It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
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.
With all the changes and delays forced upon Hollywood in the last week, there's one little story I read about that's worth mentioning. The terrorist attacks happened right at the tail end of the Toronto Int'l Film Festival. Many celebrities were stranded by the closure of the airports, so as an alternative, Universal Pictures chartered a bus to go from Toronto to Los Angeles and hired two drivers so the bus would not have to stop. Among the passengers was the provocative director David Lynch, whose new film Mulholland Drive premiered at the festival. According to a report on Thestar.com, Lynch also happened to have a film camera with him to film the long trip home. Think about what a fascinating movie that would be, especially with Lynch's skewed perspective. And one, I would imagine, that would garner some attention, if Lynch decides to make something of it. If he doesn't, maybe I can get him to send me a copy anyway.
Hudson skips out on "Girl"
Actress Kate Hudson mysteriously pulled out of her next film project The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I hope it isn't because of the awful title because, Kate, that can always change (a must, in this case). No, those powers that be aren't quite sure why Hudson left the project in the dust, triggering producer Intermedia Films to pull the plug on financing just four weeks before filming was to start. The film is based on Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel about a maidservant of the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer and is being directed by Mike Newell. Ralph Fiennes is still attached to star as Vermeer. Even more odd is the fact Hudson pursued this project vehemently and was thrilled to be doing the movie. Will there be lawsuits involved? Perhaps. But make no mistake, producer Andy Paterson is determined to recast and move on. Just change the title, Andy.
Carvey is a "Master of Disguise"
Dana Carvey, where the heck have you been? We've certainly missed you. Wish you were still on Saturday Night Live, but of course, you had to move on--even though your track record in films hasn't been the best in the world. However, we are always willing to give you another chance cause you are one funny guy. But Dana, you've got to choose wisely and from the sounds of your next film, you have not done that. The film, called Master of Disguise, is about a man who finds out his family has been masters of disguise for generations. To save his parents from an evil bad guy, he must quickly learn the family's unique talents from his grandfather. It also stars Jennifer Esposito (Don't Say a Word) as the love interest. Well, that's OK, Dana, it just good to see you back on your feet.
"Bad News" for Forman
Director Milos Forman (The People vs. Larry Flynt) has set his sights on Warner Bros.' Bad News from screenwriter/playwright Doug Wright (Quills), based on a novel from Donald Westlake. The story centers on a career crook, John Dortmunder, who gets involved in an underhanded takeover of an Indian gambling casino. However, he soon realizes that he's set himself up to be ripped off-unless, of course, he can rip off his partner first. Well, from what sounds like a fairly typical doublecross movie, the redeeming factors are the writer and director, each provocative in their own right. And of course, the cast has got to be good for this one to work.
Another video game hits the screen
That's right. These video games are just ripe fruit for the picking by studio execs. Now, it's Sega's popular The House of the Dead horror games that are getting the Hollywood treatment. Looking to start filming mid-January, the story takes place on an island off the coast of Florida that is inhabited by zombies, monsters and creatures who wreak havoc on land, in the air and in the water. To try and stop the insanity, a diverse group of multiethnic college coeds and a Coast Guard officer must get on the island and destroy the evil entity living in the House of the Dead. I can see the teenagers lining up now.
Seagal is "Half Past Dead"
Well, at least Steven Seagal should be--then we wouldn't have to be subjected to any more of his movies. But alas, that's out of my hands. His latest is Half Past Dead from Franchise Pictures, being described as a Die Hard in prison. Wait, wasn't Under Siege Die Hard on a U.S. Navy battleship? Right. This story revolves around a man (Morris Chestnut) who masterminds a plan to infiltrate a high-tech prison in an attempt to persuade a death row inmate to tell him the whereabouts of $200-million worth of gold from an old heist the FBI has never been able to solve. Whew! Seagal plays an FBI agent who tries to stop him. Good luck with that, Steven.