Friday, 30 March 2012

Movies - The Hunger Games review / The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists review / Mirror Mirror review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Gary Ross
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks
Running Time: 142mins

This adaptation of Suzanne Collins' enormously successful Hunger Games trilogy has already set records for its opening night and received rave reviews, especially for star Jennifer Lawrence, to whom I recently paid my own tribute. Despite knowing a fair bit about the books - they're a fairly ubiquitous part of modern pop culture, after all - I've never actually read them, so went into the movie cold. That might be important.

Many reviews have focused on how tightly the movie's script has stuck to the word of the original text, for better or worse. There's certainly enough here to show why the books have struck a chord, with themes focusing on the unfair balance between rich and poor; a sinister generational gap where children are expected to pay for their ancestors' mistakes; a central conceit chiming with the increasingly exploitative world of reality television, with President Snow as its coldly ruthless Simon Cowell figure.
In Katniss, it has a heroine at once skilled and fiercely determined, but filled with self-doubt. There's no getting around that Jennifer Lawrence's formidable performance carries the movie, elevating the often lazy drama to levels of emotional heft it does not deserve. As a character, Katniss too often survives because the writers need her to, rather than through her own wits. When stranded up a tree, her pursuers choose to light a fire to keep warm, rather than burning down the tree; as she lies vulnerable in front of another tribute, he ridiculously decides to spare her life because she was respectful towards his dead friend, Rue, disregarding that he was nowhere to be seen when the death occurred and had no prior indication of the two being friends.

Large chunks of exposition is dedicated to ideas - the importance of sponsors and crowd-pleasing in the build-up to the Games - with little to no effect on proceedings once the action begins. The less said about the climactic fight, involving woefully rendered CGI wolves (lowering the lighting doesn't help), the better. This engineering continues throughout, and only Lawrence's silent determination, with anger and fear etched across her young face, ensures Katniss not only remains credible, but is an utterly compelling lead. We may be cheering on the actress rather than the character, but it's a performance which deserves every last accolade.

The rest of the cast, lacking Lawrence's ability to find complexity in such sketchy material, do not fare so well. Despite a great deal being made of his physical strength, Peeta is a wimp and possible turncoat (I must have missed the justification for his joining a gang at the beginning), a fact Josh Hutcherson cannot overcome, nor justify why such a formidable young woman as Katniss would consider such a doofus boyfriend material - suggestions of it being a political liaison on her part are not substantiated enough to be credible. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci overdo the acting quirks, and Wes Bentley has nothing to add to the devious Seneca that cannot be ascertained by his devil-horn beard.

Visually, the film is colourful, although the contrast between the earthy District 12 (Katniss' home) and garish Capitol, where opulence is rendered in two shades of purple and blue, is overcooked. Ross and his camera crew, presumably seeking to avoid putting on-screen the level of violence against children demanded by the source text, resort to the laziest, most obnoxious kind of shaky-cam to disguise it, like The Bourne Supremacy on steroids.

It's a horrible decision, rendering much of the action almost unwatchable, although the moments of tension or reflection, when the camera sits and allows Lawrence to do her work unobstructed, work well. The 'Reaping' scene is a good example, despite occurring too early to earn the emotional weight it asks for and once again leans entirely on Lawrence to make each feeling count, a task she easily conquers. It's thanks to her, and the poignant if underdeveloped ideas underpinning the Games themselves, that this otherwise artless adaptation survives its first round. [ 5 ]

Dir: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Stars: Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen
Running Time: 88mins

Aardman are one of those rare companies almost impossible to dislike: they've cornered the market in large scale stop-motion animation, and the level of artistry involved in each of their productions demonstrates why. Pirates is replete with countless puns and gags hidden in the background, whether the name of a shop, a story in a newspaper or poster on a wall. The attention to detail is stunning and demands the viewer keep their eyes flitting across the screen to not miss anything, even though return viewings will certainly be rewarded with a fresh trove of delights.

If a viewer is to be asked to pay such surgical attention to each shot, this is the right film for it. Everything from the animation to the character models are as comically rich as expected from the people behind Wallace And Gromit, with a deft touch not only for capturing the nuances of movement for maximum comedic effect, but the timing as well. Considering how long it takes for these movies to be made and how painstaking the process, the ease with which it plays out is an astonishing achievement.

The script is amusing by itself, with plenty of joyously ridiculous wordplay, but as ever with Aardman, it's the wordless jokes which earn biggest laughs. For every one which doesn't work - the monkey with subtitle cards is too close to Gromit for comfort, with none of his adorable expressiveness - there are at least three which do. A playful score keeps the tone jolly, although leaving behind the brilliant shanty from the trailer below was a horrible misstep.

The voice cast work hard to keep up with the high calibre of those production values, with Hugh Grant's Pirate Captain swinging between bloody-minded gusto and eye-rolling despair on a turn of a doubloon. It's not far from Grant's usual brand of buffoonish charm, but it's clear the actor is having a ball, and his enthusiasm (allied with the outstanding animation) is passed on to the audience. Imelda Staunton also throws herself into the incessantly apoplectic, historically re-envisioned Queen Victoria, seemingly bursting a blood vessel with every word spoken - two if that word is 'Pirate', delivered time and time again with the whistling fury of a boiled kettle.

Her bombast is only overshadowed by an unexpected but cheer-worthy cameo in the shape of a Pirate King, who steals the entire movie in two short scenes. Of the main cast, only Martin Freeman can feel short-changed, playing the usual sensible sidekick as from seemingly every one of his screen outings. David Tennant's stuttery Darwin is a more effective straight man to the Pirate Captain's excesses.

If you've seen any of the movie's promotional material, you'll have noticed a number of big names not yet mentioned in this review, or in the cast list above. Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven and Lenny Henry are indeed featured, but in roles best described as high-profile cameos, largely insignificant to the unfolding of the story. Their characters are reasonably vivid for their short time on-screen, but barely appear outside a single scene in a pub. As much fun as it is to have them part of this world, there's just no room for them. As with many of Aardman's big-screen productions (Chicken Run), there's too much going on but too little plot, to the extent that it can feel like the story only exists to accommodate the extensive background details, rather than the other way around.

The plot, for example, is a scatty patchwork of three different stories - an Awards story, a Darwin story, and a Queen Victoria story - providing plentiful silly set-pieces and jokes, but none with the structure to allow them to coalesce into a satisfying whole. What's left is a series of visually gorgeous, often hilarious individual sketches, linked by a common thread (pirates) too thin to satisfactorily hold everything together.

The movie's silly charm is an effective disguise, but cannot cover the moment when, upon leaving the auditorium, the feeling sinks in that this was a meal served in a thousand enjoyable morsels, each pleasurable in their own right but nowhere near as filling as the promised feast promised by those magnificent trailers. The lack of a real ending - the movie just stops, cutting to a credits reel that is arguably the movie's most sustained piece of comedy - is indicative of an experience that never quite adds up, feeling more like three stitched together cartoons than a full movie. It's too loveable and accomplished to not be enjoyable, but tragically difficult to wholeheartedly adore. [ 7 ]

Dir: Tarsem Singh
Stars: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Armin Hammer, Nathan Lane
Running Time: 102 mins

Judging by the trailers, Mirror Mirror was set to be an unmitigated disaster, adapting the Snow White fairytale into an over-styled, under-witted trainwreck of lazy jokes, misjudged performances and quasi-modern lingo. Guess what? All of that is still there. The puns are lazy, the acting either ridiculously over the top (Julia Roberts' evil queen and Nathan Lane's oppressed manservant, neither as much fun to watch as they obviously were to play) or emotionally stunted (Armin Hammer's insipid Prince), and the cinematography puts a ridiculous emphasis on saccharine contrasts between primary colours.

Inexplicably, though, it comes together into something that might not exactly be enjoyable, but is pleasantly watchable. The most important thing to note is that this is a movie aimed squarely at children, and young children at that. Beyond a couple of half-hearted in-jokes for adults aside, there's no smut, emotional subtlety or character development: every feeling is laid out in dramatic platitudes, each character the same at the start as at the conclusion - Snow learns to fight, but her rebellious streak is present from the outset - and every suggestion of sex handled with doe-eyed innocence.

That dedication to its intended young audience is refreshing in a time when children's movies are increasingly attempting to seem edgy or ironic, playing to the teenage audience or parents, while offering little except bursts of colour for the smaller members of the family. Mirror Mirror has a sweetness in its readiness to completely embrace the simplicity of childhood, delivering its messages (be nice to others, even if they're different from you!) and jokes (right down to boing-boing sound effects and a dwarf being pushed off a roof) as broadly as possible, its priorities rightly fixed on giving children a full movie to watch, rather than a collection of images and humour they can't keep up with.

Julia Roberts' Queen may be too hammy for older viewers' patience, but Lilly Collins' bland happiness plays surprisingly well as a liberated, almost self-reliant Snow, as she's referred to throughout. Yes, the ending is more or less as you'd expect, but for the most part she's given victory after victory against all who attempt to control her. In an enjoyably flippant swordfight, she bests the Prince's technical prowess through intelligence and guile. There are enough Disney moments to raise the usual feminist ire - the dwarves (intelligently reimagined as bandits, ostracised by the Queen and the local townspeople for being different) are first seduced to her cause by her skills as a homemaker - but the character is certainly a better role model than most offered to young girls, and worthy first crush for many young boys as well.

Tarsem Singh's visual prowess may tip into the wrong side of excess this time - Immortals hinted he was already heading in that direction - but his cult following will find a handful of snazzy innovations. The dwarves accordion stilts gave the characters a distinctive fighting style and visual flair. Revising the magic mirror as a portal into another realm is a creepily evocative touch, and the (probably) deliberate artifice of the locations gives a storybook feel that fits the material and attractive animated introduction. Even the end credits have flair, with a nice nod to the director's home country, in a treat I'll leave for you to discover.

All of this may be more than enough to turn off older, more cynical members of the audience- expect myriad sarcastic reviews - but for the intended viewership, its targets are hit better than could have been expected from the abominable trailers. Parents may find a movie to be endured rather than enjoyed (or hated, in fairness), but can rest assured that at least the smaller parts of the family will be having a magical old time. [ 6 ]


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