fantasy

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, USA, 2012)

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I didn’t think much of this when I first saw it and seeing it again  on DVD leaves an even worse impression. The only thing that’s still fresh and interesting is Jennifer Lawrence. The rest is very clunky and already rather cheap-looking. Even having District 12 look like a photo of the Great Depression and having the place where all the rich people live look like Berlin circa 1936, à la Leni Riefenstahl, is too obvious, too uninteresting; and the Marie Antoniette haircuts and so on — I understand the rationale but it’s over-emphatic and inelegant: does even the makeup have to be slathered on to make these people ugly? The film doesn’t have the same kind of sympathy for these characters that the novel had and that the film will have to earn in the sequels. Nobody and nothing is really good or sharp. I particularly disliked Stanley Tucci, who keeps playing fey cultural deviants in one smug note, one that would kiss itself with glee were it able to pop in from another dimension … and yet, the film was one of the most popular of its year. But was it loved? I doubt it.

José Arroyo

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, USA, 2013)

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Thor: The Dark World is much better than Thor. Visually, it’s a fan-boy’s delight, with the comic-book world a dream cinematic rendering. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a believable world that is nonetheless not too far removed from the three-strip colour comic of adolescent memory. The CGI works beautifully for this type of superhero film as, even when its detectable, it only reinforces the ‘illustrated’ dimension of the comic-book world that is being created for us.

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The look of the film, surely the most beautiful and imaginative production design of the year, exceeds expectations. Thor’s world is a wonderful intersection of Gothic Viking imagery, a knowable and iconic London, and that which its sci-fi/ fantasy setting makes permissible (super-powers, the aligning of dimensions, magic). One comes out of the film with an appreciation of the brilliance of its imagery: Odin’s throne-room, Frigga’s funeral, Loki’s prison, each is recognisably what one expects, yet better composed and executed than one dared imagine.

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There are also fantastic set-pieces that do make one gawp: the initial battle sequence, Malekith’s entrance into Asgard, the aerial fight as Thor and Jane Foster try to escape it, the magnificent way Thor calls for his hammer in the final fight. I found all of this viscerally exciting and visually thrilling. But if the whole look of the film is spectacular, the actors who people that world and bring these characters to life are also deserving of praise.

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Chris Hemsworth is clearly born to that part; with his hair, his colouring and his musculature, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the role. But then there’s also Tom Hiddlestone with his wonderfully theatrical performance of Loki, and the way Anthony Hopkins as Odin creates effects just by the way he enunciates the final consonants in key words; and Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable but also vocally superb as Malekeith, and the way Idris Elba’s face is used almost sculpturally to create a  superb visually iconic myth of Heimdall — note how the yellow of his eyes is co-ordinated with his armour and helmet makes for very memorable close-ups — but one which also creates the illusion of three-dimensions. Aside from these, there’s also Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd for comic relief (which I found tired but which I attribute to my age as the younger audience seemed to lap it up) and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgaard. It’s an extraordinary all-star cast.

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The particulars of the story are sometimes hard to follow and I’m not sure if the story is as tightly plotted as one would have wished. However, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much matter here. There other pleasures that more than compensated: the self-referential cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America, the jokey way the portals between dimensions is introduced, the appearance of Chris O’Dowd and other minor aspects of the film are delightful. But the main thing is how Thor: The Dark World looks true to the original yet newly striking, how the film moves beautifully and how it plays so well; and with some exciting action and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Whiners may quibble; but it’s one to see again, preferably on IMAX.

José Arroyo

Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2013)

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The 3-D is piercing —  I literally shrank away from it (it was very effective though not pleasant). The colour is the brightest and happiest I have yet seen on digital. I adore seeing what Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis  can do, even with roles so unworthy of their talents and their art. However, James Franco is the one with the meaty role and he makes the most of it: nobody could have captured the shabby, gauche, two-bit conman, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, sweet-but-not-innocent shyster of a wizard as well as he. He’s just perfect. Michelle Williams does better than anyone could possibly hope with that role (though, unless the intended look was mumsy,  her make-up and costume people have  done her no favours here). I love the doll character and Zach Braff voices the monkey with warmth and humour. The last scenes with the smoke and the face are superb. I liked it much more than I expected to.

José Arroyo

Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders, USA, 2012)

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The story is what you’d expect but with maybe more of an accent on the magical. The film is visually dazzling, with dgi here used expressively to create a magical world, damply dark or sinister, or life-giving, unfolding whiteness. The scenes of the transformation of the forest, or indeed any transformation involving Charleze Therzon are astonishing. Therzon herself looks the part better than she acts it but gives a serviceable performance. Chris Hemsworth is rugged and gorgeous. Kristen Stewart has both a transparency and also a kind of awkwardness that is now an integral part of her star persona. She never seems at ease, is always awkward but somehow true. Here she’s astonishingly beautiful, a beauty made amazing because you initially don’t quite notice, it catches you by surprise in particular shots and then hits you as breathtaking. Girls will love her in armour at the end. There’s something that stops this film from quite working and yet I would like to see it again.

Directed by Rupert Sanders,  a first time director.

José Arroyo

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (Ten Shimoyama, Japan, 2005)

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Kids of all  ages should enjoy this story of teenagers who fall in love but belong to different warrior clans. It’s like a Romeo and Juliette story but here each member of the family has special warrior skills (superpowers really). The Lord whom they serve decides they are too powerful and sets them in conflict against each other with the aim of wiping them out. The protagonists struggle to reconcile their love for one  another with their loyalty to their family and clan; sadly, the latter wins out. A difference between at least some Eastern and Western cultures is the way that this narrative plays out in narrative: in my experience, in movies from the East the protagonists always, ultimately, finally, and in spite of any number of always motivated rebellions, bow down to authority. It is worth mentioning here the superb special effects that can now be created on smaller budgets. Hollywood better wake up or it will soon be playing on an even playing field and start losing. It’s losing now. With Yukie Nakama, Jô Odagiri, Tomoka Kurotani

José Arroyo