Friday, November 21, 2014

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"

Continuing the trend of Harry Potter and Twilight, the third and final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, has been split into two movies because it's, "So much story to be told in only one movie."  Yeah, I'll let the filmmakers live with that explanation as long as they make Mockingjay - Part 2 as good as they have Part 1.

Picking up literally right where Catching Fire left off, Mockingjay - Part 1 very quickly dispenses any pleasantries and jumps right back into Katniss's struggles and psyche, with Jennifer Lawrence once more proving that Katniss may just be her role of a lifetime.  Katniss is now in the long thought destroyed, District 13, and is being used by their President as a figure to rally all of the other districts to rebellion against the Capitol.  With war almost all but a certainty, Katniss still finds herself unwillingly thrust in this larger than life game for not only her life, but the lives of all those she cares for.

This is a film about war, not only the costs and horrors of war, but also the way that media and propaganda are used in war.  Watching Katniss being directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee for a propaganda video they are making -- which is ridiculously stupid, yet authentic in the way our own media represents figureheads -- is one of the few genuinely funny scenes in what is a very tense two hour movie.  As it is, what keeps you trucking through some of the horrors that these characters go through is the humanity of the characters and their little quirks that often lend themselves to a little laugh here or there to alleviate the tension happening all around them, because as I've already mentioned, this is a war film.

Mockingjay - Part 1 harbors shades of some of the great war films of the past few decades, with one scene in particular that reminded me of Zero Dark Thirty.  These scenes, while being played out in a science fiction world, feel startlingly real because of the similarities that are easily seen between the world of Panem and our modern day world with all of our wars and injustices.  However, this isn't an anti-war film, nor is it pro-war, it just shows the harsh realities of the world.

Sometimes we have to fight for the things that we cannot afford to lose.  While peace is a great ideal, as long as there are those who are causing unrest and want to kill all who do not bow to their whims, wars will be fought.  It was that idea that I thought was the most poignant thing about Suzanne Collins' book when I read it, and that is an idea that director Francis Lawrence and his screenwriting team of Peter Craig and Danny Strong have managed to keep intact for the film.  If The Hunger Games crew can continue to build off of the ideas presented here and deliver a moving finale next November, we may be looking at something genuinely special with Part 2.  As for now, Part 1 is definitely worth the time of any fan of these books, films, or good science fiction stories in general.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Movie Review: "Interstellar"

Director Christopher Nolan's new film, Interstellar, examines the macro-size of the universe by observing the micro.  Having more in common with works like 2001:  A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life than the works of Steven Spielberg, or even Nolan's previous films, Interstellar is a film that takes you on an interdimensional journey across the stars.

Matthew McConaughey portrays Cooper, an ex-pilot/engineer, who is now reduced to being a farmer on a not too distant future Earth, that is slowly dying.  Basically think of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression times ten and you get the idea of Earth at the start of Interstellar.  However, while the film is about the dire straits Earth is in at the start of this movie, we never see the global impact of this almost apocalypse.  Told entirely from the point-of-view of Cooper and his family, in particular his relationship between his 10-year-old daughter Murph (played exceptionally by Mackenzie Foy), the film relays the larger story of what's happening on Earth through the microscopic lens observing this one family struggling to survive.  When Cooper is eventually recruited by NASA to pilot a last ditch effort to find a new habitable planet out in space by traveling through a wormhole by Saturn, Interstellar maintains its macro through micro approach by keeping the story firmly engrained within Cooper and his relationships, and that is where the bulk of this movie transpires, in deep space with five astronauts and two robots.

Interstellar plays a lot with the theory of relativity, so it should be no surprise that there is a little bit of time manipulation that goes on in this story with Murph aging on Earth, while Cooper stays the same age.  This is probably the most unique aspect of the movie, and it lends itself to some of the more emotional moments of the film when Cooper gets video messages from his adult children who are filled with a lot of resentment at his having left them to more than likely never return.  It is these emotional aspects of the film that keep Interstellar from feeling too much like a physics class and being human.  As a matter of fact, while this film deals heavily with exploring the cosmos, it's pretty clear that the film is more about exploring ourselves than it is in what lies all around us.

The two human concepts of love and truth are probably the most prevalent themes in a film that has a great many themes that it is juggling at all times.  Even when you get lost in all of the science mumbo jumbo, that often goes beyond simple theorizing to just pure science fiction itself, it is these themes that keep you watching, even if it feels a little like a chore.  

The biggest thing with Interstellar is just that it's so darn serious.  There is very little levity, and not a whole lot of fun going on, which makes it more of a $200 million art film than a blockbuster.  I don't know what the box office prospects for this film will be, but I can say that most average moviegoers should probably just skip this one, because this is a long movie that favors talking over action (though the few action scenes we do get are some of Nolan's more thrilling).  If you are a moviegoer that loves films like 2001, or the work of Terrence Malick, where you have to think about what's transpiring onscreen, then you will more than likely love Interstellar.  I am in a camp somewhere in the middle.  As a fellow filmmaker, I can appreciate everything here that Christopher Nolan has done with Interstellar, but I really have no desire to see this one again, because it just doesn't do for me what I tend to want out of the movies I see, which is allow me to escape from my reality and have fun for a few hours.  

This is a movie that is constantly reminding us of our reality, and you couple that with the beautiful, but overbearing organ music from Hans Zimmer, and you can very easily get antsy and nervous before all is said and done, and not in a good way, but in an oppressive one.  So it's safe to say this is not my favorite Christopher Nolan film, in all actuality it's probably my least favorite of his films, but with that said, this very well may be his most ambitious and thought-provoking film he's ever done.  As far as my recommendation goes, go see Interstellar if you love your sci-fi as realistic and thoughtful as possible.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What is the Purpose of a Film Review?

What is the purpose of a film review?  This is a question that I have actually pondered for a long time.  Why should pretentious people, with their own moral and political ideas on what is good and what isn't, dictate whether or not a movie is worth seeing?  The truth of the matter is that I think film reviews should not be merely summed up in a score or a grade, or even in the number of thumbs up you give it.  Now, this is something that I am personally guilty of as an amateur film reviewer myself, but it is something that I want to change from here on out, and to understand why we must breakdown what I believe the true purpose film reviews are meant to have.

Why do we read reviews of movies before they come out?  It's simple, because we want to know if the movie is something that we will like or not.  I think reviewers often get too caught up in the breaking down of the acting or the direction, that they never really stop to actually dissect the movie and what it is about.  Reviewers tend to spend more time spewing their own personal opinions, rather than focusing on the things that most moviegoers want to know, and no it's not whether or not the movie is good, but whether or not the movie is for them.

One thing I want to know more often than not, that I don't get in most film reviews, is not if so-and-so actor is amazing in the movie (though if I'm a fan of that actor it can make me more interested in seeing it), it's more me wanting to know what the thematic focus of the movie is and what the content that relays that focus is.  So many movie reviewers just merely scratch the surface of a movie when they review it, they never delve beneath the surface to say why someone should see this movie.  A perfect case-and-point is a movie like Gravity.

You can tell me all day long how brilliant Sandra Bullock was in that movie, but what I really wanted to know from the review is why I should see that movie beyond the actor or the director.  Very few reviews actually delved too much into the meaning of the movie.  The idea of choosing to live again is a very strong idea that I found the most impactful thing about Gravity, but it's one that is just a simple blurb in most reviews (if it even exists in a reviewer's review).

This type of more in depth analysis is why reviews exist, because it is through this analysis of the film and the scenes within it, that those of us reading these reviews can start to form a picture of the movie in our minds and decide if that is something we'd be interested in seeing or not.  Of course, how do you do this as a reviewer without sharing your own personal opinions from time-to-time?  In truth, you can't.

A film reviewer, no matter how good they are, will have to share their own personal opinion at some point in their reviews, otherwise it's just a synopsis or summary of the movie that they just saw.  Besides, we often read certain reviewer's reviews because we agree with their opinion a lot of the time, and that gives us a source we can trust before seeing the movie.  It is also through this sharing of personal opinion where moviegoers can glean more about the content of the film, whether or not it includes a political idea that they just don't agree with and they should stay away from this film for that reason, or it's a moral issue like excess violence or nude scenes.  I for one will often skip a movie if I read in a review about the vast amounts of gratuitous nudity or violence in a film, and the only way to usually glean these things in a review is via that reviewer's opinions on those subject matters.  Of course, there is one more element to a good film review, and it is the one where the actual critique should occur.

A good film reviewer will not just break down what the movie's themes are and how they feel about those themes, but they will also break down how successful the movie is in conveying those themes.  Sometimes, no matter how much a movie tries to be fun, it just never succeeds.  Other examples are when you see a movie that's trying to convey a certain idea about love or friendship, and one scene can often muddy that whole idea and make it more confusing than it needs to be.  As much as I love the movie Braveheart, I have never understood the need for William Wallace and the Princess to have a romantic relationship when the whole movie is spurred on by William's love for his dead wife.  This tiny little subplot, in an otherwise perfect film, muddies the emotional resonance.  That is not to say that the film is still not a powerfully moving experience, but it's one that I think would have been even more potent had William remained devoted to his wife like he said he would and like they still try to make us believe when --  two decades old spoiler alert --- he's executed at the end of the movie.  Finally, the most important thing that a film review should do is clarify who this film is meant for and adjust the score accordingly.

If you are reviewing a Sylvester Stallone action movie, rather than stating how stupid you think all of the insane action and testosterone-fueled dialogue is, you should be placing yourself in the shoes of the men and women who like movies with insane action and testosterone-fueled dialogue.  In short, does this movie deliver what the audience for this movie want, or does it falter in some areas that keep it from being a great experience for the people who like those kinds of movies?  Kind of think of this as grading on a curve, because a 2 out of 5 from one reviewer might be a moviegoer's 5 out of 5, and vice versa.  It shouldn't be the film reviewer's job to say how much he or she hates this sort of movie, but how well this movie works for the audience in which it was intended for.  If it's a kid's movie and all of the jokes and characters work for kids, then does it matter if you were bored during the movie or thought it was stupid?  No, because you, Mr. Reviewer, were not who the movie was made for, and it's your job to let the parents of those children know that it will delight their kids and check his sour attitude at the door before he writes his review.

So I've gone on a bit longer than I originally intended, but I think that this is an important thing as an amateur film reviewer myself to dissect in order to change my own practices.  Personally, I often will see that a movie has a 56% rating on RottenTomatoes and think that this movie is bad because only 56% of film reviewers like the movie.  That often isn't the case.  A movie may be a great movie to you, just because it got a 2 out of 5 rating from the guy at The New York Times, that doesn't mean that his 2 out of 5 rating is in anyway how you would rate the movie after seeing it.  This is where we need to start training ourselves as we read film reviews, not to just skip to the score and stop reading, we need to see what the reviewer actually thinks about the film rather than looking at a number that means nothing.

I have read negative reviews before for films, where reviewers critiqued something in a movie that actually made me want to see the movie.  A good example is when a reviewer harps on a movie's sentimentalism.  That reviewer might be a cynic and finds sentimentalism repulsive, but for me that's a positive.  It's all relative to each person, and had I stopped at that reviewer's negative score and read no further to understand why he gave it that score, then I would have never gone to see that movie.

In closing, I am going to no longer place a score or grade my film reviews here on the Unicellular Review.  Saying a movie deserves an A+ rating or an F doesn't accurately reflect the picture of what a movie actually is.  A review needs to be read in order to understand how a reviewer felt about a movie and why.  Just checking the score doesn't give readers any clue as to the movie they're wanting to see, and so the score is pointless.  If I liked the movie, you will be able to tell through what I write, and not by whether or not I gave the movie an A+ or a B+ rating.