Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games Movie Poster


I always wonder after seeing a movie where I have read the book beforehand, “Would I have liked this better had I not read the book?”  Anybody who has read a book later turned into a film is naturally going to be biased concerning the story.  They know how much deeper the material goes, the character back stories, and the scenes which did not make the final cut.  They may still critique the filmmaking objectively, but not the story/plot. 
I read The Hunger Games before seeing the movie.  I know that in Panem, an all controlling fascist regime based out of the Capital controls 12 districts in an extremely oppresive manner.  In District 12, the proletariat meagerly scrapes by through mining coal and make up for the rest of their harsh existence through scavenging and bartering.  To atone for a previous rebellion, every year each District must send one male and female aged 12-18 to the Capital to fight each other to the death.  These are the Hunger Games. 
Katniss Eberwine (Jennifer Lawrence), at 16 years old, is her family’s breadwinner.  After her father was killed in a mining accident, her mother sunk into a sort of catatonic shock, so Katniss was forced to use her hunting and archery skills to eke out a minimal existence for her mother and her younger sister.  It is technically illegal to hunt outside the District’s wire perimeter, but Katniss is adept at evading the sensors and also has a partner in crime with her friend Gael (Liam Hemsworth). 
On Hunger Games selection day, known as the Reaping, Katniss’s small 12 year old sister, Primrose, is selected against all odds.  In an act of selfless protection, Katniss jumps forward to volunteer in her place.  Joining her on the stage as the male representative is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son and somewhat of an acquaintance of Katniss.  Also along for the ride is District 12’s Capital representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and a drunken former Hunger Games winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who will serve as the mentor for Katniss and Peeta in the games.
This plot description sounds a bit thin but it is truly intriguing.  The idea of 24 teenagers running around the woods spearing each other with swords, arrows, or even their bare hands has a particular voyeuristic element to it.  Unfortunately, to make sure they wrenched all of the millions they could out of the audience, the filmmakers kept this at the PG-13 level.  The violence and ensuing deaths just look silly at this sanitized level.  Unlike the book, the dread is absent.  Furthermore, the characters are stock and one-dimensional; yes, as opposed to the book.
In the novel, Peeta’s motivations and back story concerning Katniss are finely woven into the story and given a lot of weight.  However, in the film, you cannot guess if he is sincere or just trying to play the game.  In the book, little Rue (Amandla Stenberg) is a very young and tiny waif from the agricultural district whose impact is deeply felt by the reader.  In the movie, Rue fills her requisite squares, but fails to make anywhere near the same impact.  I am not sure quite where to put my finger on it, but there is something really missing from this movie.
No character gets their due.  What I mean is, the plot is faithfully followed, but there is no oomph, no driving force.  Katniss comes the closest, but that is just because she is in almost every scene.  Jennifer Lawrence has done a very good job here bringing Katniss to life and making her appear scared for her life, which she truly is.  Just before her platform rises to begin the Hunger Games, she visibly shakes with fear.  Lawrence was even better in Winter’s Bone where she really turned in a mesmerizing performance.  The biggest disappointments are Panem’s dictator and Peeta.  These two characters could have added so much depth to what is actually a very light and breezy Hunger Games.  If you are familiar with this story, light and breezy should be the last two adjectives which come to mind.
A film should be judged on its own irrespective of whether or not you have read its original material.  In that respect, The Hunger Games is a very creative story which is underserved by its meek script and borderline boring filmmaking.  Material of this caliber (and budget) deserves so much more.      

Friday, March 23, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)


An Arab sheikh with more money than sense wants to import the sport and/or lifestyle of salmon fishing from cold and rainy Scotland to the barren desert of Yemen.  In the meantime, the British government is floundering from scandal to scandal and greedily seizes upon the idea of a cultural rapprochement between the West and the Arab world through this fishing enterprise; it is even better that the sheik is willing to foot the entire bill.  The messy details will be filled in by the Fisheries Department representative Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and an investment rep for the sheikh, Ms. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt).
Naturally, Dr. Jones is incredulous that anyone would think it feasible to move 10,000 salmon from Scotland to Yemen and considers his assignment a fool’s errand.  Harriet’s apparent upper class business school education prepared her not to stop and question these silly survivability issues.  Oh, and out of nowhere see seems to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese.  Two characters being (in)conveniently thrust together like this is a classic setup for the romantic comedy genre.  You expect to them to start out at odds, grow fond of each other, overcome some last second conflict, and then float away together with their aquatic metaphors.  Well, the joke is on the audience and the culprits are the marketing execs.
The preview for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen shows it as a joke a minute and lightly conceived romantic comedy; however, there is barely any noticeable comedy and every scene left out of the preview leans more toward the dramatic.  There is an Afghanistan side plot, an unhappy marriage, tribal terrorism, and emotional depression.  The character of Dr. Jones is plainly painted as obstinate in the beginning both towards the project and to Harriet because his character arc is required to end up softer and more compassionate.  In reality, even if the good Dr. considered the salmon project lunacy, he would not be so overtly rude to Harriet. 
The plan’s financier, Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) is an obscenely rich man from Yemen prone to waxing philosophic about salmon.  That kind of money can only come from oil wealth, but Yemen has no oil reserves.  The plot never explains the source of the Sheikh’s money, not because it is not consequential to the plot, but because it cannot.  The screenplay could never find an Earthly explanation of why a Yemeni sheikh could haphazardly plop down 50 million pounds on a salmon project.  The writer, Simon Beaufoy, most recently adapted 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire into scripts and even he chose to leave that tiny detail out of the script.
What comedy there is in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen comes from the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas).  She is very good at what she does, knows the angle of the story she wants planted in the papers before the event occurs, and moves very quickly to make things happen.  Kristen Scott Thomas hasn’t played a character this snarky since Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Unfortunately, Patricia vanishes a quarter ways through the film and when she reappears towards the end, the plot has unnecessarily shifted her from comedic to more bureaucratic.   
The acting in this film is more than capable, especially from McGregor since he is able to talk in his native Scottish dialect.  Sadly, the screenplay is a mess and the tone created by director Lasse Hallstrom resembles nothing from the misleading preview and is much darker than the blindsided audience will be prepared for.  Feel free to skip Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.     

Saturday, March 10, 2012

In Darkness (2011)


In Darkness is aptly titled.  This film is incredibly dark, both in a lighting sense and its subject matter.  Based on the book, In the Sewers of Lvov: a Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust, In Darkness joins a long line of films which document Jewish ghettos during World War II.   The story follows an individual group of Jews who evade the Nazis once the ghetto massacre begins.  The group dug a hole from one of their small apartments which leads down into the murky mess of the Lvov, Poland sewers. 
The resident lord of the sewers is Lvov’s sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz).  He is a blue collar worker who is just trying to get through the German occupation as best he can.  Along with his assistant, Socha ransacks houses formerly occupied by Jews to steal whatever he can and sell the stolen goods to help support his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and his young daughter.  One day while working in the sewer, Socha comes upon a group of Jews who have just completed digging a hole from the Jewish ghetto into the sewer.  Socha has no love for Jewish people but he has no direct animosity either.  In exchange for a hefty sum of cash, Socha agrees to keep mum about the hole and if the time comes, will help a small number of them evade the Nazis and find good hiding spots.
Naturally, the storming of the ghetto comes sooner than expected.  The scene of the in-the-know Jews who attempt to flee into the sewer is ridiculous.  They fight among themselves on who should go first, physically stuff those into the hole who do not want to go, and in a completely absurd aside, a wife and her daughter refuse to escape with them because her husband has been cheating on her.  Socha is true to his monetarily purchased word and leads this infighting rabble to an out of the way location in the sewer.
The sewer maze is an impressive set design with the disgusting atmosphere to match.  It is incredibly dark, dirty, rat infested, cold, and full of unimaginable pestilence.  However, compared to the massacre occurring right above their heads, the sewer is safe.  Unfortunately, the sewer will not accommodate the amount of people in their group.  Socha says he can only safely hide 10 of them and in a brutal scene, the financier and leader of the group choose those 10.  The others are left to their own volition.  The group’s leaders are the strong and able Mundek (Benno Furrmann) and the financier Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup). 
The Nazis and their Polish sympathizers know there are Jews hiding out in the sewers; some residents can smell boiled onions coming up through their toilets.  There is a bounty for whoever turns them in and if Socha is caught, he will be shot right along with the captured Jews.  The rest of In Darkness is a series of scenes of infighting amongst the Jews who are cramped in very tight and disgusting quarters and infighting between Socha and his wife and Socha and his assistant, who is sometimes in on the scheme. 
These seemingly unending episodes of fighting and sniping become truly tedious after awhile.  Scene after scene of this eventually gets under the audience’s skin and they welcome the eventual ending after its 145 minute run time.  Breaths of fresh air are provided by Mr. Chiger’s two children who are a welcome respite from the malicious adults in the room and Socha’s gradual metamorphosis from a financially motivated shelter provider to a man who realizes he has a soul which cares about these human beings. 
The cinematography and art direction of these sewers are really remarkable as is the contrast in lighting between the action which takes place above ground opposed to the events happening underneath.  Unfortunately, the script does not match the shadowy mise-en-scene and In Darkness suffers for it.  This Polish film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film but it is clear why it did not win.  The muddled sequence of events and unending episodic turmoil morphs from a troubling World War II story to one of near irritation.  A more adept script would have catapulted this film to much more notoriety than it is receiving now.  There are a multitude of other World War II films to enjoy, do not waste your time on this one.     

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Safe House (2012)


You don’t see too many action films set almost entirely in Africa.  Indiana Jones spent some time in Egypt, Jason Bourne dropped in on Morocco, and I suppose Congo took place in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Safe House spends almost all of its time in Cape Town, South Africa.  It’s about time they gave Paris, Rome, and New York City a break from being the ubiquitous action cities.  Unfortunately, the originality fissured out after location scouting.
After noticing how much money Unstoppable made, it appears the filmmakers here found a way to team up Denzel Washington with another young, white male with model looks but instead of Chris Pine, this time we get Ryan Reynolds.  Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a CIA field agent but way down on the totem pole.  This is his first assignment and he is in charge of a safe house in downtown Cape Town should real CIA case officers ever need a place to hang out for a few hours.  After a sharp and noteworthy chase scene leads off the film, rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost (Washington) finds himself arrested and being tortured by some very grizzled agents in Matt’s safe house.
How he ends up there is enjoyable for the audience so I will not reveal it here; however, the script and film really trail off after such a smart beginning.  Tobin’s interrogation is interrupted when a skilled team of bad guys loudly infiltrate the safe house and Matt, for a rookie, does an admirable job getting Tobin out of harm’s way while every other CIA agent gets mowed down.  Now on the run in Cape Town, Matt has to protect both Tobin and himself from a very determined mob of assassins.  Tobin does not want protection though; he wants his freedom and sees young Matt as not too difficult an obstacle to overcome. 
Matt is scrappier than his experience lets on though.  He keeps up with Tobin and back at CIA headquarters, his boss David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) sings his praises to an agency which is no longer sure whose side Matt is on.  Matt’s skeptics include the high-ranking Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and the very high-ranking Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard).  How did Safe House score such a formidable cast and what are they all doing slumming in this middle of the road action thriller?  This is fair game for Reynolds and Washington, but Safe House is an odd choice for Gleeson, Farmiga, and Shepard.  They get limited screen time and no dialogue to show off their skills.  Was it just the quick paycheck?
There was a lot of thought put into the fight scenes though.  Instead of routine punches thrown and absorbed, the guys here are really getting scratched, cut, bruised, shot, etc…  Action films usually let their heroes gloss over any pain they might feel or just walk it off, but Matt and Tobin thoroughly endure every bad guy they come across and never come out clean on the other side.  Unfortunately, the camera work which filmed these impressive fight scenes was hand-held to make them scene more frenetic and shaky than they should be.  Nobody likes the hand-held camera, especially when the cameraman is running down the street along with the action.  It is annoying. 
I do not recommend Safe House but it is only a marginal non-recommend.  The fight scenes are original and exciting but the cinematography and the feeling that I’ve seen Denzel do this before hurts its cause.  Also, enjoy the casting but know that they do not belong here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Act of Valor (2012)


The SEAL in Navy SEAL stands for Sea, Land, and Air Team.  Act of Valor makes abundant use of these three separate environments to showcase the U.S. military’s tactical prowess in effectively attacking enemies from any of these mediums.  The point of showing the audience such lethal proficiency seems to be overt naval propaganda.  There are teenagers who see this film who will be more than tempted to walk from the theater to the nearest Navy recruiter with dreams of skydiving, shooting, and saving the United States from the bad guys.
Keeping up with recent trends, the bad guys here are jihadists, but not of the Arabic persuasion.  Instead, the mastermind is a Chechen fundamentalist.  To make it a truly menacing international brand of terrorism, the financing comes from Central American narcotic cartels and the mules are Filipinos.  Bringing in so many ethnicities is the perfect excuse to stage assault scenes in the jungle, the desert, and on the beach to impress upon the audience that the SEALs will kill you anywhere on the globe under any circumstances.
These SEALs on the screen, by the way, are real-life Navy SEALs.  To protect their identities, their names are not in the credits and they look physically capable of all of the stunts they perform.  At the same time, their wooden acting during awkward buddy scenes is on full display.  A major stumbling block in Act of Valor are those scenes between the shoot-em-ups where the team leaders talk about their girls back home or exchange surprised reactions when they learn what their next objective is.  The cheesiest part of the film is how the Team Leader, Lt. Rorke, is set up from the beginning as a new dad in waiting.  His wife finds out she is pregnant just as the Lt. leaves for his next deployment.  To mark time, the film will show his wife in montage with a bigger bump than the last time we saw her so we think ‘Ok, six months have passed now’. 
The film’s timing is tricky because the script moves quite fast.  As new intelligence is being gathered on the villain’s next move, the SEAL team is already conducting an operation to thwart them.  One must forgive the audience for thinking that the whole operation lasts only a week or so even though the film technically takes place over nine months.  However, the audience may not notice the uneven timing because the action scenes are very good.  The camera work is top notch and the assorted tactics the SEALs use to take down the bad guys are really impressive.  The team has a sniper, an explosives expert, a radio man, and they all are formidable marksmen. 
Be aware though that Act of Valor is truly a propaganda picture ala a World War I or II film encouraging the audience to support the war effort and buy war bonds.  The SEALs on screen are there to elicit your sympathy and urge you to get behind the flag and support the warfighter.  There are explicit messages being conveyed and precise camera shots to shape your thoughts to not only support the U.S. military in its endeavors, but specifically the Navy SEALs as they are the good guys protecting America from the bad guys intent on destroying our way of life.  If a little overt propaganda does not bother you, then sit back and enjoy some creative and deadly action sequences.           

Friday, March 2, 2012

Undefeated (2011)


North Memphis looks rough.  Its houses are collapsing, its public infrastructure is crumbling, and its prospects on the horizon look like its bringing more of the same.  Undefeated says life in North Memphis was not always like this, but once the Firestone plant closed and took the jobs away, this part of the city was forgotten.  The residents feel they are not only second class citizens in Tennessee, which focuses more on Nashville in the center and Knoxville in the east, but second class in their own city. 
One bright spot is a brand new, state of the art high school; the new home of the Manassas Tigers.  Entering Manassas High School, however, is more akin to going through airport security than going to a place to learn.  During his first football meeting of the year with his team, Coach Bill Courtney mentions starting players getting shot, jail sentences, and academic suspensions, issues a coach may encounter throughout their entire career, but these are issues he has dealt with in the past two weeks.  North Memphis is definitely not Dillon, Texas and Manassas High School resembles nothing of the Friday Night Lights Dillon Panthers; this is real life.
Coach Courtney spends the vast majority of his time preaching character, discipline, and respect to a crowd of high school kids who do not seem very interested in receiving those messages.  They are more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than focusing on beating the other team on the football field.  Instead of studying plays in film sessions or running through football fundamentals, Coach constantly has to break up fights, convince the kids not to drop out of school, and remind them that a man’s character is revealed on the football field. 
Incredibly, Coach is a volunteer.  He does not get paid to spend grueling hours every day trying to teach football and life lessons to a bunch of kids who usually seem to be tuning him out.  He sees something more in them though, much more than they see in themselves.  He feels it in his bones that if these kids learn to focus on the team instead of themselves; they will not only win on the football field, but in the classroom, and later on in life.  This sounds like a scripted TV show, but it is very real and Coach Courtney is dead serious about it.
One player who visibly understands the Coach’s vision is also the team’s best player, left tackle O.C. Brown.  O.C. reminds you of Michael Oher from The Blind Side.  He is a huge human being but has a quiet, almost meek, personality.  He is not strong academically though and is having trouble getting the minimum score for college scholarship eligibility on the ACT.  In one of the stronger episodes of the film, O.C. gets a one-on-one tutor and stays three to four nights a week at a coach’s house because no tutors would ever go see O.C. in his home neighborhood.  The filmmaker wisely includes social commentary about why it is always the gifted athletic star that gets so much specific help and never just a regular kid.
There are only two other members of the football team who get noticeable screen time and they are right tackle Montrail ‘Money’ Brown and team troublemaker Chavis Daniels.  Money is under-sized for his position but plays with so much intensity that he is a very strong member of the offensive line.  He has a 3.8 GPA and has his sights set on becoming a football manager or lawyer because he knows he is far too small for college ball.  Chavis has just returned from school from a 15 month leave of absence because he was in juvenile detention.  He has an incredibly short fuse and will instigate a fight in a moment’s notice.  The back and forth comparisons between Money and Chavis work to the film’s credit.  Money gets injured and wonders why he can barely get a second chance on the football field when he sees Chavis still causing trouble on the team even though he is on his 50th chance.     
Through the unending and amazingly persistent efforts of Coach Courtney, the Manassas Tigers start winning games and the kids’ conduct both on and off the field are noticeably improved from the film’s opening scenes.  I do not know why it is called Undefeated because the Tigers lose their first game of the season before they start their run for the playoffs.  There are some very strong scenes though, especially one with Money and some news he receives about his future and a scene between Coach and O.C. as they say goodbye to each other at the end of the season.
Undefeated is a very effective sports documentary but I am surprised it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.  Its nomination was deserved but it is not consistently strong and felt throughout its entire length.  However, I encourage you sports fans out there to go see a real football team instead of one created for you with a Hollywood cast; these kids are much more worth your time.