So… I watched ‘The Hunger Games’

Since my last post was kicked off by how bad my viewing experience of The Hunger Games was, I figured I should probably slam in a review here… It’s mostly poached from my work review, but I’ve made some tweaks.

One of my friends pointed out that on the cover of the novel of The Hunger Games, Twilight Saga Stephenie Meyer was one of the people chosen for a “Wow-this-is-awesome-blurb”. Comparisons have regularly been drawn between The Hunger Games and Twilight, which is pretty much the most unfair thing you could do. To Twilight.

See, while it is definitely the next massive book-to-movie franchise and is kicking ass and taking names at the box office, The Hunger Games is a whole differernt kettle of fish. Stop the comparisons to Twilight and Harry Potter. But do go see the film.

You know the story by now. The ruling Capitol requires two teenage “tributes” from each of the 12 outlying districts to fight to the death in a televised battle known as The Hunger Games. Katinss Everdeen jumps in as a volunteer to stop her 12-year-old sister from being taken in as tribute from District 12 and – along with the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – is shipped off to the Capitol to be poked, prodded and preened for competition against other, highly trained competitors from the rest of the country. There they go into the arena to fight until only one survives.

The only help they have is in the form of their “support” team: their mentor, drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson); the shrill and prim Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) and their stylist, the calm and brilliant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Once they get into the arena, all relationships have to be pushed aside as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) tries to fulfil her promise to her sister to win the Hunger Games and come home to District 12.

The script was co-written by the novel’s author, Suzanne Collins, and so is largely faithful to the book, which should delight existing fans and bring in legions of new supporters. Sure, some of it is different – there was uproar when it was revealed that it is Prim that gives Katniss her mockingjay pin, for example – but the cuts make it cleaner, and the source material has been stripped down to ensure maximum action in its 164-minute running time.

A nice departure from the novel’s first-person view means that we get a chance at behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Games’ control room – where the arena is manipulated to ensure optimum bloodshed – and a look at the other viewers of the games, from the gaudily clad citizens of the Capitol to the ragged inhabitants of the remaining Districts, providing moments of brutal self-reflection in our voyeurism of the Games. However, to the film’s detriment, the script strips out much of the spark of rebellion and utter distaste for the Games that provides the impetus for the next two novels. There are halfhearted attempts at being like “Boo, this is bad” – but it never feels positively horrifying. [And more on that later!]

Jennifer Lawrence (I’m unashamed to say she is one of my girl-crushes) stars as Katniss and provides an incredible performance in a film that rests squarely on her shoulders. As Katniss, Lawrence is steady, focused and calm – while at the same time being vulnerable and completely unworldly.

She is ably supported by a cracking cast of actors – Hutcherson is amiable as Peeta, and the leading duo have an awkward chemistry that seems natural and delightfully adolescent. Completing the much-lauded “love triangle” of Katniss, Peeta and fellow District 12 citizen Gale is hunk-du-jour Liam Hemsworth, who in the novels is a beacon of morality and rebellion but in the film has little to do but smoulder – though, smoulder he does well.

Harrelson executes his role as drunken Haymitch nimbly – although tragically, some of Haymitch’s best moments from the book and his utter disgust at the Capitol have been excised from the script. Instead, Haymitch largely becomes a grumpy parody – although his transformation into an able mentor to his tributes is beautiful in its subtlety. Rounding out the crowd from the Capitol are the ever-delightful Stanley Tucci as the Games’ MC Caesar Flickman – all smiles and electric blue hair, likeable enough but still part of the “machine”; Elizabeth Banks in a scene-stealing role as Effie and Lenny Kravitz as the calm-in-the-storm Cinna. And, in the arena itself, mention must be made of the beautiful, wide-eyed Amandla Steinburg as Rue – whose moments on screen with Lawrence provided some of the most incredible moments of the film.

One of the film’s greatest challenges was to bring to the screen the gruesome deaths of a large group of teenagers in a way that would still keep the age rating low enough to include a record-breaking audience (in the US The Hunger Games carries a PG-13 age rating).

Ross makes liberal use of quick cuts and careful edits to hint at the characters’ gruesome deaths – and gruesome deaths there are by the bucket-load: wasps, bricks, spears, arrows, hand-to-hand. It provides what Vulture’s David Edelstein describes as a “slaughterfest for the whole family”. However, these edits mean that somehow the impact of the deaths of these children – for children they are – is often lost. With one or two exceptions, we’re never left reeling at the sheer brutality of the Games. It’s not that I want to see a 12-year-old’s guts spread across the screen – but it falls prey to the old adage of “out-of-sight”.

Ross and his director of photography, Tom Stern, employ a combination of largely hand-held shots to maximise the first-person view and create a sense of disorientation, which may be unpleasant for some, and incredibly tense, lingering close-ups at pivotal moments of the film. The forest arena of the Games – where the latter half of the film is set – is absolutely beautiful, the scenery at odds with the horror it serves as a backdrop for. Added to that are some incredible make-up and costumes – in particular, Katniss and Peeta’s outfits for the tributes’ parade – and a powerful score that often lapses into long periods of silence.

In short: I loved it. I’d go see it again. And no, for the last bloody time, it’s not “Just like Twilight“!

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Deja vu… Michael Bay reuses old footage for ‘Transformers’

Well, this certainly lends some credibility to the theory that when you’ve seen one Michael Bay movie, you’ve seen them all.

An eagle-eyed Bay fan spotted identical scenes from the director’s 2005 film The Island in the latest instalment of the Transformers franchise, Dark of the Moon.

Watch the video below to see the scenes’ similarity.

According to website IGN, the shot from The Island was inserted after an accident during that particular chase scene. During the stunt sequence a tow-cable snapped, hitting film extra Gabriella Cedillo and resulting in a serious head injury. The accident left Cedillo paralysed. According to The Guardian, it has been reported that Cedillo and her family are suing the Transformers producers over the incident.

This is not the first time that Bay has been accused of borrowing footage from his earlier films. In the first Transformers movie, Bay poached footage of an aircraft carrier from his 2001 World War II drama, Pearl Harbour.

Recycled shots aside, what did I think of Dark of the Moon? Read the review on iafrica.com here!

Reviewed: Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’

As always, originally published on iafrica.com.

“I promised that if I won this, I would announce the name of my new album. It’s called Born This Way.

At the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards Lady Gaga picked up the Video of the Year Award and with those two lines – and the first public performance of the chorus to the album’s title track – sparked a media frenzy. The industry has been chomping at the bit since September last year for this album, and now that it’s out, does Born This Way deserve the hype? The answer: totally.

Born This Way

The cover for 'Born This Way'

Lady Gaga is the proverbial acid trip of the music world. In fact, she has an entire team – Haus of Gaga – to ensure that she keeps up the blinding kaleidoscope of her identity. So with everybody focusing on the meat dress, the crazy shoes and the Grammys egg, the album could only be one thing to succeed: obscenely over-the-top.

Sensory overload

Born This Way is a total sensory overload. It’s highly ambitious, in your face and completely excessive – and that’s why it works. There’s not a single low-energy moment; from the mood-setting opener of Marry the Night and into the iconic gay anthem Born This Way all the way through to the massive Euro-trance beats of Scheiβe and the incredible 80s/90s pop-rock feel of You and I and Edge of Glory.

Gaga and her team throw simply everything into this album. Not content to have a Bruce Springsteen-inspired sax riff in Edge of Glory, they bring out the Boss’ actually saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, to rock our socks off. And, in possibly the greatest moment of the entire album, Brian May rips into face-melting solo on the phenomenal You and I, which also samples the iconic beat from Queen’s We Will Rock You.

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Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’

Just realised I hadn’t posted a movie review in a while. And this was a good one! As always, originally posted on iafrica.com.

Finally! A shining beacon of light in a movie season of bad sequels and pointless remakes!

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War – and eventually the Cuban Missile Crisis – X-Men: First Class looks back at the early days of the mutant storyline. We’re first introduced to telepath Charles Xavier and Polish Jew Erik Lehnsherr, who can manipulate magnetic fields, as boys in the later days of World War II.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

Charles grows up in a rich home, convinced that he’s a freak of nature and the only one of his kind. He meets shape-shifter Raven (who later becomes Mystique) and the two forge a close foster-sibling relationship. Meanwhile, Erik suffers at the hands of the Nazis as they try to rein in his unique ability.

Flash forward twenty years to the early 1960s. The CIA are hot on the heels of Communist sympathiser Sebastian Shaw – but when it transpires that he and his accomplices have unique abilities, the CIA drafts in the leading expert in human mutation – Charles Xavier. Charles and Erik share a common enemy in Shaw, and together they team up to draft a small army of mutants to fight Shaw and his companions.

A human story

First Class is a wonderful blockbuster film, effortlessly blending massive special effects and thumping action sequences with a distinctly human element that makes it all the more engaging. It’s an extremely moving film – although it does hover on the edge of being overly sentimental at times – and is driven by a smart, witty script laced with clever and cheeky references (“You didn’t ask, I didn’t tell” provoked a great chuckle from the audience).

But it’s the performances that make this film so successful. Yes, First Class is a thumping action film – but at its heart it’s a human story, driven by its characters and their need for acceptance. Central to the film is the fascinating relationship between Charles and Erik – and these two leads provide sterling performances.

James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) brings the quiet nobility and inner strength expected of Charles Xavier. But this is a younger Charles, one who tries to pick up girls using a pre-prepared chat-up speech and celebrates his graduation by downing a yard of ale at a pub. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre) simmers with rage and a chilling sense of pragmatism as Erik. It’s remarkable how these two channel the older selves portrayed by Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and Ian McKellen (Magneto) – their transformation into these giants is easily believable. Continue reading

Reviewed: ‘Blue Valentine’

For a number of reasons, one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. Originally published on iafrica.com.

Blue Valentine“What’s the point of it all? I’m going to die alone, anyway.”

Possibly not the feeling the average cinemagoer want to have when leaving the theatre – and so seeing Blue Valentine on a day where you’re feeling a little down is probably not a great idea.

But despite the fact that it’s a melancholic, ultimately exhausting viewing experience, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films of recent years.

The film traces the disintegrating marriage of Dean and Cindy, a working-class couple with a small daughter. Cindy is a hard-working nurse at a local hospital, Dean is a housepainter who cracks open his first beer at 8am. Within the first few shots of the couple and the way they interact, you’re already wondering what happened. How did they end up together, when it’s obvious that they’re so badly suited?

The film tells their past and present through a series of flashbacks, from their first tender dates to the moment they realise their marriage is over. It’s a slow disintegration from the heady days of an early love – and a rushed marriage – to a bizarre tryst in a seedy sex motel. Ryan Gosling strums along to his “goofy” rendition of You Always Hurt The One You Love, and it’s a tragic reminder of the future you know is coming.

That’s the overwhelming sense of the film – that you know what’s coming, the bitterness, the tiredness – it ultimately feels futile. Yet there’s still a part of the viewer who begs for a happy ending, some sort of cathartic resolution for the pair and their once beautiful love. Continue reading

Reviewed: ‘Black Swan’

Black Swan movie posterOriginally published on iafrica.com.

Natalie Portman delivers the stand-out female performance of 2010 in the breathtaking psychological thriller Black Swan – a film which is at once wickedly sexy and deeply disturbing.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan is set against the backdrop of a prestigious New York dance company and their performance of the classic ballet Swan Lake. It is, as Vincent Cassell’s character says, a ballet that has been “done to death … but not like this”. Not like this indeed. It is the intention of Cassell’s character – sexy, ruthless dance director Thomas – to strip the ballet and make it more visceral, and it’s something that Aronofsky parallels in his direction of the film.

Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, an immensely fragile ballerina with only one goal – absolute perfection. She spends hours alone in the studio and in front of the mirror at home, refining her technique. The only world she knows outside of the studio is the cramped apartment she shares with her proud and overprotective mother, played by Barbara Hershey. When Thomas announces that Nina will be the ballet’s Swan Queen – and will dance the demanding dual role of the Black and White Swans – we watch her already fragile state of mind begin to fracture further. She is constantly reminded that she is too innocent, too uptight to successfully dance the Black Swan – despite Thomas’ attempts to seduce her and his encouragement that she explores her as yet untapped sexuality. The presence of the free-spirited and wildly sexy Lily (Mila Kunis in a charged performance) only pushes Nina further over the edge, as she convinces herself that Lily is out to steal her role.

Superbly cast, intensely filmed and set to an exquisite score by Clint Mansell, Aronofsky has pulled together a powerhouse of talent to produce Black Swan. The outstanding supporting performances by Kunis, Cassell and Hershey and a brief but terrifyingly memorable appearance by Winona Ryder make this one of the best cast films of 2010. Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique – who worked with Aronofsky on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain – combine uncomfortable close-ups, shaky hand-held shots and epic wide-screen shots to create a charged atmosphere that doesn’t relax for even a frame.

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