Films, Reviews

Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

eoionog4yb7pbvfcboiwBenedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange. The character’s likeness is almost perfect, and it has some depth, but not more than you can expect from a commercial action-oriented film. Special effects are well designed and serve the narrative. The story is simple, but well-paced and with just the right amount of exposition. All in all, one of the best Marvel films so far .

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Films, Reviews

Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

The much anticipated Hunger Games film is based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel of the same name. Not having read the book or exposed myself to spoilers, I was forced to rely solely on the film to grasp the plot.

The basic premise is simple: in a post-apocalyptic future, North America is divided into twelve districts, mostly living in poverty, while being ruled by the affluent, high-tech metropolis called the Capitol. As punishment for a previous uprising, each district is forced to send one male and one female contestant each year to the Hunger Games, where they will fight to the death, leaving only one survivor.

When Katniss’ younger sister is selected for the Games, she volunteers to take her place. It gets even more complicated when the other contestant from their district is a boy she has sympathies for, and vice versa – only one can come out of the games alive.

The contest bears an uncomfortable resemblance to today’s reality TV shows. Taking place outdoors, they’re being filmed and televised by hidden cameras, and watched on big screens even in the poor, low-tech districts. The contestants are assigned stereotypical personas and backstories so they can more easily be sponsored and marketed. But the premise of reality TV is twisted an extra turn: having sponsors determines the contestants’ chances of getting extra help during the contest. This makes their very survival dependant on turning themselves into fake media personalities, and their fight for life and death into crowd-pleasing theatre.

So how enjoyable is it? In my opinion, the film is very well executed. It’s suspenseful and it’s easy to identify with the main characters. It’s relatively realistic and down-to-earth, which makes the characters’ situation feel more real (except for the characters’ near-perfect looks, of course, despite scratches in the face and being out in the wilderness for several days). It has violence and gore, but it never revels in it – it uses it to show the seriousness of the situation and add to the realism. There’s romance, but it’s never allowed to take over the storyline.

I only have a few complaints. The premise behind the Games seems a little sketchy, and the authorities blatantly interfere in them, which strains believability. The story also takes the easy way out a few times. The main character (Katniss) is sometimes a little too perfect, and hard situations and choices are sometimes avoided a little too easily, by events outside the main characters’ control.

Fortunately, the film resists a perfect happy ending, instead focusing on the hypocrisy of the Hunger Games and leaving some ambiguity.

Recommended for anyone who likes drama or suspense, and can stand some tastefully depicted violence.

Films

Review: Hanna (2011)

16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has been raised in the Finnish wilderness by her father (Eric Bana), and systematically trained to fight and survive. As soon as she’s ready, her father sends her on a mission to assassinate intelligence operative Marissa (Cate Blanchett), while Marissa in turn tries to hunt the girl down. Along the way, we see Hanna struggle to fit in with normal people despite her background, and get a few revelations about who she really is and why she’s hunted.

The spy story itself is predictable and doesn’t make much sense, even though the script has appeared on the “black list” for best unproduced screenplays for both 2006 and 2009. It’s unclear why Hanna needs to assassinate Marissa and reveal her own existence in the process, as opposed to simply hiding. Marissa’s own reasons to hunt Hanna down don’t seem believable, and the revelations about Hanna’s background are not very surprising or original.

However, the individual scenes are skillfully, sometimes beautiflly, crafted and we’re treated to a few great performances. Cate Blanchet is scary as the obsessed Marissa, and Jessica Barden is hilarious as the chatty American tourist girl who befriends Hanna. Hanna herself is a mixed bag. The film tells us she’s detached and unempathic, but utterly fails to show us this – she only fights when she feels threatened, and tries to protect people she’s become friends with. Ronan does as well as she can with the self-contradicting role, and plays Hanna as perceptive, self-controlled and socially awkward, while acting out the fight scenes with an intensity which befits the character.

The film is at it’s best when it attempts characterisation and humour. The action scenes are very believable, and are rendered in a grounded, realistic style, but it’s not enough to lift the spy plot above mediocrity. If you want an action flick with some characterisation and good direction, you could do a lot worse than Hanna, but don’t expect a masterpiece.

Films, Reviews

Review: The Tree of Life (2011)

This review contains spoilers for the movie – but you may enjoy it more if you have an idea of what it’s about before you see it.

The Tree of Life is a story of a middle-aged man – Jack – who, in obvious pain, looks back at his childhood. His jumbled, and sometimes unrealistic, memories shows him growing up in 1950’s Texas. Through his abusive father, pain and suffering is brought into the child’s world, which twists and creates malice in him.

But the close, personal story is interrupted for a much more epic one: that of life on Earth. The creation of the universe is shown in splendid colours. The camera wanders through stars and nebulas. The Earth forms, and the first self-replicating molecules appear. Beautifully computer-generated dinosaurs wander over fern-covered forest floors, to meet disease or disaster. The purity and beauty of the creation point, slowly gives way to greater and greater imperfection, just as the boy’s happiness and innocence gives way to suffering and evil.

When we return to the young boy, we know his story is part of a much greater one – that of the Tree of Life. We are reminded of this over and over again, as the camera wanders over the intricate patterns of a leaf, or a swaying forest of underwater reeds, or any other of nature’s wonders.

What makes the film special are its images. The sequences with humans in them are shown very subjectively, as a human observer would see or remember them. The crispness and stark contrasts, together with the shaky camera, create a hyper-realistic feel. Special effects are used to enhance the storytelling, not just to impress or dazzle. Houses, clothing and machinery from the period are shown in their imperfect glory.

Unfortunately, the film relies almost entirely on its symbolism and visuals. For a viewer who doesn’t grasp them, there’s not much surface story to keep them entertained, and the whole film is likely to appear jumbled and incoherent. The director doesn’t go out of his way to explain anything – the film’s title is about the only clue freely given.

In Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life is a symbol not only for life on Earth, but for the whole of creation. The origin of the universe – God – is perfection, but that perfection is corrupted as his presence trickles down through creation. In the film, this is reflected both on the cosmic scale – the perfection of creation is replaced by death, disaster and indifference – as on the personal scale – the innocence of childhood is replaced by suffering and malice.

This lack of perfection is not the result of sinning or free will, but part of the natural order. As the priest tells his congregation in one scene, disaster falls on everyone, good and bad alike. For the family, it may come as failure or the death of a loved one; for life on Earth, it may come as an asteroid impact. This, I believe, is at the core of the film’s message – the suffering you experience on a personal level may seem cruel and meaningless, but it’s part of a much grander cosmic order.

But is that all – enduring suffering and trying to see a deeper meaning? The film suggests there is also grace. At the end, we see dead relatives come to life and meet each other. They embrace, and old bodies turn young again. This mirrors the Jewish conception of the afterlife – the end times, when the dead rise from their graves.

The film may seem quite long if you’re not taken in by its message or its entrancing visuals, but in my opinion the beautiful creation sequences alone are worth getting to the theatre.