Monday, November 25, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has been compared to The Empire Strikes Back, particularly along the lines of being a solid and just-different-enough second entry in a trilogy (though Hunger Games is going the cashgrab route by splitting Mockingjay into two).  The positive reviews are fantastic news for fans of the franchise – and, I suspect, newcomers – even if the movie doesn’t quite stick the landing.

After she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) defied the Capitol to win the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) learns that the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has arranged for her to enter the arena once more in the 75th “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games.  While facing off against other returning winners of Hunger Games past, Katniss and Peeta struggle to form new alliances while convincing the spectators they’re still in love.

Though Gary Ross did a fine job with the first outing, director Francis Lawrence (no relation, apparently) outshines his predecessor by eliminating some of Ross’s arthouse excesses – especially the shaky-cam and what I called “decadence by Lady Gaga” – and opting for a steadier approach to the story which lets the narrative instability – that is, the internal conflicts and burgeoning rebellions – carry through nonetheless.  Lawrence is equally at home directing ballroom dances, political scheming, and stealth-based action, a versatile hand at the till.

Perhaps more remarkable is the unbelievably talented cast, elevating this from the “teenybopper” genre into something with a little more gravitas.  Jennifer Lawrence, despite being an Oscar winner, never feels like she’s slumming it, instead giving it her all as the steely archer Katniss.  The rest of the returning cast are all still quite good; Sutherland is deliciously smarmy, Woody Harrelson is still stalwart as the drunken mentor Haymitch, and Elizabeth Banks steps up her game as Effie Trinket, the PR shadow who grows a conscience.  For my own philosophical reasons, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the love triangle plotline (something I didn’t dig in the books, either), but Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are capable – the former more so, since he’s given more to do.

As with Thor: The Dark World, in which the supremely talented Idris Elba gets a solid bit part as Heimdall, god of light, Catching Fire is littered with resplendently talented thespians fleshing out the side characters.  Ostensibly the most significant such example is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s appearance as shifty new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee; though he doesn’t go in for all the zany beards and spangly outfits, Hoffman’s Plutarch fits in with the sinister Capitol crowd, shiftily untrustworthy with an innocuous glint in his eye.  Also joining the cast:  Geoffrey Wright as a tech-savvy Tribute, bringing his usual class and impeccable diction; Amanda Plummer, his schizo opposite number; and Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, compellingly managing the character’s manic oscillations between sultry and shouty.  (Spoilers?  I’m especially glad she’ll be back for the sequel, since she has perfect love/hate chemistry with Lawrence.)

This sequel manages to achieve that different-but-familiar sensation, preserving the basic dystopia/decadence/arena formula of the first film without feeling repetitive (a claim, oddly enough, I can’t say holds true for the source material).  There’s just enough difference – difference done well, too – that the film manages to step into what feels like a new place, giving it that Empire Strikes Back feel:  doing the right stuff again, adding in new and better stuff (in this analogy, I suppose Hoffman is our Lando Calrissian), and ditching the parts that didn’t work.  Unfortunately, also like Empire, Catching Fire doesn’t really end; instead, the movie cuts to black just when things were getting really interesting, inviting moviegoers back for what’s already a cashgrab in two pieces.  

After Prometheus, I have a little less patience for this kind of thing, but I suppose that the biggest compliment I can pay Catching Fire is that the preceding two hours are so successful that the last-minute “To Be Continued” ends up being entirely inoffensive.  If this is fire, I’m happy to catch it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.”  The combat scenes are shorter than in the first Hunger Games, though there are several explosions that toss bodies around.  In one scene, howling monkeys torment our heroes; in another, demonic mockingbirds.  Throughout, the specter of death haunts each character, and in one scene a woman undresses in front of three others, with no nudity shown.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Last Vegas (2013)

We’ve come to regard The Hangover as a kind of golden standard which at least perfected the “weekend gone wrong” genre (if not kickstarting it).  And Last Vegas, with its all-star cast of Hollywood’s golden-year’d actors, has been marketed as a kind of Hangover for the over-50 crowd (or, unintentionally, 20-somethings like me).  But where Last Vegas sputters in places The Hangover soared, the film ultimately entertains on the sheer ethos of its A-list, A-game stars.

Last Vegas finds Michael Douglas on the eve of his marriage to his early-30s trophy girlfriend.  After convincing the reluctant Robert De Niro to join in spite of his “unresolved issues” with Douglas, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman fly to Las Vegas for the big reunion and the bachelor party for their perennially single friend.  Hijinks, of course, ensue.

Where The Hangover was innovative in the unexpected relentlessness of its rolling-in-the-aisles laughs, Last Vegas is the victim of its own marketing campaign, which tragically blew some of the best gags in the film (the rotating bed and Morgan Freeman’s window escape, to allude to a few).  And having seen the trailer more than once (the consequence of being a too-frequent moviegoer), these truly funny moments didn’t elicit much more than a weak chuckle – less than they deserved, but all I could muster.  There are a few genuine laughs (i.e., the conceit that a misogynistic “bro” mistakes the four friends for mobsters), but the best, to rework the old Browning poem, has already been.

Last Vegas never really surpasses the brilliant idea of “let’s get all our talented old people in one movie” (see also Red, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).  And not every movie needs to surpass convention, so if I dial back my standards of grandeur Last Vegas ends up being a pretty successful film.  The “Flatbush Four” are all reliably gifted performers and play to their strengths – Douglas the charismatic bachelor, De Niro the crochety East Coaster, Freeman the polysyllabic golden-throat, and Kline the goofy sidekick.  We know their work well enough to know what to expect, though a nice surprise comes from De Niro’s more heartfelt moments; from an actor who sometimes seems to phone it in, it’s nice to see a performance that (while not Oscar-worthy) still plucks a heartstring or two.  In fact, any one of these actors is worth the price of admission, and the combination of four can’t help but succeed, even in a bad movie (which, fortunately, Last Vegas isn’t).

The other nice surprise about the film – which, decently, the trailers didn’t spoil – is Mary Steenburgen’s lounge singer Diana, a keen counterpart to the testosterone-heavy cast.  (Sidebar:  I just realized she’s for this film what Heather Graham was for The Hangover.)  She won’t be passing any Bechdel tests any time soon, and I can’t say I was a fan of the predictable “older woman course-corrects girl-crazy bachelor” plotline, but at least the film keeps us guessing on which bachelor she’ll land.  Diana is a different brand of character than the competitive machismo fleshing out the rest of the cast, often calling out characters on their self-deceptions; it’s a clever storytelling technique which allows the film to be smarter than a less rigorous draft of the screenplay would have been.

Ultimately, Last Vegas didn’t knock me out like I wanted it to, but 90 minutes in the company of four of Hollywood’s finest is, to quote one of my professors from my first semester of graduate school, “as good a choice as any.”

Last Vegas is rated PG-13 “for sexual content and language.”  There’s a seduction scene in which nudity is implied, though we see nothing more than bare shoulders; there are a few unenthusiastic and brief innuendos, as well as (according to IMDb) one F-bomb and a few weaker profanities.  Quite tame, particularly compared to The Hangover.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

We’re halfway through Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man 3 behind us, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy ahead before The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and things are looking pretty good from where I’m sitting, even with creative changes behind the scenes.  With Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor picks up the directorial reins and turns in an exceptionally fun fantasy that carves out a filmic identity for the Norse god.

When a cadre of Dark Elves led by the malicious Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) seeks to destroy the entire universe, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – the god of thunder – returns to Earth to rescue his lady love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s been awaiting his arrival in the wake of the events of The Avengers.  When Thor discovers that Jane has a strange connection to Malekith’s plan, he reluctantly jailbreaks his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with the fate of all existence in the balance.

With a new director at the helm, it’s surprising that Thor: The Dark World feels as familiar as it does, though Taylor and crew take a few steps into new territory that keeps this sequel from feeling stale.  The best comparison I can make is to Star Wars:  like the iconic Star Wars, the Thor franchise seems to be moving in a science-fictional comedy sphere, with spaceships, laser guns, and interplanetary travel decorating the sprawling plot.  Taylor amps up the science fiction angle, stepping away from the hubristic theology of Kenneth Branagh’s work on the first Thor in favor of a more light-hearted space opera.  The comic relief might be overdone for some – Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig has become a kind of caricature, though it’s not without purpose – but for me it’s a fine counterpart to the Sturm und Drang of Chris Nolan’s DC work.

But don’t mistake an expanded scenery for a reinvention of the wheel.  Thor: The Dark World retains much of what we loved about the first film and gives us more of it.  Those who loved Thor hitting things with Mjolnir (whose absurd nickname also gets a callback) will be satisfied, and even those who found the Thor/Jane love story less than compelling may be pleasantly surprised here.  While these individual films still haven’t quite reckoned with questions like “Where are the other heroes?” Thor: The Dark World sticks the standalone landing by focusing on what makes it unique as a franchise – near-Shakespearean characters in superheroic action.

Best of all, Thor: The Dark World recognizes the strengths of its supporting cast by giving room to the returning faces, even as newcomers like Eccleston give us classically comic-booky performances (in the best kind of way).  As snarky intern Darcy, Kat Dennings gets one of the most expanded roles, sassing her way into the audience’s heart while even getting a small sort of arc of her own.  (It’s a shame Jamie Alexander’s Lady Sif doesn’t get the same treatment; the “love triangle” the trailers promised never really comes to pass.)

Tragically for Hemsworth, though he’s more than capable as the brash yet compassionate protagonist, he’s completely and utterly upstaged by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  Indeed, I suspect we’re not too far away from a Loki solo film (at least, if Tumblr has anything to say about it), and it’s entirely due to Hiddleston’s charismatic smirk, dynamic eyebrows, and utterly engrossing duplicity as the god of mischief.  Resisting cookie-cutter villainy at every turn, Loki is the dictionary definition of a scene-stealer, replete deeply ambiguous motivations and an inexplicably engaging contempt for all the other characters – especially his do-gooder brother.  Enough good things really cannot be said about Hiddleston, whose every minute of screentime elicited from me an obnoxiously broad grin and repetitive murmurs of “Damn, he’s good.”

Thor: The Dark World is so full of top performers giving their all (I haven’t even mentioned Anthony Hopkins or Idris Elba) that it almost doesn’t matter that the story doesn’t break much ground.  We’ve seen the “ancient evil seeks to restore chaos” before, but the makers of this Thor sequel have put together such a well-told version of the old archetypal narrative that you’ll be too busy having fun to notice.

In fact, fun is the operative word here – an innocuous scifi/romance/adventure story worthy of the heretofore perfect streak of the Marvel brand.

Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13 “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content.”  There are bunches of creatures shooting lasers and smashing hammers, all bloodlessly with the occasional explosion or debris field flying about.  There are a few references to Thor’s impeccably muscled physique, one obligatory shirtless scene of the buff god, and a few tame kisses.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Moonraker (1979)

Consistently ranked among the worst of the James Bond films, Moonraker is that rare movie on which I gave up the first time.  A few years ago, after about forty minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore, but after revisiting the film for this review series, I can safely report that I made the wrong move – but only by about twenty minutes.  There’s actually about an hour’s worth of good material in Moonraker before the film descends into a weird self-parodying science-fiction cartoon, a totally bland mess of a movie.

After a space shuttle mysteriously disappears, James Bond (Roger Moore) investigates Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), the creator of said shuttle. Bond quickly forms an alliance with the beautiful astronaut Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) while uncovering Drax’s plan to foster a new master race in outer space – aided by Bond’s returning nemesis Jaws (Richard Kiel).

If the plot sounds exactly like The Spy Who Loved Me by way of Star Wars, don’t adjust your sets; what you’re detecting is a bizarre self-plagiarism that shoots for the moon, misses, and lands not among the stars but in a place devoid of the thrills and sincerity that made Spy a success.  The self-evident lack of creativity damages the film by drawing attention to its faults; what Spy did well, Moonraker bungles, and what Spy bungled, Moonraker outright fails.  Where Stromberg was a little droll yet maniacal, Drax is literally boring, mumbling his lines, shuffling his feet, and never really making eye contact with anyone.  As Drax’s opposite number, Moore is trying – he really is – but Moore’s level of tongue-in-cheek only casts too much light on the inherently absurd film before us.

The film’s greatest sins could encompass a post all their own, though among them are an apparent misunderstanding of the physics of deep space, the whiplash-inducing tonal shift into science fiction once the NASA cavalry arrive with laser guns, and the film’s unforgivable mistreatment of Jaws.  Arguably the major find of the franchise, Jaws was a colossal contributing factor to Spy’s success; the scowl, the physicality, and those teeth all combined into an unforgettable character, which Kiel deftly brought to life.  But the promise contained in Jaws’s pre-credits appearance – really a great opener, in which Bond, Jaws, and another airman battle over two parachutes in free fall – tragically flops when the film demotes Jaws first to a Wile E. Coyote caricature, hapless yet indestructible, before shoehorning him into both an uninspiring romantic subplot and (spoiler warning?) an utterly unconvincing redemption plot.

It’s really a shame, because there’s a skeleton of a great Bond movie in there somewhere, and if we hadn’t just seen the exact same plot in Spy Who Loved Me it’d be a winner; it keeps the sleuthing intact, and the idea that Holly Goodhead is secretly a CIA agent is a clever twist that Chiles pulls off well.  Indeed, it’s almost disappointing that Bond successfully beds her, since her apparent resistance of Bond’s charms is such a compelling angle – a step, perhaps, toward the franchise’s later moves away from the “Bond girl” trope (best embodied, literally, by Britt Ekland’s bikini in The Man with the Golden Gun).

Is Moonraker the worst Bond ever?  I’m not ready to go quite that far – it is, unmistakably, a movie that is difficult to enjoy, at best tepid and uninspiring and at worst viciously schlocky and pretty much bad.  It’s in strong competition with Diamonds Are Forever for my least favorite Bond thus far, and it’s the first entry for which I’ve really agreed with the popular consensus that finds Moore’s Bond guilty of crimes against moviegoers.  And for once, in spite of my usually optimistic outlook, I’m rather uneasy about the future of the franchise; where Diamonds Are Forever might have been shrugged off as Connery’s unenthusiastic last hurrah, we still have three more outings with Roger Moore.

Moonraker is rated PG.  The violence is really quite cartoony, replete with laser guns in the film’s final battle; Bond beds three women, but there’s nothing shown below the shoulders.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of For Your Eyes Only (1981) on December 7, 2013!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Monday at the Movies - November 4, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, the play’s the thing!

Carnage (2011) – I was actually quite proud of myself on this one because I didn’t let Roman Polanski’s repugnant past impede my enjoyment of Carnage, an adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play.  Instead, I found myself won over by four immensely compelling performances.  Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly play the parents of a boy struck by the son of another couple, Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz.  12 Angry Men fans will likely relish the insular nature of the film, whose action takes place solely within one apartment and its connecting hallway.  This cinematic claustrophobia permits the performances to, pardon the pun, take center stage.  Quickly we see that the ceremony on which the couples stand is a precarious peace predicated on the perpetuation of pretty faces and posturing; Foster’s performance is a bold one as she breaks down and exposes the degree to which her character is entirely full of herself by blubbering through self-satisfied liberal platitudes, while Reilly reveals the polar opposite, a suppressed John Wayne sublimated by his wife’s feelgoodery.  Across the table, Winslet and Waltz are pitch-perfect as self-righteous and condescending spouses who can barely say two words to each other without making a phone call or, quite literally, throwing up.  Waltz is the only one who seems to resist epiphany here, his eye rolls and workaholic behavior an interesting type apart from his talky Tarantino turns.  It’s not that Foster and Reilly are bad, but Winslet and Waltz are in a stratosphere all their own, though they know how to let the other members of the ensemble take the screen back when need be.  An incisive look at how the hot-button issue of bullying may be a load of grandstanding and self-righteousness, Carnage is smart and delightful, four tour-de-force performances in a riveting bundle.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  We’ll see you here next week, and don’t forget that this Thursday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month...!