Tag: josh hutcherson


Burn (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The near-lifeless suspense-thriller “Burn” takes a look at a gas station attendant named Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) who is so lonely and so tired of being treated like she’s invisible that during a seemingly ordinary graveyard shift, instead of finding ways to alert the police, she decides to help a desperate robber (Josh Hutcherson), hoping that, after proving her loyalty, he would take her along for the ride. Although the picture takes risks and offers a number surprises, particularly in how it portrays its protagonist as sympathetic but at the same time struggling with serious mental health issues, nearly every single one comes across unconvincing, fake, a performance. Events occur simply because the plot must move forward. Its attempts at dark humor—a rape scene, for instance—do not land exactly on target and so viewers are left feeling dirty, awkward, cheated. It proves to possess a minimal understanding—if that—of thrillers that unfold in and around one location in real time. Thus, by the time its eighty minutes are up, the movie provides no catharsis. By first-time writer-director Mike Gan.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If I could pick only one word to describe this film (and the series as a whole), it would have to be “brave.” It requires courage to tell this story in such a way that it entertains and makes one think a little deeper about its themes, characters, and ironies. It could easily have been just another movie designed to steal money from casual viewers and diehard fans. Thus, despite the emotional and grim events that unfold in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” directed by Francis Lawrence, it is ultimately an example of optimistic filmmaking. It would not be an exaggeration if one were to claim that “The Hunger Games” series is a benchmark when it comes to dystopian future young adult fiction that has been translated on screen. Others would be wise to follow.

Right at the heels of brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to kill Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) with his bare hands, the human suffering caused by the war between the rebels, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), and the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is becoming all the more intense and apparent. Frustrated with constantly being used as a pawn behind the political machinations, Katniss decides to go on a one-woman mission to assassinate Snow herself. However, the Capitol is already littered with brutal yet ingenious traps designed by Gamemakers, people who designed and controlled the country’s annual tournament to the death.

Although action-packed once the gears start rolling, the film remains true to its human relationships. Painted beautifully is the complicated dynamics among Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and Peeta. But unlike other dystopian films targeted toward young adults, the story does not revolve around choosing a boy. It is impressive that it has never been about that. Instead, topics such as friendship and betrayal are explored. It touches upon forgiveness, too, and what that word entails whether it be through actions or words. There is a small but excellent exchange between Gale and Peeta when Katniss is supposedly asleep. There is humor in that conversation. And mutual respect.

Look at how the camera is so close to the performer’s faces when they reveal their characters’ thoughts, hopes, and motivations. Lawrence, Hemsworth, and Hutcherson are not only there to look cute or pretty. There are real emotions behind their eyes and so it becomes easier for us to understand and perhaps identify with their characters’ respective inner turmoil. Yes, even when there is war happening and although they are on the same side, we feel that their priorities when it comes to specific things they value vary. The screenplay Peter Craig and Danny Strong treats these characters as if they were in a dramatic picture, not just an action movie where buildings blow up and lives are taken for the sake of delivering a body count. Many of the deaths are felt and given meaning.

There are two standout action pieces. The first involves what appears to be black tar—an ocean of it—making its way through flights of stairs as our protagonists run for their lives. The second is a terrifying trip underground where white-skinned, eyeless monsters wait for them. During these two scenes, I caught my face contorting in horror and my hands felt cold.

When I watch a movie, especially horror and thrillers, it is a habit that I try to figure out possibilities of how characters could extricate themselves from a challenge. Here, I was floored; I had no idea how they could possibly make it out alive. I took comfort in knowing that it is only natural that at least some of them would live to face President Snow.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” commands a feeling of coldness about it precisely because of these reasons: it understands that war is rarely black and white, that the costs of war are significant and do not just end when victory is announced, and that war hardens people. The sadness of Katniss and her story touched me in such a way that many movies of this type—even those outside the sci-fi action genre—does not. This is due to the story and its execution being tethered with something real.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

With seven out of the eleven remaining districts revolting against the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), it is most critical, according President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the rebellion, that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) embraces her role as the prime symbol of the uprising. But with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) presumably dead and the post-traumatic stress of having to kill innocent people for two consecutive years looming overhead, Katniss may neither be willing nor ready to help take down the Capitol’s totalitarian regime.

Like David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and Bill Condon’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” a question worth answering is whether the material, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins, is necessary to be split into two. The answer is not a resounding “Yes!” but a case can be argued that this approach for this film does make room for details that otherwise might have been lost. This is an example of delayed gratification and it is severely under appreciated especially if what we come to expect is rousing action scenes.

First of these details is the emphasis on the escalation of war. This makes the first half particularly powerful because we see entire communities in raggedy clothes, bloodied, exhausted, with nothing left to lose except for their lives. We see the wreckage of infrastructures and burnt bodies underneath and amongst the rubble. The camera is not afraid to show the wounds, the trauma in people’s eyes, corpses wrapped in sheets. There is talk of a mass grave in District 8.

Another point the picture conveys successfully is Katniss being just another pawn. Although the oppressed have embraced her as the symbol of the revolution, she is also just meat to be placed in front of the camera and she must do what she is told. Despite being the most grim entry of series so far, there is room for humor in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay, particularly the scene in which our protagonist is filming propaganda to feed to the masses. Though she knows the script word-for-word, the feelings or emotions required to make an impact are simply not there. She is meat without flavor and that won’t do.

The Achilles heel of this installment is its curious lack of character development when it comes to Snow and Coin. Already three movies in, there is no good reason for us to not understand Snow completely. While we know he enjoys having power and the amenities that come with it, there must be something more to him than looking stern and trying to keep his frustrations under wraps when things do not go his way.

We also do not learn much about Coin. We observe that she is right to the point when delivering speeches and there is room for compromise behind her leadership, but what does this uprising really mean to her? Because her more private motivations are so vague, there is an undercurrent that maybe we are not supposed to trust her. Both characters are solidly played by Sutherland and Moore but I wished they had been challenged to do more.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is accused for not having enough payoff. I agree—to an extent. For many, payoff in sci-fi dystopian future action-dramas goes hand-in-hand with deaths of characters we have grown to like or love. But for some, payoff means scenes that we take with us, those we are able to remember vividly after the picture ends. For me, there are three: a visit to a hospital, a surprise in the forest, and a destruction of a dam.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Though she has triumphed over the 74th Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which a male and a female are randomly chosen to represent their district of residence and fight against other Tributes—as well as one another—to the death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in a post-traumatic dirge, seeing faces and hearing voices of those who did not survive. Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun to worry about a possible uprising because Katniss has inadvertently become a symbol of hope—toxic to the totalitarian regime.

The point of the yearly custom is to instill fear among the twelve districts but since Katniss’ victory, more are willing to step forward and express their disdain for the status quo. Snow wishes to eliminate Katniss as soon as possible, but a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) explains that if she is killed, people will surely overthrow the government. Instead, he proposes that Katniss, along with her friend and co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), be pitted against past—and deadly—winners for the 75th Hunger Games.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a strong sequel because the main goal of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s screenplay is to expand its dystopian universe while the thrilling action sequences are allowed to fall into place. Upon closer inspection, this approach shares the same genome as superior second chapters, from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to Bryan Singer’s “X2.” Though we are familiar with the central characters, there is a freshness in what we come to experience because there is a consistent and defined point of view. Through Katniss’ anger, guilt, and fear, we learn to appreciate not only who she is as a protagonist but also the type of world she lives in. The filmmakers make an active decision not to simply rely on the good-guy-versus-bad-guy template and assume that just because someone “good” is up against a “big bad” does not mean he or she is worthy of our time. They work for it. Those in charge of the material are willing to go into specifics and so the final product is transportive.

Lawrence has so much range and she is the reason why Katniss is worth knowing—lightyears more interesting than the likes of Bella Swan or Melanie Stryder. For instance, part of the essence of the picture is the characters’ relationship with the media. Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be a couple when the districts and the all-seeing Capitol are watching. Katniss is instructed to smile, be happy, and act in love. Lawrence makes interesting choices on how to present Katniss during interviews. While we see the character following instructions she has been given, there are split-second moments—subtle body movements—when Lawrence allows Katniss to appear uncomfortable and communicate how much she hates participating in the charade. In other words, the actor is completely pulling the strings while her character attempts to put on a show. There is a difference and it is a challenge to accomplish with grace.

It is most interesting that the picture spends well over an hour to expand the circumstances and build what is at stake. When we get to the tournament—which, admittedly, I looked most forward to—it is almost less engaging compared to the machinations and politics in Panem. I found this appropriate. Because the first half gives us a chance to appreciate the film’s universe, the game itself has gone stale, almost shallow. What I wanted to see more is the growing rebellion. President Snow expresses great concern—building up to silent panic—about the government being overthrown but we are not yet provided distinct factions to allow the threat to be personified. The next chapter should prove most fruitful.

I do not mean to suggest that the challenges that the Tributes face in the strange tropical island are not exciting. On the contrary, it offers some moments of real suspense. For instance, it features the most menacing white cloud of terror since Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” I also enjoyed being suspicious of Katniss and Peeta’s competitors. I never trusted any of them (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Alan Ritchson, Jena Malone)—even if a few have proven several times that they are allies. I caught myself looking for the smallest hints—to anticipate the acts of betrayal. A good movie dares to keep you on your toes. I knew then that I was engaged.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, “Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is great entertainment because it cares about details not only when it comes to what is seen on screen but also what is felt by the characters and how we feel toward them. Notice the significant contrast between Katniss’ drab grayish-blue world—one that she covets nonetheless because of her family and community—and the pavonine, lush celebrations in the Capitol—a world that does not earn an iota of her respect due to what it represents.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn (2012)
★ / ★★★★

After a strange power blackout the night before, brothers Matt (Josh Peck) and Jed (Chris Hemsworth) wake up to tremors caused by explosions from afar. Scrambling downstairs and opening the front door, they discover dozens of North Korean paratroopers descending from the heavens and the neighborhood is thrown into chaos. Jed the Marine responds quickly and instructs his younger sibling to get inside the truck. Soon, they find themselves picking up friends on the way to a secure location.

“Red Dawn,” directed by Dan Bradley, is as frustrating as it is boring and miscalculated. The premise is interesting: a bunch of kids suddenly being thrown into warfare and deciding that it is their duty to liberate their home from foreign invaders. Though the template is ripe for a good action picture, not much is done with it. Instead of establishing a specific mood and searching for meaning behind the noise, it makes violence glamorous–and laughable. After a would-be training montage in the woods, it remains hard to believe that these high school students can jump on top of buildings like Jason Bourne and not pop their kneecaps–or at least twist their ankles.

The screenplay is cynical because it is rooted in the idea that nothing much is going on inside teenage brains other than getting together with the opposite sex, embracing a superficial definition of honor, and having an inability to put aside personal issues for the greater good. There is not one character I could relate with–someone I could look at and think, “If I were thrusted in a similar situation, I would be like him (or her).” The writers, Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore, treat the kids like a piece of meat, only to be disposed of when it is convenient to the plot for dramatic purposes.

It lacks an effective human element. The easiest to explore would have been the relationship between the two brothers. Instead, during the quieter moments, they sit next to girls and they flirt. Now, I have never been to war or a similar situation, but I can imagine. If my life was in danger every minute, the last thing on my mind would be hooking up. I would want to be next to my family, to try to get to know them more, to fix whatever was broken. Its priority is so misplaced that I ended up feeling upset halfway through.

A convincing dynamic among the rebel group, calling themselves Wolverines, is absent. Each character is so underwritten that I could not keep track of their names. To help orient myself, I labeled them with names like “Marine,” “Quarterback,” “Guy Who Swallowed Deer Blood” (Josh Hutcherson). They go to town and cause problems for the North Koreans, but we are not given any inside scoop on how they are going to execute their plan. They just do it. Are we supposed to just buy it? How is that an enjoyable experience for us?

“Red Dawn” is not good enough for a smart viewer who wish to pick the political and moral implications of the content or for someone who simply wishes to turn his brain off and experience empty calorie entertainment. Certainly both camps deserve much more.

Zathura: A Space Adventure

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are brothers, six and ten years of age, respectively, who cannot help but squabble about every little thing. Regardless of the activity, one feels the need to triumph over the other. When their father (Tim Robbins) has to leave to make a special copy of a picture for his work, Danny finds a curious two-player board game underneath the stairs of the basement. Excited, he asks Walter to play. Although Walter refuses, Danny turns a key, pushes a button, and a card is released. On it is a warning of a meteor shower. A few seconds later, tiny rocks begin to bombard their new home. It appears the game has real repercussions.

Based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, “Zathura: A Space Adventure” is exciting, fun, and has an obvious but important lesson about siblings learning to work together and love one another. The early scenes are very amusing because Danny and Walter reminded me of my brother and I back when we were younger. Although Walter is portrayed as the insensitive half, I understood Walter’s attitude about not wanting to play with his little brother because Danny is not very good at playing sports and he has the tendency to cheat or cry when things do not go his way. When they whine to their dad, as shrill as they sound, it feels very close to actuality. I was surprised that the two are not shown ending up on the floor and throwing punches at each other.

As the unlikely duo take more turns, there is more humor accompanied by increasingly impressive special and visual effects. For example, Lisa (Kirsten Stewart), Walter and Danny’s sister, is rather cold toward her siblings. She would rather sleep and look pretty for her upcoming date after she is asked by her dad to watch over the boys since they have the tendency to be at each other’s throats. Later on, her coldness takes on a physical manifestation in which she is put into cryonic sleep by the game. Ironic happenstances as such allow us to breathe between the more intense scenes.

However, I wished that the fast-paced action is not impeded by the arrival of the astronaut (Dax Shepard). Although the astronaut has some funny lines dispersed throughout and is very useful in quickly getting the kids out of dangerous situations, I was more interested in the lightbulbs that go off in Danny and Walter’s heads as they are challenged by whatever the board has in store for them. It might have taken them some time to extricate themselves from their predicaments, but it is preferable because this is their story.

The film, based on the screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps, takes its biggest risk by introducing Zorgons, big lizards with teeth that have an affinity for heat. As they take over the house, our protagonists are reduced to hiding and running away from being eaten. The creativity and energy of “Zathura,” directed by Jon Favreau, appeals to kids as well as adults because it is thrilling and quite smart. It is a fantasy, action-adventure that is rooted in something real.


Detention (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

When Taylor Fisher (Alison Woods), a self-proclaimed “B.I.T.C.H.,” woke up, she turned directly to the camera and gave us a tour of her fabulous daily routine: bragging about being on top of the high school food chain, expressing her hatred toward her mom after French toast was served for breakfast, and acknowledging that her life was not only pretty much exactly what she wanted, she felt that she deserved every bit of it. But when Taylor turned around, a masked figure similar to the newly released film, “Cinderhella II: Beauty Scream,” swung an axe at her throat and her body was thrown out the window. Although Taylor was the most popular girl in Grizzly Lake High School, it seemed like her former classmates couldn’t care less. Prom remained the most important event in everyone’s brain. A conflation of slasher horror, high school satire, and science fiction, “Detention,” written by Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo, did not always reach its potential in terms of delivering emotional thrusts that rang true but it almost never ceased to be entertaining. Its jokes were a mile a minute and very self-aware, at its best biting and with enough little nuggets of wisdom, mostly in a form of hope, in terms of a life outside of the limiting walls of high school. Its characters grabbed my attention immediately when they uttered lines like, “You are more concept than reality” and “Sting is the Bruno Mars of 1992.” In the real world, no one should expect to hear teens conversing like these characters (let alone know the cultural impact of Sting) but that, alongside its 90s fetishism, was a part of its charm. The script was drenched in post-irony, from its attention-grabbing soundtrack to the films the characters referenced. And yet at the same time, irony within ironies made the material almost unforgivingly cold. Even though we got to know some of the teens in the most rudimentary way, they remained sheep heading for a slaughter. I couldn’t help but consider an alternative and imagine the statement it would have made if, in the end, there was only one dead teen in Grizzly Lake and the rest only involved chase sequences. For instance, when Riley (Shanley Caswell), a suicidal vegetarian who also happened to be our heroine, was chased by the axe-wielding killer around the neighborhood, it was quite thrilling despite its inherent silliness. I felt disappointment at the missed opportunity because if no one else was gutted after the first scene, the final product would most likely have been the same. This was due to the film not really being about the stabbings. It was about the hormone-induced confusion and histrionics of the young people on screen. While quite sophomoric most of the time, it was forgivable because I cared if Riley would end up with Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), a longtime friend from across the street who happened to eye Ione (Spencer Locke), the pretty cheerleader with an interesting background story. What really threw me out of the moment at times, however, were a few unconvincing takes. For example, Nolan (Parker Bagley) was supposed to be a big, menacing bully but there were shots when I saw nothing but sensitivity in the actor’s eyes. He growled, grunted, and yelled as if he were on steroids but all the commotion felt like an empty threat. I’d be more scared of the quiet guy in the corner you could be hiding weapons in his baggy sweater. Another involved the way a police officer handed her card to Riley after she had been attacked. For a movie that was more than aware that small details could lead to big consequences, I was surprised that the director, Joseph Kahn, overlooked the lack of effectiveness in the aforementioned examples and others similar to it. “Detention” is certainly not for everyone especially with its drastic changes in tone, but most people will find at least one amusing thing in its hip smugness.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Sean (Josh Hutcherson) had broken into a satellite facility which got him in trouble with the authorities. Naturally, Mom (Kristin Davis) was upset but Sean resented his stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson), for caring because the teen believed it wasn’t Hank’s place to act as a parent. However, Sean’s animosity toward his stepdad seemed to dissipate considerably when the former Navy broke the code which mentioned that “The Mysterious Island” in Jules Verne’s novel existed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Sean felt compelled to visit the island because he was convinced that his grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine), was the one who sent the code. Based on the screenplay by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, listening to the dialogue of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” was like enduring nails scraping on a chalkboard for an hour and a half. While it was understandable that some of the jokes were cheesy because the bulk of the material was intended for young children, there weren’t enough witticisms for adults to remain interested divorced from the impressive chase sequences, full of vibrant colors and striptease of danger, between the gargantuan animals on the island and our protagonists. The sequence which involved the characters jumping from one giant but fragile lizard egg to another managed to balance comedy and suspense. Although the balancing act wasn’t quite consistent, it was fun because we knew that it was only a matter of time until the maternal lizard woke up and attacked. The same applied to the scene where the characters rode bees and hungry birds hunted for their lunch. Sometimes it was quite easy to tell which stunts were performed in front of a green screen, but I imagine children wouldn’t be as discerning. For me, what mattered was the energy of the scene and the risks the filmmakers were willing to take for the sake of entertainment. There were some risks that were taken here. Some paid off but others did not. Speaking of the latter, Sean and Hank hired Gabato (Luis Guzmán), a pilot, and his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), to take them to the island of interest. While Guzmán provided some laughs on the level of physical humor, Hudgens was not given anything special. Hudgens, in my opinion, is not a very expressive actor in the first place and not giving her something to work with only highlighted her lack of versatility. While it made sense that Sean became immediately attracted to Kailani because she looked pretty in her figure-hugging shirt and short shorts, it didn’t make sense that he continued to yearn for her affections because she acted like a brat, a nicer word that starts with a letter B, toward him, a feeling almost similar to how a stereotypical popular girl treated a stereotypical brainiac. Their so-called romance was one of the most insufferable aspects of the film. Every time Kailani battered her eyelashes, Sean stopped thinking with his brain and proceeded to think with his other head. Meanwhile, my level of exasperation intensified. As a movie designed for kids, I didn’t think it sent a very good message about self-reliance and self-esteem. Would it have been too much of a creative leap for the writers to make Kailani and Sean equally smart so that they were able to bounce ideas off each other and then, when or if it felt right, perhaps explore their underlying romantic feelings? Directed by Brad Peyton, considering that half of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” involved walking and the characters talking, it was a bore. It might have been better as a short film with nothing but epinephrine-fueled stunts.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

In Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” an unextraordinary young woman named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) with a low self-esteem and a penchant for dressing like an old woman was cursed by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Being in a body of an old woman, Grandma Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) decided to go into the mountains to find another witch or wizard who could reverse her condition. In the unforgiving cold mountains, she stumbled upon a castle with legs owned by the mysterious and slightly vain Howl (Christian Bale). Out of all Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” contained my favorite group of characters. Each of them had a defined personality from the sarcastic fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a young magician (Josh Hutcherson) who yearned for an adult figure, to characters who did not say a word like loving Turnip-Head and Heen, an old dog with only one facial expression. There was something unexpected revealed about each of them, particularly the villainous witch who cruelly casted a spell on our protagonist. All of the core characters shared one similarity so they had a reason to keep walking forward together. They were all caught up in a senseless war. Since it wasn’t explained to us why a war was happening or which side was fighting for what reason, the violence, burning homes, and people attempting to escape with their lives were that much more compelling. In some ways, the magical world that these characters inhabited served as an escape from the harsh realities of war. With the help of the castle, they had a chance to escape and hide but only temporarily. Eventually, they would step out on a once peaceful landscape and were confronted with flying ships used to drop bombs in beautiful cities by the sea. Unfortunately, when the picture decided to focus on the romantic bond between Sophie and Howl, I began to lose interest. They did have their cheesy moments, but I was more concerned about what Sophie saw in Howl and vice-versa. Sophie claimed to love Howl but for what reason? Did she love him because of his looks? It certainly wasn’t because of his maturity because he threw tantrums like a child. Was their so-called love pre-ordained? There was an evidence of time-travel toward the end of the story. Nevertheless, I could also argue that the heart of the film wasn’t about the romance between Howl and Sophie. The friendship between humans and magical creatures and the sacrifices they made for each other during a time of need would probably make more sense. “Hauru no ugoku shiro” teemed with great detail and imagination but the story always came first. Quirky, funny, adventurous, with just the right amount of dark undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, will enchant both young and old.

The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), tried to search for Paul, their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), in hopes of finding more about where they came from. The situation did not sit well with Nic because she felt like she would slowly lose her family. On the other hand, Jules felt a little attraction toward Paul. It is too easy to label this as a “lesbian movie” because of the parents but the film is really more about family dynamics and how it changed when a new factor was added in the equation. I thought it was realistic in portraying the ups and downs of being in an imperfect family but the lessons that were learned or not learned did not feel like it something out of an after school special. The material wasn’t afraid to let the characters make mistakes and live with those mistakes until they couldn’t hold onto their secrets any longer. I enjoyed the way it framed parenting, that most of the time there is no “good” parenting or “bad” parenting but just a couple of adults trying to do their best to make their specific situation work. Bening and Moore were a joy to watch. Even though they kept their performances relatively simple, they were able to deliver the big emotions at the perfect small moments. I really felt like they’ve been together for many years so the way they got under each other’s skin and the way they would mend the wounds from the verbal daggers they threw at each other felt painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes when they would just talk about their past because they were able to paint vivid images in my head. I wish the picture had more scenes of them just talking to each other at home or having a nice dinner date in the city instead of the scenes with the son and his friend that did not amount to anything substantial. The side story about the daughter about to head off to college was a bit underdeveloped as well. However, the picture was consistently strong whenever Moore and Bening were on screen which was the majority of the time. I’ve heard some concerns from the lesbian community involving the film portraying lesbians as way too uptight. I think it’s an unnecessary concern because the lesbians are specific only to this movie and it does not make any generalizations about all lesbians in the world. It’s a story about a family’s bond and it should left as such. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, “The Kids Are All Right” told its story involving the difficulties of transitioning with wit, focus, and brevity. It had a nice mix of charming characters and it had a good sense of balance with its comedic and dramatic elements which most audiences will likely enjoy.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

I almost gave this a two stars out of four because there were moments where I thought it diverged too much from the adventure and focused a little bit too much on lame/unnecessary character development. With a family-friendly summer blockbuster film, one expects breath-taking action sequences right after another instead of a forced attempt of sentimentality. Still, I decided to give this film three stars because there were some truly memorable scenes such as the mine ride, the cave of crystals, the T-Rex, and the geyser. Brendan Fraser, like in “The Mummy” films, is really likeable as a scientist whose lab is about to be shut down; Josh Hutcherson continues his role as a kid who’s a little bit sarcastic but often keeps something up his sleeves; Anita Briem is also a neat addition because she provided energy when the story tends to slow down a bit. I did not see this in 3-D even though the entire picture is designed to be seen in such a format so I can’t comment on how much or if it’s better than on a flat screen. Still, there’s plenty of visual eye candy and adrenaline for those who just want to sit back and not think too much. But I must admit that I really like the science in the film: how Fraser’s character used kinematics to determine how high they are from the ground as they free fall, the application of Geology when it comes to recognizing certain rocks and their properties, the concept of bioluminescence (the production and emission of light when chemical energy is converted to light energy), and more. It made the movie that much more fun for me because I’ve taken classes that deal with those concepts. (I am a certified nerd/geek/dork.) This is the kind of movie that a babysitter can let kids watch because it’s pretty harmless, there’s a plethora of bright colors, and pretty funny one-liners. It could’ve been a lot better but it could’ve been a lot worse.