Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (2015) review

What’s this? Two Pixar films in one year? Yes folks, for the first time ever, the animation giants have achieved the feat of having two new films open up in the same year. Of course back in June we got the truly amazing ‘Inside Out’, which was easily the company’s best film of the past few years, and now here in November, we have Pixar’s second 2015 effort, ‘The Good Dinosaur’. However, the reason why this film ended up getting released the same year as ‘Inside Out’ could be regarded as a rather troubling one. For you see, this film was originally supposed to be Pixar’s 2014 release directed by Bob Peterson AKA the voice of Dug the talking dog in ‘Up’. However, in August of 2013, it was announced that Peterson had been removed from the film and that it was being completely reworked after he had been having trouble with the final act, with fellow Pixar employee Peter Sohn (AKA Emile from ‘Ratatouille’) taking over as the new director. Now for the record, this isn’t the first time that this has happened with Pixar. Production of the first ‘Toy Story’ was briefly shut down after the edgier take on the story suggested by Disney’s then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg proved to be a disaster. Its first sequel, ‘Toy Story 2’, was not only reworked from its initial direct-to-video state but the final product was completed in just nine months. But from today’s perspective, pair all of that production turmoil with the middling reception of Pixar’s post ‘Toy Story 3’ run and basically you have a lot of people predicting that this film was going to be a disaster. But in the end, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ very much proves its critics wrong because while it may end up being one of Pixar’s simpler stories, it’s still a very charming and beautiful effort from the studio.

‘The Good Dinosaur’ sets up a world in which the infamous meteor that resulted in the extinction of all dinosaurs ends up missing Earth entirely, allowing the dinosaurs to live on and further evolve. 65 million years later, a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) lives on a farm with his family; his father Henry (Jeffrey Wright), his mother Ida (Frances McDormand), and his siblings Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla). But because of his fearful nature, Arlo continually finds it difficult to help his family around the farm so that he can truly earn his ‘mark’ (a mud-print on the farm silo). His father tries to help him overcome his fears by giving him the job of dealing with pests that try to steal their food. But after a flash flood in which Henry is tragically killed, Arlo ends up getting washed far away from home when he falls into the river right next to the farm. Remembering what his father told him about ‘using the river to find his way home’, Arlo soon comes across a feral cave-boy who he names ‘Spot’ (Jack Bright), who ironically happens to be the same pest that Arlo was trying to stop and was inadvertently responsible for the events that led to Arlo’s father’s death and Arlo getting swept away from his home, and the two become friends as they brave the wilderness and all sorts of potential threats, including a group of carnivorous pterodactyls, as they try to get back to Arlo’s home.

To be perfectly frank, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is a much simpler story compared to some of Pixar’s other films. It’s basically just a story about the main character trying to get home. But even with that said, I feel that there’s much more to this film than just that. For one thing, it genuinely is a very unique take on the classic ‘boy and his dog’ story, except in this case the boy is ‘the dog’ and the dog, in this case a dinosaur, is ‘the boy’. But then it also carries some really strong themes, mainly the idea of being able to overcome your fear, resulting in a great character arc for Arlo as he very much finds himself outside of his comfort zone. Though at the same time, the film also stresses that fear is a natural thing and as one character puts it, “If you ain’t scared… you ain’t alive.” There have been some who said that the film is too ‘kiddie’, that it’s the first Pixar film that’s ‘just for kids’ (which therefore gives me the assumption that they apparently forgot about ‘Cars 2’, which was the ‘real’ first Pixar film to get that ‘description’ by critics). But quite frankly that’s far from the truth as this film is a great ‘coming-of-age’ story that gives us a great friendship between the two main characters, Arlo and Spot, even though it starts out with Arlo being angry at Spot for getting them lost in the first place. But as time goes on, the two grow closer as they look out for each other in this dangerous world of dinosaurs and, without giving anything major away, this leads to some very emotional moments as one would normally expect from Pixar films.

This film feels very much like ‘Wall-E’ in that it focuses more on visual storytelling than it does with dialogue, especially in a great scene in which Arlo and Spot lament about their lost families. And of course, the animation is the usual Pixar level of excellence, even though there have been some who felt that the more cartoony characters don’t mix very well with the photorealistic environments, something that I didn’t really have any major problem with. The film’s voice cast was another element of the film that got redeveloped along with the story. Initially, the film was going to star, among others, John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris, Bill Hader, and Judy Greer. But from this initial cast, only Frances McDormand stayed on as the voice of Arlo’s mother while Lithgow was replaced by Jeffrey Wright as Arlo’s father and Harris, Hader, and Greer’s characters, Arlo’s original three siblings, were replaced in favor of just two siblings, his brother Buck and his sister Libby. But just like how the film works great without a whole lot of dialogue, the film’s small voice cast is, in a way, able to stand out more because of it. Arlo was originally voiced by Lucas Neff before the filmmakers switched him with Raymond Ochoa to give Arlo a younger voice and that’s definitely a good idea because it better reflects how the character matures over the course of the film. Wright and McDormand are great as usual in their small roles as Arlo’s parents and the film features some very memorable side characters, including director Peter Sohn as a Styracosaurus named Forrest Woodbush who ‘owns’ a bunch of animals that reside on his horns and Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley as a trio of T-Rex ‘ranchers’.

Given the film’s current rating of 78% on RT, this is definitely going to be one of the more polarizing entries in Pixar’s lineup alongside films like ‘Brave’ and ‘Monsters University’. Some have accused this film of being ‘simplistic’ and that it’s only ‘for kids’, which is an argument that unfortunately has been made from time to time over the years by certain people when it comes to animated films. But I’m going to concur with an argument made by my friend Kyle over at ‘Kyle’s Animated World’; what’s so bad about Pixar making a film that isn’t a complete masterpiece? I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t ‘hate’ ‘Cars 2’ and feel that both ‘Brave’ and ‘Monsters University’ are solid efforts from the company even if they aren’t amongst their absolute best. ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is another fine case of that. Yes it’s one of the simpler affairs from the studio but there’s more to it than what some may claim. As a film that’s more about visual storytelling than dialogue-based storytelling, it perfectly executes its themes of courage and friendship through the main character Arlo’s main story arc and his overall relationship with the feral cave-boy Spot. And of course like many Pixar films, it features amazing animation and some genuinely emotional moments that I guarantee are going to make you tear up. Similar to how Marvel managed to overcome some production troubles with this year’s ‘Ant-Man’, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ managed to overcome its initial production troubles to become yet another great effort from Pixar that’s great for the whole family and not just for kids as some of its critics claim it is.

Rating: 4.5/5

For those who have already seen the film, please check out my friend Kyle’s ‘spoiler’ review of it in the link provided below;

Friday, November 27, 2015

Marvel's Jessica Jones: Season Review

(WARNING: This post may contain minor spoilers! In case any of you have not yet seen the show in full, don’t worry because I will not be giving away any ‘major spoilers’ in this review.)

Recently I may have made it seem like I’m not that big a fan of ‘darker’ superhero stories, hence why I usually prefer the lighter and more family-friendly affairs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the record, that’s not entirely true. I mean, yes, at the end of the day I do sort of prefer the lighter-hearted superhero flicks and TV shows as I feel that they’re easier to get into, especially for someone like me who actually isn’t that big of a comic book reader. But even with that said, I have liked ‘darker’ superhero films in the past, namely Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’, which still stands as the best superhero film trilogy to date. Ultimately the problem that I have with ‘darker’ superhero stories is when they’re done for characters that, to put it simply, are not known for having ‘dark’ storylines. The prime recent example of this was ‘Man of Steel’, as the film’s extremely dour tone really didn’t gel with the optimistic and inspirational tone that has usually defined the ‘Superman’ franchise. That’s one of the reasons why I’m rather worried about DC’s upcoming slate of films as I fear that their alleged ‘no joke’ policy (emphasis on ‘alleged’ as this may ultimately just be a rumor) is the wrong way to go when only a few of their characters are fit for a ‘darker’ cinematic universe. And while I know that there are some out there who want to see ‘darker’ MCU films, I’m not entirely on board with that because I feel that doing so would exclude the franchise’s main target audience; kids.

But if you are one of those people who wants to see Marvel Studios tackle darker material, then you’ll surely be very satisfied with the shows that they’ve been producing with Netflix that will soon lead to a ‘Defenders’ crossover series. Of course earlier this year that partnership started off with a bang thanks to the excellent debut series, ‘Daredevil’. After the disappointing effort that was the ‘Daredevil’ film back in 2003, Marvel Studios truly did the character of Matt Murdock AKA ‘The Man without Fear’ justice in a gritty and hard-edged series that definitely went beyond the boundaries of what you would normally see from the MCU films. But let me tell you, folks, the dark things that happened on that show are nothing compared to the psychological episodes that occur in Marvel’s second Netflix series, ‘Jessica Jones’. This truly is Marvel Studios’ darkest entry to date… and as you might guessed, that’s one of the reasons why it ends up being another great installment of this ever-expanding universe. It’s a show that fully embraces its noir atmosphere to produce a highly compelling and emotionally complex story headlined by an excellent lead ‘anti-heroine’, a truly terrific main villain, and a supporting cast of really well-developed characters. Thanks to shows like this, ‘Daredevil’, and the ABC duo of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ and ‘Agent Carter’, I think it’s safe to say that Marvel is now on DC’s level when it comes to the superhero TV market.

After a brief stint as a superhero that ended in tragedy, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), capable of super-strength and the ability to ‘fly’ (or to be more specific, jump really high), takes on a new career as a private investigator for the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. One day she is approached by a couple from Omaha looking for their daughter Hope (Erin Moriarty), an NYU student who has been missing for about a month after she told her parents that she was ‘taking a break’ from college. Jessica takes on the case but is horrified to discover that Hope has been with Kilgrave (David Tennant), the same man whose powers of mind control were directly responsible for the incident that made her quit being a superhero and the PTSD that she now suffers from because of it. Initially thinking that he had died during that incident, Jessica quickly finds out that he’s still alive and fears that he’s come back to get her. She manages to find Hope but Kilgrave’s mind powers end up taking control of her again, forcing her to kill her parents. Now compelled to prove Hope’s innocence, Jessica embarks on an all-out crusade against Kilgrave so that he can be stopped before he ruins someone else’s life.

This is very much Marvel’s ‘noir’ series with its hardboiled mood, edgy visual style, and dark storylines. ‘Daredevil’ dabbled in this manner a little bit but ‘Jessica Jones’ fully embraces it and while both of these shows are obviously geared towards older audiences, the latter is easily much darker than anything that happened in the former, and not just because it’s full of violence and sex. There are some seriously messed up things that happen in this show, particularly in Episodes 8 through 10; ‘AKA WWJD?’, ‘AKA Sin Bin’, and ‘AKA 1,000 Cuts’, which, not surprisingly, are the best episodes of the season. And while the writing occasionally veers into formulaic territory from time to time over the 13-episode run, it’s still the most mature story that Marvel Studios has ever done through its psychological themes. The characters are extremely well-layered, many of whom find themselves directly affected by Kilgrave as a result of Jessica’s own mission to stop him and each dealing with this trauma in their own way. Jessica herself is a very well-written lead character reminiscent of another classic P.I. character, Veronica Mars, which is a very fitting reference given that Krysten Ritter had a supporting role in ‘Veronica Mars’. As noted earlier, the incident that caused Jessica to quit being a superhero results in her having to cope with PTSD. This is really exemplified early on in the series, before she actually does come face-to-face with Kilgrave again, in moments where he appears to her in purple-bathed visions, which of course correlates to the character’s comic identity as the ‘Purple Man’ without actually having him have purple skin.

The interesting thing about this entry in the MCU lineup is that it introduces not one, but two new main superheroes. Jessica Jones, of course, is the main character but the series also introduces the character of Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who will be headlining Marvel Studios’ third Netflix series next year, presumably after Season 2 of ‘Daredevil’. As Jessica Jones, Krysten Ritter brings the perfect mix of sarcastic wit, hard-edged tenacity, and emotional vulnerability that makes the character such a compelling anti-hero. And as Luke Cage, Mike Colter conveys a much more reserved but very strong composure as the man with the unbreakable skin. Fans of the comics know that these two end up having a relationship and Ritter and Colter have solid chemistry while also having a very ‘interesting’ connection to each other that ends up complicating their relationship as the series goes on. Backing the two of them up is an excellent supporting cast of characters that, as noted earlier, also end up getting thrown into Jessica’s crusade as well, each affected by it in their own way. That includes Rachael Taylor as Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker, a radio host with whom Jessica has a very strong sister-like friendship with, Wil Traval as Will Simpson, a cop who goes a bit too far in order to stop Kilgrave, Eka Darville as Jessica’s neighbor Malcolm, a drug addict who goes through a major arc of redemption over the course of the series, and Carrie-Anne Moss as Jessica’s steely lawyer associate Jeri Hogarth.

And then there’s David Tennant as the main villain, Kilgrave AKA ‘The Purple Man’. If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been much more positive towards the villains of the MCU films compared to most of those on the internet who feel that Loki has been the only ‘good’ villain. But even with that said, I think we can all agree that the villains headlining Marvel’s Netflix shows have been particularly excellent to the point where they actually outshine Loki. First there was Vincent D’Onofrio’s excellent turn as Wilson Fisk in ‘Daredevil’ and now with ‘Jessica Jones’, I got to say… David Tennant manages to outshine even D’Onofrio to become the franchise’s new ‘best’ villain. Kilgrave is such an intimidating foe that he is, quite frankly, a pretty damn scary villain given his ability to easily take over the minds of anyone he comes across and tell them to do whatever he commands, with the most common command of his being the one to tell his ‘minions’ to kill themselves. But at the same time, despite being such a despicable SOB, he also manages to convey an unexplainable charming persona. Tennant (AKA ‘the fan-favorite Doctor Who’) really shines in this role, perfectly capturing the character’s reprehensible attitude while also managing to provide some hilarious ‘dark comedy’ from time to time. Simply put, Kilgrave is one of those ‘perfect’ villains; one that you hate with a burning passion and yet can’t stop watching, which actually makes sense given the fact that he could literally command you to keep watching him.

Now unlike some of the people I’ve seen over the past week, I’m not going to compare this show to any of the MCU films. I’m not going to compare it to ‘Daredevil’, although I will say that I do sort of prefer it by just a slight margin. And finally I’m not going to compare it to the other female-led superhero show that debuted this fall, ‘Supergirl’ (an ‘early impression’ post for that series is coming soon), because both shows are very different in terms of execution. So while I won’t be making any sort of hyperbolic statement that makes other superhero content seem inferior by comparison, what I will do is commend this show for being another excellent effort from Marvel Studios, whose partnership with Netflix has allowed them to produce stories that are far darker than what, thankfully, we’ve seen in the MCU films. And ‘Jessica Jones’ truly defines the term ‘dark superhero story’ with its intense/violent action sequences and psychological twists. Until now, Marvel has never really delved into the ‘noir’ genre but now they have this show, which yet again shows how versatile the studio has been over the years in regards to bringing to life stories that span all sorts of film/TV genres. And the story they tell in this series is one standout tale with its highly developed and emotionally complex characters and a main villain that not only stands as one of the MCU’s greatest villains but also as one of the best TV villains of all-time period. Seeing how ‘Daredevil’ is going to be getting a second season next year, we may very well get to see another season of the excellent show down the road.  

Season Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015) review

While most film franchises based off of ‘Young Adult’ book series have had mixed results in terms of financial and critical success, with some not even making it past one film, ‘The Hunger Games’ series, based off of the books of the same name by Suzanne Collins, has easily been the most successful of these franchises since it started three years ago. With its strong story and characters, the series is very much deserving of its status of being a ‘global phenomenon’ just like ‘Harry Potter’ was in the decade before the release of the first ‘Hunger Games’ film in 2012. Though for most people, the series really established itself as a premier franchise with its second installment, ‘Catching Fire’. For the record, the first film was very much a critical and commercial success when it was released in March 2012 but it did attract some polarizing responses from audiences, mostly due to the film’s ‘shaky cam’ style and rapid editing during the action sequences. But as for ‘Catching Fire’, the first in the series to be directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation to series star Jennifer Lawrence), it’s pretty much universally regarded as the better film, which is rather ironic considering that the book it was based off of was arguably the least popular entry of the series. The success of ‘Catching Fire’ resulted in Lawrence being brought back to direct the final installment of the series, ‘Mockingjay’. But then things got a bit controversial when it was announced that ‘Mockingjay’ would be split into two films.

Of course the practice of splitting the final installment of a series into two films was kick-started by the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise when it split its final book, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, into two films. But ultimately the reason why that was actually a good thing was because the book did have enough material to justify two films. Other franchises then followed suit but it was clear that these series’ final installments weren’t big enough to be split into two films. That was very much true with the ‘Twilight’ series with ‘Breaking Dawn’ and without them even being released yet, the same will clearly be said for the ‘Divergent’ series with ‘Allegiant’ and its second part, ‘Ascendant’. As for ‘The Hunger Games’, the same general argument came up; that ‘Mockingjay’ simply didn’t have enough in it for two films. I on the other hand was a bit more optimistic after coming across an article that stated that the main reason why this decision was made was so that the filmmakers could expand upon the plot in ways that Collins couldn’t when she wrote the book due to the limitation of having to cram it all into just one book. Ultimately though, the skepticism towards this decision still stood and that was made even more evident by the less positive reaction towards last year’s ‘Mockingjay Part 1’, though I felt that it was still really good even if it was more about the series’ politics than the action. Now we finally come to the last installment of the ‘Hunger Games’ film series, ‘Mockingjay Part 2’, and… I finally see why this should’ve just been one film. For the record, I still really liked this film like I did the previous three but ultimately I feel that this is the weakest of the series as the complications of ‘Mockingjay’ being split into two films finally start to take effect.

‘Part 1’ of ‘Mockingjay’ saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), survivor of the 74th and 75th ‘Hunger Games’, slowly but surely becoming the ‘Mockingjay’, the face of the growing rebellion of the citizens of Panem against the Capitol and their dictatorial leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). During this time, Katniss’ main love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who had been captured by the Capitol during the events of ‘Catching Fire’ and turned into a ‘puppet’ for Snow, had been rescued but was revealed to have been brainwashed by Snow in order to kill Katniss. As Part 2 begins, the rebels truly begin their attack on the Capitol but after they destroy the Capitol’s primary weapons supply in District 2, Katniss’ request to go after Snow is declined by rebel leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who tells her that she will instead be maintained as the symbol of the revolution. Going against Coin’s orders, Katniss sneaks into District 2 where she is assigned into ‘Star Squad 451’, along with her best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and, later on, Peeta, despite the fact that his ‘brainwashing’ is still partially in effect, therefore making him a liability for the squad. Despite this, Katniss ventures forward to the Capitol in order to finally kill President Snow and bring his tyrannical rule to an end. But after a while, she and her closest friends and allies soon begin to truly be affected by the horrors that have come from this war between the Rebels and the Capitol.

Whereas ‘Mockingjay Part I’ was more about the political side to the growing rebellion and the propaganda that both the Rebels and the Capitol were spreading in order to sway people to their sides, ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ is very much focused on the action. And with that in mind, the action sequences are pretty darn good. The film is definitely well-directed just like the previous two films, proving that the addition of Francis Lawrence as director was arguably the best thing that could’ve ever happened to this franchise. However, while the film is very much well-directed, the plot sort of suffers a bit compared to previous films. To put it bluntly, the film’s emotional beats don’t really hit on the level that the film was trying to achieve. This is primarily the result of two things; A.) The aforementioned ‘action-oriented’ pacing and B.) The fact that the film is primarily focused around Katniss. Katniss is very much the main character of the film and is in nearly every scene in the film. But because she’s focused on so much, there are times where she actually overshadows some of the other characters. Certain characters like Johanna and Haymitch are only in the film for brief amounts of time and this gets even more problematic when other characters end up biting the dust. Don’t worry I won’t reveal who dies for those who haven’t read the book but with that said, I feel that the major deaths in this film didn’t really get the attention that they should’ve gotten, particularly a very important death that should be very personal to Katniss and yet really only gets one major scene in which she is shown to be heavily affected by it.

The best thing that comes from the film’s overt focus on Katniss is that, because she truly is the main star of the film, this is very much Jennifer Lawrence’s film. She’s always been terrific in the role, even though the character sort of lost her edge in the first ‘Mockingjay’ film due to her being so concerned about making sure Peeta was rescued from the Capitol. Thankfully that isn’t as much an issue this time, however, and this can literally be described as a case where Jennifer Lawrence is both figuratively and literally carrying the film, and pretty much the entire franchise, on her back. The only other member of the cast who gets screen-time that’s anywhere close to Lawrence’s is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. Hutcherson has definitely grown the most out of anyone in this cast to the point where I’d argued that he was actually the standout of ‘Mockingjay Part I’. Hutcherson is equally terrific here as Peeta might actually have more to work with than Lawrence given the fact that the character continually runs the risk of jeopardizing the whole mission due to his brainwashing by one of cinema’s best villains in recent years. Yes Donald Sutherland has been particularly great in these films as the truly despicable SOB Snow, who somehow always manages to maintain his cool no matter what the situation is. Of course the rest of the cast is great as well, as they’ve been throughout the entire series, but as I noted earlier, quite a few of these characters are generally downplayed in favor of Katniss.

Despite what I’ve said in this review, I want to make it clear that I do not ‘hate’ this film. I still really like it for a lot of the things that made the previous films great. Francis Lawrence’s direction is once again excellent, the film has some really well-done action sequences, and the film’s cast is outstanding, particularly Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Donald Sutherland. But at the same time, this actually ends up being my least favorite of the four films and ultimately this is because I now realize that this really should’ve just been one film. And I’m not saying that because the first film was more focused on the politics and this film was more action-oriented. The real reason why I think this should’ve been one film is because due to this film’s action-heavy pacing, most of the set-up for this film was a result of the first film, meaning that there’s not as much character development in this one. And because the film is focused more on Katniss than anyone else, certain character deaths don’t get as much focus as they should’ve gotten. In other words, if this was just one film, then maybe the characters that do die would’ve gotten more screen-time and therefore their deaths would’ve been more impactful. Again, I do still like the film and very much feel that ‘The Hunger Games’ is easily the best franchise of its ‘genre’ after ‘Harry Potter’, even though I don’t like referring to the latter as being part of the ‘Young Adult’ genre. But ultimately ‘Mockingjay Part 2’, while it does do its job at being the finale to this franchise, doesn’t really deliver on the epic finality that it was trying to achieve.

Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hunger Games: The Story So Far

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen! Today I’m going to be doing something a little bit different that may end up being the start of a new series on this website. The final installment of the ‘Hunger Games’ series, ‘Mockingjay Part 2’, will be out soon and because I have already done reviews for all three of the previous ‘Hunger Games’ films, obviously doing a retrospective post would be completely redundant. But I did want to do something as a way of commemorating the impending release of the new film so I decided to do a post that would do either one of two things for people; either refresh their memory of the previous films or, in the case of newcomers, get them ‘up-to-speed’ with everything that has happened so far. Because as we all know, franchises have become a huge thing nowadays and some can go on for a while, to the point where it could potentially get a bit confusing for those who are going into this films fresh. So consider this the first in a series of posts that I like to call ‘The Story So Far’. And today, I’ll be recapping what has so happened so far in the ‘Hunger Games’ franchise beginning with 2012’s titular first installment and concluding with the most recent release, 2014’s ‘Mockingjay Part I’. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the series or someone who doesn’t know a single thing about it, this post will help you with pretty much everything you need to know in time for the finale to the saga of Katniss Everdeen, the ‘girl on fire’.

‘Hunger Games’, based off of the book series of the same name by author Suzanne Collins, takes place in the dystopian world of Panem, which is established as being located within the ruins of North America. Panem consists of the lavish and extravagant city/totalitarian government that is ‘the Capitol’ and the oppressed and much poorer 12 districts that surround it. The ‘Hunger Games’ that the series is named for is an annual event that the Capitol holds as a means of punishing the districts after a rebellion 74 years earlier had resulted in the Capitol defeating the rebellion and the 13th District supposedly being destroyed. Every year, one young boy and girl from each District are selected as ‘Tributes’ to partake in a nationally televised duel to the death. As the first ‘Hunger Games’ begins, it is the year of the 74th Hunger Games and in the poorest district of all, District 12, young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) prepares for the annual Reaping ceremony along with her sister Prim (Willow Shields). Prim is scared to be chosen but Katniss assures her that it won’t happen because it’s her first time participating in the Reaping and unlike the older kids who have been in multiple Reapings, her name has only been entered in once. But as fate would have it, when the Reaping occurs, Capitol representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) ends up selecting Prim’s name.

Not wanting to lose her sister, Katniss boldly volunteers to take her place as the female representative of District 12. Along with male representative Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the local baker who had once helped Katniss years earlier by giving her bread when she was starving, Katniss is immediately whisked away to the Capitol. The two are placed under the mentorship of District 12’s only winner, the drunken Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who’s key piece of advice for them is to attract sponsors who will help them during the games by sending them gifts while they’re in the arena. He also warns them about the ‘Career Tributes’ from Districts 1 and 2 who are much more prepared for the games than they are, having been trained for them from a young age, and are basically the fan favorites. When they arrive at the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta begin their training for the Games while also attempting to attract sponsors, as Haymitch suggested. Katniss quickly ends up becoming a crowd favorite, primarily due to both her bold sacrifice to save her sister as well as the reveal by Peeta that he is in love with her during the live interviews with TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

When the 74th Hunger Games begin, Katniss narrowly survives the bloodbath that occurs at the start as a result of most of the Tributes trying to grab supplies at the Cornucopia located at the center of the arena. Katniss manages to stay clear of the other Tributes for a while but ends up getting brought back into the action by Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), who drives her back with a forest fire controlled by him and his fellow Gamemakers. She then escapes from the Career Tributes as well as, to her surprise, Peeta, who has apparently formed an alliance with them (though ultimately this was just him trying to ‘gain their trust’). With the help of District 11 tribute Rue, Katniss manages to kill District 1 Tribute Glimmer, steal her bow, which is the weapon that Katniss works with the best, and destroys the hoard of supplies that the Careers have been collecting. Sadly, Rue ends up getting killed by District 1 Tribute Marvel, who Katniss then kills in retaliation, and her emotional grieving causes a riot in District 11. In response to this, Haymitch suggests to Seneca a rule change that would allow two winners if both come from the same district. After this change is announced, Katniss finds Peeta and the two outlast all of the remaining tributes. But when Crane changes the rules back to there being only one winner, the two defy the Capitol by threatening to commit suicide via poisonous berries. Quickly named the co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games, the two return home to District 12 though they are warned that their actions aren’t going over too well with Panem’s ruler, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The second film, ‘Catching Fire’, opens as Katniss and Peeta are preparing to go on a Victory Tour through the other districts. But before that happens, Katniss is visited by Snow at her home, who makes it clear that her rebellious actions have not only caused uprisings across Panem but have also put her and her loved ones in danger. This forces Katniss to have to convince Snow that her romance with Peeta in the arena was true and not just a means of defying the Capitol. But even after the Tour is done, which ultimately does nothing to stop the uprisings despite Katniss and Peeta’s best efforts, Snow and new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) develop a new plan to both subdue the uprisings and get rid of Katniss via the 75th Hunger Games AKA the third ‘Quarter Quell’, a special Hunger Games that occurs every 25 years where a special rule change is instituted. Snow announces that this year’s Quarter Quell will consist entirely of surviving victors and because Katniss is the only female victor from District 12, this of course means that she’s forced back into the arena once again. Katniss and Haymitch try to keep Peeta from having to compete again as well but during the Reaping, Peeta volunteers to take Haymitch’s place when the latter is initially chosen as the male tribute. The two return to the Capitol to once again prepare for the Games. This time around, Haymitch advises them to make alliances with some of the other Tributes, telling them that they’re all angry at the Capitol for making them compete in the Hunger Games a second time.    

Despite all of the attempts made by the Tributes to try and sway the citizens of the Capitol to protest the Games in the hopes of stopping them, the 75th Hunger Games start without a hitch. Katniss and Peeta ally themselves with charming District 4 champion Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), his elderly mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), tech-savvy District 3 Champions Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and fiery District 7 champion Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) as they try to survive in this new arena that is divided into 12 sections like a clock where each section contains a different kind of hazard ranging from angry monkeys to a poisonous fog. Beetee comes up with an idea to defeat the remaining Tributes by using the electrified tree hazard to electrocute them. But when that plan fails, Katniss instead uses the lightning to destroy the arena’s force-field and as the arena crumbles around her, she is extracted by an airship commanded by members of the rebellion, including Haymitch and Plutarch. They tell her that they’re on the way to District 13 so that she can become the face of the rebellion; the ‘Mockingjay’, named after a mockingbird/jabberjay (blackbirds) hybrid species symbolized by a pin that Katniss wore during the Games. However Katniss is discouraged to learn that Peeta wasn’t rescued along with her and was captured by the Capitol along with Johanna. After being sedated after angrily attacking Haymitch for not protecting Peeta, Katniss is told by her best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) that while her family is safe, District 12 has been destroyed.

As it turns out, District 13, the district that was apparently destroyed during the original rebellion against the Capitol, had survived by relocating to an underground facility. There, Katniss meets the leader of the district, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) who, along with Plutarch, encourage her to become the ‘Mockingjay’ for the growing rebellion. Katniss is at first reluctant to do so given the fact that Peeta was abandoned in the arena but then changes her mind after seeing that Peeta is alive but is being manipulated into being a pawn for the Capitol in order to quell the rebellion. She agrees to be the face of the rebellion on the grounds that Peeta and the other captured tributes be rescued at the earliest opportunity. With the aid of Gale and her new film team, Katniss begins to inspire the citizens of Panem into fighting back against the Capitol by means of rousing video speeches and a song called ‘The Hanging Tree’ that Katniss learned from her father, who died in a mining accident prior to the events of the series, that becomes an anthem for the rebels. After a few attacks against the Capitol by the Rebels, including the sabotage of the Capitol’s power source (the dam in District 5), and an attack on District 13 by the Capitol that the district was warned of ahead of time by Peeta during a live Capitol broadcast, President Coin finally orders an extraction mission to rescue Peeta, Johanna, and Finnick’s love interest and fellow Hunger Games victor Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson).

While the Capitol is distracted by a propaganda video starring Finnick, a Special Forces team, Gale being one of them, head to the Capitol to break the Tributes out of the Tribute Center. Despite the Capitol’s power returning in the middle of the operation and President Snow, who Katniss communicates with at one point in the hopes of distracting him further, revealing that he knew about the rescue mission, the team somehow manages to return with all of the tributes. But when Katniss tries to see Peeta, he starts attacking her though is knocked out by Katniss’ bodyguard Boggs (Mahershala Ali) before he can kill her. When Katniss comes to after being knocked unconscious by Peeta, she is told that Peeta has been ‘hijacked’ by the Capitol; brainwashed to kill Katniss by altering his memories of her via the venom of genetically altered wasps, ‘Tracker Jackers’. As President Coin announces to the people of District 13 the successful rescue of the Tributes and the planned assault on the Capitol’s primary military facility in District 2, Katniss witnesses Peeta violently struggling about in solitary confinement as doctors try and find a way to reverse Peeta’s brainwashing.

And that’s the story of ‘The Hunger Games’ series… so far. For fans of the franchise, hopefully this will help refresh your memory as to what’s happened so far in these first three films. If you’re not familiar with the franchise, though that’s probably unlikely given how this franchise has become a global phenomenon a la ‘Harry Potter’, this post should help you familiarize yourself with the world and characters of this series just in time for the release of the final installment, ‘Mockingjay Part 2’, this weekend, in which Katniss Everdeen and the citizens of Panem begin their final stand against President Snow and the Capitol. As I stated in the intro to this post, I’m considering making this ‘Story so Far’ thing a recurring segment on Rhode Island Movie Corner so sound off in the comments section below to tell me if you liked this post and want to see more of them. Until then, as they say in the ‘Hunger Games’, ‘May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor’!  

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Peanuts Movie (2015) review

Like many a generation, I grew up with one of the most iconic franchises in all of pop culture; the ‘Peanuts’ franchise. The adventures of the ‘lovable loser’ Charlie Brown were first introduced through a daily comic strip created by American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz in 1950. The comic ran for nearly 50 years from 1950 to 2000, ending a month before the passing of Schulz on February 12, 2000. Aside from the comics, the series has also been known for numerous TV specials, almost all of which were made by the duo of producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez, many of them centered on major holidays like Christmas (the first and easily most famous ‘Peanuts’ special) and Thanksgiving. As for this year, which marks the 65th anniversary of the comic strip’s initial debut, the Peanuts gang now come to the big-screen in a brand-new computer animated film, ‘The Peanuts Movie’. This is actually the fifth ‘Peanuts’ film to be released following 1969’s ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’, 1972’s ‘Snoopy, Come Home’, 1977’s ‘Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown’, and 1980’s ‘Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)’, but it’s the first in 35 years and definitely the biggest to date given the crew working on it. The film is produced by Blue Sky Studios, ‘Bridesmaids’ director Paul Feig is also one of the producers, and the screenplay was co-written by Schulz’s son Craig and his son Bryan. And amidst all of the skepticism from film fans, this team turned out something that’s truly special.

For Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp), nothing ever seems to go his way, from trying to fly a kite, which almost always ends up in a tree, to playing baseball, where his pitches always end up knocking him straight out of his clothes. But one day, when a new kid, the ‘Little Red-Haired Girl’ (Francesca Capaldi), moves to the neighborhood, Charlie Brown is almost instantly smitten by her. At the same time, though, he’s worried that his constant bad luck will also ruin his chances of attracting her attention. With the advice of ‘local psychiatrist’ Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), Charlie Brown, with the help of his loyal dog Snoopy (voiced by the late Bill Melendez via archival recordings that are also used for Woodstock), begins looking for some way to turn his luck around, become a ‘winner’, and most importantly woo the Little Red Haired Girl. As a result, Charlie Brown finds himself embarking on a life-changing adventure where his true character shines through even with all of the unlucky things that happen to him. Meanwhile, Snoopy embarks on an adventure of his own. After finding a typewriter in the school dumpster (after attempting to go to school with Charlie Brown and the other kids), Snoopy begins to write about the World War I Flying Ace as he fights his arch-nemesis, the Red Baron.

Compared to numerous other films that were based on popular media franchises, ‘The Peanuts Movie’ is easily one of the most faithful adaptations of its source material because the filmmakers clearly had a lot of passion for this beloved franchise and that truly shows in the final product. This is not a case where the characters were translated into modern times to make them ‘hip’ for younger audiences. This film still has the characters using land-line telephones and typewriters. It’s full of numerous references to the classic TV specials, from a mention by Linus of the infamous ‘Great Pumpkin’ to even a few re-creations of classic moments, like the ice-skating sequence from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’. All of this helps make the film a charming piece of nostalgia for fans of the franchise along with the film’s excellent animation. I know that there were those out there who were questioning the decision to translate the world of ‘Peanuts’ into computer animation but the end result is something truly special. It may be computer animated but it is very much faithful to the hand-drawn animation style that the franchise is known for, right down to the fact that sometimes the film actually implements that exact style into the animation, from thought bubbles that use the classic hand-drawn animation to the imperfections in how the lines were drawn that made Schulz’s comics so endearing in the first place.

But ultimately one of the biggest strengths of the film comes in its writing; its story, its characters, and the messages that it conveys that make it such a great story for younger audiences. Some critics have stated that the film isn’t that ‘ambitious’ in terms of its plot and while I will admit that the plot is rather simple compared to other animated films, that is by no means a bad thing when it comes to this film. For one thing, the messages that are conveyed in this film are really great life-lessons for kids. Things may never seem to go Charlie Brown’s way but he never gives up and as he comes to learn, who you are as a person is more important than whatever you may accomplish in life. And of course, all of these characters are iconic and the voice cast does an excellent job in bringing these characters to life. Aside from Snoopy and Woodstock being voiced by archival recordings of the late Bill Melendez and Kristin Chenoweth voicing Snoopy’s love interest Fifi in his fantasy sequences, the main characters are all voiced by generally unknown child actors. The most notable of the bunch is Francesca Capaldi as both the Little Red-Haired Girl and Frieda, who starred in the Disney Channel show ‘Dog with a Blog’, but for the most part everyone else in the voice cast are basically newcomers. And ultimately that was the best route that the filmmakers could take because it helps maintain the natural atmosphere that was also a defining trait of the franchise.  

There’s usually quite a lot of skepticism that film fans tend to have whenever it comes to a film that is based off of a popular franchise, namely because they fear that it won’t stay true to the spirit of its source material. But then you have a film like ‘The Peanuts Movie’, which is… quite frankly one of the best films of the year. And that’s because it does stay true to the source material from its terrific animation that honors the classic traditional 2-D animation style of the franchise while translating it into the realm of computer animation to its heartwarming story with strong messages like how it’s not about your accomplishments that define you but who you are as a person. There seriously isn’t anything I can think of that I disliked about this film and to be perfectly frank, I don’t even want to say anything bad about it. I really, really, really loved this film just as much as I love this franchise. Believe me when I say folks that by the end, there was nothing but a big smile on my face as I saw these lovable characters translated perfectly to the big screen. Truly this is something that Charles Schulz would’ve been proud of; it was a project that was done with love from all who worked on it, resulting in one of the best feel-good films of the year. If you’re a ‘Peanuts’ fan, I’m certain that you’re going to love this film and for those who aren’t familiar with the franchise, this will serve as a really nice introduction to this iconic franchise and its beloved characters.

Rating: 5/5!