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Out of the Furnace (2013)

Out of the Furnace #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the past few years, it seems that it has become routine for Hollywood to release one or two rundown drama-thrillers a year that feature blue collar characters having it out with one another in a gasping American neighborhood on the verge of total collapse. We’ve seen it in films like Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, The Beasts of Southern Wild, and Killing Them Softly, all of which relished immersing audiences in family squabbling, filth, decay, and boarded up structures. This year we have director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, another downbeat family-drama/revenge-thriller set against a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania. While Out of the Furnace may not necessarily win any points for originality (this is definitely a seen-it-all-before exercise), Cooper’s Rust Belt tale of revenge is comprised of heart pounding backwoods atmosphere, bare-knuckle brutality, and gripping melodrama guaranteed to make that hour and fifty minute runtime fly by in a flash. It also features enough A-list talent to fuel a dozen Oscar bait movies, with stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard all bringing the true grit required to allow a film like this to really take shape.

Out of the Furnace introduces us to Russell Baze (played by Christian Bale), a steel mill worker who slaves away taking double shifts to help out his brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a war veteran struggling to adapt to normal life after several tours of duty in Iraq. Despite some differences, Russell and Rodney still band together to look after their terminally ill father, who seems to be getting worse by the day. One evening, Russell is driving home from a local bar when he strikes a car and kills the occupants inside. Russell is sent away to prison for some time, but when he emerges, he realizes that his life hasn’t gotten any easier. As he tries to come to terms with the passing of his father and his break-up with his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (played by Zoe Saldana), Russell learns that Rodney has become involved with bare-knuckle boxing. Concerned for his safety, Russell attempts to persuade Rodney to leave bare-knuckle boxing behind and come work with him at the steel mill. Refusing to listen to his brother, Rodney demands that local gangster John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe) get him fights that are run by Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), an extremely dangerous backwoods thug who has a grudge against Petty. After Rodney mysteriously disappears at the hands of DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his brother before it’s too late.

While there are several elements borrowed from other films and there is a slight predictability to it, Out of the Furnace takes great care in really making both its story and its characters seem as genuine as possible. Russell struggles to find the motivation to pull himself from the comfort of Lena’s arms to work a double at the sweaty steel mill. With circles under his eyes and his dreams smothered under protective gear, he keeps a dignified poise as he tries desperately to keep his brother on the right track. This proves challenging when Rodney retaliates with the horrors he saw in Iraq (some of the stories he shares are deeply disturbing), which really allow us a clear understanding as to why it is so difficult for him to find his place in normal society. Russell’s composure remains in tact when he is involved in that gruesome car accident, which places him behind bars and at the mercy of vicious inmates for some time. When he finally gets out, things have gone from bad to worse, as he grapples with the loss of his father, his break up, and the horrors of that terrible accident. Despite his weary exasperation, when he finally has to confront the demons that claim his brother, there are no exaggerations in the actions taken. The frustration with local authorities and his determination to not loose his brother open a door for careful plotting that leads up to a low-key final showdown with the devil himself that is shockingly convincing.

Out of the Furnace #2

While Bale makes Russell’s soft-spoken composure, self-assurance, and deteriorating compliance in the face of tragedy and failure electrifying cinema, it is Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat that is ultimately in charge of Out of the Furnace. With a crack-rock smile and zero patience, DeGroat relishes his rotten existence, proudly declaring that he “has a problem with everybody.” He pyshically and psychologically bullies anyone and everyone for the smallest things, proudly beating up his girlfriend at a drive-in and then viciously attacking a man who tries to intervene. It’s an unforgettably evil performance from Harrelson, who completely fills out DeGroat’s filthy-dirty skin. Affleck is perfectly suited for Rodney, a haunted soldier who just can’t seem to get his life together. He comes home with his face pounded into oblivion and sips liquor to make the pain go away. He’s on a crash course, and his fate is tragically foreseeable. Dafoe is fantastic as John Petty, a small time thug in over his head with the wrong people. He’s far from a hard-ass gangster, and when the people he has wronged come calling, the quiver in his voice will have your stomach in a knot. Saldana is given a small but pivotal role as Lena, Russell’s one and only escape from his daily grind. Forest Whitaker is present as Chief Wesley Barnes, a gravel-voiced cop who stole Lena away from Russell. His strained relationship with Russell is put to the test when he attempts to get to the bottom of Rodney’s disappearance. Sam Shepard also stops by as Gerald Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle who joins Russell in his quest to track down his brother.

Considering that Out of the Furnace draws from other intense works of cinema, the film dishes out plenty of scenes drenched in blood and violence. The bare-knuckle boxing scenes are difficult to watch, as each punch thrown isn’t accompanied with an over-the-top sound effect to embellish the force of the blow. The beatings are savage and the violence is shown in up-close-and-personal detail, especially one character taking a bullet to the head. We also can’t forget Rodney’s war stories, which will certainly repulse and remind us all of the horrors of war. Equally disturbing is a trip to a rundown crack house hidden in the dense hills. We glimpse junkies sprawled across ripped sofas, sucking on crack pipes and shooting heroine in between their toes. Overall, while the lack of originality will hold the film back this awards season, Out of the Furnace is still a riveting, emotional, and uncompromising backwoods drama/thriller. It makes great use of its backdrop, it’s appropriately moody, and it’s comprised of actors who take familiar characters and really give them distinctive life. It’s capped off with an abrupt finale that is welcomingly blunt and haunting.

Grade: A-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Catching Fire #1

by Steve Habrat

Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!

Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.

At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.

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As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.

As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.

Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!

Grade: B  

Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See Me #1

by Steve Habrat

French director Louis Leterrier is the type of guy who makes movies that you watch on HBO. They’re the stuff of sweatpants and lazy Sunday afternoons when you have absolutely nothing else pressing to do. You really don’t have to put your brain to work when you watch any of his movies; you just have to be in the mood to watch some slick action scenes guided by Jason Statham or Jet Li. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy seeing his full-throttle Marvel offering The Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The last time we saw Leterrier, he was tangling with the gods in 2010s Clash of the Titans, a film that was met with almost unanimous negative criticism. Now Letterier returns with the Ocean’s Eleven-with-a-wand studio boardroom crime caper Now You See Me, a fairly entertaining but poorly drawn action-heist hybrid that seems tailor-made for Twittering teens and those audience members out there who are easily impressed with even the slightest plot twist. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, in fact Now You See Me is a fun and simple distraction, yet it feels like the type of movie that you watch on HBO on a lazy Sunday. Now You See Me has plenty of snappy action, a plot comprised of infinite plot twists, and cool performances from a mixture of veterans and newcomers, but it lacks substantial character development and the blue-in-the-face exposition bogs down the third act. Leterrier makes damn sure no one walks away scratching their head and asking their date what the hell just happened.

Now You See Me introduces us to four street magicians, Daniel Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (played by Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (played by Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (played by Dave Franco), who are brought together by a mysterious hooded figure and one year later are performing as “The Four Horsemen” in Las Vegas. The group, who has become a huge worldwide sensation, announce one evening that they are going to rob a bank with the help of one lucky audience member. The man who is chosen to help out with the trick is seemingly teleported to his bank in Paris, where he is asked to activate a vacuum that sucks the money from the vault and dumps it down on the cheering Vegas crowd. The stunt, which captures the world’s attention and turns “The Four Horsemen” into media superstars, immediately gets the attention of bullheaded FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his new partner, Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (played by Mélanie Laurent). Rhodes and Vargas immediately have the four magicians arrested, but lack of an explanation forces the FBI to release the group. After the group performs another robbery in New Orleans, this time on their sponsor, Arthur Tressler (played by Michael Caine), Rhodes and Vargas are forced to seek help from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), who makes a living revealing the secrets behind magic tricks.

After giving us a brief introduction to each of its characters and their different illusion styles, you begin to think that Now You See Me may just decide to operate in a much more grounded sense. However, this sense of grounded realism disappears completely when the ragtag group is pulled from the streets and united in front of blueprint holograms that look like they were confiscated from Tony Stark’s workshop. Not one of the characters bats an eye or thinks to really ask who has brought them all together. From here on out, Now You See Me goes huge with its magic tricks and its fiery action, all of which completely incinerate character development. While the magic show sequences thrill with their flashing strobe lights, easy-laugh host dialogue, and pounding techno, the real razzle dazzle comes in the middle with its foot chases through thick Mardi Gras crowds, fist fights in cramped New York City apartments, and jittery car chases through stuffy NYC traffic. It is all the usual stuff you want from Leterrier and, more importantly, a summer blockbuster, but you can’t shake the feeling that it is all scaled back fluff that would appear in a late summer toss-offs rather than a frontline May effort.

Now You See Me #2

Much like Ocean’s Eleven, Leterrier puts together a who’s-who of talent to rope in audiences. The leader of the pack is Eisenberg, who proved his acting talents in David Fincher’s staggering The Social Network. He certainly brings some of the self-assured swagger that he applied to Mark Zuckerberg and for the most part it works, but the character is too poorly drawn to be much of a hero here. Eisenberg certainly tries with the character, but he isn’t given much to work with so he just shrugs his shoulders. This phoned-in feeling unfortunately doesn’t begin and end with Mr. Eisenberg. Harrelson is his usual kooky self as the swindler hypnotist Merritt. He’s another one you expect some heavy lifting from but he doesn’t break much of a sweat. The young Dave Franco (yes, it is the brother of James) seems eager to get people talking, but the script gives him so little to do, the half the time you forget he is even there. Franco gets most of the action scenes and you do get the impression that he could be a future action star, but only time will tell. Fisher is here simply to give the film so much needed sex appeal but even she seems like she is checking her watch over really putting forth much effort. Caine and Freeman both give the typical performance that you’d expect. They seem to be getting a big kick out of the whole thing, which adds some charm to the film. Laurent basically steals the show as the sweet Interpol Agent who is driven by faith. She balances out the almost-too-serious Ruffalo, who seems like he is trying to make up for everyone who is here just for a beefy paycheck.

While Now You See Me is light on its feet, fast-paced, and fairly exciting, the film really deflates when all the smoke and mirrors are pulled away. There is really nothing behind all those wonderful tricks. The characters don’t really develop and Leterrier tacks on a long-winded and rigid explanation at the end of the film when all of the action should have smoothly meshed together. Instead, it just seems all over the place and in a mad dash. It almost feels like the filmmakers don’t really trust the audience to put it all together so they just do it for you. Also, I’m still not sure that they really sold me on the myriad of twists that hit at the end but the crowd I saw it with was marveling like crazy at it. Overall, as an Ocean’s Eleven knock-off, Now You See Me entertains, but it lacks a certain martini buzz strut and tuxedo-cool confidence to really keep it aloft. It comes off plastic and artificial, with only a smidgeon of heart inside that pretty cool premise. If I were you, I’d probably wait for it to come to HBO and watch it from the comfort of your couch. It’s small screen entertainment from beginning to end, but there isn’t particularly anything wrong with that.

Grade: C+

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

by Steve Habrat

I wish that Martin McDonagh would direct more movies. We haven’t seen much of the Irish screenwriter and director since his small but darkly hilarious 2008 film In Bruges, the scrappy hit-men-on-holiday thriller that brought out the funnyman in Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. In Bruges turned out to be one of the strongest films of 2008 but it was sorely overlooked when the “Best of the Year” lists were published. After a lengthy wait, we finally have Seven Psychopaths, the equally hilarious and shockingly gruesome send up of the gangster genre and Hollywood action vehicles. With the tongue and jaw of Quentin Tarantino and enough gore to make any member of the splat pack blush, Seven Psychopaths is a minor effort, one destined for cult popularity and late night viewings with your friends. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with its instant cult status but it certainly makes the film a bit alienating to the casual viewer. While there is plenty to love in Seven Psychopaths, there are a few little annoyances with the script that prevent it from achieving the greatness of In Bruges, but the star power is McDonagh’s greatest strength here and he more than allows Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits to unleash their inner freaks.

Seven Psychopaths introduces us to Marty (Played by Farrell), a struggling screenwriter with a massive drinking problem. He spends his days in sunny Los Angeles with his buddy Billy (Played by Rockwell), an unemployed actor who kidnaps dogs with Hans (Played by Walken), a seemingly mild mannered man with a violent past. Hans and Billy then return the stolen pups to their owners and claim the rewards. After Hans and Billy kidnap a Shih Tzu that belongs to unhinged gangster Charlie (Played by Harrelson), Billy, Hans, and Marty go on the run from the ruthless gangster who will do anything to get his dog back. Meanwhile, Marty is scraping for ideas for a screenplay he is writing called “Seven Psychopaths” and seeking out individuals who consider themselves “psychos.” Along the way, he encounters Zachariah Rigby (Played by Waits), who traveled around with his wife killing serial killers and a masked vigilante who targets high-ranking members of the mob. As all of their paths cross, the bullets begin to fly and dead bodies stack up.

While the script is packed with plenty of comedic banter between all these wackos, Seven Psychopath hits a snag in the way it chooses to handle some of the characters. Olga Kurylenko shows up briefly as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela and Abbie Cornish is the in the mix as Marty’s fed up galpal Kaya but neither are given very much to do. While the death of one of these female characters is used to comment on the way that women are handled in action movies (it is hilariously dissected), I would have really loved to see one of them get down and bloody with the boys but that never happens. There is also another main character that I think was grossly mishandled and should have played a bigger part in the film, especially after the taste that we get of him. It is tough to discuss these flaws because Seven Psychopaths is just loaded with twists and turns that add to the fun, especially with its characters. I also think that when the characters step out of the sunny Los Angeles streets, things don’t run as smoothly as McDonagh thinks they do. There is still something to be said about the way that McDonagh spirals towards the ending, teasing us with ideas of a grand gunfight and characters dying in a slow-motion hail of gunfire, all while doing it behind a never-ending sea of hysterical one liners to keep things playful.

Seven Psychopaths is never ashamed to be a bloody character piece, one that has plenty of emotion weight behind each character. Marty wins us over almost instantly as a scribe perpetually recovering from the night before, shaking himself out of a hangover with a freshly cracked beer. He is basically the only (semi) normal one of the bunch and his reactions to the sudden violence thrown into his world are insanely realistic and knee slapping. Rockwell continues to prove why he is a talent to be reckoned with as mile-a-minute Billy, the eager chum who wants so desperately to help with Marty’s new screenplay. McDonagh hands him all the best lines of the film and he’s the one who gets to rant and rave about how he wants their situation to end. Walken is his usual self as Hans, a crafty old bat who just wants to take care of his sick wife. At times, Walken seems to be playing a cartoonish version of himself but he has never been as bad ass as he is at the end of this film (his reaction to someone aiming a gun at him is classic). Harrelson is a welcome presence as lunatic gangster Charlie, who will do ANYTHING to get his beloved dog back. He flits between menacing and hilarious in the blink of an eye, bring that demented gleam in his eye that we saw in Natural Born Killers. Rounding out the main characters in Waits as Zachariah Rigby, who gets probably the most shocking sequence of the entire movie. His character is as inspired as they come and the way that McDonagh weaves history into his character is downright brilliant.

While In Bruges certainly had its fair share of blood, Seven Psychopaths brings the blood, the guts, and splattered brains. There are jolting fits of violence and sudden confrontations that would make Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as giddy as as schoolgirls. The way that the film introduces us to each “psychopath” is also pretty inspired, some of them emerging from Marty’s own screenplay while others joining the “real world” madness. It may be gratuitous and it may be gonzo but Seven Psychopaths can catch you off guard with its serious moments, a trick that allows the film to linger a little longer than you may anticipate. Be prepared to be knocked down a peg here or there and be even more prepared to actually feel it. Overall, it may get a bit jumbled from time to time and you may need a second viewing just to put it all together (there are a lot of characters and stories here), but Seven Psychopaths is a witty and left-of-center comedic satire that, once again, leaves me wanting more from Mr. McDonagh. I just hope we don’t have to wait another four years for him to grace us with his presence. That is just too long to make us wait!

Grade: A-

The Hunger Games (2012)

by Steve Habrat

If you are someone who refuses to get swept up in The Hunger Games fever and dismisses the film as just a Twilight wannabe, you need to get to a theater immediately and check the film out for yourself. The Hunger Games is the first must-see movie of 2012 and it certainly lives up to the hype surrounding it. I went into the film with a neutral attitude, never having read one of the books and not overly excited to see the movie. About halfway through, I was fully immersed in the film because of the way director Gary Ross sold me Katniss Everdeen’s story and how he shaped the world of Panem. When it comes to other teen franchises, mostly Harry Potter and Twilight, I have to say that The Hunger Games is the most impressive debut film, one that establishes characters that I want more from, action that was both uncomfortable and yet exhilarating, and a cliffhanger of an ending that makes a sequel necessary. But The Hunger Games refuses to go flat stylistically much like Harry Potter and Twilight did on their first run, and I have to say that I ate up the Battle Royale meets District 9 meets A Clockwork Orange meets THX 1138 meets 1984 appearance of The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games drops us off in the totalitarian nation of Panem, a post-apocalyptic world that is made up of the futuristic Capital and the twelve poorer districts that surround it. We arrive in the mining town of District 12 where we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Played by Jennifer Lawrence) who shacks up with her younger sister Prim (Played by Willow Shields) and her mother. Every year, the nation of Panem huddles around their televisions to watch the Hunger Games, where twenty-four children are selected by the government and then forced to fight each other until only one survivor remains. During “the reaping”, an event in which the gaudily dressed Effie (Played by Elizabeth Banks) selects one boy and one girl from the Districts, Prim ends up being one of the names that gets called. Katniss volunteers to go in her sister’s place, an offer that is accepted by Effie. The boy who is selected is Peeta Mellark (Played by Josh Hutcherson), who hides feelings for the prickly Katniss. They soon make the trip to the Capital where they meet their mentor Haymitch (Played by Woddy Harrelson), stylist Cinna (Played by Lenny Kravitz), grandiose announcer and host Caesar Flickerman (Played by Stanley Tucci), and the leader of Panem President Snow (Played by Donald Sutherland). As the kids begin training and battling for sponsorships, Katniss emerges as the most deadly in the Hunger Games, but soon Katniss and Peeta learn that there is more to the games than just simply fighting for your life.

The style that Ross applies to The Hunger Games is reminiscent of past works but all it’s own too. The dystopian decay and totalitarian rule brought District 9, THX 1138, and 1984 to my mind while the games themselves acted as a smoothed over Battle Royale. The futuristic style seemed like they were ripped right out of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the scenes where a group of kids laugh at their own violence brought images of Alex DeLarge and his “droogs”. Yet The Hunger Games feels vaguely fresh and is a beast all its own. It reflects on our willingness to hang on reality television and violence. There are several kids competing in the games who are all too eager to kill off fellow competitors. You can’t help but reflect on the violence that is sold to children both in video games and cinema itself. Yet The Hunger Games doesn’t exploit the carnage, much of it remaining of screen and to our own imagination. The opening moments of the games are extremely brutal as kids with swords, hatchets, knives, and more hack other kids up, some doing it with a faint smile forming on their faces. The Hunger Games suggests desensitized times but throws in a sensitive heroine who only kills if she has to, and she certainly doesn’t do it happily, making Katniss the last good kid alive. The film will no doubt spark discussion about violence and it is justified. Still, I think it is something that children can handle. The violence is never injudicious or excessive and when it does erupt, Ross smartly makes it tough to swallow.

Unlike Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen is a female hero that girls should rally behind. She is a bit unsure of herself when she is in the spotlight, but she remains strong willed, crafty, and resourceful, a “girl on fire” as the film suggests. She isn’t a shallow, scowling teen who broods over two guys fighting over her, whining about how horrible it all is. Early on, she is juxtaposed with Effie, who bathes in glamour, beauty, and excesses, hanging on the glittery material items surrounding her while caring less about the real matter at hand. Ross and screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray illustrate Katniss as a more thoughtful character, someone who looks out for the ones she loves rather than strictly herself in these selfish times. While Katniss does brood, it helps that Ross, Collins, and Ray give Katniss a reason to mope. Her life is on the line.

The rest of the characters are just as captivating as Katniss, leaving the viewer actually wanting more of them too. I loved Tucci’s theatrical blue-haired talk show host and I hope to see more of him in future. Another big surprise is Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, a character of quiet warmth for our dear Katniss. A scene right before the beginning on the game between Cinna and Katniss is truly a standout. I also really liked Harrelson’s Haymitch, a reluctant and drunken mentor who finally comes around when our heroes need him most. And I can’t leave out Elizabeth Banks as Effie, a colorful character who is eccentric but I wish they had pushed her character a bit further. She is deliciously sinister when she is drawing the names for the games, resembling a manic jester relishing in misery. The Hunger Games does work in a slight love story, hinting at a blossoming love triangle between Katniss, the sensitive Peeta, and Gale (Played by Liam Hemsworth), a character who is more seen by the audience not really heard from. I wish the film would have developed his character a bit more, but I feel he will have a strong presence in the future. I just hope and pray the series doesn’t morph into a repetitive soap opera like Twilight did.

Of all the young adult books that have been developed into movies, I firmly believe that The Hunger Games is the best and most important of all of them. The Harry Potter series fell victim to too many artistic approaches and clunky tones, as there was not one consistent director at the helm. The end result is a series that is an absolutely mess with little to no flow between the movies. Twilight was more concerned with selling itself on sex appeal rather than developing a proper story that we can invest in, resulting in a petty franchise with little regard for the fan’s intelligence. I just wish they would wake up and see it. Now we have The Hunger Games, which I hope doesn’t fall victim to what destroyed the Harry Potter franchise. On this first run, it seems that it avoided what has plagued the Twilight saga. I sincerely hope they keep Ross behind the camera, the entire cast committed, and the ideas pulsing. We’re off to a good start with The Hunger Games, and may the odds continue to be in this franchise’s favor.

Grade: A

The Hunger Games (2012)

by Jamie Matty

“The book was better,” is our most common response to page-to-screen adaptations, and yet, one that I couldn’t honestly say as I left the theater this Friday. It’s rare that a film surpasses the novel it was based upon; Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games does just that. For those of you who haven’t read the novels, here’s a quick synopsis: Sometime in a dystopian future, a country called Panem stands where the USA used to be. A lavishly totalitarian capitol city rules over and systematically abuses 12 districts that generate the resources it needs to sustain its hedonism. As a reminder that rebellion is futile, two children are annually selected from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally-televised tournament in which the contestants fight to the death until only one victor remains.  Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) sizzles as Katniss, the brave huntress from District 12 who volunteers to compete in the Games in her little sister’s stead.

In the mix we have a delightful ensemble cast: Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are Alright) and Liam Hemsworth (Some Terrible Nicholas Sparks Movie) star as Katniss’s potential love interests; Woody Harrelson (Cheers) and Lenny Kravitz (American Woman?) serve respectively as her lovably alcoholic trainer and sympathetic personal stylist.  Finally, Elizabeth Banks is unforgettably frightening as a zombiefied Marie Antoinette (a.k.a. Effie Trinket, Katniss’ PR manager).

Though Lawrence seems to have more chemistry with Kravitz than her pre-pubescent male opposites (and who can blame her?), Hutcherson’s Peeta is charming and likable. The film’s main disappointments come from its costumes, which look cheap and gaudy (I had hoped for avant-garde and futuristic), and from Hemsworth’s stiff and unconvincing Gale. Additionally, while I had hoped for more raw violence, jerky cinematography keeps the fight sequences purposely blurred and within its PG-13 boundaries.

For viewers who loved the novel, this film won’t disappoint. Where Collins’ prose drags, the movie makes up for it in color, emotion, and crisp dialogue.  Additionally, the “Marxism and postcolonialism for kids” messages come through neatly without having to deal with Katniss’ annoying interiority.

Exciting, intriguing, and 40 billion times better than the drippy abortions that the Twilight franchise keeps pumping out, Hunger Games is a solid winner for Spring’s Best Blockbuster.

Grade: A-

Game Change (2012)

by Charles Beall

There is a moment in the new HBO film Game Change that is particularly striking.  Upon delivering his concession speech after his loss to Barack Obama, John McCain fades into the spotlight amongst the growing chants of “Sarah!  Sarah!”  Woody Harrelson, who portrays McCain’s chief strategist Steve Schmidt, watches in horror as his “game change” becomes an uncontrollable entity, a force in the Republican Party that, as of 2012, is leading to its ultimate demise.

Game Change is riveting theater, a look into an historic moment in our nation’s history.  Lagging in the polls behind “celebrity” Barack Obama, John McCain (Ed Harris) needed something to shake the campaign up.  The economy was tanking after eight years of a Republican president, and like it or not, McCain was tethered to the sinking ship that was the Bush administration.  The film kicks in around August 2008, when sitting with his advisors, McCain decides to go for broke and make a “bold choice” in a vice presidential running mate selection.  McCain wants Joe Lieberman, the Independent Democrat Senator of Connecticut; the campaign wants someone who is not a white male elitist.  The problem is that it is getting down to convention time, and while the other choices for Vice President have been vetted, they are still unacceptable.  Enter the game change.

After five (five!) days of vetting (in what is usually a multi-week process), McCain and his advisors agree on the unknown Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin (a brilliant Julianne Moore).  She is attractive, insanely popular in her home state, and a solid conservative who balances out McCain’s more liberal political positions.  She lights up a crowd and can bridge the enthusiasm gap that Republicans are lacking when it comes to Obama and the Democrats.

But looks can be deceiving.  Palin, who with much more time and experience, could have been a decent candidate is thrust into the national spotlight without so much as any experience (or knowledge) to be one heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world.  The stress of the campaign begins to fracture Palin, pushing her to the verge of a nervous breakdown.  She begins to worry about her standing in Alaska, rather than the national campaign and the mission ahead.  Her advisors quit, and the campaign (particularly Schmidt) begins to wonder what they have gotten themselves into.

There is a turning point in the campaign, however, that snaps Palin out of her funk.  Instead of teaching her everything about everything (and there was a lot she didn’t know), they campaign begins to feed her talking points.  She gains her confidence back and a transformation begins.  Sarah Palin becomes the celebrity that Obama is; she becomes an uncontrollable lightning rod that feeds off of the masses (which, I must say, Obama is not).  Sarah Palin morphs from a respected governor into “Sarah Palin”, the woman who is around today.

Game Change is quite a fascinating character study.  Moore’s performance is incredibly restrained.  For someone who has been lampooned constantly, Moore brings humanity back to Sarah Palin.  Her performance reminds us that Palin was a person who has feelings, who loves her family, and cares for her country…but then we see the morph of someone who is ultimately corrupted by our current American political system.  There is a sad scene where Moore’s Palin is watching Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin on SNL; she can’t believe that they are laughing at her, not with her.  The look on her face is heartbreaking, because she is realizing that she is not being taken seriously, but rather as a national embarrassment.  This is a turning point, because she then begins to famously “go rogue” and do things her own way.  She in a way becomes a Frankenstein Republican, the product of a desperate campaign and the victim of a vicious sense of entitlement.

Game Change is not a perfect film, but it is indeed an entertaining one.  The performances and fireworks between Moore and Harrelson are particularly noteworthy and deserving of Emmy consideration, as is Harris’ subtle and enjoyable McCain.  With that said, political junkie or not, Game Change is a very entertaining, cautious tale about the dangerous road our democracy is headed down.

Grade B+

Natural Born Killers (1994)

by Steve Habrat

Leave it to Oliver Stone to tackle an issue like the American public’s fascination with serial killers, blood, sex, guts, and all out mayhem. Natural Born Killers is without question one of the most controversial films ever made, a psychedelic road trip into Hell that boasts hallucinatory images, shotgun wielding satire, and a blood drenched riot as a finale that leaves the sane viewer with their mouth on the floor. Natural Born Killers is notorious for inspiring a long list of copycat murders in the wake of its 1994 release including the shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Richardson Family Murders. Natural Born Killers deals with the morbid intrigue we have with cold-blooded killers and how the media glamorizes and glorifies their actions. The film touches on all the major figures in death including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, and David Koresh, to name a few. Through all the controversy, director Stone has some thought provoking things to say and we can’t help but feel ashamed in ourselves for how we hang on the violence projected into our homes via the nightly news. We, as a society, were guilty this past summer when we hung on every second of the Casey Anthony trial and now, we are guilty of it again with the recent Chardon, Ohio school shooting, where news cameras were onsite to catch every drop of blood and every tear from those affected. We still haven’t learned from the message Natural Born Killers tried to deliver to us.

Natural Born Killers follows the horrific killing spree of Mickey (Played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Played by Juliette Lewis) Knox, two bloodthirsty individuals who have been twisted and mutated into heroes by the media for the carnage they leave in their wake. The film hops around and shows us glimpses into their troubled pasts, the pursuit of a Detective Jack Scagnetti (Played by Tom Sizemore) who has a few secrets of his own, Mickey’s Manson-esque interview with self-centered Australian tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and their stay at a prison run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Played by Tommy Lee Jones). After a year stay at the prison, Mickey and Mallory are to be moved to a mental institution after being deemed insane, but the Warden, Gayle, and Detective Scagnetti all have plans of their own for the deadly duo.

You can’t evaluate Natural Born Killers without discussing the hyperactive style and array of colors Stone bathes the film in. He shoots with multiple types of film including Super 8, 16mm, black and white, animation, and video, the film flipping from one style to another with frantic randomness. Stone also adds heaping amounts of stock footage including footage of the 1993 siege on the Branch Dravidians, the Nazis, and the Charles Whitman shootings. In addition, Stone also shows us Mallory’s disturbing upbringing at the hands of her abusive father and cowardly mother. Stone presents this to the viewer as a 1950’s sitcom, adding laugh tracks and upbeat music, suggesting that we sensationalize the past of criminals and use their pasts as entertainment. Stone further suggests that we sensationalize violence every single day and use it as a form of entertainment. Even though the film deals with gruesome topics and we should be appalled by it, we keep watching and easily digesting it because he molds it into shameless entertainment. Even if you hate the film and find yourself mortified by it, you can’t say that you weren’t entertained while watching it.

The characters of Mickey and Mallory are contorted into a modern Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. They relish in their hellish fame and joyfully tell their fans “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” as they are led into court. Stone makes them charismatic despite their urges to kill and maim. They use theatrics in the massacres, usually leaving one person alive to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory. Mickey is a brewing storm of fury that is bottled up and when provoked, slowly uncorks and spews forth with a wrath that will make your head spin. Mallory isn’t as discreet (I use that term loosely here) as Mickey, she unhinges at the smallest little things. But in a sick way, we root for Mickey and Mallory, who actually just want to be left to themselves by the end. Their love for each other trumps their murderous impulses. Stone purposely wants us to root for them, forcing us to listen in on their warped viewpoints Mickey explains to Gale. He also paints them as tragic victims by their troubled pasts, another action by the exploitative media. But Stone uses Gayle to show us how infectious the mental sickness is, the virus spread with a camera and microphone. Mickey sparks a gruesome riot and awakens a killer in Gayle, who begins to enjoy the murder and mayhem. Stone seems to be foretelling the idea of individuals who find inspiration in these monsters.

Natural Born Killers doesn’t pour much hope in the ones who are sworn to protect us. They use murders and psychos for their own personal fame and gain. Wayne Gayle uses them for reputation, Scagnetti uses them for vengeance, and McClusky uses them for his career. In the end, we have to wonder if any of the individuals out there really care about our safety or well-being. These twisted people realize that they can capitalize on death. By the finale, Mickey and Mallory are the rebellion to these individuals–bring down a flurry of bullets with an army of inmates tearing through the prison. Natural Born Killers says that those who claim to protect and serve are really no better than the ones they are trying to capture and put behind bars, something that the real life individuals who are guilty of this crime should be ashamed of.

Natural Born Killers is a film that should be approached with caution, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As I have pointed out, many miss the intellectual message of the film and see it as a trippy view into how murder can make you famous. How murder will make the world remember your name, a message that is formed by a weak, delusional mind. For the viewer who wants a thought provoking experience, I encourage you to see Natural Born Killers, a film that holds a slot in my top twenty films of all time. I have always found myself fascinated by how the evening news projects violence into our homes on daily basis. Think of how no one stopped disgraced politician Budd Dwyer as he pulled out a gun and blew his head off on live television, on a snow day when young children were able to see it. If you have seen the footage, you know that the camera kept rolling and the cameraman even zooms in on the bloody mess, making sure we see every minute detail and every smudge of gore. Then it was rerun for everyone to see, presented as a spectacle of a desperate man with no other option. Think 0f how the news covered the events of Waco, how we hang on the interviews with the deranged and manipulative Charles Manson, or our round the clock coverage of any given school shooting. We are the ones who are guilty of making these monsters heroes. We are the ones who sensationalize death and tragedy, refusing to try to intervene or turn away from it. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, that I say with firm confidence. Natural Born Killers is as relevant now as ever, morphing the film to a polarizing classic.

Grade: A

Natural Born Killers is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.