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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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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The trailers for the upcoming In Time may have you believing that stars Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried are stuck in one giant "there's no time!" chase sequence. You'd only be partially right. This couple of beautiful people are most definitely on the run, but with a greater purpose.
Every human on the planet, including the sprinting duo, is born with a ticking clock, an implant that acts as both their life's countdown clock and their wallet (in this world, time is currency). Nefarious circumstances force the duo to constantly search for a few more minutes, but the danger also inspires them to Robin Hood the rich (who have centuries worth of time on their clocks) and spread the wealth. Er, hours. They're bank robbers—and the newfound occupation elevates them to what is known in the movie world as "Bonnie and Clyde" status. Thanks to the lawless world of movies, two turn-of-the-century criminals have been immortalized, with Timberlake and Seyfried being the latest to keep the thieving dream alive.
Obviously, they aren't the first (but may be the most futuristic?). Here are a few examples of couples who make doing bad oh so good:
Pulp Fiction's Pumpkin and Honey Bunny
We don’t know a good deal about who “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” are, or what brings them to the Hawthorne Grill that eventful morning. But aside from an offhanded remark about not particularly wanting to kill anybody, we can tell that the two of them are none too averse to a life of criminal activity (they might have undergone a change of heart after a run-in with Jules Winnfield, however). It seems the two are most amorous when they’re about to pull a job. In fact, it might be this life of crime that is, in fact, holding their love together. Thus, a more Bonnie and Clyde-esque pair you’d be hard-pressed to find.
Duplicity's Ray and Claire
Ray and Claire may be just as confused by one another's hazy allegiances as the audience watching this mind-bending romantic thriller. Throughout the movie, their relationship intertwines, doubles back and disintegrates over many years and many cooperate invasions. By the end, they're working together (or are they?!) to infiltrate and profit from their big business employers—but find themselves screwed by another unseen force. Thanks to Julia Roberts and Clive Owen's genuine chemistry, the only thing that doesn't feel like an espionage maneuver is the two's lust. But even then…
Fun with Dick and Jane's Dick and Jane
Dick and Jane Harper begin their cinematic adventures as your average married couple—their financially well-off, passionless, hardly the criminal type. Once Dick’s evil conglomerate lets most of its employees go, the two resort to robbery—ranging from quiet stickups at the ATM to the carefully-plotted takedown of Dick’s billionaire ex-employer—which, incidentally, ups the ante in their own personal zests for living. This simple suburban married couple, played by Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni, get a healthy dose of Bonnie and Clyde in Dean Parisot’s Fun with Dick and Jane.
Natural Born Killers' Mickey and Mallory
When it comes to couples who fuel their love life with crime, you’re bound to expect a little darkness. But even Bonnie and Clyde themselves would shudder at the activities of Mickey and Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. From the moment of Mickey’s romantic—wait, no…horrifying—rescue of Mallory from her abusive parents, the two spend their life on the run from the law, committing murder after murder in the name of whatever they claim to believe in. It may be even beyond the wheelhouse of cinema’s most iconic criminal couple, but the roots of Mickey and Mallory are certainly planted in Bonnie and Clyde: they’re the bad guys. But they’re the bad guys together. So it’s kind of sweet—wait, no…horrifying.
Knight and Day's Roy and June
Roy and June may not pilfer the innocent, but they are a couple that spends a majority of their time on the run, firing guns amongst bystanders and escaping from sticky situations just in the nick of time. Sounds like a Bonnie & Clyde duo if there ever was one.
And they do do quite a bit of stealing: The secret agent and his blonde bombshell captive hunt, nab and protect a tiny trinket called the Zephyr, a never-ending battery capable of powering pretty much anything. The tricky part of their renegade romance is that neither really knows when one is going go backstab the other. Being a couple's a lot easier when both people have the same agenda, even if that agenda's robbing banks.
True Romance' Clarence and Alabama
Clarence and Alabama are guilty of plenty: prostitution, drug possession, murder, Sonny Chiba fandom. But their intentions are never quite criminal...it's all just a means to the truly romantic end of spending their lives together. Caught up in a runaway life, the couple portrayed by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in this Tony Scott film exemplify the downward spiral that is the Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle. At the beginning of the film, Clarence is a simple video store clerk—but his love for Alabama, and possibly impassioned sensibilities over this new life of danger, have launched him and his call girl soul mate into an inescapable life of crime.
Bonnie and Clyde's Bonnie and Clyde
We're certainly not going to compile a tribute to Bonnie and Clyde couples and not include the definitive Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway inhabited the notorious crime couple and helped define the pair as symbols of counter culture. They were in love…but they also shot tommy guns and stole people's hard-earned cash. Back in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde shocked the nation. Now, anti-heroes are perfectly acceptable—to the point that Bonnie and Clyde may not even deserve the "anti" in their label!