Talking Movies

March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is on imperious form as survivalist heroine Katniss Everdeen but she outshines everything else in this frustrating adaptation of the hit novel.

The Hunger Games opens in a manner uncannily like her breakthrough movie Winter’s Bone with Lawrence again in the American South mothering a younger sibling owing to an absent father and an incapable mother. Katniss lives in District 12 of a futuristic America known as Panem. This is dirt-poor Appalachian coal-mining territory, and she hunts squirrels and game with a home-made bow and arrow to survive. Every year, as a requirement of the Treaty of the Treason which ended the Civil War 74 years before, each of the 12 Districts sends two ‘tributes’, picked at random from their citizens aged between 12 and 18, to the Capitol to take part in a sadistic reality TV show where they fight to the death until only one ‘victor’ remains. Katniss’ 12 year old sister Prim is picked and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and pit herself against the Spartans/psychopaths of Districts 1 and 2 who train only for this purpose.

Katniss and her neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away to the Capitol by Effie (Elizabeth Banks) for a brief communal training period with the other tributes. They also get a makeover from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and are advised by gloriously irascible mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former victor, to make themselves as likeable as possible to the television audience to attract sponsors; who can drop vital supplies into the ‘wilderness’ where the games are held. Banks is very funny delivering callous lines but I didn’t recognise her for ages because, like everyone else in the Capitol, she resembles a colour-blind New Romantic who sneezed in the make-up box. Well-to-do weasel Peeta takes Haymitch’s advice and declares his hitherto unsuspected love for Katniss on television to compensate for his lack of survival skills by creating a star-cross’d lovers narrative. Katniss’ reaction should get cheers… A crazily bearded Donald Sutherland is the President of Panem, who rebukes Wes Bentley’s conniving game-maker for allowing Katniss to endanger the purpose of the games with her seditious gestures. The tense games themselves are thrillingly realised, replete with shifting strategic alliances and obliquely brutal murders.

Lawrence is, predictably, a great action heroine. Intriguingly she is so in the Cameron maternal action heroine mould. Like Ripley in Aliens she combines a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Katniss cares for the very young District 11 tribute Rue with such obvious love that she incites a riot in District 11. The flaws in The Hunger Games lie elsewhere. Director Gary Ross consistently shoots with an inexpertly adopted shaky-cam that true shaky-maestros Abrams or Greengrass would disavow as amateurish. Presumably he thinks he needs it to connect to a teenage audience, but it’s quite annoying. Amazingly though his recurring showily out of focus backgrounds and persistent close-in focus on the faces of his actors mirror the problems in the script he wrote with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins. This film is infuriatingly lacking in scope. When action erupts we have no map of the environment it’s erupting within. When rebellion is whispered about we have almost no information about the history of Panem or what this society is actually like now.

This is a good film, but given the reputation of the novel any adaptation that’s less than great sends you scurrying to read the book.

3/5

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July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…

Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.

The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.

As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

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