Sunday, September 9, 2012

August 2012



THE HUNGER GAMES  (2012)
         For the detailed-obsessed fans of the best-selling trilogy, the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” was a disappointment. Like “Harry Potter” devotees, the young readers of this dystopian novel wanted every phrase, every description recreated on screen. The filmmakers tried too hard to do that in most of the “Harry Potter” films, and it created bloated, unnecessarily complex scripts.

     To me, "The Hunger Games" improves upon its overwritten, often tedious source by focusing in on the book’s most fascinating aspects: its determined, intense, taciturn hero and its cartoonish satire of the growing chasm between the haves and have nots in American society.

     Carrying the film from beginning to end is Jennifer Lawrence’s solemn, unglamorous performance as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who puts her life on the line for her family and region in a masochistic, made-for-TV fight to the death. Lawrence forges a true survivor; harden by a difficult, nearly hopeless upbringing, she refuses to give in despite overwhelming odds. Katniss proves to be the perfect joyless acolyte for a society that finds entertainment in the murder of children.

     Set in what seems to be a futuristic United States, “Hunger Games” chronicles the process of choosing and training 24 tributes, teenagers chosen from each district of the country to compete in a deadly survivor game. In this view of the “future,” these districts are essentially outdoor prisons for the working poor, who toil for little reward, in service of the well-to-do residents of the capital. Two teens selected from each district for the “Hunger Games” have a chance to enrich their district or die in the process (a punishment enacted by the government for a long-ago revolt).

      When Katniss’ younger sister is selected, the older girl volunteers to take her place. Possessing survival skills from her time hunting in the woods and a tough-girl attitude, she emerges as a surprise favorite as the competition begins.

     The film is less violent than I expected having read the book—clearly writer- director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) along with screenwriters Suzanne Collins (the novel’s author) and Billy Ray worked to score a PG-13 rating for the film. The picture also improves upon the book by giving a behind-the-game look inside “Hunger Games” control center.

     The film is loaded with solid supporting work, including Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the other District 12 tribute; Elizabeth Banks as the overdressed district overseer Effie; singer Lenny Kravitz as the sympathetic costume designer; Stanley Tucci as “Hunger Games” talk show host; and Amandla Stenberg as tiny Rue, the most memorable of the other competitors. Best of all is Woody Harrelson as the sarcastic, heavy-drinking Haymitch, the last winner from District 12 who mentors, in his own tough-love way, Katniss and Peeta.

     Lawrence, whose Oscars nominated performance in "Winter’s Bone” (2010) was not that dissimilar to this role, is superb in showing how this young woman can play the game as well as anyone while, at the same time, rebelling against it (and the rest of this disturbed society).


GREY GARDENS (2009)
      As much as I enjoyed this HBO docudrama, featuring superbly calculated performances by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, it can only be considered as supplemental material to the mesmerizing, hilarious and sad original documentary.

     If you haven’t seen it, the 1975 “Gray Gardens” chronicles a few weeks in the absurdly crazy and irrational lives of 79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale (known as “Big Edie”) and her 58-year-old daughter, who goes by “Little Edie.”

     Like characters out of a nutty Preston Sturges comedy, the two Edies, relatives of Jackie Kennedy (old Edie was her aunt), roam around their unkempt, antiquated Long Island mansion, dreamily recalling their rather uneventful past.

    As pitiful as they are, especially the daughter who still hopes for her big break in showbiz, you can’t help but laugh at their antics and the utterly wasted lives of people who had advantages most of us just dream of. (Despite being born of great wealth, Big Edie was left in dire straits in her 30s after her father cut her out of his will and her husband divorced her.)

    Filmed by documentary legends Albert and David Maysles (“Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter”) “Grey Garden” is easily the most entertaining nonfiction film I’ve ever seen. Few films of any genre capture the deep scars of a life filled with disappointments and unfulfilled ambition. It is a film experience not to be missed.

    The most interesting aspect of the TV movie version is the filling in of the gaps—we see the two Edies early in their lives and the unfortunate circumstances that lead to the state we see them in during the Maysles documentary.  Director Michael Sucsy does an astonishing job in replicating the look and spirit of what’s seen in the documentary.

    Barrymore is especially effecting as the young Edie, proud of her ridiculous outfits and comical dancing skills. Clearly she could have used 20 or 30 years of intensive therapy.

     There is an unforgettable moment in the TV drama when Jackie (nicely played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) is visiting her cousins in the 1970s and arranging to bring their home up to local code so they can continue to live there. Edie, clearly uncomfortable around Jackie, gets in the famous woman’s face and tells her that if she had married Joe Kennedy and he hadn’t died in World War II, she, and not Jackie, would have been First Lady. Jackie looks at her sadly and tells her crazy cousin, “I wish you had been.” In that moment, I had more sympathy for the real Jackie and what she had to go through in her marriage, in the White House, with the killing of her husband than I ever did during her very public life.

     Old Edie died not long after the documentary was completed but young Edie lived to age 84 in 2002. In the late 1970s, she attempted to make a go of it as a cabaret performer in New York. It lasted eight (apparently disastrous) shows. Yet, ironically, as herself in the documentary, she unintentionally gives one of the funniest and most unforgettable performances ever put on film.
 
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HOPE SPRINGS  (2012)
   This isn’t a bad film; how could it be with the pairing of old pros Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as long-time married couple? Their marriage has gone flat and the complacent Kay finally pushes the taciturn Arnold to do something about it; a week long Maine retreat under the guidance of a glib, highly successful therapist Dr. Feld (an underutilized Steven Carell).

     The problem with “Hope Springs” is that it can’t decide if it’s a farce or a serious examination of a troubled marriage. The film tries to be a little of both, but it doesn’t hit the mark in either category.

     Much like director David Frankel’s previous Streep vehicle—“The Devil Wears Prada”—this film doesn’t do subtlety, making it hard to pull off the comedic scenes. (Even these two veterans are obviously uncomfortable with some of the poorly staged and conceived physical humor.) And the script by Vanessa Taylor falls short on the needed insight to fashion a strong drama.

     Then there’s the baffling casting of comedy star Carell; the role is written, and he plays it, as straight as an arrow. It’s almost as if the producers felt that if they cast Carell, it would make up for the fact that the script contained few laughs.

    While Streep is a bit out of her comfort zone, playing an old-fashioned, emotionally fragile woman, she pulls it off. For Jones, this is right up his alley—stolid, uncooperative and stuck in his ways. Yet so often you can see these two great actors are swimming upstream: it’s a juicy premise that the script fails to deliver on.

 
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)
    There are a couple of ways you can look at this story of a young girl’s life on a backwoods Louisiana swampland island. Either it is a spirited tale of a gritty, resourceful child who is surviving in difficult circumstances or a horror story of egregious child abuse and the tragic hopelessness of small enclaves of people who refuse to join modern society.

     The filmmakers, it seems clear, want you to see this as a life affirming, inspirational tale of Americans living outside of society, resisting the corruption of the contemporary world. For some reason, this collection of angry, falling-down drunkards who seem unconcerned about the health, education, safety and future of their children are the iconoclast heroes of the film.

      Film critics across the country have embraced the message. This is what A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote: “Viewers inclined to see things through the lens of ideology will find plenty to work with. From the left, you can embrace a vision of multicultural community bound by indifference to the pursuit of wealth and an ethic of solidarity and inclusion. From the right, you can admire the libertarian virtues of a band of local heroes who hold fast to their traditions and who flourish in defiance of the meddling good intentions of big government.”

     Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey wrote that the filmmakers “have created characters that are wondrously indelible, distinctive of voice, and set them inside a story that will unleash a devastating hurricane, and a flood of emotions, before it is done.”

      Adding to the heartfelt nature of the project is the use of amateurs in the main roles (cue the laudatory amazement from the critics), led by Quvenzhan√© Wallis as the spunky Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry, a local bakery owner, as her irresponsible father, Wink.

     From my viewpoint, first-time director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar ask the audience to sympathize with a group of people who purposely put themselves and their children in the path of danger, refusing the help that is viewed as outside interference. We’re led to believe that because these people are so much a part of the surrounding bayou that they are to be admired for recklessly living in squalor alongside animals.  

     Yet if you are willing to put aside the intellectual dishonest of the story, “Beasts” offers an entertaining fantasy of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old living in the mud and filth of Bathtub, a slice of swampland cut off from civilization by the levee system.

      Her father, who treats her slightly better than the animals (she lives in her own trailer on their property) shouts and rails against everyone and everything while consuming a large assortment of alcohols (apparently, booze is free down in bayou country because no one does anything to earn money—these folks are as far off the grid as you can get).

     A powerful rainstorm forces Wink, Hushpuppy and their neighbors out of their homes and, eventually, into an evacuation center. There, evil people with medical degrees try to help these backwoods refugees (the horrors of Obamacare, no doubt).

    The film is filled with oddball magical realism moments, including the reoccurring appearance of giant boar-like animals and a strange trip by Hushpuppy and her school friends to a dance hall in the middle of the river. Even the sleazy bar and the aging prostitutes that work there are romanticized as something wondrously life affirming.

     Maybe I’m just an old cynic (why did I write “maybe”?) but I found this film a disturbing, but clearly effective, attempt to turn a group of desperately poor and disenfranchised isolationists into some kind of shamans, with an understand of life that us folks with running water and access to hospitals and education can’t fully appreciate.

 
DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME  (2011)
    If you’re looking for action-adventure on a grand scale featuring incredible special effects, resourceful heroes and near-invisible bad guys, forget about “Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” and check out this astonishing Hong Kong epic.

      Spinning off a kernel of historical truth about Wu Ze-tain, the first female Chinese ruler, circa 680, and her protector Di Renjie, this Hark Tsui (“The Swordsman,” “Once Upon a Time in China”) film has Dee investigating the spontaneous combustion of two high-ranking officials.

     It’s all somehow connected to a shadowy minister, poisonous beetles and the construction of a 1000-foot high Buddha to celebrate the empress’s coronation. Dee, superbly played by Hong Kong star Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs,” “House of Flying Daggers”) is aided by the empress’ trusted consort (Li Bing Bing) and another member of the Supreme Court (a white-haired Chao Deng).

    Though set in the 7th Century, the special effects and CGI make it feel as contemporary as “Iron Man.” No doubt China was well ahead of Europe at the time, but some of the whirling and intricate mechanical and structural creations in the film seem a millennium ahead of reality.

    Yet the strength of “Detective Dee”—what’s made Tsui one of the world’s most admired directors over the past decade—is the way the filmmaker never loses track of the characters’ humanity. The eye-popping effects never reduced the main characters into flying fighting machines.

      If most filmgoers weren’t so adverse to foreign films, this thoroughly entertaining actioner, with the right marketing, could have been a huge box-office hit.

 
BRIGHTON ROCK (2011)
    This British crime film has its moments but cannot quite live up to its impressive pedigree. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, England’s most accomplished man of letters since Dickens, the story of gang life in this seaside tourist town was turned into a much-admired 1947 film featuring an acclaimed performance by Richard Attenborough.

     This new adaptation from writer-director Rowan Joffe (screenwriter of “28 Weeks Later” and “The American” and the son of “The Killing Fields” director Roland Joffe) falters by turning the lead character, Pinkie Brown, into a completely unappealing, feckless young man who displays no sign of inner life or complexity. As played by Sam Riley, who will portray Sal Paradise, the Jack Kerouac character, in the upcoming “On the Road,” Pinkie is pure soulless evil—not exactly the kind of character you expect to find as the focus of a movie. 

     As two local gangs battle for control of Brighton Rock, Pinkie is just a lowly soldier until he’s assigned to secure an incriminating photo taken on the pier of an innocent girl and a rival murdered by the gang. Gradually, Pinkie leads Rose (Andrea Riseborough) into believing he’s interested in her when all he cares about is maintaining her silence. The relationship is the centerpiece of the film, yet neither performer helped me understand why she went along with this unpleasant brute or why he went to the trouble.

     Other gang members, Spicer (Philip Davis), the nominal chief, and Dallow (Nonso Anozie), the tough-guy enforcer, are not well defined and their trust of Pinkie is a bit baffling.

    Helen Mirren plays the most interesting character in the picture: a well-connected owner of a seaside restaurant with connections to the gang battling against Pinkie.