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TIFF Kids 2014 Day 1: Flack’s Report

Posted on | April 20, 2014 | Add Comments

Felix is musically gifted but can he win over his mom?Comfy chairs, delicious popcorn, fascinating Q&A’s, and, of course, wonderful films… Flick and Flack have arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival Kids! For the next few days, we’ll be reporting on the festival (read our festival preview here). Here’s my take on our first day (April 19) at TIFF…

Felix 4 1/2 Felix, a South African teenager, has phenomenal musical talent and can’t wait to audition for his new private school’s jazz concert. His mother, however, feels that his musical passion will lead him down the path of his late father. As tensions rise, Felix is faced with a question: will he choose his mother or his music? Director Roberta Durrant displays adept filming skill by transforming a often-told theme into a tear-jerking, often witty must-see. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll tap your foot to the beat.

A group of friends discover the mystery of their evil school in Zip & Zap and the Marble GangZip & Zap and the Marble Gang 3 1/2 When brothers Zip and Zap are sent to an evil boarding school, they decide to challenge the cruel dictatorship residing over the school. Along with some new friends, Zip and Zap hunt for treasure, get chased by dogs, and uncover the mysterious past of their school. This amusing adventure is part Harry Potter, part Goonies, and all fun! An often comical and exhilarating roller coaster of a film.

So, that’s it for now… More TIFF Kids reviews coming soon!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | April 5, 2014 | Add Comments

2 1/2 stars

Think back to 2008, long before Marvel Studios was at it’s current world dominating state, when the first Iron Man film came out. It was a witty, fun film that had a hero who wasn’t as perfect or brave as Superman, nor as dark and brooding as Batman. He was somewhere in between, with added parts wit, snark, and humor. Now skip ahead six years, to 2014. Not only have two more Iron Man films been made, but Thor and Captain America films have also been added to the mix. They have all had a couple of sequels, and as if that wasn’t enough, they’ve been thrown together along with other heroes in The Avengers. And now, here we are, in 2014 with Captain America returning to the big screen.

This time around, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo are squeezing into the director’s chair, taking over after Joe Johnston directed the first installment, The First Avenger, but they unfortunately lack any artistic flair that you can tell is theirs. With Thor, Kenneth Branagh put his Shakespearean stamp on the caped demigod and in Iron Man, Jon Favreau mixed witty humor with frightening realism. Here, the Russos don’t seem to know where they want to head with the film, other than follow the lead of Kevin Feige, the mastermind president of Marvel, who has schemingly connected all of these superheroes into one, big money-sucking giant. I’m pretty sure I would have liked the film a good deal more if there was less of the Marvel universe setting-up and more of a down-to-earth superhero story.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

That being said, once I realized that the film wasn’t going for superheroism told through poetic direction, I did manage to sit back and enjoy the never-ending twists and turns of the film. And boy, are they fun. Every scene involves some new character being either thrown into the mix, being reintroduced, or dying, to the point that that the film reaches beyond exhaustion and into guilty, giddy fun. The film is part sci-fi, part paranoia, part mystery-thriller, part action caper, part rogue-on-the-lose…and that’s much of what makes it enjoyable. The fact that the film isn’t going for an obvious tone (i.e. Shakespearean or witty-dark) gives it an all-over-the-map aspect that is ridiculous, but also crazy fun in it’s own right.

That brings me to one last point and that is the fun. If you were asked what a superhero film was ten years ago, you might have answered “a fun, enjoyable adventure”. But today, that is becoming less and less true. Superhero reimaginings almost always seem to go darker and more violent and that is certainly true here with The Winter Soldier. The fun of the ’40s shtick in the first film gives way to the “Don’t trust anyone!” tone that is evident from the beginning. Early on in the film, Captain America is tasked with rescuing captive members of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization who are being held by pirates. When Cap lands on the ship, I expected him to heroically maneuver his way past the pirate guards. But, I was shocked to see that he instead went straight for the kill, knocking them off in different, equally violent ways. As I watched the film develop, I yearned for the excitement and adventure of not only the first film, but other earlier superhero flicks. Unfortunately, the way Marvel is heading, the chances of an honest-to-goodness adventure, are becoming slimmer and slimmer.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | April 5, 2014 | Add Comments

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2 Stars

Everyone’s second favorite red and blue Spandex-clad superhero is back…but not exactly better. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is longer, louder, and more violent than it’s predecessor, 2011’s The First Avenger, and that’s not a good thing.

In his first big-screen adventure, a scrawny Steve Rogers became the Captain America, and fought World-War II bad guys and Hugo Weaving’s super-villain The Red Skull. As the film ended, he was resurrected to the modern day, after sleeping for 70 years. Now, after saving the world in The Avengers, Cap struggles to come to terms with an increasingly scary world. Chief among his worries is who to trust: Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and newbie Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, looking kind of unsure what he’s doing in a superhero movie) all want the titular hero on their side, whether for good or evil. Speaking of good, Cap gets a new sidekick, named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). And speaking of bad, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) wants to kill everyone, even if he may or may not have been Captain America’s best friend long ago. As S.H.I.E.L.D. (the good guy one) and HYDRA (the bad guy one) fight for world domination, things get dark, apocalyptic, and very, very unpatriotic.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this movie. Read: too much. For 2 hours and 15 minutes, directors Anthony and Joe Russo tediously manufacture another boring blockbuster about the end of everything. The major problem is obvious: the Russo brothers are less interested in the personalized flair of past Marvel hits then they are in in low-lit, mopey-faced spectacle. The tone from the get-go is calamitously violent, with only the occasional one-liner.

There's action abound in Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)If there’s one thing  you can never fault Marvel for it’s that they manage to find a different genre for each movie. Last time Cap fought his way around, director Joe Johnston found a delicate balance of serious war-movie patriotism and tongue-in cheek cartoon goofiness that managed to set his film apart. The Iron Man movies are smart comedy-thrillers, while the Thor franchise is a galactic fantasy on a grand scale. The Winter Soldier fits into the “Generic 2014 Action-Movie” genre and the results are what you’d expect.

Starkly contrasting it’s precursor, the film’s script is sometimes hilariously inconsistent with the Captain America myth we know and love. I mean really, why is a flag-waving comic-book icon running around dispatching terrorists like he got mixed up with the latest Iron Man movie? Worse, the film tries to justify this by being “topical” i.e. mentioning present-day issues like national security and global war, while cartoon characters run around shooting each other.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackosn) and Alexander pierce (Robert Redford) are old friends and potential enemies in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)The problems don’t stop there; the two villains of the film are both monotonous retreads of other superhero nemeses. In a coulda-been-great performance, Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce as just another shady government official without much to do. The Winter Soldier fares a little better, but not much. Despite a killer backstory, he mostly just gets to blow things up while looking sad and confused behind a mask. And what about our hero? Chris Evans has none of the relatable do-gooder charisma we saw last time; instead he plays Cap as a frustrated myth with more biceps than brains.

The Winter Soldier is one of the worst superhero films I’ve ever seen but there are a few upsides. Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson actually look alive, while Anthony Mackie has the makings of a real star. Like The Avengers, there’s also fleeting sight-gags and in-jokes (the War Games reference and an inspired use of Marvin Gaye were bonuses). The one thing that really stood out to me, however, will surprise you: some of the time, the film actually surprised me with shocking twists I didn’t see coming.

If you didn’t get the memo, I was pretty disappointed by this film. I could go on about the film’s repetitive action sequences, predictable narrative arc, and ridiculous amount of product placement (really Marvel, you don’t have enough money already?) but if you want to know more, go see the movie. Just know: you’ll be marveling at what a bad decision you made.

Muppets Most Wanted (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 23, 2014 | Add Comments

The gang's all here in Muppets Most Wanted (2014)Muppets Most Wanted, Kermit and friend’s latest big-screen adventure, opens with an epic, infectious musical number titled “We’re Doing a Sequel”. It may be the film’s highlight; it’s an elaborate, show-stopping sing-along with cameos, comedy, and obscure movie in-jokes abound. “We’re doin’ a sequel/That’s what we do in Hollywood!”, sing Kermit and Fozzie Bear. “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good!” Unfortunately, that last line rings true of the film.Dominic Badguy (Rickey Gervais) and Kermit-look-alike Constantine in Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

In 2011, Disney re-united the gang for The Muppets, a sentimental reunion adventure that also starred Jason Segel and Amy Adams, plus Walter, a new Muppet. The film wasn’t a monster success but it was an immensely entertaining movie and the perfect way to introduce the Muppets to a new generation. This time around, the reunion plot is out of the way, so the filmmakers could’ve gone in any direction.

Prison supervisor Nadya (Tina Fey) hires Kermit to run a musical in Muppets Most Wanted (2014)Muppets Most Wanted scraps all of it’s predecessor’s story lines (and human characters) for an international caper/prison-break musical. The film begins with The Muppets signing Dominic Badguy (Rickey Gervais) as manager for an upcoming world tour. Dominic, who happens to be an evil criminal, quickly takes control from a sad-faced Kermit. Before long, Dominic’s amphibian partner Constantine swaps places with Kermit, who ends up in a Siberian prison lead by Nadya (Tina Fey). The rest of the group doesn’t notice anything, of course, so it’s up to Kermit to escape from prison and prove Dominic and Constantine as criminals.

With top-notch musical numbers, a suitably bizarre plot, and an all-star cast of comedians, the right ingredients are all here (it’s a Muppets movie for goodness sake!). But despite some fantastic elements the parts never really come together. Let’s start with the major issue: the script. There’s simply too much going on as the movie cuts between four plot-lines: Kermit in prison, the Muppets’ world tour, Dominic and Constantine’s epic heist plans, and a comedic-sub-plot involving an Interpol inspector (Ty Burrell) and CIA detective Sam the Eagle. It’s too bad the screenwriters didn’t give all these threads enough time to develop. Unfortunately, the whole movie feels like a lesser re-tread of previous Muppets outings.

A cluttered script isn’t the film’s only problem: The climactic sequence drags, individual Muppets don’t have enough to do, some of the jokes fall flat etc.

Interpol inspector Jean Pierre (Ty Burrell) and CIA detective Sam the Eagle in Muppets Most Wanted (2014)Still, there’s plenty of reasons to be entertained by Most Wanted. Not all the one-liners works but this is a Muppets movie and there are plenty of moments throughout to keep you laughing. The human cast, while not as interesting as last time, features a truly top-notch roster of comedians. Rickey Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell are all wonderful in small, comedic roles (who knew all three could sing!?). The puppeteering here is also pretty phenomenal, as our furry stars manage more elaborate hilarious stunts than ever before.

Like its predecessor, Most Wanted is a full fledged musical (a rarity these days). While not quite as wittily written as The Muppets, the musical number’s are still contagiously fun. Songwriter/actor Bret McKenzie’s songs draw on 60’s girl groups, 70’s disco, and classic show tunes to create a pastiche of infectious pop fun.

It’s too long, too cluttered, and too unoriginal but Muppets Most Wanted manages too serve up enough bizarre Muppets mayhem to keep you entertained. Director James Bobin keeps the laughs funny, the songs catchy, and the action exciting. I’ll take the Muppets over The Lego Movie any day. Waka-waka!

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 Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | January 3, 2014 | 1 Comment

3 1/2 stars

Walter Mitty, a middle-aged man, works at LIFE magazine as a negative asset manager and he daydreams…A lot. Over his 16 years at the magazine, Walter has worked on many of famous photographer Sean O’Connel’s photographs and yet Walter has never met him. The magazine’s final issue is to be released and the front cover photo by Sean supposedly reveals “the quintessence of life”. But, when Walter can’t find the photo he must travel to find it and in doing so hope to meet Sean, get the girl, and figure out what the quintessence is.

The-Secret-Life-of-Walter-Mitty-Movie-Still-1-630x420

And so is the plot of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s new film which he directs and stars in. The film, which was released Christmas Day, is a serious drama, a ridiculously fun adventure, and a witty comedy. It’s tough to master these three genres in the same film, but Stiller does a fair job. This is his directorial debut and 26 years after his first film, you can see he’s taken some insight into the many directors he’s seen at work. His performance of Mitty is great and he gets the wacky/witty comedy down pat: the film is at times very goofy thanks largely to Stiller’s Mitty. He also does a good job with the drama which there is a lot of. Stiller surrounds himself with an only mediocre cast: Kristen Wiig doesn’t have much to do as Mitty’s love interest, Adam Scott misses his mark as the film’s antagonist, and Sean Penn’s brief appearance doesn’t quite live up to the anticipation of his mysterious character that builds throughout the film.

DF-11070-Edit - Ben Stiller in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY.

The standout here is the cinematography and score. Stuart Dryburgh’s perfectly framed shots bring to mind photographs. All of the meticulous framing goes out the window, however, when Walter starts to daydream: Dryburgh captures the out-of-this-world adventure with handheld shots that manage the same amount of spirit and meaning as the perfectly framed shots. All of the visuals are aided by Theodore Shaipro, José González, and Mark Graham’s soulful score which is aided further by a variety of artists’ other songs (David Bowie, Of Monsters & Men, and Jack Johnson).

The film isn’t perfect, but it stands out in a season of teenage adventure films, adult dramas, and terrible animated kids films. Through it’s hit-and-miss moments, it always manages to shine through with’s it’s optimistic plot and good hearted moral. If The Scret Life of Walter Mitty is one thing, it’s original and I hope that doesn’t stay secret for long.

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…

Quick Takes On Summer Releases (Flack’s Article)

Posted on | August 30, 2013 | 1 Comment

Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, and Jacob Lofland in Mud (2013)Here’s a quick wrap-up post on five films I’ve seen this summer but haven’t yet reviewed. They’ve been out for a little while but some are definitely worth seeking out.

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer in 20 Feet From Stardom20 Feet From Stardom: 4 1/4 Stars (Limited release, on DVD soon): You know their voices but not their faces. That’s basically the concept of this fascinating documentary about back up singers (many African-American women) for artists like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, and many more. The women spill the secrets of being a back-up singer and even discuss more wide ranging topics about the music industry. The movie’s funny, insightful, fun, and a good time. Just like listening to your favorite song, you’ll never get tired of this one.

Shark v.s. man in Kon Tiki (2013)Kon Tiki 4 Stars (Limited Release, on DVD soon): A good ol’ fashioned adventure in an age where everything exciting must be out of this world.  The film tells the true story of Thor Heyerdahl, as he leads a small crew of fellow men on a balsa wood raft to cross the 4,300 miles of the Pacific and prove South Americans settled in Polynesia during pre-Columbian times. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have a particularly strong eye for action and have a real sense of location. They’re slightly less talented in the story department; some scenes are too long, others too repetitive. In the lead role, Pål Sverre Hagen is a bit wooden. But for the most part this is a wildly entertaining survival story with depth, seamlessly realistic special effects, and a thrilling shark sequence that makes the film worth seeing alone.

Alexi Denisof and Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing (2013)Much Ado About Nothing 2 1/2 Stars (Limited Release, On DVD soon): Joss Whedon’s black and white remix of Shakespeare’s comedy classic tries to be modern and old fashioned, hilarious and solemn. It ends up as an incoherent mess saved by some talented actors. The main problem is that Whedon misunderstands Shakespeare; he directs the early scenes with zero- interest in the source material. Whedon also doesn’t have a clear vision of his interpretation: it’s neither a home movie nor a professional film, and some scenes have a comic fizz while others reek of pretentious melodrama. Luckily, the third act has more comedic energy and dramatic importance than the rest of the film. For the most part you can give the thanks to Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, as Benedick and Beatrice. Unlike their weaker co-stars, the two have the gusto of stage veterans and the timing of stand-up comedians. They deserve to be stars. There are other strokes of brilliance (some unforgettable slapstick, some fabulous dialogue, beautiful cinematography). But for the most part, the rest of the film lacks the two leads’ energy.

Tye Sheridan in Mud (2013)Mud (Limited Release, Now on DVD) 4 1/4 Star: This Southern drama is part romance, part thriller, and part coming of age story. Thanks to the capable hand of director Jeff Nichols, all the parts turn out incredible.  The cast is phenomenal: Matthew McConaughey gives a hauntingly commanding standout performance as the title character, but it’s Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as two teens vowing to help Mud escape the law and reunite with his girlfreind, who steal the show. The rest of the cast is dominated by terrific character actors including Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon (playing against type), and Michael Shannon. This is exactly what a movie should be: moving, exciting, and funny. The film had a small release, but you won’t want to miss it on DVD and iTunes.

A robot falls down to earth in Pacific Rim (2013)Pacific Rim 3 Stars (Wide Release, On DVD Later This Fall): I don’t mid a rock-em sock-em action movie that tries to be just that. But Guillermo Del-Toro’s robots v.s. monsters epic (Jaegars vs. Kaju, if we’re getting technical) is overly pretentious. It tries to have soul and character, and sometimes does, but you can feel Del-Toro is fighting between his film-making smarts and the 8 year old mindset that’s required for this type of film. If only he had given in to the 8 year old. Instead, we’re left with some strong material: admittedly cool action, a bit more character development than you’d expect. But there’s also some weak stuff; for example, while the cool action scenes are fun to watch once or twice, the battles have are derivative of each other. Alas, the film feels like a B-movie with some extra heart.

Well that’s it! If these films have left theaters near you, seek them out on iTunes and other streaming/renting devices. Enjoy your the end of another summer at the movies!

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