It’s another good week at the movies, folks. There’s nothing coming out that should be instantly dismissed. Granted, there’s not much coming out this week because everyone knows the juggernaut that is The Hunger Games will be sucking up more money than most people would dare to dream of making over several lifetimes.
That movie definitely delivers on the hype (well, to an extent), but if you don’t feel like being crammed into the theater with a bunch of the series’ squealing teen fans, then the good news is that there are two other options more than worthy of your attention.
Do you enjoy violence? Then get your ass to The Raid, easily the most insane and unrelenting action movie to come along in years. Or, if you’re more of a sensitive type, then there’s Starry Starry Night a beautiful Taiwanese coming-of-age tale guaranteed to loosen up some tear ducts. You can’t really go wrong with these three options.
Sure, there aren’t many laughs to be found in this week’s options, but you just got three solid comedies last week! What more do you want?
The Good: The Hunger Games
The people behind the Hunger Games have probably been in a bit of a panic over the last few months. After all, their film is based on one of the most popular YA novel series on the market and if they get the movie right, it means a massive movie trilogy with a passionate fan base equal to Harry Potter or Twilight. Well, they can officially relax and breath a sigh of relief. The movie works and the fans will be happy. It’s not a masterpiece, but as someone coming into the series for first time, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about.
The movie takes place in a world where the rich live in an opulent capital while the poor live in rural shacks in one of 12 impoverished districts where even bread is a luxury. To keep those districts in their place, an annual event is held called the Hunger Games where a boy and a girl between 12 and 18 from each district are selected to compete in a reality show death match where they battle in the woods until only one survives.
Our heroine is one of the unlucky competitors in this year’s games named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s got some skills with a bow and arrow and seems capable of taking care of herself, but unfortunately reality TV isn’t just about skills. Katniss has to play dress up to please her audience and also feign a love story with one of her fellow competitors to try and win over the audience amidst all the bloodshed.
The concept of the story is definitely striking (if perhaps a little too indebted to the Japanese splatter classic Battle Royale) and it’s easy to see why such a passionate fan base has formed around the series. Co-writer/director Gary Ross was definitely an unconventional choice for the material. The writer behind high concept comedies like Pleasantville and Big definitely digs deep into creating a satirically opulent society and enjoys playing with the themes about youth being exploited by reality TV. However, he spends a little too much time establishing the world and not enough time exploring it (though, I suppose that’s appropriate for the first chapter in a series; you gotta have somewhere to go after all).
He also doesn’t have much of a sense of how to direct action, so those scenes feel perfunctory at best and can be hard to see through all the shakey cam photography. I’m sure this material was wisely toned down to nab the kid-friendly rating the studio will need to make mucho dollaros, but considering the fact that this is presented as an action movie, the action is a bit of a letdown. Still the story is well told and moves at a brisk pace, even with a two-hour-plus running time.
The adult actors clearly have fun playing around with their satirical caricatures in supporting roles, while Lawrence proves to be an ideal stoic lead. The rest of the kids are fairly undeveloped, either set up to die or serve as a plot device. But despite all the nit-picky flaws, The Hunger Games is a blockbuster with a brain that actually deserves all of the hype. Fans will be pleased, newcomers will be surprised, and hopefully the inevitable sequel will fix the minor flaws.
The Insane: The Raid
Feel like watching some stunt men beat the crap out of each other this weekend? Then you really only have one choice when you approach the ticket booth. The Raid is easily one of the finest action flicks to come along in years. It’s bloody, unrelenting, and filled with masterfully choreographed fight sequences that are guaranteed to be adoringly isolated in popular youtube clips in a few short months. In fact, the movie could be described as a single, uninterrupted fight sequence. It’s hard to remember a movie with more smackdowns crammed in between the credits and for fans of the genre, that’s what you want.
The plot is as simple as it gets. A SWAT team is sent to a high-rise apartment block run by a crime lord. Unfortunately, said crime lord figures it out and offers free rent to anyone who brings him a cop’s body. Well, the building is filled with people up to that task and from that point on, the movie plays like almost like a video game with the surviving good guys working their way up one floor at a time until they reach the last boss.
Writer/director Gareth Evans clearly knows and loves actions movies, combining the claustrophic paranoia of Assault On Precinct 13, the location and ever-escalating action of Die Hard, and the hard hitting insanely dangerous stunts of a vintage Jackie Chan movie like Police Story. Plus he gets rid of that plot and character development nonsense that can so often get in the way of the action.
A displaced Brit working in Indonesia, Evans has found an unlikely home for himself as a filmmaker, working with an aggressive fighting style that has never be seen on screen before and a team of actors/stuntmen willing to do damn near anything to show it off. Not a second of screen time in The Raid feels wasted, with the ever-escalating shootouts, fistfights, and stunts endlessly piling up and the filmmakers somehow managing to top themselves time after time.
Sure, there isn’t much in the way of story and some might complain that the movie gets exhausting after a while without ever taking a break to develop the plot and characters. However, there’s just enough of that to keep the movie chugging along. If you’re looking for B-movie thrills, you won’t find more for your buck anywhere. The Raid is destined for cult status within seconds of hitting screens and should not be missed by anyone who enjoys a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence.
The Sweet: Starry Starry Night
This Taiwanese import is a pleasant surprise for families with kids who aren’t scared off by subtitles. Based on a popular children’s novel, it’s about a troubled young girl who is rejected by her classmates and comes from a broken home, but takes solace in her imagination. When her mood is up the night sky becomes her favorite Van Gogh painting, when she’s down a little black cloud of rain might follow her wherever she goes.
A new boy joins her school and they soon become fast friends. They work on art projects together and when alone their handmade creations come to life. A first love blossoms as the duo awkwardly slip into adolescence, but as always tends to happen in star-crossed love stories, it’s not to be.
The film comes from burgeoning director Tom Lin, who proves to be packed with talent well beyond his limited experience. He has a remarkable gift for working with young actors, nursing heartbreakingly naturalistic performances out of the two leads. Lin also proves to have a knack for special effects work, magically incorporating CGI into the film to bring his protagonist’s imagination to life. Starry Starry Night is a small and fleeting movie that doesn’t dare try to turn its intimate tale into some sort of grand statement.
Instead it’s a delicate little coming of age story filled with the wonder and imagination of youth, along with the complex emotional journey of segueing out of childhood innocence into the realities of adolescence. The film arrives on screens without the hype or visibility of the other two releases I’ve highlighted, but it’s no less worthy of your attention. A perfect Saturday night out for parents with mature children or anyone who still remembers the moment that childhood ended at the real world reared its ugly head for the first time.