Short Takes: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oldboy and More

With 2013 winding down and noteworthy releases pummeling theaters in droves hoping for awards attention, here are a few movies I saw recently that I either didn’t have time to write about or didn’t have enough to say to merit a full review.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- A big improvement over the first film.  The second half in particular is visceral and engaging.  Jennifer Lawrence actually looks like she wants to be here this time around too, turning Katniss into a full-fledged character instead of her deadly-but-lifeless turn in the original.

Catching Fire also feels more thoroughly alive and consistent.  Director Francis Lawrence revels in the excesses of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian nightmare but doesn’t lose sight of its dread.  He plunges right into the story from the get-go, which meant a somewhat rocky start.  By the time Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into a second round of Hunger Games, though, he paces it exceptionally well.  Grade: C+

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Oldboy- Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy is better than the cult classic Korean film by Park Chan-wook.  Although it is more awkwardly stylized between an homage to that 2003 original and Lee’s own aesthetic sensibilities, it is driven by a mapped-out worldview that that movie sorely lacked.  It doesn’t come off as a revenge fantasy as much as a nihilistic journey into bottomless torment.

Oldboy is set in 2013, but the past seeps into nearly every scene.  As Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) sifts desperately through his life for the key to a torturous mystery, I was reminded more of David Cronenberg’s underrated 2002 film Spider than anything else.  The movie falters most when it tries to reenact scenes from the original instead of standing on its own bold feet. Grade: B-

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All Is Lost- This movie is almost completely dependent on an audience’s on-screen history with Robert Redford.  After a brief letter reading at the beginning, he doesn’t speak hardly at all for the rest of the movie, nor do we really get any sense of who this man is.

J.C. Chandor may have meant for this vagueness to convey an existential journey, but I left it feeling like I did after Gravity: admirable and efficient filmmaking driven by its own concept instead of any idea or purpose.  Redford is a weary, sometimes captivating old man at sea, but the movie is otherwise empty and dull.  Grade: C-

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Ender’s Game- This movie will likely be eclipsed by all the glory being lauded on Katniss and company.  It’s actually a much more consistent and thrilling final product, and one of the best big budget studio releases of the year.

However idiotic and creepy the author’s views on gay people are, this (from what I understand) very loose adaptation is a terrifically conceived, well-acted spectacle. The action scenes are well-orchestrated without hovering over the violence, and the movie never loses sight of the fact that these are children being trained for war.  It also features several young stars who have given great performances in recent years, from Hugo’s Asa Butterfield to True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Little Miss Sunshine. Grade: B

Bastards

Bastards- Claire Denis’ latest is an unremittingly bleak neonoir about, among other things, sex trafficking.  She is a master of using expressive close-ups with her talented crew of performers; however, that humanity is in the service of a bleak and often overly-callous story. I walked away from Bastards not really feeling anything for the characters, but there are sequences so grotesque and haunting that the movie is undeniably effective.  I look forward to seeing it again and (hopefully) appreciating it a little more.  Grade: B-

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Enough Said- Nicole Holofcener has directed some of my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation and Enlightened.  That being said, both of the movies I’ve seen by her (this and Please Give) are pretty unbearable.  Though there are a pair of excellent performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said feels half-conceived and lazily executed.  The conflict, that a woman is dating a friend’s ex and starts seeing his flaws the more she gossips about him, could be resolved in three minutes.  The story is so enthralled by a condescending upper middle class whiteness that it never seems to grasp that.  Grade: D+

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Passion- See Brian De Palma’s latest instead of the remake of Carrie.  It has a very, very uneven first half but by the time the corporate revenge narrative double and triple reversed I was enthralled at the spectacle.  The ballet/murder split-screen is among the finest and most beautifully done sequences this director has ever done, which is saying quite a bit.  Grade: C

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Carrie- De Palma’s Carrie is easily one of my favorite horror movies of all time, so I was extremely skeptical about a remake.  Kimberly Pierce seemed like the right choice to tap into the isolation of Carrie White, but the final product has none of the outcast humanity or grit of her other films.  Sadly, it felt like Stephen King’s story had been adapted to the world of an uninteresting CW show.  The crucial prom scene goes off without a hitch, and Julianne Moore is dementedly over-the-top as Carrie’s religious nut mother, but the movie is stale and uninteresting. Grade: D

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Oldboy

Oldboy
Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Written by: Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, & Chan-wook Park (screenplay, Nobuaki Minegishi (comic)
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji-tae Yu, and Dae-han Ji

Chan-wook Park makes no secret of his influences.  From Tarantino-esque violence to Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, this movie’s story and visual style are the cut-up pieces of movies new and old.  Is it a coincidence it came out the same year as Kill Bill?  Someone with a PhD in film studies could probably have a field day, but I was grossed-out and bored.

Oldboy is the kind of movie sold as a visually-stunning thrill-ride that makes you think. Other than keeping up with the fairly simplistic story amid all of the visual prowess, not much thinking really takes place.  People mistake the “gasp!” twist near the ending for actual thematic depth, when in reality the only means to this movie’s end is driving out the memories with a hammer to the head.

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