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Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

independence_day_resurgenceI can recall actively counting down the days until Independence Day was released in 1996, gobbling up every newspaper clipping and magazine article I could. I was a big fan of director Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, which is still a terrific movie, and I was eager to watch the end of the world, as we know it, in the privacy of my local theater. It was a blast, no pun intended, and one of the biggest box-office successes at the time. Surely there would be a sequel, especially after it helped launch Will Smith into another level of stardom. Flash forward twenty years, and here comes Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel that misses what marked the original as escapist entertainment.

Twenty years later, human beings have been planning for the eventual return of their intergalactic invaders. Former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and CIA director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) have been trying to get the world prepared and studying our alien enemy. A psychic link is still formed from Whitmore’s brief bond in the first movie, and he keeps drawing mysterious symbols. Whitmore’s daughter, Patricia (Maika Munroe), is a former fighter pilot who works for the current president (Sela Ward). Patricia’s boyfriend and fellow fighter pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), is stationed on the moon building a defense system. Then the aliens come back and pick up where they left off, annihilating Earth’s landmarks and population centers. It seems that their spaceship is going to suck out the Earth’s molten core, and by all accounts, that’s bad. Our ragtag group of characters must come together and overcome substantial odds once more to save the Earth from certain doom.

So where exactly did things go wrong? I’m not one to simply state that the filmmakers missed their window of making a quality sequel. While twenty years is a long time in between outings, it doesn’t mean that you will fail to come up with a compelling movie. Mad Max was 30 years between movies and this didn’t stop Fury Road from being a masterpiece. By most accounts, yes, there is certainly less of an appetite for an Independence Day sequel in 2016 than there would have been in 1998, but the first film is still fondly remembered and a worthy sequel would be welcomed regardless.

746I think one of the bigger causes to Resurgence not working is the fact that the rest of the moviegoing world has caught up when it comes to big screen spectacle, therefore spectacle by itself is not enough without a zeitgeist edge. In 1996, cutting-edge special effects-laden destruction on a global scale was reason enough to buy a ticket and the largest tub of popcorn. In the ensuring two decades, large-scale cataclysm has become commonplace on the big screen; just about every climax of a Marvel movie involves some world-devastating threat. What once quickened pulses has now become ho-hum. Emmerich himself has become a modern-day Irwin Allen since the first Independence Day, almost specifically focused on global disaster movies. I honestly don’t think there’s a better director working in Hollywood for that gig (his next movie is about the moon crashing into the Earth, so “familiar” territory). I think Emmerich’s skill and vision for big screen spectacle goes unheralded too often and he gets lumped in with empty visual stylists like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. He’s better than that. However, the tide has turned, and audiences have become sated from empty spectacle. They need something more, or at least something compelling, and Resurgence struggles to achieve this. It feels like the aliens are back and they’re bigger, and that’s about it, folks.

Disaster movies are generally judged by their set pieces, and what is most surprising about Resurgence is that it really doesn’t have action set pieces as it does skirmishes. The movie is only two hours long, which seems like a rarity nowadays, but this is one of the few movies I think could have benefited from some extra breathing room. It feels too rushed, its internal logic often forcibly contrived, and this is evident most in its action sequences. A better term would be “skirmishes” because the sequences themselves are so curiously brief save for the climactic fight during the third act. We’ll get bursts of intensity or dread that comes to a head with violence, but then that’s it and the movie moves along. It’s usually mere moments of brief alien destruction. The action lacks proper development. One of the keys to great action sequences is naturally complicating and developing the events. Resurgence doesn’t even change gears. It provides exactly what you expect, and then it’s over, the surprise being how unsatisfying and short the unimaginative experience was for all parties. It’s a long wait until the third act where the alien queen comes outside to play. The movie shifts into a giant monster melee and it’s the one time where Resurgence feels most lively. It still follows a contrived logic (the Queen has a shield… now she doesn’t…) but I’ll credit the movie with at least saving the best for last and finally letting the action expand. I had enough fun with the final act of Resurgence that I was able to forgive some of its early transgressions.

The first Independence Day wasn’t by any means a cinematic milestone but it was fun and had a clean enough throughline. We spent the first hour in typical Emmerich fashion being introduced to the different characters and then watching the dispirit elements come together. The mystery of what was out there was intriguing and it became a step-by-step process of deducing how mankind should respond. When their hostile intent was revealed, it then became a learning experience as to how to fight back. Aerial dogfights won’t work. Nuclear weapons won’t work. It was a simplistic examination of the threat. While the solution of giving an alien operating system a virus is still a head-scratcher, at that point the movie had earned its ham-fisted solution because it had followed a logically satisfying path of discovery and response from the moment of first contact. Resurgence lacks any real internal logic. Things just sort of happen when the plot requires them and then don’t. If you’re establishing a science-fiction landscape, establishing the rules of what is possible and allowable is essential to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment. Otherwise it feels arbitrary, much like Judd Hirsch driving a school bus of children across the salt flats into danger. This literally happens in Resurgence.

Also fighting for time is a slew of new characters that are charisma-free and contribute little to nothing to the larger story. The biggest offender may be Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Will Smith’s character. What does Dylan offer as a character? His entire characterization is, and I kid you not, that he’s upset with Jake over a training accident. He punches Jake in the first act and then… he just sort of pilots ships and shoots things in the sky. That’s it. He doesn’t feel the burden of living up to his father’s reputation, or trying to make his own name for himself. He just has a quarrel to settle and does and then he still just sort of exists in the movie and the screenwriters were like, “Oh right, he’s still here. Well, have him fly something.” Jake and the rest of the young pilots don’t fare that much better as characters. Besides superficial distinguishing characteristics, they’re all variations on the same person. They’re a multi-ethnic collection of vacuous character placeholders; it’s like you took Randy Quaid’s kids from the first movie and made them on par with Smith and Goldblum. These bland characters inspire little love and are often boring with little investment. If the next movie started with them in a car and a giant pillar crushing it, I would not mourn their cinematic loss.

independence-day-2-resurgence-trailer-breakdown-easter-eggs-753096There are some familiar faces returning but none of them are able to compensate for the deficit of charisma and screen presence that is Will Smith. Goldblum is on autopilot and doing his stare off into the distance and talk deadly serious thing. Pullman shows up again as a warning of what was coming, though a superfluous one at that. The biggest screen presence from the first movie belongs to Brent Spiner (TV’s Star Trek) as the Area 51 scientist who conveniently has also been in a coma for twenty years. Some of his comic relief is rather labored and cheesy, but it’s at least something. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) collects a check as a psychiatrist who has little bearing other than to be Goldblum’s ex. The most interesting new character feels like he stepped out of a Street Fighter arcade game; he’s an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who likes to use a pair of machetes to kill the aliens. “You have to get them from behind,” he keeps insisting, and I keep snickering. There’s also that Emmerich staple of an officious government weakling who comically grows a spine. It just so happens this part is played by one of the screenwriters of Resurgence, Nicolas Wright. He studied, apparently.

The best thing Resurgence has going for it is the expansive world building, one of the few aspects of the movie that shows actual thought and care. This is one of the few movies I can recall where people actually try and use the technology of their defeated invaders. Rather than just throwing all those dead spaceships on a junk pile, mankind has decided to backwards engineer technological advancements. As a result, the contemporary feels like a sci-fi hybrid of humanity and the alien technology. It’s interesting to see what advancements have been made and how these have been integrated into regular society. I do question why we only have one defensive weapon/colony on the moon when there’s also one as far as Saturn. I wanted a bit more of a sociological examination on what life post-War of 1996 means. Life would be so fundamentally altered by the realization we are not alone in the universe, and not only that but that we need to play catch up fast to survive. The assumption would be that they will be back. The threat of annihilation unifies the world but what are those consequences? What are the consequences of living in a permanent military state of readiness and anxiety, wondering is it all going to be enough?

If you have fond feelings for the original Independence Day, there may be enough good will with the sequel to appease your demands, though probably only barely. Resurgence suffers from CGI-heavy spectacle that has long lost its appeal without supplying helpful additions like characters to care about, exciting action sequences that develop and impact the plot, meaningful plot turns, and a story that follows some form of logic. It’s not a disaster in all senses of the word. In a summer that’s already building a reputation for its mediocrity, I think there may be enough that Independence Day: Resurgence has to offer that select moviegoers will walk away feeling momentary entertainment. It’s not that the first film was intellectually rigorous sci-fi, but it went about its destructive business with a satisfying precision. This movie all too often just feels like things happening, then not happening, and with characters that are there but without any compelling reason beyond survival. The end of the movie sets up an intended sequel and possible extended franchise of sequels with a larger galactic war against the alien invaders. It’s both hopeful and naïve, dangling the promise of another tantalizing humans vs. aliens throwdown. It’s also a bit aggravating because the premise of the hypothetical sequel (I’m going on record saying it won’t come to fruition for another 20 years) is much better than the “they came back again” sequel we get with Resurgence. Don’t make me pay my money and then tease me with a better movie down the road. Nothing should be taken for granted. Independence Day: Resurgence takes too much for granted, and that’s likely why this resurgence will stop with one entry.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

108361_galIt’s been a year and a half since The Hunger Games broke box-office expectations, gifting Lionsgate studio with a formidable franchise. Based upon Suzanne Collins’ series of young adult novels, the first film was an agreeable adaptation that was occasionally hobbled by poor direction, rushed plotting, and budget limitations. Catching Fire, the second film, improves upon the established groundwork in almost everyway with the chief drawback being a terminal sense of dystopian déjà vu.

In the months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games, the two victors from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling across the other districts of Panem as part of their victory tour. What better way to endear yourself than visiting other districts to remind people that their children are dead and you survived? On the tour, there is growing unrest throughout, and the people have turned Katniss as their symbol of defiance against the tyrannical Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens Katniss to control her media image, to convince the people that she’s madly in love with Peeta and not a fledgling revolutionary. In order to check the power of the victors, Snow introduces a rule change for the 75th games, the Quarter Quell. This year the participants will be culled entirely from previous past victors, meaning that Katniss and Peeta will be plunged back into the deadly games and this time their competition aren’t children.

97801_galWhat a difference a director with a sense of cinematic visual command can make. Early into pre-production, the original director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) decided to bow out for sequels, and so Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was hired, and goodness does the movie benefit from this change at the helm. Lawrence has a much stronger visual authority, having cut his teeth in commercials and music videos (remember those, kids?) before feature films. The man couldn’t frame a lousy shot if he tried. With a stronger visual lens, the world of the Hunger Games is able to stretch, given a proper budget, and the visual grandeur unfolds around you, especially the largess of the Capitol. The movie doesn’t feel like they had to cut corners with their budget or special effects, and part of that is credited to the skill of Lawrence. And with this new visual stylist comes the demise of shaky cam. Dance and celebrate that Ross’ misapplied docu-drama approach has been abandoned; this time, when there is onscreen action, you can comprehend what is happening. I read the book years ago but even I was feeling twists of tension, notably the start of the Quarter Quell. The action isn’t terribly developed but it’s sufficient, though again the kill-or-be-killed extremity kept to PG-13 safety is starting to chafe. My only visual complaint is that much of the action within the games takes place at dawn/dusk and thus low-light environments. It feels like someone threw on a muddy filter, though perhaps this was just my theater’s light bulb-saving projection setting.

Now that the world of Panem is established, Catching Fire does a nice job of showing the various social conflicts coming to a head, bubbling into uprising. The pre-games victory tour opens up the world, allowing us into other districts and viewing the different strife befalling them. It’s jolting to watch the public defiance met with summary executions and yet the people will not be stopped. Now the class conflicts of the haves and have-nots get pushed to their breaking point. There’s a great contrast provided with a Capitol party so lavish, with food so sumptuous and plenty that the Capitol denizens have cocktails on hand to induce vomiting. That way you can continue eating (historical fact: vomitorium is actually not what you think but instead a passage below a tier of seats for easy exit, like in modern stadiums). The themes and the points aren’t subtle, that’s for sure, but they are effective and intriguing. Katniss, who only wanted to survive, has been thrust as the face of revolt, and now she has to walk a delicate line to again save her loved ones. The fascist politics and media manipulation hinted at in the first film are given more examination, providing a richer narrative. What works in the first Hunger Games is generally expanded upon and what faults the first film had have been, generally, nipped and tucked. There’s nothing as eye-rollingly awful as Peeta’s human rock sculpture camouflage. The burgeoning love story elements again are abbreviated the harshest, but when the world is coming apart, you have to spend more time on revolution than love triangles.

The film also benefits from a slew of new characters that have strong personalities. We’re introduced to other formers winners of Hunger Games past, and they make the most with their limited exposure. Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) is an axe-wielding woman given to speaking her mind with devil-may-care attitude. Her first scene in the film involves her stripping naked in an elevator with Peeta and Katniss. Malone (Sucker Punch) really has fun with the blithe approach of the character and manages to come across as comical while still being a credible badass. She’s a terrific character and you’ll be seeing more of her in the sequels to come. The other famous victor is Finnick (Sam Claflin) who bathes in the celebrity limelight, luxuriating in his media image as a suave playboy. Except there’s more under the surface and you’ll be given peaks throughout the film. I’m not as sold on Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) as I am on Malone; he’s got the requisite chiseled physique, but I don’t feel the charismatic pull the character demands. Also, when I close my eyes and listen to him speak I hear James Franco, and I don’t know what to make of that. Then there’s the new head game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is presented as an enigma. He leans on President Snow to spare Katniss rather than turning her into a martyr for the cause. However his alternatives are sinister and media savvy. Hoffman is one of our best working actors today but he seems to sleepwalk through the role, perhaps because he’s meant to be vague. However it’s played, it’s hard to get a read on Plutarch until the very end.

Strong as ever, Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is the rock of this franchise. The Oscar-winning actress has been on a tear as of late and her acting and overall presence elevates the material. They struck gold when they hired her. There’s more fire to her and more devastation, as she’s going through the PTSD, plagued by nightmares. She’s haunted by the horror she’s escaped but also by the continuation of the threat from Snow, the ongoing charade that she will have to keep up for the rest of her life. There is no time out of the spotlight as a victor let alone a national celebrity like Katniss. Lawrence can convey so much wordlessly and she can convincingly play the different dimensions of her wounded warrior.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)Many of the criticisms one can hurl at Catching Fire are the same from Collins’ book. There is a repetitive plot structure, where the games themselves feel like too much of a retread. It feels forced to serve up what worked the first time. The problem with throwing Katniss and crew back into the Hunger Games is that all the real consequential action is taking place outside of them. We’ve been watching the stirrings of revolt all movie, watching the cracks take shape, and then the movie returns to its deadly TV competition when the audience just wants to leave to see if the revolution will be televised. Breaking free of Katniss’ first-person perspective from the book allows the filmmakers to add scenes fleshing out the world and the characters, with some nicely malevolent conversations between Snow and Plutarch. But that also means we don’t have to be locked into watching Katniss’ every move (I know this sounds like sacrilege). It’s not like the creatively torturous games are boring, but it’s hard to ignore an increasing sense of been-there-done-that. When there are so many larger, wider-reaching consequences happening outside throughout the various districts, you can’t help but feel a bit antsy. Another reason the film doesn’t break free from the games repeat is that it purposely keeps Katniss, and in turn the audience, in the dark about the larger outside machinations. The collective ignorance has a purpose but it also makes the plot frustrating.

Really, Catching Fire is more a setup for the series greater conflict rather than a complete film/story. Things are unraveling in the country of Panem, but if you want resolution you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the next movie, or more likely 2015 for its concluding half. What Catching Fire does is tease out the plot change and then transition to it, but only in the final minute. As my pal and colleague Ben Bailey notes, it ends in similar fashion to 2003’s Matrix Reloaded, and you’re left on a cliffhanger that doesn’t seem like a natural resting point for the story. Again, these critiques can be waged at the book as well as the film is a fairly close adaptation that will satisfy the die-hard fans.

From here on out, the Hunger Games movies are going to get more interesting. With two remaining films to cover the ground in one book, it should allow for greater development of characters, conflicts, dramatic themes, social commentary, or just larger kickass action sequences now that we’re in a larger arena, so to speak. Under the screenwriting expertise of Danny Strong (HBO’s Recount and Game Change) I’m anticipating a more politically astute and intellectual dystopian drama. Francis Lawrence has brought visual dynamism and stability to the franchise, just in time for when things are poised to get really interesting. As a film, Catching Fire is a step above the previous entry, ironing out some of the shortcomings and presenting more subtext when it comes to its social unrest. It introduces a bevy of intriguing new characters, escalates tensions throughout the realm, and promises greater suffering and strife ahead. However, the repetitive plot structure of throwing Katniss back into the games for an hour eats away at time that could be better spent watching the revolution ferment. It’s still a reliably entertaining film with a sharper visual gloss, so fans should go home happy and audiences should be suitably thrilled. The alterations from Collins’ book are all for the better. Catching Fire will slay the box-office with little trouble but I’m most thankful that we’ll be leaving the games behind for good.

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

The Last Song (2010)

Miley Cyrus is tragically miscast and way out of her depths in this mawkish drivel. I don’t really understand the appeal of Billy Ray Cyrus’ achy-breaky star progeny. The girl’s all teeth. Her acting repertoire from her gigantically popular Disney TV series and movies has lead Cyrus to the motto that bigger is better. She plays every scene much louder and bigger than required, mistaking volume for drama. I don’t think (right now at least) that she has the acting capabilities to carry a drama, let alone a drama weighed down by so much overly serious, heavy-handed material. But then heavy-handed is a Nicholas Sparks trademark, same with someone dying of a terminal disease by film’s end (the streak continues). What’s remarkable about The Last Song‘s ineptitude is that Sparks wrote the screenplay and the novel at the same time, tailoring it specifically for Cyrus. The part was written with her in mind, which makes the failure even larger. Cyrus cannot do teenage angst to save her life. If you wanted a moody, angst-driven, hip-to-be-square, believable young actress, then they should have hired Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). Cyrus is a troubled teen who mopes all summer, forced to spend time with her divorced father (Greg Kinnear, fighting to find some dignity in the film) before, well, you can guess where we’re headed. For melodrama, it all comes across as fairly dull and sterile (PG-13: wrestling in mud, PG: throwing mud). What’s even worse is that the titular “last song” Cyrus performs to honor a fallen loved one is powerfully bland. And yet I have the sneaking suspicion this stab at expanding Cyrus into adult roles could have been much worse. As it is, The Last Song is a sudsy dud.

Nate’s Grade: C

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