Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Dictator (2012) Review
The Dictator

Since the enormous success of “Borat,” Sacha Baron Cohen has been enjoying an immense increase in his exposure and star power. “Borat” was a comedic tour-de-force, blowing away the expectations of what could be done with shock comedy by using a fake documentary format to catch genuinely horrified reactions from unsuspecting bystanders. It also helped to pull off some unexpected social commentary by capturing these peoples’ prejudices on-camera. While “Bruno” attempted to replicate this formula with less success, it still provided some great belly laughs that softened the blow of a few dead spots (and disturbingly explicit spots) in the movie. Now Cohen is back with “The Dictator” and has eschewed the fake documentary format of his last two movies, but this is not for the better.

One of the reasons “Borat” and even “Bruno” were able to generate laughs was the fake documentary format, because, lets face it, watching real people react to shocking things is much funnier than fake movie characters. “Bruno’s” main failing was that its weakest parts were obviously staged, taking the reality out of the situation. Since “The Dictator” is completely staged like a normal movie, Cohen’s brand of shock comedy loses its effectiveness. There are still some gross-out moments that work (like a birthing scene where the absurdity and hilarity of it drowned out my initial disgust), but ultimately they don’t have the kind of punch that they should. The much-advertised helicopter scene is great, although imagine how good it would have been if the American couple were real people reacting instead of actors.

It doesn’t help that Cohen and director Larry Charles (who also directed Cohen’s previous movies) have an “Austin Powers” like tendency to repeat jokes endlessly. The main offender is the constant appearances and mentions of famous people. The Megan Fox cameo is fine (although sadly missing a funny joke from the trailer) and General Aladeen’s wall of celebrity photos is really funny, but by that point (early in the movie), the joke is done and good.

The constant callbacks to celebrities are irksome and distracting, as if Cohen had to rely on other famous people to contrive humor from situations. That said, I did laugh quite a bit at Edward Norton’s quick part. What really hurts “The Dictator” though is its incredibly sloppy editing, cutting scenes on awkward notes and making seemingly giant leaps forward in the plot. We barely, if at all, see how Aladeen begins to like Zooey (Faris), and many scenes seem to be thrown into a blender.

Aside from Ben Kingsley and John C. Reilly, who are unfortunately wasted in their roles, some of the other supporting actors hold their own against Cohen’s fearless energy. Anna Faris manages to elevate herself above a mostly one-note character (super liberal), and Jason Mantzoukas, as Aladeen’s friend Nadal, frequently steals his scenes with great comedic timing.

There are numerous funny parts in “The Dictator,” mostly in the first half, but for the most part the movie is very uneven. Long stretches went by where jokes fell flat for me, only to be broken up by one very hilarious one. Of course, in some of those times, the joke was one featured in the trailer anyway. While the movie ends with an excellent speech skewering America’s government, I was mostly disappointed with “The Dictator;” not enough to consider it bad, but enough to the point where I wouldn’t revisit it anytime soon.

2/4     Rating Criteria 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) Review
The Hunger Games

As someone who didn’t get swept up in the hype of reading Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, this film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” was my first introduction to the world of Panem. I didn’t have any preconceived notions of the film living up to expectations, because I honestly didn’t have any. My only thoughts about it before viewing it were: it’s the new big phenomenon that I should see, this could be Jennifer Lawrence’s huge break into the mainstream, and the premise feels very similar to the controversial Japanese novel and film “Battle Royale.”

As punishment for a rebellion, the Capitol of Panem has envisioned an annual ritual called the Hunger Games, where each of the 12 remaining districts that rebelled have to offer up a boy and girl in a fight to the death. The Hunger Games also serve as entertainment for the rich citizens of the Capitol, who can bet on their favored contestant and act as sponsors to help them out in the games.

When Katniss Everdeen’s sister is chosen as the girl representative for District 12, Katniss offers to take her place in the games. Her and Peeta, the boy representative from District 12, get sent off to the Capitol in preparation for the games and are trained by previous District 12 winner Haymitch. During a press interview before the games, Peeta reveals that he has a crush on Katniss, making the games that much more personal for the both of them.

While the basic idea of how the Hunger Games play out is similar to that in “Battle Royale,” the world that Collins wrote around them ensures that this isn’t a flat-out ripoff. The dark political implications going on behind the scenes add substance to what could have been just another kill fest or cheesy love triangle story. The contrast between the gaudy people of the Capitol and the poor, oppressed ones of the districts emphasized the cultural divide between the two and how the luxuries of the Capitol thrive on exploiting the workers in the districts.

There is a definite Big Brother vibe going on with the extent of the Capitol’s control, such as how they are constantly monitoring the progress of the games through thousands of hidden cameras and their ability to alter the trajectory of them for audience satisfaction. The recent influence of reality television in our society is one of Collins’ biggest targets too, and the way that everyone stays glued to their screens watching these children murder each other has a chilling effect.

I was fairly skeptical of director Gary Ross taking the reins on this dark material, considering that the different tone of his earlier works, “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” wouldn’t indicate that he was the right choice for this. Thankfully, his approach to the story is unique and different than expected, although it is not without some quibbles. I very much liked how Ross chose to shoot the film as if it were an independent property, not a slick blockbuster. His handheld camerawork gives greater intimacy to the characters and grounds the fantastical elements in a relatable, down-to-earth way.

What doesn’t work so well is how he handles the shaky camerawork during the action scenes. Given the huge young adult audience for the film, I expected the film to be contained within the PG-13 rating instead of R, and Ross is occasionally able to convey moments of brutality by obscuring it with his camera framing. At other times, notably in the fights with the vicious Clove and Cato near the end, the choice to go shaky becomes more of an annoyance as the punches become an indistinguishable blur.

The eclectic cast that Ross has assembled here does a magnificent job of elevating the material when the writing and direction don’t always come through spotlessly. My favorites of the supporting cast were Woody Harrelson as the alcoholic and humorous Haymitch and Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ stylist Cinna. It was a nice surprise to me that Kravitz could hold his own against all the more seasoned actors surrounding him. Josh Hutcherson was great as Peeta too, but the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence. Her ability to subtly convey Katniss’ fear and strength, as well as the character’s selfless sacrifice to save her sister, instantly drew me in to her fight for survival.

However, I did have one major problem with how Katniss was written once the games begun. There are multiple points where another contestant comes into her line of sight, but rather than take that person out to ensure they won’t cause trouble late, she would actively avoid the confrontation. It feels as if Collins and Ross avoided having her kill the others unless in self-defense because they felt the audience would lose sympathy with her, which is completely untrue. It would have been much more compelling to show her deal with the pain of having to take someone out, which would contrast with the sadistic nature of someone like Clove or Cato.

On account of these flaws, “The Hunger Games” ended up settling on being very good, but couldn’t push it to the next level of greatness that it could have achieved. The bleak themes and maturity of the material are worthy of acclaim and make sure that “The Hunger Games” is better than many of the other pieces of young adult fiction out there. The pieces are all there for a truly subversive piece of entertainment, and “Hunger Games” remains an involving and accomplished film, although the second installment “Catching Fire” needs to unleash its claws if the franchise wants to show its full potential.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers (2012) Review
The Avengers (2012)

It’s been five years in the making, with five movies produced to set everything in motion. Those five movies have brought Iron Man up to the same level of popularity as Batman, they redeemed the Hulk from a mediocre first take, they brought old-fashioned heroics back to movies with Captain America, and they somehow made Thor not look completely ridiculous. “The Avengers” is finally here, and none of those previous five movies could have prepared anyone for how excellent this culmination would turn out to be.

Anyone who has missed any of the previous movies shouldn’t worry, since the movie does a good job of bringing the audience up to speed. However, seeing “Thor” is almost a must-see so that the villain Loki’s motivations can be put into proper context. After being banished from his home-world of Asgard by his brother Thor and feeling burned by some family revelations (this all happens in “Thor”), Loki has turned to an alien race called the Chitauri to help him take over Earth (that last part is where “The Avengers” starts up). When he steals the mystical Tesseract cube from S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to bring his army to Earth, S.H.I.E.L.D. must turn to the superheroes Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow for help.

There’s some decent action near the beginning, but the movie really clicks together once these heroes are all reintroduced (and in the case of Hawkeye, introduced) and brought together. Since these people all have wildly different personalities, there’s some bickering to settle with before the team finally comes together. These scenes provide some great character dynamic moments, and they provide the basis for Tony Stark/Iron Man to befriend fellow science nerd Bruce Banner/Hulk, and for the snarky Stark to clash with stoic good-boy Steve Rogers/Captain America. Because of their indestructible nature, Thor and the Hulk also create a bond of sorts by beating each other up. And even though they don’t have any overt superpowers, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury get their chances to shine in both the character and action scenes.

All of these scenes are absolutely essential though, as they invest us in these characters and their relationships before the big battle in the third act, and once that battle arrives it’s near impossible for anyone to not be won over by the movies charm. It is filled wall-to-wall with so many applause-worthy action and comedy moments that I’m still playing them in my head. Even though the last Hulk movie with Edward Norton (replaced by Mark Ruffalo here, who does an equally great job) was pretty good, “The Avengers” is really the third Hulk movie as he steals the movie with the most memorable moments.

Writer/director Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame) finds just the right balance between great character moments and great humor moments, achieving a jovial comic book tone of lightness and pathos at the same time. Comparisons between this and “The Dark Knight Rises” over which will be the better movie are pointless, as they take completely different approaches to their stories. Christopher Nolan’s gritty psychology would feel out of place here, and I’m very glad that Marvel is not being afraid to tap into some of the more out-there elements of their stories.

While he may have made a strong impression as Loki in “Thor,” Tom Hiddleston is even better here. His line readings drip with venom as he intimidates and manipulates the characters, and the emotional turmoil Loki went through in “Thor” has only made him more dangerous and threatening. As the best and most powerful villain from any of Marvel Studios’ previous movies (although Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull from “Captain America” was great too), Loki was the true logical villain for all these superheroes to grapple with. Of course, the Chitauri army also aids him, but they’re really just mindless drones obeying orders and extending Loki’s domination.

While I would argue Hiddleston gives one of the better performances, everyone else gets their time to shine to. Robert Downey Jr. (Stark) is always a humorous delight and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) has movie star presence written all over him. Chris Evans (Rogers) gamely plays the stoic leader compared to his more colorful cohorts, while Mark Ruffalo plays Bruce Banner as someone who still fears “the other guy,” but has learned to be content with his green half. Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) fill out the S.H.I.E.L.D. side of things, and Johansson is much better here than in “Iron Man 2.” The only weak link was Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but her role is so small that her stilted line readings are easily overlooked.

With this many characters and converging plotlines, I’m extremely surprised that I don’t really have any problems with the movie (Smulders aside). Sure I had hoped Alan Silvestri’s music score would be more memorable and maybe Whedon’s visual look could’ve been given a little more “punch,” but those are such minor nitpicks that it’s hard to hold them against a movie that does so many things greatly. “The Avengers” is the best kind of action blockbuster; it has excitement, danger, humor, and, most importantly, heart. The rest of the anticipated summer movies will have a tough time beating this one, even Batman.


Friday, May 4, 2012


After posting my review of "The Raid," I am now done posting reviews from my back catalog. All others will be newly written for this website.

The Raid (2012) Review