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The Shelf: HUNGER GAMES, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, DOCTOR WHO, VENTURE BROS.

A smattering of survival, sacrifice, silliness, salvation, and stupid executives cutting up movies. It’s a healthy mixture of things this week. One of these is even an Oscar winner. So, that’s pretty swell, right? (Sidebar: Do you think I’m losing my knack for writing snappy preambles? I think it’s slowly becoming a problem. Please send help in the form of non-negotiable bearer bonds.)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The first Hunger Games movie introduced cinema audiences to the plight of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she volunteered to enter a massive, child-murdering wilderness game where nobody seems all that hungry, to be honest. There were lots of things to like about it, but I almost couldn’t enjoy it due to director Gary Ross’ assertion that shaky, hand-held cinematography meant “realism.” I nearly had to leave the cinema for fear of being ill. Luckily, Ross was replaced for the sequel, Catching Fire, with the much more centered Francis Lawrence. While the direction was uniformly better, though, the movie left me a little cold.

After having beaten the system, and the machinations of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the first installment, Katniss and her fake boyfriend, the perpetual load known as Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), return heroes and have to go around to the different districts and toe the company line, which Katniss has a real hard time doing. Snow senses an uprising on his hands, and so decides, as this just happens to be a “Quarter Quell” year, to have this year’s contestants pulled from those who’ve already won. And since Katniss is the only female from her district ever to win, she’s assured a spot. Yeah, the president’s a real dick.

She and Peeta have to re-train and get ready for an even deadlier Hunger Games alongside people who have not adjusted particularly well to life post-games. Slowly, though, the new games designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman), reveals that these games are not entirely what Katniss thought, nor even what President Snow thought, and the stakes are raised and the status quo shifts before we head into the the final two films.

While the acting is all mostly good and the cinematography, set design, and costumes are all really engaging, I really felt like Catching Fire never quite got going the way they wanted it to. While the beginning of the film was intriguing, with Snow’s paranoia and Katniss’ ever-increasing hero status growing with every passing moment, at a certain point it becomes just a less exciting rehash of the first movie, hitting all of the exact same beats in the exact same order but without the sense of wonderment. Pretty much now it’s just a matter of wanting even fewer of the tributes to get killed because a lot of them seem really nice. Great. When the end of the movie rolls around, and you kind of realize what’s actually been going on, I wanted to keep going and see something actually new, but then it was over. It felt like 2-and-a-half-hour teaser for the next movie, and that’s not really very interesting.

Ultimately, I think this movie is better than the first one, but I cared less.

For a different take, read Dan Casey’s review.

12 Years a Slave

History is not pretty. Atrocities were committed throughout time, and a great many of them were perpetrated by the burgeoning country in which we live. The fact that slavery was an industry in the 18th and 19th Centuries is sickening now, but it was a hell for the enslaved at the time. Making a movie about it that does it any kind of justice is difficult, but British director Steve McQueen, who has never shied away from very tough subject matter in his previous films Hunger and Shame, has delivered a brilliant, poignant, and not-too-heavy-handed account of one man’s horrible ordeal in his Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave.

It tells the heartbreaking true story of Solomon Northup (played by the astonishingly good Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man with a wife and family living in the north who was tricked, kidnapped, stripped of identity, and sold into slavery in the south. He has to learn very quickly that standing up for himself can get himself beaten or worse, and that survival sometimes means keeping your despair to yourself. He’s first sold to the kind (for a slave owner) Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who recognizes and appreciates the knowledge and skill of Solomon (now called “Platt”), but this draws the ire of Ford’s chief contractor (Paul Dano, in another hateful role), and the two eventually come to blows.

This forces Ford to sell Solomon, and he eventually becomes the property of Epps (Michael Fassbender), a less refined, much more vicious man who routinely beats slaves who do not meet a high cotton quota. It is here that Solomon meets Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who picks 500 pounds of cotton a day and is Epps’ favorite, in every respect. Her horrible existence is very much at the center of Solomon’s time on this farm, and he tries to live with himself while still remaining alive.

12 Years a Slave is a tough movie to watch, but an important one, I think. While I loved Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained last year, it’s a revenge fantasy movie and not in most ways an accurate depiction of how life would have been in the Antebellum South. Not to say that every solemn event in history has to be depicted solemnly, but it’s good sometimes to realize that things were bad for most people and being heroic didn’t reside solely on taking up arms and shooting dozens of white people. McQueen’s direction is beautiful and understated, and a few eye-rolling moments aside (like Brad Pitt’s whole character, I’m sorry to say), the script is written very well. The acting is amazing, especially Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o, who were rightly nominated (and rewarded with an Oscar, in the latter case) for their work.

Both Dan Casey and Witney Seibold reviewed this movie as well, so read those, would ya?

Doctor Who – The Time of the Doctor

It’s always hard to say goodbye to a Doctor, especially if it’s YOUR Doctor. While I started watching Doctor Who with Eccleston, and really became a fan during Tennant, I always call Matt Smith “My Doctor.” I binge-watched the first four series of the reboot, and only watched it “live” as it were during the Tenth Doctor’s (bloody awful) two-part farewell in 2009/2010. Matt Smith taking over coincided with my beginning to write about the series, get caught up with the classic years, and cultivate a great many friendships from within the show’s fandom. For four years, Smith was who I looked forward to watching next, to see what he’d bring to the series, to see how he’d handle the writers’ often nutso ideas. He was a constant, a rock, the centerpiece in my love of a 50-year-old program.

All of this is to say that I was pretty worried about how the Eleventh Doctor would take his final bow. Would he go out gracefully or like a whiny lame-o (technical term)? After the amazing high of “The Day of the Doctor,” which might be my favorite episode of the last two years, how could “The Time of the Doctor” be anything but a let down? And, to a degree it was. It was more somber, more contemplative, less bombastic (to a degree), but still fitting and well within both character and narrative.

While I don’t think everything about it works, namely all the weird nudity jokes that really seem just to be there for the sake of having nudity jokes, I think a large part of this special is wonderful. The Eleventh Doctor, perhaps more than any other, has hated staying still and being stationary for even a few hours. He’s always popping off here or there and has therefore had hundreds of years worth of adventures that we’ve never gotten to see. However, in this he’s forced to stay put, to save Clara and to save the people living in the town of Christmas. He gets old, even for his standards, and he never falters or hides from his new found status as savior of this little spot in the universe. Clara, therefore, becomes the time traveler, catching up with the Doctor at a few different points in his life as he nears the end, his final death.

Smith’s final scene is really, really lovely, and he (and Steven Moffat) acknowledges the strangeness of the show’s central conceit, that a man can change into a new person when an actor wants to move on, revel in his own piece of the history, and passes the torch graciously. The removing of the bow tie is a beautiful visual cue that he’s really heading out. It was an amazing ride, Matt Smith, and I’ll always remember when the Doctor was you.

The Blu-ray (which is very reasonably priced) contains the “Tales from the TARDIS” and “Farewell Matt Smith” BBC America specials as well as a brief making-of that aired on BBC One.

To read my full, Christmas Day review of “The Time of the Doctor” click the clickable part of this sentence.

Venture Bros. Season 5

It took three years for audiences to see the further adventures of Team Venture after Season 4, but last year the wait came to an end. While only consisting of eight regular episodes and two specials, the fifth season of Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer’s densely-populated, in-joke-infused comedy pastiche of action and sci-fi is a return to weird and irreverent form. After quickly tying up the cliffhanger from the previous season, the series picks up with Dr. Venture recruiting college students (of any emphasis) to help him quickly assemble an ionic ray shield for his brother J.J.’s secret space mission. Dean Venture is through with his family and becomes kind of a whiny shut-in, while Hank is just as happy being a moron. The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend are still obsessed with destroying Dr. Venture, because some things don’t change.

The episodes are a lot of fun and really benefit from multiple viewings to pick up all the Easter eggs. Longtime fans of the show will be especially rewarded. The single-disc Blu-ray contains all ten episodes and specials and has commentary on every episode by Hammer and Publick, which is just as silly and off-topic as you’ve come to expect.

ALSO AVAILABLE

The Grandmaster – A Wong Kar-Wai movie about Ip Man, the greatest and most celebrated martial artist of our time and the person who taught Bruce Lee? I’m in! Or, at least I would be in if we got to see the whole film. As happens with a lot of Asian films, the Weinstein Company bought the US distribution rights and then chopped out most of the non-action scenes to try to appeal to us dumb Americans. The film’s running time in foreign markets is roughly 130 minutes, but here it was released at a measly 108 minutes. I’d hoped that with the Blu-ray release we’d get to see Wong’s true vision, but it still seems like Harvey has no regard for the director’s vision if they don’t speak English. Who’d want to read that many subtitles, right? I cannot recommend this release for this reason.

The Visitor – One of the goddamned weirdest and most oddly enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a good long while. Read my full review of it at Schlock & Awe.

Oldboy – Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s brilliant revenge nightmare. Josh Brolin stars and looks all kinds of badass. Check out Dan Casey’s interview with Brolin right here.

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