2013 First-Time Viewings: December Week 1

Upside DownUpside Down

At long last, a film comes around that seeks to answer the big question on everyone’s mind: is love stronger than gravity? Well, maybe that’s not a question that’s been on everyone’s mind. Actually, it’s probably not a question on anyone’s mind. Which might partially explain why this ambitious film from director Juan Solanas, a love story between two people living on opposing planets floating side by side in space, hasn’t found an accepting audience, both critically and commercially. The two planets in the film are distinguished mainly by class; Adam (Jim Sturgess) lives among the lower class on one, while Eden (Kirsten Dunst) lives among the upper class on the other. In their childhood, they were able to meet on the very tops of mountains, but a tragic incident tore them apart. Many years later, Adam catches a glimpse of Eden on television, and devises an elaborate plan to reconnect with her. To do this, however, he will have to take a job at a sinister corporation, whose headquarters serves as a literal bridge between the two planets.

In order to appreciate the more positive qualities that Upside Down has to offer, you definitely need to be in a specific mindset, one that can tolerate a healthy dose of saccharine and an onslaught of scientific/logical rule-bending. On occasion I have been able to settle into that kind of mindset, and for a decent portion of this film I was willing to go along for the ride. Sure, a part of my brain signals how incredibly ridiculous it is that all the main protagonist needs to do to walk upside down convincingly is strap on some anti-gravity matter and gel his hair down, but it’s all in good fun.  It’s easy to get lost just in the visuals too; regardless of the film’s problems, and there are undoubtedly many, the world that Solanas creates is an incredibly impressive one. So much so that it’s a little heartbreaking when the shortcomings take center stage and never leave. The lack of any real villainous presence prevents the film from ever generating much tension, and that lack of conflict leads to an ending that could almost be the definition of anticlimax. The underwhelming finale, to put it simply, just dampens the good cheer, and I can’t help but bemoan the fact that the filmmakers had this goofy but incredibly promising concept to play with, and all they could come up with was an unremarkable romance filled with contrivances and easy exits from more challenging directions. 5/10.

The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Looking back on 2013, I have many reasons to be thankful as a lover of film, but the year’s big blockbuster offerings are not among those reasons. My feeling with these tent pole releases has always been that there needs to be a careful balance between smarts and spectacle, and in this respect, 2013 has been something of a down year. Strong examples certainly exist that place more value in one over the other and vice versa, but I don’t think we’ve been given the best efforts from the major studios in that regard either. There were the films that provided big, dumb spectacle without offering much of anything else (Pacific Rim) and there were the films that took themselves so seriously they left little opportunity for any sense of exhilaration and fun (Man Of Steel). Out of all the blockbusters released this year, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels like the only one that really gets the balance right. It gives its universe the thematic weight it deserves, while also providing its fair share of legitimate thrills and pulse-pounding action.

Plotwise, Catching Fire hits many of the same beats as the previous film, but the difference is in the details. With that first film, the focus was mainly on the dilemmas of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, and her resolve to overcome the obstacles placed in front of her. The intricacies of the world she inhabited were never much more than window dressing. With this film, however, the focus moves away from her slightly and more to fleshing out the operations of the dystopian society. We witness more of the backstage politics, which leads to more oppression, and more brutality. There are more dynamic and relatable games competitors, instead of faceless adversaries. The extravagant, almost Dr. Seuss style choices of the upper class citizens, which I wasn’t quite sure what to make of in the first film, resonant more strongly because of the sharp contrast to the plain-clothed citizens on the outskirts. This expansion of the world emphasizes that this isn’t a story just about Katniss anymore. When her final decisive action comes along, it carries with it a great impact not just for her but for the entire world around her. Which is about as enticing a setup for a finale as you can have. Even though the concept of two films devoted to one book never sounds like a necessary decision, the conclusion to this film makes me think this series has earned the right to finish telling its tale without feeling pressured by overbearing time constrictions. 8/10.

New Tale Of ZatoichiNew Tale Of Zatoichi

The third entry in the Zatoichi series, a series that so far has been much more calm and contemplative than I was anticipating. Released in 1963, the film opens with the famed blind swordsman in a remorseful mood. Years of aimless wandering and killing have clearly taken a great toll, and he finally seems ready to settle down and start his life over as a new type of man. The opportunity presents itself when he returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his former sensei Banno. The sensei has fallen on hard times, and is devising a morally-suspect plan to acquire some extra funds. He also has plans to marry off his young sister, but she is not keen on the idea of an arranged marriage. Instead, she has eyes for Zatoichi, and he for her, but there is a good chance the sensei will not approve of their romantic plans. Unlike the previous entry in the series, New Tale Of Zatoichi stands mostly on its own. Only one thread from the previous film remains, in the form of a man seeking revenge against the blind swordsman for the slaying of his brother. However, the inevitable confrontation between the two does not play out in a conventional manner.

This is the first Zatoichi film to trade black-and-white for color, but the extra palette does little to brighten the mood. It’s a story about men struggling in vain to come to terms with the violent lives they have chosen for themselves, and consequently, most of the action here has a desperate quality, with every swing of the blade tinged with regret. The big climactic swordfight at the end barely raises a pulse, because the tone of it is more anguishing than exciting.  A great contrast emerges between Banno, the respected but soulless sensei, and Zatoichi, the handicapped but dignified drifter. The former resorts to using his violent skills for duplicitous means, while the latter uses his violent skills to do the right thing, sacrificing his chance at happiness and instead gaining something approaching nobility. With twenty-two films still left to see from the series’ original theatrical run, I’m assuming all this melancholy will eventually be replaced by a more carefree style. But I appreciate how these early entries, and especially this one, emphasize the more downbeat qualities of its central hero. 8/10.

Trailers:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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