Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

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New Releases for the Week of June 24, 2016


Independence Day ResurgenceINDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

(20th Century Fox) Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Viveca A. Fox, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Sela Ward, Maika Monroe, Joey King, Grace Huang, Brett Spiner. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Twenty years have passed since the events of Independence Day and in twenty years, the human race has rebuilt their shattered planet, utilizing the technology left behind by the would-be invaders. We’ve spent two decades getting ready for what we’re sure is an inevitable return – only to discover that they’ve also had 20 years to prepare, and this time we might not be able to beat them.

See the trailer, interviews, promos, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and destruction, and for some language)

Free State of Jones

(STX Entertainment) Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali. During the Civil War, a Mississippi farmer – convinced he’s fighting for the wrong side of history and also convinced that the South must eventually fall – leads a rebellion at home to secede from the Confederacy – and incredibly, managed to convince slaves and ex-slaves to fight alongside him. This is based on actual events.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images)

The Music of Strangers

(Broad Green) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato. Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Neville turned his cameras on Ma, perhaps the greatest classical cellist of all time, and the acclaimed musicians of the Silk Road Project as they rehearse for a collaborative project. They look at their philosophies of music, their cultures and how the world is changing.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)

The Neon Demon

(Broad Green) Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. A beautiful young woman, what they call in the modeling industry “a natural,” moves to Los Angeles to start off her career. There she runs into a group of women who are obsessed with aging and beauty. They begin to devour her vitality and beauty and will let nothing stop them until they get everything that she has.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Most of the Larger Multiplexes in Central Florida

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language)

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, Eli Roth, John Rhys-Davies. 35 years ago, a trio of intrepid 11-year-old Mississippi boys saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and like so many of us back then, were completely dazzled, enraptured even. They decided to make a movie of their own but not just any movie – they decided to remake Raiders shot for shot. Over a seven year period, they worked on it diligently at great cost. When they ceased filming, they had the entire movie in the can – save one scene. Now, they reunite to finish what they started, not realizing the impact their film has had on the fans  everywhere out there – and on those who worked on the original movie itself.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Septembers of Shiraz

(Momentum) Salma Hayek, Adrien Brody, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Gabriella Wright. A secular Jewish family living in Iran in 1979 is caught up in the events of the 1979 revolution that brought fundamentalist Islamic clerics into power. The family is forced to fight for their lives in a home that is growing increasingly unrecognizable to them – and more dangerous by the day.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content involving interrogation, brutality and disturbing images, and for some partial nudity and brief strong language)

The Shallows

(Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge. A secluded, breathtaking beach. A beautiful blonde surfer alone with the waves. Paradise, right? Sure…until the Great White Shark shows up. Cue the theme from Jaws.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

(2015) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenia Bondurant. Directed by Francis Lawrence

When a franchise comes to an end, the hope is that it goes out with a bang. Everyone wants a Return of the Jedi but there’s always a danger of a The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part II. On which side will this girl power young adult franchise lean?

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is distressed that her erstwhile boyfriend Peta (Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the evil minions of President Snow (Sutherland) to hate her to the point that he goes berserk at the sight of her. Although the rebel medical team is trying to break his conditioning, he remains a danger to Katniss and even a visit by baby sister Primrose (Shields) leads to another foaming at the mouth segment.

The timing of that is not so good, as the rebels are preparing to make their final assault on the Capital. Rebel President Coin (Moore) and her adviser Plutarch (Hoffman) are wary of allowing Katniss, who was brutally injured at the hands of Peta in Part 1 of the concluding volume of the franchise and then again during a raid on the District 2 armory, anywhere near the front although she continues to be valuable as a propaganda tool.

Nonetheless, Katniss heads to the Capital against direct orders and accompanied by her Hunger Game friend Finn (Claflin), her former boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) and Boggs (Ali), a veteran warrior. She is ordered to steer well clear of the battlefront and to stay far behind the lines and make propaganda videos. President Snow has peppered the Capital with lethal traps designed by the Hunger Games designers. Some turn out to be more lethal than others.

As Katniss gets closer and closer to the Presidential palace and the confrontation between the two looks to be inevitable, she will discover the price for revenge may end up being incredibly high and that there are people close to her who have motives of their own that may well not include Katniss’ survival as part of the plan.

The production design for the movie is superb – it looks sleek and wow-inducing. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. For many viewers, that’s all the movie really needs. For me, though, while there are a few scenes that contain emotional payoffs (none of which I’ll use here to illustrate as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, although fans of the book will know what they are), the movie didn’t have an emotional resonance with me that the conclusion of an epic series should.

I could say part of the problem is that there are too many characters, many of whom I couldn’t keep straight, but that was true of the Harry Potter series as well and I had no trouble figuring out who was who. I could also say that the movie relied overly much on action rather than character, but that was true of the first Star Wars trilogy and that movie resonated with emotion at the end.

I think the problem is a blend of both issues; too many characters, many of whom had little development. To author Suzanne Collins’ credit, she didn’t rely on the love triangle that many young adult franchises with female heroines tend to utilize. However, there are too many extraneous pieces in the puzzle and the movie would have been better off leaving them out entirely, which might have been bad news for fans of Claflin and Hemsworth but good news for Lawrence’s fans, because I think the primary problem here is that Lawrence really gets short shrift here.

I sometimes wonder if Katniss Everdeen is really a good role model for young women; there’s a fine line between being headstrong and being mulish. There is also a fine line between being spontaneous and being foolish, as she takes a lot of chances that put lots of other people at risk, some of whom pay the ultimate price for it. Yes, that weighs heavily on Katniss’ soul but I guess our heroes these days have to be a little self-centered to be relatable.

The worst part is that there seemed to be no momentum, no fire. Certain cast members, particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, did their level best but for the most part this felt very emotionally flat to me. Judging from the box office for the movie which has been okay but not what was expected, some of their fans haven’t had that connection either. I’ll admit that maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw this, but for whatever reason the movie didn’t connect with me and I really wanted it to – I’ve generally liked the series but it felt like it ran out of steam here rather than finishing with a flourish.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of eye candy. Some emotional payoffs.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. No momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene near the end when Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch to Katniss was supposed to be dialogue from Plutarch, but actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who played the role, passed away before the scene could be filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie

Inherent Vice


Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

(2014) Mystery (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Michelle Sinclair, Elaine Tan, Martin Donovan, Erica Sullivan, Sasha Pieterse. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Those of a certain age will remember the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flower children whose innocence combined with rampant drug use and sexual experimentation and some new age noodling ended up making them targets for ridicule in the 80s and beyond. Long haired sorts blissed out on whatever drug of choice was handy, smiling beatifically and mouthing pseudo-philosophical aphorisms of pseudo-depth that were in the end senseless became something of a cultural stereotype, but in truth they did believe in love and peace, which has to be better than believing in money and war.

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is a private eye living in Manhattan Beach – called Gordita Beach here – in 1970. Sporting mutton chops that both Wolverine and a British sailor from the 1820s would envy, he is mainly content to work on such cases that came in to his office that he shares with dentists and the rest of the time, smoke pot and hang out with his latest lady friends who at the moment happens to be Assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Witherspoon).  Life is pretty sweet.

Into his life comes an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston). She happens to be having an affair with big-time L.A. developer Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) and who has been undergoing some sort of guilt trip, possibly brought on by heroin addiction. He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazi bikers which is interesting since he himself is Jewish. His wife and her boyfriend want to put Mickey away in a sanitarium and throw away the key by which means they’ll gain control over his fortune. Shasta Fay begs Doc to look into it and Doc, being the last of the knights errant, agrees to. Shasta Fay promptly disappears.

I could tell you how the rest of the story goes but it won’t make sense. It is, after all, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. However, I will say that there is an ambitious cop named Bigfoot (Brolin) who may be a staunch ally of Doc or setting him up for a murder charge – or maybe both, an Indonesian heroin cartel laundering their money through a consortium of dentists called The Golden Fang, a saxophone player (Wilson) and heroin addict who has disappeared, leaving his wife (Malone) frantic, a shady Hispanic lawyer (del Toro) and a sweet but scatter-brained assistant who narrates the movie (Newsom).

In the interests of fairness, there are a lot of people whom I respect that really liked this movie a lot but for me, this is more like The Master than There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s worst and best films to date (although I must admit Boogie Nights comes close to the latter). I can understand why they liked the movie – the visual style, the well-written dialogue (with Pynchon you can’t go wrong in that regard) and the performances but this is one of those movies that depends on excess but sometimes, more is way too much.

Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this meanders all over hell and gone, following one thread until it gets played out or Anderson gets bored with it and then suddenly switching to another. Keeping track of who is allied with who is apt to cause your brain to spontaneously ignite into flames. Don’t bother because it doesn’t really matter much in the end anyway.

The thing is that Anderson (like Pynchon before him) is doing a kind of stoner noir here, a hard-bitten detective story with a soft-chewing hippie detective. You’ll smell the intoxicating mix of patchouli, marijuana smoke and incense blending together at the same time as you feel like you’re in a stoners apartment in which a fine layer of ash coats everything and every container possible has stubbed out cigarette butts and the counter tops faint signs of cocaine lines left behind. Both Da Queen and I felt the squalor permeating our skin and exited the theater into the cool night air, relieved to be breathing in something fresh and unadulterated by intoxicants.

Phoenix and Brolin are fine actors, Oscar nominees both. Phoenix does befuddled about as well as anybody and he plays stoned perhaps better than anybody save Seth Rogen. He captures the part of Doc about as well as anybody’s going to without doing the copious amounts of weed that Doc does during the film – and who knows, maybe he did. Brolin on the other hand plays the flat topped brush cut cop who wants to be the next Jack Webb but is more likely to be the most recent Martin Milner. He’s the best part of the movie, partially comic relief but not always.

We get that people did a lot of drugs in the 70s. We don’t have to see them light up in every fucking scene, take a long drag, and then proceed with the scene. I would estimate that about 20 minutes of the two and a half hour run time is devoted to watching people go through the mechanics of smoking dope and cigarettes and it gets monotonous. So too does the story, which meanders from place to place, becoming maddeningly interesting but just when it’s about to, takes off on another tangent with the previous story elements never to reappear again. Eventually the last 30 minutes the film picks up steam and for that reason the movie isn’t getting the first Zero rating this site has ever given out but it came damn close.

I get the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ego wrote checks that this movie didn’t have the funds to cash and I’m not talking budget here. Pynchon as a writer has a delightful command of language and to Anderson’s credit as the screenwriter adapting his work, he does try to utilize that in the script where he can. Sadly, both Pynchon and Anderson are guilty of the same kinds of excesses – one in literature, the other in cinema – and the two don’t make a good match.

I’ve always admired Anderson for his creativity and for making movies that don’t conform to any standards, but that is a double edged sword and the blade is cutting deep here. Whereas There Will Be Blood is damn near a masterpiece, this is kind of a sordid mess that never really manages to get going and throws so many characters at you that pretty soon you begin confusing one longhair for another. That’s never a good sign. I had hopes that the combination of Pynchon and Anderson might yield up a great movie. Some folks may argue that it did. I would contend that it did not.

REASONS TO GO: You can always walk out.
REASONS TO STAY: Way long. Dwells on minutiae too much. Watching stoners being stoned is about as entertaining as watching mimes at work.
FAMILY VALUES: Near-constant drug use and profanity. Some violence. There’s also a good deal of sexual content and occasional graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that Rudolph has appeared in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The two have been a couple for more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 1/10
NEXT: Listen Up, Philip

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Daybreakers

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

For Love of the Game


For Love of the Game

Kevin Costner wonders why he can't have Crash Davis behind the plate.

(1999) Sports Drama (Universal) Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, Jena Malone, Brian Cox, Vin Scully, J.K. Simmons, Carmine Giovinazzo, Bill Rogers, Hugh Ross, Greer Barnes, Scott Bream, Michael Papajohn, Daniel Dae Kim, Juan Nieves, Michael Emerson. Directed by Sam Raimi

 

Kevin Costner does baseball movies like no other actor in history. Sure, Pride of the Yankees and Fear Strikes Out are arguably better movies than Field of Dreams and Bull Durham (and you’d get a pretty loud argument from some quarters) but consistently, no other actor has better understood the mystical appeal of the Grand Old Game, nor been any abler at understanding this country’s connection with it.

For my part, I’m more of a hockey fan these days, but give me a hot dog, a beer and a baseball game on a summer’s day, and suddenly I’m waxing poetic as well as nostalgic. I couldn’t tell you what appeals to me about the game … only that it does. Somehow, I think Costner is in the same boat.

In this, his third movie that has baseball at its core, Costner plays Billy Chapel, a once-dominant pitcher (think Roger Clemens) who is in the twilight of his career, described as someone with a reservation for the hall of fame, who has won every award a pitcher can win, someone who has won the adulation of the fans — and of women. You’d think he has it all.

Yet he has been dealt a double blow. His beloved Detroit Tigers, for whom he has excelled for 19 years, are on the verge of being sold to a corporate buyer. The first item on the corporate agenda is to trade the aging pitcher who still has some name value while they can still get something decent for him … and at less than his current salary. The second item is that his girlfriend, Jane (Preston) has accepted a job in London and has skipped a hotel rendezvous because she couldn’t figure out a way to tell him that their relationship is over.

All of this, and the New York Yankees too. See, the Yankees are on the verge of clinching another pennant and only the lowly Tigers, suffering through a mediocre season (with Chapel heading up the list of less-than-stellar performances) stand in their way. Yankee Stadium. A national telecast. His personal life in ruins. His professional career on the verge of ending. Seems like a pretty good time to put it all on the line one last time.

Chapel throws as hard as his aching arm will allow. For one shining evening, he is the Billy Chapel of old. Out follows out follows out. Inning after inning. And as the game progresses, Chapel is dwelling on the last five years of his life, on his relationship with Jane, on the injury that almost ended his career, and on the way a man, so admired, so confident, so great on the ballfield, could be failing so badly off of it.

As the game begins to get into the late innings, the great Billy Chapel suddenly realizes he is on verge of making baseball history – pitching a perfect game, one of the rarest occurrences in baseball. 27 men up, 27 men down, no hits, no walks, no errors.

Strangely enough, with all this baseball involved, it really is a chick flick. The center of this story is not Billy Chapel’s baseball career, nor is it the perfect game he is throwing. The center of For Love of the Game is Billy’s relationship with Jane. Preston does a great job of playing Jane as a strong woman who has been damaged by bad choices, but who has survived, and excelled in her own way. She has needed no one in her whole life  but suddenly finds herself in a relationship with a famous man, a relationship that is deepening into love.

Neither one of these people are perfect, which is what gives this movie some kick. At various times in the movie, I was shrieking the word “Bonehead!” at both of ’em, and to Costner’s credit, he plays Billy as neither the mythic baseball hero nor the aging jock but as a man who has been at the top of his profession for almost 20 years, who has given so much of himself to the game that he has nothing left for anyone else.

Unfortunately, that makes something of a quandary for director Sam Raimi. Is this a baseball movie, a love story or what? Wellllll it’s both and it’s neither and it winds up being sort of an amalgam, and thereby winds up satisfying not all of the needs of baseball fans or romance junkies. Da Queen gave For Love of the Game three hankies; a quiet little weep in the corner, but not a full-out bawling. Me, this is no perfect game by a long shot and of Costner’s baseball trilogy this is the least-known and probably the weakest film of the three, but it still has its own charms and plenty of reasons to look into renting it.

WHY RENT THIS: Costner does baseball. Need I say anything more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is no Field of Dreams. A romance masquerading as a sports drama.

FAMILY MATTERS: The movie has its share of bad language and a couple of scenes that are sexually charged.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The shot of Billy Chapel’s parents early on in the film are Kevin Costner’s actual parents. Also Daniel Dae Kim and Michael Emerson, who both had minor roles in this film, would go on to both play major roles in “Lost.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s an interactive trivia game which if you’re able to answer all the questions correctly will play an old short film, Play Ball With Babe Ruth. There’s also a text supplement which details the odds of pitching a perfect game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.1M on an $80M production budget; unfortunately, the film was a flop at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6/8

TOMORROW: Win Win