Movie Reviews - 2012 postsMonday March 26, 2012
Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)
WARNING: MAY THE SPOILERS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR
Why didn’t anyone tell me “The Hunger Games” was a sequel to “Winter’s Bone”?
Jennifer Lawrence is once again playing a tough girl acting as mother to a younger sibling in an Ozarks-like land of poverty and muted colors, where she has to risk everything, particularly herself, to ensure her younger sibling’s survival. It’s a dystopian future rather than our dystopian present, but otherwise it’s “Winter’s Bone” all over. J-Law has a right to wonder: Where the hell are the moms in my movies? Do I have to do fucking everything?
She plays Katniss Everdeen, elder sister to Primrose (Willow Shields), whom she comforts from nightmares, and to whom she sings lullabies, before sneaking into the woods to hunt for food. She’s a whiz with a bow-and-arrow and has a deer in her sights when guy-pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) shows up to commiserate, flirt, and above all scatter the deer. This is supposed to be a brutal world, kill or be killed, but the filmmakers want to keep Katniss as sympathetic as possible, and you don’t do that by shooting Bambi’s mom. Too bad. I was intrigued for a moment. Are they gonna...? No. They’re gonna fudge it.
Psst. They fudge it for most of the movie.
Katniss and Primrose live in the 12th of 12 districts surrounding a glitzy metropolis, where, every year, each district holds a lottery to choose two tributes, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to battle to the death in the nationally televised “Hunger Games.” Twenty-four kids go into the woods, one comes out, and everyone watches on big-screen TVs in the public square. Apparently no one can afford their own TVs anymore. Apparently the authorities think it’s safer to gather the masses into a mass, where, you know, they might rebel.
Why “The Hunger Games” in the first place? We get an inkling in a conversation between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the show’s producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley):
Snow: Seneca, why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca: What do you mean?
Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner?
Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.
Snow: So ... contain it.
The “it” that needs containing is, of course, Katniss.
This is the first year Primrose is eligible for the Games—thus the nightmares—and, oops, she’s chosen. Distraught, Katniss volunteers in her place. The second D-12 tribute isn’t Gale, thank God, but Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a local baker boy, whose name I assumed was “Peter” throughout; and off they go, by train, to the Capitol, where everyone dresses in bizarre Tim Burton/“Wizard of Oz” fashions: teeny hats and curlicue beards and excessive makeup. It drives home the phoniness and effeminacy of the Capitol’s inhabitants. They’re the Haves. Have Nots? Dance.
In the Capitol, mentors are assigned—including, for Peeta and Katniss, former District 12 winner, and current drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The tributes are then trained, primped for the crowds, and made to compete for “sponsorships” that might aid them in time of need.
All tributes aren’t created equal, by the way. Tributes from Districts 1 and 2, including Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), have trained for this since birth. They’re the Cold-War Eastern Europeans in the Olympics but they act like asshole rich kids in any high school movie. They’re Socs. They’re Cobra Kai: tall, white, good-looking, and deadly, and they develop alliances a la “Survivor”: banding together to take out the weak kids. What kind of strategy is that? Shouldn’t a strong tribute form alliances with weaker tributes to take out real potential rivals? Instead, Cato roams the woods, cocky and bullying, as if he can trust Marvel and Clove standing behind him with knives in their hands.
As for our heroine? Once the games begin, it’s the deer all over again. She kills only in self-defense, and only those who deserve killing. She bonds with an adorable 12-year-old girl, Rue (Amanda Stenberg), who has no chance, and who is killed with a spear by one of the Cobra Kai. She bonds with Peeta, who is injured, and nurses him back to health. Here’s how my 10-year-old nephew Jordy put it in his review:
You will care for the characters that the movie wants you to care about, and you will hate the characters that the movie wants you to hate.
That sentence describes almost everything Hollywood makes, but it’s particularly true, and particularly annoying, here. The characters don’t act as they should given the circumstances. They act for us, the audience, so we’ll either like them or hate them. They dance for us.
Watching awful people watching the story we’re watching
So what’s the meaning of all of this? Analogies abound.
There’s the reality-TV analogy, in which “The Hunger Games” is a deadlier version of “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” and other people’s pain, or death, is aired for our entertainment. There’s the business analogy, in which, after training, 12-18 year-olds are set loose in the bigger world, where, as Bill Gates knows, there can be only one winner. There’s the 99% metaphor referenced above, in which the masses dance for the few. There’s even the Tea Party metaphor, in which the plain, honest folks of the country are controlled by the painted, effeminate fools of the city.
Of these, the reality-TV analogy is most obvious. It’s also the most problematic.
Before the Games, the tributes are interviewed by smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, dressed as an Oompha-Loompa), who tells their stories to his TV audience. It’s similar to the way Bob Costas tells us, during the Olympics, that this athlete’s father is dying of cancer, and that one cared for her dying mother. It gives the audience rooting interests. Katniss’ heart-tugging story is obvious: she volunteered in place of her sister. Awwww. Peeta’s? That he’s actually in love with Katniss. Oooooo!
The reduction of the individual to a rootable storyline is presented as a form of phony manipulation and pageantry when the movie does the exact same thing. What Caesar Flickerman feeds to his audience is just slightly more reductive than what writer-director Gary Ross feeds to us. Both audiences lap it up. We just take ours with a extra dollop of hypocrisy. We watch a story about awful people watching the story we’re watching. How awful those people are.
I should add that the gender reversal is pretty interesting. The boy is all mushy love, the girl is all “meh”; and in the end the villain uses the boy as a hostage to bargain with the obviously stronger girl, who has him in her sights, bow drawn. J-Law makes it believable, too. Katniss is another Lisbeth Salander. Our strong, silent types are now girls.
But the movie fudges too much. I say this as someone who hasn’t read the books. I say this as someone who didn’t even know, going in, that “THG” was a trilogy. All I knew, from the trailer, was the stuff leading up to the start of the Games. So I wanted to know what most people want to know with a story: What happens next? I wanted to know if they could make what happens meaningful.
Early in the Games, Katniss travels far afield and waits things out. She’s safe. So the production folks create a forest fire to drive her back to the battle. They know how to deal with this contingency. But they’re completely flummoxed by a contestant who refuses to kill in cold blood? They never ran into that contingency? I don’t buy it. As a result—in part, as a sop for the audience, who supposedly likes the “star-crossed lovers” storyline—they change the rules in the middle of the game: two contestants are allowed to live. This is not only a cheat in their reality but a cheat in ours. Author Suzanne Collins’ and director Gary Ross may blame the rule change on the two-faced nature of producer Seneca Crane, with his munchkin beard, but I blame them. They couldn’t come up with a better ending.
Movie Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)
“21 Jump Street” is the kind of movie that garners an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com because 87% of movie critics, most of whom are guys, think it’s pretty good. Hey, it’s kinda funny. It’s got funny bits here and there. I laughed. As did I.But nobody’s overwhelmed. Most everyone knows it’s a not-bad bromedy, another light comedy with tons of dick jokes, that doesn’t really go anywhere. The only one that sounds enthused, really, is that 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Its humor is scattershot. It’s best when it’s aping its genre—the same way that “The Other Guys” was best when it was aping its genre—but eventually it gives in to the genre’s demands. All mainstream satires do. It’s Hollywood eating its cake and having it, too. It’s the movie business spending 45 minutes telling us, “Oh, you’re too smart for this,” and then telling us, for another 45 minutes, “OK, you’re not.”
It’s right both times.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, in his third movie this year) are recent Police Academy grads on bike patrol who long for something better. After a bust of a drug gang, the One Percenters, goes awry, they’re scuttled off to another unit. “Where do we report to?” Jenko asks. “Down on Jump Street,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) declares melodramatically from behind his desk. “37 Jump Street.” Pause. “Wait, that doesn’t sound right.”
Hardy gets in another good line. Since the squad is a revival of an undercover program from the 1980s, he adds, “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice.” A few people in the crowd at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle laughed knowingly at that one. For a few minutes, we hold out hope.
We get a few more of these in-jokes, these “You’re too smart for this” lines and moments. I suppose my favorite is when our boys are being chased on the LA freeway by a motorcycle gang, and, one by one, gang members crash into things like, you know, trucks full of gas canisters, or they slide, sparks flying, into a leaking oil and gas tanker, and Schmidt and Jenko tense, anticipating the ensuing explosion. But nothing happens. They’re constantly amazed that nothing blows up. Until the very end when almost everything does. That’s the “OK, you’re not” part.
(Why, by the way, do cinematic explosions appeal to the Big Jim McBobs and Billy Sol Huroks of the world? Does anyone know? I get nothing out of it.)
The “Jump Street” squad—for those unfamiliar with the ’80s TV series that propelled Johnny Depp to fame—uses baby-faced cops to infiltrate high schools where drugs are being sold and crimes committed. More in-jokes here, since Tatum, 32 in April, hardly seems credible as a high school student. Hill, 28, is a bit better. And it helps, of course, that the other high schoolers are also played by twentysomethings: Dave Franco, 26, plays Eric, the popular kid who’s dealing the drugs, while Brie Larson, 22, plays his kinda girlfriend, Molley Tracey, who winds up with the hots for Schmidt. Yes, Schmidt.
That’s another ongoing gag. Way back in 2005, both of these guys were seniors in high school, where Jenko was the stupid popular jock and Schmidt was the Eminem-loving, unpopular nerd, who was the sole member of the Juggling Society (“One man, three balls.”) Apparently times have changed. Today’s kids, besides texting instead of phoning, and putting up party invites on something called “Facebook,” appreciate the following: reading comic books; environmental awareness; being tolerant. They don’t like bullies. Schmidt prospers and hangs with the cool kids; Jenko is ostracized and hangs with the science geeks.
But shouldn’t the science geeks...?
I like a line of Schmidt’s early on, when he realizes his path away from high school has led him back to high school: “It was too fucking hard the first time,” he says, shaking his head. Most people can identify.
Part of the point of the film is that, no matter your age, no matter your maturity level, when you return to high school you become as childish as you were in high school. I like that concept ... but Schmidt and Jenko are never mature. They never stop being childish. They’re doing drugs as bike cops. They’re shooting guns in the air in city parks. It doesn’t take high school to turn them into adolescents, they’re already there. Would it have worked better if our heroes had been mature when they first arrived? Or would it have just cut back on the comedy.
Many of the original “21 Jump Street” stars get their cameos, including one hilarious shocker, and we get the usual hip comedy alums, such as Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show” and Ellie Kemper of “The Office” as a teacher with the hots for Jenko. The movie has its share of laughs. But that sound you hear throughout is the sound of cake eating itself.
Movie Review: Chronicle (2012)
WARNING: FOUND SPOILERS
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ben Parker tells his nephew, Peter, in “Spider-Man” (2002).
“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power,” Dr. Carl Erskine tells Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011).
Cue Josh Trank and Max Landis (son of Jon), the first-time director and screenwriter of “Chronicle,” clearing their throats.
They imagine a Peter Parker raised by an alcoholic, abusive, former firefighter instead of kindly Uncle Ben. They suggest that a weak man knows the value of strength because it’s been used against him his entire life. And once that strength is his? He might not be so nice as Peter Parker.
I suggested as much in my review of “Captain America” last year. After quoting Erskine’s line I wrote:
I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?
So I should be a fan of what Trank and Landis, both of whom will turn 27 this year, have done with “Chronicle.” They’ve reimagined a superhero storyline in which three teenagers gain powers through telekinesis, and then, rather than put on costumes and fight crime, act like assholes. They film themselves pulling pranks in a toy store: lifting a teddy bear in the air and having it dance before a frightened girl. They move a woman’s car in the parking lot so she has trouble finding it. They do impossible tricks at their high school talent show to become popular. Then they begin fighting each other.
Their story is told through found footage, the point-of-view of the young (and of January/October releases), which means someone, usually Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), our weak teenager who knows the value of strength, always has to be filming what we see. Initially this worked. It lets us know how lonely and abused Andrew is. But the deeper we go into the story the more problematic it becomes. Really? He’s filming this argument? He’s filming this funeral? He’s filming himself crushing this car in the junkyard? If the traditional superhero tends to hide his identity from the world and do good, Andrew tends to film everything for the world and do bad. He’s Peter Parker as supervillain. He’s a male “Carrie” with a camera.
Our other two leads are Andrew’s handsome cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who likes to pretend he’s not shallow by quoting philosophy 101; and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the popular black guy who’s running for class president. Andrew is the pick-upon one. But one night he goes to a party, with camera, and Matt and Steve find a hole in a valley in the woods and bring Andrew along to film what they find. Inside they discover ... well, probably a spaceship. But then things go crazy and zzzzttt, the camera stops working, and when we’re back to filming again in someone’s backyard (with a different camera?), the three teenagers are able to move things with their minds. And Andrew is the strongest of the three.
If they push themselves too far, they get nose bleeds. Sometimes if Andrew pushes himself too far, Matt gets the nose-bleed. So they’re linked symbiotically. At one point, for example, Andrew uses his telekinesis to fly into the sky during a lightning storm, and Steve just senses he’s there and joins him and tries to talk him down. Sadly, this is the moment Steve gets zapped and dies, and Andrew, blamed by Matt, turns more inward.
Andrew also has a sick mother, like Aunt May, who needs medicine, like Aunt May, but it costs: a $700 co-pay. So where can a boy with super-powers find $700? Well, first he robs the local drug dealers but it’s not enough. (Lousy drug dealers.) Then he robs the local food mart, but the proprietor comes out with shotgun blazing, sets the gas pumps aflame, and sends Andrew to the hospital.
I.e., for a nerdy boy with superpowers, Andrew isn’t the brightest bulb. So what is he?
This may be the biggest problem with “Chronicle.” It’s not that the three teenagers never worry about long-term health issues after exposure to the radiating alien spaceship. It’s not that, with their great power, comes great irresponsibility. It’s not that, of this irresponsibility, none of it is the kind most randy, teenage boys would pull—i.e., removing the clothes of girls, a la “Zapped”—meaning the film feels false even as it strives for authenticity.
No, the biggest problem is that the boys don’t have any identity beyond the initial one. Steve’s the popular black guy, Andrew is the unpopular nerd who likes to film shit, Matt is somewhere in between. And that’s all they ever are.
Does Andrew like comics? Sci-fi? Is he a “Star Trek” or a “Star Wars” guy? Does he read science or poetry? Who knows? He’s just a picked-upon virgin. He has resentments. In one of the movie’s better, creepier moments, he films himself in a bathroom stall analyzing the brutal removal of a bully’s teeth: how that tooth broke in half, too bad, but this one remained whole, which is how you want to do it. A second later the plot kicks in and he’s searching for the $700 and winds up in the hospital, where his father lets him know that his mother died, for which the father blames the son, for which Andrew blows a hole in the side of the hospital and drops the father 10 stories. But Matt’s there to save the father and battle Andrew high above the city of Seattle (Vancouver, B.C.).
At least by this point Andrew has stopped filming. The found footage is now culled from various sources: hospital tapes; the video-blog of a local girl; all of the folks with their cellphones at the top of the Space Needle. This was my first found-footage film and I always assumed the footage in question was found in the same camera. But some imaginary editor obviously went to extraordinary lengths to piece together something fairly shallow.
Yes, Trank and Landis do some smart things with “Chronicle.” The moment when Matt saves Andrew’s father recalls that great scene in the original “Superman: The Movie” (1978) when Superman first saves Lois Lane from the helicopter crash atop the Daily Planet buidling. There, though, the revelation of a superstrong being who can fly was triumphant, and greeted—absurdly, I would argue—with applause from the crowd below (See: No. 2 on this list.) Here it’s kind of creepy. There’s nothing triumphant about it. Everyone’s like ... WTF?!? ... because their world is upended. As it is.
So “Chronicle” has its smart moments. Unfortunately they’re few. Dane DeHaan is a good young actor that has something of a young, sickly Leo DiCaprio about him. Unfortunately he’s playing a shallow character in a lightweight enterprise. One wonders if the movie’s lack of depth is the result of the found-footage formula or the fact that its creators are 26 years old and just aren't that deep.