The Hunger Games: Catching Fire / Thor: The Dark World

120px-Film-stripA night for sequels, it seems. Annoyingly, we had to journey between cinemas as the latter was only on in evil 3D at our nearest picture house.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

“Remember who the real enemy is.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Winners of the last Hunger Games get pulled into the new ones

See it if you like: the first film and the books

Not one I was keen on seeing as I thought the books were a little dull, and the first film – which I’ve seen bits of here and there – looked equally weak. My preconceptions were borne out by a movie that stayed close to the source material. In some cases this would be a good thing, but it’s not when you’re not a fan of the original.

It moved along nicely enough, but I found the whole thing a little mawkish and several of the characters annoyed me more than anything else. A new director couldn’t save it and the ludicrously over-the-top makeup and clothing worn by the Capital citizens really just looks stupid. By all means show off the difference between the have and have-nots, but there’s a line and this goes way past it.

Obviously there will be a sequel, but at least that’ll be the end of it. If you want to find out more about the film them watch the trailer. It covers virtually every major piece of plot and line of dialogue up until the contestants enter the arena just over halfway through.

Thor: The Dark World

“There is nothing more reassuring than knowing that the world is crazier than you are.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Some bad guys are after some bad stuff that the Asgardians are looking after so they can rule the universe

See if it you like: Big, silly superhero films

Another film I wasn’t that fussed about as a) I’m not a big Thor fan and b) I didn’t think the first film was very good. Short version – this is better than the last one.

Thing is, it’s not that much better. It’s less overblown, faster-paced and more quotable. There are more moments of humour and the effects are, undoubtedly, superb. But it just didn’t grab me the way the Iron Man series did. In fairness, I was exhausted by the time we sat down to see this showing which won’t have helped, but I just felt it ran too long.

There’s not a bad story there and it really sets itself up for a sequel (avoiding spoilers prevents me from saying why), but that’s no surprise. As ever, there are a couple of extra bits in the credits – both mid-way and right at the very end.

Chris Hemsworth has his top off a couple of times and I think that was enough to make my Mrs happy.

Beyond that, Thor 2 doesn’t really do anything to set itself out amongst the current glut of superhero films. it’s not bad, but it’s just not super.

Rush / White House Down

120px-Film-stripTwo-film Thursday again, and this week only two films happened to be on that we hadn’t seen and wanted to see. Nice, easy choice for a change!

Rush

“Asshole.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: dramatised biopic of the 1976 F1 season focusing on the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda

See it if you like: tight, character-driven dramas with an edge of action. Or F1. Or cars.

I begin with the same disclaimer with which I started my review of Senna about two years ago: “I am not an F1 fan. I appreciate the technology and so forth, but I find the sport itself deathly dull.” I will, however, also reach the same conclusion – it makes for bloody brilliant films.

Seriously, without looking on IMDB to check his filmography, I don’t think Ron Howard has made a single bad film. And he continues the impressive trend with this.

Despite being set in the world of motor racing, the tale is very much focused on the two main characters – ladies man and bit-of-a-dick James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and rat-like workhorse Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).

From their first meeting during a Formula 3 race to their world famous clash during the 1976 F1 season, the story follows their personal lives, relationship with each other and memorable events on the track.

One benefit, as with Senna, of not being a fan of the racing is that I didn’t know exactly how things would pan out as far as results went. Obviously it must have been tight, but beyond that it added something to the film by not knowing. At one point the wife, who probably likes F1 even less than me, leaned over and asked “Does anyone die in this race?” She was genuinely wrapped up so much in the characters that she was nervous about watching. It’s that good.

While the track sequences are stunning they are purely the backdrop to the excellent performances by the leads (and supporting cast) who really portray two vastly different men who ended up very much respecting each other. The story on the way there is a roller-coaster of a ride of the highest order and left me just as thrilled and exhausted at the end as if I’d been on a real one.

I’ll finish with a quote from the Mrs: “I’d say more than pleasantly surprised, there were points when I was literally on the edge of my seat. Not into cars at all but this is a great film, I really enjoyed it.”

White House Down

“How do you lose a rocket launcher?”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: mad loons break into the White House to kidnap the President. Only one man (and his daughter, and a tour guide, and another man, and some people outside) can stop them

See it if you like: Silly action films that don’t make much sense, but entertain nevertheless

By coincidence, we watched Olympus Has Fallen earlier this week, which has a very similar plot but takes a more serious tone than the more “jokey” one apparent in scenes of White House Down. In fact, the trailer for this film may make you think that it’s more of a buddy-buddy comedy action.

Actually, it isn’t. Although there are some light-hearted moments and good one-liners, it’s as much a comedy as Die Hard (which is always going to be the benchmark for 1-man or 2-men against overwhelming odds action films). The effects are better than OHF‘s as well, which to me looked more like a made-for-TV movie with some shonky CGI vehicles and the like.

In this WHD, Channing Tatum plays Cale, a wannabe secret service agent and actual army drop-out with a failed marriage. His dream job is to be on the presidential guard to impress his daughter (a marginally annoying, but only in a way all teenagers are, Joey King). The President in this case is played by Jamie Foxx and he’s probably the piece of the puzzle (barring the usual “no human can take that many beatings issue) which provides the weak link.

Foxx isn’t bad at all. And he works well alongside Tatum in their scenes together. It’s the character himself that requires belief suspension. First of all a black president (one of the background reporters towards the end actually refers to him as “Obama”!), and one who wants to withdraw all troops from the Middle East thus setting up the reasons for the assault on the White House. Yeah, right.

However, if you can’t suspend belief during an action film then you may as well sit at home. It rollicks along at a fair old pace once it gets going with suitably bad bad guys, buff good guys, and ineffective authority figures bickering amongst themselves instead of getting the job done.

Oh, and if there’s one whopping great reference to Bruce Willis‘s best film it’s the computer hacker. Flamboyant, egotistical, and listening to classical music while he taps away.

As expected, the bangs and crunches get bigger and stupider as the film progresses. No surprises, no major twists that you can’t see coming a mile away but still a fun ride.

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Snow White and the Huntsman

By إبن البيطار (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsTime to take Little Miss to the cinema and this retelling of a Disney-fied classic seemed ideal.

Snow White and the Huntsman

“Lips red as blood. Hair black as night. Bring me your heart my dear, dear Snow White.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Evil stepmother takes over a kingdom while the king’s true offspring tries to win it back

See it if you like: dark fantasy flicks which focus as much on story as spectacle

Gillian had been wanting to see this since she eyed the poster in the cinema. Little Miss had, I think, seen a trailer on the telly. I was pretty much just along for the ride. Funnily enough it was the second film in two days we’d seen with Charlize Theron in it (after yesterday’s Prometheus) – and it very almost has Michael Fassbender as he was considered for the role of the Huntsman.

Now this is a story that all of you will have heard before, and which virtually everyone will have enjoyed in its cartoon form. There are certainly parallels to this version (Snow White’s costume early in the film and her relationship with wildlife, for instance), but the tale twists and turns in different ways. The scriptwriters had a very different vision and some excellent ideas for bringing the tale to life. A shining example is the evil stepmother’s magic mirror which melts and appears in humanoid form that only she can see.

The effects, in fact, steal the show. They’re imaginative and seamless. From the creatures in the magical forest sequence to the dwarves (of which there are actually eight…). Rather than taking the easy route of hiring eight people of diminutive stature, the director has opted for some very well known names and some fantastic jiggery-pokery to make them appear very realistically miniaturised. I was sat there for a good few minutes trying to convince myself that it was actually Bob Hoskins up there. And Nick Frost. And Ray Winstone. And Ian McShane.

Visually, then, it’s great. The story is well enough known in one for to be easy to follow, and all the better for the fact that it’s a new (to me at least) version. If there’s one thing that lets it down it’s the pacing. I found things to be a little drawn out at times. While the action sequences, and there are a lot of them, were bursting with excitement, the dramatic scenes were a little slow and made the film really feel like all of its 127 minutes. Having said that, Little Miss enjoyed the whole thing and it must have been good for an 11 year old to sit right through without complaint.

Certainly the cast give it their all with Kristen Stewart being perfect as the titular character and Chris Hemsworth convincing as the man sent, at first, to hunt her down. Feminists will appreciate that Snow White is no shrinking violet saved by a handsome prince in this version, instead being more of a Joan of Arc character gaining strength as the tale progresses.

I tend to find myself agreeing with the current average score on IMDB – around 7/10. With a little better pacing, it could have jumped up to an 8, but it’s still pretty good and shouldn’t disappoint. The 12A rating is spot on, too. The violence isn’t grisly, it’s very much a fantasy piece, and there’s no real nudity (a bare back is about as much as you see).

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Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

A surprise trip out to catch the film on the night of release. Carefully avoiding the crappy 3D version, and not being able to afford the IMAX we settled on the tiny-old-cinema-screen-with-dodgy-sound experience.

Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

“I have a plan: attack!”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Superheroes team up and fight bad guys. Well, dur.

See it if you like: Low-brow superhero flicks with too many characters.

There’s no denying the huge hype machine for this 142 minute effects-fest. With four films supplying the lead-in as far as story goes (more if you include the two Hulk movies) it has a lot to live up to. But does it manage it?

Well, as far as scale goes it’s pretty good. There’s a nice central bad guy and a nice huge threat towards the end to make it all larger than life. However, I found it somewhat messy with a couple of the characters virtually sidelined. Don’t expect the same level of cover for Black Widow and Hawkeye (Chris Evans) as for the other Avengers. In a way, it’s a good thing as they’re definitely weaker characters, certainly in this script. Scarlett Johanssen, for instance, just doesn’t convince me at all in her role, especially as the films plods on. She looks positively weak trying to wield two handguns.

On the flip side, there’s a great dynamic between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the banter between characters overall is pretty good. Snappy one-liners and a good dose of humour lift the film in just the right places. In fact there’s one very brief sequence – it involves Hulk and that’s as much as I’ll say – which had the audience roaring with laughter.

I wasn’t a fan of the Thor movie, but he’s much better in this. He’s just two dull to be the focus of a whole movie, but works well as part of the ensemble. I still don’t get how he’s a Norse god, but speaks with a posh English accent though.

The effects are predictably top-notch, with a good blend of live action and CGI. It looks like the effects masters are finally getting this right. The explosions are suitably meaty, and there’s plenty of destruction to keep even the most child-like of minds happy.

There’s not a huge amount in the way of plot – bad guy wants to take over earth, superheroes stop him (sorry if that spoils it for you) – and it does go very slowly in places. I confess to being a little tired on the evening we went, but I still didn’t expect to catch myself almost falling asleep. I did. Twice. One it got past this (around the hour mark), thankfully things picked up pace and I began to enjoy it more.

Overall, the two Iron Man films still stand out as the best recent offerings from this particular canon. The third in that series is coming up soon, and there’s also a teaser in the end credits of this film for more forthcoming action. Whether it’s a hint for Iron Man 3 or a second Avengers film, though, I don’t know.

Good, but not brilliant.

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Thor

Just the one film and an early weekend one at that. It’s been previewing since Monday and we opted for the cornea-friendly 2D version of…

Thor

“Did it work?”

See it if you like: superhero films with more pathos and romance than humour and action. Think Hulk rather than Iron Man.

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Origin story of a Norse god who becomes a mortal on earth in the modern day, and set-up for a team-up movie due next year.

I’ll generally go to see any superhero film that comes out and the majority these days seem to come from Marvel Comics. DC seem to have stuck with churning out more Batman ones, and failing to release new Superman episodes. Marvel, on the other hand, seems content to churn out as many films as it can based on every major character it holds, regardless of quality. Sometimes hit, sometimes miss.

Thor, for me, fell into the latter category. Despite a reasonable cast, it just seemed like a big, gaudy mess. Chris Hemsworth is excellent in the role of Thor himself (but since when did he have a beard? The guy from the comics I remember was clean-shaven) and Anthony Hopkins is fine as Odin. Brian Blessed was apparently considered and I’m glad they didn’t go with him otherwise the whole thing would have looked even more like Flash Gordon.

Natalie Portman seems to be popping up in a lot recently and performs passably as some scientist whose name I can’t be bothered to look up who goes all doey-eyed at Mr Muscles.

The biggest surprise was seeing Shakespearian legend Kenneth Branagh attached as director. Given the kind of story the films tells, it’s perhaps not a bad choice. It is operatic and dramatic, so it does suit him. However, I just found the whole thing completely overblown in its use of effects.

The halls of Asgard look like an overgrown church organ and the Rainbow Bridge seems to have been made by gluing together several million “Ziggy” handsets from early episodes of Quantum Leap.

If there’s a highlight it’s the Destroyer – a genuinely scary and fearsome-looking opponent with a rather spine-chilling sound every time it’s about to shoot fire. Having said that, the battle sequence it features in is just kind of “OK”. Having said that, its appearance on earth leads to possibly the best line in the film.

In response to the quote heading this review, uttered by the wonderful Stan Lee in his expected cameo, I have to say “Sorry, fella. No. It didn’t.”

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