Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movies of 2013 -- October through December

Ender's Game
Ender's Game was never going to be an easy book to adapt.  The title character begins as a six-year-old super genius driven to violence to defend himself and eventually called on to save the world.  The film (necessarily) simplifies the story, blunts the edges, and rushes things along.  As a result, Ender's Game has little room to breathe.  Asa Butterfield, with is preternaturally blue eyes, is well-cast as Ender, but the rest of the cast is wasted with side character who have little to no development throughout the story.  It's not a bad film, but it is a disappointment.

Thor 2: The Dark World
Thor 2 makes a smart move in bringing back previous Thor and Avengers baddie Loki, easily the best villain in the new spate of Marvel movies and essentially the only complicated character in the Thor franchise.  The film's best moments (save perhaps one, a beautifully shot funeral and mourning scene) all feature Thor's adopted brother, whether he's acting out in anger, covering his vulnerabilities, or just shooting sarcastic barbs at everyone around him.  It's too bad the rest of the film doesn't match those moments.  The film features an inventive final battle, but its muddled plot and boring characters don't do much else for it.

12 Years a Slave
The true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 1830s, features excellent performances all around--the kind sure to garner awards show attention, especially for Chiwetel Ejiofor and possibly Michael Fassbender.  The film itself is a likely Best Picture winner, and for good reason.  Yes, it hits the important historical and socially conscious notes, but it's also simply a well-made film, with incredibly memorable and brutally filmed scenes.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Improving on its predecessor in just about every way, even as it's retreading the same plot steps, Catching Fire easily escapes the sequel problems plaguing so many films.  While definitely the 'middle' movie (or half of the middle, with Mockingjay's story being needlessly split across two films), it still hits its emotional moments well, introducing fun new characters like Johanna while adding shading to familiars like Gale.  The film transitions from the survival story of The Hunger Games to the story of revolution that will carry the rest of the series, and finds a surprisingly solid balance between its violence and its PG13 rating--both intrinsically necessary to the film itself.  And any story would do well to put Jennifer Lawrence at its center.

Based very loosely on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen is really the story of two sisters at heart.  Given how many Disney cartoon protagonists are only children, this marks a nice change of pace.  It might have done well to have a stronger central villain, but I'm not sure the film really needs it: its stakes are sufficiently high without one.  It's also effectively funny, using its comedic side characters just enough to flavor the film without overwhelming it.  Some of the songs are a bit clunky, but the gorgeous animation and the story's take on true love are more than enough to make up for its flaws.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Why is this three movies?  Why is this three movies?  There could've been a great Hobbit movie.  Heck, I would even be okay with it split in two and two great Hobbit movies.  But three is unforgivable--especially when the plot points added just stretch the movie out without reason.  I didn't care about Kili and Tauriel.  I didn't care about Tauriel and Legolas.  I didn't care about Laketown politics.  The best scenes in The Hobbit (both the book and the two movies so far) come when Bilbo, pushed well outside his comfort zone, has to reason his way out of danger: the scene with the trolls and the confrontation with Gollum in part one, and now his interaction with Smaug.  Yes, a few of the fight scenes were well done--the barrel scene comes to mind--but the rest of the film felt like very disappointing filler.

Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the clash between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers over bringing her beloved character Mary Poppins to the screen, is extremely sentimental--perhaps to a fault.  In fact, film seems to have the same Disney effect on this conflict that Travers feared would happen with her character once she gave over the rights: problems would be given simple solutions, edges would be softened, there would be cheerful singing.  It's likely that Travers wouldn't like this film if she were still alive to see it--but on the other hand, she didn't like the original Mary Poppins film, either.  And if that film weren't the beloved, enduring classic it is, this film wouldn't ever have been made.

American Hustle
David O. Russell's follow-up to last year's success Silver Linings Playbook is another riveting, funny film where the flawed, captivating characters are ultimately much more important than the plot.  A fictionalized take on the 1970s Abscam scandal features a fantastic cast including Christian Bale and Amy Adams as con artists, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale's unbalanced wife, Bradley Cooper as an ambitious but dense FBI agent, Louis C.K. as his long-suffering boss, and Jeremy Renner as a well-meaning but slightly shady mayor.  Each character is marvellously flawed and fascinating to watch.  The film is a blast.