Friday, November 21, 2014

Puppets, Tangled in Strings

Toward the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingay - Part I, Madam President Alma Coin (played by the wonderful Julianne Moore), she gives a rousing speech to her citizens of District 13 about a great victory they have just won under her direction. The monologue basically tells her comrades in arms that soon they will storm the Capital with the backings of the other Districts, that a new world will be born where they will become one people, once voice, and that all will share in the wealth and prosperity in this new Panem. And then....cut to black. Time to go home, tweet about how awesome this installment was, tell your BFF's to see this movie, and make sure you come back to spend more money on Part II now! The speech about unity and sharing among each other in a new, harmonious community comes off feeling hollow and empty; not because Moore doesn't sell this brave new world well, because she's one of the bright spots in Part I of this two-part finale. The reason this feels hollow is because the suits at Lions Gate took a 390-page book, which really could have been told in one fell swoop, and split it into two movies to make more bang for their buck and to keep pimping out this series for as long as possible.

The third installment of the wildly popular and profitable series of YA novels by author Suzanne Collins falls into the trap of feeling like an incomplete picture, because we're only getting one-half of the story. Just when the movie is really picking up steam, it cuts away and leaves you wanting to see what happens next. It's incredibly frustrating and it feels completely unnecessary to the film. At least when the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was split into two movies, the justification was that the last novel was so involved and rich that they couldn't tell the story justice as a whole without skipping over major parts in it, so the filmmakers announced they would divide the last movie into a two-part event. Notice that I said that the filmmakers came to this decision: not the studios who financed the decade-long project, but the people adapting the story by J.K. Rowling. Warner Bros went along, and set up this new trend of splitting up literary adaptations into two-part finales because it will make the studios more money at the box office. Summit Entertainment did this with the final chapter in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn and plan to do it again with the last novel in the Divergent series, Allegiant, and Marvel Studios is playing to the trend by splitting the third Avengers film, Infinity War into two parts. These were the decisions made by the studios backing their investments, not by the filmmakers themselves. It's a trend that once was done out of necessity, and now transformed into a decision made simply out of pure greed. 

Rant aside, that blatant bit of cynicism is one of a few problems I have with Mockingjay - Part I. The other is the fact that certain characters have been regulated to near-cameo appearances. Elizabeth Banks, who played the spoiled and stylish PR guru Effie Trinket so well in the first, and had her character come to a crisis of conscious in the second, disappears into the grey background in the third movie, which I guess is appropriate. Gone are the wigs, the colorful dresses and the outlandish makeup, and here we have a stripped-down woman in the middle of a revolution who misses the comforts of home. Sure, she appears on the council to prop up Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as a Che Guvera/Joan of Arc type revolutionary to unite the Districts to rebel against its totalitarian ruler, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, wearing evil like a second skin), but she's hardly ever used. Sam Claflin, who plays trident-wielding Finnick Odair, a charming handsome victor of the 65th annual Hunger Games with a hidden agenda, loses that one interesting facet of his personality, and instead mopes around, pining for his lost love, Annie. The great Stanley Tucci as Capitol mouthpiece Caesar Flickman, is regulated to interviewing the captured Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as a way to keep the districts together and act as a counter-move to the moves of the rebels. He had more to do in Transformers: Age of Extinction, a "film" that was horrendous on every level! And Jenna Malone as the sexy, crazy axe-wielding District 7 winner Johanna Mason is in the film with one scene and not a line of dialogue spoken. Perhaps these actors and their characters will have more to do in the final installment of the series, but it annoys me that they were given barely anything to do this time around, when they were so enjoyable to watch the in the previous installment, Catching Fire.

That's not to say Mockingjay - Part I (God, I get annoyed saying that title) isn't good. It isn't as action-packed now without the vicious nature of teens fighting and killing each other in the name of entertainment, but what it lacks in thrilling action set pieces, it makes up for in crafting a great political subtext on the ways governments and parties use media to advance their own agendas, usually at the expense of the ones being used. The games maybe over, but a new one is being played to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of Panem. The tools are cameras; the weapons are images of rubble and ruin of freedom fighters rising up against their oppressors to galvanize more to the cause, or shots of terrorists being executed for aiming to take down the peaceful and caring government and warn that revolt will lead to a firing squad; and the voices are Katniss, using her power as the Mockingjay to sway people out of apathy and into revolutionary action, and Peeta, the boy pleading with citizens to not fight back and end this senseless bloodshed. Both Katniss and Peeta are nothing but puppets but to be used to gain their own ends. Coin doesn't believe that the Girl on Fire can handle this responsibility of being the face of a growing revolution because "the games destroyed her." The ever willy and calculating Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) claims that "only she can do this", and takes her to the ruins of District 12 to remind her of the brutality of President Snow and his regime. Snow uses Peeta to torment Ms. Everdeen and break her spirit completely, before he descends on the rebel base of District 13 and crushes the rebellion. Both their puppets are pushed further and further to their breaking points to win, and are little more than an ends to justify their means, whether Plutarch sends out a propaganda film crew to shoot footage of Katniss using an explosive arrow to take down a Capitol aircraft, or Snow's henchmen torture and threaten Peeta to tears off camera. The drama and the commentary is played so well and it makes the film more engaging to watch with each side continuing to make moves and counter-moves.

Despite certain actors not getting enough to do in this installment of the franchise, the acting nevertheless comes up aces. Liam Hermsworth, who's been regulated as the pretty-boy love interest  in both HG films, finally gets to sink his teeth into a more central role as Gale, the boy who's in love with Katniss, but can't get her to feel the same way with Peeta always being in the way. You see him longing to earn her love, but slowly realizes that it won't be him that gets Everdeen's heart. Newcomer Julianne Moore is perfect as President Alma Coin, the leader of the rebellion who's constantly put into situations where she may sacrifice her integrity and her standing for victory at almost any cost. Josh Hutcherson shines once again as Peeta, this time as a tortured prisoner, being touted to quell the violence and dampen the coming war. before the flames become too hot to be contained. You can see how he hates being used as a pawn, but is unable to control his own destiny. At the point, there's nothing much I can say about Jennifer Lawrence and the way she commands the screen as Katniss Everdeen with just her eyes and her expressions. She was born to play this conflicted, reluctant hero and how she must now be the face of a rebellion she had no intention of causing. The highest praise I can laud on her is that I cannot see another actress stepping into the role and providing the same outcome, She is the Girl on Fire, plain and simple. 

But the actor who reigns over Part I of Mockingjay is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Before his death earlier this year, he was one week away from finishing his part as the ever-calculating puppetmaster for Part II. There had been speculation that the studio would digitally remake him in order to carry out his final performance, but director Francis Lawrence refused and instead worked around and gave his parts and lines to other cast members in his honor. Frankly, it won't be the same without this acting giant's presence. He portrays this man as a Karl Rove-type politico with a conscious: he knows the score and is willing to sacrifice who and whatever to obtain victory, but realizes the cost will be bear in the end, if at all he can bear it. "Everyone is replaceable," he tells Effie, but the truth of the matter is that Hoffman simply is not. This last work is a testament to his legacy onscreen, as an actor who's skills at finding the truth of each character he plays of his generation is almost second to none, and we may never see a man of of his talents again.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I isn't as exciting as previous installments, some actors are disappointingly less utilized in this go-around and it feels much like an incomplete piece of work, rather than a completed film. But the film's lazer-point commentary on media and propaganda and the performances by Lawrence, Moore, Hoffman and other are still as sharp and emotionally engaging as ever, make this a satisfying appetizer before the film's final swan-song, which is due out in November of next year. 

*** stars out of ****

Thursday, November 13, 2014

This Is Fucked Up, Fucked Up

I've watched some strange, disturbing and messed up movies in my time. From the Saw series and Human Centipede: Full Sequence, to this year's God's Not Dead, I'd like to think that there isn't a whole lot that can honestly get under my skin and have me shaken. Leave it to director David Fincher and first-time screenwriter Gillian Flynn to have, what I feel, is the final word on watching a fucked-up movie.

Gone Girl is not just your standard kidnapping thriller/whodunit murder mystery. Calling it twisted and disturbing really doesn't do the film justice. All I can say is that what you see in two hours and twenty-five minutes will shock you and have your jaw hit the ground. Based on the bestselling novel by Flynn herself, Gone Girl begins innocently enough (well, about as innocent as a Fincher movie does): Nick Dune (Ben Affleck) comes home in preparation for his wife, Amy's (Rosamund Pike) five-year anniversary, only to discover his wife is missing. He calls the police to help find his missing wife, only to end up a suspect in her wife's disappearance. The quest to find Amy turns into a side-show spectacle, as the narrative begins to form that Nick himself killed his wife, after it's learned he's a cheating bastard, that there was blood on the floor that was poorly mopped up, and that she left behind a diary, chronicling how unhappy in her marriage she was, how frightened she was of her husband, to the point that she says, "this man of mine may kill me," the last lines written in the book. A high-powered layer (Tyler Perry, yes that Tyler Perry from those awful Madea comedies) represents Nick as he fights the allegations in the media and the authorities that he did not commit murder, while trying to piece together Amy's special scavenger hunt she planned for the anniversary before the detective on the case, Rhonday Boney (Kim Dickens) compiles enough evidence to arrest him on suspicion of murder.

And that's all I'm going to say about the plot. The rest would enter spoiler territory, and I'm no snitch. What I will say is that when this calendar year for movies ends in under 50 days and I compile my list of the best films of 2014, this mesmerizing tale of a toxic marriage in the Great Recession will be right near the top. Let's start with the script by Gillian Flynn and the direction by Fincher: the coldness of these characters and Fynn's screenplay more than matches the uncomfortable and chilly atmosphere David is best known for. Both work in tandem so well; Gillian, exposing the decay of a marriage based on false facades, Fincher taking that premise onto his canvas and expanding it to matching today's tragedy-porn obsession with the Nancy Grace's of the world (equating it to nothing more than an extension of trash TV) and an economy where everyone is getting screwed over. Not since 2010's The Social Network have I seen a film where screenwriter and director have been in near-perfect symmetry. Of course, the flow can only be as good as the actors who take on the words on the page, and the acting is spot on. Ben Affleck is excellent as the husband who exudes charm, only to hide how much of an empty bastard he really is. Carrie Coon (Nora on HBO's The Leftovers) is equal parts smart-ass and Nick's voice of reason as his twin sis Margo; Neil Patrick Harris gives his best performance to date as Desi, the creepy stalker from Amy's past; and surprise, surprise - Tyler Perry is perfect as Nick's savvy shark lawyer who lives for cases such as his. But it's Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne who takes the role of the missing wife and completely steals the show. I can't say much (again due to spoilers), but I can say is that performance deserves an Oscar. Not just a nomination, but an actual Oscar statue in her hands. It is, to me, far and away, the performance of the year.

Gone Girl is a dark, icy, twisted and mercilessly fucked up crime-thriller/pitch black comedy that doesn't pull any punches and leaves no character unscathed in it's path. It's also one of 2014's very best.

**** stars out of ****

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Force Awakens Into The Woods

First things first: I've got a backload of films I've seen that I need to review, including Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, David Fincher's Gone Girl, and The Judge, among others. There's also Marvel's Phase III lineup that was announced last week and how excited I am over two new heroes entering the fray, its significance, and what it means going forward & preparing my annual list of the Best and Worst of 2014. Today is a day for celebration for both Star Wars fans, and fans of musicals and/or Stephen Sondheim.

J.J. Abram's Star Wars Episode VII (due out December of next year) has a new title! And....


That's the title, folks. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What, did the Force get smashed last night and now it has a massive hangover? Did it awaken only to learn that it had a one-night stand with a Trekkie cosplayer at a sci-fi convention? Or did it wake up in a musical with Rapunzel, the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella? Elaborate, Mr. Abrams! Sure, we're going to take shots about how generic and bland the title to the eagerly awaited seventh chapter to the space opera is, but at the end of the day, it's still a better title to a Star Wars movie than The Phantom Menace. Though, I do like the idea of the Force waking up in the middle of an enchanted wooden forest with singing and beanstalks and peasants. It might make for a more interesting movie than Into the Woods!

First, there's dialogue in this musical; second, I don't see any shaky camera work or poor editing cuts in the frames; and lastly, I think it's painfully obvious that there's not a Russell Crowe in this cast who sings like a drunk man at a karaoke bar has the voice of an angel calling from the Heavens. If I want to watch a real musical, i'll stick with Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, thank you very much!

Ok, now that I've gotten my inner Cinema Snob out of the way, I'll say that the trailer looks really good. The production values look stunning as one would expect. Meryl Streep has a really good singing voice, and there's a nice blend of talent here, from the three-time Oscar-winning actress herself, to Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and Johnny Depp as The Wolf. But I will be the first to say that I'm not sure i'll be rushing to see this on Christmas Day (mostly because i'll be seeing Seth Rogen's new comedy, The Interview on that day), partly because I'm just not the biggest fan of musicals, and partly due to me believing that Rob Marshall is a one-hit wonder who got lucky with Chicago and hasn't made anything decent since. Still, will I give this a shot? Eventually yes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ultron's Got No Strings

Last night, Marvel announced that the trailer to Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015) would make it's world debut on ABC alongside next Tuesday's episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Almost 24 hours later, it leaked online. 

In a word (poor quality an all): wow.

There will, no doubt, be a better high-resolution quality version of the anticipated first look at the superhero team-up sequel, but it looks pretty damn good. It is fitting that the trailer music uses the song "I've Got No Strings On Me" from Walt Disney's Pinocchio soundtrack, not because Marvel is now a subsidiary of the House of Mouse, nor because the malevolent robot Ultron (James Spader)   pretty much references the song when he threatens Earth's Mightiest Heroes; rather, it is fitting because it takes the origin story of the title character and turns it into this bleak, twisted form. Instead of lying and disobeying his maker and then redeeming himself for his transgressions, Ultron deems that his maker, along with everyone on earth must be eradicated, and doesn't even remotely try to atone for his actions. Well played to whoever came up with using the song for the trailer. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Plea From Me, to Jeffrey Wells.

Dear Jeffrey,

Despite whatever I've said about you (and I've said numerous things on this blog, on your site, and on Twitter), there's one constant about you that I've always respected when reading your articles on Hollywood Elsewhere: it comes from a deep love of the medium. I love that you get jazzed over smaller, obscure movies that, otherwise, wouldn't be (or should be) on my radar. I admire that you don't buckle to public opinion and base the film on it's merits alone. You write and speak without much (or any) fear of how someone will perceive of your work. I wish I had that kind of streak in me as a writer.

But the rub has always been that you take this quality about yourself too far, and the initial response has been to think that you're being a huge jerk, or in inconsiderate ass. Exhibit A: how you espoused that if a child with down syndrome can't keep quiet during a screening at the local theater, then management should have the right to throw that person/group out of the theater. I understand where you were coming from; that distractions like talking, texting, etc., ruin the experience of moviegoing. We all can't stand it when some obnoxious jackass keeps chatting away on his phone, or when an infant cries obsessively, or when a group of teens won't shut the hell up. Two of the three things can be controlled. A baby cannot. I'd prefer that parents do leave their young babies at home, but I do understand that sometimes, it's not possible, and you have to learn to block out that kind of noise.

Exhibit B: Your most recent post about Fort Hood screening Interstellar. Like last time, I understand the crux of what you were aiming at: You're looking for substance as to how the film was as a whole, rather than a review that sounds like the countless sea of fanboys. And again, you take it too far by questioning the person's manhood, who just happened to be someone serving in the military. These two examples I would chalk up to you just being a raging, unapologetic, first-class douchebag who doesn't understand restraint. And yet, there's another point that I just now considered to these kinds of posts. One that, with all honesty, has me hoping that you are, indeed, just a grade-A fuck face.

Each of these posts have gotten plenty of comments. Have had people like me throw endless comments at you, ranging from "You are such an asshole, Jeff!", to "What the fuck is your problem, you fucking dick?!" I'm certain you've heard it all. I'm also certain that you don't give a shit to what I, or anyone else, has to say about you. Your mindset chalks up to "Love me or hate me, at least spell my name right." I also notice that when you don't write inflammatory articles and just stick to writing about movies you've seen, classics that are getting the Blu-Ray treatment, or just rambling about your personal life and little things that capture your fancy, it's a different matter; few people comment and/or care. There are plenty of people, anonymous and well-known commentators who openly come to the site just to watch you blow a bigger gasket. 

The point I'm getting at is that I wonder if these outbursts are nothing more than a stunt to get people talking about your site, your writings. That you're just playing this caricature to simply get attention, and to get people talking about you.

I hope it isn't the latter. If it is, Jeff: I have one request of you: Stop doing it. 

Stop caving into the persona.

Stop writing harsh, mean-spirited rants just to get hits on HE.

Stop pretending to be this unlikable dickhead.

Just stop altogether.

Frankly speaking: I find it to be the cheapest, laziest and most cynical form of writing - putting stuff out you don't mean in any capacity, but writing it anyway to get attention. We have enough Rush Limbaugh's and Ann Coulter's running around, being given a platform to say the most disgusting, disingenuous and inflammatory things to sell books, get segments on cable news outlets and ink in speaking tours to crowd around and see what what he or she will say next. I also find it to be a slap in the face to people like myself, who either are trying to get up off the ground and make a name for themselves in the profession, or just love to write about something they are deeply passionate about.

I'm not a professional writer by any stretch of the imagination. I don't always update like I should for this blog alone, and procrastination plagues me constantly. I write-up recaps for Awards Daily TV for no pay, but because I'm interested in the medium, and I think I do a decent job of it. I love writing. It is an extension of my identity. I don't get that many hits or comments. And I don't really care if I'm essentially talking out loud to the empty void. I love writing about film (and now television). It's been a passion of mine ever since mom started taking me to the South Bay Drive-In when I was a young boy. I admire and respect the Roger Ebert's, the Lisa Schwarzbaum's the Sasha Stone's, the Scott Weinberg's, the Lindsay Ellis' and Doug Walker's of the world who review and talk movies in a professional or semi-professional manner, and I find it fucking insulting that maybe you see it as just a game.

Again, I hope I'm wrong and that you're really just an asshole who doesn't know restraint for that mouth of yours. But if it really is just to get a rise out of people and gather attention, then I beg you to stop doing it. You're too good for it.



Monday, September 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Divergent

In the distant future, North America is in ruins. Entire factions have been split into Districts, as they all fall under the evil totalitarian rule of...oh, no, not this again! It was bad enough that I had to play "Name That Sci-Fi Film Reference!" when I reviewed Oblivion last year, but now again with Divergent? You know, it's just one reference; I'm sure the premise will get better as the review goes along.

Ok, so this isn't Panem, There aren't twelve Districts, and Donald Sutherland isn't the totalitarian bastard running the show. But it is the near future, and it appears that anything resembling North America has been wiped out, save for the remains of Chicago, for some reason In fact, how the hell is the Windy City mostly intact? Did whoever fired off the nukes hit every major city in North America and accidentally left off Chi-town? Crap, I'm thinking too much about this, so let's just roll with it. this brave new world, there are factions, but not like the ones resembling the twelve Districts in The Hunger Games; rather there are groups, such as Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin...Fuck, that's from the Harry Potter book and film series! Okay, let's try this one more time:in reality, the groups are based off of one's psychological aptitude tests they take in the future. There's Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (honest folk), Dauntless (bravery) and Eritude (intelligence); and each year, during the Sixteenth year of life, young boys and girls are Selected by the Community to do a job that bests suits that person's traits....and that's taken from Lois Lowry's The Giver.

As you can already see, Divergent is borrowing from other better science fiction and fantasy novels without much of a flare of it's own, a problem which becomes the least of its worries. I should mention that I haven't read the original source material by Veronica Roth, but something tells me it's not only a faithful adaptation to the book, but it does little to address the plot holes. Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is going through the Choosing Ceremony phase in her life. Before she makes a decision on whether to stay in Abnegation with her mother (Ashley Judd) and father (Tony Goldwin), or to venture out and join Dauntless, she takes an aptitude test that would best inform her which faction she would belong to. Her results are deemed inconclusive, because she qualifies for Abnegation, Dauntless and Eritude; making her Divergent, which in this world, threatens the system, but more on that later. She ends up leaving home and joining Dauntless, and quickly is put through the ringer as she deals with a tough instructor, Four (Theo James) who breaks in newbies, intense training sessions, and hiding her true nature from Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the faction leader for Eritude, and the villainess who's preparing to use Dauntless to stage a coup d'eta to overthrow Abnegation for control of the five factions.........zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.........

*several hours later......*

..........Huh, what happened?....Geez, must have dozed off there. The movie's so boring that its making me fall asleep during the review, which is perhaps the biggest issue facing Divergent: it isn't compelling to watch.

I know Katniss. I like Katniss. You, Tris, are no Katniss.
The premise is recycled bits from better stories and their movie adaptations, from Hunger Games to Harry Potter, and there's not much of an engaging spin on borrowing from their respective plot points. The script, written by Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daughetry, feels so slavish to the source material that it doesn't make up for the film's bigger question it never explains: why are "divergents" dangerous and pose a threat to the system? From what I gather, it's because they can't be controlled and regurgitate the faction BS, but the story barely explains this concept to the audience. The action scenes are mostly kids training to fight and facing their pears as members of Dauntless, but these scenes happen so much that they become dull and repetitive to watch.

And because Taylor and Daughetry play it this close to the original, the acting suffers as a result. Shaileen Woodley is a terrific young actress, but she's not given much to work with, other than being a mild version of Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen. Theo James is basically a hunk of eye candy that I really don't need to to much detail into, except that the chemistry between him and Woodley doesn't hold much of a spark. And the supporting characters - from Ansel Egort (from that other YA movie that I won't mention) as Tris' brother, Caleb, Jai Courtney as Eric, a Dauntless trainer, Miles Teller as Peter, a newbie into the Dauntless faction - aren't give enough to do. Kate Winslet is perhaps the best thing about this movie, playing the main antagonist, Jeanine, a cunning, power-hungry dictator waiting in the wings. She's having a ball playing the bad gal, and it's terrific to see her in this part.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect in all of this is how this movie, which made $288 million worldwide, announces that a mediocre, rather uninteresting kickoff to what Summit Entertainment hopes is a Twilight/Hunger Games-like hit, can become a tentpole franchise without making some sort of signature stamp. The Harry Potter series had a mix of polished young actors and seasoned British talent from the late Richard Harris to the great Gary Oldman and damn-near everyone in between, and production values that topped itself each outing, along with the dark, mature storytelling. The Lord of the Rings had Peter Jackson's singular vision for bringing Middle Earth to life, as he oversaw every aspect of the 8 year shoot of three movies. Kevin Feige brought together beloved superheros from Marvel's vast stable and brought them together in a shared, coexisting universe, forever changing the superhero genre with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Divergent just doesn't do enough to stand out from those tentpole franchises, but got in by making a lot of money and being as bland and generic as possible.

* 1/2 stars out of  ****

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movin' On Up!

Starting September 22 (perhaps sooner), yours truly will be the newest contributor for the television section of Awards! I'll be reviewing stuff like the new Fox crime drama Gotham, dealing with the origins of the city's two heroes, Bruce Wayne and a young detective James Gordon, as well as the origins of beloved Batman foes, Penguin, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman, to name a few; along with Season II of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, perhaps a few more shows if this goes well. I'll still do my regular movie reviews here, but i'm branching out to the world of the small screen, and I cannot wait to take on this new adventure. I'll be joined by great writers for the site, including Clarence Moyer, Joey Moser, Megan McLachlan and the guy in charge, Craig Kennedy, who is also featured on the Oscar Podcast with Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams. Wish me luck!