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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
All morning, news sites, blogs, Twitter, and every other form of free communication have been buzzing with this claim that Natalie Portman didn't really do all the dancing in her Oscar-winning role as Nina Sayers in Black Swan. The deal is that the woman who did all the "complicated" or "extremely difficult" scenes, Sarah Lane of New York's American Ballet Theater Company, just released her claim that Portman only did "5 percent" of the dancing scenes in the film and furthered that by purporting to be a victim of a "cover-up." Now, not only has the director of the film, Darren Aronfsky, completely debunked those claims by laying a serious knowledge bomb on us all in an official statement that said Portman did 111 of the 139 dance shots in the film, but I feel the need to ask why the hell Lane thought that any of us would feel sorry for her when she released these "shocking" "facts." Seriously, why?
Did little miss ballerina think that for some reason even if she was correct in her atrociously bad math skills -- that's right, 111 out of 139 is 80 percent, not five percent -- that we'd all suddenly jump to say, "Oh no! Take that Oscar from that lying, cheating Natalie Portman?" Because while there were a few bandwagoners who did, most of us well-balanced folks who saw the movie know that while dance plays a huge part of Portman's transformation and a huge part of the story, many of Portman's strongest scenes -- and those that likely tipped the scales for Academy voters -- were not even set in a dance studio or on the stage. And many of those that were used Lane's dancing and through computer generated magic placed Natalie's face over the body double's. She was well aware that she would provide physical and visual support for Natalie's performance when she signed up for the film. It's part of the deal when signing up as someone's BODY DOUBLE.
Furthermore, I admit, Lane dances beautifully. That's why she was hired for the film. I'm not denying that, but guess what? They don't give out Oscars for Best Dance Performance of the Year. They give them out for Best Actress and any way you slice it -- even before Aronofksy took to defending Portman with the most solid of arguments (basic MATH) -- it really shouldn't matter. Portman is the one who acted out Nina's mental breakdown and demise. You don't see Lane standing in for Portman when she drunkenly screams at her mother in their apartment or when she has that hangnail moment in the ladies room. The acting is the heart of the film, the dancing is the bedrock. The film promotes the illusion that Portman does all the dancing because it's necessary to bring the story to life. You don't see the guys who did the digital work on Portman's face yelling about a conspiracy because they were the ones who made it happen but no one's talking about them. Films are all about illusion; that's the beauty of the art form. Why in the world a claim like this should matter when just months ago we were praising the creation of something that is in essence a great example of the craft of illusion is beyond me. This strikes me as nothing more than a woman who's upset she's not getting enough attention.
Dear Sarah Lane, you're a great dancer and you're lucky enough to get PAID to do it. Stop whining and get back to your amazing job that millions of girls all over the world would kill for.
Source: EW, Wall Street Journal
It’s sort of absurd to go see movies in theaters nowadays. Money’s tight, there’s OnDemand and Netflix streaming and cable and whatnot. But there’s a magic in going to see movies, and I’m afraid I won’t ever be able to stop. It’s just different than watching movies at home.
One of Martin Scorsese’s favorite facts about film has to do with how projection works. Movies, even ones that are digitally projected, are a series of photographs. In the case of film there are 24 frames per second. That movement you think you see on screen is really just happening in your mind. In a very real way, every movie you’ve ever seen in the theater is a dream that you yourself created.
After he tells you that about the whole projection thing, Scorsese likes to smile and make the following observation: Because there are 24 frames per second, and 60 seconds in a minute, that means that most of our time in the movie theater is spent in the dark, dreaming. In a very real, physical way, seeing a movie in the theater creates a kind of subjectivity available in no other medium. All great filmmakers understand this and use it as a tool for storytelling.
Alfred Hitchcock did this better than almost anyone. His suspense thriller Rear Window famously replicated the experience of watching movies with the film’s setup: James Stewart sits in his apartment looking out the rear window into all the other windows of a bunch of other apartments. What’s on Stewart’s mind is his girlfriend, Grace Kelly, who he doesn’t quite have the guts to commit to. This is absurd, because it’s Grace Kelly. Somehow they make it work. Because Stewart’s preoccupied with his relationship, what he sees in every window is some riff on relationships. A fighting couple, a lonely single guy, a woman pining for her husband off at war. In this way, Hitchcock brings us right inside Stewart’s anxiety about commitment, and the grand subjective adventure of suspense thrillers can unfold.
Two recent movies are miracles of subjectivity: Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
Black Swan takes us deep inside the world of ballet dancer Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman. In fact, most of the brilliant craft, editing, effects, acting, framing and design of the film is done to take us so deep inside of Nina that it doesn’t takes long for us to be completely unable to distinguish between “real” and “fake.” Aronofsky excels at the primary skill of the cinematic storyteller -- he forces us to dream Nina’s dream.
Danny Boyle faced a far different challenge with 127 Hours, the movie about Aron Ralston, the adventurer who had to cut off his own arm to escape a boulder that trapped him in a remote Utah canyon. Since the movie builds to one man’s decision to do something almost unimaginable to the rest of us, Boyle used unconventional editing, flashbacks, sound effects and soundtrack pulls to bring us right inside of James Franco’s Ralston. By the time we get to the fateful moment of self-amputation, we’re so in tune with Ralston that the audience I saw the film with yelled out loud -- not at the pain of cutting into one’s own arm but at the triumph of fighting for freedom at any cost.
The economy’s terrible. Movies are expensive. Home theaters are awesome, and HD is super sweet. But there’s still nothing like the experience of watching a movie in the theater. Cause Martin Scorsese says so.
I was interested to read in a recent interview with director Darren Aronofsky that his latest film the ballet thriller Black Swan originated as a companion piece to his 2008 hit The Wrestler. Indeed the films parallel each other in their focus on the intense physical and psychological pressures that weigh on their protagonists - both professional athletes - and capture the beauty and tragedy of the sacrifices performers must make for the sake of their craft. But where The Wrestler successfully towed the line between saccharine sentimentality and pathos Black Swan is a much darker more disturbing work that recalls the obsession and paranoia at the heart of the director's first film Pi.
Set within the highly competitive and secluded world of a New York City ballet company Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina an emotionally fragile perfectionist who still lives with her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When the company's director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to "retire" the company's aging star (Winona Ryder) in order to find a new soloist for his upcoming production of Swan Lake Nina seems a shoe-in for the part of the timid and virginal White Swan. But in order to become the soloist Nina must also be able to play the dark seductive Black Swan - a role that seems better suited to the company's newest member the free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis). Despite his misgivings Leroy gives Nina the role sensing within her an undercurrent of wildness carefully hidden beneath her cold timidity and technical skill; his sexual advances come seemingly as a matter of course.
As the night of the ballet's opening draws nearer the pressures on Nina escalate. What begins as neuroses easily explained by a stressful job and a repressive mother soon blossoms into a much darker psychosis: she hallucinates seeing her face on other women indulges bloody fantasies of self-mutilation and grows increasingly paranoid that Lily recently assigned as her understudy is conspiring to take her part. Yet even as her fervent dreams begin to invade waking life Nina is dancing the Black Swan better and better.
Truly this is a director at the top of his craft: Aronofsky masterfully draws attention to the brute physicality of the ballet - straining limbs skipped meals torn ligaments and bloodied feet. The narrative is taut throughout framed in stark blacks and whites and propelled with a constant nervous energy by cinematographer Matthew Libatique's tight cinéma vérité follow shots. The sound editing is similarly claustrophobic amplifying Nina's every rasping breath or compulsive scratch of skin. And Portman is already generating Oscar buzz for her performance: possibly the best of her career.
Aronofsky strives for philosophical complexity with Black Swan a film that at its heart is about the sacrifices performers make to create great art - the dual processes of creation and destruction. Along the way it becomes one of the more psychologically disturbing horror films of the year - and it is on this point that critics will be divided. Black Swan is truly an incredible achievement: a beautifully shot highly entertaining mix of high and low art that is guaranteed to mesmerize audiences. But while many of the horror conventions that Aronofsky employs are good for a quick scare they often feel cheap and - for better or for worse - come at the expense of the film's otherwise highbrow sensibility. Still by the time the film reaches its logical and tragic conclusion the auteur’s stunning cinematic experience and Portman’s virtuosic performance will undoubtedly move audiences.