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

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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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10 Memorable Movie Psychos

Instead of a “Scariest movies for Halloween” list, we decided to go with another semi-standard list for this time of year: the best psychotics.  We aren’t limiting it to horror movies: it’s an even playing field for these murderers and madmen.  Let their tricks treat for years to come.  (Entries are placed in no particular order, but feel free to name ones you would’ve picked instead.)

Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)For three movies, no matter your opinion of the sequel and prequel, Anthony Hopkins held your gaze as the calm, collected cannibal.  When you first see him, he stands raised as if he were honoring royalty entering the room, a maddening stillness and calm smirk across his face.  He always appears collected, which makes the madness behind his motives all the more chilling.

Jack Torrance (The Shining)- One of many iconic roles for Jack Nicholson and one of many masterpieces for Stanley Kubrick, this villain stands at the center of a chilling send-up of the American family.  Dad gets cabin fever and starts chasing mom and son around with an axe.  Watching this character descend into madness after seeing him semi-normal is what makes him so effective.

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