Monday, March 26, 2012

REVIEW: The Hunger Games

Yes, it delivers. No, it's not one of the best movies of the year. In fact, considering some of the talent involved, it's disturbingly lacking. Nevertheless, a franchise has kicked off in high style, thanks to a girl called Katniss. Jennifer when the cameras aren't rolling.

As is always the case when a novel becomes a movie, I did not read the book first. I don't feel I can give the movie a fair judgment if my mind is constantly saying "Hey wait ..." By the same token, however, that gives me a newbie perspective that's helpful when considering a film adaptation. If I can feel like I'm not missing anything, the filmmakers have done their jobs. If you have to say "You'll understand it better if you read the book," then the film has failed on some level (cough Watchmen cough)

For the most part, I got through the exposition of The Hunger Games fine, but a few of the plot points were rather murky.  I was a little unclear, for instance on exactly why the whole affair is called The Hunger Games based on what the movie told me - I had to pick it up by inference.

Also problematic is the fact that there's a lot of action in the movie. Director Gary Ross is not skilled in this arena, and it shows. He does well with clever concepts (Pleasantville) or old-fashioned entertainment, (Seabiscuit) but action is not his forte. The action becomes hard to follow sometimes because the editing is choppy and the camera is too close to the players. One scene involving a swarm of wasps works very well; I only wish the rest of the action had been that effective.

What truly puts the movie over, then, is the cast. Some roles are more thoroughly written than others, but the actors all do fine work. Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland are reliable as ever, and it's nice to see Wes Bentley (American Beauty) making a comeback as the rather sinister Seneca Crane. The undervalued Elizabeth Banks is terrific as Effie Trinket, and Woody Harrelson is ideally cast as the drunken but charismatic mentor Haymitch,  Josh Hutcherson has long been one of those sturdy kid performers in movies like Bridge to Terabithia and The Kids are All Right, but here he truly shows he has leading man chops.

Outshining everyone, however, in front of and behind the camera is the luminous Jennifer Lawrence, who owns the part of Katniss from the very first scene. She's proven she has award-worthy chops (Winter's Bone) that she can handle big-budget action fare (X-Men First Class), and she elevates otherwise weak material (The Beaver). In The Hunger Games, she combines all three talents, navigating a huge production, giving it a strong emotional center and overcoming the weaknesses of the script. People who complained about her casting must be enjoying the taste of words right now.

Am I in love with the franchise? No. Am I eager to see more? Yes, especially with Lawrence on board. Here's hoping Catching Fire will be even better.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Was it THAT bad? - John Carter

By now, poor John Carter has suffered a real shellacking. The weekend it came out, the vultures pounced, with the New York Times publishing an especially unkind article that all but hung writer-director Andrew Stanton from a tree. Then it prompted a bunch of new "greatest flops ever" lists like this one and this one.

But did it really deserve all that fuss?

That's what this new column, "Was it THAT Bad?" will tackle. Periodically, I will review movies that get bad reputations of one kind or another, and will determine if they really deserved so much mud-slinging. Mind you, I won't take on movies that are obvious dreck like Jack and Jill, or most any movie with Adam Sandler, for that matter. I'm going to take on movies that look like they MIGHT be good - and if they are, I'll happily debunk the majority. If they're not, I'll join the choir.

When it comes to John Carter, I'm neither delighted nor irritated. I'm really more frustrated than anything else - not just with the movie itself, but with many reviews of it. Almost every one I read mentioned John Carter's $250 million price tag. Astronomical, to be sure, but I don't really care about that in a movie review.  I think too many critics reviewed the budget more than they did what was up there on the screen. That, in the end, is, was, and always will be, the most important factor.

I hadn't been all that interested in John Carter (the notoriously muddled ad campaign didn't help) but after writers horse-whipped it, I wanted to try to review the movie honestly. What I saw on screen was a sometimes imaginative, sometimes thrilling sci-fi adventure, that alas, was rarely focused.

I had been rooting for Stanton to succeed in live action, just like his Pixar compatriot Brad Bird did with the terrific Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.  But Bird had the advantage of working with an existing template and putting his own spin on it, just as all the MI directors had done. Stanton had to start more or less from the ground up, and he bit off more than he could chew. The movie  looks great, and the actors are game, but the bottom lime is this: Stanton was  in love with the John Carter stories - so much so that he couldn't bear to cut sections he should have. The movie starts with too many beginnings, has a fairly decent middle section, and ends with too many endings.

It felt to me like Stanton got too caught up in trying to tackle all his favorite things. It's as if he were saying "Oh wow! I get to make an Indiana Jones movie! And a Star Wars movie! And a Tarzan movie! A Civil War epic, even! I have to include it ALL!"

And so he did. The beginning, in particular is a jumbled mess that folds back on itself at least twice, and the movie lost me within the first 20 minutes - always a fatal error. Then the movie settled down with a mid-section I kind of liked - then Stanton piled on ending after ending after ending, to the point that he made the endings of Return of the King look like a model of restraint.

Someone once told the Beatles that they should start their act like a W - you start strong, dip a little, rise again, then fall again, but come back for a great finish. That way, even if you do have dips in the mid-section, the audience will stay with you.

Unfortunately Stanton made his movie more like an M - he starts slow, builds a little, falls again, then builds a little more, but finally falls flat in the end, leaving me disappointed.   It may have been too much too expect that John Carter would be as good as Stanton's Pixar hits, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. But it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Heaven's Gate or Battlefield Earth.

Is John Carter that bad? No, but the problem is, it's not that good either.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Saving the Second Best for Last

Having finally unveiled my top 10, I now unveil my second 10 - those "almost" movies that are still each excellent in their own ways. This is presented strictly alphabetically, since ranking 20 is going too far, if you ask me. (All are available on disc)

Beginners - An utterly winning film, powered by Christopher Plummer's Oscar-winning performance. He didn't just get a career award - he's flat out wonderful as a man who comes out of the closet late in life. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent are nearly as good.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II: Harry and his pals couldn't get one lousy Oscar, but they earn a spot on my list for delivering an excellent finale. I'm sure they must be so proud.

Horrible Bosses: I loved Bridesmaids too, but I laughed more at this movie.

Jane Eyre: Conventional wisdom says that modern movies can never match up to Hollywood golden age counterparts. Not this time. This version with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska may be at least as good as the 1944 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine - if not better.

My Week with Marilyn: Too many people sold this movie short, saying Michelle Williams was great, but the film was only decent. I  thought it was nearly as good as 2011's other movies about movies, The Artist, Hugo and Super 8.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Some people complained about the movie's abrupt ending, which I will not spoil. But I will say that had the ending been more concrete, the movie would not have haunted me and made this list. Elizabeth Olsen proved her family has actual talent and not just marketing finesse.

The Muppets: I almost didn't put this here, and then thought, what am I doing? I don't think I smiled wider during any other movie last year.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil: One of the best moviegoing experiences I had last year was seeing this fiendishly clever horror spoof with a packed house that absolutely ate it up.

Win Win: Tom McCarthy makes films that are small in scale but big in emotions. Like The Station Agent and The Visitor, this movie subtly burrowed under my skin and stayed with me for a long time.

X-Men First Class: Like most people, I'm looking forward to seeing The Avengers this year. Unlike some people, I sort of doubt it'll top this terrifically retro prequel. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

The True 10 Best of 2011

Would it be too cliched of me to preface this overdue list with "better late than never?"

It would? Well, OK. Think of it as me using the old Oscar timetable, back when they used to have the show in March. That's MY kind of March Madness. (Brackets? What brackets?)

Anyway, since I am running late and all, I decided to break the rules this year. Usually I restrict my list to films that played in the Dayton area in the calendar year. However, since I was such a slacker *cough* took so long,  I decided to make my list conform to films actually released nationwide in the calendar year of 2011. That means that my list has to start with:

  1. The Artist - C'mon, did you really expect this TCM nut to pick anything else? (OK, Hugo would have been an eminently reasonable guess, but more on that in a minute).
  2. The Descendants: This movie took me on the most wide-ranging emotional journey of 2011; the screenplay is chock full of moments that are so exactly right.
  3.  Hugo: Here's Marty's magical masterpiece. Just when I think The Man can't surprise me anymore, he makes 3D more transcendent than ever before.
  4.  Midnight in Paris: A movie about living in the past? No, the guy who liked the Beatles when he was a teenager in the 80s can't relate to that at all, nooooo.
  5.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: The hypnotic visuals of this film grabbed me from the title sequence forward and they still haven't let go. Bravo to Rooney Mara for putting her own unique spin on Lisbeth Salander. Hers was the performance of the year.
  6.  Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol:  For the pulse-pounding, jaw-clenching Burj Khalifa sequence alone, this was the action film of the year.

  7.  Young Adult: This movie fragmented audiences; some people couldn't stand the film or its lead character, but I found them all too relateable. This movie hit me hard personally, in that it brought to vivid life the ideas that some people can't help being train wrecks - and some people can't help but stay on the tracks in front of them.

  8. A Separation: This movie won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, and its steeped in Iranian culture - yet it still offers a universal message about the perils of not truly attempting to understand one another.
  9. Moneyball: Sports are usually an anathema to me, but what really makes this movie work is that it's not really a sports movie. It manages to find the human heart amid a stack of statistics.
  10. Super 8: The best Steven Spielberg film of the year. In fact, it's better than either film Spielberg himself directed. I only wish Elle Fanning's terrific performance hadn't gotten lost in the shuffle. 

Most of these are available on disc; save The Artist and A Separation, which are still in theaters. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrives on disc Tuesday, MI:4 arrives April 17.

My runners-up will follow in another post, along with my choices for the worst films of the year. Trying to spread the wealth, ya know!