Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Hunger Games

Now pitching (pitching pitching) for District 12 (12 12) Katniss! (niss! niss!)

Watching the adaptation of the super-popular teen book series The Hunger Games,I was struck by how similar it is to a number of other things. The urban-versas-rural, nigh anti-Federalist leanings of the plot reminded me heavily of Firefly and it’s film spin-off Serenity. Though I highly doubt Joss Whedon feels that way politically. The forcing of children to kill children is obviously taken from Battle Royale. Anyone who has seen that film and then watches this and denies the similarities is an apologist, delusional or both. At the very least, there’s a lot of Lord of the Flies through a post-apocalyptic filter.

Seems that in a vague future time, there is a country resembling America in which there had been a civil war and, to keep the rebels in line, they force a boy and girl from each district to fight to the death in a tournament. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult to control the population, considering the district from which our heroine Katniss hails has a constituency small enough that all the children constitute less than what made up my tiny high school in rural Kansas. But I digress.

The capitol city rules all with an iron fist and is run by foppish, yet bloodthirsty defendants of RuPaul. It’s hard to imagine their shocktroopers bothering to take orders from any of them and not taking over immediately in a military coup. When your least flamboyant citizen is Lenny Kravitz in gold eyeshadow, it’s really saying something. By the time Armin Zola from Captain America showed up in a Flock of Seagulls haircut…. But I digress again.

The point is, they bask in luxury and exploit the backwater districts for their resources and labor, putting their jackboots on the throats of anyone that threatens to upset that system again. Sort of like a stoned teenager’s understanding of British colonialism.

The fight to the death is a tournament called The Hunger Games (“Oh, so that’s where they got that from,” as Peter Griffin would say.) The Games are broadcast to even the poorest districts that seem to be without indoor plumbing, so they can watch their children being put down like it’s the Olympics. To say that the negative allusions to reality TV are obvious is an incredible understatement. Tributes, as they are called, are interviewed by Stanley Tucci as a cross between Bob Costas and Liberace. They’re paraded before all in an opening ceremony. They try to impress sponsors so they can get extra survival goodies and, upon entry to their arena, are pushed into confrontations by a descendant of Ed Harris’ character in The Truman Show. When he is not using his beard trimmer, he creates what I will describe as hard-light environments for the tournament and “directs” things, while the ruler of the country glowers and threatens as only Donald Sutherland can. Since these have all the characteristics and physical traits of the real thing, (the wood burns to create heat) one wonders why they need to bother with things like slave-labor for coal-mining and agriculture when they could make anything they need. (Perhaps these things are better explained in the books.)

There are a lot of things to make fun of in this film, believe me. I’d love to hear the Rifftrax. But what I haven’t told you yet is it’s actually a pretty competent movie with some very good work from actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson as the drunken souse that is the last person from Katniss’ District 12 to win the games. And if you look at the ridiculousness of the capitol as an analogue for the kind of ridiculous that happened in ancient Rome, it does make thematic sense. It manages to find a swollen emotional core and, while the ending is hardly in doubt, it does make you want to see Katniss succeed. She’s tough, self-reliant and smart. Everything Bella Swan-Cullen is not. Frankly, if the choice is between a kid watching this and a kid reading Twilight, I would get this for them immediately.

(Three out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Grey

The proper spelling, if you please.

I remember hearing Patton Oswalt talk once about how Denzel Washington deserved his Oscar for Training Day because he elevated the material at hand through his performance. The same argument could be made for Liam Neeson’s fantastic turn in The Grey (aka “Wolfpuncher” as some of my friends are fond of calling it.)

As a person that was very pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed director Joe Carnahan’s adaptation of The A-Team (also with Neeson, that time in the Hannibal Smith role), I can say that this film is not just very different for him, but that it is at another level from the rest of his oeuvre. However, that probably would not have been possible without Neeson’s heartrending performance as a man suffering through the loss of his wife. A performance informed by the real-life tragedy of the loss of his own wife.

In his mourning, Neesen’s character, referred to by his last name of Ottway, travels to Alaska to hunt wolves for and oil company and, job over and traveling overland back to “civilization” in a passenger plane, survives a crash that strands him and a half-dozen or so other employees in the Alaskan wilderness. With little time to wait for rescue, they begin to move south, fighting the elements and the famous wolves seen in the trailer. In a few quick flashbacks we see a little of what led him to be the man he is, moving from suicidal depression to screaming at a God he claims he does not believe in anymore.

The wolves, while certainly a heck of a lot better than the ones in the over-cooked effects fest The Day After Tomorrow, are pretty obvious CGI creations. Fortunately, this doesn’t take too much from the film as at a certain point, you should be pulled in by the drama between the characters and the way their interpersonal relationships in many ways offer parallels between the men and the pack hunters.

Once the cinematography tones down the overused cinema verite style that pervades so many films today, it also is starkly beautiful. The great white north is almost as pretty as it is deadly, making for quite a juxtaposition. Snowy plains give way to dense forests and mountain vistas, all of which hold unique dangers for the survivors.

The end result of all this is a film that offers an odd but endearing combination of sympathy towards the survivors without ever becoming overly sentimental. In some ways it is reminiscent of the type of adventure fiction perpetrated by London or L’Amour where the characters are not necessarily glamorized  but are matter of fact. When Neesen talks about his father and the film threatens to veer into Terrance Malick territory, they are smart enough to pull out after verbalizing the theme through verse. The ending, while probably too ambiguous for many, was satisfying to me as it had become clear that the point of the film was a character arc, come full circle.

All in all, it makes for one of the better, if not the most bittersweet, movie experiences of the year.

(Four out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Paranorman

ParanormMainQuad_Ref103

Stop-motion animators sure love creepy stuff. Granted, it’s a great medium for the weird. I even had a (somewhat now dissipated) phobia of Claymation growing up because of a movie I saw called The Adventures of Mark Twain. I had nightmares for weeks after seeing it. (Just look for the name on youtube and chances are the part that devastated my innocence will be front and center.)

This year it seems like filmmakers have an unusual interest in rendering tributes to the macabre in animation. Besides Tim Burton’s latest and the CGI flick Hotel Transylvania (which I have heard surprisingly good things about from fellow cartoonists) taking on the golden age of Hollywood horror monsters, we have the second film from animation studio Laika. Paranorman, their follow-up to the Henry Selick-helmed adaptation of Coraline, is a film made completely in-house and from an original story. Selick may be a hard act to follow, but fortunately they are up to the task.

Norman, an eleven-year-old boy in a small Massachusetts town, is different from the other kids in that he’s able to see and talk to the dead. Not that anyone believes him. From these Sixth Sense beginnings, we are treated to a fun tale involving zombies, ghosts, a conversion van and a vengeful witch that manages to be humorous and able to give a sucker punch to the gut with a third-act surprise. At times it threatens to let the message overwhelm it, but it manages to just skirt the edge in the same way that The Iron Giant did.

In a lot of ways, the film feels like the creators are paying homage to youth-oriented films of the 80s, much the same way Monster House did (though Paranorman is the better film.) It’s almost as if the animators said, “How do we make a better version of a movie like Monster Squad or Hocus Pocus?” From the opening homage to low-budget zombie screamers on, the film shows an edge lacking in many of today’s sugar-coated confections which think random fart jokes are supposed to substitute for characters and story. Not that there isn’t some great potty humor in the film, but it doesn’t feel calculated or forced. Most of it feels like little improvised moments. (The looseness of the humor is all the more impressive when one looks at all the detail work that had to go into making the humor seem so effortless.) While very young children may not be able to handle some of the more grotesque aspects of the proceedings (the film is rated PG) anyone that grew up with things like The Goonies will probably be alright with letting their kids watch it.

The animation is gorgeous and full of tiny touches that make it seem just a little more special, as well as huge show pieces that display their technical expertise. I’m personally looking forward to any “making of” features on the blu ray to find out how they did some of them. Even in these big moments, little bits of personality shine through and illuminate who they are. Combined with some excellent voice work from actors picked more for their voices than name recognition, it does a great job making, pardon the phrasing, three-dimensional characters.

(Four out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Bourne Legacy

Bourne

One of my favorite reviewers described The Bourne Legacy as “Flowers for Algernon with a body count.”

I doubt I can do better than that.

But it is my duty to soldier on and explain what he means by that and tell you why Legacy is a decent, if unaffecting film that manages to build off the Damon films without completely copying them in every way.

Of course Matt Damon is absent for the duration of Legacy, not even bothering to put in a requisite cameo appearance, showing up only in a widely circulated photo that looks like it was taken right before he was in Good Will Hunting. His character’s name is all over the place, however. His replacement is the Hurt Locker himself, Jeremy Renner. After being the duct tape slapped onto existing franchises like Mission Impossible and the Hawkeye role for Thor and Avengers, Renner does a servicable job trying to hold together the aging series, making his performance different enough from Damon’s that it helps keep away the “been there done that” for at least a short time. (Though intercutting bits directly from The Bourne Supremacy serves as a cheesy reminder that the film is happening concurrently with the third film in the franchise.)

In Legacy we find Renner is a member of a side-program to the one that created Bourne. He is not seeking answers about who he is and where he comes from. He signed on for what he does and he is only too happy to do it, as he feels he’s doing right and serving his country and his people. It doesn’t hurt that he had an IQ approximately the same as Forrest Gump’s and they gave him some magic pills to turn him into a spy version of Bradley Cooper from Limitless.

When Bourne’s exposure of the CIA’s main program to build a better spy hits the public, the agent in charge of Renner’s division decides the risk of exposure towards himself and his people is worth razing every shred of evidence that this, apparently more successful, version exists, including the agents under their command. In charge is Ed Norton who isn’t especially menacing, but considering the main bad guys in this series always seem to be morally gray, middle-management, government bureaucrats, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, Renner escapes their initial blitzkrieg of his fellow uber-agents, but has his smart-pills taken away, dooming him to grow dumber and dumber. Enter Rachel Weisz as Generic Scientist Character and through a fun action sequence, she ends up his hostage/confidante and can help him attempt to hold onto his artificial smarts.

Bourne Legacy is not a movie full of surprises, nor does it add much originality to the formula. While Renner’s motivations are refreshingly different, the set pieces and feel of the movie are comparable and well done, but direct carry-overs,though strangely, the shaky-cam in this film feels slightly less stomach-churning than the last two. The actors are all top notch, but perhaps it is out of necessity that the film just feels like a phantom appendage to the main Bourne body. It’s enjoyable enough to watch that you’ll like it if you have liked the previous Bourne movies to this point, but it’s just extraneous. It’s a sugary confection that will not stick with you, but it doesn’t take a nose-dive into idiocy. Oddly, the most harrowing part doesn’t even involve Renner’s character, but is that way because of headlines we’ve seen over the last few years. There’s nothing patently offensive about the film, nor is there anything special about it. There just doesn’t seem to be much reason for it to exist other than to possibly line Universal’s pockets.

(I guess time will tell if the next film in the francise will “Fast and Furious” the sequels by having Renner and Damon join forces.)

(Two and a half out of five stars)