Archive for March, 2012

The Hunger Games

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Hungergames

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Suzanne Collins’ mighty young adult turned crossover publishing phenomenon “The Hunger Games” arrives in theatres as the franchise heir apparent to book series-to-screen juggernauts like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.” With a ready-made fan base eager to see the tough, desperate Katniss Everdeen come alive in the person of Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games” will almost certainly make a very big star out of its talented lead. Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated work in “Winter’s Bone” runs in thematic parallel to the flinty “girl on fire,” a resourceful, intelligent, and welcome female leader in a world dominated by male action heroes.

Classifiably critic-proof, the release of “The Hunger Games” movie has already launched a library of interpretation, from critiques of clueless, racist Twitter users flabbergasted that certain characters (Rue in particular) are not played by white actors to iron-willed defenses of Koshun Takami’s “Battle Royale” as the unsung – and, until recently, largely unacknowledged – origin of Collins’ core story elements. Collins denied familiarity with “Battle Royale” in a detailed “New York Times” profile by Susan Dominus, shrewdly identifying the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as her inspiration, but as Irene Peter quipped, “ignorance is no excuse, it’s the real thing.”

Certainly, dystopian fiction featuring life and death consequences did not originate with Takami’s novel, and “The Hunger Games” owes additional debts to Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” to name just three items on a growing list of suggested influences. But whether one reads the novel as a protest of economic disparity between rich and poor, an expose of societal dependency on lowest-common-denominator reality television, an exploration of the horrors of war, or simply as an allegorical corollary to the real and imagined struggles of adolescence, “The Hunger Games” is elastic enough to withstand a variety of wide-ranging interpretations.

The production design, special effects, and costumes place “The Hunger Games” somewhere between “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” on the scale of visual value. The computer generated images of the galloping quadrupeds known as mutts outpace the werewolves of Forks, Washington, but the garish fright wigs and pancake makeup favored by the faux-aristocratic denizens of the imperial headquarters are deliberately redolent of foppish French Revolution-era aristocrats, and the enterprise often feels surprisingly cheap. With the ironic exception of the scenes in which Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman interviews the ill-fated tributes on television, many of the Capitol sets resemble something from made-for-TV movies.

Stylistically, “The Hunger Games” falters in its nausea-inducing handheld camerawork, a poor choice that offers no deep insight into the omnipresent media coverage demanded by the bloodthirsty Big Brothers of the Capitol – other than to serve as a weak reminder that nearly everything we see is presumably being captured for broadcast. Additionally, the demands of the film’s PG-13 rating drain the blood from Collins’ visceral descriptions of death in the arena. In place of the stark immediacy of the text, Ross dances around the horrors of children killing children, cutting away or staying in close to avoid showing any detail that might run afoul of the MPAA (the depiction of the tracker jacker attack is particularly flimsy and ineffective). One supposes there is some kind of insincerity suggested by the film’s compromise position, but the broken state of the current movie ratings system offers no alternative for a massive, mainstream release.

 

A Separation

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Separation

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Riveting, humane, and vibrantly alive with closely observed detail, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” showcases dimensions of contemporary Iran that few Americans could imagine while at the same time remaining steadfastly universal. Tumbling headlong through a series of increasingly contentious legal dilemmas, Farhadi’s restless, urgent storytelling – captured in crowded frames by cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari – bounces between domestic and municipal locations as a painful and complex examination of marriage, parenthood, caregiving, class, gender, and adolescence consolidates into the kind of masterful cinematic storytelling crafted by the great Italian neorealist filmmakers of the 1940s.

The first Iranian motion picture to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival,  “A Separation” deposits the viewer in the middle of a searing standoff between middle class Tehran spouses Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), at odds over Simin’s desire to move the family out of the country to provide better opportunities for their child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the filmmaker’s daughter). Nader refuses to leave his aging father, whose struggle with Alzheimer’s disease makes constant supervision a necessity, and the bitter stalemate only signals more rough times ahead.

Simin moves in with her parents, and Nader hires the pregnant Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who illegally hides the employment from her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), as a housekeeper and caretaker. Misunderstandings and poor choices lead to tragic results, and Nader and Razieh find themselves entangled in an escalating series of accusations that place their loved ones under tremendous stress. Farhadi filters a great deal of the film’s point of view through the perspective of Termeh, whose childhood disappears bit by bit every time she is called upon to make grown-up decisions.

Delivered with the precision plotting of a procedural, “A Separation” unveils an agenda less concerned with uncovering a single truth than with recognizing the shades of gray that complicate strict interpretations of the law. As we watch Simin struggle with the obstinate, unmovable Nader, Farhadi observes parallel husband/wife discord between Razieh and Hodjat, whose own young daughter provides an additional visual echo between the two families. While the class divide between the sets of couples implies different types and sources of friction, Farhadi constructs a unified, parallel study of gender-dependent predicaments.

“A Separation” resists black-and-white reductionism, and Farhadi’s shrewd objectivity makes room for disparate readings. More conservative viewers, and one presumes some of the Iranian power brokers who originally endorsed the movie’s Oscar candidacy, might readily identify the film’s wrenching events as a blistering critique of divorce. Others will certainly see the story as a reminder that restrictive conditions for women exacerbate problems in a church-and-state linked society. Brilliantly, Farhadi retains all the familiar, recognizable messiness of life without overtly passing judgment on the individuals who populate his movie. This ambiguity, reminiscent of Yimou Zhang’s 1990s work with Li Gong (another instance in which tension between artist and regime was publicized in the West), has made for interesting news items in the wake of Farhadi’s awards season successes: Ethan Sacks reported in the “New York Daily News” on March 12, 2012 that Iranian government officials had canceled a planned celebration of “A Separation.”

John Carter

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Johncarter

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Everything good that director Andrew Stanton brought to the lauded “WALL-E” in 2008 is completely absent in the dreadful “John Carter,” a frustrating, soulless sarcophagus of a movie that feels even longer than its already bloated 132-minute length. Released one century after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ primary source material “A Princess of Mars” began its serial debut in the pulpy “The All-Story,” “John Carter” was nearly made into an animated feature pitched by legendary artist Bob Clampett in the 1930s (a brief glimpse of Clampett’s test footage can be found on YouTube). The “John Carter” we get unspools like the doughy offspring of George Lucas’ “The Phantom Menace,” and never escapes the affectation of a copy of a copy of a copy.

Civil War-era Virginian John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), presumably hunting for gold in Arizona, stumbles upon the means to teleport himself to Mars, and there encounters a convoluted political struggle pitting several factions and species against one another. Allegiances shift with little explanation, and Carter – along with the viewer – hurtles himself headlong into the fracas without stopping to ask any substantive questions. Inexplicably, Stanton pauses for flashback scenes in which Carter recalls the loss of his family on Earth, the shots bearing an eerie resemblance to similar components in “Cowboys & Aliens.”

So much of what resembles story development in “John Carter” rolls by without any differentiation in emotional urgency that every single scene blends together in a kind of cinematic white noise. Carter’s humanness allows him to negotiate the gravitational fields of Mars like a miraculous flea, but the computer-enhanced weightlessness only calls to mind the same ridiculous gag in Ang Lee’s stupefying “Hulk.” The four-armed mantis-esque alien race known as Tharks (voiced by talents like Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church) aren’t as pretty as James Cameron’s Na’vi, despite the similarities in their height and impossibly svelte waistlines.

Laughable dialogue is belched in every scene, and while several dozen lines contend for most embarrassing status, Lynn Collins probably won’t be adding “We may have been born worlds apart, but I know you, John Carter” to her audition reel. Mark Strong plays main heavy Matai Shang, a shape-shifting immortal whose reasons for doing just about anything are as hazy as the Martian horizon. Strong, whose villainous skill suggests a modern-day Basil Rathbone, can make even the most mechanical dialogue menacingly convincing, and he is certainly stuck with some of the script’s foulest sentences.

Despite much aping of “Avatar,” “John Carter” opts out of an interspecies romance between Carter and the Thark warrior Sola (Morton), whose storyline consists principally of a lukewarm recognition of father-daughter bonds in a culture otherwise unable or unwilling to recognize paternity. Instead, Carter’s less interesting love interest is Collins’ Dejah Thoris, the plucky princess whose experiments with some convoluted energy source called the Ninth Ray might be the key to the Red Planet’s survival. Both Kitsch and Collins are appropriately comely and sculpted, but despite the obvious design debt to Frank Frazetta’s paintings and illustrations – the visual standard by which any adaptation of “John Carter” will be measured – the flesh and blood incarnations can’t summon the same kind of wonderment captured in Frazetta’s brushstrokes.

Wanderlust

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Wanderlust

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Comic journeys in which out-of-touch yuppies follow their bliss are many in number, and often trace their roots to Hy Averback’s 1968 “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!,” a groovy Peter Sellers vehicle penned by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker in which an uptight lawyer falls under the spell of a prototype Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In “Wanderlust,” David Wain and Ken Marino update the rough contours of the scenario as a commentary on the current economic climate’s anti-corporate occupation attitude. Unlike Sellers’ soon-to-be-wed square, Paul Rudd’s character is already married, but both “Toklas” and “Wanderlust” play with the fantasies of free love before reinforcing the values of commitment and the middle path.

Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are George and Linda, a couple unable to make the payments on their West Village “microloft” when HBO passes on Linda’s foul penguins with testicular cancer doc and George gets the boot from his suit and tie operation. Accepting defeat, the protagonists pack their bags and head for the humiliation of the Atlanta McMansion owned by George’s portable toilet mogul brother Rick (co-writer Ken Marino), a brilliantly coarse jackass. Unable to cope with Rick’s alpha male autocracy, George and Linda decide to return to the Elysium Bed and Breakfast where they stayed en route to Rick’s monstrosity.

The dwellers at Elysium, an “intentional community” that operates like the halcyon ideal of a world where Charles Manson never happened, happily share everything from chores to possessions to each other’s bodies, and “Wanderlust” makes hay with George’s discomfort when his car is abused and his personal privacy invaded (the end credit outtakes from the toilet scene featuring Jordan Peele are hysterical). Malin Akerman’s cheerfully sunny sexual availability (“Think about being inside me”) pushes George to the limit of self-control. When Linda insists that George take advantage of Eva’s offer, his mirror monologue as he practices painfully awkward seduction talk develops into a tour de force display of fearless humiliation. Rudd deserves some kind of award for it.

Wain’s accomplished supporting cast includes veteran Alan Alda as the aging commune founder, Joe Lo Truglio (who appeared at the Fargo Film Festival in “High Road” and live on stage during the closing night improvisation show “Celebrity”) as a nudist winemaker/aspiring writer whose earnest dreams of success are as outsize as his manhood, and Justin Theroux in what may be his best screen work to date. Theroux’s confident, patronizing alpha act is perfect, and a goofy scene in which he scorches Rudd’s hopeless acoustic guitar attempt on the Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” in a music circle is one of many funny sketches in which he excels.

Accompanying tropes of the genre provide fodder for gags, with the “intoxication ensues” device a centerpiece echoing the memorable pot brownie feast that sends Sellers into psychedelic overdrive. Aniston tripping her ass off doesn’t quite measure up to the “Toklas” standard, but Wain fools around with some loopy visual effects that approximate what the character sees in her altered state. Generally, Aniston is outpaced by the improvisational veterans surrounding her (the Wain-Michael Ian Black-Michael Showalter triumvirate appear in a terrific cameo), but “Wanderlust” affably suggests that we still might be able to find a few more laughs sending up the era that the film’s target audience never experienced firsthand.