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Almost Famous (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released September 13, 2000:

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.

Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.

It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.

The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.

Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.

Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.

Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.

Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.

This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.

Re-View Grade: A

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two (2015)

Katniss-in-Red-The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2-PosterThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two may be the bleakest Young Adult-adaptation ever put to film. It’s a franchise that began with the televised spectacle of children killing children, so it’s never exactly been the cuddliest environment for our emotions. This is a conclusion that is overwhelmingly dark and pushes the boundaries of the mainstream PG-13 ratings. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the revolution between the Capitol and the thirteen districts of Panem. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been returned but he is recovering from intense brainwashing from the Capitol. He doesn’t know whether Katniss is a friend or foe. The fight is now being taken directly to the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The cagey leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to stay behind with the members of her propaganda team. Katniss sneaks off to the front lines of conflict with her District 12 pal/potential love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The Capitol’s gamemakers have designed a series of fiendish surprises for the rebels on every block. While Katniss and her team are behind the fiercest fighting, she is still a high-profile target sought for prompt elimination.

Mockingjay Part Two doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ugly realities of war, namely the innocent casualties in the pretext of an ends-justify-the-means pragmatism. I was reminded of World War II stories and photographs as Katniss and crew stumble through the bombed-out ruins of Capitol neighborhoods. There’s something eerie in the silence amidst miles of rubble. In Part One we saw similar carnage with Katniss’ home district, incinerated by Snow, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend that only one side of this conflict suffers. It’s not exactly a cutting edge commentary on the atrocities of war but it’s still appreciated. Put simply: plenty of bad things will happen and others will attempt to justify these bad things, and at one point that includes the knowing slaughter of innocent children as a political gambit (for you book readers, the body count remains the same. Sorry if you were hoping for a reprieve for certain characters). The series has explored the nature of trauma and nobody gets out free. When Katniss is making her way to the Capitol, it can be easy to forget all the prior character work animating her decision-making. When a Capitol loyalist points a gun at her head and asks for a reason he shouldn’t kill her, she says, “I don’t have one.” In a sense, that can be looked upon as lazy screenwriting or, and I’ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps acknowledging the realities of entrenched conflict when it comes to class warfare.

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-part-two-1The attention to social and political commentary has helped give The Hunger Games a bit more maturity than the rest of its YA ilk who often rely upon simplistic oppressed/oppressor conflicts that naturally fall into authority vs. individuality. I appreciate that the filmmakers have followed author Suzanne Collins’ approach to human conflict, which doesn’t dabble in black and white but a larger series of grays (50 shades of them? I’m sorry). This intelligence has given the franchise a depth that could be easily ignored, either by audiences looking for their next fix or studio execs that demand dumbing things down. Part Two forgoes the political gamesmanship for more traditional action suspense sequences, several of which are quite entertaining. There’s an underground chase with snarly mutants that is terrifically teased out suspense-wise. I do appreciate conversations started on how exactly one moves on from tyranny and how easy it is to follow in the same footsteps in the name of justice. However, if you don’t predict where Katniss’ final arrow is going, then you aren’t paying attention to the lessons on recrimination being underlined by explicit on-the-nose dialogue.

There are a few improvements including finally making Peeta an interesting character. He was the noble, nice guy, the somewhat boring conscience for Katniss, but after being returned from the Capitol’s brainwashing, he’s struggling to identify what is real and what is false. It’s still hard to believe that Coin would allow his inclusion on Katniss’ team making its way to the Capitol that is until you remember that Coin also sees Katniss as a political threat for post-war leadership. The love triangle has long been the least interesting aspect to the entire Hunger Games series and part of this falls upon the character of Peeta, who, removed from the manufactured romantic narrative for the cameras, has struggled to be ore than a weak link. Here he can be a threat at any moment, triggered by whatever daunting stimuli that may make him slip back into psychosis. He becomes a ticking time bomb and something far more risky than a romantic alterative. When Peeta becomes a “bad boy” is when he finally becomes worthy of our attention.

If Mockingjay Part One was all protracted build-up to the climax, then Part Two is all climaxes, and yet given the lugubrious allowances afforded by filling the running time of two separate movies, the movie is oddly anticlimactic as well. We’ve been waiting for the confrontation between Katniss and Snow for three whole movies, and Part Two picks up immediately after where Part One ended, and yet we’re still made to wait. Coin wants Katniss to still be primarily a propaganda tool and stay miles behind the front lines, which causes more of Katniss chaffing against authority like she does. Once she does get to the gates of the Capitol, the movie follows a familiar deadly games setup, this time in a more open terrain but the basics are the same: Katniss and crew have to battle a series of deadly booby-traps to reach their goal and kill the bad guy. In a sense, the plot mechanics are similar to video game stages needing to be cleared. It’s a setup that predictably picks off the more expendable members of Team Katniss One, though I’ll give them credit for spreading out the sacrifices. The losses would hit harder if we actually cared about any of these characters on a personable level. Oh well. I also could have used more screen time for many of the supporting actors, notably Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Malone, Natalie Dormer, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is the last we’ll ever see of Hoffman on screen, and that fact made me quite melancholy by the end.

With the games long gone and the revolution at hand, The Hunger Games has always had some difficulty figuring out how to fill the space before the inevitable showdown with President Snow. In Part One we were mostly stationed in the bunkers of District 13 while we watched the other districts revolt. Like Katniss, we’ve been itching to get to the front lines, especially after Part One’s more plaintive pacing. Once we get to the action it’s more like mop-up duty, which robs the movie of some sense of satisfaction, which turns into a key theme. With the games we had the veneer of “paying” roles as media manipulation for survival, and with Part One we had the study of propaganda. With Part Two, it’s all dour action. I hope viewers aren’t expecting a fantastic finale between Snow and Katniss and their collective forces because then you shall be disappointed. The filmmakers, hewing very close to the novel, have the conclusion to the revolution play out in more realistic and grounded terms, which add points for realism and relevance, but it does detract from some sense of overall satisfaction.

hunger-games-mockingjay-part-2-jennifer-lawrenceDirector Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has guided the franchise with sturdy skill and a keen eye for visual arrangements, but if there’s one significant visual complaint I have it’s that these movies are too damn dark. I’m not talking thematically, as I’ve already explained above, but simply from a light level. These movies are just hard to see. Lawrence seems to favor low-light environments to create an ambivalent mood. That’s fine, but I’d also like to see what’s happening on screen. In the last movie we spent a majority of our time in dank underground bunkers, but Part Two is an outdoors kind of picture, so why is it still so hard to distinguish what’s happening?

With the approaching end of The Hunger Games (until Lionsgate milks more money from its lucrative cash cow) it’s appropriate to take stock of its legacy. No other YA franchise has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist like The Hunger Games, but its ultimate legacy will probably be cementing the once promising young actress Jennifer Lawrence firmly into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In the time since our first foray to Panem, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and proven to be one of the hottest stars on the planet, the kind of actress that esteemed directors are fighting to work with and studio heads want to tap as their lead. Much like Katniss’ meteoric rise to renown, Lawrence has become her own version of the Girl on Fire. She has been better than the Hunger Games movies for some time, and yet Lawrence hasn’t failed in her primary duty to provide an anchor for the audience. Her gritty, conflicted, and commanding performances in the franchise have been a unifying resource for audiences and a reminder of her considerable talents. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two brings to a close a massively successful film franchise and an important chapter in the ascendancy of Ms. Lawrence. It’s thrilling, bleak, and inhabits most of the hallmarks that have come with the Hunger Games films, though in somewhat less supply to make way for the onslaught of action climaxes. There’s more anticlimax then you’d expect, and I credit the filmmakers for sticking with it even at the detriment of the experience. Mockingjay Part Two does enough to end the franchise on an appropriate if somber note. I’ll see everyone at the proposed theme park (seriously, look it up).

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Taking place immediately after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the events of Catching Fire, we find ourselves locked away underground with the residents of District 13. Long believed annihilated by the Capital, and its tyrannical leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the people rebuilt their society as one large series of underground bunkers, preparing for a day of revolt. The leader of District 13, Coin (Julianne Moore, under a thick grey wig), is wary of Katniss as the symbol of the revolution. She would rather fight the Captiol without her, but the people love her, and it is the common people that Coin and her team must struggle to unite and inspire. Katniss is not exactly in the inspirational mood. Her family was saved from District 12 before it was bombed but the Capital holds Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as a high-profile captive, ready to denounce the latest aggressive acts of the rebels as foolish and dangerous. Katniss desperately wants to rescue Peeta but before she can she has to accept her fate and become the Mockingjay, the figure to rally the districts in war.

KATNISSThe very title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 both tells you everything and nothing. Firstly, there are no Hunger Games anymore. This is a full-on war film, and we’re finally getting to all the good stuff, the revolutions stirring all throughout Panem we heard about and caught glimpses of before the plot required a redo of the games, repeating the structure of the first film. It felt overly redundant, especially when the stuff outside of the games was far more interesting. That structure has been cast aside and Mockingjay is a completely different film than the ones before it, focusing much more on character and the politics of propaganda. In many ways, this is a quieter film that allows the characters to deal with the trauma of their experience in the deadly arena. Even though war is fermenting and people are being bombed into oblivion, there is considerably less urgency, especially less contrived urgency. This allows the characters and the plot to breathe, the calm before the storm. Much has changed and a measured amount of time to process this is a good move. This is no longer the Hunger Games. This is war. The subterranean District 13 is the major setting of our film, which gives Katniss time to reflect on how damaged she is and her guilt over what exactly the Capitol is doing to their promotional lapdog, Peeta. The movie opens with her muttering to herself, hiding from others due to a disturbing nightmare. The psychological well being of our heroine is a ripe topic. While the world is on fire, much is once again expected of Katniss, and we get to watch her transform, awkwardly, into the revolutionary figure others require of her. The political and media critiques add another level of entertainment, as each side spins and contorts to position themselves for the news cycle. This expose of media manipulation makes Mockingjay feel in part like a post-apocalyptic Wag the Dog. Credit co-screenwriter Danny Strong, he of HBO’s Recount and Game Change fame. This welcomed change of pace and structure allows the film to finally feel like the story we want to watch. And while I’m tip-toeing around spoilers, I’ll just say that the split occurs exactly where you think, book readers.

And secondly, the “Part 1” of the title is also what defines this 125-minute prelude to the concluding movie, a fact that becomes inescapable as it seems all the good stuff is being reserved for later. While the reflective plotting allows more space to breathe, it also becomes abundantly clear that this wasn’t exactly a story that needed to be told in two parts. From a financial standpoint, I can’t argue with the decision from Lionsgate. This is their once-in-a-lifetime franchise and elongating the final film in YA franchises has become de rigueur and a box-office no-brainer. Still, the overwhelming feeling is that this is all setup and the best stuff is just ahead, a tease that the franchise also toyed with during Catching Fire, as we were stuck in the games instead of the revolution. Mockingjay Part 1 is mostly buildup; it’s entertaining and more politically adroit than expected, but in the end it’s still a story stretched out. The intriguing supporting characters from Catching Fire are still mostly put on hold. The inclusion of Gale (Liam Hemsworth) still feels relatively pointless in the scheme of things, except for prolonging the love triangle, the weakest element of the story by far, and one that even author Suzanne Collins seems half-hearted about. When the world is falling apart, who cares which boy Katniss decides to kiss? Old favorites like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) get brief appearances but little else. There is a stark decrease in action with this movie, only two real sequences of suspense, and one of them proves to be false. Strangely enough, there’s a high-stakes nighttime raid that plays out unironically like a dystopian Zero Dark Thirty finale. I await others to make a similar comparison. It’s no surprise that Mockingjay becomes more suspenseful, engaging, and meaningful just as it’s ending, leaving less on a cliffhanger and more on a latent promise. Instead, this particular movie features a lot of speeches and hushed discussions in dank quarters (the photography is rather dimly lit and hard to decipher at times). It’s not exactly rollicking.

SS_D8-3267.dngBeing a war film, atrocities are commonplace and examined openly, especially when Katniss visits the ruins of her home in District 12. Not once but twice does the camera slowly zoom out to allow the graveyard of charred skeletons to gets its thematic due. There’s only so far a mandated PG-13 rating can take you when it comes to illustrating the horrors of war, but I give Mockingjay credit for neither glossing over the loss of innocent life or glorify the leaders of this revolution, namely District 13. President Coin is shown to be a calculating and pragmatic leader who is concerned more about the big picture. She’s thankful for Katniss but just as ready to move onward and forget her. By the end of the movie, you don’t exactly have warm feelings for the people of District 13, who laid in wait, sowing seeds of rebellion with the other districts, all the while relying on their bunker for ultimate safety. The other districts are more vulnerable and more likely to feel the Capital’s wrath. Just ask the smoldering citizens of District 12.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is the Hunger Games’ version of David Yates, the director who steered the concluding four Harry Potter films. Chris Columbus put that world together, but a better, more visually adept director saw Potter through to its end. Likewise, Lawrence has taken the world that the original Games director Gary Ross cultivated and given it the mood and visual heft needed for the franchise to feel properly and triumphantly cinematic. If it weren’t for this man’s visual talents, the many conversations in the dark would be even harder to watch. Lawrence has been a helpful addition to the franchise, especially as the world was starting to get more fleshed out. While I bemoan the overly gloomy cinematography (which was also an issue with Catching Fire), Lawrence has brought a necessary sense of gravitas to the series. The emotional pain and psychological torment registers, and his handling of his actors will often be overlooked thanks to the natural talent of his lead actress, but Lawrence has found a way to strike the right tone to make us care.

Speaking of the woman in question, Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) is already an Oscar-winning Hollywood star in her mid twenties, and she elevates these films even more. Her character is a reluctant figurehead, never having asked for such prominence, nor having asked to trigger a revolution with countless casualties. Without as much physical activity and arrow slinging, Lawrence gets greater opportunities to emote and show the fractured, conflicted feelings of the woman in the middle of the revolt. She’s not a natural when it comes to being on-camera, she cannot fake sincerity (even though she played up the whole “star-crossed lovers” angle in the first film as a means of survival, but whatever), and it’s somewhat funny watching skilled actors pretend to be bad actors. The emotions are on a hair trigger here, as rage boils over to fear and shock. Lawrence anchors the series with another surefooted, strong performance.

The real standout is Sutherland (The Italian Job). This is as much President Snow’s movie as it is Katniss Everdeen’s. Rather than plotting from the shadows, Snow gets to become the worthy villain the franchise has been waiting for. Sutherland relishes his retorts with Katniss and preying upon her. His broadcasting of an ever-increasingly frail Peeta is more meant as a crushing psychological blow, a reminder that his prized hostage will be punished for Katniss’s and the rebellion’s mounting successes. When they’re finally face-to-face once more, it’s the film’s most invigorating moment.

o-HUNGER-GAMES-MOCKINGJAY-PART-1-900It’s also hard to watch the movie and not feel grief over the loss of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Mockingjay Part 2 will officially be the actor’s last onscreen appearance. He’s good, though the part isn’t exactly challenging, but the real pang is the realization that we’ll never get another Hoffman performance. Once the final minute of Plutrarch Heavensbee is gone onscreen, so is the cinematic ghost of a ridiculously talented man who was taken from the world far too soon. In a nice gesture, Mockingjay Part 1 is dedicated to his memory.

Once more into the breach, dear friends, as Mockingjay Part 1 lays the way for the promise of an exciting and action-packed finale. The extra pause, the last breath before the melee, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows the film to break away from the plotting of the previous two entries and it provides a refreshingly reflective opportunity peppered with intelligent conversations about the political process and propaganda. It also stretches out a story that proves it did not have enough plot points to justify the expansion. No matter, the cash registers will ring loudly as the world’s hunger for the Hunger Games knows no limit. Lawrence and a team of great supporting actors help provide reasons to keep watching, as well as the increasingly dire circumstances of the war against the districts. This intermediary film serves as a bridge to the exciting conclusion, the assault on the Capitol. Let’s just hope that audiences don’t feel too stingy about paying to watch a two-hour trailer for another movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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 Master (2012)

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson met with great resistance when he was shopping his script around for The Master. It was dubbed the “Scientology movie” and reportedly based upon the controversial religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. It looked like Hollywood was spooked by the prospect of a movie that appeared to take on Scientology. Eventually Anderson got his financing and made the movie he wanted to make. Calling it the “Scientology movie” is misleading. I wish The Master was a Scientology expose because that would be far more interesting than the exasperating film I got, which is one nutty guy who dabbled in a Scientology-like cult. Maybe the resistance Anderson experienced wasn’t an indication of the subject matter. Perhaps it was only an indication that The Master just wasn’t a compelling story, a charge I can agree with wholeheartedly after viewing this disappointing film.

Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to adjust to life after World War II. Fresh out of the Navy, he works as a department store photographer, until his rage and social awkwardness lead to him being fired. He’s drifting about and hops onto a ferry leaving town. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a man.” Dodd has gathered a revered following. He believes that people can regress to past lives trillions, yes you read that right, of years into the past. Dodd’s own children admit that dear old dad is “making it up as he goes along.” His movement, known as The Cause, has been called a cult by detractors, the will of one man, and the followers don’t take kindly to challenges from the outside. Dodd adopts Freddie as a project. He’s on the verge of completing his second major treatise and Freddie seems to be an inspiration for him. Freddie finds some measure of acceptance within Dodd’s community of followers, but his erratic behavior keeps people on constant edge.

I found The Master to be boring; uncompromisingly boring, hopelessly boring, but worse than all that, pointlessly boring. Was this really a story that needed to be told? I cannot fathom why Anderson chose to tell this story or, in particular, why he chose to tell it through the character of Freddie Quell. A story about a huckster exploiting people with a religion he made up is a fascinating story with or without the Scientology/L. Ron Hubbard connections. That’s a story worthy of being made. Now, instead of this, we have two hours of a guy acting nuts. I would better be able to stomach the Freddie character if I felt like anything of significance was happening to him. He’s a broken man, clearly mentally ill in some capacity, and prone to outbursts that turn violent. Does he change? Does he grow? Does he do anything? Does his life have anything of significance happen to him over the course of 137 minutes? Not really. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish; his arc is essentially that he’s crazy at the start, meets Dodd, and then is crazy at the end. We get it, the guy is messed up. He makes a drink out of paint thinner for crying out loud. I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t need to see static scene after static scene of this guy acting out. I wasn’t a There Will Be Blood fan but at least Daniel Plainview was a strong central character with enough dimensions to carry a film. Freddie Quell just isn’t that interesting or entertaining. He’s actually a tiresome character because you get a perfect sense of who he is in just 10 minutes. The rest of the movie just seems to remind you what you already know.

It is a disappointing realization but I feel like the Paul Thomas Anderson I enjoyed is slipping away, as his flashy, propulsive, plot-heavy early work has given way to opaque, reserved, and plotless movies. It’s like I just watched someone with the verve of Martin Scorsese transform into a poetic film somnambulist like Terrence Malick; not a good move. I don’t know what Anderson’s message is or what he was trying to say, and I’m unsure why he decided to use a limited character like Freddy Quells as his prism. It almost feels like Anderson is compensating for his plot-driven films of his early career, like he has to balance the scales in his mind. I shudder where this recompense might take Anderson for his next film. I like to think of myself as an intelligent moviegoer who enjoys being challenged by movies. But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept anything challenging as quality. Case in point: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism, which was contemptuous of its audience. I don’t mind doing work but you have to give me a reason. There has to be a reward, either with the narrative or with the characters. I found no rewards with The Master and it’s not because I didn’t “get it,” film snobs, it’s because the movie was too opaque to say anything of substance beyond simplistic observations about the abuse of power and influence.

When I say plotless I don’t mean that we’re simply watching paint dry, though there are stretches of The Master where I would feel that could be a suitable test from Dodd. There are events. There are scenes. There are changing relationships. It’s just that none of this seems to matter, or at least it never feels like it does. There’s no build, no increase in urgency, and The Master just sort of drifts along to the detached rhythms of Freddie. The movie can feel interminable, and you may ask yourself, on a loop, “Is this going anywhere?” There are two scenes that stand out because there are so few that seem to matter. One is shortly after Dodd and Freddie have been arrested. The two men are locked in opposing cells and they explode in venomous anger. It feels like Anderson can finally allow his characters to vent out what they’ve truly been feeling. Another memorable scene, just for weirdness, is when we jump inside Freddie’s head. All the women, young and old, at a social gathering suddenly lose their clothing (think: Choke). It’s one of the best scenes at exploring Freddie’s sexual compulsions, plus it’s just peculiar. I wanted more scenes like this where we try and get inside the man’s mind. The rest of the characters are underwritten, especially Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve) as Dodd’s wife and fierce protector. This is a movie about two strong-willed men and everybody else gets relegated to minimal supporting positions. I miss the sprawling humanism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is very accomplished. The 1950s era setting is lushly recreated, aided by cinematography that seems to present this bygone age in a colorless manner. By this I mean that the world feels muted, repressed, the colors are there but they don’t pop, and I think this look fits the movie marvelously. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, which would offer startling detail to his images. I did not see the film projected this way (as will most) but you could sense the time and effort put into getting the details of his world right. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is minimalist but effective, with a few key strokes of a guitar to note rising tension.

The true draw of the film is the performances, which are excellent and at least provide a reason for staying awake. This is Phoenix’s first role since his two-year performance stunt documented in I’m Still Here. It feels like his off-putting, confrontational, bizarre antics for that faux documentary were all just training for playing the character of Freddie. The man has sad, droopy eyes, a fixed sneer that denotes his permanent displeasure and cocksure attitude. He speaks in mumbled sentences, he walks with his arms pinned out, donning the posture and behavior of a chicken. It’s at once an odd and striking performance, and Phoenix does his best to make the character worthy of your attention. He gives it his all, but sadly Freddie just doesn’t merit prominence. Hoffman (Moneyball) is equally alluring as the charming huckster who seems to come alive under a spotlight; the man exudes an oily presence, and yet there are a handful of moments where he lashes out, venting the roiling anger that seems to be barely contained at times. Hoffman’s performance is one of willful self-delusion rather than rampant self-destruction, which makes him far more compelling in my opinion. I would have preferred a Lancaster Dodd movie rather than a Freddie Quells movie.

The Master is a confounding, airless, opaque character study that is far from masterful. The faults of the film and its stilted ambitions lay squarely at the feet of its flawed central character, Freddie Quell. The movie adopts Freddie’s demeanor, managing a distant, standoffish, defiant attitude that thumbs its nose at audience demands. Don’t you know entertainment has no place in art, silly filmgoers?

Anderson is still a vastly talented filmmaker but I lament the path his career has taken. I adored the first four movies of Anderson’s career, but now I wonder if I’ll ever get something along the likes of Boogie Nights or even Punch-Drunk Love again. At this point Anderson has earned enough artistic latitude to tell whatever stories he so chooses. This is why my frustration has mounted because I am at a loss to why he feels compelled to tell this story and in this manner. The Master is an artistically stillborn affair. You want to believe there’s more under the surface but I don’t see it. The main ideas and themes are hammered with little variation, the slight plot drifts aimlessly finding no sense of momentum, and the characters are kept at such distance that the film feels clinical, like we’re observing creatures under glass for study. It just so happens that none of these characters warrant the attention. The Master will be praised by a plethora of film critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said it renews your faith in American cinema. I had the opposite reaction. The Master made me lose faith, mainly that I’ll ever enjoy a Paul Thomas Anderson film from this point on.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March is that rare political thriller that pulls the curtain away to come to the stolid conclusion that our entire political system is incontrovertibly stuck in the muck. This is a deeply cynical movie that posits that politicos are just about spinning truth, cutting backroom deals, attaining power and influence, and living to fight another day. Even the ones who champion integrity have plenty of salacious skeletons in their closet. So while Ides of March is in one way a liberal reductive fantasy, casting co-writer and director George Clooney as an Obama-style change agent, and Clooney can assert all the rabble-rousing missing from the current occupant of the White House, it still sticks to its deep-seated cynicism. There is nobody that looks good by the film’s end. Ryan Gosling stars as a magnetic campaign director trying to push his guy over the top by winning the all-important Ohio Democratic primary. As the primary gets closer and the race gets tighter, Gosling has to cover up potential scandals while skillfully using his intimate knowledge of them for opportunistic deal making. The film moves at a great clip, the dialogue is intelligent, the characters are rich and ambiguous, and every one of the sterling thespians gets at least one big scene to stretch their acting muscles. The film has plenty of intriguing twists and turns, as the pieces all fall into play for one final power play. If you’re a fan of smart political thrillers, then do not beware The Ides of March.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball, based on the non-fiction book by journalist Michael Lewis (The Blind Side), finds a new way to reinvent the David v. Goliath tale with a man who reinvented the business model of baseball.

In 2001, the New York Yankees (team payroll: $125 million) have just knocked the Oakland As (team payroll: $41 million) out of the playoffs. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) also has to suffer a summer where his biggest players leave the team to sign hefty free-agent contracts with bigger teams. He’s left with sizeable holes, a meager payroll, and the expectations to carry on winning. Beane is convinced that his group of paid scouts will be of no help. They’re men of an older era, sticking to the old ways of selecting talent (why the hell do these guys even calculate stuff like “good face” and “ugly girlfriend”?). Beane finds a kindred spirit in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale grad with a degree in Economics. Brand’s mathematical data focuses on one all-important stat – on-base percentage. Without getting on base a player can’t score runs, and no runs make it hard to win a game. Brand and Beane calculate a series of players undervalued by other teams. Their more cost-efficient model for success becomes known as “moneyball.” Together they put together a team of castoffs and misfits to contend for a championship against teams that have three times the Oakland As’ payroll.

Moneyball could be described as a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball, but that’s a little too glib by half. It’s very much a sports film but it takes the underdog approach in a new, sleekly modernized manner. It’s about a guy bucking the traditional mode of thinking, the established order, and the chaffing and nay saying of those entrenched in the traditional, outmoded, establishment. There’s always something inherently entertaining about an innovator fighting the system and eventually being proven right after all the trials and tribulations. And with Pitt, a major movie star, giving a movie star-caliber performance, self-effacingly charming with a twinkle and a swagger, Moneyball just seems to fly by like a spirited caper. We’re watching a smooth operator work the room, playing other general managers off one another and secretly accruing his talent while duping his peers. At its best moments, Moneyball feels almost like a breathless con game. The intelligent, stats-heavy dialogue doesn’t stoop for much exposition. The stats and acronyms whiz by, with Social Network-style crispness thanks to Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s a pleasure listening to top actors savoring the smart dialogue. You just want to kick up your heels and relax like you’re watching a game at home, rooting for your team to pull out an unlikely coup. Moneyball plays best for baseball fans who won’t bat an eye at the stat-heavy chat. For non-fans of the game, well, you can watch Pitt spit chewing tobacco into a cup a lot.

Beane chooses not to get to close to his players so that eventual roster cuts and trades will be all the easier without emotional involvement. The movie kind of follows suit. The characters are kept at a surprising distance. The movie seems practically ambivalent about people. Moneyball seems to lack an emotional center; and people thought The Social Network was cold. Beane is given flashes of back-story about his flameout in the majors, which supposedly provides the guy a motivation to prove himself against his legion of detractors. But these flashes are not enough. Director Bennet Miller (his first film since 2005’s Capote) incorporates way too many scenes where we watch Beane driving, silently contemplating his life-changes. The feud between Beane and his curmudgeon manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the unkindest of haircuts), never comes to a head. Howe is upset at the thankless job of corralling a team of misfits and cast-offs into a competitive team. But like many other conflicts, the movie ducks from finding a real purpose for its integration. Howe just seems to be another naysayer who shakes his head at Billy. Surely the relationship between GM and manager should be more complicated than as presented. The Beane family flashbacks and his scenes with his daughter (the adorable Kerris Dorsey) are attempts to further humanize a man who has abandoned the advice of people for spreadsheets.

It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of the nation’s oldest sporting games, but Moneyball’s tone seems to toggle between reality and romanticism. For Beane, there are no small victories. Even success is deemed failure under the metrics of championship-or-nothing. “People only remember your last out,” he says despondently. So when the Oakland As fail to make a run into the playoffs (is a 2002 playoff series considered a spoiler?) the movie is left with a listless conclusion. Brand tries to prove to his boss the significance of what they have accomplished on their meager payroll, at one point winning a record 20 games in a row. But a winning streak of 20 games is not the same as a championship. Moneyball rightly proclaims the game of baseball as a rigged sport, where the divide between “haves” and “have nots” is vast. It is the only major league sport without a salary cap. The teams with the big pockets can afford the marquee talent. There’s a reason Lewis’ book has the subtitle “The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.” The implications of Beane’s accomplishments are unclear. His cost-efficient, stat-heavy approach was co-opted by the Boston Red Sox and turned into championships in 2004 and 2007. Is that a real vindication for Beane? It seems to me that the game’s issue of wealth disparity is still in full effect. Even if teams follow Bean’s approach, it still means that the bigger city, wealthier teams like the Red Sox or the Yankees can still outspend their competition. So it seems like to me that Bean’s moneyball approach simply meant that the focus changed on less costly talent. It did nothing to alter who could outbid their peers for the now-cheaper talent. It’s hard to squeeze a happy ending out of a story that concludes with the rich getting richer.

The movie is pretty much a buddy comedy, granted Beane is a much more dominate personality. Pitt feels like he’s coasting on charisma, though the actor gives a greatly entertaining performance. It’s not so much nuanced but he’s enjoying himself. The man looks eerily to be aging into Robert Redford, which begs the question about the nature of time travel. Hill (Superbad, Get Him to the Greek) gives a surprisingly adept dramatic performance. The comedic actor seems subdued next to the charisma of Pitt, like the character is continually awed by Billy. The Oscar-talk for the comedian seems a tad premature. He’s good but just because Hill delivers a good dramatic performance does not mean people should automatically start fielding his name as an award contender. That’s like saying let’s give an award to Paris Hilton because she could remember her lines. It’s also fun watching actors like Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) portray players that are still recognizable.

Moneyball says that baseball is not a game about heart, sweat, or the love of the game. It’s about numbers. That’s something of a cold message but Billy Beane is not one for false comforts. At its best, the film is a breezy caper with crisp dialogue and slick editing, but it’s also hamstrung by an inconsistent tone, a methodical pacing (133 minutes!), and a dearth of strong characterization. Beane was destined to be a baseball star but it wasn’t to be. Baseball is the most mental of all national sports, and it’s hard to crack such an insular model of play. That’s why baseball movies resort so much to romantic staples about the lore of this game. This is not a romantic movie; it toys with romanticism but ultimately sides with the science and number crunching. The emotion seems to have been squeezed out of the story thanks to the statistics. Moneyball is a baseball movie that fantasy baseball nerds have been waiting for. I’m not particularly a baseball fan (too slow), but I still found the movie to be a rewarding night out sans crackerjacks.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Nothing comes easy when dealing with acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The most exciting scribe in Hollywood does not tend to water down his stories. Kaufman’s latest head-trip, Synecdoche, New York, is a polarizing work that follows a nontraditional narrative and works on a secondary existential level. That’s enough for several critics to hurtle words like “incomprehensible” and “confusing” as weapons intended to marginalize Synecdoche, New York as self-indulgent prattle. I guess no one wants to go to the movies and think any more. Thinking causes headaches, after all.

Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a struggling 40-year-old theater director trying to find meaning in his beleaguered life. His wife (Catherine Keener) has run off to Germany with his little daughter, Olive. He also manages to botch a potential romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a woman who works in the theater box-office who has an unusual crush on Caden. He’s also plagued by numerous mysterious health ailments that only seem to multiply. While his life seems to be in the pits, Caden is offered a theater grant of limitless money. He has big ambitions: he will restage every moment of his whole life to try and discover the hard truths about life and death. Caden must then cast actors to portray the various people in his life. Sammy (Tom Noonan) argues that no other actor could get closer to the truth of Caden; Sammy has been following and studying Caden for over 20 years (don’t bother asking why in a movie like this). Caden also casts his new wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), as herself. The theater production gets more and more complex, eventually requiring the “Caden” character to hire his own Caden actor. Caden hires Hazel to be his assistant and Sammy falls in love with her. Caden admonishes his actor, “That Hazel isn’t for you.” Caden then tries sleeping with “Hazel” (Emily Watson) to get even with the real Hazel. By producing a theatrical mechanism that almost seems self-sustaining, Caden wants to leave his mark on the world and potentially live forever.

I heard plenty of blather about how mind-numbing Synecdoche, New York was and how Kaufman had really done it this time when he composed a script that involves characters playing characters playing characters. People told me that it was all too much to keep track of and that it made their brains hurt. The movie is complex, yes, and demands a viewer to be actively engaged, but the movie is far from confusing and any person or critic that just throws up their hands and says, “Nope, too much to think about,” is doing their brain a disservice. The movie is relatively easy to follow in a simple linear cause-effect manner; Kaufman only really goes as deep as two iterations from reality, meaning that Caden has his initial doppelganger and then eventually that doppelganger must get his own Caden doppelganger (it’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds if you see it). Now, where the movie might be tricky to understand is how deeply contemplative and metaphorical it can manage to be, especially at its somber close. That doesn’t mean that Synecdoche, New York is impossible to understand only that it requires some extra effort to appreciate. But this movie pays off in huge ways on repeat viewings, adding texture to Kaufman’s intricately plotted big picture, unfolding into a richer statement about the nature of life and death and love.

Theater has often been an easy metaphor for life. William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” Kaufman movies always dwell substantially with the nature of identity, and Synecdoche, New York views identity through the artifice of theater. Caden searches for something brutal and true via the stage, but of course eventually his search for truth becomes compromised with personal interests. Characters in Caden’s life are altered and in the end when Caden steps down, as himself, reality starts getting revised. The truth is often blurred through the process of interpretation. Caden ends up swapping identities with a bit player in the story of his life, potentially finding a greater sense of personal comfort as someone else. Don’t we all play characters in our lives? Don’t we all assume different identities for different purposes? Do we act differently at a job than at home, at church than at a bar? Caden remarks that there are no extras in life and that everyone is a lead in his or her own story.

Kaufman’s movie is also funny, like really darkly funny and borderline absurdist to the point of being some strange lost work by Franz Kafka (Hazel even mentions she’s reading Kafka’s The Trial). You may be so caught up trying to render the complexities of the story to catch all of the humor. The movie exists in a surreal landscape, where the characters treat the fantastic practically as mundane. Hazel’s house is constantly on fire and yet none of the characters regard this as dangerous or out of the ordinary. It is just another factor of life. The entire subplot with Hope Davis as a hilariously incompetent therapist is deeply weird. Caden suffers some especially cruel Job-like exploits, particularly what befalls his estranged daughter, Olive. He’s obsessed with her hidden whereabouts and European upbringing, to the point that Caden cannot even remember the name of his other daughter he has with Claire. There is a deathbed scene between the two that is equally sad and twisted given the astounding behavior that Caden is forced to apologize for. There are running gags that eventually transform into metaphors, like Caden’s many different medical ailments and the unhelpful bureaucratic doctors who know nothing and refuse to divulge any info. Kaufman even has Emily Watson, an actress mistaken for Morton, play the character of “Hazel.”

This is Kaufman’s debut as a director and I think the movie ultimately benefits by giving its writer more control over the finished product. The movie is such a singular work of creativity that it helps by not having another director; there is no other artistic vision but Kaufman’s. While the film can feel slightly hermetic at times visually, Kaufman and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (The Ice Storm) pack the film with detail. Stylistically, the film is mannered but this is to make maximum impact for the vast amount of visual metaphors. Synecdoche, New York never feels as mannered as the recent Wes Anderson films, henpecked by a style that serves decoration rather than storytelling. The production design for the world-within-a-world is also alluring and imaginative, like a living, breathing dollhouse.

The assorted actors do well with their quirky, flawed characters, but clearly Hoffman is the linchpin to the film. He plays a character from middle age to old age, and at every step Hoffman manages to infuse some level of empathy for a man routinely disappointed by his own life. The failed yet lingering and hopeful romance between Caden and Hazel provides an almost sweet undercurrent for a character obsessed with death. Hoffman is convincing at every moment, even as a hobbled 80-year-old man, and gives a performance steeped in sadness but with the occasional glimmer of hope, whether it be the ambition of his theater project or the dream of holding Hazel once more. Morton is also wonderfully kindhearted and endearing as the woman that just seems to keep slipping away from Caden.

There’s no other way to say it but Synecdoche, New York is a movie that you need to see multiple times to appreciate. The plot is so grandiose in scope and ambition that one sitting does not do it justice. Kaufman has forged a strikingly peculiar movie that manages to be surreal and bleakly comic while also being poignant and humane. This is a big movie with big statements that can be easily missed, but for those willing to dig into the wealth of metaphor and reflection, Synecdoche, New York is a rewarding film experience that sticks with you. By the end of this movie, Kaufman has earned the merging of metaphor and narrative. I have already seen the movie twice and still cannot get it out of my thoughts. This isn’t the kind of movie that you feel warm affection for, like Kaufman’s blissfully profound Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This movie is less a confounding puzzle than an intellectually stimulating examination on art, the human experience, and, ultimately death. If people would rather kill brain cells watching whatever dreck Hollywood secretes every week (cough, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, cough) then that’s their prerogative. Give me a Charlie Kaufman movie and a bottle of aspirin any day.

Nate’s Grade: A

Doubt (2008)

You know you’re in for some intellectual and moral ambiguity when the opening sermon covers the nature of doubt. Doubt follows a New York head nun (Meryl Streep) in 1964 that suspects one of the new parish priests (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young male student. The acting by the four principal actors is phenomenal. This is a showcase of stellar acting. Streep is ferocious and unwavering, a one-woman wrecking ball, and yet she still manages to make an antagonistic character empathetic: she’s doing what she feels is right to protect her students. Are unethical deeds acceptable in a righteous pursuit? Does she truly believe her convictions, or is Streep striking back against an entrenched hierarchy that diminishes her value? There is a clear resentment between some of the nuns and the array of priests with all the power and all the say. Naturally, in a he-said she-said molestation case, the audience is more likely to side with the funny, caring, progressive priest than the scary nun who detests ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. In the end, the accusations aren’t cleared up and the film lets the audience debate the results. Director/writer John Patrick Shanley adapts from his acclaimed stage play and does a mostly fine job bringing it alive on screen, though he has a penchant for relying on really simplistic visual metaphors. The supporting cast rises up to Streep’s level, notably Viola Davis as the mother of the boy accused of being mishandled. Note to future students of acting: study Davis’ 10 minutes of screen time to see how a truly talented thespian displays a range of conflicted emotions, none of them feeling inauthentic or cheap. Doubt isn’t just one of the best-acted films of the year but also one of the best, period, and I have little doubt to that.

Nate’s Grade: A

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Sidney Lumet is 83 years old and still directing movies, God love him. The man is behind cinematic milestones and classics like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and 12 Angry Men, which goes back all the way to 1957 – 50 freaking years ago! The longevity of this man is admirable. He hasn’t pulled together a compelling film in some time, but Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stirring, character-driven crime drama that reveals itself to be a first-rate melodrama.

The film is anchored by two huge performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, playing a pair of brothers both on hard times. Hoffman’s character, Andy, has been living well outside his means to keep up appearances and to sate his taste for a local heroin den. He’s in charge of company payroll and an internal review just discovered a pair of terminated employees still drawing checks, the source of Andy’s cash to pay for his lavish lifestyle. Hawke’s character, Hank, is behind on child support and belittled by his ex-wife. He’s having a hard time even finding the dough to pay the 100 bucks for his daughter to go see The Lion King in New York City. Andy hatches a scheme to solve both their money woes: they’re going to knock over a mom-and-pop jewelry store. It just so happens that the store belongs to Andy and Hank’s mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). The plan goes hopelessly awry and both brothers feel intense pressure in the aftermath.

Lumet and debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson really know how to ratchet up the suspense. The nonlinear timeframe keeps the audience on its toes and continuously rewriting what we think we know. Unlike movies like Babel and 21 Grams, the plot is actually assisted by skipping around time and telling the story out of order. We get the basics and then the details begin to take shape, but because of the prior knowledge the film packs an increasing sense of dread that builds in intensity. As the brothers sink lower trying to cover their misdeeds, Lumet and Masterson crank up the tension to a peak. The knotted and twisty narrative exposes the fragile dynamic of this family and keeps the audience alert and hungry for more.

Hoffman is at his sleazy, duplicitous best with this performance. His character is a man accustomed to getting what he wants and he knows all the manipulative tricks to get there, be it bullying or cajoling. He’s a pusher with so much anger and desperation just below the surface. Andy never feels respected or loved by his father, and he has a great scene where he breaks down in a fit of rage and tears in response to his father apologizing for the bad upbringing. Hoffman imbues great emotional complexity to a man whose world is crashing down. It is enthralling to watch.

Not to be outdone, Hawke puts forth his finest effort of his career. He’s the baby of one very corrosive family; he misplaces trust and admiration in his big brother. Hank isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he has a distinct weariness to his worries, living day-to-day with the knowledge that the world sees him as a loser or a screw-up, losing the respect of his own daughter. When things go bad he unravels rapidly while still holding to his secrets. It’s a performance brimming with nervous anxiety, mounting regret, and self-effacement.

The secondary characters don’t get nearly the attention and consideration. Marisa Tomei is more a plot device than a character; she’s Andy’s wife but has been having an ongoing affair with the more nurturing Hank. She spends most of her scenes in some form of undress and looks remarkably fit for her 43 years of age. I’m not complaining about the ration of her screen time to nudity, however, she feels more like another notch in the complicated relationship between the brothers.

Finney is fine with a rather small role that merely requires him to be aghast or incredulous with the slow police work. I don’t know if a suitable Finney performance can compensate for a staggering leap of character late in the movie, but I suppose I’d rather have any Albert Finney performance in a movie than none at all. Before the Devil places Finney’s character on a perch and just doesn’t give him much outside of his own dawning realization of who was responsible for the botched robbery.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a gripping family tragedy that takes on a Shakespearean quality as it comes to a somber, chilling close. The wordy titles comes from an Irish drinking toast that states, “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.” The message declares the inescapable consequences of our actions. This is a film about the disfiguration of one family; it’s bleak, tragic, but whole-heartedly entertaining and extremely focused in its aims. Lumet has returned to smashing form and reminds an audience that there’s still plenty of vigor left in this 83-year-old director.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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