Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Endless Love has awakened something in me. Not a long dormant passion for an introverted high school classmate, or a sudden desire to break into the zoo after dark. A question about movies — more accurately, about movie criticism. The same question you would ask yourself if you fell drowsy in the middle of Citizen Kane, or welled up during the emotional climax of Just Friends. The question I ask myself now, as I recount the 103 straight minutes of asphyxiating laughter that I endured during a screening of Shana Feste’s would-be romantic drama: What makes a good movie?
We assign deference to some films, disgust to others — a lucky few of us make a living this way. But what, precisely, are we reviewing? A film’s mission or its execution? The product onscreen or the experience of watching it? All factors come into play when considering whether or not a movie “works.” But on rare occasions you’ll get a film that offers no common ground in its meeting of these standards. You’ll get Endless Love, which strives for dramatic sincerity, winds up with underwritten idiocy, and provokes in its viewers an unrestrained, absurdist revelry — the kind of joy you’d otherwise be forced to seek in a third viewing of The Lego Movie. Laughter at the ill-conceived antics and befuddling dialectical patterns of our central teen couple — a Mars native Gabrielle Wilde and her gaping mouthed beau Alex Pettyfer. Elated bemusement at the younger generation’s propensity for chaotic disrobing and didactically organized dance parties. Unprecedented ecstasy at the Mafia movie intimidation tactics of an overprotective dad (Bruce Greenwood) and the brain-dead disregard of a supportive one (Robert Patrick). As a comedy, Endless Love is unstoppable.
I can only hypothesize that it was not Feste’s intention to roll us in the aisles. I have no cold proof that her resolution in paving every nook in her Georgia-set remake with another farcical stone — Wilde’s instantaneous evolution from wordless ingénue to sexually aggressive spirit walker, Patrick’s loving caution-to-the-wind attitude regarding any situation that has to do with a girl, Rhys Wakefield’s “black sheep” character forming an odd amalgamation of Pauly Shore and Charlie St. Cloud — was not one of Wolf of Wall Street-like satire, or reappropriation in the vein of Spring Breakers. Here are two movies that earned scorn from viewers who read them literally, and in turn vehement defense from those who peered through the exaltation of cocaine and firearms into the filmmakers’ ironic intentions.
Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
To the latter community, one to which I subscribe, I ask: if we’re readily willing to dive deeper for Martin Scorsese and Harmony Korine, shouldn’t we grant Feste this benefit? If we’d defend the authenticity of the splendor we recognized in their movies, why am I inclined to write off the very same when present in this year’s Valentine’s Day cannonball? Why do I eagerly laud the merit in Leonardo DiCaprio directing Quaalude-charged tribal chants and relinquishing subhuman treatment upon anyone short a Y-chromosome, while instinctively shafting the invaluable merriment in Pettyfer’s goofily deliberate declaration that he likes to read into the category of happy accident?
But an even more precise question (one I was challenged to entertain by a friend and film critic far wiser than I am), and this time to the former community: does it matter? Did it matter to all those offended by gunplay and intrusive nudity that Korine set out to demonize youth culture and its omnipresent hedonism? Did considering his intentions make the endgame any less a visceral nightmare? If not, does it matter if Feste poured her soul into the machination of a timeless love story, only to produce a riotous cinematic episode that treads genre parody as expertly as anything from the golden age of the Zucker brothers? Does it matter that she didn’t intend for Wilde and Pettyfer’s sex scene to come off as super-hoke, for every mention of cancer to feel like soap opera send-up, or for Robert Patrick’s vindication of his son’s passion for menagerie trespassing to elicit the biggest laugh of a movie yet in 2014?
So long as I consider the power of cinema, I’ll never be sure if it matters. I’ll never be sure of the answers to any of these questions. But no matter where I find myself standing on this issue down the line, I had far too much fun at Endless Love — and entertained far too many questions on the nature of cinema and the way we react to it — to call it a movie that people shouldn’t see.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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You may have heard critics and advertisers tout The Social Network David Fincher’s finger-pointing film about how Facebook was harvested from the halls of Harvard and turned into a billion dollar business as “the movie of the decade” or “a generation-defining film.” This kind of praise has led the entertainment journalism collective to liken it to true staples of cinema like Citizen Kane and The Graduate. In terms of relevance to its audience those are fair if overreaching statements. The film depicts its teenage characters with unflinching pragmatism as it weaves the nasty web of deception and betrayal that is the story of the social media juggernaut. In terms of its protagonist’s journey however I couldn’t help but compare it to another landmark film: 1974’s Death Wish.
Like Michael Winner’s divisive and controversial revenge flick the action in The Social Network as with so many stories kicks off when anti-hero Mark Zuckerberg loses the leading lady in his life. Luckily she’s not slaughtered by a pack of petty thugs but instead liberates herself from her pretentious and pessimistic beau in the crushing opening scene of the film which sets into motion a chain of events that will change his life – and the world.
Zuckerberg played with sardonic wit by rising star Jesse Eisenberg retreats to his Kirkland Hall haven seeking retribution (see where I’m going with this?). He gets drunk blogs unfavorably about his ex and creates a program that places female students’ headshots side by side so that inebriated undergrads can anonymously rate them. The site called Facemash accumulates so many hits that it crashes the University’s servers which gets the attention of the school’s cyber-security squad as well as a group of aspiring entrepreneurs. Twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) well-to-do all-American future Olympians approach Zuckerberg with an opportunity to design a website that they’ve been quietly developing: a social network exclusive to Harvard students. Mark likes the idea but doesn’t want to be a part of it: he wants the whole thing. If greed is good then Zuckerberg (though not exactly financially motivated) is great.
The connections between Charles Bronson’s career defining film and Fincher’s soon-to-be-classic movie are of course hypothetical. My point is that like Paul Kersey Zuckerberg paints a target on his head with his vengeful actions as he breaks the rules of business ethics and leaves his mark on the world. Only after the storm has begun brewing does he realize that he’s in way over his head.
The Social Network is more a meditation on right vs. wrong than a chronicle of the birth of Facebook and it is a more affecting film because of that. The courtroom drama that ensues through Fincher’s two-hour masterpiece pulls no punches and asks the questions that we the audience are most curious about: Who really started Facebook? How much is the company worth? Fincher explores the historic and meteoric rise of this digital domain delicately building the tension organically as each chapter gives way to a new series of inquiries during the legal proceedings. Rather than provide a definitive answer he leaves the audience responsible for drawing its own conclusions.
Though it’s quite different from many of the grim stories Fincher’s told before The Social Network still conforms to the technical style that defines his work. The dank college dorms and dingy frat houses bring to mind the dreary environments of Panic Room and Fight Club especially in terms of lighting and color. Quick cuts convey the lightening fast pace in which we consume information in the digital age. The ominous music composed by Trent Reznor aids the auteur in expressing the enormity of the situation. Most noteworthy however is Aaron Sorkin’s stinging script which uses tech-speak legal lingo and slang to tell the tale of sex lies and limitless fortunes. He brilliantly combines multiple points of view (that of Zuckerberg his partner Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevosses) of the same events to bring his audience a well-rounded and unbiased account of the events that turned best friends into bitter enemies and bookworms into billionaires.
I believe that while it will certainly garner numerous award nominations come January The Social Network’s full impact will not be felt until the generation that it portrays can look back at it in retrospect. It is a very contemporary piece of thought provoking entertainment but we can’t assume that it defines who we are as a collective community because like Zuckerberg says of his digital society we don’t really know what it is yet.
Alpine University film student Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison) needs to start her senior project but she's stymied by a case of screenwriter's block. Then a chance encounter with the new campus cop (Loretta Devine the only link to the original "Urban Legend") gives her an idea: She'll make a film about a serial killer who slays college students in ways related to urban legends. Needless to say her cast and crew members (Joseph Lawrence Eva Mendez Jessica Cauffiel) start to disappear in a series of bizarre and mysterious incidents. And yes the killer is the person you would least suspect but only because he/she lacks a plausible motive.
Morrison ("Stir of Echoes") never finds the right mix of vulnerability naïveté and attitude to play the slasher flick damsel-in-distress-turned-heroine. (And she's never in any real peril.) Sorely missing are the outrageous performances that Rebecca Gayheart Danielle Harris and Julian Richings provided in the original "Urban Legend" -- the supporting players shackled to tired Hollywood clichés and a lackluster story never get to exercise their dramatic talents.
Freshman director John Ottman struggles with an already sputtering script by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson. Apparently the muse of over-the-top schlock horror blessed the first 15 minutes of the film then succumbed to spontaneous human combustion. With the exception of a mildly amusing "Blair Witch" cinéma-vérité parody the balance of the film generates neither thrill nor swill.