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.
In this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
In this fourth installment of the durable Terminator series the year is 2018 and a nuclear holocaust has effectively ended civilization as we knew it. With Terminators snapping up what little remains of the human race a small group of survivors have gone underground in an effort to battle the controlling organization Skynet which shocked the world by triggering the apocalypse. Standing up against all odds is John Connor the one man who knew this was going to happen and Marcus Wright a death-row inmate who’s about to be executed when he’s given a new lease on life by Dr. Serena Kogan a scientist with big plans for this dead man walking. Though Connor is highly suspicious of Kogan’s creation he forms a precarious bond with the resuscitated Marcus as the two search for a way to infiltrate and conquer a very imposing enemy.
WHO’S IN IT?
Let’s start by stating who isn't in Terminator Salvation: Arnold Schwarzenegger star of the three previous installments is busy in Sacramento so except for his brief reappearance via the miracle of CGI this is a whole new ballgame. Taking on a beloved movie franchise — just as he did in 2005’s Batman Begins — Christian Bale steps into the adult shoes of John Connor who was previously portrayed in T2 and T3 by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl respectively. As the one key link to the entire series Bale’s Connor is intensely serious and dedicated to the task at hand — even though he’s vastly outnumbered. As Marcus Wright Sam Worthington gets to play both sides of the coin as a hybrid of human and machine delivering the most unique and convincing performance yet seen in the series. Both Bale and Worthington carry on this legendary series in style but it’s Worthington who gets the big scenes bringing an ironic element of humanity to the whole enterprise. Also noteworthy: Helena Bonham Carter as the doctor who creates a modern version of Frankenstein’s Monster; Anton Yelchin as future time-traveler Kyle Reese Moon Bloodgood as Resistance warrior Blair Williams; and rapper Common as Connor’s second-in-command.
Director McG (Charlie’s Angels) tackles the daunting task of carrying on this series without its signature star and pulls it off with first-rate action set pieces flawless production values and a fascinating new wrinkle in Marcus Wright a character at odds with himself as well as John Connor. In the time-honored tradition of a classic cinematic showdown these are no ordinary heroes. They’re conflicted warriors faced with a task that is truly overwhelming in its scope.
With such a strong story the filmmakers probably didn’t have to resort to so many motorcycle flips explosions and truck and plane chases — not to mention a pulsating soundtrack that’s amped up so high you may need earplugs. But with so much excitement on the screen it doesn’t really matter. Action fans will be wetting their pants.
MEMORIES OF THE GOVERNATOR:
Arnold appears briefly (in the nude no less) in what appears to be a CGI pastiche of his classic character. But don’t blink or you’ll miss him.
Terminators won’t die and neither will its signature line. When Blair asks Connor what she should tell his men after he’s gone he replies in earnest: “I’ll be back!”
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
It will be movie theaters’ OWN salvation this summer.
For most of us the feeling of being frozen on 9/11 will never leave; it was our knee-jerk reaction to news and images that we just couldn’t wrap our heads around. But for policemen and -women and countless other emergency personnel in New York City on Sept. 11 2001 the knee-jerk reactions were those of duty and instinct--and as World Trade Center demonstrates a human’s most basic instinct is to want to help a fellow human. After the first plane hit the World Trade Center Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) a veteran of the Port Authority Police Department and PAPD officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) were amongst the first responders who raced into the heart of pandemonium. Mere hours earlier the two men were heading in for another day at the office the twin towers hovering exclamation marks in the skyline that enveloped their morning commute; hours later the officers were trapped under twisted metal that was previously the Trade Center from which only 20 people would be rescued. WTC tells of their desperate struggle to stay awake let alone alive with the help of the spirits of their wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who were equally in the dark. Even with all the agent hardball and anticipatory buzz that likely factored into these actors earning these roles there’s something noble in their seeking involvement. That nobility manages to come across in even the smallest roles. For one we’ve never seen Cage quite like this--stern hushed steely impenetrable. (Even in his somber roles like Leaving Las Vegas he is animated and herky-jerky.) But it’s those traits that convey a dutiful man of the law a man who tries to remain levelheaded even while pinned beneath a building’s worth of debris--anything to improve his chances of seeing his family again. Cage also nails a subtle New York accent--which would seem in theory difficult for him--making his character lived-in instead of methodized. As his cohabitant for what seems an eternity Pena also scores big. Last year’s Crash put him on the map; WTC breaks him out. As the much younger and slightly less severely hurt of the two Pena’s Jimeno adds a touch more energy even comedy at one point humming TV-show theme songs. The men’s beleaguered wives wear the terror on their faces and wear it well and there couldn’t have been two better choices than Gyllenhaal and Bello. Gyllenhaal’s Jimeno is heavily pregnant with hormonal swings that don’t help her already distraught state while Bello’s expression looks even more urgent than it did throughout A History of Violence. If he weren’t on the inside looking out Oliver Stone might’ve said it himself: There’s something not right about America’s darkest day looking glossy as a poster advertising its movie. Ironically it’s Stone who’s responsible for this effect in WTC. Doubly ironic is the fact that the man who has always been such a controversy magnet tackles his most incendiary project only to produce by far his tamest effort yet. In that sense there are reasons to admire Stone’s finished product--“product” in every sense of the word--but there is a gaping void where his voice or slant usually goes. And while it’s honorable for him to sacrifice his beloved politicizing and philosophizing--there’s hardly any attention paid to the attack or the Bush administration--for the sake of WTC’s heroism Stone in a decidedly anti-Stone move has turned this film into Apollo 13 all the way down to its absurd box-office minded PG-13 rating. The true story is obviously compelling; its movie dramatization as borderline unpatriotic as it may sound is “soap opera” compelling. But maybe that’s because more so than Stone’s sudden conservatism some true stories--earmuffs Hollywood--are too big for the big screen.