A few DVDs added to my collection this week: True Story, Focus, Last Man on Earth Season 1, Broadchurch Season 2, and Louie Season 2. 'tis sale season.
At the movies: Mockingjay Part 1 was, and remains, my favorite of the Hunger Games films, in large part because it didn't rely on the lazy plotting of the Games themselves. You know what I mean, the string of traps/monsters/incidents that go "this happens, then this happens, then this". Well, that mode of storytelling is back in Part 2 AKA Hunger Games 4, in the form of "pods" that unleash Games-type dangers on rebel fighters fighting in the Capitol city. At least this time, I feel invested in most of the characters that meet their grim ends, but that's still how a good chunk of the movie is constructed. The bit that comes after is a strange series of anti-climaxes and Lord of the Rings-level epilogues that eventually make the series grind to a halt rather than go out with a bang, but I still like this better than the first two films seeing as it does flow from the previous film, with at least some of what made it so interesting for me, i.e. the way media can be used to shape opinion and distort reality.
The Peanuts Movie is a charming coming of age story about Charlie Brown falling for the Little Red-Haired Girl, cleverly weaving a lot of your favorite shticks from the comic strip/older cartoons in smooth and coherent fashion, and it's probably one of my best experiences in a movie theater this year. I was afraid the modern "3D cartoon" look would be a deal breaker, but there's just enough of the 2D drawings (eyes and mouths, lines to represent movement, memories) so that you do get Schulz's anxious line in the movie's aesthetic. There were a lot of little kids in the theater, and they were enjoying it just as much as the adults, their vocal intrusions not intrusive at all, but rather sweet. Obviously, they're gonna like Snoopy flying around on his doghouse, but the film is so well balanced, it never lost them even when the characters were talking literature and philosophy, nor did it lose its adult audience during a visual or slapstick sequence. Heart-meltingly good.
DVDs: I Spy December begins with fluff. This Means War is really more of a romantic comedy, as its spy story is rather tepid. The director is McG who was also behind the awesome TV series Chuck, and yes indeed, this is Chuck remixed for movies. Well, if both Sarah and Casey wanted to date Chuck, and Chuck was Reese Witherspoon. As such, it's a perfectly fine entertainment, but isn't very challenging. The question seems to boil down to whether you think Reese's character should go for "practically Captain Kirk" Chris Pine or sensitive killer agent Tom Hardy, and I'm not sure she should go out with either given they compete with one another using CIA surveillance methods and resources, treating her as the prize in a game, no matter how genuine their feelings are. But is it amusing? Sure. Are there a few fun action pieces? Some. Are the actors watchable? Yes, but you won't get attached to any of them the way you might have after Chuck's pilot.
The Ipcress File is a 1965 procedural spy thriller starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, the unnamed protagonist from Len Deighton's spy novels. Caine's Palmer is slightly insubordinate and cool as ice, something that's true of the film's style as well, where the messiness of every day life is always present - creating a rich, textured world - in contrast with the direction's slick and sometimes surprising angles and sound design. And despite the crux of the story being about a new brainwashing technique that almost feels like science-fiction, the procedural is very much steeped in realism. The legwork, the office politics, even the action scenes, all seem very real and fairly unglamorous. So there's an artistic tension between the various elements, as well as the thriller's own natural tension. Caine would play this character several times more, as we will see over the course of this month.
No Way Out stars Kevin Coster and Sean Young from before I decided to dislike both actors, in a Pentagon-set thriller about the Defense Secretary (Gene Hackman)'s improprieties, a cover-up involving a possible Soviet agent, and the officer who shares the Secretary's mistress and is caught in the middle of it all with... all together now... no way out. The thriller elements are very effective, but I was perhaps more surprised by Sean Young's boisterous performance. Granted, the final act has a couple of doozies that detract from the film's overall procedural style (a scenery-chewing performance followed by an outrageous twist), but overall, this was a taut thriller with an unusual, but intriguing structure. The dated technology is used to amp up the suspense, so I can't fault it. It's actually refreshing to see an investigation slowed down like that by contemporary standards.
1963's Charade is a lovely vehicle for Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, full of the wit and sophistication many of their films are known for. The dialog crackles. Not to say there's no thriller element, as the violence, while always brief, is surprisingly gruesome, and people lie so much, the paranoia level is actually pretty high for a comedy. As usual, Hepburn can do no wrong, and she even had me buying her sudden May-December romance with Grant on the basis of her flighty, almost Wildean character, the widow of a dead secret agent whose sins are catching up with her, oblivious though she is. I think Wilde is actually a good comparison. We have characters with mutable identities, spouting quotable lines and deeply unaffected by their own tragedies, except in the comic sense. Throw in big names like Matthau, Coburn and Mancini, and George Kennedy as a Bond-worthy Henchman, and real Paris locations, and you've got a delightful entertainment on your hands. SPY WINNER OF THE WEEK!
Based on the Warren Ellis comics series (which I've never read), RED stands for Retired-Extremely Dangerous, and you can stop comparing it to The Expendables, thanks. Aside from the hero having assemble a team of old cohorts, there's little that's the same. RED is a much more interesting enterprise, with slick direction, big league actors (Ellen Mirren as the world's best assassin? awesome), and as much comedy as there is high-octane action. When Bruce Willis' former CIA operative is burned by a political high-up, he picks up the girl he's been flirting with on the phone for months and reaches out to a few old friends, and maybe an enemy or two as well. A lot of fun ensues. Oh, it's not going to revolutionize cinema, the score is perhaps a bit rompy, and one character's death is slightly confusing, but it's entertaining as all get out, which isn't something you'll hear me say of a lot of American action films.