Monday, April 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Grade: B
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland.
Director: Gary Ross

The Hunger Games will sap up comparisons to science fiction. That’s what happens with stories about futuristic dystopias and freaky hovercraft. The better comparison is to Roman or Biblical epics of the fifties. Its story – of the youth of 12 outlying provinces exploited for the bloodsport of a wealthy and perverse capital – is reminiscent of Ben Hur or Spartacus. It even has a grand chariot parade, with crowds adoring Katniss Everdeen, a firelit, coal-haired Cleopatra.

These are essentially stories of the risks of opulence, how wealthy societies are built on this sort of cruelty and exploitation. Violent spectacle is seen as the dark payment for a vital but oppressive society. The suggestion is that civilization is little more than a sophisticated decoration of the primitive instinct.

Science fiction typically presents itself as the future, when really it is the present in disguise. But the Hunger Games begins by looking into the past. This is a future that first takes shape in a dim Appalachia, lingering in a permanent time warp, where even a nuclear war seems unable to change much. The coal shaft explosions are still as present as the class struggles that have marked the place for hundreds of years.

The is the world of Katniss Everdeen, and it bears considerable resemblance to the world of Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence’s previous heroine from Winter’s Bone. In each film, she has played a backwoods teenage breadwinner with a missing father and an enfeebled mother. Lawrence seems to win these roles at least in part because her mild Kentucky accent is Hollywood’s idea of backwoods credibility. That she fills each truthseeker with the same blend of bravery and vulnerability is the cinema’s good fortune.

Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who is chosen by lottery to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a 24-teen televised fight-to-the-death. By some twist of logic, this ceremony keeps the unruly districts from rebelling against the kleptocratic capital.

The story catches Katniss in two swirls – her impending fame and her impending death. From the latter, we arrive at a young woman revealing her sturdy character as she faces her demise. For the former, our bow-and-arrow tomboy receives a makeover into a young woman. There’s a moment when the coal-country girl, partial to hunting clothing, goes for a twirl in front of a TV audience in a stylish dress. It’s a moment of surprise exhiliration, and it’s one of the film’s unexpected best moments. One of the film's shortcomings is that it loses sight of the fact that it is a coming-of-age story set in bizarre circumstances.

Coming-of-age means romance, as do YA novels (the film is based on a book series by Suzanne Collins). A movie aimed at young women means “torn between two men.” So of course it includes a love story, with the wimpy but likable Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow contestant from her district. The dreamboat Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sits this one out back home, leaving a triangle for future films. The suggestion is that the refreshment of purity, authenticity and youth poses the greatest challenge to corruption.

Much has been wondered about the film’s politics. Are they left or are they right? Such is the state of politics in this country that the populist impulse on either side has come to resemble one another in some ways. The orientation is less important than the accuracy, of a centralized power structure draining the life and wealth out of the rest of the country, and the society that sublimates its violent imagination into competitive rituals.

But does The Hunger Games get this right? Or is this a case of how authors overestimate ominous portents found in simple progress? As it pertains to de-sensitization, The Hunger Games is its own best evidence. Twenty years ago, a movie about a teenage murder pageant – aimed at teenage girls, no less – would have caused protestors to lay in front of the theater doors. Now it’s a girls night family outing.

On the other hand, we’re 20 years past The Running Man, which was the last time that we were “only a few years away” from this sort of thing. Somehow we’ve managed to steer clear of death match game shows. In reality, masculine excess is not our problem. Men being forced by wives to wear those embarrassing strap-on baby carriers is more our problem than excessive bloodlust. Sometimes I wish I lived in a country that could still stage a televised death match.

Anyway, it drags at times, but I enjoyed The Hunger Games. And I’m also pleased to have a genuine event movie that everyone has seen, the first of several this year. Even better, its soundtrack hit No. 1 this week, something that used to be routine. It’s like taking a step back, appropriately, to 1984.

Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans
Grade: C
Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Rosamund Pike, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Free Access Granted

In Ancient Greece, Homer’s memorized recitals of the stories of the heroes and gods certainly required an attention span. The Wrath of The Titans certainly does not. It demands only the attention typically demanded by modern Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting.

But would Homer, in all his “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog face wouldn’t close my eyes as I descended into Hades”-ness, have been better served by less longwindedness and more action? With three screenwriters and a focus group whittling his tales down to sixth-grade level? With Zeus turning to Hades before they run around tossing lightning bolts during the climatic battle and uttering that phrase that has echoed down through the ages: “Let’s have some fun!”

In fairness, Hollywood isn’t trying to make a story that will last down through the millennia. They’re shooting for two hours, tops. And while The Wrath of the Titans does nothing to crater your attention for that length of time, it doesn’t do much to earn it beyond the two-hour parking limit, either.

Something of a greatest hits of Greek mythology, The Wrath of the Titans pours enough mythological creatures into the story that you might think it’s Bella Swan’s new dating list. There are giant Cyclops, wraiths, minotaurs, and of course the flying horse, Pegasus. If they didn’t get into the first film, 2009’s Clash of the Titans, they must figure this could be the last chance.

Fans of Hercules and Theseus may be dismayed having their accomplishments credited to a different warrior. That warrior would be Perseus (Sam Worthington). After vanquishing the Kraken several years ago, the reluctant warrior must leave his peaceful life to help his father Zeus save the world from dastardly Olympian infighting. His brother Ares, the god of war, is plotting against the two of them. This is a perfect setup for Ancient Greece, the culture that gave us the "daddy issue.”

I might leave this film lost in a labyrinth with no string to lead it out except for one thing – the visual effects are rather brilliant. Kudos to visual effects supervisor Nick Davis and his team. They integrate the CG monsters smoothly into the “real” elements of the scene and find the right balance between spectacle and reality. The images own an enormous amount of visual detail.

I was also impressed, at times, by the art direction and cinematography. There’s a lovely earthen feel to the Greek infantry smudged in mud as they await battle. And some of the shots are really beautifullly composed. For instance, watch, for instance, the scene where Perseus lands the flying horse Pegasus into a phalanx of Greek soldiers. See how the camera glides – from the dismounting hero, down the line of kneeling soldiers. to a helmet planted in the sand, then upwards to a person walking back toward Perseus. It’s a well-thought-out and executed shot. Almost from the beginning, director Jonathan Liebesman and cinematographer Ben Davis plant little gems like this.

If only they had also planted little gems like characters you care about and action that matters.

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street
Grade: D
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube
Director: Phil Lord
Free Access Granted

21 Jump Street isn’t just another forgettable adaptation of a television program, the disappearance from the cultural radar of which no no one laments.

Mais non! The only interesting thing about this one: how it inadvertently ended up standing on the tarmac red carpet to greet the arrival of Hollywood’s unexpected leading men.

Channing Tatum looks the part. The Hollywood heartthrob of a million female fantasies, he has anchored a string of overperforming rom-coms (Step Up, Dear John, and The Vow). The New York Times wonders if Hollywood can mint him into the answer for its leading man shortage. The real question is whether the Town is going to wake up to find it already has.

Then there’s Jonah Hill. Since Superbad he has developed into the most recognizable Apatow comedy player. And one day, you just look up and realize he’s one of the most famous and bankable young stars out there.

That no one really saw these guys coming is a comfort. That they represent two extremes of Hollywood stardom – the natural and the unlikely – is kind of neat. And in 21 Jump Street they slip into those two pigeonholes nicely. Tatum is the high school quarterback who everyone would expect to be a star. Hill is the chunky nerd whose popularity no one would predict. That natural tension is used to good comic effect, as a police force odd couple set to relive their high school years as undercover narcotics officers.

21 Jump Street was a short-lived Fox television show from the Pre-Simpsons, pre-X-Files time before the network ever had a hit. Its sole distinction was launching the career of Johnny Depp. If the point of “TV adaptations” is to capture a show’s built-in audience, then you have to wonder about the wisdom of making one from a show that no one watched.

The film shares very little in common with the show, from what little I care to recall. The film returns Tatum and Hill to high school, where the social life has changed, along with their social standing. The nerd rules the modern high school, the film insists. The dumb jock gets picked on for being a dumb jock. 21 Jump Street announces that the American high school has evolved into Glee.

21 Jump Street really is a jackhammer of Hollywood soullessness. It’s a disaster, but Hollywood has become talented at disguising worthlessness for the middle hour. When Jump Street finally runs out of gas toward the end, you sink into the feeling of just how rotten its core really is. Until then, enjoy the star power.

John Carter

John Carter
Grade: D
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynne Collins, Mark Strong
Director: Andrew Stanton
Free Access Granted

Every March Hollywood thrusts forth a summer blockbuster that is neither summer nor blockbuster. It has a habit of being directed by Zack Snyder and always contains overly heavy CGI. This year, that film is John Carter.

John Carter is also a $250 million risk, and this adaptation of old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels has a great deal of potential energy for backfire. The fact that the film is dull, repetitive, derivative, underwritten. unoriginal, uninspired, and not particularly eye-catching for the investment makes it even a greater risk.

Directed by Wall-E’s Andrew Stanton, John Carter does have a little wry sense of humor that’s occasionally bolstered by witty editing. That’s a good thing, because it doesn’t have much else. The titular post-Civil War outlaw isn’t the only one here to commit theft. Right now, George Lucas is looking around the bedroom and checking his things. As well as the 80s version of Flash Gordon.

The appropriately named Taylor Kitsch handles the title role, as a Civil War veteran who chases an alien into an Arizona cave and travels across the galaxy to a war-torn planet. There he is rescued and enslaved by a savage race of hulking green men, then enlisted into a civil war by a free-spirited princess (Lynne Collins). Freed of normal gravity, he becomes a great warrior, fighting strange creatures. However his greatest battle might be fighitng off predictability when every character stops to tell him the plot.

Recently, Hollywood has taken the occasionally used term Space Western a little too far. John Carter is the latest number to import sci-fi tenets into cowboy stories (Cowboys and Aliens being another). I’m not sure why. It’s a little like Shakespeare films reshaped for high school. It seems to be a trend to make Westerns “relevant” for digital age audiences. As it doesn’t seem this trend is going that well, I have a question: Couldn’t we just start making Westerns again?