. Debris hits, the shuttle is destroyed, and Stone and Kowalsky are separated. As Dr. Stone tries to find safety, a deadly survival adventure begins.

A chaotic space disaster in Gravity (2013)The genius of Gravity is how Cuaron takes this standard disaster movie plot and turns it into a riveting contemplation on life, death, and letting others go. Clooney is funny and likable but he’s basically playing, well, George Clooney The Astronaut. The real surprise here is Bullock, who, as our inexperienced protagonist, gains our sympathy and hope from a brilliant performance. Oscar is sure to come calling.

Gravity is a must-see movie. A must see movie on the big screen. If you didn’t catch it in IMAX 3-D, try just the 3-D, which is probably the most gorgeous, terrifying, and brilliant use of the medium to date. In fact, all of the visual effects are beautiful from the opening pan over Earth to the more showy spacecraft explosions. With awe-inspiring spectacle, terrific performances, and a dazzlingly flawless script, this is truly the best movie of the year so far. From conception to cinema, it took 6 years for Cuaron to make this masterpiece. But trust me, it was worth it. Gravity reminds us of the power of life. And the power of the movies. 5 Stars

Robert Redford fights the ocean in All Is Lost (2013)Another tense adventure, All Is Lost stars Robert Redford as a nameless guy in his mid-70s on a simple boating adventure. When his 39-foot yacht hits an abandoned shipping container and his boating electronics lose power, he must use his tools, his books, and his will to survive against all odds.

Redford is quite good as the only character in the film and his near-wordless performance is harrowing, beautiful, and achingly amazing. But apart from some truly spectacular moments, I can’t say this is the “performance of a lifetime” acting showcase that most critics have been raving about. In fact, I’d prefer the witty daredevil character type that Redford perfected in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting over the brooding, elderly everyman we get here.

But the film’s big problem is director J. C. Chandor (Margin Call), who does just an okay job with the script. We know nothing about the only character in the film and most of the running time consists of Redford being tossed around his boat. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of greatness. The cinematography is ravishing, the scenery is terrific, and Redford’s breakdown moment is truly affecting. But these stronger elements can’t save the film from feeling a little bit empty… and occasionally lost. 3 Stars

Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in Ender's GameEnder’s Game, the young adult sci-fi adventure based on the classic 1977 novel by Orson Scott Card, is a surprisingly good film. The first reason is the high caliber cast of Oscar all-stars including Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfield, and Abigail Breslin. These performances vary from slightly laughable to totally enjoyable, bit parts to major characters, but everyone is a blast to watch. Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield plays Ender, a boy who’s a cunning genius at military tactics and battle commands. He must train to lead an army of kid soldiers against an imminent attack by the evil aliens called Formics who almost destroyed the human race long ago.

Battle Room thrills in Ender's Game (2013)Director Gavin Hood keeps the story interesting thanks to a smart script and eye-popping special effects. The sequences inside the zero-gravity training environment, The Battle Room, are worth the ticket price alone. When Ender first steps into the room, I got a sense of “I haven’t seen that one before” magic. The film isn’t flawless, however. Thirty-six years after the book was published, the story isn’t really anything new and the movie occasionally drags. But Ender’s Game is still a worthwhile thrill-ride with a smart script and gorgeous visuals that make it worth seeing. 4 Stars

Well, that’s it for now! Expect an early Oscar race analysis soon…

Jaws at the Chatham Orpheum (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 17, 2013 | Add Comments

A day at the Chatham Orpheum TheaterBefore I start my review: Jaws is back at the Orpheum by popular demand. See it!!!

Cape Cod’s Chatham Orpheum movie theater has had a long history. But 21 years since the theater closed doors, it’s now re-opening thanks to $2.2 million, 3,000 donors, and hard working staff led by President Naomi Turner. Recently, Flick and I got a chance to see Jaws at the theater. Here’s my thoughts on the theater and review of the film.

When I first walked into the Chatham Orpehum theater on August 4, 2013 I was stunned. Paintings and shark sculptures line the walls and there’s even a mini restaurant/cafe with a bar and a few tables. The cafe features the menu from Vers, the larger restaurant downstairs. The concession stand has popcorn and lots of candy. All of the staff is extremely nice. You can really tell everyone working there loves movies. The attention to detail is astonishing; even the bathrooms have pictures of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe on the doors.

After talking to staff, my family and I walked into the 162-seat movie theater with two bags of popcorn and a sky high excitement level. I was not disappointed. Delicious popcorn, no trailers, super comfy seats! And it just got better…

The opening credits for Jaws (1975)The lights went down. The movie started. Jaws’ underwater opening credits hauntingly lit up the screen, complete with John Williams chilling theme.

A Jaws poster designed specifically for the OrpheumI’d never seen Jaws before, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. The plot isn’t exactly original: an everyman police chief (Roy Schieder), a rich kid oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss), and a weathered seaman (Robert Shaw) team up to hunt a great white shark terrorizing Amity Island. But director Steven Spielberg’s real achievement here is taking that basic concept and turning it into something more: a monster movie with heart.

Our heroes out at sea in Jaws (1975)The story is perfectly realized; every scene is the exact length it needs to be, no more, no less. There’s some very funny dialogue that makes for some classic arguments between the characters. The performances are also extraordinary. Schieder is quietly effective as Chief Brody, while Dreyfuss is brashly charming as Hooper. The standout, however, is Shaw. At first glance he’s just a colorful sea captain but, with his legendary tour de force monologue, Shaw gives the character a hidden depth.

The film is a miraculous production: sublime editing, memorable cinematography, precise direction, and one of the greatest musical scores of all time. In fact the suspense of it all is so terrifying that you won’t care about the fact the that the shark effects are slightly outdated.

Roy Schnieder in Jaws (1975)There are many iconic moments: the girl who swims just a bit too far, Quint’s first appearance, the floating head,  and the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line. But the sensational climax is the true high-point. William’s rousing score is the perfect fit for our heroes final showdown with the shark. The culmination is utter genius. Each of the main protagonists gets their own confrontation with the shark: Quint’s blood spitting clash, Hooper’s nail biting shark cage adventure, and Brody’s wildly explosive battle. This is action cinema at it’s peak.

Jaws is a masterpiece of film-making, even better appreciated considering the rough circumstances under which it was shot. Thrillingly gut wrenching, soulfully humane, and one of Spielberg’s best; Jaws may not be the single greatest movie of all time but, after one fantastic viewing, it’s one of my all time favorites. And seeing it on the big screen, with first-class surround sound and gorgeous digital projection, was a bonus.

My afternoon at the Orpheum seeing Jaws at the movies was a true treat. The Orpheum gives you hope for modern movie theaters in a multiplex filled world. Movies couldn’t have been brought back to Chatham better.

Flick and Flack Interview Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black!

Posted on | May 21, 2013 | Add Comments

Flick and Flack interview illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi and author Holly Black, who collaborated on the New York Times bestselling fantasy book series The Spiderwick Chronicles. Watch the fascinating interview above to see the two discuss Spiderwick (which was turned into a feature film, also discussed) and their favorite book to movie adaptions.; The interview took place at a book signing at Barrington Books to celebrate the 10 anniversary of the book series.

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