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REVIEW: The Hunger Games
Thursday 29 March 2012, 01:07PM
142 minutes, Rating: 15+ Director: Gary Ross Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland. With the blockbuster book set to become the biggest film of the season, it is impossible not to feel like The Hunger Games has missed a real opportunity to make an influential movie. For fans that are already familiar with the material, the film is probably fine, or at least adequate. For newcomers, it is an unequivocal dumbing down of some genuinely interesting conceptual content; a film inexplicably designed to set up a new franchise rather than deliver serious commentary on the serious social themes that arise within the material. The basic story takes place in a dystopian future where ‘the Capitol’ rules over the country of Panem (in what used to be North America), and uses ‘The Hunger Games’ to suppress the surrounding districts. Each year, one girl and boy are randomly chosen from each of the 12 districts to participate in the Games – where the 24 “tribute” children fight to the death until only one remains. With one or two exceptions, the non-District 12 tributes (that is, everyone other than our heroine, Katniss Everdeen) are blank caricatures that leave next-to-no emotional impact as either victims or villains. Obviously, with 24 tributes, it would be hard to get to know everyone; however the experience could have benefited from more time spent with the others. On the technical side, the camera work leaves a lot to be desired. Quick, frantic cuts probably helped the film maintain a more family friendly rating, but as a result, the film is short on captivating battle choreography or epic one-on-one confrontations. The action scenes that exist are shot on hand-held shaky-cam, and can be almost nauseating to watch. Part of the problem arises from the direction of Gary Ross – the master of movies that settle over you like a warm blanket. Ross delivers a family-friendly version of the gladiatorial death match with all the sharp edges are smoothed off. You have to wonder what the film could have turned out like in the hands of a horror auteur such as Guillermo del Toro. The best adaptations take novels and add something more to them, but this installment feels like a reduction. Rather than the engrossing, world-building spirit that imbued the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films, The Hunger Games is little more than a by-the-book (and buy-the-book) adaptation. 2 stars – Dane Halpin
REVIEW: Moneyball
Friday 23 March 2012, 10:10AM
133 minutes Rating: 13+  Director: Bennett Miller Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman There are not many sport movies that inspire you to become an accountant. But then Moneyball is, quite frankly, a bit of an oddball when it comes to sport films. Most notably, for a film about baseball, there is surprisingly little baseball actually shown. And those parts that do feature in-game action are perhaps the most tedious and drawn-out of the film. Instead, the real joys of this movie come from the nuanced performances, stellar script and well-judged direction, which admittedly may not appeal to everyone.Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, who has an epiphany: that all of baseball’s conventional wisdom is wrong. Forced to reinvent his team on a tight budget, Beane has to outsmart the richer clubs with the help of impassioned numbers man Peter Brand (an uncharacteristically dramatic Jonah Hill). Director Bennett Miller, whose only major previous credit was 2005 film Capote, has a restrained but dead-on storytelling style that is an ideal counterpoint for a tale set in the volatile world of professional sports. Given what could have been fairly dry subject material, Moneyball relies heavily on Pitt’s ability to bring subtle humour to the real-life proceedings – and simultaneously, delivering believable emotional complexity in some especially tough scenes. The supporting bench definitely helps, with Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Manager Art Howe) and Brent Jennings (playing A’s coach, Ron Washington) offering some especially entertaining counter-points to Pitt’s more solemn portrayal. That said, with the exception of Beane, the story almost entirely pushes side characters out of the picture in the closing act, and the narrative becomes much more about Beane and how he “changed baseball” than about his team. It feels like it’s really building towards something, and then rapidly changes direction and rather abruptly ends. But if you take it for what it is, Moneyball is, at least in its attempts, ultimately an honest film that gives the audience unobstructed access to Beane’s quite remarkable journey, warts and all. Just don’t go in expecting a baseball movie. 4 stars – Dane Halpin
REVIEW: Chronicle
Thursday 15 March 2012, 04:22PM
Director: Josh TrankStarring: Dane DeHaan, Michael B Jordan, Michael Kelly, Alex Russell   Amongst the seemingly never-ending flood of superhero and found-footage projects released in recent years, it would be easy to write-off Chronicle as just another derivative grab for cash. However, following recent underwhelming faux ‘documentaries’ (such as The Devil Inside) and high profile, but ultimately uninspired hero flicks (Green Lantern), it’s safe to say Chronicle is poised to genuinely surprise a lot of moviegoers with intriguing characters, creative visuals, and a gripping central storyline.   The film follows the exploits of average teens Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Steve (Michael B. Jordan), and Matt (Alex Russell), who encounter a mysterious entity that results in them developing telekinetic abilities. Instead of the usual flat and shallow protagonists we have come to expect from the genre, Andrew, Steve, and Matt each have interesting interpersonal dynamics and arcs that flourish as they explore both their abilities and their newly formed friendships. While the succeeding events might be somewhat familiar to comic book movie regulars, the characters offer plenty of entertaining and believable moments – even after the movie takes a dark turn. However, the most interesting aspect of the film is the cinematography. While there’s no shortage of awkward ways in which the events of Chronicle are caught on film, some of the implementations represent a major step up for the genre. Early on, Andrew perfects the ability to move the camera with his telekinetic powers, resulting in far more dynamic and fluid cinematography. It also uniquely allows all the characters to be in various scenes, instead of always having one hiding behind the camera. Occasionally the format is a self-imposed limitation which leads to moments of contrivance – notably the inclusion of another student who is also documenting her life and handily provides another perspective. But for the most part it’s an inventive and fresh look at what can be done with the medium, and is worth watching for that reason alone. In sum, Chronicle isn’t just a unique found-footage movie or superhero film, it’s an enjoyable blend of the best each genre has to offer, even if that’s not a particularly high bar to clear. Three stars Dane Halpin
REVIEW: The Skin I Live In
Thursday 15 March 2012, 02:42PM
 117 minutes Rating: 18+ Director: Pedro Almodóvar  Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Alaya, Marisa Paredes   A twisted and depraved meditation on gender identity, our interior versus exterior lives, and of lust gone awry, The Skin I Live In is a film which is impossible to forget – whether you like it or not. It begins with a skin surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who keeps a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) as a compliant prisoner in his palatial home. How she came to be there is a long and utterly disturbing story that gradually unfolds through an almost farcically complicated series of twists and flashbacks. Given this maze, The Skin I Live In is hard to analyse without giving too much away. Suffice to say that one of the movie’s most impressive abilities is the way in which it handles these surprises. Rather than dealing in dramatic revelations, the key plot devices come naturally from non-linear narrative. Put simply, Almodóvar doesn’t simply follow the Scooby Doo approach of tearing the rubber mask off the villain, instead taking a step back to look at every terrible moment the man endured that has led to his insanity. These complex situations – and unimaginable horror – are handled so casually that it draws us that much deeper into Almodóvar’s strange universe, forcing ever more heightened reactions to the content. While the film’s style and cinematography, brightly lit and clean to the point of sterility, stand in beautiful contrast to the story’s dark and disturbing elements, Almodóvar isn’t interested in examining notions of light and dark, as much as he wants to explore how we both protect and deceive ourselves. For Robert (Banderas), skin is what defines us. It can guard us, change us, and it projects our identity. In his world, Robert is a captive to his past, Vera (Alaya) is a captive to Robert, and both are held captive by the skin-deep delusions they’ve created for themselves. Through the non-linear structure of the movie, Almodóvar ignites a slow burning thought into your mind before dramatically blowing it up. The only downside is that the twist is so nerve-rattling it’s difficult to regain focus on the rest of the story, and nothing afterward can really compare. When Bruce Willis was declared dead at the end of The Sixth Sense, the story quickly came to its conclusion. But it’s a solid half hour where The Skin I Live In must deal with the ramifications of its twist, and it will be days before the film stops crawling under your skin. 4 Stars Dane Halpin
REVIEW: Haywire
Friday 2 March 2012, 04:25PM
Director: Steven Soderbergh Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas   There is a reason professional athletes stick to sport, and professional actors stick to acting – the skills sets generally don’t intersect. Steven Soderbergh (Oceans 11/12/13, Traffic, Contagion) sets out to prove that theory wrong in Haywire, enlisting pro Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Gina Carano as the film’s heroine. Does it work? Not really. Fighting in a caged octagon is one thing, but playing a character in a movie is a new arena entirely, and her lines don’t deliver the same punch as, well, her punches. Of course, Soderbergh is shrewd enough to know what Carano’s strengths and weaknesses are onscreen, and for a first-time movie lead, Carano acquits herself capably enough in the smattering of actual ‘acting’ moments in the film. Still, there’s no disguising that the real purpose of her being there is to provide some high impact fight sequences, and those she delivers in quite spectacular fashion, from her opening diner bout with Channing Tatum to the hotel suite brawl with Michael Fassbender and the many others in between. With his awful hairdo, McGregor is suitably slimy as Mallory’s betrayer; Bill Paxton is fun in a small role as Mallory’s former Marine-turned-author dad, while Douglas and Banderas bring some gravitas to their respective ‘suit’ roles. There’s plenty of running and gunning, naturally, but the true highlights are several one-on-one fights between Carano and her male co-stars, showing the combat in wide shots instead of tightly edited exchanges, and making the most of Carano’s natural propensity for violent exchange. But despite the solid action, it’s hard to see exactly what this film is aspiring to be. Haywire, like last year’s Drive, strips the plot down to its basic parts, leaving only a very lean action flick, but Carano lacks the on-screen presence of Ryan Gosling that made Drive so compelling. Thanks to a fairly dull script, the final destination of the film is clear, we have a pretty good idea of who’s to blame and what’s going to happen, and none of it is going to be very surprising. In the end, it comes off as little more than a high octane, low-concept pulpy action flick with the most generic of plots. 2 1/2 stars – Dane Halpin