Some more stuff off Netflix this week (the disc service, not the streaming.) I’m not too happy about yet another price hike from them. I don’t get cable, it’d be a shame to have to drop them too. (Though there is still a good video store in Lawrence so I’ll be OK. Liberty Hall, y’all!) On to the movies!
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE- I kind of get it now. I was only a very moderate fan of the first film in the Hunger Games saga. Despite the raving declarations of love by its very large, very vocal fanbase, I just didn’t understand the furor caused by what amounted to a post-apocalyptic Battle Royale pastiche with a ton of holes in the fabric of the plot. I did give myself an out in that. I said that it’s possible the film simply didn’t capture the book and cut out lots of necessary exposition in creating a society. A society of people descended from Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who somehow rule with a foppish iron fist. The sequel, while not fixing any of the logical problems that drive me absolutely nuts, does manage to work much better by pushing the political metaphor, deepening the character work and giving stoic heroine Katniss a truly badass moment in the finale.
I have to say, one of the things I really enjoy is the reversal of traditional gender roles at play here where the guy is considered the sensitive of the pair and she’s the hotheaded berserker. She’s Wolverine, without the forest of body hair. This doesn’t exactly match her manipulative, cunning huntress from the first film, but it’s an interesting direction to take the character.
Anyway, the Roman parallels are far more explicit in this go round and by the time we get an ipecac introduced it’s pretty much the most obvious thing ever. I find myself really wondering the author’s intentions because there are a few ways to take the whole thing. It could be a really mediocre gripe against the 1% as I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some people read into it, but given the setup, it seems to work so much better as an impugning of Soviet Russia, at least as presented on film. You have a capitol where the political elite lord over people with nothing. When they want to punish everyone, they crack down on the “black market,” the last bastion of economic freedom the people have.They destroy their possessions. They flog and shoot people in the street. Sounds like a communist regime to me. President Snow blames Katniss for his woes because he fails to acknowledge what a dumb system he’s running in the first place and when he talks about reminding people of their proper place, he forgets that with such a low life expectancy, there practically aren’t any people alive who can remember their great war of subjugation to begin with.
The ending reveals yet another issue with the logic of the series; if they can destroy District 12 without fear of having to lose what they take from them by force, why were they so determined to keep them under their boot in the first place? As I said in my review of the first film, however, the whole matter of subjugation and confiscation makes no sense when the technology apparently exists to rearrange matter at will as we see in the games themselves. Hell, they should be in a Star Trekian utopia.
Regardless of the issues present in the narrative’s background, the character work builds mightily on the previous film, giving those we’re familiar with a lot of milage. Elizabeth Banks’ character may be part of the upper class, but she seems fatigued to exhaustion and skittish under pressure. Woody Harrelson manages to portray his high-functioning alkie to wondrous effect as he looks at these silly kids with both worry and disdain. It’s extremely sad that Phillip Seymore Hoffman passed away after this film because he will be a tough act to follow. The calculating behind his eyes sells the character and his nature well beyond what is written for him to say. (Stanley Tucci remains the exact same brand of weird, though.)
It’s all pretty impressive despite the issues. Impressive enough that I may catch the next movie in the theater, even if I’m bitter about it being on the two-parter finale bandwagon that needs to just stop. The revolutionary feeling in the air of Pan Em is a pretty good draw as it turns more towards being a cross between Battle Royale and Animal Farm. And while I’m not sure how that combination sounds, I mean it in a good way.
ZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES- The 18th chapter of the Zatoichi saga displays how the films are often at their best when they are very straightforward and simply head from point A to point B without trying to put in a lot of extra storylines and b-plots.
It is the kind of simple ‘walking tall’ style story the franchise does so well. Zatoichi arrives in town, meets up with someone goodhearted, gets caught up in the middle of a skirmish involving the local yakuza and it ends with him more or less reluctantly dispensing *ahem* blind justice. It is the very essence of the series, but when it is done as effectively as in this entry, it still packs a punch.
In this case, a group of hoods (the Fugitives of the title) help the proceedings along as they try to take him down several times, leading to several instances of entertaining escapes. It also was a good move to make the leader of the gang have patience and foresight we rarely see from Ichi’s adversaries. While the underlings howl about going after him, underestimating him again and again due to his blindness, he illustrates a shrewd understanding of just how dangerous our hero is. He also is responsible for some family drama that adds just a little flavor to the proceedings. The gang is better fleshed out and shows more visual diversity than many of Zatoichi’s foes, making it so some of them are recognizable instead of being a ‘uniformed’ sea of sword fodder.
In Fugitives, we see him get worn down and hurt over the film. He may be a preternaturally good swordsman, but he’s not invincible and this film does a good job of reminding us of that. The only real gripe is that the ending comes just a little too easily given the extent of his injuries, but that’s just complaining to complain.
I saw Kon Tiki not too long ago and All is Lost makes a very interesting companion piece in which folks can contrast having a half-dozen men bickering in the middle of the ocean or being alone in screaming solitude and decide which is worse.
Similar in many ways to last year’s Gravity (but saving a lot of ink on the screenplay) it is a tale of survival where everything that can go wrong does. Splotchy and lined like an old work glove, Redford is the only real character in the film and he barely speaks, seemingly using less than two dozen words after an initial opening salvo. I am increasingly distressed by the overused trope of starting at a random point in the story and flashing back for you to find out how you got there, but maybe they felt like it would stick out if they shoehorned a monologue in at the actual place it would belong after only hearing him scream one obscenity in the previous hour. (Remember when they did that with Mr. Bean in his first movie when he suddenly launches into that monologue? Yeah, that was just weird.)
Beginning with a large hole being put in his boat by a lost shipping container full of crappy sneakers, he loses power and the use of his radio. This doesn’t phase him too badly and he seems pretty capable of fixing most of it. However, sensing he is screwed, nature decides to kick him in the backside with a violent storm. It’s pretty much all downhill from there for him.
It’s a very different role from this summer’s Captain America, but one that equally relies on the gravitas that he has inherited due to his decades in the industry and the persona he has been assigned from them. This could have easily been filmed with a younger actor, but Redford brings a lot to the role simply by being Redford. It is reminiscent of roles Clint Eastwood has performed since Unforgiven or late-era John Wayne. One senses he’s been through the ringer and with his worn countenance, old wedding ring and fairly spartan lifestyle, it becomes heavily implied that his solitude and silence are self-imposed, perhaps as he tries to get over some late-life tragedy. As I said, none of it is explicit, but the use of Redford and visual cues simply gets you to start writing the story of how this guy got into the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a neat trick by the writer/director, J.C. Chandor.
The film is also very well made technically. In an instance of someone actually adhering to “don’t tell, show” it is a darn good thing that they make the things interesting visually. I personally think the film makes a mistake by often going long periods without any kind of score. I think the purpose behind these long moments is to express more isolation and to stress how he is out of touch from other human beings, but some of the times that try to stress it really could have benefitted from some kind of music, especially when he’s just rummaging around. The music is good enough that they really should have trusted it to help carry these scenes.
This is a film that will require patience in the viewer. I wonder if people more versed in seafaring may be more bored than me since a lot of what he does will probably come across as pretty routine. For me though, it was a well-made and interesting film. I don’t know if I’ll revisit it any time soon. However, for those that want a survival tale and a good leading performance from a veteran in an industry where it seems like people of his vintage are often only taken off the shelf to slum in niche “old people” films, it’s a very refreshing change of pace.
ODD THOMAS- I am a little surprised that this Dean Koontz adaptation seems to have essentially gone straight to video. Surprised for two reasons. Number one, because the main creative force behind it is Stephen Sommers, who was a pretty big name no more than a decade ago. Van Helsing really seems to have damaged his career in a big way (even though it did decent business) since the only other thing he’s done since is the first GI Joe movie, but you’d still think his adaptation of a book by a big selling writer would manage to get a theatrical release. Part of it may have been legal troubles, it looks like, but Cabin on the Woods sat on the shelf for a couple of years and still managed to get a wide release. Number two because it’s better than your standard direct to video film.
First the bad news. There’s a moderately awful twist ending that actually made me angry and though I haven’t read the books, I’m assuming Sommers was hamstrung by the novel to include it. The way it ends is very much setting up a series that will likely never be and it feels like a wasted opportunity to simply make one really good movie instead. It’s just one part of the film’s biggest weakness; sometimes it just plain feels like the pilot to a TV series. Ready made franchises are now second nature in Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that this one makes the attempt, it is just disappointing. Adding to that, the way it’s structured, the staging, the nature of the mystery, the parting coda and the narration by the titular character all combine to make it feel very much like a WB Network horror comedy, albeit a pretty good one. One that would probably be a little controversial given the villain’s plan of this first “episode.” I would go so far as to say this argument is more praise for the increase in TV’s entertainment value than damning the film’s quality, but there you are.
The best thing about the film is the casting and that is where it differentiates itself from other similar fare. Anton Yelchin simply has charm. He has proven himself in the new Star Trek films and he was a very, very big reason for me enjoying the remake of Fright Night. In fact, this film has a lot of similarities to that one. Sommers’ touch makes it feel like much lighter fare despite having some pretty dark ideas though. Say, it is to Reaper as Fright Night is to Supernatural.
In this film he is Odd in name and action. He sees dead people, but that’s not where his powers end. He can see demonic entities, he can see people’s dreams… He’s got a whole bunch of not very clearly defined supernatural powers that crop up when convenient, kind of like in Superman II.
His love interest since childhood is named Stormy and she’s played very well by Addison Timlin. I’m not familiar with her other work and seeing what she’s been in, it’s no wonder why. However, she’s got great chemistry with Yelchin which leads to some very enjoyable banter. And while this is not the basis of a good performance, dang it, she’s a looker. What I really enjoyed is Stormy and Odd actually have that rarest of fictional couplings, a healthy relationship that is endearing. (Sommers did a good job of this with Mummy Returns as well, now that I think about it.)
The main guy that people will have heard of in the piece is Willem Dafoe and he’s damned good as the competent cop that’s befriended Odd and has a symbiotic relationship with him. As much as I enjoy him hamming things up as a psychotic, I think people forget that he can be a damned funny guy when given the chance.
Sommers’ direction lends itself to the material when it comes to establishing a tone that could be a pretty tough balancing act. It could be more original to be sure, but then so could Deep Rising and I remain a huge fan of that particular creature feature. The film probably isn’t gory enough to satisfy the horror fiends that feed on similar genre comedies such as Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. It is also likely too much on the side of a light R or hard PG-13 to be for young teens so it misses that whole audience. I found the tone to be fun without feeling like it was trying too hard to be pandering and that middle ground may actually hurt it, however it worked great for me. I’ll probably revisit this one on blu ray at some point. (Unfortunately, Netflix only had it on DVD, which ticks me off. Get on the ball, guys!)