The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, being both a welcome surprise and a disappointment. A surprise because, ultimately, it is good, and in some ways more than good, and a disappointment because the ways in which it is good are essentially carbon-copies of its predecessor. Still, they are improved carbon-copies, and if we are in the business of deciding whether Catching Fire is better than The Hunger Games, it would be a great quest to find a way in which it is not.
Certainly, director Francis Lawrence is a notable improvement over Gary Ross, and although he doesn’t create the best version of this tale, he understands how to treat a scorched-earth with a tempo that seems poetic and evocative rather than simply solemn and stoic. It is no Malick film, although the filmmakers would probably want you to think otherwise, but there is a definite sense that Lawrence understands how to link shots together with an eye for the distressing dejection of a corrupt world without ever sinking into outright miserablism. It also helps that he is a distinctly superior action director to Gary Ross, but we will get to that when the film does, namely, near the end. Continue reading →
Cowboys & Aliens
There is a version of Cowboys & Aliens that exists in the mind of Steven Spielberg (who serves as producer here) that bears his visual wit, his economic ingenuity, and his zippy romanticism for the long-lost regions of the childhood imagination. A childhood imagination that positively flies as high in the sky as a rocket ship when it hears the wonderfully matter-of-fact title “Cowboys & Aliens”, a shouldn’t-be dream-come-true exploitation film out of the ’80s that happened to manifest as a big-budget Frankenstein’s monster of disparate parts in the modern era. This hypothetical version has weight and buoyancy, snark and ballast, and a yippy camaraderie and film-fried joy to please and have fun with itself for, say, 100 minutes, so as to not over-stay its welcome. This hypothetical version is scrappy and spoiling for a fight but never dour and never gloomy, and certainly, its children-playing-in-the-sand sense of draped-on imagination knows no limits. Continue reading →
The Hunger Games is not a bad film, although it must be said that it is a decidedly superficial one. Which isn’t a bad thing, per-se. When Phillip Messina’s production design does wonders to sell the contrast between the dusted-earth Appalachia of District 12 and the pop-fiction of the Capitol district (locations which you can probably derive a function for without specific information from me), the film is a veritable hoot anyway. When the superficial is this good – take Judianna Makovsky’s loopy but dementedly blissful David-Bowie-at-the-circus costume design, for one – it can be easy to overlook how insubstantial all of it is.
Not to mention, this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction book boasts a startlingly cinematic realization of its main heroine in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, now a household name but just three short years ago merely the girl from Winter’s Bone. A film of note, as Lawrence was clearly cast on the back of that eye-opening slice of Southern Gothic, being that she here plays a largely identical wise-beyond-her-years teenager transposed to the fictional but not too fictional world of Panem. After displaying her chops wandering with an unnatural forcefulness and determination through the perilous limbo of the Southern mountaintops of Winter’s Bone, she wears the monumentally Appalachian name of Katniss Everdeen here with all the nervous anxiety and dogged persistence it calls for. Continue reading →
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the novel, is naughty. Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton film, is just nasty. An expatriated perversion of Lewis Carroll if ever there was one, it is the culmination of Tim Burton’s decade-long trek to shoot in the back any of the good will he earned doing more with film history than any mainstream American director during the 1990s.
Burton spent the better part of his early career falling in love with film and selling his love to the public on a silver platter. In their own ways, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks are infected with pure cinema, and they do everything in their power to show it, warts and all. Alice in Wonderland is all warts, not remotely invested in anything that makes its source material tick and not even passingly committed to finding a genuine visual and filmic translation of a literary text of madness, insecurity, and stream-of-consciousness insanity. Continue reading →
Man of Steel is exactly the film its creators were always going to make, and too little of the film it needs to be. Obviously, with director Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, a grotesquely serious, stodgy take on teenage wish fulfillment is expected, and a great deal of the unease about the film before its release was directed entirely at his superficial eye for fetishistic violence-porn. Indeed, the concern was not only valid but imperative. Very little about Man of Steel indicates that Snyder thinks of Superman as anything else than a fist with a body attached, and the final act leaves no doubt. The man in the blue suit being carted around the film hurts and broods and bruises. He has the rippling abs and the stoic back story, but he is an imposter, plain and simple, a mechanical man with a fancy suit.
Which doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film – that is David S. Goyer’s job. Goyer, who somehow found his way into Christopher Nolan’s overly-dense Batman movies and generally made a mess of human activity and thought, does for Superman what he did for the Caped Crusader – indulge with him. Which was fine when he and Nolan were opening up a maelstrom of pure chaos in The Dark Knight, but that film was still hampered by Goyer’s over-worked, exposition-heavy writing style that frequently feels more like a lecture than a script proper. In comparison, the behemoth that is Man of Steel is, for one, far too long, itself part of the Nolan/ Goyer aesthetic, and far too mechanical, exposition-heavy, and clinical – frankly, part of the Nolan/Goyer aesthetic as well. Continue reading →
Joe Johnston is not much of a director, perhaps because his heart lies outside of the modern sensibilities of film and he has proven unable to scrounge up the money to make the passion projects that lie in his dreams, and the dreams of so many children who went to the movies in the 1940s and 1950s. This is a reach, but his two best films are of a kind: 1991’s off-hand ode to old-school matinee thrills The Rocketeer and its spiritual successor, 2011’s Captain America, suffixed with the unfortunate subtitle The First Avenger. It isn’t a particularly exploratory or demanding film, or even a particularly fun one, but its mild geniality and melodramatic sense of charisma and fascination with comic book panache combine for a somewhat indifferent but well-meaning and usually well-playing exercise in pulp. It doesn’t always work, but unlike so many other superhero movies in the 2010s, it tries to work not by playing to the rafters, but to the matinee. Continue reading →
Another day, another ho-hum superhero film, although at least this one has Robert Downey Jr. smirking up the place with levity, breathing a dose of sarcasm into a generally too-aimless sequel. Iron Man 2 feels like it is just coasting on its existence and passing the time. The whole “advertisement for another movie” trend of the Marvel Studios movies is in full effect, which is less of a shame than the fact that Iron Man 2 isn’t a particularly good advertisement.
Downey Jr. as Iron Man/ Tony Stark pays for a great many sins, but Jon Favreau’s increasingly mercenary direction is not among them, nor is the endless tepidity of the screenplay which forces everyone’s favorite resident bad-boy billionaire with a suit of gold …well, iron … up against Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a hurting victim of Stark’s company’s history of violence, and a fellow weapon industrialist played by Sam Rockwell. Unfortunately, the talented Rourke is saddled with a one-note character and given even less time to play that note effectively. Rockwell is given little more to do, but his buoyant snark and charisma shines through nonetheless, and he makes a capable foil for Stark precisely because of how much Stark exists within him. Continue reading →
George Miller really wanted Mad Max: Fury Road. The back-story, the thirty year gap between Fury Road and its predecessor Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome, and the troubled, stop-start production for Fury Road itself all conspire to tell us this much. The beauty of the resulting film is that this back-story is both instantly extraneous and essential to unlocking its mysteries. All the hurt, all the torment, all the passion to release that which had been denied to Miller; all are instantly identifiable on the screen, but the film speaks for itself. Right before it blows your head off, but that is the Miller way. After releasing two extraordinary vehicles for tactile, sand-encrusted action under the Mad Max name, he went Hollywood and lost his edge with the third feature, the one whose biggest addition was Tina Turner. He spent the ensuing thirty years intermittently pursuing his craft in often stellar family films to recuperate, but his heart was elsewhere. Continue reading →
The most enticing moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron is successful because it is so elusive, and it may very well be the worst moment as well. When it begins, we are informed that the titular superhero smack-down squadron and consummate bickerers are off to Africa. We know we are going to Africa because the characters essentially say “we are going to Africa”. Smash-cut to a helicopter shot of a derelict shipyard. We know this is a shipyard because there are ships. It is also, one would assume, on a coast line, for that is where ships tend to reside. At this point, everyone’s favorite quasi-military font appears in lower screen with text that informs us, in as many words, “Shipyard, Off the Coast of Africa”, in case we were wondering if the ships were, in fact, airplanes, or whether they were docked in Nebraska.
So hand-holding and inelegant this text is, and utilizing the form of on-screen text which is already the laziest and least elegant storytelling mechanism in all of cinema, that it almost must be an intentional self-parody. All of these big time beat-down films rely on techniques like these to show us a story happening, and then to doubt us, and then to tell us what is happening all over again in case our eyes had deceived us, as though we audience members in our infinite wisdom could not figure out in fact that the image of unmoving ships placed right after we are told “Africa” is in fact, an image of ships docked off the coast of Africa. It is a comic, delicious moment nearly avant-garde in its laziness. It’s the sort of moment that asks the mind to wander: “why is this text here? It is providing no new information anyway, but movies like this are supposed to have military text every time they change location, so if that is what you want, here you go…” Continue reading →
With Furious 7, sincerity is ubiquitous. It is ubiquitous in the discussion surrounding the film, and I’m afraid I will not be the one to butt heads with this claim, for sincerity is as ubiquitous in the film itself. Furious 7 is an idiot stew, sure, but for the entirety of its run time, there is never one second where it is less than fully committed to being itself, or less than entirely on board with its own idiocy. There’s a miniscule sliver of self-awareness thrown in for flavor, but by and large Furious 7 believes in itself. All of the nonsense about family crumbles in the abstract, but on camera it sizzles with zest. The film is nothing more than a soap opera where cars, guns, and and explosions sometimes (but not always) take the place of emotional breakdowns and cancer, but like any soap opera that works, it does so because it believes in itself and never tries to be anything it isn’t. Furious 7 is not a perfect movie, and in many respects it isn’t a very good one, but it is too busy having fun with itself to care. Continue reading →