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Movie Review | Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler shine in latest ‘Hunger Games’ movie

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Movie Review | Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler shine in latest ‘Hunger Games’ movie

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is to its hugely popular universe what “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” is to a galaxy far, far away, but with a couple of key differences.

First, “Ballad” does not appear to be the first in a trilogy of prequels set in the dystopian world created by author Suzanne Collins but instead a stand-alone story.

Also, it’s a better movie.

Instead of the backstory of fallen Jedi Anakin Skywalker, we get the origin of Coriolanus Snow, future tyrannical president of Panem and persistent thorn in the side of “Hunger Games” franchise protagonist Katniss Everdeen. The world may not have been clamoring for a tale built around a pivotal chapter in the life of Coriolanus, but the 2020 novel from which this movie is adapted was well-received.

The screen version illustrates why, as it is a reasonably compelling narrative about a conflicted young man, a man torn between his ambitious nature and his moral compass and feelings for a charming and beautiful young woman.

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After a brief prologue featuring Coriolanus as a boy during the Dark Days, precisely three years before the first Hunger Games, we move ahead to catch up with the 18-year-old version (Tom Blyth). His deceased father once a powerful man in Panem’s Capital, Coriolanus now lives with cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer of “Euphoria”) and their Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan, “Waking Ned Devine”) in a meager home. When he’s among his classmates at the Academy, Coriolanus does his best to project that he still comes from wealth, like the rest of them.

Rachel Zegler’s Lucy Gray Baird competes in the 10th Hunger Games in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Right before the Reaping ceremony for the upcoming 10th Hunger Games, in which the “tributes” from Panem’s various districts will be chosen for the fight-to-the-death tournament, Coriolanus and other students learn they will be serving as mentors to those future combatants. He becomes the mentor for Lucy Gray Baird (“West Side Story” star Rachel Zegler) of District 12 — which, several decades later, will produce Katniss for the contest.

Coriolanus, as well as everyone else who watches her selection, is taken by Lucy Gray’s impromptu singing, which will become a constant (and welcome) occurrence throughout the movie.

If she wins the Hunger Games, it could be great for the aspiring Coriolanus, who has a nemesis in the Academy’s dean, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), but a potential champion in Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), an Academy instructor and the head gamesmaker.

However, Coriolanus develops feelings for Lucy Gray, which are heightened after he sneaks aboard a truck carrying her and other tributes to the Capital Zoo, where they are kept behind bars until they are faced with killing one another.

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As the story continues, the pair — both orphans, he proudly wears his father’s dress shirt and she finds comfort in being in her mother’s dress — grow closer, and Coriolanus does all he can to help her survive. The Hunger Games are far from the elaborate, high-tech affair they will become in 60-plus years, but they’re just as dangerous given the stakes, and Lucy Gray isn’t exactly the out-for-blood type, so she’ll need some assistance.

Another key player in Coriolanus’ story is classmate and friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera, another “West Side Story” alum), who comes from a powerful family but yearns for great change in how the opulent Capital oppresses the poverty-plagued districts. Coriolanus also finds himself protecting Sejanus, but the latter’s actions make that increasingly difficult.

Told in three parts, “Ballad” probably is a little longer than it needs to be at about two and a half hours, and yet it still rushes through its all-important final few minutes.

That aside, it is fairly well told by screenwriters Michael Lesslie (Assassin’s Creed”) and Michael Arndt (“Hunger Games: Catching Fire”), the script holding little nods to the existing saga that fans will appreciate.

That the film is deftly directed by Francis Lawrence is hardly surprising given that he helmed all but the first of the original four “Hunger Games” entries. He understands Collins’ world and always seems confident and comfortable when conducting the goings-on within it.

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Franchise producer Nina Jacobson and others responsible also did well with the casting of its leads.

A lot is asked of Blyth (“Billy the Kid”) as Coriolanus: He must make the character likable while infusing him with qualities that allow the viewer to believe he could become the future authoritarian we know and loathe. (It doesn’t hurt that, at least if you squint, you can picture Blyth becoming Donald Sutherland-esque in his later years.)

And Zegler is a no-brainer choice for Lucy Gray, the actress lighting up the screen, just as she does in 2021’s “West Side Story,” and enhancing the proceedings with her lovely singing voice. (Don’t be surprised if, after seeing “Ballad,” you find yourself spending a good bit of time with its soundtrack thanks to the movie’s many enjoyable songs.) Zegler also brings a hint of mystery to the character, as well, which helps make the whole formula of this romance work.

Effective comic relief is provided by Jason Schwartzman’s (“Asteroid City”) Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, host of the Games’ TV broadcast — and Panem weatherman — and an ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman.

On the other hand, while they are excellent actors, Davis (“Fences”) and Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) aren’t all that impactful in portraying their rather uninteresting characters. Gaul calls for the former to go way over the top, wild hair and all, and it’s not where the Academy Award winner excels, while Highbottom is a bit of a bore.

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Although Coriolanus’s fall to the dark side is better executed than Anakin’s in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, it’s nice to think that his story now has been told.

The guess here is Collins at some point will return to her fertile world for another novel — later resulting in another movie — but that she’ll make a game of another aspect of it.

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is rated PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material. Runtime: 2 hours, 37 minutes.

 

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Movie Review | ‘Dune: Part Two’ improves on first film’s grand formula

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Movie Review | ‘Dune: Part Two’ improves on first film’s grand formula

When your first movie is a hit, the studio tends to give you more cash to spend on the sequel.

And when your film adapts what essentially is the second half of a book, it tends to be more exciting than the installment that came before it.

Not surprisingly, then, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s excellent “Dune: Part Two” — in theaters March 1, after being pushed into 2024 as a result of last year’s Hollywood strikes — is greater in scale and more frequently riveting than its strong predecessor, 2021’s six-time Academy Award-winning “Dune.”

This second “Dune,” costing a reported $190 million, isn’t a giant leap forward, the science-fiction epic matching the first ($165 million) precisely in terms of look and tone. And it picks up where “Dune” left off, with possible future messiah Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, mystical Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning”), living among the Fremen, the native people of the remote desert planet Arrakis.

The giant sandworms of the planet Arrakis are an even bigger presence in “Dune: Part Two” than they were in 2021’s “Dune.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

In case you need a refresher, “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two” are based on Frank Herbert’s influential 1965 novel “Dune,” a work interested in ecological themes, among others.

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In Herbert’s world — set thousands of years in the future and following humanity winning a war against artificial intelligence — computers are outlawed in the universe. Instead, to traverse space, folks depend on spice, the mind-altering substance that grows in the sands of Arrakis. As a result, control of the otherwise desolate planet is important — so important that it cost Paul his father and saw the great House Atreides fall to the merciless types of House Harkonnen.

Now, the prescient Paul desires to express his distinct displeasure with what has happened to that house’s leader, the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, “Andor”), and the man pulling the strings from above him, the Emperor (Christopher Walken, “The Deer Hunter”), seen in “Part Two” for the first time.

“Your father didn’t believe in revenge,” Jessica reminds her son.

“Well I do,” Paul responds.

Paul wishes to learn the ways of the Fremen, who exist in the harsh lands of Arrakis despite the ever-present threat of the giant sandworms and do not appreciate outsiders coming to take the planet’s valuable resource. Fortunately for Paul, a key Fremen, Stilgar (Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”), believes him to be the prophesied off-worlder who will lead the Fremen to a better existence. Paul isn’t so sure about that, and neither are others, among them Chani (Zendaya “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) — literally the woman of his spice-fueled dreams and to whom, of course, he grows closer in this film.

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As the story progresses, Paul works to pass tests administered by Stilgar to prove his worth; encounters an old friend and mentor in Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, “Avengers: End Game”); and faces a new and possibly more dangerous enemy in Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), the psychopathic nephew of the baron, who rises to power as his brother, Beast Rabbanas (Dave Bautista, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), struggles to defeat the constantly attacking Fremen.

Most importantly, Paul wants to avoid the potentially catastrophic results of choosing the path he takes in his visions. However, other forces, including his mother — traveling her own rise to power in this chapter — may pull him there nonetheless.

Visually, at least, “Dune: Part Two” is a masterpiece. With contributions from returning contributors including director of photography Greig Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, editor Joe Walker, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert and costume designer Jacqueline, the film is regularly wondrous while also presenting a very gritty and lived-in world. It is a sight to behold, for example, every time Fremen warriors rise from the sand and charge at the Harkonnen spice-harvesting operation. Ultimately, we seldom get world-building as stunning as what Villeneuve has offered with these two films.

Like the 2021 release, “Part Two” is a little slow at times, not a shock given its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Even still, this is yet more topnotch filmmaking from Villeneuve, whose previous directorial efforts include the outstanding films “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049.” He knows how to pull you into a story and keep you invested, even a narrative as strange and sprawling as that of “Dune.”

Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with another returning collaborator Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange”), the tandem continuing to show tremendous work in the realm of adaptation, bringing to the screen only what we need for a compelling tale.

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Within the frame, Chalamet (“Wonka,” “Call Me by Your Name”), as he was in the first film, is merely a semi-engaging hero — that is until a rousing late-affair scene where the actor goes big and truly impresses. It’s a performance that’s needed to sell what’s to follow, and sell it he does.

The cast is too large to do much more singling out, but know that Butler, following impressive performances in projects including “Elvis” and “Masters of the Air,” is rather terrifying as the especially horrendous Harkonnen. Feyd-Rautha is one-dimensional and a disappointingly underdeveloped character, but Butler is terrifying as the villain all the same.

The huge ensemble of “Dune: Part Two” also includes notable newcomers in Florence Pugh (“Black Widow”), as Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor, and Léa Seydoux (“No Time to Die”), as Lady Fenring, an enigmatic Bene Gesserit who pays a visit to Feyd-Rautha. Both actors get relatively little screen time, but one imagines they could get significantly more in a third “Dune.”

As you’d expect given that Herbert penned sequels to “Dune,” there is room for this story to continue. And as likely as a “Dune: Part Three” is to be green-lit, there are reasons to suspect it won’t arrive as quickly as this film has.

Regardless of when it arrives, with the gift Villeneuve so far has illustrated for spice-navigating us through space, we’ll follow him back to Arrakis as beyond.

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“Dune: Part Two” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some suggestive material and brief strong language. Runtime: Two hours, 46 minutes.

 

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Film Review: The Moon Thieves (2024) by Steve Yuen

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Film Review: The Moon Thieves (2024) by Steve Yuen

“Lies are best based on truth”

The caper or heist film is one of the sub-genres of action that has a lot to offer thematically and stylistically if done correctly. If we think back to “To Catch a Thief” or even the “Oceans”-series, the world these stories show are a reflection of a society based on materialism and property, with the thieves sharing the same obsession as the owners of the object they want to steal. On the other hand, given its potential to be an ensemble piece, the caper/heist feature also offers actors the chance to shine. Steve Yuen’s “The Moon Thieves”, the director’s third feature, tries to combine the two aspects of the genre, but fails to offer some depth to its otherwise intriguing premise.

The Moon Thieves is released exclusively in UK cinemas by Central City Media

Uncle (Keung To) is a major player in the Hong Kong underworld and he is also a successful dealer in fake and real watches. Upon hearing three prestigious watches owned by painter Pablo Picasso will be auctioned in Tokyo, he recruits a crew to steal them and exchange them with counterfeits. Chief (Louis Cheng), a loyal follower to Uncle’s father, is the leader of the crew which also consists of Mario (Michael Ning), an explosive expert, Vincent (Edan Lui), a master counterfeiter, and finally Yoh (Anson Lo), a safe-cracker. Chief and Mario are somewhat skeptical of the two younger members of the team, especially Vincent who has issues with the whole undertaking and prefers to not be part of the heist itself.

However, he changes his mind upon seeing the contents of the safe where the watches are kept. Among the Picasso watches, there is also the infamous Moonwatch, which was supposedly worn by Buzz Aldrin upon walking on the moon for the first time in 1969. During a fireworks festival, the heist takes place and despite a few hiccups, everything goes largely as planned. But when one of the thieves also takes the precious Moonwatch, this sets in motion a series of events, as a Japanese businessman and crime lord is unwilling to give up on his property this easily.

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While the premise of having a crew of thieves stealing three watches does not sound thrilling at first glance, Yuen’s film manages to make this idea attractive from the very first minute on. As we are introduced to the character of Vincent, we also delve deep into the world of watches, the art of making a “frankenwatch” using vintage parts from other watches and ultimately selling it to some rather shady looking individuals. The fast-paced editing and overall glossy aesthetics emphasize the image of a world of prestige and property, but also one easy to fool by a shiny surface, which is essentially the core of “The Moon Thieves”. Consequently, the characters go through various episodes in which they con their targets, deceive them and come up with such elaborate schemes that more than once seem a little pointless. Thanks to the performances of the cast, this is done in a way which is quite entertaining and even has some humorous interactions.

At the same time, this elaborate magic-show, which is another way to describe “The Moon Thieves”, becomes stale after a while. In the second part of the feature, the action elements take up much more space, making it look and feel more like every other blockbuster. It is still solid, especially the shooting and the stunts, but then again you cannot help but wonder whether there could have been more depth to some elements of “The Moon Thieves”. The characters, while some of them seem to have an interesting backstory, are more or less the conventional band of lowlifes and con-artists we have come to expect from the genre. Additionally, you cannot help but wonder about some of the casting decisions, especially Keung To as Uncle, who tries to give his best shot at being an intimidating mobster, but lacks credibility due to his young age and delivery.

“The Moon Thieves” is a solid caper/heist movie with some interesting ideas, which fail to fully materialize resulting in an ultimately conventional finale. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of fun to be had with Steve Yuen’s film, but it will also likely be forgotten soon after watching.

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Movie review: Dune: Part Two – Baltimore Magazine

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Movie review: Dune: Part Two – Baltimore Magazine

I want to start this review by speaking directly to the people who were eagerly looking forward to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. Congratulations. This film is going to exceed your expectations, light up your pleasure sensors, and pretty much blow your minds. As the kids say, you will be fed.

But what about the rest of us? For all its stellar special effects, rousing action, awe-inspiring beauty—undulating sand dunes, billowing capes, fire-red crescent moons—and cast of young Hollywood hotties acting their butts off, Dune Part Two didn’t pass the ultimate test for me. That test being: Would I recommend the film to my mother? No. No I would not.

Look, not all films are for all people—I get that. But the very best genre films transcend their tropes and offer something for everyone. An apropos example: I would recommend Villeneuve’s Arrival to all film lovers, not just sci-fi fans.

My biggest objection to the Dune series continues to be that it takes itself far too seriously. Again, I get it—we’re dealing with serious stuff here: dying civilizations, ancient prophecies, struggles for power, the dark temptation of revenge. But just because something is set in a desert doesn’t mean it has to be this dry.

I was a fan of first Dune in this series, although I logged similar complaints about its self-seriousness. This one is a little better; the action is just as thrilling but the characters are given more depth and the central moral dilemma of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet)—at what point does one become blinded by power?—begins to snap into focus. There is also a love story with the wonderful Zendaya, playing Chani, a member of the blue-eyed desert people, the Fremen of Arrakis. Paul is utterly devoted to her (“I will love you for as long as I breathe”) but she is a bit more circumspect. “You will never lose me as long as you stay who you are,” she says pointedly. She knows that Paul is being pulled by some powerful temptations, namely the Fremen people, who see him as a possible savior. They grow to worship him, especially after he manages to tame one of those giant worm creatures, riding it like Ben Hur through the swirling sand. But will Paul lose himself in his quest for revenge? It’s hard not to root for the brave and resolute Paul—he is played by Chalamet, after all—but Chani serves as the film’s voice of moral clarity and skepticism. She knows he’s teetering toward a point of no return.

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But we’re not there yet. Paul is still quite heroic in this film, even as he’s haunted by visions of leading the Fremen people to their own destruction. He has voices in his ear: His power-hungry, sorceress mother (Rebecca Ferguson), now pregnant with Paul’s sister, and recruited by the Fremen to be their Reverend Mother; the big-hearted Fremen patriarch, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who is a true believer in Paul as the messiah; and Chani, who tells him to be wary of these prophecies.

Meanwhile, Arrakis is under siege by the Harkonnen kingdom, a land with, apparently, no Rogaine. Last film we met the Jabba the Hut-like Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who was after the Arrakis’ precious resource of “spice.” This time we also meet his creepy nephew Feyd (Austin Butler), a lethal swordsman, not above cheating to win a dual, with a beautiful, alien-like face and positively crazed eyes.

Florence Pugh, who does some of the film’s narration, only appears briefly as the daughter of the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), who feels his grip on power slipping away. Her arc will be compelling—she’s loyal to her father, just as Paul was loyal to his, but she comes to realize that he is not a righteous man. By the film’s end, her fate and Paul’s fate will be inextricably entwined. (Alas, we’re going to have to wait for Part Three to see it play out.)

Villeneuve recently gave an interview where he said that he is mostly interested in cinema for spectacle, that dialogue holds little appeal to him. Having seen Dune: Part Two that tracks. The film is a spectacle, a marvel of craftsmanship, the sort of film you need to see on the largest screen possible. But the dialogue is mostly expository, and at times painfully earnest. That said, I wouldn’t want some script doctor jazzing this thing up with zingers (“Stop trying to worm your way out of this, Paul!”). That’s definitely not the vibe. Dune Part Two is the best Dune Part Two it can possibly be. I just have to accept that it’s not the best film for me.

 

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