Friday, March 30, 2012

'Hunger Games' is blockbuster entertainment with substance

In the months leading up to the release of "The Hunger Games," it was positioned as the next huge book to movie sensation in the tradition of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight." A record number of advance tickets were sold and the movie had a massive opening weekend of $153 million. Is it worth all the hoopla?

I can say, with a sigh of relief, that, while the film is drawing the kind of numbers that the "Twilight" series has, this is not another "Twilight." Nor is it another "Harry Potter," at least not the early installments of that series. While "The Hunger Games" is based on the first of a three-part young adult series by Suzanne Collins, this is not a childish story.

"The Hunger Games" is set in a dystopian society in which the affluent and powerful live in the Capitol. Surrounding the Capitol are 12 districts that every year must offer up one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 to 18 to fight in a televised battle to the death. The survivor will be heralded and their district rewarded. This sacrifice is in penance for a years-earlier rebellion. The tradition is supposed to represent the government's mercy and the districts' respect.

The protagonist of the film is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers herself as a combatant, or tribute, for the Hunger Games in place of her little sister (Willow Shields), who she was chosen for the competition. Katniss is joined from her district by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who proclaims a secret love for her.

As is true with much science fiction, particularly those set in bleak futures, "The Hunger Games" is meant to reflect the issues that plague our society. It is a cautionary parable that may seem extreme, but gives pause as some things ring a bit too true.

We are a culture that has become obsessed with "reality" based TV shows that often take the form of brutal competition. "The Hunger Games" merely takes that obsession to its most logical and deplorable conclusion.

The film has an impeccable creative team behind it. Director and co-writer Gary Ross also wrote and directed "Pleasantville," a very shrewd social satire, and he brings that same eye for critique to the scenes in the Capitol whose inhabitants dress decadently and act haughty.

Co-screenwriter Billy Ray wrote and directed "Breach" and "Shattered Glass" and co-wrote "State of Play." Those were all films with tightly told, detail oriented stories juggling many characters. The same holds true of "The Hunger Games," which tells its story cleanly even when presenting a barrage of characters and ideas. Collins also receives a screenwriting credit, which should be a relief to fans of the book.

The violence in the film falls squarely under the PG-13 rating. There are a few hard visuals — a brick to a head being the worst — but the film doesn't linger on the violence. This is a premise that could've been exploitive, but Ross shows restraint. The film doesn't glamorize or glorify the killings. The characters that are shown as taking sadistic pleasure in killing are portrayed as villains.

Lawrence as Katniss gives an entirely convincing performance that has quiet grace, strength and intensity. She also shows sweetness, compassion and vulnerability in the scenes she shares with a young tribute (Amandla Stenberg) she teams up with.

The book was told through Katniss' first-person narration. The film, wisely, doesn't rely on the crutch of voice-over narration. It is a testament to the power of Lawrence's performance that she doesn't need to say what she's thinking. Her expressive face says everything and we perfectly understand the emotions she is grappling with from scene to scene.

Hutcherson, recently seen in "Journey 2" and more or less giving the same performance, is merely adequate and struggles to hold his own with Lawrence. He is likeable enough, but there just isn't much there with him.

Lawrence and Hutcherson are surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast including Donald Sutherland as the president, Wes Bentley as the game's producer, and Elizabeth Banks as the woman that selects and manages Katniss and Peeta.

Everyone is on top of their game, but the standouts are Stanley Tucci as a flamboyant talk show host, Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's alcoholic mentor and, most surprising of all, singer Lenny Kravitz as the stylist that helps Katniss and Peeta make an impression before heading into battle.

Outside of Katniss and Peeta, the other tributes are not given much screen time before being killed off. A lack of character development for these other characters is probably the film's only major weakness.

I haven't read the book, but I am sure the other tributes were more fleshed out. It points to the strength of the film that I want to read the book to discover more about these characters and this world.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comedy spin on '21 Jump Street' surprises

The world wasn't clamouring for a comedy version of "21 Jump Street," the late 1980s drama about cops undercover in high school, but now that it exists, it's a pleasant surprise.

A slimmed down, but not exactly toned Jonah Hill, is teamed up with the muscular Channing Tatum. It is a match up that works unexpectedly well as Tatum reveals comedic abilities that had, until now, not been utilized. In previous films, Tatum has often come across as stiff and dull, so here he is a bit of a revelation. He is funny, charming and has genuine chemistry with Hill.

The film starts with a brief prologue in which we get to see Hill and Tatum in high school. Hill is the teased geek and Tatum the bullying jock. Fast forward several years and the two have become friends at police academy with Tatum helping Hill with the physical stuff and Hill helping Tatum with the mental stuff.

After botching their first arrest by failing to read the Miranda rights, the duo are transferred to 21 Jump Street and sent back to high school to find the source of a new potentially deadly drug. The duo accidentally swap their undercover identities, so the shy Hill is now in drama and on the track team and the dim Tatum is in AP chemistry.

The screenplay by Hill and Michael Bacall is shrewd in its observations of how high school has changed in just a few years. The popular kids are now ecologically and socially aware and a jock like Tatum doesn't automatically float to the top of high school hierarchy. Instead the more geeky Hill becomes top dog.

While the film certainly isn't a realistic reflection of modern high school — jocks are always likely to have a place in the upper crust of the high school social spheres — there seems to be a kernel of truth in the shift of what is seen as cool. Things like comic books, video games and, thanks to "Glee," even chorus have become acceptable in the mainstream. Showing that shift instead of just perpetuating the usual teen movie cliques was a smart move.

The script also has a lot of fun playing around with the conventions of action movies. There are some very big laughs involving audience expectations not being met. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller spoof over-stylized action films by showing a bicycle chase in action-movie mode juxtaposed to what is really happening.

Lord and Miller, whose previous film was the animated feature "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," have a lively, but not pushy style, particularly when showing the different "stages" the drug takes its users to.

The directors keep things moving at a brisk pace, but also allow for the characters to breathe. The film takes its time to develop a sweet dynamic between Hill and Brie Larson as the head drug dealer's semi-girlfriend. Similarly, the script also allows Tatum to bond with the nerdy outcasts in chemistry.

Hill and Tatum are surrounded by solid supporting players including Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell and, best of all, Ice Cube, as the foul-mouthed captain. Former rapper Ice Cube, who has been doing a lot of kids movies of late, reminds us that he has a very funny way with profane language.

Co-screenwriter Bacall also co-wrote "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" with Edgar Wright, who co-wrote and directed the cop comedy "Hot Fuzz." "21 Jump Street" is a cruder and more tightly-paced film, but in terms of overall tone and story arc the film is close to "Hot Fuzz."

Both films are not jam packed with action and take the time to develop their characters before exploding into humorously over-the-top action endings. Hill and Tatum's character get to grow. This isn't exactly deep or even subtle stuff, but it is nice to see an attention to characters alongside the crass, goofball humor.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Disney's bloated 'John Carter' doesn't deliver

Disney's latest attempt at kicking off a live-action adventure series that could be its new "Pirates of the Caribbean" is "John Carter," a film following the exploits of a Civil War veteran magically transported to a very different Civil War on Mars.

"John Carter" is a flashy $250 million adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars," the first in a series of Mars adventures. Written in the early years of the 20th century, this series was one of the inspirations of "Star Wars" and was hugely influential on the sci-fi genre.

Much like Tarzan, Burroughs' other iconic character, John Carter spends most of the film showing off his rippling muscles. Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter, has the well toned body, but perhaps should've spent a bit more time work on his acting chops. He is more than able in the action scene, but lacks charisma, depth or chemistry with his love interest, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

For the most part, the film seems faithful to the source material with the introductions of the multiple armed green martians named Tharks and the feuding humanoid martians from the rival cities of Helium and Zodanga. To end the feud, Helium princess Dejah Thoris must marry Sab Than (Dominic West).

This adaptation by director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon also adds the Therns, which appeared in the later novels "Warlords of Mars" and "Gods of Mars." Therns present themselves as Gods and hold sway over the races of Mars. Mark Strong, seemingly forever typecast as a villain, is seen throughout the film manipulating the sides supposedly to keep balance.

On the level of story, this is all fine and well, but the execution is clunky and riddled with cliches. The most painful of which is the use of the monologuing villain, in which the bad guy, instead of simply killing the hero when he has the chance, explains his plans in very specific detail. It is a groan-inducing device that makes the scenes following it predictable and dull.

In movies like this we clearly know the final outcome: The hero will save the day and get the girl, so it is how you get there that counts. In "John Carter" that journey is rather pedestrian although there are a few saving graces.

There are some decent action scenes, but there's nothing that really lingers in the mind. John Carter, because of the differences in gravity between Earth and Mars, has super-human strength and the ability to leap really, really far. The scene in which he first discovers this is funny and entertaining. After that though his ability to leap becomes ho-hum.

The acting is also rather bland. Not bad per se, just, again, nothing that sticks in the memory. Collins is the exception. She takes the largely thankless role of a princess and adds at least some flashes of humanity to an underwritten character.

The best character in "John Carter" is Woola, a martian dog who becomes the title character's loyal companion. He is a fantastically rendered computer-generated creature (for that matter all the CG characters are first rate). Woola provides comic relief and is a genuinely fun character in a movie that otherwise takes itself too seriously. It also says something that a computer-generated martian dog with no dialogue has more personality than any other character.

Outside of Woola, the best thing about "John Carter" is a story frame in which the seemingly dead Carter wills his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), his journal chronicling his adventures. These scenes are better handled than anything on Mars and feature a genuinely clever twist.

The problem with the film is that in the century since the John Carter character was created we've had "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and other space adventures that had more style, wit and substance than this adaptation of Burroughs' character has to offer.

Had "John Carter" tightened the slack pacing and added some sharper writing, the film would've been greatly improved. As is, it is an instantly forgettable two-hour distraction.

Friday, March 09, 2012

What makes a movie a favorite?

This week marked the one-year anniversary of “Lost in Movies,” my show on Valley Vision Channel 3 in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire. In honor of the occasion, I led a discussion about favorite movies. This begs the question: What makes a film a favorite rather than just a film that one really likes?

For a film to reach the stature of being a favorite it must speak to the viewer in a way that feels personal. Perhaps the movie states your world view better than you ever could, or maybe a film simply reminds you of what it is like to hang with your friends.

A favorite film doesn’t need to be a good or even a great film. It can just be a movie that when you first saw it made you laugh so hard that now, whenever you feel down, it is the film you watch to lift your spirits. Then there’s always the nostalgia factor associated with films. The films we watched over and over again in our youth tend to stay with us forever.

Often films, like any art, help us figure out who we are. Those films that make that kind of impact become signifiers of a time and place. This is part of the reason we become offended when someone dismisses a film we adore. The film in question is more than just another movie — it is a part of you, so in a way it feels like you are also being dismissed.

As a kid, I primarily watched sci-fi, fantasy and adventure films. The films I watched on loop were “Back to the Future,” “Ghostbusters,” “Indiana Jones,” “The Neverending Story,” Labyrinth,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Star Wars.” These films stirred my imagination.

I used to run around my yard pretending I was in a Delorean traveling through time. My first day of kindergarten was made less scary when I found two kids playing “Ghostbusters” and they let me join them. Sure, they made me be the geeky Egon, but at least I had been accepted. It is these sorts of memories that make a film a lifelong favorite.

In my teen years, I entered my Mel Brooks phase. Things started off with more recent films like “Spaceballs” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” but then that led to exploration of his earlier work. It was also around this time that my love of films started to become more substantial and I started making deeper connections and observations.

As I watched more Brooks films, I noticed a drop off in quality. I’ll always cherish “Men in Tights” and “Spaceballs,” but they pale in comparison to “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles.” Brooks stumbled upon a film parody formula that worked for him and he continued to repeat it, but with less originality each time. This became my first assessment of a director's body of work and every time I watch Brooks it is a reminder of why I love to analyze film.

In college, my love of Brooks led me to harder stuff: Woody Allen. Allen’s earlier films such as “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas” and “Sleeper” were in the broader tone of Brooks’ films, so it was a natural transition from one filmmaker to another. The difference is that Allen grew out of his slapstick era and I was able to grow with him.

Allen’s more mature comedies such as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” explored relationships, faith and art in ways that were smart, funny and sophisticated. These films made me laugh, think and feel. While I’m certainly not a neurotic Jew from New York, I could relate to many of the plights of Allen’s characters.

With films like “Annie Hall,” Allen basically created the modern romantic comedy. Without Allen, we wouldn’t have films like “When Harry Met Sally,” basically any Hugh Grant movie, or TV shows like “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” I’ve always had a love for romantic comedies, so much so that I was branded by a family friend as only liking “light and fluffy” films. In a way, that all ties back to Allen.

As I look back on my favorite films, it is clear how they each helped shape who I am today. I highly doubt I’d have become the quirky, goofy, analytical guy I am today if it wasn’t for the likes of people like Brooks and Allen, Cameron Crowe, John Hughes, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. So, thanks guys. We should hang out soon.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A goofy 'journey' worth taking

The weekend of the Academy Awards ceremony honoring the best of 2011, I saw “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.” This time next year, “Journey 2” will not be winning any awards nor will it be appearing on any best of 2012 lists, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun time at the movies.

“Journey 2” is a loose sequel to 2008’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The only returning character is Josh Hutcherson, who played Brendan Fraser’s nephew in the first film. Fraser is now out and Dwayne Johnson and Michael Caine are now in as Hutcherson’s stepdad and grandfather, respectively. That’s a pretty substantial upgrade.

Hutherson’s Sean gets a coded message from his grandfather that includes the coordinates for Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island.” Johnson’s Hank, wanting to bond with the sullen Sean, agrees to take him to the coordinates.

To get there they get a helicopter ride from a bumbling pilot (Luis Guzman) and his gorgeous daughter (Vanessa Hudgens), who is, conveniently enough, age appropriate for Sean. They crash on the island, find grandpa and then search for a way off the island as it begins sinking.

The film goes on the premise that everything Verne wrote is true, so therefore the obvious way off the island is Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Part of the film’s charm is how gleefully preposterous it is. This means when the Nautilus' battery is dead the natural answer is a jump start from an electric eel.

In keeping with that fanciful tone, it turns out the island also was the basis for “Treasure Island” and “Gulliver’s Travels.” This is an interesting idea that doesn’t get explored enough, but we do get Lilliputian elephants, which could replace ponies as what all little girls want.

In addition to tiny elephants, there are giant bees, which our heroes ride while being chased by giant birds. This includes a game of chicken that concludes in an absurd laugh-out-loud moment.

Logically, if there are giant bees, there are also giant lizards. This leads to the line: “Lizards, why did it have it be lizards,” a nod to “Indiana Jones,” the zenith of adventure films. “Journey 2,” while it pays homage to that series, doesn’t attempt to match it. It is content being bright, silly and teaching a lesson or two.

Johnson and Caine are immensely likable actors and their charms make the sometimes clunky, barbed banter actually work. Hutcherson and Hudgens are just fine, but aren’t required to do much more than inevitably fall in love. Guzman is funny, but is a bit too cartoonishly hammy and a few times comes across as trying too hard.

There are two reasons to see this film though: Johnson’s pec pop of love and Johnson playing ukulele and singing “It’s a Wonderful World,” which is honestly quite good. Seriously.