Friday, August 31, 2012

Movie Review: “The Hunger Games”

A post-hype review.

*** ½ out of 5
142 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens

Article first published as Movie Review: The Hunger Games on Blogcritics.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event. In this corner, we have the first of three Young Adult novels. Three hundred sixty four pages and selling millions of copies — everyone please welcome Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” And in this corner, we have one of the year’s biggest box office hits. Costing a mere $78 million, earning $684 million worldwide, and certified “Fresh” on RottenTomatoes at 84%, please say hello to director/co-writer Gary Ross’s film adaptation.

Yes, it may have been released on March 23, and some would say I’m behind the times, but I have finally seen “The Hunger Games.” While the plot is extremely unnecessary to rehash at this point, all I can report on is whether the film works on its own merits. Or at least point out, what does or doesn’t work. It may still be receiving rave reviews, but I think I have to sit somewhere in the middle. As my wife said when the credits rolled, “I think I’m just whelmed. Not over and not under.” Even the friend who lent me the Blu-ray felt about the same way from what I could tell. And he’s a huge fan of the book. It’s one of five books he’s ever read in his entire life (“The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Mockingjay,” “Swan Song,” and “Strip Tease” to be exact).

Aside from Ross’s decision to cut to shaky cam footage anytime something gets exciting, I think the biggest fault lies in the decision to completely excise the first-person narrative. I can agree that voiceover narration can become quite irksome. But having also read the novel myself, I can sustain that by cutting out Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) inner monologues, we miss out on a lot of the true turmoil going on inside her head. It also completely undercuts the end of the film making her intentions more confusing than anything. Those who have read the novel will know what I mean. Let alone the fact that one of the novel’s main characters (Gale Hawthorne, played by Liam Hemsworth, brother of Chris, aka “Thor”) is supposed to be the third part of a love triangle but is only in three scenes in a 142-minute film.

Now don’t get me wrong; the film works fine on its own merits, I just think that Ross, along with co-writers Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins herself, have completely demolished the emotional tides that bind the enterprise together. At least Josh Hutcherson (playing Peeta Mellark) fares better here than he has in a long time. And Jennifer Lawrence really shines as Katniss bringing the ferocity needed to pull the part off, particularly when she attacks Peeta after he reveals he has unrequited feelings for her in an interview with Caesar Flickman (the always stupendous Stanley Tucci).

A final thought is that to fully enjoy the film you really have to separate the two entities from each other. Those who have read the novel may still love the film but when even the character of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) can’t make you cry in a pivotal scene, the job just isn’t done. And finally, this probably features the most anti-climatic ending to a series entry in quite a while. Having President Snow (Donald Sutherland) simply walk up some stairs into a cut-to-black moment just seemed to really give absolutely no closure. I know there’s still three more films to come, but even each “Lord of the Rings” film had their own endings. As do each of the “Hunger Games” novels. At least the film wasn’t a dismal failure and only one scene is reminiscent of something out of another YA series caught on film (I’m looking at you “Twilight”).

So in closing, if you’re able to approach the film version of “The Hunger Games” with a clean slate (and I feel like I did, having read the novel before the film even came out and just barely catching the film now at home) then it will at least live up to most of your hyped-up expectations.

Photos courtesy Lionsgate

Monday, August 20, 2012

Music Review: Jon Brion – “ParaNorman”

A great score for an amazing family zombie film.

Article first published as Music Review: Jon Brion - ParaNorman on Blogcritics.

While I may have had reservations about reviewing a book, I wasn’t sure I was the best person to review a film score either. But then I remembered the hundreds of film scores and soundtracks that fill up stack after stack of CDs at home and in my car. Maybe I am a good choice to review one after all, right? Film scores are probably what I listen to the most come to think of it.

So now, when it comes to the score for “ParaNorman” by composer Jon Brion, the big question is whether or not it lives up to what it's supposed to be. I have always felt that the biggest success of any film score or soundtrack is to enable one to relive the film in their head. Having seen the film three weeks ago, it could make that an even bigger challenge to defeat. Well, it surely delivers on that front.

With Brion’s resume, a stop-motion animated family film (about a misunderstood boy who can see and speak with ghosts) at first glance seems like a bit of a stretch. But it appears that Brion is out to stretch himself any way he can when you compare his more recent film scores with that of his beginnings. Starting out composing for Paul Thomas Anderson in 1996 (for “Hard Eight” with Michael Penn) and later, Charlie Kaufman (“Synecdoche, New York”), Brion has scored films for Adam McKay in recent years (“Step Brothers” and “The Other Guys”) and is about to take on the latest from Judd Apatow (“This Is 40”).

About scoring an animated film, Brion has stated that he’s “been waiting for the right one for some time now,” and he couldn’t have picked a better one. The film weaves its way through genres ranging from adventure, comedy, and ultimately, horror, giving Brion everything he needs to set the tone for what starts out as a melancholy affair for the film’s protagonist to even pull some heartstrings during the climatic showdown in the finale.

While most children’s fare seems to take advantage of whatever pop songs are currently playing from Justin Beiber and Katy Perry, it’s nice to have a family film take a cue from the likes of Pixar Animation Studios, who rarely use songs, save for the end credits, if at all. Parents could maybe even use this as a springboard to get their kids into classical music—I know it worked for me. And once your kids see the likes of “ParaNorman,” they may find themselves opening up even more doors in their musical tastes.

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Friday, August 17, 2012

Movie Review: “ParaNorman”

Just what we didn't know we were in need of, a brilliant family-themed zombie film.

**** ½ out of 5
93 minutes
Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: ParaNorman on Blogcritics.

If there was one thing you didn’t know was missing at the multiplex, it's horror for the whole family. Quite possibly even more so I bet you never would have thought it was zombie movies either. But have no fear, stop-motion animation studio Laika is here to save you. Harkening to the spirit of “Monster House,” directors Sam Fell (“The Tale of Despereaux” and the underrated “Flushed Away”) and Chris Butler (who wrote the film) also know all too well what it is like to be a kid obsessed with all things horror. Something I too know all too well having watched HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” when it debuted in 1989 when I was merely nine years old. With only two previous feature films under their belts (production work on “Corpse Bride” and their first solo release “Coraline”), they’re out to prove that horror can be fun for everyone with their latest venture, “ParaNorman.”

Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in the town of Blithe Hollow which is about to celebrate its 300th anniversary. Norman spends his free time watching horror movies with his grandmother’s (voiced by Elaine Stritch) ghost. Yep, that’s right, much to his parents’ (Sandra and Perry, voiced by Ben Garlin and Leslie Mann) dismay, Norman sees dead people. Including, but not limited to, human and animals alike. Norman’s Uncle Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) is the only one who understands Norman’s lot in life and sets out to let him know that a witch’s curse is about to unleash the undead upon Blithe Hollow and Norman is the only one who can stop it. Not without a little help from his new friend Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), who spends her time pining over jock Mitch (Casey Affleck), and even school bully Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

Brains squish, “Halloween” ringtones blare, hockey masks are donned, and even “The Walking Dead” gets name dropped. There’s even an opening movie-within-the-movie that looks like something Quentin Tarantino could have dreamed up. Aside from “Monster House” and “Coraline,” this just may be the most fun kids could have at a horror movie since “Monster Squad.” With jaw-dropping stop-motion animation, Laika and directors Fell and Butler are having the time of their lives. Some of it borders on maybe being a little too much for the youngest viewers, but I blame modern society on that. Growing up with the likes of “Gremlins,” “Poltergeist,” “Piranha,” and my all-time favorite film Jaws, on an endless loop, this would undoubtedly have been another favorite. Being 32 years of age now, without children of my own just yet, I still can’t wait to add “ParaNorman” to my Blu-ray collection. And not just for personal repeat viewings but so that someday my own children will have their own modern classic that I’ll be more than happy to share with them.

Photo courtesy Focus Features

Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Review: “The Bourne Legacy”

The “Bourne” franchise is alive and well, but can we please get back Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass now?

**** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence and action sequences
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy on Blogcritics.

It was with great trepidation that I approached “The Bourne Legacy.” Co-writer/director Tony Gilroy has been in the hot seat with Matt Damon ever since he handed in his rough draft of “Ultimatum” and literally walked away. While Damon said he would not return to the Robert Ludlum franchise so long as Gilroy was involved, it didn’t stop Universal Pictures from marching on. Let’s be honest: every studio knows a good cash cow when they see one. So while “Legacy” may not necessarily bring anything truly new to the table, at least things haven’t gone so awry that it can’t be salvaged by pairing up new star Jeremy Renner with Damon in a hopeful faceoff.

The Bourne Legacy” begins essentially the same as “Ultimatum” did. Journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) has been gunned down at London’s Waterloo station and Jason Bourne (a seen-only-in-photograph Damon) has come to New York. What begins now is a side story (or “flash sideways” as I call it, thanks to “Lost”) that runs parallel to the events in “Ultimatum.” This time the story focuses its attention on new Blackbriar “Participant” Aaron Cross (Renner) who is on his own in the Alaskan wilderness popping blue and green pills, taking his own blood samples, and fending off wolves. We learn that he’s on disciplinary action when he meets up with another participant of the program at a cabin in the woods.

It’s not long before the cabin is blown to smithereens and Cross steals a plane headed back to the States. Meanwhile, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is performing her scientific duties to the program in a lab at Sterisyn-Morlanta. Before you know it, Dr. Donald Foite (Zeljko Ivanek) goes berserk and guns down five of the lab staff before he turns the gun on himself. Back at home, Marta is visited by grief counselors but not before they turn a gun on her in what is supposed to wind up looking like a suicide but, just in time, Cross comes busting in on the scene. Now Marta’s home is engulfed in flames and Retired Col. Eric Byer, USAF (Edward Norton) is hot on their tails while Cross and Marta take off on a global trek to find Cross some more “chems” (i.e. medication) and maybe even wean himself off and out of the program.

There’s plenty more to the “Bourne” series left to unfold, but it takes Gilroy forever to give up the goods. We know the story is part of it all, but why not throw in some more action as well? There are plenty of chances for Renner to show off his feats of gravity, but this episode sure is talky and maybe even a little too “scientific” for its own good. Gilroy, writing with his brother Dan, thinks that the story is why most people are there. And when you have cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) at your disposal, you should put his expertise to better use. Although the end chase is quite a doozy—even if we’ve waited just a little too long for it.

Without Damon on board, I have to say, we don’t need a reboot a mere 10 years later, especially when everything takes place during the exact timeframe of the last film. Let alone the fact that it feels like it’s all leading up to some big reveal to really tie it up nicely within the context of the other films, but once the grand finale chase scene is over, it’s just that, over. In the end, this feels like a midsection, the same way most second films do during a trilogy, except that obviously Universal wants this to be more of a long running series—which is fine. And I probably sound more negative than I feel about the film; believe me, most of it is intense, riveting stuff. But now that we have “The Bourne Legacy” out of the way, it’s time to give us fans something a bit more than just another origin story.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Movie Review: “The Campaign”

The results are in and “The Campaign” is a riot. If only real politics were this much fun.

**** out of 5
85 minutes
Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Campaign on Blogcritics.

When a director has a long string of hits under his belt consisting of two major film series (“Austin Powers” and the “Fockers”), it’s a bit of a surprise to see Jay Roach step into the political arena. With two made-for-HBO TV movies, “Recount” chronicling the aftermath of the 2000 U.S. presidential election and “Game Change” following John McCain’s 2008 campaign with running mate Sarah Palin, he shows no signs of letting his political guard down by bringing us the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis beat down, “The Campaign.”

Cam Brady (Ferrell) has run unopposed for the last 12 years in small town Hammond, NC. He loves his wife Rose (Katherine LaNasa) and their two kids Cam Jr. and Jessica (Madison Wolfe), but seems to love controversy just a little bit more. At first it solely consists of his mistress Shana (Kate Lang Johnson), but when his affair leads to a drunken voicemail left on the machine of Mr. and Mrs. Mendenhall (Jack McBrayer and Elizabeth Welles Berkes), it results in a dramatic decline of support. As his campaign manager Mitch (Jason Sudeikis) puts it, he’s no longer climbing like the yodeling mountain climber on “The Price is Right.”

The nefarious Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) see this as the perfect time to strike to get their idea of “insourcing” moving along. This means that they need someone crazy enough to beat Brady at his own game in order to build a sweatshop in Hammond to bring jobs, not to the townsfolk, but to Chinese workers which will double their already doubled revenue. The Motch brothers call up Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox) whose son Mitch (Galifianakis) may be exactly who they’re looking for. Mitch too loves his wife Mitzy (Sarah Baker), their two sons Clay and Dylan (Grant Goodman and Kya Haywood), and their two pugs. But his perfect world is in an upheaval once Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) pops up as his Motch-appointed campaign manager to “make him not suck.”

Mud slinging, the Deep South, and politics in general, all take a hilarious beating as Ferrell and Galifianakis make good use of their improv skills. While surely there was still plenty of the script left in tack, credited to Chris Henchy (“The Other Guys,” “Spin City”) and Shawn Harwell (“Eastbound & Down”), the film is so hilarious, even if sometimes ashamedly, that I cannot wait for an unrated Blu-ray release. With what was left up on the screen it will be a shock to see what could have possibly wound up on the cutting room floor.

Director Roach sure has come a long way with his directing abilities, even if he’s still working with a group of actors who love to take a joke as far as it can go before socking you with a punchline. Speaking of socking, punching a baby in the face may be hilarious, but just wait until you see who else gets a smackdown. And it’s a moment of hilarious shock and awe when you see poor Mrs. Yao (Karen Maruyama) speaking with a $50/week bonus payment from Raymond Huggins because it “reminds him of the good ol’ days.” The only down side is that Lithgow and Aykroyd are never given anything to do making the whole film seem a little beneath them.

With a film like this what it all comes down to is whether it’s actually funny. And the good news is that yes, it is incredibly funny and only seems like Ferrell and producer Adam McKay are simply warming up for “Anchorman 2” next year. Thankfully, “The Campaign” revels in its R-rating and Gary Sanchez Productions silliness. At least it never aims for the sublime raunch levels of the divisive “Step Brothers.” And while it also never reaches the hilarious heights of “Ted,” I’m still casting my vote for “The Campaign” as one of the funniest movies of the year.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Friday, August 3, 2012

Movie Review: “Total Recall”

Dick's “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” and of course “Total Recall,” with a slight case of “Bourne.”

 **** out of 5
118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Total Recall (2012) on Blogcritics.

I wish I could say that it’s nice to see director Len Wiseman finally come into his own, but two good films does not make a great director. While finally serviceable, I am happy to see Wiseman stepping away from his “Underworld” films. Without having done so, he never would have proved he really can do action with “Live Free or Die Hard” and now “Total Recall.” While a remake to the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic is completely unnecessary, it does manage to add a few things to the Paul Verhoeven version of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” some 22 years ago. With that version hitting store shelves this week in a newly remastered, Verhoeven-approved transfer, it just makes the new version seem outdated already. Shine it up all you want, Colin Farrell may make for a great action star, but we all know there’s only one Schwarzenegger.

In “Total Recall” “v2,” chemical warfare has almost completely annihilated Earth. The only two inhabitable areas remaining are the United Federation of Britain and The Colony (i.e. Australia). Workers of the Colony travel by what is known as “The Fall” (an express elevator which travels through the Earth’s core) to work labor jobs in the UFB. Douglas Quaid (Farrell) wakes up screaming from nightmares involving strobe lights, techno music, gunfights, and a mystery woman (Jessica Biel). Waking up screaming or not, next to Lori (Kate Beckinsale, Mrs. Wiseman), Quaid feels like his dreams mean something, like he’s doing something important in them. Lori thinks maybe they’re his way of dealing with a seven-year itch even though they’ve been married for eight.

Quaid works in the UFB tightening bolts on robotic soldier for the Federation when he’s not hanging out at the bar with his supervisor and friend, Harry (Bokeem Woodbine). Quaid also spends his time waxing philosophically, questioning why they always sit in the same two seats on “The Fall” and how he wishes he had learned how to play the piano. Before you can say Rekall, Quaid finds himself in their office where Mac (John Cho) mentions that they can implant a spy memory which Quaid is all for. History repeats itself as an army of soldiers batten down the doors of Rekall to take him into custody, but not before he singlehandedly wipes everyone out. Now Quaid is on the run from the Federation and his wife (informing Quaid that his memory has in fact been replaced), who works for Cohaagen, the Federation’s oily dictator. Now Quaid has to figure out who he really is and save the Colony from an impending invasion of those pesky Storm Troopers, err, I mean robot soldiers.

Foot chases, flying bullets, swooping camera moves, and Beckinsale’s pantied-bum fly fast and furious for a breakneck 90 minutes. But then we get to the resistance leader Matthias (a completely wasted use of Bill Nighy) character where everything starts to quickly fall apart. Monolouging 101 here we come. Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer (he of “Equilibrium,” “Ultraviolet,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” and “Salt” fame) and Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard” and “Unstoppable”) are in the midst of a constant tonal tug of war and you can pinpoint exactly which parts of the finished product belongs to whom. One takes this adaptation of Dick’s short story way too seriously while the other knows viewers just want to have fun.

And while they do have some fun nods to the original, even using direct lines, they don’t even steal the best ones. A very particular line could have left the last scene as a huge payoff, instead of opting for the slo-mo fade out. By removing the original’s Mars setting involving Cohaagen’s plan to take the people’s air (I dare you to try reading that without hearing Schwarzenegger in your head), the new plot developments almost suck the air right out of this one. The good news is that Wiseman has come a long way in the world of filmmaking and keeps everything moving swiftly aside from the final 20 minutes, giving us some of the best action sequences seen all summer. Check your brain at the door for this new version of “Total Recall.” While I may still love the original, I thoroughly enjoyed a good 85% of the remake. At least I didn’t wind up hating it, which is always high praise in my book when it comes to anything remade in Hollywood.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures