Movie Update – Shadowhunters, Dystopias, and Norse Gods.

or… three subtitled movies with colons in them that are also based on books. Some rather minor spoilers follow.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Thor: The Dark World. I saw them all within the past week and a half, and honestly only bits and pieces of them left enough of an impression on me a week later that these reviews will remain pretty sparse in terms of any actual details… Okay, no, maybe not entirely; The Hunger Games stuck with me, at least for now…

But let’s get started.

First off, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, starring Lily Collins. For as convoluted as this movie could probably be with all of the “stuff” that happens and asks us to fantastically believe, it actually really works. I thought that the director had the right amount of restraint and editing there to keep it feeling like a good potential franchise. I know the main character is 15 in the books, but it’s good that they aged her up and cast Lily Collins, because I have a feeling that Lily is going to be our dark horse, future Anne Hathaway, entering the “adult” acting world beyond tween movies more painlessly than most. She’s got screen presence, and an Audrey Hepburn quality to boot. Just very comfortable on-screen, natural.

Enough rambling about Lily Collins though, the movie itself was actually pretty good. It held my interest, felt a bit like an expanded, teenage version of Being Human (U.K.), and not just because Aidan Turner was in it. I dug the pacing, the CGI, the monsters, the character development… My only big hang-up is that the tweeny romantic elements shoved into the story really pulled it all down like a big, plastic bake-shop decoration on an otherwise decent-looking birthday cake. Suddenly this self-assured, strong, young woman was acting like a 15-year-old and there were fireflies and dumb Twilight things happening all around them. Ugh. But I actually liked this movie, and forgave it, because I am not a tweenage girl and I don’t matter. It was fun, and different enough to set itself apart from all of the other supernatural “chosen one” movies out there, especially ones involving vampires and werewolves. It’s full of cheese, but I also like the show Lost Girl, which is ten times cheesier and it’s still good.

Then, there’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which really actually bothered the crap out of me. In a good way, I’m sure, but I’ve said to a few people who asked why it bothered me, and I said something along the lines of the following:

When I watch fantasy movies about dystopian societies that have some relation to real life, it actually bothers me more than a sensationalized movie about something awful that happened in real life, with a handful of exceptions in both directions. I think it’s because the movies about historical events are to inform us about what people have done to each other in the past, but there’s always sortof an understanding that we’re now somewhat past it, and that things are improving. That it’s all in the past, and we must learn from it and move forward. Imaginative dystopian stories about future technology, military states, sadistic games, and general psychotic dictatorship … those are scary for other reasons. These fantasy stories play off of references to the true things that have happened before, but only in imagery, physical actions, and personae. Fantasy allows us to take those memories and lessons and compound them to become a much more disturbing picture about a world that still could be, a world that we should still worry about becoming, and warning about the sheer scale and broad-sweeping effectiveness of such potential things.

So, it was a bit unsettling to watch Catching Fire, just because the first movie was definitely tamed-down to get a broader rating, and it was a bit more playful and disconnected than it probably should have been for the series. The first movie felt like a game, felt less personal, and felt less dire, despite the fact that kids were murdering each other. It was a bit romanticized. The second movie, Catching Fire, made the game actually less terrifying than the dystopian world that they were living in. The violence that happened outside of the playing field was actually more extreme, more disturbing, and more scary than what was happening near the cornucopia.
Ruthless public executions, relentless example-making of those that resisted, a scary sense of “I’m responsible for all of these people dying” constantly coming from Katniss, and just general brutality against good people. Scary stuff, and there seemed to be a feeling that fighting against all of it was an act of sheer fruitlessness.

I liked it a lot. The actual “games” themselves felt very short in comparison the rest of the movie, if not even a little bit rushed and over-edited (shallow, even) but I did feel like the focus really wasn’t the game. Also, baboons are scary. And Jennifer Lawrence really picked it up a notch this movie, a lot more facial acting and range of emotions, a lot more grounding of her character. My only legitimate gripe by the end of the movie was a missed opportunity to show some sort of personalization or interaction between Katniss and people from her district other than her mother, sister, and Gale. I think if that would have been there, even if they showed Katniss hanging out with a few of her childhood friends in a scene, it would have made the movie so much more emotionally powerful. Instead, at the end of the movie, when Katniss gets mad, there’s this feeling of “Oh, well, at least everyone we care about is alive though.”

Then, there’s Thor: The Dark World. If I had been tired, I would’ve fallen asleep during this movie. For me, it was just like The Avengers (which I hated, and I fell asleep through a quarter of it), which makes me wonder if the overpowered character of Thor* is what ruins The Avengers franchise for me. Sure, Chris Hemsworth is a handsome guy, but he just doesn’t carry a whole movie. You need Loki to make it work. The moment he’s on screen with Thor, the dynamic works and I’m enjoying the movie again. The first movie was better because Thor was out of his element, making stupid decisions on Earth, and having his own funny one liners.

And for as extravagant as the sets and details were in Asgard, it just felt inappropriately filmed. Armor looked like spray-painted plastic, backgrounds were forced and blurry, and scenes at dinner tables felt like they had been filmed in some city cafe downtown rather than on some other planet. I wasn’t transported, it lacked any otherworldly, epic feeling, and I was just constantly reminded that CGI was happening or that a fight scene felt like something from Xena. It just didn’t feel like a story, and had no depth of character or any real personality. These Avengers franchise movies are starting to feel like masturbatory action flicks rather than something with any actual content or story to them.

Quick plot outline: There’s a red sandy floating fog thing that’s basically the One Ring, and Sauron comes back for it, but Natalie Portman accidentally picks it up conveniently while playing through portals which basically turns her into a creepy weapon (which only apparently works on some people that touch her) and also gives her arbitrary powers like the ability to not be rained upon, and then Loki and Thor have to team up and occasionally conveniently disappear or be stuck so that bad things can happen to various characters for awhile to create some further conflict. Lots of confusing universe-swapping and portal leaping happens to confuse the viewer into thinking that a story is concluding appropriately, and then the movie’s over.

The brightest points of this movie were various one-liners from Darcy or Loki, and the last really big scene with the dimension-machine thing. That whole last part of the movie was actually really fun. But come on, like The Avengers, there was nothing to it. No depth, no growth, no acceptable conflict. It all just happened, and like the time turner in Harry Potter, I’m left with the feeling of “well, now that you introduced time travel, now your story is broken because you could’ve used that much more effectively.” Basically, Thor is too strong, and the story suffers because the writers have to make him unavailable rather than underpowered or unskilled. I didn’t like this movie, but I will tell you it’s pretty hilarious putting the descriptive text voiceover on instead of the normal audio track. I’ve never heard someone explain the animated Marvel logo with such detail before!

* – Also, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye are pretty boring too. I will make my final determination on Scarlett Johansson after I see Under The Skin.

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