Monday, April 23, 2012

Weekend Box Office

  1.  THINK LIKE A MAN- $33 million/ first weekend
  2. THE LUCKY ONE- $22 million/first weekend
  3. THE HUNGER GAMES- $14.5 million/$356 million total
  4. CHIMPANZEE- $10.2 million/first weekend
  5. THE THREE STOOGES- $9.2 million/$29.3 million total
  6. THE CABIN IN THE WOOD- $7.7 million/$26.9 million total
  7. AMERICAN REUNION- $5.2 million/$48.3 million total
  8. TITANIC (3D)- $5 million/$52 million total
  9. 21 JUMP STREET- $4.6 million/$127 million total
  10. MIRROR MIRROR- $4.1 million/$55.2 million total
After four weeks on top (the longest run since Avatar, The Hunger Games runs third for the weekend.  Think Like a Man, based on Steve Harvey's best-selling self help book surprisingly topped the weekend box office with an astounding per-screen average of $16,000 plus, while The Lucky One (aka- the latest attempt to make Zac Efron a leading man) debuted nicely in the bridesmaid position with just over $20 million in its first weekend.  In other news, The Hunger Games crossed the extremely rare $350 million mark, further adding fanfare and anticipation as to what kind of numbers it will attract with book number two, newly in the hands of filmmaker Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants.)

  • Bully- with its newly instated PG-13 rating, The Weinstein Company went ahead with its most aggressive expansion earning $500,000 on 263 screens for a per-screen average of a paltry $1,325 and a total cum of $1.5 million.  Great and truly affecting film, one that if not every kid, than every parent and school teacher and administrator see.
  • The Raid: Redemption- The Sony Pictures Classics actioner has earned $3.5 million in five weeks of play.
  • Marley- documentary about Bob Marley debuted on 42 screens to $260,000 for a per-screen average just above $6,000.
  • Darling Campanion- Lawrence Kasden's return to filmmaking (with a cast that includes Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) made $46,000 on 4 screens for a decent per-screen average of $11,000.  I like so many parts of the movie (cast and crew), but oy vey does it sound middling.

The Top Grosses of the Year So Far:
  • The Hunger Games- $356 million
  • Dr. Suess' The Lorax- $206 million
  • 21 Jump Street- $127 million
  • Safe House- $125 million
  • The Vow- $124 million
  • Journey 2: The Mysterious Island- $100 million

The Top Per-Screen Averages So Far:
  • The Hunger Games- $36,971
  • Footnote- $23,764 (limited)
  • Bully- $23,294 (limited)
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi- $21,018 (limited)
  • An Inconsistent Truth- $20,733 (limited)
  • Chico & Rita- $20,654 (limited)
  • Dr. Suess' The Lorax- $18,830
  • Think Like a Man- $16,377
  • The Raid: Redemption- $15,270 (limited)
  • The Kid With the Bike- $15,311 (limited)

Friday, April 20, 2012

2012 Cannes Film Festival

Here's the line-up for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival:

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)- USA-- Anderson marks his first appearance at Cannes with an in competition birth.  The film stars Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman and will come out, courtesy of Focus Features, this May.  Moonrise Kingdom marks the first opening night film to play in competition since 2008's Blindness.

  • After the Battle (Yousry Nasrallah)- Filmmaker, originally from Egypt.
  • Amour (Michael Hanake)- France\Austria\Belgium- Provocateur and longtime Cannes champion (winner of the Palme D'Or in 2009 for The White Ribbon) returns with his latest starring Isabelle Huppert about a couple dealing with the aftermath of a stroke...sounds very non-Haneke like.  Intrigued?!?
  • The Angels Share (Ken Loach)- Ireland- Another festival mainstay (Loach's 2005 war-themed drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme D'Or) returns with yet another slice of Irish socio-political miserablism.
  • Beyond the Hills (Cristin Mungiu)- Romania- Mungiu took Cannes by storm with his Palme D'Or winning masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days returns with his latest drama about a friendship between two girls who grew up at an orphanage.
  • Cosmopolis (David Croenberg)- USA\Canada- Croenberg is a longtime Cannes favorite returns with his latest sexual odyssey, this time starring Twilight's Robert Pattinson (not the only Twi-cast member to have a film in competition this year.)  The teaser has already raised a few eyebrows.
  • Holy Motors (Leos Carax)- France- Carax was in competition for 1999's Pola X and returns with his latest starring Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue!
  • In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo)- South Korea-- Winner of 2010's Un Certain Regard for Hahaha, Hong Sang-soo returns in competition with a drama starring Isabelle Huppert.
  • The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)- Denmark- Vinterberg, a favorite due to the prize-winning influential Dogma 95 film The Celebration (1998) returns in competition.
  • Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)- USA- Dominik, the director of the astounding and underrated 2007 feature The Assassination of Jesse James debuts his latest crime thriller starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins.  It is slated for an early fall release from The Weinstein Company.
  • Lawless (John Hillcoat)- USA- Hillcoat, director of 2009's The Road returns with a Depression-era crime drama about a gang of bootleggers starring Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeof and Jessica Chastain.  The long-gestating title will open this fall, courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
  • Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)- France\Japan- Longtime Cannes favorite Kiarostami (last in competition in 2010 for Certified Copy) continues his worldwide journeys-- this time with a trip to Japan.
  • Mud (Jeff Nichols)- USA- Nichols, director of last years Critics Week winner and on my list of the top ten films of 2011, Take Shelter, graduates to the competition section with his latest drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey.
  • On the Road (Walter Salles)- USA- the long gestating adaptation of the Jack Kerouac classic will play in competition and returns Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) to Cannes.  The film stars Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart (the second Twilight-alum to grace the French press), last years Best Actress winner Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortenssen and Amy Adams.  Despite its impressive cast, the film has yet to achieve US distribution.
  • The Paperboy (Lee Daniels)- USA- Daniels graduates to the main competition after Precious (2009) played in the Un Certain Regard section, with his thriller starring John Cusack, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and making his Cannes debut, Zac Efron.
  • Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl)- Austria
  • Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)- Mexico\France\Netherlands
  • Reality (Matteo Garrone)- Italy-  Garrone made a splash at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival with Gomorrah.
  • Rust & Bone (Jacques Audiard)- France- Audiard (not stranger to Cannes-- his 2009 feature A Prophet won the Grand Jury Prize) returns with his latest, a mystery, starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts (star of last year's foreign language nominee Bullhead.)
  • Taste of Money (Im Sang-soo)- South Korea- returns back to the Cannes competition after 2010's The Housemaid, which did well in it's American art house run.
  • You Haven't Seen Anything Yet (Alain Resnais)- France- legendary filmmaker Resnais returns to Cannes with his latest drama starring Mathieu Almaric and Lambert Wilson.

  • 7 Days in Havana (Laurent Cantet, Benicio Del Toro, Julio Medem, Gaspar Noe, Elia Suleiman, Juan Carlos Tabio, Pablo Trapero)
  • 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate (Koji Wakamatsu)
  • Aimer a Perder la Raison (Joachim Lafosse)
  • Antiviral (Brandon Croenberg)- his father is David Croenberg and debuts with a science fiction tale starring Matthew McDowell about an online virus that attacks a celebrity.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)- winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival, it will be released later this year, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
  • Confession of a Child in the Century (Sylvie Verheyde)
  • Despues de Lucia (Michel Franco)
  • God's Horses (Nabil Arango)
  • Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan)- young French Canadian actor\writer\director returns to Cannes after Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother.
  • Le Grande Soir (Benoit Delpine & Gustave de Kevern)
  • Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia) 
  • Mystery (Lou Ye)
  • La Playa (Juan Andres Arango)
  • The Pirogue (Moussa Toure)
  • Student (Darezhan Omirbayev)
  • Trois Mondes (Catherine Corsini)
  • White Elephant (Pablo Trapero)

  • Hemingway & Gelhorn (Philip Kaufman)- stars Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, directed by Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), set to debut on HBO this summer.
  • Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted- the third in the DreamWorks animated franchise.
  • Me & You (Bernardo Bertolucci)

Therese Desqueyroux (Claude Miller)- France- Miller, a French legend passed away shortly, and the closing night feature will be his final film.  Starring Audrey Tautou as a lonely, unhappily married woman.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I can think of very few filmmakers that I treasure more so than Alfred Hitchcock.  It was his film that left likely the most indelible images in more brain.  Like I'm sure so film fans, he was my first true introduction into film.  He was the first filmmaker that I could spot and think of, "that's a Hitchcock movie, that's a Hitchcock thing," before I knew of such things like auteurs.  From tone, from style, from can pick out a Hitchcock movie above anything else.  That his identity (and celebrity) informed his films made that easier to pick up upon as a child, but is was his artistry and sheer graceful gravitas was there throughout his entire career.  That his films were perceived as mere populist trifles back in their time seems ludicrous, but understandable, since it takes time for genius to get its proper due.

On that note, there isn't a film coming out in the near future that makes me more queasily anxious than 2013's Hitchcock, which tells the tale of the famed director as he was shooting his most infamous film, Psycho.  Directed by Sacha Gervasi, who made a slight impression a few years back with his critically acclaimed documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.  It will open, courtesy of Fox Searchlight, sometime next year...till then I worry!  The cast list includes:
Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.  The first still of the barely begun production movie surfaced today and it appears that at the very least, the make-up department is doing a fine job.  It's and interesting side note that Psycho is based on the tale of the real-life Ed Gein (somehow put into the film itself, being portrayed by stage actor Michael Wincott), the same figure that was the source for other films and mythologies including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs (which won Hopkins an Oscar for his iconic performance as Hannibal Lector; small world.)  Helen Mirren portrays his wife Alma.

Scarlett Johansson will play Janet Leigh

James D'Arcy (W.E.) will play Anthony Perkins

Jessica Biel will play Vera Miles
And the rest of the cast will be rounded out by Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Wallace Langham, Michael Stuhlbarg and Kurtwood Smith.  The film was written by Stephen Rebello (author of the novel on which the film is based on) and John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan.)  What do you think of the casting?  Is anyone else geeking out of their minds?

I have to calm down about this for a whole year.......

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

American Reunion

The whole gang from the mega-successful 1999 American Pie returns for their arbitrary 13th high school reunion, which prompts the reasoning, that after four feature films, a handful of straight-to-DVD crap and a whole string of cash attached to this franchise, the films have every reason to continue to the natural progression of a life cycle.  They've covered high arrested development hornyness now from high school to college to marriage to now, a rekindling of high school sexual awakening.  This really could just continue onwards into midlife crisis and nursery homes at this point.  The one abundant flaw in the program (and I hate to sound bitter here) is that the filmmakers and group assembled (everyone is back after a few took a break from the last segment-- chronicling nerdy horny toad Jim and band-camp nympho Michelle's impending nuptials in the ill-fated American Wedding, 2004) seem to think the audience cares more about them, and their increasingly more sloppy sexual shenanigans than they really do.  The first film emerged as a mild charmer at a time when the R-rated sex comedy was being revamped, and the nostalgia for that generation's Porkys was, while forgettable, slightly endearing in the quest of a group of high school seniors trying to get laid.  The character of Jim Levinstein (Jason Biggs) felt like a credible stand-in for the nerdy (yet solid) young male desperately trying to keep his libido in check.  As was his sub-Ben Stiller mugging as everything went wrong in the process (including a YouTube video clip that still haunts him.)

There's nothing but corporate greed front and center as the journey of Jim, Oz, Kevin, Finch and the ever gregarious Stifler continues and continues.  While American Pie never exactly felt fresh, it did embody a slightly infectious innocence.  Now it just plays flat and more than a little beleaguered.  American Reunion begins, silly and naughty to form, with an encounter with Jim and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), two horny toads who found each other and happiness, now finding themselves sexually disconnected upon the arrival of their first child-- a natural progression both take for the end of the world.  An invitation of their high school reunion feels like the cure and once confronted with the old gang, the film starts to jell into it's more comfortable, if monotonous self.  It seems that like Jim, everyone else isn't all that jazzed about their current lifestyle either, all yearning to go back and party like its 1999.

Oz (a weathered Chris Klein) is a hotshot sports emcee currently famous for a Dancing With the Stars-like reality show, comes along with his trophy girlfriend (30 Rock's Katrina Bowden) who melts away when his high school sweetheart Heather (Mena Suvari) returns.  Kevin (a bearded Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a married stay at home dad who similarly melts when his high school love Vicky (Tara Reid) returns-- there's a theme here.  Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is still weird, and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is still Stifler, a relic from high school who wants to keep the party (circa 1999) going on and on, until confronted with the sad realization that he might just be the saddest, most pathetic of them all.  He's all unconscious id, but refreshingly Scott still plays him to the most excruciating hilt.  There's a certain sweetness to the reunion, but the stall jokes flat line because the ensemble almost doesn't appear in on them anymore, and all they naughty, but sweet innuendo can't stop a cast that appears bored, and even slightly embarrassed coming back to the series that for the most part made them.

There's a semblance of a plot, mostly involving Jim's struggle to keep his stuff together while fighting the advances of the barely legal (and frequently topless) neighbor he used to babysit.  There's even a few slightly welcome members to the reunion, notably Jennifer Coolidge (as Stifler's mom) and Eugene Levy (as Jim's dad) who have the best sight gag in the feature (albeit at the very end, as credits are rolling), but there's far too many elongated stretches of schlock gags that feel are as uncomfortably dated as the cast is tired.  C-

Magic Mike teaser

Or the Channing Tatum stripper movie directed by...ur...Steven Soderbergh.  Surprisingly, especially given its R-rating for "pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language, and some drug use." Magic Mike starring Tatum and a bunch of hot, young, presumably topless actors (including Alex Pettyfer, Matt Bomer, Joe Mangianello, and perhaps for the first time an appropriately shirtless Matthew McConaughey) the film appears to be a, gulp, romantic comedy!!!  I've been asking this question since its inception, but is this a joke?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Looper teaser

And the biggest high concept premise of the year is likely easily won with Rian Johnson's Looper.  Reuniting with his Brick (2006) star Joseph-Gordon Levitt and co-starring Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt, Looper marks Johnson's third feature film-- his nifty (if modestly attended) caper film The Brothers Bloom opened in 2008.

The Kid With the Bike

There's a preternatural loveliness (one without a hint of precociousness or mugging) to Thomas Doret's performance as the titular Kid in the Dardenne Bros. latest slice of life drama The Kid With the Bike.  Winner of the Grand Jury Prize (second place) at last years Cannes Film Festival, here's an empathetic, insightful and artful piece of vanity-free storytelling told simply, but serenely, clear-eyed and emotional-- one free of hokey sentimentality or preachy life lessons.  The Dardenne Bros. (Jean Pierre and Luc for proper acknowledgement) films simply are, and that's the joy of them.  Doret plays 12-year-old Cyril, a rightfully angry and hostile young man abandoned from his father, a lout terrifically, if enigmatically played by Jeremie Renier, and hanging on just barely with the help of his new caretaker Samantha (played by Hereafter's Cecile De France.)  There's such graceful strides of realism, marked without judgement and an almost too-rarefied humanity that The Kid With a Bike, a realm that has marked so many of the Dardenne's prior films, but there's also an even rarer sense of hope to this boys struggle that marks the film a quiet winner.

As his father as pushed him even further away (apparently taking his bike with him to boot), Cyril becomes increasingly more unmanageable and discordant.  A meeting with a bad seed, almost paternal neighborhood boy simply known as "The Dealer" sets up a destructive future for Cyril, as does a random act of violence, and another act of revenge chart Cyril's short-lived course from kid to unwaveringly grown.  But under the Dardenne's guidance, Doret comes across so achingly vivid and so refreshingly boyish, which makes his plight all the more heartbreaking.  The hope springs-- the Dardenne's have claimed The Kid With a Bike was inspired by fairy tales-- as the bond between Cyril and Samantha becomes markedly stronger.  Flashes of an operatic soundtrack (a first for the usual music-less filmmakers) and glimpses of summery splendor add to a story that way to easily could be seen as gloomy.  The most special thing about this very special film is the casual, day in the life moments, as perceived from simply the kid with the bike.  B+

Friday, April 13, 2012

Damsels in Distress

It's been thirteen years since writer\director Whit Stillman has graced the screen with an original creation.  He was celebrated, and Oscar-nominated, for his unique, almost indescribable voice with 1990's Metropolitan and continued his divisive, remarkably skillful eye for deadpan dialogue and almost elitist point of view with moderate art house hits Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998.)  Nearly more idiosyncratic than the majority of American art house filmmakers, Stillman is striking because of his blend of a time and a space filled with characters, seemingly of great intelligence, that for lack of a better comparison, felt almost a cross between Woody Allen and Wes Anderson (before Wes Anderson.)  Ideally, the early 90s was an ideal time for this newly evocative voice to emerge, fresh to thrive somewhat in the era where alienating, yet unique voices like Todd Solondz, Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes and yes even Wes Anderson, were making their marks.  That culture in the American independent world has changed over the past decade, for good or bad is up to the eyes of the beholder.  However, in viewing Stillman's return Damsels in Distress, it appears that Stillman's voice has changed too.  And it appears not as fresh or as droll as his earlier works, but a bit beleaguered and far too out of touch with any sort of connection to the real world.

His latest takes place in a posh New England university, and is centered around a group of girls who appear not nearly alienated from their own generation, but alienated from any generation.  The same could be said for the film itself-- for this merrily filmed, pastel-colored production could almost be set in Mars with its relation to the real world.  Our group of girls-- headed by queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig)-- are healers of such, but of an ironic, nearly Mean Girls meets the debutante ball variety.   Their purpose, if there is such, in this nearly nonsensical film, is to challenge and change the status quo of their peers.  Randomly these healing sessions include the importance of good hygiene (mixed with anachronistic clothing sense), the preference of suitors less cool, smart, or interesting then themselves, and a goal of preventing students from killing themselves (donuts and tap dancing are their preferred method of standing off depression.)  The real question, that's dressed up and partially masked by Stillman's unmatched verbiage and unquestionable knack for clever one liners, is what is point?

There's a sense towards the beginning that Violet's strange agendas and rejection to the seemingly bourgeoisie will be challenged by the arrival of transfer student Lily (played by the adorably waif  Analeigh Tipton-- the babysitter from Crazy, Stupid, Love.)  Lily's slightly rebellious action with her newly acquired friends is to, invariably, act rather normal.  Violet also has heart broken from her latest dim quest which sends her into, in her own words a "tailspin"-- she's actually quite mad herself, but never fully realized as a character or as more than an air quoted mask of whatever by Stillman.  Once a new, and again, quite strange boy (played by Adam Brody) enters the mix, again the audience eagerly awaits for something to actually happen.  Again, it's audience-- even those who may have been charmed in the past by Stillman's prior works-- are disappointed.  Gerwig has a nifty verve with some of the playful lines that Stillman displays, but like the rest of the cast, appears out of place with whatever retro-nonsense Damsels in Distress finally settles on.  C-

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mirror Mirror

Tarsem Singh, the artiste musical video provocateur turned go-for-broke filmmaker, has never met a story, an idea, or an inkling of such without overpowering it with relentless art direction and costume design.  There's a silly splendor and artificial to his unnecessary re-imagining of the Snow White tale in Mirror Mirror, a production so candy-colored and over-the-top, it collapses upon itself multiple times only to give way to brief murmur to the possibilities of visual stylization.  Than, rather unfortunately, the dialogue, rote storytelling, and inconsistent acting comes back to haunt the exuberant fashion show.  With each film, it's decidedly harder to decipher Tarsem the filmmaker as someone of merit and value versus Tarsem the decorator, whose strange, but strikingly vibrant worlds come across alien, fun and a turn off in the same beat.  Whether in the dark Silence of the Lambs-on-acid thriller of his debut feature, The Cell, his beatific art house melodrama The Fall or his cheesy, swords and sandals-lite treatment of last years Immortals, it's hard to get a sense if he cares about story at all.  In Mirror Mirror, the sets and props and costumes have such a vibrancy, a buoyancy and playfulness, it's almost contagious...the problem is there's such an inert emotional connection to anything other than the colors on display.

Part of the problem may simply be the gonzo genius of his regular costumer and the sadly departed Eiko Ishioka (she passed away late last year to cancer), for her work is a creature upon itself demanding of superior writing and storytelling finesse to not upstage it.  Ishioka, who won an Oscar for the beautifully off kilter designs for Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stroker's Dracula has creations that have such personality, the strident and staid performers feel almost afraid of them.  This is especially true of the casting of the wan Lily Collins (The Blind Side) as Snow White, who makes the scantest of impressions, relying unjustly on her lily white skin tone alone.  Julia Roberts plays her the Evil Queen in her campiest performance to date, and while she hits and misses (and truly never appears threatening...she's still America's sweetheart after all), there's a nice give away to such a generous performer mugging away and clearly having a ball at it...there's even further proof that Roberts may become a looser and sharper comedienne once the veneer of her celebrity fades ever so.  Armie Hammer plays Prince Charming, with a puckish, aristocrat snide, but only appears to have get the joke.

The problem with Mirror Mirror is almost an identity issue from the start.  It begins with a strong prologue, visually sweeping in such an unique, weird, slightly dangerous way only to curtail into an endless game of self-referential jokes, third tier Shrek-style lampooning and shoddy slapstick.  The candy-colored palette feels market-tested to death, ridding the film of a distinctive sense of self.  Never too edgy as not to dismay the youngsters, soothed by the Disney notion of fairy tales, but never to sodden as to put their parents asleep, Mirror Mirror has such a strange combination of rotten and ripe, overdone but undercooked.  Tarsem may soon find his masterpiece, and it indeed be in the realm of fairy tales themselves, but Mirror Mirror has the bitter aftertaste of one of the Evil Queen's apples.  C

Thursday, April 5, 2012

To Rome With Love trailer

It's been nearly a year since Woody Allen has opened a film-- his last, the triumphant and Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris was one of the auteur's best and most successful.  He continues his European tour with To Rome With Love (oh, that title with it's generic sound-- its was curiously retitled recently from the more interesting sounding Nero Fiddled), with an amazing cast-- Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, Judy Davis (a moment to appreciate her awesomeness, and the biggest laugh of the trailer surely belongs to her "Euro" line reading), Allen himself, and gulp...Robert Benigni.  While this looks like a probable failure from the most productive American filmmaker currently working, here's hoping that's not the case.  My worry is soon he will run out of European cities to pine over.  The film opens this June, in an attempt for distributor Sony Classics to find early summer magic like Midnight last year.  The film, unlike Midnight will not have its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this May, as it debuts in Italy this month.

Wrath of the Titans

One thing is particularly striking in the junky sequel to 2010's rebooting of the Clash of the Titans franchise-- the use of dust splattered around (in inglorious 3-D) is fairly incredible.  Entire frames are covered with it scene after scene; makes sense considering its director Jonathon Liebesman, only last year made another strikingly dirty genre picture in Battle: Los Angeles.  What's left behind all that dust is a humorless, swords and sandals spectacle, that's while mercifully short and harmless, also quite a snooze.  Again, Sam Worthington plays Persues, son of Zeus (again played by Liam Neeson, seemingly tired and beleaguered moreso than usual for an only-for-the-paycheck assignment), the half God, half mortal hero of the piece has to save the world from some ugly something or other.  What's striking is the sheer almost painstaking response from the cast; more like "Ugh...we have to do this again" approach, rather than a more spirited, let's go for broke cheesiness material like this requires.  For a change, Ralph Fiennes joins the cast as Hades, rule of the underworld gone soft by arbitrary change of consciousness; Fiennes, the great actor and Valdemort himself looks even more tired than Neeson, however still more alert and playful than Worthington and his two cinematic expressions-- boredom and emptiness.  Also joining the fray is Edgar Ramirez, so vibrant a few years back in Carlos as Zeus' other and more sinister offspring Ares whose a bit more playful but clearly unexcited.

There's two touches in Wrath of the Titans that make it a better choice than it has any reasonable shot of achieving, and it's the detriment of the filmmakers that both are stymied.  Firstly, the arrival of Bill Nighy as the wonky, out of his mind accomplice to something is a warm welcome.  Nighy brings such a nutty, much needed comic cartoonishness to the piece, it's a jolt and a reminder of the inane fun a film like this really should be; that the script kills him off two scenes after his arrival is sad...sorry for the spoilers, but if you're venturing into Wrath of the Titans for its story arcs, you're already setting yourself for failure.  The second touch of near fun is a set piece spurred on Nighy's Hephaestus-- one where our bland heroes must race through a dangerous and intricate labyrinth to reach the underworld.  It's kind of a fun and sly device, one that the film needed more of-- fun, sly and slightly sinister.  That too gets all too conveniently compromised and again we're back to ugly, blurry boring experience (and dust) that is the Wrath of the Titans.  I have felt the wrath and it really sucks.  D

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Take This Waltz

The trailer has finally arrived for Sarah Polley's follow-up to her directorial debut Away From Her (2007), which earned Julie Christie an Oscar nomination.  This one stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan.  Looks subtle, classy and astute.  Magnolia Picture will open the film starting in limited engagements this month.

The Hunger Games

Welcome, welcome to The Hunger Games, the first event motion picture of 2012, and the solidly crafted first chapter of Suzanne Collins' monstrously successful trilogy.  Set in an undetermined time in future, the events are set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian universe where North America is separated in twelve districts, all controlled by a wealthy and corrupt Capitol.  Each year, one young man and one young woman aged 12-18 are selected from each district to compete in The Hunger Games.  Now in it's 74th year, the Games are a fight to death, Battle Royale-style gladiatorial event where one person comes out as victor, all of which is televised as the ultimate reality show competition.  The insidiousness of the event is really that's mere fear mongering on the side of the Capitol, the Games were invented as a result of a ruthless uprising that threatened the one-percenters of Collins' fiction.  That the story, incredibly dark and quite violent, have struck such a pop-cultural chord in this, the age of great young adult fiction being dominated by the likes of properties like Twilight remain a fascination.  But one thing is clear, even for the uninitiated-- The Hunger Games has a striking narrative, cold but gentle, and gravitates towards strong very human themes and ideas, such that feel less packaged and media-ready than most in demand titles for tweens.

Brought to the screen by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) and co-written by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), The Hunger Games starts strong by firmly and decisively painting a day-in-the-life the impoverished District 12, the home of our heroine-- Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence.)  Poor and starving, the locals of the coal-rich district as first almost seen to represent the citizens of Lawrence's breakout-- the Ozark villagers of Winter's Bone.  Katniss is almost a twin to that prior Lawrence character herself-- young, pretty and intelligent, but met with challenges that far exceed her maturity, including the nurturing of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields), as her mother is an invalid, and her father long passed on.  She's also a tremendous shot-- a master of the bow and arrow is something essential.  As the Games commence-- first in a garish presentation where the sad, weary children watch in fear as Capitol secretary Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in unsightly decadent garb and make-up) announces the winners (or losers) chosen in lottery as the "tributes" of District 12.  The winners are, as all knows by now, Katniss and Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right), an awkward young boy who once gave a starving Katniss bread.

The two recruits are off to the Capitol to begin the Games, and this is where The Hunger Games really hits its stride as a science fiction, social commentary and vivid production landscapes.  The two tributes are groomed in the arts of being appealing.  Probably the most candid bit of commentary the future hits off the best is the sneaking nature of celebrity, for our tributes fates are simply seen as entertainment.  (Collins' has noted that the idea spawned from channel surfing between Iraq War news coverage and reality entertainment.)  Katniss, as admirably played by Lawrence, is a no-nonsense, grounded creature, unamused with the idea of putting on a show-- survival is her concern, not vanity nor absurd notions of likeability.  Peeta, on the other hand, a less skillful hunter, thrives on playing the game, not physical prowess to move forward-- the biggest flaw of the film is likely the development of Peeta, either wanly portrayed by Hutcherson, or uninterested by the filmmakers who appear in awe of Lawrence from first frame to fade out.  It's in the events leading up to the Game itself that lend itself, however, artistic license for the daring, as evident by the fun production design and garish costuming that while tonally all over the place, do their job in distilling the dichotomy of the haves versus the have-nots.  It's especially striking that for such an event-like film, the visual effects have such a low-key quality to them, that miraculously doesn't feel like the efforts of money-conscious production team, but surprisingly artful in an earthy, toned down sort of way.

It's a shame that The Hunger Games slightly loses its spark when the Games themselves actually begin.  Left behind with smatterings of ideas of power, government, impoverishment and celebrity-- it really is a case of a bunch of kids trying to kill one another.  But more than that, the filmmakers really make it the Jennifer Lawrence show-- the other tributes (save for Peeta) are given so few minutes of screen time, one could hardly care for the results.  Instead it's a bit of seemingly endless shots of Katniss running, Katniss sleeping, Katniss crying.  There are moments, like when she befriends a young fellow tribute named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a plucky, scared girl who reminds Katniss of her younger sister that sparks a bit of an emotional connection.  And there's a jolting subplot of Katniss' relationship with Peeta-- playfully and thankfully ambiguous (Liam Hemsworth plays the hunky neighborhood boy Katniss flirts with before the Games)-- that moves the action forward, there's still an all to too soft pace for a film that started so swiftly and entertainingly.  For in the end, The Hunger Games is still a fairly merciless tale, one that doesn't have the comfort to stop and slow down for emotional beats, but one that has to keep on the move, distrusting of all, and creepily and calculatedly monitored by an unjust Capitol promising a blood bath (and a firm warning) for its viewers.

There's still lots to recommend, from the unfussy, naturally hued cinematography by Tom Stern, to the gorgeously restrained score by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard.  Blessed with an easy going, lightness from director Ross, there's an even more ominous nature to The Hunger Games-- it's filmed and staged so softly, that the brutality feels even sneakier.  There's also a plum lead performance delivered by Lawrence, who while possibly carving out the most narrow niche ever for a younger actress (the earthy, street wise youngster carrying the world on her soldiers while being raised in near poverty), she's aces as Katniss, honestly portraying a strong girl, unsure of the magnitude of her own strength, but afraid more of letting an ounce of vulnerability from surfacing.  At first, Katniss has tremendous difficulty in getting people to like her, but Lawrence achieves that in the first few minutes.  I suppose I look forward to the second chapter...B
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