Out in Theaters: PITCH PERFECT 2

Your enjoyment of Pitch Perfect 2 will be directly correlated to your willingness to endure acapella puns. That is, it’s only acappealing to some. Still with me? Let’s continue. In so much as this Pitch Perfect silliness could be confused with the cloying high school sugar rush that is Glee, the two share poppy musical stylings but are dished up with distinctly different flavors: irritating and irreverent. I’ll let you suss out which is which. Read More


Out in Theaters: LOVE & MERCY

Film originally seen at Seattle International Film Festival ’15.

It’s no mystery that Brian Wilson was a tortured soul. Look no further than single “Heroes and Villains”, originally released on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and peel back the oily layer of Wilson’s lyrical metaphors to glance into the depths of his tortured soul. In the tune’s restless battlescape, cowboys and indians facing off in a dust-blown shanty town stood in for the forces of “good” and “evil” he saw himself trapped between. A perennial internal tug-of-war born from his turbulent upbringing and inbred insecurity. Psychedelics informed much of Wilson’s Pet Sounds/Smile era – and would later lead to a misdiagnosis that was almost the end of the pop genius – and allowed Wilson the power to probe the darkest corners of his painful past with bright melodies and rich orchestral arrangements. Similarly, Love & Mercy is dark and tender – like a good chunk of turkey – journey into deeper meaning; a filmic psychoanalysis of a man balancing on piano wire at the height of his fame and fortune. Read More


Out in Theaters: THE LEGO MOVIE

“The Lego Movie”
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie
Animation, Action, Comedy
100 Mins


Dripping with commercial appeal and name brand recognition, The Lego Movie could have easily joined the ranks of previous toy-turned-tale blockbusters. With the likes of Transformers and Battleship, studios have established a shady history of leaning on bankable properties to churn out flimsy showcases that add up to little more than an audio assault and visual fireworks, a cheap attempt to capitalize on audience familiarity and earn a quick buck. While those movies sifted our childlike glee through a filter of blue-toned, sensory bombardment, attempting to twist our arms in hopes of nostalgic forgiveness and financial reward, The Lego Movie goes the completely opposite route and awards those hankering to see their favorite childhood toys onscreen with a gleefully told story of epic Lego magnitude. Irreverent and hyper-self-aware, this adaptation takes everything we loved about the buildable blocks and seamlessly weaves it into a startlingly awesome and fully engaging narrative about creativity, imagination and encouragement, resulting in the best animated movie since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

At the center of the Legoverse, lovable goof Chris Pratt voices Emett, a run-of-the-mill construction worker figure who tries his darnedest to assimilate with the uber-chipper Lego society marching in perfect formation around him. In Emett’s city, uniformity is the bee’s knees. Everyone loves the same song (“Everything is Awesome”), watches the same TV show (“Where Are My Pants?”) and has the same water cooler conversations day in and day out.

It’s a society structured around structure, a sociopolitical climate that’s laid out with instruction booklets (*wink*) and enforced with hive mind mentality. And no matter how hard Emett tries to fit in, he’s just so extraordinarily ordinary that people hardly remember his face (well that may be the result of everyone’s face being composed of same shade of iconic yellow, plastered with a smile and bulbous black eyes.) So when Emett stumbles upon a coveted brick and is mistakenly identified as “The Special”, he goes along with it. He allows new ally Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to believe that he’s a world class master builder because it’s the first time anyone has ever recognized potential in him.

Behind the scenes, President Business (a perfectly wacky Will Ferrell) secretly runs the show, cunningly steering the fate of the city’s inhabitants, hell bent on a maniacal scheme to unleash the ghastly Kragle, a weapon so devastating that it will forever glue the world into its proper place With Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) at his every beck and call, Business is out to destroy creativity as well as Emmet, the supposed harbinger of prophecy, and his fellowship of master builders.

Backed by enough voice cameos to keep you wracking your brain and a solid heap of characters pulled in from nearly every imaginable franchise, Lego is overflowing with talent. You’ll find the likes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day as an 80’s astronaut, Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett as Batman, Will Forte, Jonah Hill, Nick Offerman, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jake Johnson and even Morgan Freeman‘s sultry tenor all giving rock solid voice performances that aid the laughing stock The Lego Movie becomes.

With Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind the first Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the recently rebooted and well-received 21 Jump Street, at the helm, the project has just as much focus placed on the comedy as the storyline and stylish animation. Accordingly, the jokes fly a mile a minute.

But beneath it all is a genuine heartbeat. Emett’s journey is a common hero’s quest but his goofy antics and self-sacrificing ways provide an emotional basis for our ongoing investment in his arc. Driving home a message that everyone’s special may be a little pear-shaped in the age of the Great Recession but there’s something intentionally ironic behind all the hackneyed encouragement. Maybe The Lego Movie would like to tell us we’re all special but that’s a message that only lingers on the surface. Beneath that, Lord and Miller reach out and say “We know that’s not true, but that’s still cool.”

The film is loaded with irreverent, double entendre moments like this, a self-aware meta angle that makes the experience just as much rewarding for adults as it is for kids. The screenwriting duo even take potshots at the lesser regarded Lego properties to great comic effect. Rarely taking a break from tongue-in-cheek mockery of Business, who for all intents is a place holding satire of the very company footing the bill for this movie, their voice is strangely misaligned with the lousy money-grubbing staples of the industry. They preach thinking outside the box while the inevitable accompanying merchandise will deal in exactly this kind of box-set salesmanship. Just eat up that irony.

Going back to the kids, those sugar-stuffed Ritalinites are sure to just eat this up as the partially CGI, partially stop-motion visual style is mind-boggling enough to make even a surly old man’s jaw drop much less a wide-eyed youngster. Cross the delectable ratio of genuine belly laughs with the crafty visual palette and Miller and Lord deserve a hearty pat on the back. Congratulations guys, you’ve made the best animated film in years.


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“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
144 Mins

Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire and Jennifer Lawrence may be Hollywood hot stuff (du jour), but this second installment of The Hunger Games is only slightly smoldering. In fact, the embers have already started to go cold. All the requisite franchise pieces are there to stoke the billion dollar conflagration this dystopian blockbuster is sure to light, but the overwhelming feeling that there is little spark behind the bark leaves us chilled to all this talk of fire.

Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned “safely” from the 74th Hunger Games but now they face the red hot wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who’s now breathing down their necks. Their final act of near-berry-gobbling defiance in the last film has led to stirrings of revolution across the districts. Through Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself to preserve her moral scruples, the country stands newly empowered. Unwittingly, Katniss has located a kink in the armor of Snow’s totalitarian society and must now suffer the price.


The seeds of hope Katniss and Peeta have planted, Snow plans to stomp out. He supposes that the country’s cautious optimism towards a new tomorrow can be quelled if Katniss and Peeta maintain the facade of their romance. By making them one of his own kind, they will become symbols of corruption – a constantly broadcast morphing into the upper class. But all of this is predicated on their selling their “true love” like it’s Oprah Winfrey coach hour. Anything that would even suggest their affection is a muse would be the equivalent of open rebellion and would lead Snow to “take care of” both Katniss and Peeta’s families mobster style. When Snow realizes that the country may not turn against the star-crossed apples of their eye, he launches a new scheme that will pit them, and former victors, again each other again. 

In spite of these constant death threats, Catching Fire lacks breathless moments of white knuckle suspense. No matter how many times the dialogue, aided by Sutherland’s ripe delivery, insist that Katniss and her loved ones are teetering on the precipice of danger, there is little to convince us that anyone could actually be offed. In a franchise like this, everyone is too padded to actually face death. No harm will last more than a few hours, no scar will be too deep to heal. We know Katniss has no expiration date as the franchise train booms towards a fourth film and so any threat towards her – or her cohort’s – life feels paper thin.


And while the first film held a flicker of filmmaking as rebellion, everything about this one screams studio control and designed realism. It all feels so reined in, so calculated in its darkness, and so badly wanting to break free of its PG-13 constraints that it can’t help but lose track of the meaning behind the books. In trying to reel in the masses (and their wallets), Catching Fire as Hollywood product is almost exactly what “Catching Fire” as commentary rages against – turning its back on the central message of stoic individualism against the oppressive tyranny of the elite. The hand of the studio is omnipresent – although hardly malevolent – and there seems to be little to no room for creative flair in the directorial department. Again, big business trumps individual spirit.

Sorely missing is Gary Ross’s urgent camerawork and tight closeups that gave The Hunger Games such a sense of realism. Instead of jammed close in on character’s faces and sharing in their ghastly horror, we feel distant, an observer. With edge-of-your-seat scenes largely tabled, Francis Lawrence goes for something much more horrific – a near 12 Years a Slave for kids. One scene depicting poisonous fog is particularly distressing and uncharacteristically grim for a film of this rating. On the brink of being “too dark,” there is little artistry behind the darkness that feels more like “gritty per popular demand.”


Shying away from the close quarters, almost independent film-esque combat of the first flick, the violence in Catching Fire is staged like the many CGI heavy blockbusters of late. Much violence take place offscreen, in a wide zoom, or in rapid, random bursts, making death almost as inconsequential as it is in a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie. While the first film saw Katniss struggling with the murder of other children, this film sees her adversaries stripped of that very feature that made their slaughter so perverse and unsettling in the first place. Instead, these adult competitors become faceless baddies in another adventure film.

This franchise middle-child also suffers a pretty rough case of inbetweener syndrome, where it only works within the context of a larger story and not as a standalone film. While it propels what began in the first film into the coming finale, it lacks the finesse of a great middler. Without the pure adrenaline of The Two Towers and the tonal twists and turns of Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire just carries on the torch, readying it for the next billion dollar installment. Although the bleak-o-meter has been cranked up, the stakes remain largely the same: do or die. 

As sets the gears to full throttle for the inevitable two-part conclusion, we ask, “Haven’t we seen this all before?” The skies have darkened and life on Panem is more unbearable than ever but for all the barrels of darkness and grit-drenched scenery, there is familiarity to this racetrack of escalation that we’ve seen in greater franchises (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter).


But for all of my complaints and griping, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a smarter than average blockbuster. It’s hard to finger where the $140+ million budget went – none of the special effects are noteworthy – but hopefully most of it is going towards the performers, as they continue to be the strongest selling point of this franchise. However, it’s the supporting characters who outshine the love-locked trio. Stanley Tucci is simply a riot (and possibly the best part of the film) and Elizabeth Banks is as wacky and invisible in her character as ever. Even Woody Harrelson‘s haunted alcoholic Haymitch has more depth than before and seems to be more commited to the emotional toil of his role than many of his co-stars. And however lackluster some of the CGI is, the set design gives us a rock solid sense of place and tone.

Finally, fans of the source material will have little to complain about since the book is adapted to the T. But when all is said and done, it’s just not a terribly exciting movie and one which I don’t expect to return to. Really feeling the sting of its “part of a whole” status, Catching Fire is better at blowing smoke than fanning the flames. 


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As the November 22 release date marches closer, check out the last slew of promo material for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Sure to be the biggest film of the winter, and one of the biggest films of the year, Catching Fire sees the replacement of director Gary Ross for Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend). Although its financial success is pretty much already in the bag, we’ll see if the director swap will pay off or if a dip in quality will be notable.

Following the events of the first film, Catching Fire returns to the fictional dystopia of Panem where President Snow sends Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawerence) back to the Hunger Game arena for the “Quarter Quell” – a best-of-the-best showdown between former victories from all 12 districts.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is directed by Francis Lawrence and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Jefferey Wright and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It hits theaters on November 22, 2013.