The Hunger Games (2012)

I can’t even begin to say what a great surprise The Hunger Games was. Having recently finished the novel, I had concerns over how the film would adapt the first-person narrative, filled with introspection by the protagonist Katniss Everdeen and flashbacks to earlier in her life. What’s great about the movie: they didn’t try to do that.

Instead, we have a remarkably directed, almost dreamlike flow through the story. The film travels briskly from scene to scene, organically blending in backstory that is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. Rather than filling in the exposition through explanation, as the novel does, we are given the dystopic scenario and the formation of the Hunger Games through news broadcasts of the current year’s Games. None of this feels forced or even too heavily reinforced.

The Hunger Games is the rare film for children / young adults that trusts that the audience is an intelligent and mature one. It counts on the audience to pay attention, as names and details fly by in quick succession. There is very little sweet or sugarcoated about this world, and the movie doesn’t bother to dwell on that. The color palette is filled with bleak greys and blacks, with some very intense sequences of violence (which honestly made me wonder how on earth this movie scraped past an R rating and instead earned a PG-13).

In addition to its disturbing content, this film is also noteworthy for its strong performances. Jennifer Lawrence (as always!) is fantastic as the lead character, and pairs well with her semi-love interest Josh Hutcherson, who also gives a well-restrained and believable performance.

Following in the tradition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hunger Games is so effective because it feels as authentic as it possibly could. Given the fantastical elements that are embedded in the story, everything else, from the characters’ dialogue, the scenery, and even the wobbly first-person camera work, ring true.

The Hunger Games is an excellent start to what I hope will be a solid film series. It is such an unusual concept for a major studio to pursue, and I welcome its confidence to present a film experience that is disturbing, harsh, and most importantly, believable.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is unique in that it demands a second viewing, despite being a simple, minimalist narrative built more on nuances and the passage of time than a mind trip piece like Donnie Darko.

It starts at a deliberately slow pace, telling of a young man entering high school shy and friendless, and eventually becomes accepted into a hip and interesting social circle. Some of it feels a little too on the Juno side, constantly name-dropping “cool” bands as an initial means to bring the characters together. While this plot device gets old fast, it does feel authentic albeit tiring by the end. We get it, you make each other mix tapes.

What the film does very well is represent the frustrations of ourselves, our loved ones, and the choices we make. The characters fight, experiment with drugs, and fall in love with the wrong people. There is a powerful quote that, when it comes to romance, “we accept what we think we deserve.”

Flashes like this are when the movie works at its best; at its core, it is really a tragic story, and these people don’t have any meaning in their lives beyond that which they create for themselves. We see these people as fully developed, flawed human beings, whose past actions shape their behavior in the present.

A disturbing revelation at the end explains the protagonist (excellently played by newcomer Logan Lerman) and the weight he has carried for years. Even before his past is explained, his acting choices make it clear that there is something terribly wrong. We also get superb and well-rounded performances from Emma Watson (despite her so-so American accent) and Ezra Miller as the two mentor figures who take Lerman’s character in.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a powerful existentialist look at the adolescent experience. It has a slow start and falls into some high school movie cliche, but the insight it provides is unmatched by most other films about youth.

Argo (2012)

Argo is the interesting, if not exceptionally engaging, true story of a CIA operation to recover six American hostages in Iran during the 1980s. While the details of the mission are often surprising and interesting, history is against this film, as we all know today that everything worked out fine.

This leads to many scenes filled with obstacles that we know the characters will overcome. They go through an Iranian bazaar, struggle to get past airport security, and eventually onto the plane to take them out of the country. During all of these scenes, the tension feels very forced; rather than focus on the more interesting part of the story (the fake movie they are supposed to be producing and the actions taken by the US government), we are given lots of 5-minute problems.

For example, the hostages are forced to take on new identities in a very short time. What? There’s no way it can be done. What? Okay, we’ll do it.

Argo is full of scenes like this, which by the end become exhausting. There’s not going to be much tension or uncertainty as to the outcome of this mission, so I don’t know why director Ben Affeck wastes his time and ours on trying to draw that out in the audience.

The worst offense is when the hostages and CIA operative are on the plane as it is leaving Iran, and Iranian police cars chase after a plane as it is taking off…surprisingly, the police are unable to stop it. I laughed out loud, wondering if the moment was supposed to be funny or if we aren’t supposed to know that cars can’t outrun airplanes.

One scene I particularly enjoyed was a moment when the hostages’ airplane tickets had to be re-sent to the airport; I appreciated seeing the coordination between Affleck’s actions (in Iran) with those of Washington DC officials. It’s too easy for Hollywood movies to focus on the achievements of one individual, so I welcomed this glimpse of how missions like this requires cooperation from all parties.

This movie was an entertaining one, though unfortunately misguided. It’s as though Affleck misread what would make a good movie about this fascinating story.

Life of Pi (2012)

Ang Lee’s latest film Life of Pi is a visually stunning and breathtaking experience. It is one of the few films that, in my opinion, is actually better suited for 3D than boring ol’ 2D, and is perfect to experience in the movie theater rather than Netflixing in a couple months.

Pi is so impressive because it is consistently entertaining and surprising for two or so hours, surprising for a plot that doesn’t have much action. It does follow a pretty standard Hero’s Journey format, with some pretty sad (but not tear-jerking) moments. By the end, it becomes clear that almost every scene is necessary (save the love story that goes nowhere). Plus, it borrows from Big Fish in that much of what REALLY happened is left open to interpretation, and I like to see that in big-budget movies. It is far too infrequent that we get films that generate engaging discussion among audiences, and I am happy that Life of Pi gives us that opportunity.

The film’s strongest suit, as you’ve no doubt heard, is its visual effects. The best effects, in my opinion, are always those which blur the line between what is real (physical) and what is not (CGI), and Life of Piprovides consistently jaw-dropping and convincing images that are hard to forget. The camera work is exceptional as well, with non-traditional shots and transitions. Some of the most memorable are bird’s-eye shots, overlooking the protagonist Pi and the tiger Richard Parker floating in the sea, at a perfect 90-degree angle.

As much of a visual and intellectual treat as Life of Pi is, it is hard for me to imagine Academy members and audiences regarding it as the best film (not just one of the best films) of 2012. I absolutely liked it, hands down – but in a year with emotional powerhouses like Silver Linings Playbook,Brave, and many other movies that left a stronger impression on me, it is really a far cry from Best Picture 2012.

Weekend (1967)

There’s a new Weekend Criterion in town. My town, at least, as I am very slow to rent these movies.

Weekend is an explosive and creative work by the famed Jean-Luc Godard, a story of the apocalypse framed in an Alice in Wonderland-esque format. It follows a middle-class couple as they journey among other refugees, including a man who believes himself God, an isolated barnyard, and ultimately a camp of cannibalistic hippies.

I am not typically shocked by movies, but Weekend had certain elements, both thematic and visual, that were very disturbing. One of the opening scenes features the female protagonist describing a horrific sexual encounter, but with an indifferent tone juxtaposing the bizarre acts she is describing. There is also graphic footage of the killing of animals, which was effective but, in my opinion, unnecessary and cruel.

Weekend is also full of intriguing and engaging philosophical and political debate. There is a memorable moment when two men, an African and an Arab, discuss the exploitation and destruction done unto their people by Western culture. This profound, and unfortunately still-relevant debate, is bookended by consistent allusions to Marx, Rousseau, and other political thinkers.

Considered a cornerstone of French New Wave Cinema, Weekend is an entertaining and very thought-provoking existential look at middle-class culture and how easily one can succumb to terrible acts. Godard’s film shows that there is very little separating what we call civilization and the state of nature.