Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

Color me surprised.

The Hunger Games is pretty good.

I was prepared to dislike this movie because of director Gary Ross, a bland, boring choice at the helm. His previous films include Seabiscuit and Pleasantville. I also disapproved the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, who literally does not fit her role. Lawrence is a healthy, attractive woman, but she’s also twenty-one years old and on the voluptuous side of the spectrum. Her character, Katniss Everdeen – great name, right? – is a sixteen year-old who has spent most of her life hovering on the brink of starvation. As a result of the discord, it’s hard to fully buy into Lawrence as a denizen of her fictional world.

And I never did. I never fully bought into the reality of any of the characters, or the situation, or the setting.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a good time.

The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where civilization has put itself back together in a somewhat barbaric fashion. A central Capitol exercises ruthless power over thirteen outlying districts, which are kept in perpetual poverty following a calamitous revolt seventy-four years prior.

Furthermore, the districts are required to offer up a pair of teenagers every year for participation in the Hunger Games, a fight-to-the-death competition broadcast on live TV. This is the Capitol’s way of reminding the districts who’s in charge.

The plot follows one of the kids whose lottery ball comes up: our girl Katniss, a scrappy but responsible teen who is raising her younger sister Prim while keeping her permanently traumatized mother on the rails. Katniss’ father died years ago in a mine accident and, oh yeah, there isn’t enough food to go around. Katniss makes up the deficit by sneaking outside the district fences – an offense punishable by death – and shooting small game with her bow and arrow.

That bow and arrow will come in mighty handy once the Hunger Game begins.

More than half the movie consists of the build-up to the Game: the selection process, the long train ride to the Capitol, the training regimen, and interviews with the Capitol’s version of Ryan Seacrest. The Game itself occupies roughly the final third of the movie. This straightforward, classical structure allows for generous character development in the presence of tension. With every scene that passes, we get closer and closer to the deadly Game.

The Capitol itself is a gaudy place, where everyone wears pastel colors and ridiculous hats. The setting could quickly become moronic, and this is where Gary Ross really earned his stripes. The film is shot with a slightly jittery handheld look, and the framings are mostly tight. This has the effect of conveying authenticity, and preventing us from seeing more than flashes of the Capitol and its citizens.

This reliance on closeups puts a lot of pressure on the actors, and Lawrence proves her worth by being a welcome presence at an eight-inch distance for two hours plus. She’s no Meryl Streep, but there’s a likability in her that carries the movie.

The Hunger Games broke box office records last weekend, demonstrating beyond a doubt that it is the Next Big Thing in Hollywood. To me the most curious aspect of the phenomenon is how predictable it was. Like Twilight before it, and Harry Potter before that, a publishing mega-brand aimed at young adults can’t seem to miss at the box office.

Hollywood is so hungry for this kind of reliability that it often reaches too far looking for it, like with the Percy Jackson and Narnia movies. The books behind those projects weren’t nearly popular enough to warrant the global brand treatment Hollywood gave them, but that didn’t stop the studios from trying.

There’s only one thing that worries me about the remaining movies in the The Hunger Games series, and that is the fact that the second book is much weaker than the first, while the third is downright bad. Author Suzanne Collins was clearly making things up as she went along in books two and three – probably written in way-too-fast succession; they were all published a year apart.

So everyone involved with this smash hit should enjoy their success, but the challenges for the film-makers, as for Katniss herself, only get harder from here.


How Accomplished:  68/100

How Much I Enjoyed:  73/100

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

21 Jump Street

I hate differing with prevailing cultural opinion -- I really do; it makes me feel out of touch -- but I'm aghast at the 85% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and the $72m haul (to date) this movie has managed.

Because it's awful.

A spoofy remake of the ridiculous early 80's teen cop drama, 21 Jump Street stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as former high school classmates (one jock, one nerd) turned bicycle cops who are sent undercover at another high school to expose a drug operation.

Once there, they encounter every high school cliche imaginable, despite the movie's feeble attempts to show that times have changed by making environmentalism and homosexuality cool. (Really? It's a different world than it was in 2007? You sure?)

Adding to the wackiness, Tatum and Hill get their identities switched because Tatum forgets his assumed identity in the principal's office, so they end up taking each other's course load. This puts Tatum in science classes, where Tatum gets tight with the nerdy clique, and Hill in drama classes, where he meets his stereotypical love interest, a quirky drama girl.

The movie makes a play toward characters arcs and relationships and such -- the finale takes place at a prom which both heroes missed during their own high school years. But it's just a head fake; every line, every scene, every character, every plot point is gunning for the quickest laugh it can get. Which would be fine.

If it were funny.

 But 21 Jump Street is flimsy stuff. It's a rough draft, a string of scenes rife with comic potential, but lacking any good lines. Instead we get fumbled sentences, stutters and stops, that never culminate in actual punchlines.

The action sequences also fail to deliver. They're staged with a pro forma dreariness that reminded me of Horrible Bosses, another non-distinct comic effort.

I've been watching Tropic Thunder on cable recently. I think it's a comedy classic. Not only is the dialogue electric, but the action unspools in hilarious ways. The movie climaxes with Robert Downey Jr., who is pretending to be black for a movie he thinks he's in, pretending to be a Laotian rice farmer to save his friends from a vicious fourteen year-old opium warlord. When his bluff finally gets called, and he whips out a pair of machine guns from under his cloak with a courageously insane look in his eyes, it's a great comedic action moment.

Another cable classic, the brilliant Office Space, also springs to mind. When office drone Peter cockily deconstructs his cubicle to the strains of Damn It Feels Good 2 be a Gangster, it's a great moment.

By contrast, nothing funny happens in Jump Street. It's a mindless spoof of a cop genre that only really exists now in spoof form.

I don't think it needed to be made, and I can't imagine how it impressed all those critics and made all that money.

I am way out of the loop on this one.


How Accomplished: 37/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 29/100

Monday, March 26, 2012

John Carter

This movie is an epic.

It spent an epic amount of time in development. It required an epic budget to appear on screen. It carried epic expectations as one of only two live action releases from Disney this calendar year.

And in the end, it lost an epic amount of money.

There is no disputing John Carter's failure as a business venture. And sadly, there is little disputing its artistic failure either.

The problem goes all the way back to the source material. It just isn't very good. I don't know what to tell you.

Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Mars books are hastily-written pulp fiction about a Civil War soldier who accidentally gets transported to Mars, where he uses his advanced leaping abilities -- because of the reduced gravity! -- to ingratiate himself with the local four-armed, green-skinned Tharks, antagonize a local warlord named Sab Than, and romance the local princess of a besieged city called, uh, Helium.

You can almost always judge a work of world-creation by the quality of its names, because all names start out terrible, but with much labor and love, they all turn out beautiful. So Anton Starkiller will eventually become Luke Skywalker, Bingo Bolger will become Frodo Baggins, Robert April will become James Tiberius Kirk.

If there's that much effort and love invested in the names, you can generally rest assured the history, languages, politics and even the scientific reality of fictional worlds will also be well-considered, having been allowed to mature alongside the names themselves.

But you don't have that luxury if you're ripping out a novel in 1912 to be printed on onion paper for a remuneration of one-eighth cent per word. You write down the name "Sab Than" and then you keep going.

Although the Mars books were terrible, they were also successful, largely because of the intriguing subject matter. Mars was all the rage at the time, as its "canals" were thought to be compelling evidence of a technological civilization.

(Just remember that the next time you assert there MUST BE life in other star systems...)

However, it is now the year 2012, and it's a little hard to swallow a story that posits a Martian atmosphere, sword-wielding alien tribes and the actor from Friday Night Lights saving an entire planet -- which, incidentally, seems to stretch very little beyond the city of Helium. So much for world-building.

There are lots of craft-problems with John Carter, including an unnecessarily long set-up, some really flat dialogue, an unclear theme and some plot holes the size of a giant white ape. But the real reason it lost all that money is strategic: if you're going to make a movie with a budget that's a significant fraction of a billion dollars, you have to direct it at the only audience capable of returning your investment: teenagers.

But John Carter, conceived in such a stodgy, nostalgic fashion (it reeks of 1912) and written with an audience of 8 year-olds in mind (all that jumping around, the ridiculous "princess" and "warlord" titles, those four-armed aliens) -- misses its target on both sides.

For a stark contrast consider The Hunger Games -- an edgy, dark, female archer-led mythology that is very much of our reality tv moment. It's the hottest ticket of the year because teenagers feel cool for wanting to see it. Edgy. Dark. Female archer. It's gold!

But rickety old John Carter is the kind of movie a teenager wouldn't be caught dead at.

It all adds up to a very negative number on Disney's balance sheet, and not much else.


How Accomplished: 36/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 35/100

Monday, March 5, 2012

Act of Valor

In general terms, you tend to get what you’re striving for in a movie.

If the story is what’s driving the enterprise, it’s likely to be an okay story. (This comprises two percent of all Hollywood projects.) If the special effects are in charge, you can usually tell. If it’s a vanity piece, same deal. And if it’s a shameless plug for the U.S. Military masking itself as actual drama, well, how obvious can you be?

That’s why I’m surprised to report that Act of Valor, directed by a stuntman, written by a screenwriter whose only credit involves putting the graphic novel 300 into screenplay format, and produced by the Pentagon itself…

…is not terrible.

And that’s remarkable.

Now, I’m not saying the movie’s any good. It isn’t.

The plot tracks a couple of Navy SEALS. I don’t remember their character names, and the actors’ names are top secret because they were played by active-duty SEALS, so I’m going to refer to them as “a couple of Navy SEALS.”

Anyway, a couple of Navy SEALS get together for a beach day in San Diego with their respective families. They clink beer bottles, splash around with their kids and say generic, wholesome things all day long. This is important because our guys are about to go off on a Navy SEAL mission, and who knows if they will ever see their families again?

Once the loving-American-family segment of the story is concluded (running time: eight minutes), we launch into the serious-military-briefing section. This involves a senior commander I will refer to as “the bearded guy,” who conducts a multi-media lecture with the assistance of a woman in fatigues who talks too loud, like she thinks movie cameras don’t pick up sound very well.

During this briefing we learn that a CIA agent named Lopez – or something –  has been kidnapped by narco-terrorists in South America. Our Navy SEAL mission: to rescue her.

The operation that follows is passably interesting. I thought it was cool how they helicoptered boats onto a river, and then helicoptered them off at the end of the mission. I also thought it was cool how they asked the beaten and bloodied Lopez security questions about her childhood to verify it was her they were rescuing.

There are neat moments like that throughout Act of Valor, made possible no doubt by the fact that actual Navy SEALS played all the principal roles and had the discretion to make the details of the movie as authentic as possible. There aren’t too many “that’s not the way it would have happened” moments in Act of Valor.

On the other hand, there are lots of “that’s not the way a Hollywood screenwriter would have written that” moments. The most striking is an interrogation scene between the bearded guy and one of the evil bad guys – named “Cristo,” ha, I remembered that one! – on the evil bad guy’s yacht. It piles cliché on top of cliché (“You think this is some kind of game?”) so badly I almost choked on my gummy bears.

The overall plot derives from five supposedly real-life SEAL missions, which culminate in an evil scheme to detonate Filipino suicide bombers in fifteen US cities simultaneously, an act which will utterly demolish the global economy due to the ensuing media coverage.

I have no idea how this is supposed to feel like a plausible threat, but the movie operates enough like a video game – goal one: rescue hostage, goal two: apprehend Cristo on yacht, goal three: neutralize ALL FIFTEEN Filipino suicide bombers in the tunnels of Mexicali – that you slip into the same mindset you do during a video game. Objectives are arbitrary. It’s the tactical situation that’s meaningful.

This all goes to show how nebulous the notion of plausibility really is. A plot to “bring down” the global economy by killing a few hundred Americans in public places may well have been hatched at one point. It may be “real.” But as a bad guy plan, it really sucks.

By comparison, here’s a bad guy plan from an uber-Hollywood studio flick in 1988. This kind of thing has certainly never happened in real life, nor is it ever likely to happen. But it sure feels legit. It’s this, of course:

“When they touch down, we’ll blow the roof. They’ll spend a month sifting through the rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be on a beach, earning twenty percent.”

I have an uncomfortable feeling that Hans Gruber would have chewed up the SEALS from Act of Valor and spit them out.


How Accomplished:  51/100

How Much I Enjoyed:  58/100