Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games (B)

Because of assumptions, there will be little explanation to set up the plot of the film, because chances are you've already been hearing way too much about it.

Waiting for a deeply beloved novel to be translated from book to film generally has two prime emotions attached: Cynicism and optimism. Essential polar opposites in terms of mental inclination, the desire for a successful adaptation is strong, but due to the frequency of literary-to-cinematic mediocrity, pessimism largely dominates the conscience. For every one Harry Potter, there's seemingly ten Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief: Mediocre conversions that either eliminate the elements of the source material which made it so enjoyable in effort to appeal to generic moviegoers, or attempt to replicate its predecessor in such detail that it engages no one. Though they're certainly more devoted fans than myself of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, I enjoyed the first book, and while I wasn't necessarily intrigued to read on with Catching Fire and Mockingjay, I was still fairly excited to view the film of the trilogy's namesake. Despite its limiting PG-13 rating, I was curious how director Gary Ross (along with screenwriters Billy Ray and previously mentioned original author Suzanne Collins) would depict the bleak dystopian future which these characters inhibit, along with the suspense and brutality featured in the games itself. Because of excellent casting (Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks), an acclaimed director at the helm, and the expert decision to keep Collins closely on board, my optimism toward the film far outweighed the pessimism. With extra encouragement from glowing early reviews written by critics I greatly respect, along with praise from friends who were at the 12:00am show, I entered the theater expecting the adaptation the novel truly deserved. And in large part, despite grand expectations, it mostly delivered.

The film begins with perhaps the best scene shown on screen in 2012: The Reaping. For those unfamiliar, "The Reaping" is a yearly event throughout the 12 districts of Panem, in which two teenaged tributes are chosen from each district to fight in The Hunger Games. Using shaky hand-cameras (more on this later) to immerse the audience into the cruel ceremony, Ross near silently builds suspense by building layer upon layer of fully realized detail. Capital workers in urbanized hazmat suits serve as security, a creepily glamorous emcee grossly misunderstanding the solemn tone of the event, the ironic wonder of children in viewing the Capital's futuristic technology, citizens of the district in more relief than pity when tributes are chosen. Most of these details are lingered on for only short moments, but blended together form an intriguing atmosphere, which could only be described as the dystopian cousin of Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery. It's an incredible feat by the director, complimented with stellar performances by the actors. While the film doesn't necessarily reach this peak again in terms of quality, it's certainly an outstanding place to start.

Like the Reaping scene, although to a slightly lesser effect, early scenes of the film set in District 12 work due to Ross's ability to capture the urban grimescape Katniss, and other citizens, inhabit. Rather than creating what we might consider to be a generic squalid dystopian town, we are instead met with landmarks disturbingly familiar: A barely fictionalized decaying suburbia. Buildings and homes exist, but are horribly run down. The same applies to a marketplace which Katniss frequents. Sadly, this supposed dystopia could exist in our modern day world, and probably does. By waiting to use CGI until reaching the Capital, we no longer exist in true heightened fiction, but rather a frighteningly realistic nightmare. Also, by waiting to use CGI until the Capital is introduced, we obtain the same sensory overload Katniss and Peeta have when entering themselves to the colorful city. Both exist in visual stark contrast to the other.

With such an excellent beginning, I was slightly surprised to discover that the majority, if not all of the film's problems, were in capturing the games themselves. With the restrictive, yet necessary PG-13 rating, no amount of acting could replicate the loss of the novel's violent brutality in favor of average blockbuster action. We are watching teenagers, and even at one point a 12 year old, be savagely massacred, but due to an inability to show the necessary gore, we could essentially be watching any recent action film with a teenaged lead. Also to be noted is Ross's reliance on using "shaky cam" methods to shoot action. While the style worked during the Reaping sequence to essentially force the audience to become bystanders in the face of cynical cruelty, during fights, it's impossible to figure out what's going on. For example, during the climatic final battle, I thought Katniss stabbed her ally by mistake before realizing what had happened. Though in this style it's impossible to see any blood, which I suppose was the point, it betrays the novel in how violence is portrayed. In fact, during certain sequences the film almost glamorizes the violence it wishes to portray negatively. When the games drone on and on, violence grows repetitive, and I desired any possible cutaway back to the intriguing outside world of Panem.

Despite problems showing the Hunger Games themselves, Ross has, in general, constructed a deserving adaptation due to excellent performances and his own direction. While he still has two more films to convince me that this could be the new Harry Potter, he's certainly proven the series is on a far higher pedigree than others of its young-adult book-to-film companions, and I'm certainly interested to see what happens next in the world of Panem.

Grade: B

Sunday, March 25, 2012

30 Second Review: The Innkeepers (B)

When around a month passes, and there's still struggling to put out a review, I try to cut losses by giving a quick one in only a couple of sentences so at least something related to the film gets posted. It's time for a mildly disappointing 30 Second Review!

With likable characters, most notably a subtly excellent performance from Sara Paxton, director Ti West ratchets up the suspense by waiting until the final few scenes to transform what could've easily been a mildly bleak "hipsters without ambition" buddy comedy, into flat out ultra-intense horror. Though it's surprisingly slow paced, we enjoy spending time with pivotal innkeepers Claire and Luke enough that their adventures in aimless boredom become fairly entertaining, and make it all the more suspenseful when the brutal horror finally kicks in. However, there's a general plotlessness here that's impossible not to detect. Potential plots, themes, and even characters are discussed, which would each potentially serve to further the story, but they're all macguffins. What we're essentially left with in the end are two likable hipsters having enjoyable conversations, and then eventually, being mentally (and physically) scarred by fairly unexplained events almost completely out of their control. Yes it's scary, funny, and a generally entertaining experience, but what's the point?

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pater (D)

After playing at the Cannes film festival almost a year ago, and then reappearing as part of the "Rendezvous with French Cinema" series earlier this month, it surprised even myself to catch up with this relatively obscure French drama about a group of older friends (with most famous cast members being Vincent Lindon and Alain Cavalier, both playing themselves) who take pleasure in dressing up as members of the French government, and videotaping their reenactments of possible governmental scenarios. While I'd heard very little of the film before viewing the screener, I remembered Vincent Lindon's name from various posters when the "Rendezvous with French Cinema" came to my local independent movie theater, and understood the pedigree of nomination for the Palme d'Or prize at Cannes. I also did a bit of research on IMDB as well, and discovered of its multiple nominations at the French Cesar Awards, including Best Director and Best Film. Though the premise was definitely a bit out-of-left-field compared to the movies I usually enjoy, my curiosity inspired me to overlook any possible setbacks or reasons for procrastination, and begin as soon as possible. However, once the film began, it never seemed to end.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Seeking Justice (B-)

In the fall of last year, I watched and reviewed Trespass, a critically reviled independent thriller starring fallen thespian Nicolas Cage. However, when viewing the film, I had little intention of treating it as average theatrical entertainment; I attended the film solely for the purpose reveling in "so bad it's good" unintentional humor, and to see Cage at his absolute looniest. Many toss slight insults at the formerly unanimously acclaimed actor, stating that his best days are behind him due to poor decisions as to which films are worth his talent (or at least his pocketbook). While I do admittedly deeply wish Cage would dismiss thoughts of earnings for a couple weeks in order to take on a more hefty role, he still possesses an incredible skill which allows his toiling in the realms of exceedingly mediocre cinema to be, at the very least, bearable: He can help transform any screenplay, no matter how conventional, ludicrous, dull, or simply abysmal, into something thoroughly entertaining almost entirely through his performance. It's movie magic in one of its strangest forms; though he cannot turn atrocious material into great art, he can certainly raise it to the level of certainly satisfying mediocrity. Even though I treated Trespass with far lower expectations than perhaps any other film reviewed on the site, Seeking Justice was critiqued without handicap/favoritism, and the result of which is a description which exactly matches my opinion of the majority of Cage's latter day work: Satisfying Mediocrity.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Let the Bullets Fly (B+)

Combining various elements from martial arts flicks, old fashioned period pieces, modern blockbusters, spaghetti westerns, Cohen Brother dark comedies, and even 1930's Marx Brother slapstick comedies, Wen Jiang (writer, director and lead actor) has concocted an epic genre mishmash that, against all possible odds, manages to juggle its multiple homages with ease, and despite some jarring tonal shifts, largely flies high in terms of success as an overall film. Set in 1920's China, a group of nine bandits led by a charismatic leader who may be the elusive and cunning outlaw "Pocky Zhang", attempt to scam the peaceful Goose Town out of riches by masquerading as government officials and plundering the tax money. However, after offending the richest man in the village, the sinister Master Huang (Yun-Fat Chow), one of their own is killed by Huang's minions, and vengeance must be dealt as result.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Friends With Kids (C-)

Occasionally when watching a film, you have no greater desire than for it to immediately end. This yearning for conclusion could stem from a vast variety reasonings outside viewing something absolutely abysmal; for example, in many horror movies, you hope the runtime trails off before the empathetic main character inevitably meets their looming demise. Wishing a film will end during a certain point in time doesn't imply that the film you're watching is necessarily bad; it can exemplify the power this particular story, and the way it's told, has over your very emotions. The most recent example of this happening to me was Josh Trank's superhero/found footage drama Chronicle, a film which I sadly was unable to fully review due to excruciating writer's block, but definitely deserves this tiny mention to serve as an apology. For those who've not seen or heard of the film, Chronicle chronicles (not even a pun, but still necessary) the origin of three teenagers who develop supernatural powers, but fail to understand the responsibilities required when these incredible abilities are obtained. It's a character based blockbuster, using the found footage sub-genre to ground what could easily be considered a generic, high flying story. Right before the tragic third act kicks in, an optimistic scene at a party takes place: A calm before the storm. We as the audience understand this sense of joy between the three troubled leads will end, but do not want it to. We desire to end the film immediately.