“The Hunger Games” more intelligent, distinctive than typical teenage-franchise fare

The best science-fiction works are the ones that, by reaching into a far-flung concept or world, serve as commentaries about the way things are with our own world. Think “2001: A Space Odyssey”s exploration of human progress, or on the other end of the tonal spectrum, “Brazil”s satire against the pedantic hair-splitting of bureaucracy. When one isolates “The Hunger Games” from all of the hype and hyperbole, it’s a proud and worthy entry into this genre trend, blending social relevance with an intriguing, thrilling premise. This the first part of a franchise whose popularity approaches “Twilight”-esque levels, with the distinction being that this stuff actually lives up to the hype.

Set in an indeterminate future, “The Hunger Games” is set in a world where, after a nuclear fallout, society is divided into 12 separate, run-down “districts”. Once annually, the government televises a reality show where two children per district fight each other to the death: dubbed, evidently, the ‘hunger games’. Only one can emerge alive. This film is the story of one such unlucky contestant, Katniss Everdeen, and her resourceful fight to stay alive, even as she competes with a childhood friend, Peeta.

Everdeen is brought to life by the insanely talented, beautiful Jennifer Lawrence. Continuing a hot streak of playing strong female characters, Lawrence crafts a great protagonist; a uniquely physical presence who commands the screen every second she’s on it. Playing a weird bunch of supporting characters include the superb Woody Harrelson, playing Katniss’s drunken mentor through the games, Elizabeth Banks chewing the scenery as the bizarrely-dressed, annoyingly-chirpy announcer Effie, and teenage Josh Hutcherson, who as Peeta shows impressive range and personality.

“The Hunger Games” takes a surprisingly lo-fi approach to setting up its dystopian world. While certainly present at moments, this is not a special-effects-heavy film, deciding instead to emphasize building its characters. Director Gary Ross takes a handheld approach that, while distracting during some action sequences, truly builds the dreary, dark look that the world requires. Given his (some would say low) budget of $78 million, Ross managed to create a convincing future environment with personality, texture, and realism. Props to that.

It arrives, too, with a more ambitious premise than most of its sort: the hope to make you think. Ross, and original author/co-screenwriter Suzanne Collins, aren’t particularly subtle in their usage of the games as a metaphor for the kind of senseless, barbaric reality television that we’re accustomed to. Their usage of kids in the midst of this, while a bit of a cheap ploy, certainly raises questions that other franchises wouldn’t dare approach: How much of our cultural programming is filtered through the government? Who holds responsibility for the show: the viewers, the programmers, or participants?

Where “Hunger Games” comes up a bit short is, admittedly, thrills in the visceral department. The film’s focus is not so much on action as it is character and commentary, and while I totally appreciated that, whenever the kid-on-kid showdowns came on-screen I never felt as thrilled as I should have been. Missing, too, is the kind of perverse promise a film with this plot would suggest: in a film where kids my little-sister’s age are fighting to the death, you think there’d be a bit more of a sense of…danger. With a few exceptions, the kids mainly morph into bland, sneering antagonists, not the genuine, scared people you’d imagine in such a scenario.

This film sets itself apart from most other cultural juggernauts not just for its intelligence: but for its passion. This is a film with a capital-M Message: whether its execution of it is entirely successful or, given the comparisons to 2000’s similarly-plotted “Battle Royale”, original, is unimportant. What does stick from this film is its aesthetic, its world-building, and the arrival of a major new character into feminist-film history: Katniss Everdeen, who kicks ass, shoots arrows and subverts futuristic governments better than most. B+

“Game Change” subtly horrifying slice of television

The story of Sarah Palin’s curious ascendency and handling of her 2008 nomination as Republican vice-presidential office, “Game Change” is curious in that the success of its protagonist marks the potential crash-and-burn of Western society. The film’s moments of triumph are our potential moments of despair. It diminishes credibility for a vice-presidential office, one of the the most important positions in the world, to the ability to memorize note-cards and smile for cameras. In the world of “Game Change”, viability for political office is as simple as satisfying cosmetic needs of the right demographics. The world of “Game Change” is a scary world indeed. The world of “Game Change” is our world.

Not to say, of course, that commonplace exaggerations and dramatic punching-up haven’t taken place here.  They have. Julianne Moore’s iteration of Palin, while tonally removed from Tina Fey’s brilliant “Saturday Night Live” impersonation, emulates her physical and verbal traits just as well. Moore nails Palin’s various quirks — the loose consonants, stubby chin, droopy speech, et cetera. For all of the greats she’s worked with — Altman, PTA, Spielberg, Cuaron — director Jay Roach just may have given Moore her juiciest role yet.

The supporting cast’s real-life-imitations are no less impressive. I’d have thought Ed Harris, with his stern features and authoritative voice, wouldn’t be the wisest choice to play John McCain. Oddly enough, he’s a perfect choice. Diminished to something of a background role, McCain mainly serves to be slowly overtaken by his sneering, snarling advisors. Leading this pack is Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, who funnily enough may be the closest thing to a reasonable main-character.

The film’s helmer, Jay Roach, is the helmer of fare varying from the “Austin Powers” trilogy to the similarly-political HBO fare, “Recount”. His touch as director is mostly invisible, which is to say, an efficient one. Particularly effective was his subtle building of dread as Palin barrels closer towards the final election, although it’s unclear how much of that is Roach’s touch and how much is our prior knowledge of the circumstances.

“Game Change” is a solid slice of politically-charged television, one which effectively shows how potential chaos and disorder can come in the least assuming packages. It’s a subtly scathing critique of political irresponsibility, with a wonderful performance by Julianne Moore at its passionate, grim center. The effect of the film is akin to a bullet whizzing inches away from your ear….if that sounds like your kind of thing. B+

“21 Jump Street” energetic, refreshing action-comedy

When good high-school movies are made, it’s an occasion rare enough to warrant high praise & attention. Ditto that for buddy-cop movies. But when both of these are pulled off without a hitch while also reviving a long-irrelevant 1980’s television program, it just makes for damn good entertainment. “21 Jump Street” is a shot of adrenaline into three or four different genres; freshening established formulas by acknowledging their camp and then cranking up their goofiness.

An update on the show that gave Johnny Depp his career, “21 Jump Street” takes things in a decidedly comedic direction. Schmidt and Jenko, played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, went through high-school labelled as the fat nerd and dumb jock, making their partnership in their police academy all the more shocking. Schmidt’s got the brains and Jenko the brawn, and their unlikely dynamic lands the two in an undercover operation dubbed “Jump Street”. In essence, the two are sent back to high-school to infiltrate the “popular kids” and shut down production of a new synthetic drug spreading throughout the school.

In an unlikely twist of stereotypes though, Schmidt ends up with the popular kids and Jenko with the nerds, forcing them to re-think both their roles in the operation and as friends, in general. “21 Jump Street” seems to be full of little twists like this, ones that play with our expectations while sticking with the general structure we expect. This sort of formula-tinkering affects every aspect of “21 Jump Street”, starting with the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

It goes without saying that these two are absolute dynamite together, with the sort of expert timing and dead-panning audiences came to expect of the silent era. Perhaps most importantly is that the two have an adorable bromance, one that the audience roots for at all times and against all odds. But the two are not afraid to tinker with their public personas, Tatum in particular really poking fun at the dumb, raw masculine image he’s built up for himself. Both leads really re-define their skill palate, with Tatum demonstrating comedic chops and Hill a tremendous writing skill. (co-writing the script with “Project X”/”Scott Pilgrim” vet Michael Bacall)

If nothing else I admired the tremendous energy the crew brought to the picture: There’s a sort of goofy, happy-go-lucky tone to the humor here that makes it feel a lot more spontaneous and in-the-moment. In other words, more believable. The care taken to develop the side-characters is appreciated: from Ice Cube’s foul-mouthed, black sergeant who frequently brings up how foul-mouthed and black he is, to Brie Larson as the plucky romantic interest for Hill’s character, and Dave Franco as the cocky, pretentious popular kid whose illegal product sets the plot into motion. Dave is every ounce as charming and talented as brother James, by the way. The film also sports a killer celebrity cameo, the less of which I reveal the better.

The action in this film is surprisingly confident, a memorable middle-act highway chase stimulating both laughter and adrenaline. What surprised me a bit was the sloppiness of editing at points: it’s fairly obvious a wealth of material has been left out of the final cut, leaving unexplained beats where character-driven moments should have been, leaving pauses in lieu of comedy. The script seemed fairly tight in its vision, so perhaps directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller are at fault here. But no matter: They’ve crafted an energetic, fresh vision out of many parts stale and formulaic, with as many belly-laughs per minute as I can recall in a while. B+

“John Carter” poorly executed example of Hollywood excess

“John Carter” just may be the best thing to happen to Hollywood in ages. A $250 million runaway-train of a film, it’s the kind of financially outlandish project that gets Hollywood scratching their heads at what went wrong. It’s the kind of film event that flops so spectacularly that entire studios are fired, the creative process re-considered, and the industry’s classic “Bigger Is Better” motto delayed in its execution…at least for a while. “John Carter” is a mistake, but for when one looks past its symbolic value as classic Hollywood excess, it’s really just a poorly executed film. This hits harder for no one than myself.

“John Carter” is directed by Andrew Stanton, a two-time Oscar winner whose one-two punch of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” are some of the most cherished films to come out of American cinema in quite some time. This film has been his passion project since reading the source material “A Princess of Mars” at a young age, and if there’s one thing to be said for it, it’s that this film has clearly been made with the best, purest intentions in the world.

Intentions so pure in fact, they approached a fanatical naivete. Stanton’s complete drive to cinematically realize the world of Barsoom succeeds on an aesthetic level, but falls flat emotionally at every step. Just about every frame of this film has some sort of eye-popping visual element to it, but when the elements are juxtaposed with a cast of utterly dull characters, nothing sticks.

Taylor Kitsch, playing the film’s title character, is a Civil War veteran whose narrow escape from an Indian tribe inadvertently transports him to the planet Mars — or as the civilization has come to call itself, Barsoom. Barsoom is populated by all shapes of life, from humans to gangly green creatures to massive white monsters. There’s some sort of power struggle between humans and humans, and a higher power struggle between the green dudes and the humans, and an even bigger struggle between humans and sinister God-like creatures.

None of these conflicts are given the sort of intellectual explanation or emotional investment requisite to make them matter, so we’re just sort of stuck in the middle, objectively watching. John Carter’s role in the midst of all the chaos isn’t really explained either, but he’s given special attention because his Earth-adjusted bone density allows him to….jump really high? I suppose?

Kitsch himself plays Carter as a total dullard, bringing little to the role besides a repetitious series of tortured camera-driven mugs and an admittedly great set of abs. Second-act revelations about Carter’s past bring a level of pain and depth to his character, pain and depth that Kitsch very simply wasn’t capable of executing. “Carter”s cast is impressive in its scope and variety, both in terms of the skills and species they portray.

Among the names here include Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church and Bryan Cranston. Particularly strong is Lynn Collins as the highly intelligent, capable princess of Barsoom, whose reluctance to marry the slimy Dominic West made for one of the more engaging subplots of the film. None of these performers are poor, they simply had underwritten roles. “Carter”s bizarre tendency to switch characterizations, combined with so many shifting alliances and personalities, honestly just makes for a disorganized film.

This of course leads one of “Carter”s most shocking issues: that for all of its glitz, glamour, scope and hype, the film doesn’t have a single memorable set-piece to its credit. Indeed, the two major confrontations in the film, Carter taking down a giant white ape and the film’s inevitable free-for-all between all the warring groups, lifting entire sequences from other films. “Attack of the Clones” and “Alice in Wonderland” comparisons are not unfair, nor particularly complimentary.

Watching “John Carter”s notoriously clunky promotional materials, I seem to notice a pretty gaping flaw: One never gets a sense what the hell “John Carter” is actually about, and better yet, what kind of man John Carter really is. Emerging from the film itself, I don’t think I’m much closer to settling the question. I’ll be straight. This movie sucks. D

“Project X” less a story than a sensory experience. This is good. Mostly.

“Project X” is a fast, furious assault of sound, fury and bad behavior. Serving as virtually a bullet-point list of parental nightmares, it’s a counter-argument against every restraint and rule that we as a society strive to follow. I loved it.

Reading down the reviews for this film, I seem to notice some weighty adjectives. Among the descriptors for “Project X” include “nihilistic”, “vile”, “skull-numbing hedonism”, “cravenly piggish”, “singularly loathsome”, “the worst comedy of the last 20 years”, and, perhaps the harshest, “containing the most irritating character this side of Jar Jar Binks”. My rebuttal to these people is that they are wrong and I am right.

But on a serious note, although I obviously advise people take stock on critics’ opinions, they’ve gravely misjudged this film. They’ve made the mistake of critiquing the film’s events on a moral level — in essence, that this is an interpretation of the film’s views of morality. But to depict something isn’t the same as validating it.

The film is, I kid you not, 88 minutes of pure, undiluted partying. Almost every imaginable aspect of this premise is explored, acting as a sort of vicariously-satisfying experience. We may not be able to drive a Mercedes Benz into a pool, set a neighborhood  aflame or spray-paint an intoxicated dog, but the fact that we can watch it free of consequence and gravity is, well, awesome. If I sound like a reckless, deluded teenager writing this, I assure you, it’s because I am.

“Project X” hardly contains a story, rather, it’s more like a faux-video recording of the wildest party you’ve never been to. Using the social trajectory of the three quirky, lively losers who plan it, “Project X” never quite approaches sweetness, but it does have a distinctly human stamp on it. The three guys — sweet Thomas, foul Costa, and fat J.B., certainly recall “The Hangover”s trio in their dynamic and sardonicism, and the two films’ mutual producer Todd Phillips certainly indicate a connection. The fact is though, both trios are hilarious together, and that’s what counts.

First-time director Nim Nourizadeh admittedly has a hard time piecing together the material in an emotionally engaging way. Although I was certainly along for the ride with whatever these guys got themselves into, at the end of the day, their various goals and romantic pursuits never added up to much for me. “Project X”s bizarre devolvement into 1980’s-rom-com cliches is a serious fault. After a rampage of debauchery and insanity, to watch the movie end with a hug and a kiss feels like a serious cop-out.

It’s easy to dismiss “Project X” as simplistic and bombastic. It is. But in unapologetically giving an audience such crude, over-the-top material to chew on, it’s really kind of daring and out-there. B+

 

(oh and my friend Erin really really liked it.)