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The Snowman (2017)

The Snowman is an awfully dumb movie that mistakenly believes it is smart. It’s convoluted, impenetrable, serious to the point of hilarity, and a general waste of everyone’s times and talents. When the best part of your movie is the scenic views of Norway, and unless it’s a documentary about Norwegian winters, then you have done something very, very wrong. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo this ain’t.

Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), possibly the most regrettably named protagonist in recent memory, is a brilliant detective on the hunt for a killer in Oslo. Someone is abducting women and chopping them up into snowmen. The killer even sends Harry a taunting note with a crude drawing of a snowman. Together with a new partner, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), they try and hunt the cold-blooded killer with a penchant for snowmen.

the-snowThe plot is so convoluted and hard to follow that it’s a challenge just to work up the energy to keep your eyes open as scene after scene plods along. The Snowman doesn’t so much exist as a functional screen story but more a series of incidental scenes that barely feel connected. It feels like one scene has no impact upon the next, which eventually sabotages any sense of momentum and direction. It feels like it’s going nowhere because none of these moments feel like they’re adding up to anything. There are entire subplots and characters that are, at best, tangential to the story and could have been culled completely with no impact. J.K. Simmons’ wealthy sleaze and storyline about securing the World Cup for Oslo comes to nothing. The self-recording police device seems destined to record something significant. It does, but then the killer just erases the footage. This entire storyline could have been achieved with a smart phone, including the part where a severed finger is required to break the device’s fingerprint lock. Val Kilmer’s flashbacks (he sounds weirdly dubbed and looks sickly) as a murdered detective don’t really come to anything or offer revelations. In fact the revelations that do arise are not gleaned from clues but are merely told to us with incredulous haste. The Snowman poster boasts “I gave you all the clues” but I challenge anyone to tell me what they are. What’s the point of a mystery where nothing matters? It’s a film stuffed with nonessential details and lacking a key point to engage.

I’ll give you another example of how moronic and wasteful this movie is, and it involves none other than Oscar-nominated actress Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry). Harry Hole and Katrine visit Sevigny’s character and (mild spoilers but who really cares?) approximately two minutes later she is decapitated. Seems like a pretty big waste of an actor of Sevigny’s caliber on a do-nothing part. The police show back up on the scene and Sevigny is still walking around alive, this time introducing herself as the twin sister we never knew about. Ah, now perhaps the inclusion of Sevigny will be warranted and maybe the killer having confused his victims will be a significant clue that leads the detectives onto the right path. Think again, hopeful audience members. Sevigny is never seen from again, never heard from again, and never even referenced again. Why introduce the concept of an identical twin and do nothing with it? Sevigny had not one but two do-nothing parts in this mess.

Even the ending (again spoilers, but we’ve come this far, so why the hell not?) elicited guffaws. Harry Hole tracks down the killer outside onto an icy lake and screams for this person to confront him. The killer then immediately shoots Harry in the chest, immobilizing him. The killer then slowly stalks Harry and then simply walks into an open hole in the ice and drowns. Was that there the entire time? Did Harry somehow create it? Did he find it and strategically position himself near it? Did the killer not see this hole in the ice at all considering they were walking up on Harry from a distance? It’s such a hilariously anticlimactic ending that it feels like the killer, and so too the movie, is meekly giving up and accepting defeat.

The main character is just as uninteresting as the gruesome killer. Harry Hole is reportedly a brilliant detective and one whose past cases are so revered that they are taught in places of higher learning. Yet, at no point in the movie do you gain the impression of his oft-stated brilliance. He seems pretty bad at his job, plus he constantly loses track of his gun. It’s another example of the movie telling us things without the requisite proof. Harry Hole (referred to as “Mr. Hole” and “the Great Harry Hole” too) is your typical super driven alcoholic detective who pushes his family away because he’s too close to his work. There is the germ of a starting idea of a character that is too selfish to make room for his family, but this isn’t going to be that story. At one point, Harry Hole’s ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems to be having a self-destructive affair with Harry Hole, but this dynamic isn’t explored and only surfaces once. It’s a scene so short that it’s over before Harry Hole can literally get his pants off. We don’t see the brilliant side of the character and we’re also denied the evidence for his destructive side. Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed) is on teeth-gritting, laconic autopilot here and the English-speaking cast tries their own game of playing Norwegian accents while sounding mostly British or Brit-adjacent.

Even the title is one more example of how woefully inept this movie becomes. Surprise: the snowman means absolutely nothing. It’s not some key formative memory from the killer’s childhood or some integral icon attached to a traumatic experience. It’s not even a bizarre sexual fetish. The snowman doesn’t even mean anything to the guy making the snowman in the movie! You’d be forgiven for thinking that the presence of snowmen are entirely coincidental throughout Oslo and the whole of the film. It’s so stupidly misapplied as well, with the movie working extra hard to make the very sight of a snowman as a moment to inspire uncontrollable fright. It goes to hilarious lengths, like a camera panning around an ordinary snowman that then reveals… a second snowman built into its snowy back. OH NO, NOT THE DOUBLE SNOWMAN. There’s a moment when Harry looks down to his car parked on a street and sees… a snowman having been carved into the snow atop the car. OH NO, NOT A SNOWMAN INDENTATION. Just imagine the killer standing on the hood of the car and digging snow out on top to craft his masterpiece of snow-art-terror. I just start laughing. Then there’s the application of the murders. When the killer is severing heads and putting human heads atop snowman bodies, now we’re in business. That’s an image worthy of the genre. However, there’s also a scene where the killer blows someone’s head off and replaces it with a snowman’s head. It’s such an absurd image and it’s going to melt before most people find it, so what was the point exactly? Then there’s the idea of thinking of the killer rolling a severed head into a snowball, which just makes me laugh thinking about somebody stooped over and toiling to make this happen. Ultimately, the snowman is so peripheral and meaningless, my friend Ben Bailey remarked it would be as if you renamed Seven as Toast because the killer also ate toast occasionally (“No, no, trust me, the toast is more important than you think…”).

I thought at worst The Snowman was going to be a high-gloss Hollywood equivalent of a really stupid episode of TV’s really stupid yet inexplicably long-running show, Criminal Minds. This is far, far worse. At least with your casual Criminal Minds episode, it’s garish and lousy and icky in its sordid depiction of grisly violence against women, but you can still understand what is happening on the screen. You can still follow along. The Snowman is impenetrable to decipher, not because it’s complicated but because it’s all misinformation and filler. According to interviews, director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) was unable to film about 10-15 percent of the script because of hectic schedule demands, so no wonder it’s so difficult to follow. Very little makes sense in this movie and what does has been done better in a thousand other movies. This makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo look like Shakespeare. With a dull protagonist who doesn’t seem exceptionally competent at his job, paired with a dull antagonist with no larger game plan or purpose, or even personality, and a mystery with a dearth of clues to actively piece together, the movie turns ponderous, punishing, and psychologically shallow. It’s a dumb, dumb, dumb movie that thinks it’s smart and contemplative with a cold streak of nihilism. This silly thing takes itself so seriously that, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself cackling at its desperate attempts to make the visage of a snowman into the stuff of nightmares. This feels more like genre parody. The Snowman is an aggressively bad whodunit that fails to make an audience care about any single thing happening. You’re better off staying home and watching the worst of Criminal Minds instead.

Nate’s Grade: D

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Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomic_blonde_ver3Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.

Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.

This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).

The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.

atomic-blonde-movie-charlize-theron-sofia-boutella-2Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.

The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.

The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.

atomicblondethumb-1489171817898_1280wAtomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.

Nate’s Grade: B

Snow White & the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White & the Huntsman is meant to be a darker, splashier, more action-packed retelling of the classic story, and when compared with the earlier 2012 Snow White venture, Mirror, Mirror, it certainly merits all those descriptions. With Twilight star Kristen Stewart at the helm, this movie seems tailored for teens looking for some girl power. I have no problem with reworking fairy tales to suit our modern-day cultural interest, but just giving a person a shield and a sword does not instantly make them a warrior. And just plopping Snow White into a medieval war does not instantly make this a movie worth watching.

The wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) killed the king and installed herself on the throne. She sucks the youth directly from ingénues to keep those good Theron looks of hers. She is the fairest of them all but she is warned that one day the king’s daughter, Snow White (Stewart), will overtake her in fairness. Snow’s been living in a prison cell for about ten years since her evil step-mom took power. She escapes her imprisonment and flees to the Dark Forrest beyond the castle grounds. The Queen’s powers will not carry over into the Dark Forrest (for whatever unexplained reason), so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve Snow White. The Huntsman changes sides, allies himself with Snow, and some dwarves, and then everyone bands together to retake the kingdom under Snow’s stout leadership.

Snow White & the Huntsman falls victim to that age-old screenwriting curse of failing to show us its work. I get so sick of movies, or any narrative really, that heaps praise upon some person and then never shows us any convincing evidence. If somebody is said to be a great poet, I want to hear one of his or her great poems. If somebody is said to be a great leader, then I want to see him or her inspire. To make up for the plot shortcomings, the screenplay reminds us at every moment of downtime how special Snow White is, how glorious she is, how different she is, how she is the only one to bring down the tyrannical rule of Ravenna. At no point did I believe any of this. Just because I have characters tell me, ad naseum, that someone is special doesn’t make it so. I need to see the evidence, and from what Snow White has to show, it is not that impressive. She’s somewhat resourceful, escaping from captivity, but she’s not exactly a figure of compelling strength, magnetism, or inspiration. She gives one “rally the troops” speech that gets the townspeople all fired up to go to war; it’s no St. Crispin’s Day speech, but even if we’re grading on a curve, it’s a pretty weak motivational speech. There’s no reason these people would line up behind this displaced damsel other than the fact that the plot requires them to do so. This Snow lady has, much like the infamous Bella Swan, the personality of a dead plant, and all the proclamations to the contrary will not change that fact. Snow White is just not an interesting of compelling person, period. The only way Stewart could be most fair is if we’re talking about being pale.

There are two reasons why Stewart is completely wrong for this part. First off, when we’re objectively talking about one who is “fairest of them all,” and Charlize Theron is in your movie, you’re going to lose every time. I’m not saying Stewart is wretched looking; quite the contrary. Debut director Rupert Sanders finds ways to film her that make her look lush and vibrant, giving more life to his heroine than his actress is capable of. Some would argue “fairest of them all” is not in references to physical beauty, which it has always been, but to the fact that Snow’s heart is so pure and good. If that’s the case, that’s just stupid. Then why even make it Snow White if the nemesis to the evil queen is simply somebody who is morally just? You could have had a commoner play the role and that would have brought about more interesting class conflicts. Secondly, Stewart is such a modern era actress, someone who has so effectively channeled the rhythms of a blasé generation of young people, that dropping her into a medieval time period is jarring. She doesn’t fit. Everything about her aloof acting style screams modern times. Maybe that’s why her speaking is kept to a minimum. She can ride on horseback, dress in Joan of Arc armor, but she’ll never strike anyone as a fitting Epic Heroine. I feel that her acting has blended with the sullen nature of Bella Swan to the point that it’s hard to separate the two. I’m not a Stewart hater at all. I actually think she can be quite a capable actress (see: Speak, Adventureland, the upcoming adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road) when paired with the proper material. Snow White & the Huntsman is not the proper material.

Aside from casting errors, this dark fairy tale doesn’t find any time to settle down and develop anything that could approximate characterization. Case in point: all we know about Snow is that she is a princess, everyone tells us how beautiful she has always been, she runs away, and then leads a rebellion, then she become queen (don’t pester me about spoilers). What else do we know about her? She’s defined entirely by outside forces, especially the charitable words of others. Snow White is not a character but a symbol, the prophetic Chosen One. She’s really a placeholder for every lazy archetype needed for epic fantasy. Stewart cannot connect with the material, so she seems to wander around, mouth agape, almost like she’s stumbling drunk through the whole movie. It seems that Snow White & the Huntsman just provides us the familiar elements of the story (evil stepmother, huntsman, dwarves) and expects us to fill in the rest with our own wealth of knowledge over the famous fairy tale. The rote insertion of a long-lost childhood friend/eventual love interest (Sam Claffin) is made tolerable only by the fact that he does not eventually become a love interest. This Snow doesn’t need a man, and good for her.

Sanders’ background in commercials definitely shows in his superb visual palate. The man knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the visual highpoint is Snow’s hallucinogenic shamble through the Dark Forrest. Without the narrative traction, though, the movie starts to resemble one very long, very excruciating perfume ad, particularly when Snow comes across a white horse just laying down in the surf. Some of Sanders’ “ain’t nature great” creations deeper into the forest reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, especially with the godly stag. Despite its considerable faults, Snow White & the Huntsman is a great looking movie. Sanders’ crisp visuals are further enhanced by wonderfully theatrical costumes from multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (expect another award on that mantle come 2013). Queen Ravenna has more eye-catching outfits than Cher in her heyday. They seem to be made out of interesting organic elements, like a gown accented with diminutive bird skulls. She may be a ruthless tyrant, but man does that lady know how to dress. The fashion choices became so exotic and intriguing that it provided another reason for me to hope we’d get more time with the queen. The production design by Dominic Watkins (United 93) is fittingly medieval. At least there’s always something nice to look at with this monotonous bore.

I don’t really get the geography of this kingdom. By all accounts, it looks like one poorly guarded castle, one poor mud town, and a deep expanse of forest. The fact that it’s labeled as the Dark Forrest seems shortsighted, since it takes a few hours continued walking to come across all sorts of other civilizations, including our scarred matriarchal society. And then there are dwarves too. It all feels so listless, lacking any sort of connective tissue to help round out this magical world. After a while, it just becomes an assortment of cool stuff just put into a movie because it’s cool. The fact that none of these magical creatures or assorted villagers ever pop back again, except for our coronation in the resolution, means they were meaningless to this story other than being a rest stop.

The screenplay is surprisingly rushed; rarely do we spend more than five minutes in any location. I was interested in a city of women with self-inflicted facial scars to protect themselves from Ravenna coming for them. Just as things start to get interesting, it’s like the movie gets antsy and has to keep moving, and we’re off again. It’s hard to work up any sort of emotional engagement for anyone when we just spend a few minutes with these characters. The brisk pacing also gives the impression that the characters really don’t matter in the end. If it weren’t for a scene where the Huntsman blatantly explains every feeling he has to a comatose Snow White, we’d know nothing about him. The Huntsman is grieving over the loss of his wife, and oh she just happens to have been killed by Ravenna’s creepy albino brother (Sam Spruell). The pigment-challenged dolt confesses this convenient bit of information at a strange time. Why confess to killing a man’s wife when you’re battling to the death? Confess afterwards. It’s another example of lame screenwriting and nascent characterization. Even the queen gets a bizarre throwaway bit of characterization. For whatever reason, we have a flashback to when she was a child and her mother forced her to drink the magic immortality elixir. Why did we see this? It’s too late to make her sympathetic. And yet, even this brief glimpse at Ravenna’s back-story makes her more interesting than our feckless Snow White.

The bleakly brilliant Young Adult renewed my fondness for Theron as an actress. For a while, she seems to really sink her teeth into the role, lapping up the villainy in a satisfyingly menacing manner. It’s at this lower level of burn, the quiet intensity, where Theron is most enjoyable. When the movie requires her to raise her voice is when things start to go bad. She shrieks in such a campy, over-the-top, weird overly enunciated style. Any hope of secretly enjoying this movie died with Theron’s stagy agitation. Hemsworth (The Avengers) adopts a thick Scottish brogue but does little else. At times I found that he looked remarkably like a cartoon tough guy; just something about his face lends itself to clean, burly definitions. The best actor in the movie is Bob Hoskins (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as a blind dwarf, and perhaps that sentence alone should say all that needs saying.

This film is more Lord of the Rings than fairy tale. It’s got some battles and some siege action to pacify the men folk, but this is obviously aimed at the ladies. It’s a feminist, Robin Hood-esque reworking of the Snow White tale, recasting the damsel as action heroine, and I’d have no problem with this revision if: 1) the film made her an actual character, 2) it had been played by anyone other than Kristen Stewart. It’s got all the familial elements but they have no context in this reworking; it lacks internal logic. If I did not have sufficient background knowledge about this tale, I’d be left wondering why any of this should make sense (apples are poisonous now?). At every turn, the movie has to tell us why things should matter rather than showing us. There’s no evidence onscreen why this Snow White lady deserves any fuss. Snow White & the Huntsman is a movie obsessed with appearance and precious little else. Snow White & the Huntsman is one boring, truculent, dreary chore of a movie that goes on far too long. Just because it’s darker doesn’t make it more mature or exciting. Fairest of them all, my ass.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hunger Games (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Billed as one of the most dense films of the holiday season, I was startled to discover that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not nearly as puzzling as people have protested. The adaptation of John le Carre’s famous novel follows retired British spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) performing a clandestine investigation to flesh out a mole in the highest level of the agency. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), condensed form a 7-hour BBC miniseries, and stuffed with a wealth of terrific Brits, the movie is tricky, clever, and rather brainy, ultimately coming to the conclusion that these little communities of intelligence knew little. The movie has a rich array of characters and teases out back-story in flashbacks, meaning the film hops around time wise and will also take turns with different perspectives. It demands your attention but, honestly, I found it easy enough to follow. But in the end, what does all that narrative trickery and obfuscation get you? It’s a fairly dispassionate film about dispassionate people played out in a dispassionate manner. For some this will be hailed as a virtue, communicating the duty-first sacrifices and compartmentalization of these secret spies. For me, that just sounds like a cop out. Beyond the mystery, it’s hard to get involved in the movie. The reveal of the mole is anti-climactic, though the resolution, set to the tones of Julio Iglesias, is aces. The meticulous production design is stellar, including an agency meeting room that looks like it was wallpapered with checkerboards. The details of the ins and outs of the agency are absorbing. I’m debating whether I should watch the movie again, looking for nuance I must have missed. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage thriller with a bit too many stiff upper lips.

Nate’s Grade: B

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In the summer of superheroes, you’ll be excused for feeling some fatigue when it comes to men in tights. Captain America: The First Avenger is a surprisingly enjoyable sepia-tinted action film that flexes enough might to pleasantly hark back to the days of 1940s adventure serials. Taking place almost entirely in the era of World War II, the film, and its hero, and unabashedly square and earnest. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a 90-pound weakling determined to fight for his country and gets transformed into a behemoth of beefcake by the Army. Captain America is devoid of the dark brooding that has come to encapsulate modern superhero movies, but it’s also playing its B-movie silliness straight. The flick has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain than most other superhero product. Better yet, the movie finesses the in-your-face patriotism of the title character. I mean the guy is called Captain America. Yet the film finds a way to resonate a sincere nationalistic pride without falling back into Michael Bay-level jingoism. And who’s going to make for better villains than Nazis? Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 3) turns out to have been the perfect choice to helm this rah-rah retro enterprise. The pacing is swift, the acting is engaging, the special effects are terrific particularly Evans’ transformation into a weakling, and the film is unexpectedly emotional at points. This is a comic book movie that would appeal to an older generation not normally interested in superheroes, namely people like my dad.

Nate’s Grade: B

W. (2008)

Director Oliver Stone’s first draft at history is never boring but it’s rarely insightful. The film portrays George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) as a stubborn and simple man trying to live outside his abilities and the long shadow of his successful and emotionally distant father. George W. was not the favored son, as he is routinely reminded, and Ma and Pa Bush express their frustration. And yet the son who did not have his family’s support and acumen accomplished what no one else in the family had. He won reelection. He toppled Saddam Hussein. And then it all came crashing down. Ultimately, who was this movie made for? The detractors of Bush will view the film being too light, providing a psychological context that humanizes the man amongst his mistakes. You may even feel some sympathy as George W. repeatedly tries to earn his father’s approval. The movie is not a partisan or mean-spirited skewering. The fans of Bush will consider the film to be a cheap shot that restrings famous blunders and transplants Bush malapropisms into new settings. People may take offense at the idea of the current Iraq War being a result of unresolved daddy issues. Seriously, for a two-hour movie spanning the life and career of the most reviled modern day president, did Stone need to include the moment where Bush almost choked to death on a pretzel? Over the 2000 election debacle? Over the Air National Guard? Over 9/11?

W. lacks a strong point of view and the film’s timeline closes too soon, only going so far as January 2004, not even the halfway point for a two-term president who has only sunk lower in national approval from that moment. A miniseries would be a better medium to explore the failures and calamities and personalities of the Bush Administration. Brolin is terrific in the title role and he never dips into parody. The rest of the actors are hit-or-miss and the movie becomes somewhat of a game of identifying famous historical figures in their one-scene appearances. My biggest surprise was how much I felt emotionally connected to the first President Bush, played by James Cromwell in a performance that doesn’t even attempt to imitate the real-life figure. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) certainly don’t hide the characters they connect with (Colin Powell, often the voice of reason, is given a stirring speech calling for caution). Certain creative license is taken to provide dream sequences that can point toward the inner turmoil of Bush, like when his father admonishes him for destroying 200 years of the family’s name over the Iraq War. Overall, W. is an empathetic and sometimes dithering portrayal of the 43rd United States’ president that could have succeeded if it had more to say.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

So is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets better than the first film? Well, mostly yes. The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is still living with his abusive relatives and barred in his room. He’s warned by Doddy, a self-abusive CGI house elf, not to return to Hogwart’s School of Magic because he will be in grave danger. Fat lot of luck this does. Before you can say Jar Jar Binks, Harry’’s timid friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his flying love bug rescue Harry. They meet up with old friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and begin their second year of magical education. But danger surfaces as students with Muggle (a non-magically inclined family member) blood are turning into petrified statues. Lots of other stuff is crammed in (like broomstick rugby, Nancy Drew-like detection, and spiders oh my!) but let’s all be honest here, it’s not like a plot synopsis is going to push you into seeing this movie.

Much of the acting responsibilities falls on the shoulders of our three young leads, and all I can say is what a world of good puberty has done them all. Radcliffe, stiff and overly subdued in the first film, has grown a deeper voice. He seems to have settled into the part nicely. Grint, playing a noble coward, goes from squeal to grimace in 3.5 seconds. Watson has a winning smile and bounces with enthusiasm but sadly sits the last half of the film out.

Some notable additions to the Harry Potter family include Kenneth Branagh as the narcissistic new professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Can anyone do ham better than Branagh? I don’t think so. Jason Isaacs is malevolently delicious as the aristocratic father of Harry’s school rival, Draco Malfoy. You could start shivering from the icy glare this man casts.

Chamber of Secrets is better than the earlier Sorcerer’’s Stone in many ways. The story has less exposition and contains darker elements that suit the story surprisingly well. The special effects are vastly improved from the first film. The child acting, as previously mentioned, is much better.

Despite lacking prolonged setup, Chamber of Secrets clocks in around 2 hours and 40 minutes — 9 minutes longer than the first! You could watch your life go by sitting through a Potter movie marathon. This might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series.

So remember when I said Chamber of Secrets was “mostly” better than the first film? Well that “mostly” is because the amazing adult cast is hardly seen. Gentle giant Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith are mere background noise to the story. Headmaster Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris) has a weathered feel. What Chamber of Secrets needs are more scenes with the brilliant Alan Rickman, as moody professor Severus Snape. Rickman (Dogma) is perfect and a thrill to watch. I got a fever and only more Rickman can cure it.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone) is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied. It should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. Chamber of Secrets plays toward audience expectations, but all of the components involved seem to be settling in their roles. Chances are whatever you felt about the first film you’ll relive during the second.

Nate’s Grade: B

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