You can’t repeat the past
As The Great Gatsby has been out for a while (and this was supposed to go up weeks ago), I’ll make it short and (not?) sweet. There’s something just not quite right about this version of The Great Gatsby.
F Scott Fitzgerald’s book, anointed as one of the great, influential American novels, seems to defy adaptation, frustrating anyone who comes near it. Perhaps it’s the importance of the book itself that’s the problem, the responsibility of the text weighing down the adapter. Attempting to match what’s become an iconic piece of literature proves to be a difficult task.
Director Bazz Lurhman tries to incorporate Fitzgerald’s prose within his own style but the end result is an unwieldy one. It never congeals in the right way with Lurhman expending a lot of energy to lift the story off the page. It shows, with the film having the restless energy of someone who’s in a rush to say something but isn’t quite sure how.
After a manic opening ½ hour which does the film no favours, it slows down but only really comes into its own in the last ½ hour or so. Ironically, it’s when the characters are sitting in a room with nothing to distract them, no parties or dancers dangling from the ceilings, that the film is at its most interesting.
A simpler, tighter story; one without the constant visual inflections and (disappointingly) anaemic soundtrack might have made a better impact.
But it does get a few things right. DiCaprio is well suited to Gatsby and his introduction is one of the few knockout scenes in the film. While most of the actors struggle to make themselves seen and heard above Lurhman’s ADD style, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan makes an impression as a gruff, old-money patriarch.
With that last half-hour realising the book’s Shakespeare-like romance tragedy; about how we can all be blinded by our past, it makes this effort all the more frustrating. It sparkles in moments, but then all that glistens is not gold. Not bad then, just decent.
I told myself, I would never come back.
When is a comedy not a comedy?
The Hangover Part III is an odd film. With the second entry in the series running on fumes, Part III shakes the formula up by ditching the set-up of the prior films and plays it more or less straightforward. There’s a bigger scope to this film that’s evident from the off as it opens with Mr Chow (Ken Jeong, the Wolf Pack’s nemesis in the first two films), escaping from a south-Asian prison and seemingly on his way back to the US.
Meanwhile Zach Galifianakis’ Alan is displaying some highly erratic behaviour. So Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) decide to intervene, offering to help by driving Alan to a facility to get the help he needs. On the way there, they’re ambushed by a gang of criminals led by John Goodman’s Marshall, who needs their help to locate Chow and $21 million in missing gold bars.
While I can’t say that part III is as blasé as part II, it is nevertheless a strikingly unfunny film; a step back from its predecessor which still managed to drudge up some (crude) laughs. Director Todd Philips opts for a crime/heist caper rather than the “men behaving badly” pastiche, answering critics who thought part II was more of the same. So while it isn’t (somehow) as juvenile as before, in terms of tone it becomes two different genres clashing awkwardly. What was fun and irreverent before is now po-faced and more than a bit morbid.
It ties up elements of the franchise you didn’t know, and quite frankly never needed tying up. The plotting is contrived, lazy and tired with characters (especially Chow) having inexplicable knowledge of certain things just to move the story onwards. There’s no rhyme and very little reason as to what’s happening and why you should care. It’s a series that could, and should, have ended after the first film.
Part III isn’t unwatchable but it is much of a nothingness: a nondescript, lethargic film with characters that have less maturity than a five-year old. Philips directs as if he’s on auto-pilot and the whole enterprise would be unremarkable save for some surreal moments involving Melissa McCarthy’s Cassie. Like most of Philips’ recent output there’s a mean-spirited nature about its humour, with characters shouting at the elderly, smothering a chicken and sniffing another person’s backside like a dog would. At times its bizarre and demented. Philips and screenwriter Craig Mazin seem to think that’s funny.
It isn’t. It’s actually really boring.
I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.
I had [actually that should read as 'have'] reservations about Captain America: The First Avenger. The reservations? You can read about them over here but they stem from a character and story perspective. Putting those problems aside I come to appreciate the pulpy spectacle a little bit more than I did before.
The First Avenger‘s story finds Steve Rogers deemed unfit for service in World War II but volunteers for a special project that gives a man super-human gifts. Finally getting his chance to serve his country he travels to Europe to stop Johann Schmidt a.ka. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Hydra scientist who intends to win the war with his new weapon of destruction, the Tesseract.
The First Avenger is a much better action/adventure film than it is one about its own characters. Chris Evans‘ Steve Rogers is a standout, but that’s expected since he’s the star of the show. The other actors do well in their roles, the, ahem, buxom Hayley Atwell foreshadows the kind of tough, heroic woman that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow would come to be; Tommy Lee Jones grizzled, avuncular performance works extremely well here and Stanley Tucci‘s Abraham Erskine is another standout in the film’s first half-hour or so.
It’s in the other characters that film shows its limitations. Hugo Weaving‘s Johann Schimdt makes for a standard foe, your typical ‘he’s like the hero but one step removed’ sort of villain. He’s obviously evil and villanous and perhaps that’s all he needs to be. It doesn’t make for a memorable antagonist despite the fact that his skin has been burnt off. Most of the other characters get the short-shrift and bow out too early to have an impact, leaving the film’s action to pick up the slack. It’s a good thing that the action is pretty great.
There’s a physicality to Captain America that clearly differentiates itself from other superheroes particularly in the Marvel canon. Most of the heroes have some kind of miscellaneous item to fight with (Thor has his hammer: Black Widow her, um, guns, Hawkeye his bow and Iron Man his suit/repulsor tech blah, blah, blah). Captain America has his shield but he’s the closest character to the Hulk that uses his fists than any other kind of weird technology. He’s not about to bring out a rapier mid-battle or have gauntlets to stab you with in the mould of Assassin’s Creed. He brawls, keeping in line with serial heroes like Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones, and that added level of physicality is a bit more enjoyable than someone getting blasted or hit flush in the face with a gigantic hammer.
In the end The First Avenger most problematic issue is in its pacing. Characters don’t get enough time to establish themselves and their relationships and in turn tend to be rather shallow. The film runs rather than jogs, to get where it needs to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for me, if only there was only something to be invested in other than the action. From an action perspective Captain America: The First Avenger is enjoyable piece of genre filmmaking…but there’s always that feeling that it could have been better.
[Does anyone care what happened to Sebastian 'Bucky' Barnes because I don't and that's a massive problem with this film. Things happened and you can't quite muster the interest/attachment to characters' fate since the film isn't interested in bookending its stories than bridging Rogers into The Avengers. - a thing I do like about the film is that, like Thor, it introduces a more fantastical bent with the Tesseract making the action way over the top]
“I have no plans to die today”
Up till Thor’s release Marvel Studios had eschewed the more fantastical elements of its characters/worlds for a realistic vibe. They were plausible…well Iron Man sort of was; but they each felt part of a recognisable world. The Incredible Hulk was a monster movie but the character was familiar enough for audiences not to question it. Thor was a different proposition: how do you fit a god and space bridges into the Marvel canon and keep it grounded?
The characters and setting of Asgard are outlandish, absolutely separate from the real world aesthetics that Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, The Incredible Hulk created. Perhaps, like the previous Marvel films, the reason it works because of an emphasis on character rather than action.
That doesn’t mean it skimps on the action but it isn’t the film’s major concern. If the film’s faults lie in scale of the action (smaller than the setting implies); the way the action sequences are directed (functional) and a story that may not feel as grand as it should be, then those concerns are valid. For me it’s the conflict between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that’s the film’s most interesting aspect and what draws me back into the film than any preconceived notions of what it should/could have been.
Having written at length about what I liked about the film already (so, so long ago), I won’t bother repeating myself in any great detail. In short Thor’s an very likable film that doesn’t suffer from the Iron Man films’ weak third acts, and, emotionally, has a stronger sense of purpose than any of previous Marvel Studios films. Most of it is down to the trifecta of Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, a family thrown into tumult when Thor commits an act of stupidity and threatens to re-ignite the war between the Asgardians’ foe the Frost Giants.
Banished from Asgard (by way of a quite literal dressing down) Thor is sent to learn about humility and sacrifice as a lesson for his brash arrogance. Along the way he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (comic relief Kat Dennings) and finds a place along humanity.
It’s another redemption story in the vein of Iron Man but it doesn’t lose its energy in the final third because of the relationships established in the film’s opening half-hour. S.H.I.E.L.D is still a bit of a dick but they don’t come across as annoying or as incongruous as they once did in Iron Man 2 (which wasn’t bad itself, just came across as trying to fit too many pieces into the puzzle). In Loki Marvel had its best villain so far, one that did not offer a physical threat to Thor’s strength but functioned as a trickster who schemes and manoeuvres pieces into place, an aspect of his character that worked well in The Avengers.
For my two cents (pennies?) Thor was the most entertaining of the films leading up to The Avengers. It’s funny, likable and felt like the most rounded of the films to date: it had some scope (though not as much as some wanted), a very good score by Patrick Doyle and visually, despite some glaring imperfections, was vibrant and imaginative. It set the benchmark for future films in the Marvel Studios universe.
[Despite all the kerfuffle pre-release about the colour of the character, Idris Elba's Heimdall almost steals the film from Hemsworth and Hiddleston. It also puts down a marker for future characters to not be bound by race. Hurrah!]
This lone gunslinger act is unnecessary… you don’t have to do this alone!
After the success of Iron Man (and The Incredible Hulk, at least in invigorating interest in the character), Marvel decided to skip a year and release their next film in 2010. The Avenger’s Initiative was very much on the horizon (not a tiny speck any more), the question now was how would Iron Man 2 fit into the equation? The answer would be ‘not very well’.
If the first film was about Downey Jr’s Tony Stark turning his back on his and his company’s legacy, then Iron Man 2 rejoins him as he takes the first tentative steps to creating a new one. Complications arise in the form of the triple whammy with the U.S government wanting to take hold of the iron man suit (after revealing his identity at the end of the first film); with Stark slowly dying from palladium poisoning caused by the very thing that’s keeping him alive, and that he’s not the only person with access to high-tech, weapons grade tech courtesy of Russian rogue scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke).
All this is further complicated by the intrusion of S.H.I.E.L.D – introduced through Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson in the first film – keeping tabs on Stark as he struggles to keep a grip on life. Iron Man 2 is a busy sequel that juggles too many characters and storylines to do any one of them justice. From a different perspective, Iron Man 2 is an ambitious sequel, but it’s execution is flawed. The adage of bigger being better is nullified by the sense of confusion that surrounds the script’s intent – just where is the film’s focus on? Stark dying? His legacy? His father? All of them?
As a result there are threads that get lost in the jumble. Rourke’s Vanko is a little ineffective due to the script (and some say on-set problems) removing him from the back end of the film for long stretches. In his place S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in the narrative is increased but this brings another element that the film struggles to fit in. I haven’t even began to mention Don Cheadle‘s Rhodey and his conflict with Stark or Stark’s daddy issues (Howard Stark played by Mad Men‘s Jon Slattery). It’s exhausting.
Perhaps the least likable aspect of the film is Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, still radiating charisma by the bucketload, but the script turns Stark into a man who has a death wish. It isn’t the Demon in a Bottle storyline, it’s more of a reflection of it as he spirals into the abyss by neglecting the people close to him. Understandable considering the storyline but it comes across as more than a little forced and irritating in its execution.
All of this casts a pall over the first forty minutes of the film which much like the first film contains some of its best moments. Its funny, with the interaction between Stark and competing weapons manufactuer/doppleganger/wannabe Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and it slowly builds up to the first encounter between Vanko and Stark at the Monaco Grand Prix. The film never matches up to that confrontation despite the pyrotechnics, acrobatics (porvided by Scarlett Johansson‘s Natalie Rushman/Black Widow) and CG antics that dominate the last twenty minutes of the film.
Nonetheless its still entertaining even if it feels like it was rushed into productions with a few too many moving parts. A squandered opportunity to make a film that improved on the original.
[The action in Iron Man was a little stale, the action in Iron Man 2 is much better and some of that may be down to the production hiring Samurai Jack/Clone Wars/Powerpuff Girls animation director Genndy Tartakovsky to create some previsualisation storyboards and Ben Snow's work for ILM, which you read about in brief here]
As far as I’m concerned, that man’s whole body is property of the U.S. army.
I happen to like Ang Lee’s Hulk. While it’s not what many expected (philosophical musings, a CGI monster-poodle!), it was a fascinating entry into the super-hero genre. There was hardly anything like it before and there has been very little like it since. That Marvel hit the reset button (shouting ‘HULK SMASH’ I presume) is more than a little unfortunate. It closed to the door to seeing some risks being taken and some really interesting films being made.
Instead we received French director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk: a remake, requel or something. A new cast, a different Hulk and a new direction: the safe waters of convention.
None of this is necessarily bad.
In a way The Incredible Hulk is an apology-of-sorts, a ‘sorry we were too ambitious and bit of more than we could chew’ type grovel. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is still on the run with a prologue establishing a different origin that more or less gets the character in the place where he needs to be: isolated and afraid to return to society. Off the grid for a number of years, he’s forced to confront his fears when he’s located by General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) who wants his genetic code to create a new breed of super-soldier (in an odd way, this film acts as a pseudo-sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger). However Banner’s work on the genetics for the military leads to a new threat: The Abomination. Banner will have to sacrifice his personal safety to defeat this new, potentially stronger foe.
The Incredible Hulk is a far simpler film than its predecessor, eschewing philosophy and introspective characters and favouring loud action beats and wearing its emotion on its sleeves. It’s not particularly subtle, but then again, a giant green monster full of rage wouldn’t be. Beginning in the slums of Sao Paulo before beating Harlem into submission in the last act, this is a film that’s less about the slow, avant-garde musings on father versus son/daughter relationships and more about levelling buildings/cities with the vibe of the old monster movies Universal Studios used to make. It’s hard to avoid comparison with other versions of Hulk (especially the Bill Bixby TV version this adventure draws inspiration from) which may make this adaptation the most watered down version of the character. However, at least until Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, it actually felt like the purest distillation of a character that’s hard to depict on screen without coming across as incredibly fake.
Norton’s Banner made a lot of sense at the time, giving the character the juxtaposition of a small, timid, unassuming man who gives way to voracious green giant. He centres the film with an intelligence and anxiety that makes Banner an interesting character, a man who suffered the greatest form of scientific hubris and is now afraid of his own shadow, lest he get angry and destroy anything close to him. Punishment by being cast off from humanity.
Tim Roth as Emil Blonksy is good; an old, determined soldier hankering for his glory days and revealing one of the film’s themes (addiction/temptation whether it’s for power, knowledge etc). Liv Tyler’s Betty comes across as little delicate (probably down to Tyler’s breathy voice) and her reunion with Banner feels very melodramatic at times, as if someone watched too many Mexican telenovelas. Hurt’s Ross is okay but suffers from the problem that afflicts much of the supporting cast: they feel a little undercooked; as if there’s more to them that is not shown in the film.
So what makes the film good? Quite probably its lack of pretension. While Lee’s Hulk was more interesting, this Hulk is more fun whether it’s showcasing Leterrier’s action skills, making Banner angry or the Hulk turning a police car into boxing gloves. There’s inventiveness to the action in places that just about offsets the fakery on show, and the overall story of Banner as fugitive keeps the narrative flowing, always worried about if he’ll be found, moving from city to city while searching for a cure. It’s not hugely ambitious; then again Hulk’s at its best when he focuses on one thing: smashing stuff.
[The less said about the end credits scene the better, a moment that Iron Man 2 unravels but Avenger’s Assembles tries to rectify. Also, when are we going to see Tim Blake Nelson’s The Leader in a Marvel film?]
“Iron Man”. That’s kind of catchy. It’s got a nice ring to it.
Going back to April 2008, before The Dark Knight came out; before Marvel’s The Avengers (sorry, Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble) was a speck on the horizon, an Iron Man movie was a significant risk. X-Men, Blade, Batman and Spider-Man had formed the initial landscape of the super-hero genre in the new millennium. Iron Man wasn’t known beyond fervent comic book readers, people who listened to Black Sabbath or kids who may have caught the cartoon in the 90s. Launching a potential franchise with a character – a very tech-orientated James Bond/billionaire playboy – with little awareness could have turned out like other less-popular comic book films such as the disappointingly weak Elektra or Fantastic Four. That it turned out to be good as it is, is down to Robert Downey Jr’s performance, amongst other things.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is a wealthy, arrogant industrialist, presenting his latest and greatest tech at a presentation in Afghanistan where he finds himself fighting for his life after his convoy is attacked. Kidnapped and with very little help, Stark is forced to build a suit of armour to escape his captors and upon freeing himself decides to use his technology to fight evil.
The above synopsis sounds cheesy (anything that has the words ‘fighting evil’ makes me cringe), but it’s to Marvel’s credit that in the context of the film it doesn’t sound laughable. Placing Tony Stark in a climate not far from our own (switching Vietnam for Afghanistan, introducing Apple-like interfaces) makes it much more relatable and palatable. It still retains much of its comic book ‘wham-bam’ personality but it’s not as far-fetched as it could have been, despite having a man who flies around in a high-tech suit of armour.
A lot of that is down to Jon Favreau’s direction (building up his big-budget aspirations after Elf and Zathura), Matthew Libatique’s brightly coloured, realistically-shot cinematography, ILM’s visual effects contribution and a hugely talented ensemble that function as one of the more impressive ones seen in tentpole filmmaking outside of The Dark Knight franchise. The emphasis is on character, not action; humour not broad stupidity (Stark’s bickering/flirting with his assistant, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, is a highlight), building a solid core for the action scenes. That the action isn’t particularly memorable is down to Favreau’s lack of nous/ambition, resulting in a third act fight that preceded Real Steel’s rock-em, sock-em antics. The action is perfunctorily done, a blemish and a missed opportunity for something that offers more scope than just people punching each other with metal fists. It’s a good thing the characters are this much fun as the limp action could have sunk the film.
It doesn’t help matters when the narrative is as formulaic as this one. Redemption narratives are too easily telegraphed: a strong opening half full of conflict eventually gives way to a busier-but-less-interesting second half that tries to resolve issues with a neat little bow. The initial villains (The 10 Rings) don’t offer much of a threat unless it’s of the very generic kind, and the main villain (Iron Monger) is a bit bland, a word you could apply to the film when Downey Jr is not on screen.
That he’s front and centre is this film’s greatest asset. Downey Jr’s revival (Hollywood loves a bad boy come good) is reflected in his cracking performance here after his great turn in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (coming full circle with Black coming onboard to direct Iron Man 3), ‘owning the screen’ instead of chewing the scenery. Without him, this film simply wouldn’t be as good.
[Ramin Djawadi’s score is the film’s least memorable part, a heavy metal orchestration that mimics its protagonist’s ostentatious sense of worth/rock star life/Black Sabbath, forgoing a theme and opting for sonic wallpaper. Disappointing, especially when he's capable of crafting memorable themes like this one.]
You are the soul of the age… Undeniable perfection that plagued my soul.
Given that director Roland Emmerich is more famous for blowing up The White House and other cultural landmarks, the combination of his aesthetics to a drama – the theory that the Earl of Oxford penned Shakespeare’s plays – is initially off-putting. Regardless of whether you believe the theory has a grain of truth, Emmerich turns in a story that’s engaging and far smarter than his previous work would suggest, making Anonymous a film that’s more entertaining than it has any reason to be.
Set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, the film actually begins in modern-day New York theatre with Derek Jacobi (as himself) suggesting there’s more to Shakespeare and his works that meets the eye. The hint of theatricality in this moment presents the rest of the film with a larger-than-life, can’t-possibly-be-true sort of vibe; a story that’s a bit like the BBC’s The Tudors: full of machinations, sedition and power struggles that, again, you wouldn’t normally expect from the ‘Master of Disaster’ Emmerich.
Anonymous gives itself a few problems however. The script by Josh Orloff initially sets up three strands, spread over several decades flitting between each one and causing a momentary pause as you remember which period you’re in and who, exactly, is plotting what. It soon congeals into something comprehensible and from then on the film acts as a sort of ‘what-if?’ or alternative timeline, building an interesting story that turns Shakespeare’s prose into the kind of language that could influence a population and incite a war. The power of the Shakespeare/Oxford’s written word is aligned with Emmerich’s visual grip, attempting to persuade the viewer to at least question The Bard’s eminence.
It’s that theatricality that probably makes the film a little less effective, sensationalising fictional moments that take away from the interesting ideas embedded into Orloff’s script (even if, in true Shakespeare fashion, its full of carnal desires and twists). Still, the performances are very good, notably Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson (in a piece of spot-on casting) as both the old and young Queen Elizabeth: a vain, needy and temperamental monarch who thinks with her heart rather than her head. Rhys Ifans is also particularly good as Edward de Vere, the man the film posits as being the writer of Shakespeare’s texts.
So Anonymous is better than you would think, not really deserving of the battering critics dished out to it and functioning as one of Emmerich’s more interesting and under-appreciated films.
The lambs have passed through the gate…they have come to the killing floor
I’ll start off with a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of horror. It’s a genre that’s mired in a bloody sludge of body parts, dim characters and few actual scares. If horror is a genre that terrifies and excites viewers simultaneously, then it’s a feeling I’ve rarely felt when watching it. With The Cabin in the Woods I rarely felt the former but I definitely experienced the latter.
Delayed after studio MGM encountered financial difficulties, The Cabin in the Woods is a wildly entertaining film that playfully makes a case for why the horror genre is an absolute necessity. Hollywood has recycled torture porn and nondescript ghost/exorcism stories so many times to spin its money making machine, that they’ve forgotten that the genre can be fun and strange; disorientating and hilarious.
But it will feel similar to most horror retreads, it’s part of its charm and why it works so well. Five friends go to a remote cabin for a weekend getaway and end up getting far more than they expected. That’s it. The rules of the game are simple: make it out alive. The Cabin in the Woods works better if you go in knowing relatively little about it other than there’s a cabin and it’s in the woods. Anything more and the surprises are spoiled.
The script by Drew Goddard and Josh Whedon is a slow drip of information, spooling the plot and dishing out information in token amounts leaving the viewer relatively confused as to how everything comes together. What ‘everything’ is, is again, better left to the experience of watching the film. Safe to say there are surprises; there are moments that are scarcely believable and they’re all sprinkled with moments of knowing comedy that takes the accumulated knowledge of horror films and spins it in a way that’s not entirely fresh, but something that’s consistently funny. Ever wanted to know why smoke appears from the ground? Or have you ever wanted to know why there’s always nudity in these films? The concept behind The Cabin in the Woods makes those answers all part of the fun.
Does the story make much sense when you start to untangle it? No. Scratch at the surface of it and there’s not much depth to it. The characters are shallow and the logic can be fuzzy but the inventiveness of the execution makes up for it. From scene to scene, moment to moment, you’re absolutely invested in seeing what happens next, if only to see what kind of tricks Goddard and Whedon have up their sleeves. The last half hour or so features some of the most inventive filmmaking I’ve seen this year.
A film that’s as bloody as it is funny, The Cabin in the Woods is a crowd pleaser. I’ve never been a huge fan of Whedon but this film puts me on the road of being a convert. The real star here is Goddard and how he assembles everything he has at his disposal, from the effective cinematography to David Julyan’s perfectly modulated score, The Cabin in the Woods is a lot like Sam Raimi’s horror films The Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell: fun, gory and absolutely worth your time.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
Opening to huge success in America, The Hunger Games is the type of film Hollywood loves to make, coffers swelling as box office receipts flood in. Adapting Suzanne Collin’s book, The Hunger Games is never as good as it could and really should be. Despite the hoopla over it, the end result of Gary Ross’ direction and co-writers Billy Ray and Collin’s script is a sanitised version of the book that lacks a satirical bite.
The Hunger Games (a name that’s never explained*) is a gladiatorial contest shown on television where each of the twelve districts ‘offers’ one male and female between the ages of 12 and 18. This acts as remembrance of the conflict that almost destroyed the nation of Panem and as a sign of The Capitol’s strength (think classically styled Rome). During the reaping of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s sister, Prim, is called out to be the district’s tribute; in an act of sacrifice Katniss volunteers in her place. She and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcheson) will be up against 22 other competitors who will be vying to kill them.
I have bones to pick, so many that this could turn into a rant rather than a review. I’ll try to whittle down my grievances without spoilers but in short the film is a shadow of the book. It condenses and expands the games and roles of several characters but it simplifies the source, stripping it of its complexity and, perhaps in its worst move, de-emphasises the violence on screen throughout – violence shouldn’t be glamorised but it should go hand in hand with the point you’re trying to make. I’m not sure what Gary Ross’ point is.
The first hour is okay, wasting little time in setting up Katniss and the world of District 12. It’s when the games start that the changes become apparent and few of them enhance the story, again simplifying it and reducing the tension.
A prime example is Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, a presence felt but not really seen has been padded out to give the viewer a villain it can heckle. Its changes like this, attempts at making the film more accessible, that turns it into a more conventional and palatable one, softening its edges and distilling the viewers’ ire into one character instead of the Capitol and its people.
Its lack of complexity stretches to its characters, all of whom aren’t given the depth they deserve. The film opts for Katniss perspective but rarely questions her (a pacifist character who kills in self-defence). The other contestants feel thin, barely glimpsed and lucky to get a word in. The career districts (1 and 2, I think) are turned into villains, the kind that would end their sentences with a malevolent cackle or ‘nyuk, nyuk’ type of laugh. It’s a shallow treatment of their characters, stripping them of their base humanity, asking the audience to take sides and turning a moral grey area into an easier to digest black and white one.
I haven’t even started on the shaky cam aesthetic. The effect of the contestant deaths has (rightly or wrongly) been reduced so you can’t quite tell what’s going on. Imagine your older sibling holding their hands over your eyes when you were kid to shield from seeing stuff you shouldn’t be seeing and that’s the exact effect Tom Stern’s cinematography has here. Ross and Stern’s choice of handheld is annoying and it upsets the geography in favour of immediacy and a false sense of immersion. Confusion reigns.
What’s good about The Hunger Games? Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is good (not phenomenal, just good) guiding the viewer through a world that’s strange and, at times, threatening. However, while her version of Katniss may not have the annoying inner monologue/constant anxiety, paranoia and indecision her counterpart in the book has, she’s a less complicated character that’s (understandably) fighting to get back to her family but seems less annoyed at being used as a pawn with her anger shown once and dissipating pretty quickly.
Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett is spot on, her gaudy appearance and optimistic attitude a sign of just how far removed the Capitol is from reality, unwilling to acknowledge the barbarity of the games. The same applies for Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. The rest of the cast fare a little less, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ stylist Cinna has a few moments; Harrelson’s Haymitch is not quite the boorish malcontent he is in the book, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is on the periphery for the whole film and Josh Hutcheson’s Peeta is a character whose head you never really get into. The same goes for the relationships in the film: the book pads them out, here the film races through, giving few reasons to be emotionally invested in the outcome of…well…anybody.
The Hunger Games is not a facsimile of the book, losing a lot of the complexities and overall Orwellian mood the book evoked. Judged on its own, its average, suggesting very little about our own culture and barely exploring its ideas/characters. I’m genuinely surprised at the praise that’s been falling at the film’s feet, whether you’re an avid reader of the books or someone completely fresh to it, The Hunger Games never really suffices as an intelligent adaptation. Disappointing.
*The Hunger Games are called so because the winner gets extra food and money for their district, incentivising the games for each district.
Hey Korean Jesus.
Based on a tv show that never made its way to British shores, 21 Jump Street has a bit of an unknown factor about it. However, what uniqueness or novelty 21 Jump Street had in its premise of cops working undercover in high schools disappears under a wave of familiar 80s action tropes and a predictable script. If you’re looking for a good two hours at the cinema then 21 Jump Street fits the bill, but beyond the jokes there’s little here that’s fresh despite the film’s attempts at subverting expectations. Odd.
Tatum’s Jenko and Hill’s Schmidt first meet in high school where Jenko is a dim but popular jock who teases Eminem-but-fatter-looking Schmidt. When they reunite at the police academy they put their differences aside and become best friends. Believing their life as cops will be full of car chases and shoot-outs, they’re stationed to park duty and given bicycles instead of patrol cars. When a drug-related bust goes wrong they get their asses sent to 21 Jump Street, a program that recruits officers to solve crimes in schools. Their first case is to bust a drug ring that’s supplying synthetic drugs to teenagers.
The biggest problem with 21 Jump Street is its story. The performances, humour and action within are quite good but the script doesn’t deviate from the standard comedy textbook. 21 Jump Street is a case of cleaving to the tried-and-tested formula of comedy scripts, with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) embroidering the situations with a wacky sense of humour and energy but Michael Bacall’s script has the characters go through terribly predictable arcs.
Even though it reverses the roles of Tatum and Hill once they go undercover, the direction of the story never surprises (I suppose there’s some sort of comfort in that) and characters react to the big emotional beats in a manner that’s similar to every other comedy for the last fifteen years. You’re absolutely sure of the outcome and the film never once tries to dispel that surety.
It has moments that work really well, especially when Jenko/Schmidt try to gain some cred with their retro humour. Even though it doesn’t seem as if they’ve been out of high school for long (they probably have, I just have no idea how the American school system works). Schmidt/Jenko’s sense of humour and worth in the social strata of high school are totally upended on the first day. They’re out of their elements and part of the film’s charm is seeing how they adapt and struggle to their new lives. Both characters get to see the other side of school life that they weren’t privy to before and, as you do in school, learn a few things they didn’t know before.
Tatum shows more of the comedic chops he displayed in The Dilemma; giving Jenko a dumb jock presence that’s affable (his meltdown at a music recital is sort of brilliant). Hill gets saddled with a role that inflates his character’s ego and as a result turns him into a bit of dick, with screenwriter Bacall looking to drive a wedge between Jenko and Schmidt that feels very contrived and unnecessary. The rest of the cast are good, special mentions should go to gym teacher Rob Riggle who knocks it out the park with his acerbic performance and Ice Cube as the belligerent Captain Dickson.
So while the gag rate is comfortably high (with more jokes hitting than missing), 21 Jump Street could have done with a better, less transparent story. It’s the off-kilter humour that saves the day, giving the film a tone that’s not bound to realistic expectations. (Who on earth can shake of a stab wound? Or not even refer to it in the rest of the film?) Surprises are few and far between but 21 Jump Street is just about crazy enough and enderaring to ensure that its jokes hit their intended mark.
Remember rule number one: you are responsible for your house guest. I’m your house guest.
Safe House exists as a copy and as a result it’s inferior to the films it imitates. Still, it’s enjoyable, even if it is hackneyed and derivative, coming across as a synthesis of 24 and The Bourne trilogy but nowhere near as innovative as those two productions. Safe House’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have an original bone in its body and that produces a film that offers few surprises to go along with its brutal fights and big explosions.
Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, an inexperienced agent who’s stuck twiddling his thumbs looking after a safe house in Cape Town. When a rogue CIA agent, in the form of Denzel Washington’s Tobin Frost, turns himself in to the US consulate and is subsequently transported to the safe house, all hell breaks loose when a hit team tries to kill him. Weston and Frost escape but the former’s allegiance to the CIA is tested when he’s marginalised by his superiors as he tries to keep Frost under control.
It’s not a hugely original plot, the twist and turns the story takes are all pretty conventional and the roles don’t really test or stretch the combined talents of Reynolds and Washington. Despite the David Guggenheim’s script featuring on the prestigious Black List in 2010, what it excels at is taking all the tropes from action films of the past five years and embedding them into one story. It probably read well on paper, on screen it lacks a certain inspiration of its own.
The lack of interesting ideas spreads to the cast who all perform amicably but are weighed down by clichés and stereotypes. Since there is no overt ‘baddie’ (unless you consider Frost to be one) then it’s no real secret as to where the villain emerges from. The real mystery is why they even bothered to keep it a secret. Washington is, as always, good. His natural charisma creating a character that’s always in charge even when he’s not; always one step ahead of everyone else. Reynolds is okay, holding his own against Washington in the scenes the two actors share but he’s saddled by a rather pointless romance subplot that every action film has to shoehorn in.
The real star of the film is Cape Town, the location lending the film a look and feel that doesn’t feel like it’s a simple copy and paste exercise. The action on the other hands is borrowed wholesale from the Bourne films and implemented in an almost dizzying array of quick cuts. The best thing to say about the action is that it’s not as bad as other films (I’m looking at you Colombiana) but it’s getting to the point where someone needs to get the director, cinematographer or editor to take a sedative and calm down. These frenzied sequences don’t have the effect of putting the viewer in the scene unless they’re having an almighty seizure.
Despite that, Safe House is entertaining, it’s just disappointing that it aims so low and is comfortable in doing so. Director Daniel Espinosa handles everything in the manner you’d expect of big Hollywood action film, a by-the-numbers action film that’ll be probably forgotten.