Thursday, December 5, 2013

2013 Movie Review Round-up #2 - "Blue is the Warmest Color," "Thor 2," "The Hunger Games 2," & "Frozen"

As explained in this post, I'm playing catch-up with the films of 2013 after a very busy fall that kept me away from my reviewing responsibilities, and I'm chronicling that process with a multi-part feature, extend over the next few weeks, wherein each post shall offer mini-reviews for about four or five movies. Since the last regular review I wrote before my long break was in late September, and published in early October – for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity – I decided to start this project by recapping all the films I saw in theatres during that period, new releases I had been to see relatively close to their debuts. This has been split into two columns – the one you are reading now, focusing on the films of November, and the first installment, on the films of October – and in the next column, we shall cover some screeners I have finally gotten around to catching up on. A mix of full reviews – published over at We Got This Covered – and more mini-review columns like these should bring us to the end of the year in good fashion.

Read on after the jump for mini-reviews of Blue is the Warmest Color, Thor 2, The Hunger Games 2, and Frozen...

Blue is the Warmest Color

I’m afraid I have to take the contrarian position on this one, the controversial and oft-discussed Palme d’Or winner that chronicles a young woman’s coming-of-age and lesbian sexual awakening. It’s not that I find the film overrated or undeserving of praise – I completely understand people’s reasons for loving it, and there are plenty of positives I have no argument against. Chiefly, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are both stupendous in the lead roles, with Exarchopoulos in particular delivering one of the best, most richly realized performances of 2013. And at its best, I find the writing, by director Abdellatif Kechiche, to be sharp and funny and nuanced and provocative, particularly when dialogue is exchanged by his two lead actresses.

No, the overarching problem here, for me and, it must be said, a number of other critics, is that at no point does Blue is the Warmest Color feel like anything other than a heterosexual male’s view of female homosexuality. The male gaze is certainly problematic here on a literal level, as Kechiche fetishizes and objectifies his female actress’ bodies, and rear ends in particular, to absurd degrees; and arguing that the infamous 10-minute sex sequence is anything other than a heterosexual fantasy of female lovemaking, taking its cues much more from pornography than from actual human experience (a complaint I feel comfortable lodging when plenty of lesbian women have done the same), seems to me willfully ignorant. But more than that, I find the heterosexual male gaze permeates the film at every level, particularly thematic, as the core symbols Kechiche uses to symbolize and explore lesbianism are consistently overly-simplistic and needlessly exoticized (protagonist Adele’s voracious appetite starts out seeming clever, and gradually reveals itself to be as meaningful as a 12-year-old schoolboy chuckling at the idea of oral sex).

Overall, everything the film has to say about lesbianism - that it feels it has to say 'something,' rather than just letting the character be homosexual, is a problem in and of itself - seems to me an exercise, conscious or not, in ‘othering,’ a series of observations made on the outside looking in, and feeling proportionally inorganic in the process. The film’s length doesn’t necessarily bother me, as it does certain critics, though the fact that it continues through two or three spectacularly awful scenes after what should have been its natural end point, a heated exchange between Adele and Emma that is easily one of the film’s greatest highlights, only left me even colder on the entire affair. I don’t dislike Blue is the Warmest Color, and I think those who have the chance to see it probably should if only to further the critical discussion, but this is a film I feel pretty heavily disconnected from. 

Thor: The Dark World

Sean Chapman and I actually spoke about this film in extreme detail on a recent episode of our podcast, WGTC Radio, so if you want to hear a more in-depth discussion, definitely check that out. But in brief, I think it’s possible I have had no more fun at the movies all year than with Thor: The Dark World. The film is just a pitch-perfect comic-book movie, one that is not only unafraid to wholeheartedly embrace its pulp roots, but actually feels like something I could have seen in a Thor comic or cartoon series. And yet, what really blows me away here is that even while The Dark World is gloriously, gleefully unhinged – this is easily the funniest movie Marvel has ever made, and has some of the most creative set-pieces in the entire superhero cinema canon – it is also grounded in some of the most rock-solid, expertly thought-out internal logic I have ever seen for a blockbuster tentpole.

We throw the word ‘realism’ around a lot when talking about movies – erroneously, I think, because true realism is impossible to capture in an artistic medium – but in many ways, The Dark World feels more ‘realistic’ to me than maybe any other superhero film ever made. It accepts the grandeur and ridiculousness of its premise, then tackles every situation, encounter, and character interaction in a way that feels completely organic to the nature of that premise. Oftentimes, this results in humor. Sometimes, it results in drama, and good drama too. The character arcs here are uniformly excellent – people have rightfully said a lot about how much Tom Hiddleston’s Loki contributes to the film, but I was also very impressed by the work done with the title character – and when the movie wants to be serious, it nails those moments (the Asgardian funeral sequence is stunning). But it also recognizes – as too few movies, superhero cinema included, do – that humor is a completely organic part of life, and especially of a life as crazy as the one experienced by these characters. As a result, it mixes its humor in with the action and drama absolutely seamlessly, something I can so rarely say about big tent-pole blockbusters.

I can understand why many critics rejected or felt lukewarm towards the film – genre fatigue has obviously set in, and I think many critics are uncomfortable with works this overtly pulpy in tone – but to me, Thor: The Dark World absolutely excels at what it strives to be. Is it a great movie in the grand scale of things? Not necessarily, but it is every bit a terrific Marvel movie, and personally, that’s exactly what I wanted out of it.  

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Readers of this blog will know I was a big fan of the original Hunger Games film back in 2011 – here’s my review – albeit with a couple of caveats. As a result, I don’t know if I can jump on the bandwagon of critics who, having previously liked the original, suddenly decided to start putting the first film down just so they could prop this second film up. Reactions like that confuse me. I do think Catching Fire is a measurably better film, in much the same way most second chapters are. It is able to go deeper and darker with its characters, flesh out its world and themes in more compelling ways, and deliver bigger and more engaging set pieces now that the baggage of introductory exposition is dispensed with. I don’t think it is a wholesale improvement, as I found the first film to be vastly more visually interesting than this one. It’s now popular to complain about the use of handheld cameras in Gary Ross’ original – people who do so have apparently never seen a contemporary European film – but I thought Ross gave the film a distinct, visceral, emotionally meaningful look that Catching Fire, simpler and more conventionally shot, simply doesn’t have (and it doesn’t help that the IMAX-shot portion of Catching Fire looks really cramped and awkwardly framed when cropped down to 2.40:1).

Other than that, though, Francis Lawrence does a great job building off everything the first film did well – namely, in refusing to sugarcoat any of the grit or despair of this dystopian future, and making sure the darkness hurts, and hurts painfully, whenever it arrives. In fact, this is something Lawrence arguably does even better than Ross did – compare Rue’s relatively limp death scene in the first film to pretty much any scene of suffering in this one – and I am consistently blown away by how this franchise takes scenes that had no emotional impact on me whatsoever in the books and draws me in to the point where I am forced to deeply, brutally care. The silly names will never stop making me laugh – Plutarch Heavensby? Really? Really? – but after feeling relatively cold towards the books, this is a film franchise I can honestly say I’m invested in, and that’s due in no small part to the work Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and especially the incredible Jennifer Lawrence are doing (bonus points to Catching Fire for Jeffrey Wright’s small but awesome role). Especially by the end of this one, I feel fully on board, and while I don’t like the idea of splitting the third book into two movies one bit, I still find myself surprisingly eager to follow this franchise into the future.


My instinct is to write that Frozen left me mostly cold, but since saying that would be a terrible pun, I shall instead say that Frozen disappointed me, and it disappointed me because it spends its first half simply bursting with potential before squandering much of it over the home stretch. The film starts out as one of the best animated film Disney has made in decades – maybe one of the best in their entire canon, period – with excellent musical numbers, strong and vivid characters, gorgeous animation, and one of the most compelling premises I have ever seen in a children’s film. The idea of two sisters being isolated from one another because of the older one’s uncontrollable magic powers is dynamite, and is realized as such for a good long while, but somewhere around the middle, the film starts giving into convention left and right.

I won’t give away the twist that completely derailed the film for me, save to say that it’s the moment where Disney could have been bold and completely reinvented the Princess/fairy-tale genre they arguably have a responsibility to move into the future, but instead chose to embrace convention in the most dim-witted way possible. There are bright spots to the third act, particularly in how the relationship between sisters Elsa and Anna is resolved, but so much around it is so tired and forced and derivative, even as there are painfully obvious avenues for dramatic reinvention of the form. What bothers me most is that, even in a film that probably features the single best, most gloriously modern female protagonist Disney animation has ever had – Kristen Bell’s Anna – the film has to contort itself into knots to make damn sure her bland, heteronormative romance is at the center of her character arc. This, when the early material with her sister, largely abandoned after the midway point save for the brief moment of reunion at the climax, is the best material in the movie.

On the whole, I don’t dislike Frozen, and I understand why many critics have gone zany for it, but at best, this is to me a good imitation of things Disney has done well in the past, partially adjusted for modern times in its well-developed female leads, but not enough to compensate for the conventions it needlessly clings to.

Come back for the next ‘Review Round-Up’ column, in which I’ll cover another batch of films I’ve recently discovered on awards screeners and home video, including “Stories We Tell,” “Mud,” “Dallas Buyers Club, “her,” and many more...

1 comment:

  1. I'm a big fan of Thor 2 - I even saw it three times in the theater, something I rarely do. I actually thought is looked better in 3D, especially the fantastic artwork slideshow during the end credits. I've read the Hunger Games books and I thought that, like Ender's Game, this was just an adequate retelling of the story. I guess mostly because of the hype surrounding the Hunger Games movies, it's harder for me to watch them with an open mind.