Friday, March 23, 2012

Good Kill Hunting: “The Hunger Games” is a Gloriously Entertaining and Fascinatingly Dark Allegory

“The Hunger Games” isn’t really anything that brand new. There have been countless book and films about messed up dystopian futures and plenty of commentaries about the dark nature of humanity. Everything from “The Most Dangerous Game” to “Lord of the Flies” to “The Running Man” to “Battle Royale” to “A Clockwork Orange” and even “The Truman Show” have all shown humanity at its worst. “The Hunger Games,” which is based on a hugely popular young adult book trilogy, makes it digestible for a younger crowd. And yet amazingly it has found fans outside of its target (pun intended) audience. There’s a reason why the fictional Hunger Games (a televised game show in which teenagers are forced to hunt each other to the death)of the novel is as popular as the book itself: humans have and always will be interested and turned on by violence. It’s in our nature going back to our hunting and gathering days. “The Hunger Games” depicts a society overrun with people who declare watching humans hunt humans as exciting. It’s the “American Idol” of a dark, uncertain future. And with the way things are going these days, doesn’t exactly seem too far out of reach scary as that sounds.

It seems that young people, girls in particular, are drawn to the story of Katniss Everdeen. She’s a tough, tomboyish teenager who looks after her family. She’s lives in the future world of Panem, which after many wars has taken over most of North America. There are twelve “Districts” which are all ruled by the “Capitol.” Every year a televised event known as “The Hunger Games” takes place. Two teenagers (a boy and girl – each referred to as a “Tribute”) from each district are forced (though some districts train kids with the intent of participating in the games) to take part, where the intent is to survive in the wilderness and kill off the other 23 players. It’s also a yearly reminder for the poorer districts, that the Capitol is in complete control of them. Yes it’s a wonderful story about teenagers forced to butch other teenagers, all for sport, broadcast on TV for the world to see. It’s such a dark and twisted premise; I’m still shocked that this series has gained such a strong following. Of course, add a slight love triangle for good measure. But don’t worry, there’s nary a vampire or werewolf to be found.

I go back to the main character Katniss (played wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence) because she’s tough and smart and pretty and easy for readers to identify with. Especially since she makes the most selfless act when she volunteers to be her district’s female Tribute when her younger sister Primrose is selected in the lottery (known as “The Reaping”). She and Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) will represent District 12 in the Hunger Games, where they’re quickly whiffed off by the oddly dressed Effie (Elizabeth Banks), a representative of the Capitol, who sort of works as a PR woman. They’re coached along the way by the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who is the only Hunger Games survivor from District 12. The kids are dressed up and pimped out in what appears to be an American Idol type show, where certain players are attempted to made into favorites for the fans to root for. It’s all bizarre and crazy and almost too realistic. Although everyone in the Capitol, where this is all taking place, look like strange Tim Burton-Lady Gaga- Stanley Kubrick characters. There are other wonderful turns by the likes of Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, and Lenny Kravitz.

The visual design here is simply flawless. Everything from the costumes and make-up to the production design are simply exquisite. And this comes as no surprise since the film’s director Gary Ross also created that wonderful world known as “Pleasantville.” It makes sense that Ross directed both films because not only are they so well crafty visually, but they each have something to say about our society. The society in The Hunger Games is anything but pleasant. I mean, these kids are dumped into the woods and forced to survive not only each other but the elements as well. They must find their own food and water and be sure to avoid the genetically made creatures like tracker jackers (deadly wasps) or scary dog-like creatures called muttations. The cinematography features some gritty, shaky camera work, and there are some beautiful shots here as well. You really get a good sense of place. The design of the poor districts and opulent Capitol are really well-designed.

“The Hunger Games” is nearly flawless in style, design, and execution. The acting is wonderful, the characters are interesting, and the story is simply too fascinating to even find any fault in. Remember this isn’t one of the most original stories – many others have influenced Suzanne Collins’ source material – but this film is just simply a wonder to behold. It’s the most bizarre mash-up of “Survivor” and “Apocalypto” I’ve ever seen. This is a truly exciting, suspenseful, dramatic, sad, and intense Hollywood film that seems to get everything right and doesn’t treat its audience as if they’re mindless drones. I’m amazed at the popularity of something so dark and disturbing, especially since it has such a young audience built in (and don’t let that PG-13 rating fool you - there are some gruesome things here), but it just goes to show how easy it is to be taken in by something so perversely thrilling and entertaining. It’s human nature at its best and worst. GRADE: A

Saturday, March 17, 2012

17 Again: “21 Jump Street” is a Surprisingly Funny and Smart Satire

At one point in “21 Jump Street” a character acknowledges that these days there’s no originality and only old things keep being remade. And that is when you realize that “21 Jump Street” is way smarter than you’d ever think it would be. After all, it’s a “reboot” of the cheesy 80s show about young looking (even though they didn’t even look young) cops who go undercover as high school students to sniff out crime. That show starred Johnny Depp, who went on to be pretty famous. And then there was that other guy. Now we have Channing Tatum (can that dude actually be funny??) and Jonah (we already know he’s funny) as cops who go undercover as high school students. Where the 80s show took itself seriously with PSA-like life lessons, this new version is basically a send-up of the original series and its clichés (think The Brady Bunch Movie) while at the same time being a loyal tribute to it.

“21 Jump Street” is sort of a weird mash-up of “The Other Guys” and “Mean Girls.” It not only spoofs the silly conventions of action movies and buddy cop flicks, but also skewers the clichés often found in high school comedies. It’s a John Hughes movie for the tough action guy and it fits in nicely with all those great Judd Apatow modern classics like “Pineapple Express” or “Superbad.” Tatum and Hill play wonderfully off each other as Jenko and Schmidt respectively. They went to high school together, but weren’t friends: Jenko was the popular goof-off and Schmidt was the intelligent nobody. Now several years later they’re forced to be police partners, patrolling parks on their bikes. They’re basically a step above meter maids. A new division of the police department is “being brought back from the 80s” in which younger looking cops infiltrate crime rings at local area high schools. Jenko and Schmidt are prime candidates for this program that is run at 21 Jump St, which is an old, rundown Korean church headed by Captain Dickson (played by Ice Cube) who definitely lives up to his name. And even he admits that’s he’s a racial stereotype.

Jenko and Schmidt’s undercover assignment is to be brothers, attending high school together, and sniff out a drug ring. There’s an unknown supplier of a synthetic drug that the local teens are into, some even posting videos of themselves tripping out on YouTube. The first day doesn’t go too well as both of Jenko and Schmidt’s fake identities get accidentally switched and Jenko is forced to be the intelligent one and enrolled in classes like AP Chemistry, while Schmidt is enrolled in dumbed down courses like Theatre. But a lot has changed since high school – they don’t even know what hipsters are – and it’s here where the movie really shines. Screenwriter Michael Bacall (who also co-wrote the story with Hill) has come up with another witty satire of high school tropes. There’s even nods to the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau, as Ellie Kemper (from “The Office” and “Bridesmaids”) plays a horny teacher who has eyes for Jenko.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who also made the animated comedy “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) have a crafted a rather funny film that is equal parts action and laugh out loud humor. The film finds great humor in simple situations, like when Jenko and Schmidt are forced to take the drug and begin tripping out in the hallway while begin accosted by the douchy gym teacher (Rob Riggle). And there are even fun moments of suspense like when an old family friend of Schmidt almost blows his cover in a shoe store. And it turns out that James Franco’s little brother Dave Franco is definitely on his way to becoming a more well-known young star. He’s charming as the popular guy Eric, who is dealing the drugs at school, but we’re unsure who’s supplying him with them. And what would a funny comedy remake be without a few surpising cameos thrown in for good fun?

“21 Jump Street” is bound to be a surprise for most people who expected a dumb comedy. It’s way smarter than you’d ever give it credit for. It features great, funny performances. Hill and Tatum make a disturbingly good odd couple who play off each other nicely. Tatum has really come out of his wooden-acting shell, although he’s still a little stiff here and there, but he's much improved. He should definitely stick with comedy instead of that silly romance crap. If “21 Jump Street” is an indication of how the rest of this year will play out, then we’re in store from some great surprises. It passes with flying colors. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Martha Marcy Slay Marlene: “Silent House” is an Effective ‘Single Take’ Thriller

A lot of times horror films don’t offer much in terms of technical proficiency. They’re usually made on the cheap and sometimes they look it. “Silent House” is a movie made on the cheap, and while it doesn’t feature the type of cinematography seen in a luscious period piece, it features wonderful handheld camerawork that is made to appear as if it were taking place in real time. And yes, in fact, “Silent House” is made as if it were shot in a single take. “Russian Ark” this is not, as I believe there are a few hidden edits, but like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” the film uses a lack of cuts to build suspense. The film works beyond its fun gimmickry in that it features a standout performance from Elizabeth Olsen, which obviously proves that good acting skills are not hereditary.

The film begins with an overhead shot looking down on a young woman standing on rocks near the water. The camera follows her along the rocks, through the grass, up to a boarded up house, where the young woman meets her father, who just drove up in his car. They proceed to talk as they wander into the house – which is all dark inside because there’s no electricity (or phone or cell service) – where they meet up with the man’s brother (her uncle) down into the creepy basement. And there isn’t one cut that I noticed. Most casual viewers probably wouldn’t even notice the lack of edits here, but once you realize how much has been going on without ever cutting away, it’s just a wonder of truly mesmerizing filmmaking.

Olsen plays Sarah who’s helping her dad John (Adam Trese) and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) fix up the house so they can sell it. A young woman around Sarah’s age shows up at the house and apparently they’re old friends from when they were young. But Sarah doesn’t remember her. Later, after her Uncle leaves to go into town, Sarah begins hearing strange banging noises. Her father seems to have disappeared, until she finds him passed out with a bloody gash on his head. It appears someone’s in the house and Sarah just might be trapped. What follows is nearly an hour of almost unbearable suspense as Sarah is forced to play a cat and mouse game against a barely seen assailant. But then things become weirder and weirder and things may not just be what they appear to be.

“Silent House” no surprisingly was made from the husband and wife duo that brought us the terrifying shark thriller “Open Water.” Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have crafted a similarly claustrophobic and terrifying horror film. The camera is almost always either in front of Sarah’s face or right over her shoulder. Sometimes we can’t see anything around her and it creates almost unbearable tension. And that’s mostly because of Olsen’s impressively frightened performance. The camera appears to be entirely operated by a steadicam operator and at times the frame is as shaky as something in “The Blair Witch Project” which sometimes gives it that “found footage” feel that has come to be popular in this genre. But having everything appear in real time, with edits that are barely noticeable, give it something a little extra. It makes the whole proceeding way more impressive than most entries in the horror genre tend to be. The actual plot device which is revealed toward the end as a twist on what we actually expected, is a take it or leave it premise. Some will find it unnecessary and stupid, others will find it gives the film a deeper meaning. I fall somewhere in the middle, as once things begin to be revealed the suspense begins to wan.

“Silent House” is a rather impressive entry in a genre that even Rodney Dangerfield would proclaim gets no respect. I admire when filmmakers in this area decide to do something technically rewarding because it goes to show, even though this is a remake of a little seen film from Uruguay, originality and talent in the film industry isn’t quite dead. GRADE: B+

Friday, March 09, 2012

Stinker Taylor Soldier Sigh: Despite Some Cool CGI, “John Carter” is Incoherent Silliness

I think there’s a reason why Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story about a man transporting to Mars and aiding in various civil wars with creature aliens and human aliens hasn’t been turned into a film until now is because it just seems silly when you see it all played out. So many other filmmakers have borrowed heavily from the original source material, the “Barsoom” series starting with “The Princess of Mars,” that by now seeing a film adaptation of it seems trite. In a world where six Star Wars films, countless sci-fi and fantasy films, and Westerns exists, it’s hard to find an ounce of originally in the new film “John Carter” which just sort of sits there attempting to pretend you haven’t already seen a movie like this a hundred times before. And to make matters worse the plot is so understandable you even wonder why the filmmakers bothered at all.

Andrew Stanton has made a name for himself in the world of Pixar having directed both “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”, both of which are fantastic animated films (and Oscar winners). He makes his live action debut here, but there’s something uncharming and flat about the entire proceedings. His attempts at humor and fun are heartfelt – even providing a cute, alien dog-creature for comic relief purposes – but it’s just an attempt to make a muddled mess of a movie seem less like a muddled mess.

We’re introduced to the title character John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) who hails from Virginia (as we’ll learn over and over again as every alien on Mars ends up referring to John as “Virginia”) and it’s the late 19th century. To sum things up considerably, John is mysteriously transported to Mars, which is known as Barsoom to the locals. There is civil war going on. Obviously, only an Earthling can save the day. And conveniently John is a former Civil War soldier. Upon first landing on Mars, John is dumbfounded to discover his has the ability to jump really high (due to the planet’s gravity and his Earthling bone structure). He comes across green alien creatures with four arms. There are also human aliens around - who live as if it were the Roman Empire - and everyone is fighting with each other. Can’t they all just get along?

I assume that extreme sci-fi geeks will love all of “John Carter” and if that’s the case then the film has succeeded admirably. But I’m afraid the film doesn’t offer much to the non-geek crowd the way other similar films with mass appeal do. “Star Wars” is a sci-fi nerd’s ultimate pleasure, yet it offers action and adventure and drama for the non fan boy crowd as well. The same goes for “Avatar” which is the highest grossing film of all time. Was it because the fan boys all saw it ten times? Yes. But it’s also a movie that EVERYONE saw. The green aliens in “John Carter” are not unlike the blue humanoid Na’vi that are found in James Cameron’s far superior epic. The green Tharks are all achieved with computer graphics and are pretty impressive. But there’s something just not interesting about this species. The Therns are bald pale-faced polymorphers and they’re headed by Mark Strong. More uninterestingly are the Martian humans found on Barsoom with Dominic West as Sab Than. And there’s the beautiful princess played by Lynn Collins. The writers can’t seem to come up with many interesting characterization for these people and instead focus on confusing plot points and hard to remember names. You find out Helium is the name of their city – but for awhile I thought they all just wanted squeaky voices. And that leads me to the film’s main hero - John Carter- and Kitsch fails to ooze much charisma. It’s all about his rugged looks and he chooses to grunt all of his lines. Having a nameless, charmless actor headlining a film with no other stars is a risky move, and unfortunately it never quite pays off.

There are a couple fun action scenes thrown in to keep things moving but by the time anything actual fun happens, you’re so confused as to who is fighting who, it’s really hard to even care. And the film’s mishmash of genres – there are elements of fantasy, sci-fi, Western, even period piece melodrama – never quite congeals into a formidable piece of escapist entertainment. It’s too confusing and convoluted. Even confusing films can be fascinating to watch – I’m thinking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy specifically – because they offer other elements like great acting or amazing cinematography.

With “John Carter” there will be those that will be pleased, but for me it lacked anything worth getting excited over. It's not a horrible movie, just not particularly that fun or memorable. Michael Giacchino provides another good, but sort of forgettable score, and the technical merits are all there in full force, but I found the whole thing a slog to get through. I think Mars is just a bad luck charm for movies (think “Ghosts of Mars,” “Mars Needs Moms,” “Red Planet,” see where I’m going with this?) Why is it so impossible to make a great movie that to do with that red planet? The film’s poor marketing didn’t quite help - unfortunately the film is almost as dull as its title suggests. GRADE: D+

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Bad Seed: Tilda Swinton Mesmerizes in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

If birth control could exist as a film, it would be “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” The child that Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly’s characters create in this film is the epitome of evil; even Chucky would be running for the door. This movie isn’t so much about a sociopathic child as much as it’s about a mother, who wasn’t quite ready to be a mother, and how do you deal with a child you didn’t plan for in the first place? Swinton gives one of her best performances here as Eva in director Lynn Ramsay’s haunting drama that is part psychological drama and part art house horror as we witness young Kevin grow up as he portrays sign after sign of having obvious psychological disorders that are never really diagnosed. You don’t have to be a doctor to know that this kid is capable of doing something horrible, and that’s exactly the point, because this is the story of a mother who never really did much to stop her own son from committing a horrible act that’s only implied, and not shown until the films final harrowing moments. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a masterful film. It’s so amazingly directed by Lynn Ramdsay (who also co-wrote the film with Rory Kinnear). The story – which is based on the novel of the same name - is told in a fragmented way, which is nothing new, but it really helps you get in the mind of a woman who’s about lost it. At first we have trouble piecing the images we see together, which helps get into this woman’s head. Most audiences wouldn’t want to be inside this character’s head, which is why this isn’t really a film for everyone. It’s not so much a pleasurable experience as much as it is a harrowing experience. Some will want to get up and leave, while others will bravely chug through it wanted to see how all the pieces fit together. I for one sat there enthralled by the entire endeavor as it presented characters and situations not often found in popular entertainment.

Swinton is Eva, a former travel writer who meets her husband Franklin while traveling abroad. A child is the result of their passion and his name is Kevin. Eva’s not the best mother. She can’t quite seem to get him to stop crying and finds calming solace by standing next to some construction workers using jackhammers. As Kevin ages, he has obvious signs of mental disorders. He doesn’t want to smile or laugh or play. She throws a ball, but he refuses to throw it back. Could a child this young really be testing his own mother? A family practitioner insists Kevin is fine, even though we know there’s something up with this kid. A he gets older, he refuses to become potty trained and Eva is forced to change the diaper of a six year old boy, who soils his own clean diaper just moments after being changed. Eva has enough and literally tosses the young boy, breaking his arm. I’m pretty sure Kevin sees this as a win. He does partakes in other odd behavior that would make Dennis the Menace blush. Franklin remains oblivious, he thinks Kevin is normal. Kevin seems to love playing with his father but remains menacingly cold to his mother. But Eva doesn’t much react – she never disciplines the boy. There just seems to be something evil lurking in him, waiting to bubble to the surface.

Another child is brought into the family – a bright eyed blond girl, who appears to be the most normal member of the family. A plot point involving a guinea pig and some drain-o figure in at some point and by then you know that the briefly seen flashbacks of some kind of tragedy at a high school are in no way good omens. The scenes of the present involve only Eva as her husband and daughter aren’t seen, and Kevin (played chillingly as a teenager by Ezra Miller) in police custody. Adults around town seem to know Eva very well. They give her dirty looks – they smash her eggs in the grocery story and they even hit her in broad daylight. Even her co-workers know of her past. To say anything more would ruin the film’s well structured mystery – but it doesn’t take much to figure out that Kevin will unleash all that is raging behind his blank, angry stare. A bought of anger we’re not quite sure came from, which remains the film’s most chilling aspect.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” isn’t the easiest film to watch and will most likely turn off a lot of people. It’s content was enough of a turn off for Academy members who snubbed Swinton – like Michael Fassbender – for an Oscar nomination. Make no mistakes about it this is a film not for everyone, but for those willing to go travel down a dark place you’ll be rewarded with a moving and disturbing piece of cinema. It’s not all dark and gloomy though – there are brief moments of humor - like when Eva tells the Mormon missionaries at her doorstep that she’s be going to hell. In any case, you’ll surely be talking about “We Need to Talk About Kevin” long after seeing it. GRADE: A-

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Hey Nude: “Wanderlust” is a Hilarious Comedy from Those Wet Hot American Summer Folks

Like many raunchy comedies as of late, you will see lots of nudity in “Wanderlust.” I mean unsexy, non-titillating nudity. It’s “comedy nudity” and those that are naked are not ones you’d expect to see nude (think Kathy Bates in “About Schmidt”) Are you still with me? If you can get past the fact that most vulgar comedies these days rely on this shock value, you’ll be glad to know that “Wanderlust” still relies heavily on really funny dialogue and absurdist moments to invoke laughter. If you’ve seen director David Wain’s wonderful spooftacular “Wet Hot American Summer” then you know exactly what I’m talking about. This time he tells the story of two New Yorkers who have just bought a tiny, but expensive apartment in New York City, but realize they can’t afford it once they become unemployed. They accidentally wander into a hippie commune where the strange folks welcome them with open arms - and some with open robes.

I’m pretty such many conservative Republicans will look at the hippies in “Wanderlust” and assume every liberal is like that. You know the kind who basically eat dirt and tree bark, go to the bathroom in front of each other, and give live childbirth without using painkillers and then proceed to carry around the baby still attached to its umbilical cord. All these silly things happen in “Wanderlust” and odds are no matter your political persuasion, you’ll be laughing up a storm. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are George and Linda. They just bought an expensive new apartment. George just got fired because his boss is a white collar criminal. Linda just made a depressing documentary about penguins with testicular cancer and can’t seem to find a distributor. They’re forced to leave the big city and travel to George’s brother’s place in Georgia (in one of cinema’s best driving montage sequences ever) where they’ll stay until they can get back on their feet. Needing a place to rest for the night, their GPS takes them to “Elysium” a hippie commune way in the middle of nowhere, where they run into a naked guy who they think is going to made skin suits out of them ala “Silence of the Lambs.”

Elysium is the home to some of the most funny, and memorable characters in a comedy in a long time. There are some familiar faces here. Alan Alda plays Carvin an aging hippie in a motorized scooter who founded the place (along with 9 others who he lists off by name over and over again), Justin Theroux is the bearded Seth who is so cut off from society that he thinks laserdiscs and floppy disks are still popular forms of technology, Malin Akerman is Eva who believes in “free love,” funny lady Katherine Hahn is the resident activist who gets upset when Gorge swats a fly, Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose makes a welcomed appearance as the knocked up Almond who obviously is a fan of free love as well. Wet Hot American Summer alumni Joe Lo Truglio is the resident nudist. What a bunch of weirdoes! George and Linda decide to try out this new lifestyle for a couple weeks – before you know it, Linda is squatting in the grass to urinate, much to George’s dismay. Of course these folks aren’t much stranger than George’s conservative bother and sister-in-law who have hilarious strange quirks of their own. (They’re played by Ken Marino and former SNL cast member Michaela Watkins).

I can’t really say enough positive things about “Wanderlust.” I seriously was laughing so hard I can forgive it for having a not very original plot structure. Will George and Linda temporarily break up before finally being reunited? Yes, snooze. They even manage to squeeze in a subplot about developer who wants to use the land to build a casino. But that stuff isn’t what’s so special here. What’s so great is the quirky and sometimes just simply bizarre humor to be found. Each actor gives it his or her all. And Wain is in top directorial form – each film he makes is more polished than the last – yet he never loses that absurdist feel that pervades each and every one of his films. Sure some classic “American Summer” cast mates are nowhere to be found (like Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, Molly Shannon or Amy Poehler) but this new cast is such a wonderful ensemble – it almost makes you want to live in the woods with these lovable weirdoes. GRADE: A-