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Orphan: First Kill (2022)

This is such a strange movie. The original Orphan, released in 2009, was an otherwise forgettable killer kid movie with a memorable twist: little Esther (Isabelle Furhman) wasn’t a child but a 30-something woman with a hormonal disorder (supposedly inspired by a true story). What do you do with a prequel when the young actress is now a grown woman and the audience knows the big twist from the start? The first answer is use a body double, have the other actors wear platform shoes or step on boxes, and forced perspective with some de-aging CGI sprinkled over Furhman’s adult face. That’s a whole lot of effort, albeit practical and less costly, to make a prequel without much going on. We follow young Leena as she escapes from an Estonian mental asylum and poses as a missing child from an American couple (Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland) who adopt her and bring her back to the States. It’s here where little “Esther” must keep up the illusion, with the mother already gathering her suspicion but not wanting to trouble her husband. For the first hour of this 100-minute movie, I was quite bored and the movie was relatively listless. There were some kills but it all felt like simply going through the motions, especially already knowing her secret and not being emotionally invested in whether her new identity would be maintained. And then the movie makes a sudden turn, one I’ll spoil right now because I think it makes the film actually watchable, where the mother confesses she knows Esther is not her missing daughter, is an adult woman, and then both of the women in this dysfunctional nuclear family are trying to undermine and kill one another while vying for the favor of the father/husband. It took an hour of sequel/prequel drift, but here First Kill (there are many after her first) finally delivers something new to do after sitting for an hour rehashing the original twist. I wish the screenplay had gotten here even earlier and veered into wicked black comedy. It definitely feels like the movie wants you to laugh at the escalating battle between fake daughter and fake mother. I laughed out loud over a scene with slippery dentures. There’s no real reason for this movie in 2022, especially with all the extra work to make it plausible, but I wish the filmmakers had just embraced all its goofy implausibility.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Novice (2021)

The Novice could be deemed “the Whiplash for rowing,” and that is it in a nutshell but it also distinguishes itself separately from that Oscar-winning 2014 indie. Debut writer/director Lauren Hadaway was actually on the sound editing team behind Whiplash, and that’s her area of expertise with over 40 credits, and right away you can tell her attention to details as far as filmmaking being an immersive experience for the viewer. It’s been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including Beat Feature, Best Director, and Best Actress. It’s the little indie that could right now, though it also seems like the kind of well-received indie that gets forgotten around award season. That would be a shame, because while not quite at the level of Whiplash, this is a hypnotic and visceral and disturbing portrait of competitive obsession.

Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman) is a freshman for her East Coast university. She joins the crew team with the goal of being the best. Her coaches encourage her competitive spirit but even they try and warn her to take it easier with her relentless training regiment. Nothing else matters to her.

You feel Hadaway’s background in sound design, how she uses it to disorient and produce a rhythm to her movie, the inhale and exhale of pushing one’s self to their physical limit. It’s accompanied by dizzying edits that feel completely matched by their auditory components (Hadaway also served as a co-editor). It’s frenetic and places you in the mindset of our protagonist, whose single desire is to be the best no matter what. That solitary focus blurs out the outside world, so when we get into trance-like states of close-ups, repetitive edits, and slow-motion extensions, we feel trapped inside her restless state of mind. One critic compared the training montages to the drug use montages from Requiem for a Dream, and this is completely accurate. Alex would never view herself as an addict but that’s precisely what she is. Her personal addiction is at winning, and winning at all costs and being the best.

In Whiplash, Miles Teller’s protagonist was a capable drummer that wanted to be excellent. He already had talent and was pushed to the brink by his monstrous teacher/drill sergeant/abusive father figure. Alex throws herself into unfamiliar situations. She is a physics major even though she doesn’t really like or understand the subject. She joins the rowing team even though she lacks any experience whatsoever. And yet, she still sets her sights on the near impossible. She doesn’t want to be the best freshman, and she doesn’t just want to join the varsity squad; she wants to break all the individual records as soon as possible for a team sport. A normal person would view these goals as unrealistic and potentially out of reach, but that’s the point for Alex. It’s the best or nothing, and her toxic win-at-all-costs mentality is even more toxic because she expects to win even in the most unlikely scenarios. It would be like never driving a car and expecting to win the Indy 500. That adds a different dynamic for Alex but it also makes her even more self-destructive and misanthropic.

The movie becomes a tale of obsession, a downward spiral much akin to an addiction narrative. Alex gradually cuts off all other parts of herself she deems to be a distraction. It’s only small moments where we try and catch a different definition of Alex, the version of her when she might allow herself to relax, but this feels like the “weak Alex” that she’s trying to snuff out, because there shall be no other version of Alex except the one in service to her goal. When she starts having a potential relationship with her T.A. (model Dilone), you think this might be the character’s off ramp, an opportunity for her to settle and realize something else that is meaningful, building an interpersonal relationship. It becomes another distraction to remove. This achieves the artistic vision of showing the mental and physical decline of Alex. Everything in the movie is likewise in service of serving Alex’s grueling goal. However, this also makes her a less dimensional character. If all we know about her is how obsessive she can become, then we’re left to pick up whatever other scraps we’re given to piece together a fuller understanding of her. Perhaps Hadaway doesn’t want any definition beyond Alex’s obsessions. It makes the character less complicated and by extension less compelling, but there is that rubbernecking quality of just watching to see how far she will go before reaching a breaking point. Maybe even death?

This movie would not work as mightily without the committed performance by Fuhrman (Orphan, The Hunger Games). She’s been working ever since she was a child but this is a breakthrough performance for the actress. The intensity of her performance is so conveyed that you might feel like you had a workout yourself. The actress gained ten pounds of muscle over the course of the punishing film experience and athletic training. I had to imagine the movie was shot linearly so they could trace her physical transformation, but I haven’t confirmed it.

Another sound area that greatly elevates the movie is the stirring score by Alex Weston (The Farewell). This is my favorite film score of 2021. It is haunting, moody, and appropriately frantic, with jangling strings and a propulsion that echoes its main character. It has an easy presence of sliding in and out, mimicking the pace of the compulsive training, and standout tracks include the motif “Training” and “Legs Body Arms” and “Seat Race.” Listen to it, folks. Weston has put together greatness and deserves far more recognition than he is being given.

The Novice could do worse than patterning itself after Whiplash, one of the best films of the last decade. What it lacks in originality and characterization it makes up for in execution, immersing the viewer in the insane obsessions of its lead character. Film has always been an empathetic medium and sometimes it’s a trip into the dark side of the human psyche. Why is Alex this way? It’s unknown. Will she ever break free from this toxic mentality? It’s unknown. Even the ending leaves you with enough ambiguity to wonder what Alex will do now. Is she fulfilled, has she had some important introspective breakthrough, or will she never be satisfied, always finding a new mountain to climb even as her body gets painted in bruises and scars? The Novice is an impressive film debut for Hadaway. It’s not the most in-depth movie from a substance standpoint, but the packaging, presentation, and style give it something extra special.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Hunger Games (2012)

Suzanne Collins’ smash novel The Hunger Games isn’t your normal young adult reading material. Dystopian future, corrupt government, oppressive forces, twisted media culture, and then there’s the whole inhumane concept of children murdering each other for sport. The book trilogy has been consumed by millions of readers, young and old, and inspired rabid devotion reminiscent of other successful publishing franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter. Yes, Battle Royale fans, the premise is not original, but Collins’ book could just as well cite inspiration from The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, or even an Outer Limits episode known as “Fun and Games.” Producers are hoping those legions of fans will turn up in droves and start a new lucrative film franchise. Reliably squishy filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) was tapped to shepherd the book to the big screen. The Hunger Games movie doesn’t commit any major blunders to screw up a good story, which is good enough for many.

Set in a distant future, the ashes of North America have given way to the country of Panem. It is lead by a Capitol government and ringed by 12 mostly poor districts. Every year the Capitol commemorates the failed revolution of the districts by holding the nation’s favorite televised sport, the Hunger Games. Each district holds a reaping, which randomly draws one boy and one girl aged 12-18 years. These lucky chosen children, known as tributes, are then whisked to the Capitol where they will be placed into an arena and fight to the death. 24 tributes go in and there can be only one winner. In the outlying District 12, day-to-day life is a struggle, and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is burdened with providing for her family. She hunts illegally to provide food for her family and to trade for goods that they need. She’s excellent with a bow and arrow. Her hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), suggests that they could run away. “We’d never make it more than five miles,” Katniss reasons. The two of them have too many responsibilities to ignore. Then Reaping Day comes, and Katniss’ 12-year-old younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen as the female tribute. Katniss volunteers to take her place, saving her sister, but throwing herself into a sport where the odds will not be in her favor. Joining Katniss as the male tribute is Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son who has some history with Katniss.

The tributes are paired with mentors, the oblivious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and former District 12 Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) whose helpfulness is tempered by the fact that he’s drunk often. He advises his newest tributes that they must make the audience like them to earn sponsors, people willing to pay big money to supply the tributes necessary supplies in the middle of the game. The Capitol is full of lush excess, the people donned in cartoonish and colorful garb. Katniss is dolled up and paraded around. She showcases her skills to the Game makers, who will give each tribute a rating that bettors will use. She’s interviewed by TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) to make an impression. While with Caesar, Peeta reveals that there is a girl he’s had a crush on back home for the longest time – Katniss. The star-crossed lover angle hooks the audience and immediately transforms the dynamic of the games. Katniss is upset, but Haymitch rationalizes that Peeta’s confession has made them more marketable.

Then the dreaded day arrives and the 24 tributes are gathered up, injected with tracking devices, and launched into the outdoor arena to fight to the death. Katniss’ biggest threats will be the tributes from District 1, Glimmer (Leven Rambin) and Marvel (Jack Quaid), and District 2, Clove (Isabelle Fuhman) and Cato (Alexander Lutig). These tributes have trained their whole lives in the deadly arts so that they could volunteer to enter the games, hence why they are dubbed the Career tributes. And they usually win. Once the games begin, Katniss must survive the Careers, whatever surprises the Game makers have, the elements, and win over the affections of the TV audience. Let the games begin.

Firstly, fans can breathe a sigh of relief because The Hunger Games movie is a mostly successful venture brought to visual life. The legions of Collins’ fans celebrating the movie of their beloved book will mostly be satisfied. Collins’ story is still a good story no matter the medium. It establishes its alternative world and the stakes quickly and then it’s off to the killing fields. This is dark and disturbing stuff, far darker than even the darkest days of Harry Potter, and fans will be relived that the movie does not go soft. It’s not the exploitation-vehicle that Battle Royale was. This is trying to tell a story and not revel in the geysers of teenage bloodshed. This is a movie that satirizes reality TV and media culture as much class warfare. Katniss is primed and prepped to manufacture an impressionable image to TV audiences. It’s all about calculation, image control, and the manipulations of the media and audience to produce a star. Here’s a world where the 1% literally celebrate and toast the deaths of the 99%. Here’s a world that takes it cues from the Romans concerning spectator sports. I do wish the movie had channeled more of the book’s accusatory tone against the Capitol citizens, the silent majority complicit in villainy. And of course it was Collins’ point that we, too, the audience could be accountable in our own YA bloodlust.

This is a story that grabs you and rarely lets go, centered on a heroine that is refreshingly a strong female role model for girls. Bella Swan has nothing on Katniss Everdeen. Here is a heroine that is proactive, resourceful, resolute, compassionate, and she doesn’t need a man to complete her. Sorry Ms. Swan, but Katniss has a lot more important things on her mind than getting a boyfriend. She’s got to provide for her impoverished family and shoulder plenty of responsibility, and that’s before she’s plucked into a death sport. In short, Bella Swan sucks. Katniss Everdeen rules 4-ever.

Since the book was written in first person, we were inside Katniss’ head the whole time. There are disadvantages of leaving that POV, namely that Katniss’ survival skills and cunning can be brushed over. She’s not just fighting the other tributes, she’s trying to think how best to play certain moments, how to appeal to the viewers at home. During the games, the movie jumps back and forth between the action and what I’d like to call Mission Control from Hell, the game makers HQ. This is a smart move that provides a greater antagonistic sense with the book’s unseen game makers. The exposition, mostly handled by Tucci as color commentary throughout the games, is presented in a way that doesn’t feel clunky. I also enjoyed the two sit-downs we get with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of the Capitol, who sees early on the danger of Katniss. He explains that the games are meant to give hope to the poor citizens. “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear. A little hope is good. A lot of hope is not,” he explains while pruning flowers. It’s nice to have a villain who understands the calculations needed for a proper oppression. It’s also nice to see Sutherland sink his teeth into a role that will only get more enjoyably evil as the films progress. I felt that the tracker jacker sequence, the interviews with Caesar, and the time in the caves were the best-adapted sequences.

Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) is a star, pure and simple. She was the perfect choice to play Katniss Everdeen. The Oscar-nominated young actress brings great steely determination and grit to the Girl on Fire. Katniss isn’t supposed to be a teenage warrior (that would be the Careers), even though she is thrust into that role. She doesn’t celebrate killing. This is not fun for her. Lawrence can play an array of emotions silently, deftly, like her hoarse, wild panic at Prim being chosen, her shell-shocked disorientation at going into the games, her quiet fury at her irresponsible mother and others like the game makers, her budding warmth for Peeta while he rubs a salve over her facial cut. Pages of description can be consolidated in just one pensive, conflicted expression on Lawrence’s lovely face. Lawrence is the heart of the movie and a tremendous presence to ground our sympathy and emotions.

Katniss is a dangerous competitor but she’s also vulnerable. She’s emotionally guarded and thrust into a situation where she has to “pretend” to be in love. Now the romance angle, and the self-awareness on Katniss’ part to give a good show, was a far bigger storyline in the book. In the book, she begins by playing a part and by the end doesn’t know if her feelings are false or genuine. It’s strange that in the movie their this-is-love kiss, meant to make the audience swoon on Katniss’ part, is followed up with nothing but hugs. Maybe the filmmakers thought a romantic angle was in poor taste given the kill-or-be-killed scenario, except that the romance angle is what keeps Katniss and Peeta alive. Want to know the best way to irk a Hunger Games fan? Start comparing the complicated romantic triangle of Peeta and Gale to dismissive terms like Team Jacob and Team Edward.

The supporting cast performs ably, some better than others. Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) is given the most material to work with. He’s a nice kid, strong, but worried about his humanity, and the filmmakers never portray him as anything close to a badass or a helpless baby. Hutcherson shines in the moments where he comes clean with his emotions, like admitting that he has no chance of winning (his mom thinks so too). Peeta’s much easier at charm than bravado, and Hutcherson is a charming guy. I think Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) actually gives the best performance, short of our lead heroine, as the maniacally bent Effie Trinket. Half the performance is the garish outfits, wigs, and makeup, but Banks nails the affluent insensitivity and ignorance of her character. Her forced enthusiasm is good for a few laughs. Harrelson (Zombieland) gives hints about the demons behind his character, a man who has to watch a pair of children under his tutelage die every year as his “prize” for winning. He’s a colorful character in a movie filled with colorful characters, but his sauced sarcasm can sting. Tucci (Easy A) hams it up with great pleasure as the smarmy, inauthentic, over-the-top TV host, Caesar Flickerman. They dolled up actor Toby Jones (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) in a bouffant wig and sit him beside Caesar for commentary, but, and I literally counted, he has three lines where he speaks onscreen. Still, I love his oily voice as the games’ announcer.

The movie distills just about everything from the book, plot-wise, so the fans will be sure to see just about every plot event that they’ve developed a mental checklist for. However, this narrative approach, an attempt to satiate the fans that bristle when the movies of their favorite books deviate too much from the source material, blunts the impact of the material. I was astounded at how overwhelmingly rushed and hurried the movie is, spending little time on those variety of plot events, rarely allowing the movie enough room to breathe. With this brisk and brusque pacing, it stops the movie’s vitality. The context and history of important items and people feel clipped, becoming just set decoration. Ross has not done an adequate job of making his movie universe feel richly realized. The significance of the mockingjay, a symbol of perseverance under the oppression of the Capitol, is left unexplained. It just becomes a dinky pin that makes Katniss think about home. The ghoulish mutts have been turned into just a bunch of vicious dogs that eerily resemble the dog demons from Ghostbusters (actually, I’m relieved the mutts were toned down). The contrasts between the impoverished outer districts and the lavish Capitol denizens are nicely showcased thanks to luxurious and weird art direction and costume design; these people took fashion advice from Marie Antoinette and maybe their political outlooks as well (“Let them eat cake… or death”). There are also some passing moments of dark satire as far as the Capitol’s overall stance with the games, and their blasé attitude about the value of human life, though the movie could have and should have pushed harder with its class warfare.

The Hunger Games reminded me of the first two Harry Potter films where the producers crammed in all the plot points they felt fans wanted to see rather than just, you know, adapting it into a good movie. If they wanted to keep everything from the book, plot wise, then they should have followed their convictions and produced a three-hour movie. Imagine The Godfather being cut down to two hours and twenty minutes. Imagine rushing through all that drama. Now I’m not in any way comparing The Hunger Games to The Godfather in terms of quality, but movies need sufficient time to establish their worlds and develop characters. They need time to breathe. The fact that a 142-minute long movie doesn’t have time to breathe is plain inexcusable.

The characterization, beyond Katniss and Peeta, is extremely limited, and so when he deaths do occur the impact is minimal; only one tribute’s death is given time for mourning, and even this character’s death is limited due to superficial characterization and about two minutes of screen time. I’m not saying that every one of these 24 tributes needs a detailed back-story, but they’ve got to have some personality to them and the movie has to devote some time to develop that; good writing can tell a lot with little. Otherwise they just become somewhat recognizable faces and not characters. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’ stylist for the pre-game publicity in the Capitol, is reduced to being a bland companion. Let me single out the villains, our group of Career tributes. The movies have a long tradition of villains who aren’t given much characterization but are given personality. I need my bad guys to be given an opportunity to make an impression, and no, weapon distinction is not enough. With The Hunger Games, the bad guys just become a series of sneering faces, and these kids (Ludig, Rambin, Quaid, Fuhman) have got some good sneer faces. True, the movie’s entire twisted premise lays enough overwrought tragedy to the entire setup, turning children into killers, and President Snow is the ultimate villain, but the movie should be agonizing, terrifying, devastating, upsetting, and not merely inferential and rushed. I want to feel the deaths. Instead, the movie can’t even be bothered to briefly show the faces of the dead kids during the game’s daily death montage. There are all sorts of kids who were hired to be tributes from districts and I question if they ever got a second onscreen.

I also feel that Ross is, at times, completely wrong for this material. The man behind Pleasantville and Seabiscuit is not the first name you’d think of to tackle a dystopian sci-fi survival thriller built upon the premise of dead children. I almost wish they had hired Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers), an artist well versed in sci-fi spectacle and subversion. Ross’ misguided visual approach, borrowing a page from the Bourne franchise, can make it hard to enjoy the film. During the opening segment in District 12, as well as the games themselves, Ross will attempt to up the visceral ante with his bobbing handheld camera. Now I’m not one of the people who loudly decry the use of “shaky cam” during action sequences, but before the second minute was over, I turned to my friend and said, “I already hate the shaky cam.” There’s a difference between handheld camerawork, which has some jostle to it, and a deliberately inauthentic docu-drama approach that makes exaggerated and distracting camera bobbling. There are long segments of this movie that is nothing but shaky close-ups cut together. There’s a climactic battle atop a metal structure that is completely incomprehensible to follow. It’s all just a blur of flashes save for two wide shots to thankfully attempt to orient the viewer. When an audience can’t follow the action, it not only kills tension but it also kills investment. The docu-drama visual approach is completely wrong for this movie. When was the last time you saw a dystopian sci-fi movie that had a docu-drama aesthetic? Try never.

Likewise, to achieve the all-important PG-13 rating, Ross sanitizes the blood sport, utilizing lots of implied violence. The jangly aesthetic works for the duration of the race to the Cornucopia to start the games, as tributes turn a fight over supplies into a bloodbath, communicating the chaotic frenzy. I’m not clamoring for explicit carnage to get its message across, but just seeing children as far-off lifeless heaps is a disservice to the power of the story. Also, I don’t feel like Ross properly takes full advantage of the visual medium. Instead of being told, twice, about mines that will explode if any tribute steps off their platform before the conclusion of the countdown, let’s see it. Since half of these kids are about to become faceless corpses anyway, why can’t one of them lose their balance, fall out of the ring, and blow up? And then we cut to a nearby tribute dusted with pieces of dirt and blood, trying to keep their cool and failing. It would have kicked up the tension and shown the immediate danger that awaits. I don’t want the one-minute countdown to cut around the globe, seeing the different districts watching TV. I want that entire minute spent in the arena, hearing every second counted down, seeing every face of the tributes sick with anxiety and unease, gritting themselves for combat. I want to feel the same sense of doom that they do, not cut around the globe and then have the audio drop out. That’s a sorry way to start the games, even with a PG-13 mandate.

There are heavy expectations for The Hunger Games on all fronts, from studio execs to the millions of eager fans. I consider myself one of their legion. I voraciously read through the trilogy, getting hooked early, and have even helped teach the book as part of an American Literature curriculum. It’s a thrill to watch reluctant readers get excited about the book. The Hunger Games succeeds mostly as the pilot to an exciting film franchise. But having seen the Hunger Games movie twice in 14 hours, and being a huge fan of the book, here are my chief criticisms: the movie is far too rushed, speeding over so many plot points and characters, never getting time to breathe; nascent characterization for supporting characters; the context of so many things is missing; shaky cam overuse to the point of incomprehensible action sequences; dodgy CGI; not taking full advantage of visual medium; intensity a bit muted; and finally, a forgettable score. But, hey, good movie. It just frustrates me because it could have been a great movie, a searing, powerful, provocative, thrilling movie. Good movie will be good enough, especially when it makes more money opening weekend than the citizens of District 12 will ever see in their lifetimes. When you got a fan base as large as this series, the odds will usually be in your favor.

Nate’s Grade: B

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