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
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.
It takes a big movie to thrive with so many obvious flaws as Life of Pi, and it takes an even bigger director to get it to that point of success. For Life of Pi, that director is Ang Lee, the spiritually lush aesthetic artist who is as frequently benefited as he is hurt by his incomparably luminous romantic streak, and he does what is simultaneously his best and his worst job yet directing a film. His best, in that his spiritual streak is at its most alternately transcendent and restful in the large swaths of Life of Pi where it is putting all of its energy in being a purely presentation-focused work of feeling, breathing beauty and magisterially cinematic color-and-shape as mood-and-space. His worst, in that his spiritual streak leads him into some painfully cumbersome thematizing and immature and pandering feel-zones where characters drone on and on in alternately dulcet and exclamatory tones about petulant soul-searching and adolescent identity quests. Life of Pi, despite its restfulness, is a deeply temperamental film, moving between truly awe-inspiring nadirs of incompetence (such as a spellbindingly awful frame narrative) and acmes of blinding, truly side-winding transcendence that wash over you and put you in one of the finest pure mental spaces in 2010s cinema this side of The Tree of Life. Continue reading
This film was approved by Satan.
Now, something interesting. Not the film; the film is deliberately passionless. But the existence of the film? Now that is something worth milling over, and savoring the bouquet. Written by Paul Lalonde and John Patus, and based on the novel of the same name by none other than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins – Yes, The Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins – Left Behind is not the first adaptation of this very novel. Famously, Kirk Cameron’s absolutely bizarre cottage industry of hair-budgeted Christian conversation-pieces adapted the work in 2000, eventually leading to a proper series of religion-by-way-of-looney-bin pieces of sheer, unmitigated thematic emptiness bolstered by filmmaking of such wanton incompetence that the films almost doubled-back on themselves into intoxicating dare-yourself-to-continue-on heights. Add to this recipe for a walking disaster the divine likes of Nicolas Cage and, I mean hey, who wouldn’t want to see a Nicolas Cage-fronted film about the end of times done-up in Biblical proportions and filled with all sorts of ooey, gooey fire-and-brimstone dialogue for Cage to deliver at the tips of his toes and in the depths of his derangement? Continue reading
Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.
Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy. Continue reading
Ahem…A scientist (Dylan Walsh) with a monkey he has taught to speak via a machine needs to return his money back to Africa and teams u inadvertently with a corporate electronics executive (Laura Linney) who also has to go to Africa in hopes of finding her ex-fiance who may have been killed there by a pack of genetically mutated or hyper-learned gorillas. And Tim Curry wants to go to Africa to from some vaguely mysterious reason, and he helps you fund your trip.
Now this, my friends, is a genuine Grade-A Bad Movie plot, and the makers of Congo do their damnedest to earn every second of it. It’s terrible, sure, but in a deliriously magnetically idiotic sort of way, down from the inklings of whispy, broad thought introducing the film to a producer’s mind (something like: Michael Crichton wrote this, lets get to work!) up to the trickles of specific camera gestures and the unbridled moronic drunken stupor of the special effects tickling their way toward the film’s fingertips. Trapped in 1995, everything about the film straddles the line between the unrepentant ’90s cynicism that would form the backbone of late ’90s and 2000s blockbusters and the loopier variety of early ’90s blockbusters toeing the matinee thrills of the atomic ’50s and the heftier brawn of ’80s blockbusters themselves owing almost everything to the teenage mumbo jumbo of the hokum sci-fi of the 1950s. It dares us to see what fever-induced nonsense will pop into its mind next. Continue reading
In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
After the rousing financial success of his previous release 12 Monkeys, someone finally saw fit to give Terry Gilliam a small influx of money to release one of his many long-term passion projects hounding him for what sometimes seems like decades. Of course, that didn’t end up happening and to this day still doesn’t seem to have worked out in his favor, but the man needed work, and when the long-dormant adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s bananas American nightmare Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (in production as a film as early as the early ’70s) came his way, and someone actually wanted him to direct something for once, Gilliam couldn’t say no to a chance to have a little fun with a project he never much viewed as a personal commitment. Maybe it was letting his hair down a little, but what better way to let your hair down than with a drug-infused trip to Las Vegas with Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, and one of the great cult icons of American fiction? Continue reading
Seriously having difficulty viewing and wrapping my head around one specific film for Midnight Screenings, but I think I have it down for next week. In the meantime, here are two 2005 Midnight-appropriate horrors (one of them never really popularly understood as such, but somehow its Godzilla-sized budget only makes it all the more spectacular that it still has the look and feel of a grainy horror movie). Sorry for the delay. All will be corrected next week.
A stomach-churning introduction to the big leagues for British director Neil Marshall (who has since gone on to underachieve somewhat depressingly), this concrete slab of raw, untamed horror finds skeletons in the human closet and exploits them for gut-churning viscera. Monsters abound, both external and internal, but the film’s claustrophobic environment, a cave rendered with nightmarish use of single-color tints that distort and obfuscate reality, takes center stage, as does gender. Continue reading