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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men-Days of Future Past

by Steve Habrat

Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.

What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?

X-Men-Days of Future Past #2

By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.

As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.

Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.

Grade: A-

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American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.

American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.

With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”

Amy Adams;Jennifer Lawrence

Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.

As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.

Grade: A

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Catching Fire #1

by Steve Habrat

Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!

Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.

At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.

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As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.

As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.

Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!

Grade: B  

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

by Steve Habrat

After spending time with the boxer Micky Ward and his dysfunctional clan in The Fighter, writer-director David O. Russell decides to lighten up a bit and tickle our funny bones with the romantic comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook. Based on the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook retains some of the grittiness and raw family drama that made up The Fighter, which turns this sappy exercise of love lost and love found into something very heartwarming and special. With his real-world tone set in the first few moments of the film, Russell then focuses on creating characters that are all a bit nutty, which instantly allows the viewer to fall in love with them. Russell even managed to make me really like Bradley Cooper, an actor that I have always felt was highly overrated and never as charismatic as he has been made out. With the character he takes here, Cooper makes a strong case for himself and actually manages to lure me over to “Team Cooper” if only for a little while (I hear there is another Hangover movie coming out this summer so my feelings may change once I see that one). Yet Silver Linings Playbook ultimately belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, the young but aggressive widow who befriends Cooper’s bipolar Patrick and attempts to keep his feet on the ground. It is the relationship between them that is the mushy core of Silver Linings Playbook and the part that you just won’t be able to shake off.

After catching his beloved wife Nikki (Played by Brea Bee) having an affair, Pat Solitano (Played by Bradley Cooper) suffers a violent melt down and is sent to a mental health facility for severe bipolar disorder. After eight months of treatment, Pat is released to his doting mother, Dolores (Played by Jacki Weaver), and his Philadelphia Eagles obsessed father Pat Sr. (Played by Robert DeNiro). With a new positive outlook on life, Pat spends his days refusing to take his medication, reading, exercising, and thinking up ways to win Nikki back, even though she has moved away and has a restraining order against him. Convinced he is on the right track, Pat reconnects with his friend Ronnie (Played by John Ortiz) and his overbearing wife, Veronica (Played by Julia Stiles). One evening, Pat attends a dinner at Ronnie’s house where he ends up meeting Tiffany, a beautiful young widow and recovering sex addict who he forms a quirky relationship with. As the two bond, Pat tries to convince Tiffany to help him communicate with Nikki but Tiffany will only help him if he enters a dance competition with her. Pat reluctantly agrees but he soon finds himself being pulled away from Tiffany by his football obsessed family. To make things worse, Pat begins to fear that he may not be able to win Nikki back.

While Silver Linings Playbook has some heavy moments that rival those found in The Fighter, Russell manages to milk some chuckles even from the most severe situations. The flashback scene where Pat catches Nikki having an affair is cleverly shot from Pat’s POV with a dreamy haze clouding the frame. It is a tense moment that throws a moment of hilarity our way just before Pat unleashes on the guy Nikki is having an affair with. Another scene finds Pat desperately searching for his wedding video. He bursts into his parent’s room in a panic and forces his mother out of bed to aid him in his search (this is just one moment where he bursts in on his poor parents in the middle of the night). As tensions rise and tempers flare, Pat suffers a breakdown that finds fists and slaps flying and the neighbors congregating outside the Solitano home in disbelief. It is a confrontation that should have us nervously shifting in our seats but there is something vaguely hilarious and absurd about it, especially when Patrick accidentally hits his mother. When we aren’t chuckling at the blow ups, we will be getting a kick out of a tour of Ronnie’s home, where Patrick and Tiffany continuously make one inappropriate statement after another (one involving iPod docks and Metallica is especially hilarious). Then there is awkward first date between Tiffany and Patrick on Halloween night, one that starts harmless enough but then spirals horribly out of control as tables are knocked over and the police respond to an argument outside of a movie theater as kids in Halloween costumes close in on poor Patrick. It is almost as if Russell is inviting us to observe the silver lining to these situations, to look past the seriousness and just laugh at our own insanity.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Then there are the spot on performances from Cooper and Lawrence, both that do crazy very, very well. I’ve never found Cooper to be particularly funny but I must say he really delivers the laughs here. He is pathetic in his constant state of delusion and stubbornness, insisting that he doesn’t need to take his medication because he thinks it makes him foggy and bloated. You can’t help but feel sorry for him as he insists that he will get back together with Nikki and everything will work out. When his extreme personality mixes with Tiffany’s, Silver Linings Playbook really soars. Tiffany is just as erratic as Cooper’s sporty Patrick, but she hides behind tangled mess of dark hair and thick eye make-up. It is certainly the most mature role that Lawrence has taken yet, one that dips into pure teary-eyed emotion and shies away from the chilly, closed-off intensity she brought to Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. On the outside, she is strong and firm, but the more she opens up, the easier it is for her to break. Meanwhile, DeNiro gives one of his strongest and emotionally charged performances in years as Pat’s father. A scene where he begs to spend more time with his son is heart wrenching and, yes, hilarious. Weaver is in top form as Pat’s fussy mother, who really enjoys making snacks for her boys as they huddle around the television. Chris Tucker is also present in a small role as Danny, a fellow patient from the mental heath facility who keeps trying to break out.

At two hours, I feared that Silver Linings Playbook would begin to loose steam in its second half but thankfully it doesn’t. The second half of the film focuses heavily on a bet made by Pat’s father and a fellow buddy with a bad gambling problem. Naturally, the bet centers on the Eagles and the big dance competition that Tiffany and Patrick are participating in. When we finally get to the big dance competition, the big moment seems all too brief and, dare I say, rushed. Either way, the dance routine is wonderfully handled and ends up being a bit of bubbly fun. As far as the family drama is concerned, Russell once again proves that he really knows how to handle this type of material and make the emotions relatable. Maybe it is the lack of polish that really allows these scenes and characters to come to life. Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is a pragmatic reminder that we are all bit crazy, some just a more than others. It is a touching, funny, sweet, and irresistible love story that really has us rooting for the emotionally shattered Patrick and Tiffany. It is a comforting reminder that every moment is another chance for us to heal, we just have to watch for the signs.

Grade: A-

The Hunger Games (2012)

by Steve Habrat

If you are someone who refuses to get swept up in The Hunger Games fever and dismisses the film as just a Twilight wannabe, you need to get to a theater immediately and check the film out for yourself. The Hunger Games is the first must-see movie of 2012 and it certainly lives up to the hype surrounding it. I went into the film with a neutral attitude, never having read one of the books and not overly excited to see the movie. About halfway through, I was fully immersed in the film because of the way director Gary Ross sold me Katniss Everdeen’s story and how he shaped the world of Panem. When it comes to other teen franchises, mostly Harry Potter and Twilight, I have to say that The Hunger Games is the most impressive debut film, one that establishes characters that I want more from, action that was both uncomfortable and yet exhilarating, and a cliffhanger of an ending that makes a sequel necessary. But The Hunger Games refuses to go flat stylistically much like Harry Potter and Twilight did on their first run, and I have to say that I ate up the Battle Royale meets District 9 meets A Clockwork Orange meets THX 1138 meets 1984 appearance of The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games drops us off in the totalitarian nation of Panem, a post-apocalyptic world that is made up of the futuristic Capital and the twelve poorer districts that surround it. We arrive in the mining town of District 12 where we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Played by Jennifer Lawrence) who shacks up with her younger sister Prim (Played by Willow Shields) and her mother. Every year, the nation of Panem huddles around their televisions to watch the Hunger Games, where twenty-four children are selected by the government and then forced to fight each other until only one survivor remains. During “the reaping”, an event in which the gaudily dressed Effie (Played by Elizabeth Banks) selects one boy and one girl from the Districts, Prim ends up being one of the names that gets called. Katniss volunteers to go in her sister’s place, an offer that is accepted by Effie. The boy who is selected is Peeta Mellark (Played by Josh Hutcherson), who hides feelings for the prickly Katniss. They soon make the trip to the Capital where they meet their mentor Haymitch (Played by Woddy Harrelson), stylist Cinna (Played by Lenny Kravitz), grandiose announcer and host Caesar Flickerman (Played by Stanley Tucci), and the leader of Panem President Snow (Played by Donald Sutherland). As the kids begin training and battling for sponsorships, Katniss emerges as the most deadly in the Hunger Games, but soon Katniss and Peeta learn that there is more to the games than just simply fighting for your life.

The style that Ross applies to The Hunger Games is reminiscent of past works but all it’s own too. The dystopian decay and totalitarian rule brought District 9, THX 1138, and 1984 to my mind while the games themselves acted as a smoothed over Battle Royale. The futuristic style seemed like they were ripped right out of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the scenes where a group of kids laugh at their own violence brought images of Alex DeLarge and his “droogs”. Yet The Hunger Games feels vaguely fresh and is a beast all its own. It reflects on our willingness to hang on reality television and violence. There are several kids competing in the games who are all too eager to kill off fellow competitors. You can’t help but reflect on the violence that is sold to children both in video games and cinema itself. Yet The Hunger Games doesn’t exploit the carnage, much of it remaining of screen and to our own imagination. The opening moments of the games are extremely brutal as kids with swords, hatchets, knives, and more hack other kids up, some doing it with a faint smile forming on their faces. The Hunger Games suggests desensitized times but throws in a sensitive heroine who only kills if she has to, and she certainly doesn’t do it happily, making Katniss the last good kid alive. The film will no doubt spark discussion about violence and it is justified. Still, I think it is something that children can handle. The violence is never injudicious or excessive and when it does erupt, Ross smartly makes it tough to swallow.

Unlike Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen is a female hero that girls should rally behind. She is a bit unsure of herself when she is in the spotlight, but she remains strong willed, crafty, and resourceful, a “girl on fire” as the film suggests. She isn’t a shallow, scowling teen who broods over two guys fighting over her, whining about how horrible it all is. Early on, she is juxtaposed with Effie, who bathes in glamour, beauty, and excesses, hanging on the glittery material items surrounding her while caring less about the real matter at hand. Ross and screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray illustrate Katniss as a more thoughtful character, someone who looks out for the ones she loves rather than strictly herself in these selfish times. While Katniss does brood, it helps that Ross, Collins, and Ray give Katniss a reason to mope. Her life is on the line.

The rest of the characters are just as captivating as Katniss, leaving the viewer actually wanting more of them too. I loved Tucci’s theatrical blue-haired talk show host and I hope to see more of him in future. Another big surprise is Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, a character of quiet warmth for our dear Katniss. A scene right before the beginning on the game between Cinna and Katniss is truly a standout. I also really liked Harrelson’s Haymitch, a reluctant and drunken mentor who finally comes around when our heroes need him most. And I can’t leave out Elizabeth Banks as Effie, a colorful character who is eccentric but I wish they had pushed her character a bit further. She is deliciously sinister when she is drawing the names for the games, resembling a manic jester relishing in misery. The Hunger Games does work in a slight love story, hinting at a blossoming love triangle between Katniss, the sensitive Peeta, and Gale (Played by Liam Hemsworth), a character who is more seen by the audience not really heard from. I wish the film would have developed his character a bit more, but I feel he will have a strong presence in the future. I just hope and pray the series doesn’t morph into a repetitive soap opera like Twilight did.

Of all the young adult books that have been developed into movies, I firmly believe that The Hunger Games is the best and most important of all of them. The Harry Potter series fell victim to too many artistic approaches and clunky tones, as there was not one consistent director at the helm. The end result is a series that is an absolutely mess with little to no flow between the movies. Twilight was more concerned with selling itself on sex appeal rather than developing a proper story that we can invest in, resulting in a petty franchise with little regard for the fan’s intelligence. I just wish they would wake up and see it. Now we have The Hunger Games, which I hope doesn’t fall victim to what destroyed the Harry Potter franchise. On this first run, it seems that it avoided what has plagued the Twilight saga. I sincerely hope they keep Ross behind the camera, the entire cast committed, and the ideas pulsing. We’re off to a good start with The Hunger Games, and may the odds continue to be in this franchise’s favor.

Grade: A

The Hunger Games (2012)

by Jamie Matty

“The book was better,” is our most common response to page-to-screen adaptations, and yet, one that I couldn’t honestly say as I left the theater this Friday. It’s rare that a film surpasses the novel it was based upon; Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games does just that. For those of you who haven’t read the novels, here’s a quick synopsis: Sometime in a dystopian future, a country called Panem stands where the USA used to be. A lavishly totalitarian capitol city rules over and systematically abuses 12 districts that generate the resources it needs to sustain its hedonism. As a reminder that rebellion is futile, two children are annually selected from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally-televised tournament in which the contestants fight to the death until only one victor remains.  Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) sizzles as Katniss, the brave huntress from District 12 who volunteers to compete in the Games in her little sister’s stead.

In the mix we have a delightful ensemble cast: Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are Alright) and Liam Hemsworth (Some Terrible Nicholas Sparks Movie) star as Katniss’s potential love interests; Woody Harrelson (Cheers) and Lenny Kravitz (American Woman?) serve respectively as her lovably alcoholic trainer and sympathetic personal stylist.  Finally, Elizabeth Banks is unforgettably frightening as a zombiefied Marie Antoinette (a.k.a. Effie Trinket, Katniss’ PR manager).

Though Lawrence seems to have more chemistry with Kravitz than her pre-pubescent male opposites (and who can blame her?), Hutcherson’s Peeta is charming and likable. The film’s main disappointments come from its costumes, which look cheap and gaudy (I had hoped for avant-garde and futuristic), and from Hemsworth’s stiff and unconvincing Gale. Additionally, while I had hoped for more raw violence, jerky cinematography keeps the fight sequences purposely blurred and within its PG-13 boundaries.

For viewers who loved the novel, this film won’t disappoint. Where Collins’ prose drags, the movie makes up for it in color, emotion, and crisp dialogue.  Additionally, the “Marxism and postcolonialism for kids” messages come through neatly without having to deal with Katniss’ annoying interiority.

Exciting, intriguing, and 40 billion times better than the drippy abortions that the Twilight franchise keeps pumping out, Hunger Games is a solid winner for Spring’s Best Blockbuster.

Grade: A-

X-Men: First Class (2011)

by Steve Habrat

It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.

Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.

Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.

In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.

X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.

This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.

The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A

X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.