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Show Dogs (2018)

I was expecting something much worse but ultimately it’s hard to get too upset with Show Dogs, a lowest common denominator slice of entertainment for the youngest of children. There are two separate Lego Movie references in relation to star Will Arnett, a cop who partners with a dog for an undercover operation. The weird part is that the movie seems to exist in a world where animals talk to one another but humans cannot hear them. Fine, except then why does Arnett treat a stray dog like an equal? Occasionally human beings will interact with the animals like they can hear them. World building inconsistency aside, it’s simply a very unfunny comedy. The lazy puns and slapstick are somewhat excusable in smaller doses but the movie is nothing but. The only reason to watch Show Dogs is to look for the former material relating to a storyline that literally involved the hero dog having to learn to go to a happy mental place while adult judges fondle his genitals. Shockingly, the filmmakers did not see any problem with this storyline aimed at children until weeks after its initial release, and then it was re-cut with the offending and abuse-grooming material wisely removed. How does something like this happen? How does it pass through so many editorial approvals? It wasn’t a simple joke but an ongoing character arc for the protagonist. Show Dogs is for the dogs.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Disney has been on a tear lately with its slate of live-action remakes but Beauty and the Beast is the first title to come from the relatively recent Renaissance period of the early 1990s. The 1991 classic, based upon the French fairy tale, was the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, and back when the Academy was only proffering five nominees for the category (Toy Story 3 and Up earned Best Picture nominations after the category expanded up to ten). This is a beloved movie still fresh in people’s minds. I was curious what Disney and director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) would do with the material, what potential new spins, and how faithful they might be. Regrettably, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a charmless, inferior remake of a Disney classic. In short, there is no reason for this movie to exist.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a small French town’s least favorite daughter, namely because she always has her nose in a book and wants “more than this provincial life.” Gaston (Luke Evans) is the most popular man in town and a dreamboat that ladies savor, and maybe also Gaston’s silly sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad). The hunk is determined to marry Belle at all costs but she wants nothing to do with the brute. Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) falls prisoner to a ghastly Beast (Dan Stevens), a monster who used to be a prince who was cursed for his vanity. The Beast’s servants were also cursed, turned into living objects, like cowardly clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), lively lamp Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and a tea kettle (Emma Thompson), feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), dresser (Audra McDonald), and probably a chamber pot somewhere. Belle trades places with her father, becoming the Beast’s captive. The servants encourage the Beast to put on a charm offensive and change his ways to woo Belle, because if he cannot earn reciprocal love before the last pedal falls from an enchanted rose, then they will all be doomed to live their current fates.

I figured, at worst, I would be indifferent to the live-action version of a great animated musical, especially since they were following the plot fairly closely. I was not indifferent; I was bored silly, and as the boredom consumed me I felt the strong urge to simply get up and leave. Now I didn’t do that, dear reader, because I owed all of you my complete thoughts on the complete film. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I debated escape, which is a rarity for me (I’ve never walked out of a movie, but Beauty and the Beast now joins a small number of films where I considered the inclination). The source of my urges spring directly from the realization that I knew exactly what was going to be coming at every step, even down to shots, and I knew it was going to be worse than the source material. It felt like watching the soul slowly get sucked out of the 1991 film. It was imitation that squeezed out all the delightful feelings from the original, stamping out joy and replacing it with an awkward, stilted facsimile. There’s also the problem of live-action being a medium that distorts some of the charming elements from the animated movie. The anthropomorphic servants are especially unsettling to watch.

The new additions are few and completely unnecessary, adding a half hour to a classic’s efficient running time. It’s kind of like remaking Casablanca and adding forty minutes of stuff that doesn’t belong, which might as well be known today as Peter Jackson Syndrome. With Beauty and the Beast, there are four or five new songs added, and they are awful and needless. Two of them are back-stories for Belle and the Beast/Prince, both of which were already covered earlier either explicitly or implicitly. They are the clear clunkers and further evidence that the 2017 additions are artistic anchors hampering an otherwise great musical. The Prince is given more screentime pre-Beast transformation but it covers the same ground that a simple voice over achieves in the original. I don’t think much is added seeing Stevens get gussied up and partying with the pretty people of his village except as an excuse for costuming excess. Some of the elements added also feel remarkably tacked on and feebly integrated, like the Beast’s magic teleportation book. He has a book that will take the user anywhere in the world, which Belle uses once to visit her parents’ old home and learn redundant information. At no point is this powerful magical device ever used. Why introduce a teleporting book and never bring it up again, especially if only to reveal something superfluous? Why does the Beast need a magic mirror to spy on people if he can teleport there? These are the unintended questions that befall poorly planned story elements that nobody asked for.

The 2017 Beast also wants to celebrate itself for being more inclusive, feminist, and forward thinking than its predecessor, but this claim is overblown. Much has been made out of Condon’s claims of an “exclusively gay moment” in the movie devoted to LeFou, which wouldn’t be that surprising considering his Gaston-adoring behavior walks a homoerotic line in the original. This “exclusive” moment is LeFou dancing with another man and seeming to enjoy himself, or at least not hating the idea. It lasts for a grand total of two seconds on screen as part of a closing epilogue scanning across our happy characters reunited on the dance floor. It seems like much ado about nothing, especially since the 1991 film had the exact same comic beat of a man discovering an unknown joy of dressing in women’s clothing. Watson has been an outspoken actress, a UN human rights ambassador, and has said in multiple media interviews that it was important to make Belle a more actionable feminist figure. There was certainly room for improvement considering it’s a romance that many have cited as a clear case of Stockholm syndrome. If a modern remake of Beauty and the Beast were going to make socially conscious strides, it would be here, naturally. It’s pretty much the same movie except now she creates a washing machine by completely occupying the town fountain. That’s it. Considering that the movie added thirty minutes to the running time, you would think a majority of that would be judiciously devoted to building a plausible bridge from the Beast being Belle’s captor to being her lover. Nope. It’s a more forward thinking movie in fairly superficial ways that feel overly designed to warrant applause, like the inclusion of two interracial couples in the small staff of a seventeenth century French castle.

I went in and thought, if all else, I would at least have the instantly humable and highly pleasurable songs to fall back on. Then I realized this imagined respite was a fallacy. Like every other element in the film, the singing was going to be worse than the originals, and it was. The biggest aural offender belongs to our heroine, Miss Watson (The Bling Ring), whose singing vocals are Auto tuned within an inch of their lives. I have no idea what Watson’s singing voice sounds like in real life but I can almost assuredly bet it does not sound like what comes out of her mouth in this movie. The Auto tune effect was immediate, and overwhelming, and it felt like daggers in my ears for the entirety of the film. Auto tune flattens out a singer’s vocals and makes them sound tinny, unreal, almost like the comedown from sucking helium. I listened attentively to the other performers and it seemed like Watson was the only one given this exaggerated treatment. I’ve said before I’m not a fan of Watson as an actress, feeling she plateaued at a young age from the Harry Potter series, and her performance here will not change my mind. Similarly, the Beast’s vocals are so enhanced with bass that it would be hard to judge Stevens authentic singing voice. McGregor (T2 Trainspotting) has proven his singing chops before but a French accent was clearly something that got away from him. Evans (The Girl on the Train) is acceptable as a singer but lacks something of the brio that makes Gaston a larger-than-life pompous ass. Gad (Frozen) is right at home with musical theater. If I had to pick a musical highlight I would cite “Be Our Guest” simply for the visual barrage of colors and playful imagery that is absent most of a rather dreary looking movie. The other performers are adequate and sing their parts with equal parts gusto and reverence, but they’re all clearly weaker singers than the less known cast of the 1991 edition. It leaves one with the impression of a shabby celebrity karaoke version of a better movie.

Beauty and the Beast isn’t just a disappointment, it’s an artistic misfire on multiple fronts that is looking for applause but doing too little to even earn such consideration. It wants to be forward thinking for a contemporary audience but they’re empty gestures, as it just copies the 1991 movie down to similar shot selections. The 1991 movie is great, no question, but I don’t need a Gus van Sant Psycho-style remake that only serves to make me appreciate the original more. This movie has no reason to exist outside of the oodles of cash that Disney will probably collect from repackaging its much beloved classic to a new generation of fans and an older generation seeking out millennial nostalgia. The singing is off, especially from a painfully Auto tuned Watson, the new songs and scenes are pointless, and even some of the production design resembles a play that ran out of budget halfway through. If you’re a fan of the original, you may find entertainment just reliving the familiar beats and notes from the 1991 film, just to a patently lesser degree of success. It’s not like Disney’s other live-action remakes of their extensive back catalogue of titles. The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon were sizeable improvements, and the agreeable Cinderella found some welcomed maturity to go with its fairy dust. Those movies found new angles, and in some cases had little relationship to their original material as in the case of the wonderful and heartfelt Pete’s Dragon. These are examples of filmmakers who were inspired by their sources but told their own stories. Beauty and the Beast, in contrast, is just the hollowed out husk of the original, now made putrid.

Nate’s Grade: C

Spotlight (2015)

2B89064B00000578-0-image-a-25_1440115471750Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

transformers__age_of_extinction__2014____poster_by_camw1n-d7i1moaFour movies in, at this point you can either fall back on the old criticisms of Michael Bay as a filmmaker or simply let down your guard and look for any simple pleasures offered by the Transformers franchise, a series mostly known for chaotic plotting and action. Age of Extinction is probably the best Transformers film since the first one (take that for what you will) but it still has all the hallmarks of the obtuse and convoluted plotting, absurd and obnoxious characters, juvenile humor, intense product placement, and often incoherent action. Gone are the characters from the first three films and in their stead is Mark Wahlberg (upgrade) as a Texan inventor named, get this, Cade Yeager. He and his teen daughter come into contact with Optimus Prime and are on the run from multiple forces. Apparently a bounty hunter is looking to target Prime. The U.S. has a black ops team tracking down Transformers in hiding. And Stanley Tucci plays a business tycoon who wants to make his own Transformers via their magic substance “Transformium.” Reading all of that, you realize the pieces still don’t really make sense, and that’s before the robot dinosaurs come into play. And yet Bay and his team have fine-tuned the entertaining aspects of the franchise and better consolidated them in the fourth film. A badass alien bounty hunter/collector is a great addition, adding the government as an adversary, Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost) as a cocksure special agent, Tucci as a corporate blowhard, and robot dinosaurs, it all sort of works on its own terms. Again, if you try and logically connect the pieces, it won’t happen. By this point, if you’re not a fan of the series, there’s no real reason to continue watching, but if you’ve found any semblance of enjoyment then there should be enough to keep your attention with the fourth film, robot dinosaurs and all.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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-

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

Mr_Peabody_&_Sherman_PosterSurprisingly adroit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman might just be more fun for adults, especially fans of the original 1960s cartoon, than for little kids. It’s under the “family film” banner, a dubious one historically, but I was laughing consistently and good, snorting laughs, long chuckles; the whole gamut. With The LEGO Movie, the wide release of The Wind Rises, and now this, 2014 is shaping up to be a stellar year for animation aficionados. The movie between a genius dog and his adopted son is given the right amount of reverence before all the cheeky irreverence through history. The hops through time, notably the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, and the Trojan War, are fast-paced and clever without stooping to provide much context for the jokes; you either get them or you don’t. Even the necessary character building components between father and son are treated smartly, coming together for an ending that approaches poignancy. The plot can get a little complicated toward the end, what with opening a space-time paradox, but I respect the movie for being complex and tricky and scientific and trusting its audience to play along. The animation looks a little scruffy compared to other big screen efforts, but the script just flat-out works. The comedy, the drama, the relationships, but especially the comedy. If you’re on the fence, please, do yourself a favor, and go see Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you appreciate history and those who love it. I saw it with my father and we both laughed ourselves silly. Needless to say, this blows 2000’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle out of the water.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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

Margin Call (2011)

Set during the first twenty-four hours of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margin Call feels like David Mamet’s classic play Glengarry Glen Ross just set fifty floors higher. It’s a tense stew of ego and hubris and cunning and manipulation and self-preservation, peppered with some salty language. The corporate bigwigs of a fictional financial firm scramble to get out the door first before everyone else catches on to the looming market crash. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” says the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor brilliantly captures the rationalization of sociopathic greed; the CEO waxes about the historical inevitability of our own self-destructive influences, glibly recounting other market crashes and saying he will survive because the nation’s class systems are fixed. The behind-the-scenes scheming has a sick appeal, witnessing how Wall Street wriggled free of responsibility. This isn’t a far-reaching look into the financial meltdown; it’s more of an insular, thoughtful, occasionally meditative play about the moral questions at play. The prosaic pacing caused quite a slew of yawns in my audience. There does seem to be a never-ending cascade of scenes where two characters will just sit and talk. However, when the writing is this sharp and the actors are all at the top of their game (Kevin Spacey is emotionally spent in a test of loyalties; Irons is charmingly sleazy), then you can forgive some stagnate pacing. Margin Call has a few heavy-handed metaphors (Spacey putting his dog down = the economy!), but overall it’s astute, insightful, sophisticated, and compelling enough to forgive its overreaches.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Easy A (2010)

Usually when I think “teen comedy” I think lowest common denominator and a pitch straight down the middle of the plate. Will there be fart jokes? Probably. Will the climax taken place at the prom? Absolutely. Does Easy A do either? Not a chance. This is the sort of teen comedy that would have greatly appealed to me back in my own days of high school institutional education.

Olive (Emma Stone) is a high school senior that gets good grades, behaves well, and spends her weekends hopping around her bedroom and singing a song she can’t get out of her brain. She’s not into parties or idiots or anything remotely dangerous. Then her world turns upside down when she fibs about losing her virginity. Suddenly Olive is branded as the school’s hussy. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous character, Olive decides to embrace the rumors, accessorizing her wardrobe with plenty of scarlet “A”s along the corseted bust line. Olive’s gay friend asks her for a huge favor: he wants to use her fake notoriety to lose his virginity. The two will attend a party, find a room, and dramatically interpret animated sex. It works like a charm. Her pal is given a free pass, some extra popularity, and it isn’t long before other downtrodden high school rejects seek a similar deal. Outraged at Olive’s lack of shame is Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the school?s busybody and leader of a vocal Christian abstinence program. She doesn’t know whether she wants to save Olive or banish her.

All hail the coming of Emma Stone, comedy goddess and future heartbreaker. Easy A is a fantastic showcase of the many strengths of this irresistible actress. After several supporting roles in films like Superbad and The House Bunny, this is the first opportunity for Stone to have a film where she gets to be the lead, and trust me folks, this won?t be the last one. Stone has a great way of becoming instantly empathetic and, much like the film, being brainy and playfully risqué at the same time. Watching the success of Stone is like watching the road not taken by Lindsay Lohan (be careful whose advice you take, Emma). Stone makes her good times seem effortless, like she really is having a blast playing up her bad girl image. Her facial expressions and sarcastic, know-it-all line readings help push her comedic range even further, and yet she remains completely empathetic the entire time. Stone is the kind of girl that other girls would want to hang out with and guys would crush on. It is impossible to not love this actress, and she makes Easy A easily enjoyable and downright effervescent at times.

The rest of the cast is having just as much fun with the material as Stone. Chief among them are Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s hyper-literate parents. They may seem like they stepped off the train from a Diablo Cody movie at first, but you will quickly get used to their glib rapid-fire repartee. Some might dismiss them as kooks. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) tries to make the glamorous movie idea of the Hip Teacher into a droll square and succeeds admirably. There’s even Lisa Kudrow (TV’s Friends) as a guidance counselor and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween) as a blasé principal (“This is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus”). Then there’s Bynes (Hairspray, She’s the Man) in what was billed as her final film performance before hastily retiring from acting, and then following in the footsteps of other famous retirees like Michael Jordan, Stephen King, Jay-Z, and Brett Farve, and hastily un-retired. She has her cutesy, dimple-faced shtick she cling to, but what happened to her? Her face looks very swollen, like she had an allergic reaction on every day of shooting. It looks like someone inflated her head with the plot to turn her into a Macy’s Day balloon. I started to get concerned for Bynes by the end.

While Stone is the number one, two, and three reasons for seeing this movie, Easy A doesn’t let down her efforts. This is a teen comedy that might just be light years ahead of the pack. There are jokes guaranteed to go over the heads of a majority of audience members, from wisecracks about Sylvia Plath to French wordplay to the Kinsey scale. You’re not going to find any of that stuff in your typically brain-dead Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle (is it just pathetic to keep holding onto a 10-year-old anti-FPJ grudge? The answer is, “No!”). Though I died a little inside when the movie resorts to explaining the plot of The Scarlet Letter to Joe Public; however, this intellectual Cliff Notes salve was saved by Stone bemoaning the idiotic 1995 Demi Moore film that takes some of the sharpest deviations I’ve ever seen from a classic literary adaptation (“If I have to grade one more paper talking about Hester Prynne taking baths all the time?”). The dialogue is routinely snappy and occasionally barbed, which is a bit of a surprise. It’s witty, a little cheeky, but it doesn’t go over the line or play for the easy gross-out gag. It?s a well-constructed, well-executed teen comedy that has a playful zing, a facetious tone that celebrates literature and makes being smart sexy.

While sex is at the forefront of the plot, the film does not treat the serious subject matter with flippancy. There’s some heavy stuff about what it means to sell out your ideals, prostituting yourself in more ways than the obvious. Olive begins her crusade as a means of taking ownership of her reputation and as an amusing character to play. But then as she dives ahead, accepting gift cards for her imaginary yet cred-boosting favors, the bloom of idealism dims and the meaning of her crusade become murky. What point is she trying to prove, exactly? In the end, is there a sharp difference between being a prostitute and being a “prostitute”? How big of a distance can irony give you? Easy A may have its fun when it comes time to doing the deed (I was howling with laughter about Olive chastising her first “client” about his comment on the aroma of sexual intercourse), but this is a teen movie ready to accept the consequences of its actions with a clear and level head.

Not everything hums with precision. Easy A can be faulted for being too reverential and referential to 1980s teen comedies. Its ambition to be a modern-day member of this group is a bit too in-your-face. The abstinent Christian opposition feels too broadly drawn and setups for cheap shots and some downright mean punchlines. This movie is better than stooping to tin-eared caricature. The relationship between Olive and her best friend (Alyson Michalka) is vastly underdeveloped. The emergence of a Herpes outbreak also seems a little tacky, especially given its salacious carrier (trying hard not to spoil plot reveals). Then there are simply questions of believability. I?m not expecting a journalistic document of the American educational system, but since when was a high school student losing their virginity scandalous gossip? Why would Olive become the talk of the town by doing something that, according to the CDC, 80% of men and 75% of women have accomplished by age 19? Now, later in the film, the whiff of prostitution would definitely create a stir in the social gossip machine, and with technology, a rumor can spread at the speed of texting.

The film follows a well-worn path and owes a serious debt to the teen films of the 1980s, but Easy A is a winning teen comedy thanks to a snappy script, a playful sense of the taboo, and the courage to shoot for a higher level joke, also Stone’s charismatic comedic performance makes the grade. The entire movie has this bustling, quirky energy to it that feels un-labored. They make it all look so easy. Despite being a thorough genre flick, it is lifted thanks to its zesty writing and acting. In the most simplistically crass terms, Easy A scores.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones, based upon Alice Sebold’s 2002 best-selling blockbuster, is about some heavy stuff. It’s told entirely from the point of view of a dead teenage girl. She was raped and murdered by a skeevy neighbor, and now she gets to watch her family get torn apart through grief. For most filmmakers, this material would not be considered a “breather,” but then most filmmakers are not Peter Jackson (to my knowledge, only one is). The man known for epic fantasy adventures and lavish special effects applies his skills to bringing Sebold?s beyond-the-grave drama to life. The Lovely Bones has enough skill and craft to its merit, but Jackson’s rep as a filmmaker cannot save this poor adaptation. Who would have thought that the lord behind those Rings pictures could be felled by a teenage girl?

“I was fourteen years old when I was murdered,” Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) informs the audience. In 1973, young Susie Salmon (like the fish, we will be told many times) is walking home from school one night. Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci) approaches her and asks her to be the first kid in the neighborhood to see his underground clubhouse he built. She follows inside and will never make it back out alive. The police discover Susie’s knit hat and massive amounts of blood in the earth but no body. Susie’s family is a wreck. Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) consumes himself with the mission of finding his daughter’s killer, alienating his wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz). Mr. Harvey watches the stalled police investigation with growing pleasure, knowing he has gotten away with yet another child murder. As the years pass, he sets his sights on Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver). But Susie is not completely absent during this period of time. She awakens in a magical, CGI-attuned spiritual realm known as the “in-between.” It is here that she spies on her family and her murderer and tries to pass time.

Since most of this story is told after her death, and because Susie died when she was a blossoming teenager, apparently she’s doomed to live the rest of her quasi-afterlife in that awkward visage. Imagine being a 14-year-old for eternity, and the only clothes you have to wear are ugly mustard-colored corduroy pants? That sounds more like hell than heaven. So Susie gets to interact in an afterlife built upon the mind of a teenager, which means that the afterlife involves pretending to be on magazine covers and dancing to disco music (again, heaven or hell?). I know that Jackson was asking for trouble by even attempting to interpret the ethereal, but his candy-colored version of Susie’s afterlife comes across like a bright, shiny doctor’s waiting room (“God will be with you in just a few minutes. Please enjoy our magazine selection in the meantime.”). It’s like you have to find peace before going through them pearly gates. Heaven doesn’t want your negativity so you are forced to chill in a screensaver.

There’s going to be some natural disconnect in trying to showcase a realm beyond human comprehension. I accept that, but why does Susie even bother staying in this “in-between” world? She spies on her family in grief through the years but she has no power to change things; that is, until she does for some inexplicable reason. And what does she do with that inter-dimensional power? She inhabits some girl’s body so she can snag her first kiss that her murder denied her. She passed up heaven and chose not to tell people about her body being disposed of. That doesn’t sound like she really reached any sense of enlightenment. But I digress. Why would Susie stay in this “in-between” when it only makes her sad? She’s fairly powerless and, honestly, does anybody really want to delay entering into heaven? Why does Susie get to pal around with all the other Mr. Harvey murder victims like some celestial support group? None of this can be explained because we’re dealing with a topic that defies rationale explanations. However, this “in-between” spiritual land feels like a visual leftover from the 1998 film, What Dreams May Come. That was another movie where I could never explain why anything happened.

Actually, the entire movie lacks any cause-effect continuity. The Lovely Bones feels bereft of any connective tissue. Characters will make huge decisions or be granted epiphanies because the plot demands it. I have no idea why Jack suddenly figures out that Mr. Harvey responsible for his daughter’s death. He thinks back to a memory and then all of a sudden everything makes sense, but only for his character. For me, none of it made sense. The entire investigation of Mr. Harvey doesn’t really hold up upon reflection. Jack personally looks into every shifty person in town but somehow overlooks the creepy loner across the street that builds meticulous dollhouses for fun? Mr. Harvey also likes to sketch out his murder pits, but just stop and think about Susie’s deathly hobbit hole. The man digs an entire underground lair in a cornfield. Wouldn’t it take hours if not days to refill the whole thing to cover his tracks? For a prolific serial killer, Mr. Harvey seems to be somewhat careless about leaving behind evidence (a safe filled with your victim’s remains?). I guess this is why Susie has to tell us at the onset that people were ignorant to all this unpleasantness in 1973 (I guess that means common sense was acquired in 1974). Why does Abigail all of a sudden desert her family? She can’t take the grief, so she ditches her two other younger children to live the life of a migrant worker. And why does she come back? How can two brown-eyed, brown-haired parents have three blue-eyed, blonde-haired kids? The entire movie lacks vital coherency and context.

From a tonal standpoint, The Lovely Bones never quite settles down and figures out what film it?s going to be. It veers from sentimental melodrama, to thriller, to headache-inducing camp (Sarandon’s boozy grandmother is terrible at housework — hilarious!). Jackson and crew jettison large amounts of Sebold’s text, leaving behind a New Age-y heaven and a fairly lame murder mystery where we already know the guilty party. The drama then pretty much boils down to whether or not Mr. Harvey will get caught.

You can tell that the serial killer segments grabbed Jackson’s interest the most because every sequence with Mr. Harvey feels more predicated and textured, like Jackson is applying more skill to showcase the twisted mind of a sick man. Jackson exerts far more energy into exploring the dark reaches of Mr. Harvey than he does the mourning of the Salmon family. We are denied the complexity of grief and remembrance. As presented, the Salmon family gets to weep and shout but nobody really tackles the issues or moving forward and acceptance of loss. Instead, we watch Mr. Harvey twitch and squirm and plot his next move. Tucci is appropriately scary, aided by an ominous comb-over. The segment when a ghostly Susie stumbles into Mr. Harvey’s bathroom is the best moment of dread. The bright white room is splattered in trails of dirt and streaks of hardened, dark blood, while Mr. Harvey rests in his bath with a washcloth covering his face. It seems like Jackson decided that what fans really wanted from a Lovely Bones movie was more serial killer screen time. If the family drama was going to be this boring, then I say devote the whole movie to the creep.

The acting is another curious detraction. Ronan (Atonement) fits the part but Jackson forces her to speak in this annoying, pseudo-spiritual whisper, like once you?ve attained the knowledge of the afterlife you become very soft-spoken. She shows a decent range of emotions but even she can?t quite figure out her character. Wahlberg seems miscast in his role and pretty limited in his depiction of obsessive grief. Weisz gets to cry her eyes out the most but then her character sits out the second half of the flick. Sarandon is only playing the role she was given, so I’ll be fair in my criticism, but her brassy, alcohol-swilling grandmother is like an unwelcome party crasher. She’s broad and loud and mostly cartoonish. I understand Sarandon was serving as comic relief amidst all the heavy drama, but it doesn’t count as relief when you wince at her presence. Tucci gives the mot layered, nuanced performance. He tries to relive each kill but soon enough the memory fades, and he feels the unstoppable impulse to feed his demons. Tucci is deeply scary, though he kind of talks like the roof of his mouth is stuffed with peanut butter.

Heavenly Creatures showed the world that Jackson could do so much more than campy, splattery gore and crude humor. It beautifully dealt with the scary, bewildering world of fantasy and budding feminine sexuality. Now after four grandiose movies, The Lovely Bones was supposed to be a trip back to that smaller, character-driven territory that Jackson first charted in Heavenly Creatures. Now I wonder if Jackson has the ability to return to smaller scope pictures. He and his screenwriting brain trust, Philipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, have softened the harder elements from the novel, completely eliminating any sexual emphasis. This PG-13 take is heavy on ponderous acid trip visuals and light on coherence, and when you can?t understand why things are happening after a while you stop caring why. After a while, I just stopped caring about Susie Salmon (like the fish).

Nate’s Grade: C

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