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.
Date Movie doesn’t have a story as much as it does a series of miss-or-really-miss spoofs of date movies and cultural hodgepodge; the thin “story” is just enough to keep the film from being a series of vignettes. Julia (Alyson Hannigan) who makes Big Momma look little is determined to find her Prince Charming instead of wasting away in her lonely apartment. She briefly finds him in Grant Fonckyerdoder (Adam Campbell) before losing him (so ends any originality). So she visits a date doctor named Hitch (Tony Cox)—yes that movie—who takes her to get barbaric liposuction. Then she meets Grant again they fall in love and she meets his parents Mr. and Mrs. Fonckyerdoder (Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge) making for a Meet the Fockers spoof (the biggest spoof-ee). Julia has competition from Grant’s ex (Sophie Monk) allowing for more film references but ultimately they live clumsily ever after.
It’s hard to see through the utter mess that is Date Movie enough to evaluate its acting but Hannigan seems to be at least serviceable. Although it seems like “acting” here means merely nauseating the audience enough so they can taste the vomit but manage to hold it in. Like when she licks Tony Cox’s face for 15 or so seconds—in slow motion… It’s more Fear Factor than Inside the Actor’s Studio. As for Campbell Date Movie is his first. There’s no frame of reference whatsoever and yet it’s still clear that he’s above this. He almost seems like a classically trained actor who’s forced to stretch his comfort zone by performing horrendous impressions such as the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. The lone semblance of a bright spot comes from Coolidge impersonating Barbra Streisand’s Roz Focker. Again way too classy for this Movie.
Date Movie's trailer brags “From two of the six writers of Scary Movie...” After seeing it you can’t help but muse “It took two writers for that movie?!” The writers in question are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer who also co-directed. The film should at the very least be an appetizer for Scary Movie 4’s upcoming entrée (to which they did not contribute) but with no hint of continuity or a passable storyline it even fails that menial task—and where the Scary Movies have succeeded is in the satisfactory stories that surround the film references. The biggest problem though lies in the spoofs: While the rules mandate that only chick flicks/date movies can be parodied the writer/directors abandon their target audience by referencing movies like When Harry Met Sally. Luckily there’s always an audience member who feels the need to solve the conundrum aloud.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.
P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents however believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up especially her father. Then a cheeky wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted yet jealousy-prone fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer and with a few happy thoughts some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch…the real place.) Once there Wendy encounters mermaids Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as "mother") and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because on the one hand she likes hangin' with hottie Peter but on the other she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash ticking crocodiles are fed and fairies are saved as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing with angelic faces peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy a fact much hyped by the filmmakers and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl earned her role after a long and involved casting process it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly infusing the character with a natural cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening comical lonely charming needy reprehensible Captain Hook draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious non-speaking Tinkerbell portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way he's right and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it giving audiences a very lush Neverland with waterfalls fluffy pink clouds crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version lives really are at stake and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent with scary faces and murderous intentions a far cry from the beautiful if somewhat mean-spirited creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near for example tick-tocking away the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy catchy songs but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck it's a great story. But it's just been done.
The Recruit wants us to believe the film's main thrust revolves around the Central Intelligence Agency's old maxim "nothing is what it seems." Had they stuck with this framework perhaps the film would have been more compelling. Instead it lapses into the expected and the implausible where you can pretty much guess exactly what's going to happen even if it really makes no sense. Our hapless protagonist James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is hustled by CIA recruiter Walter Burke (Al Pacino) who believes himself to be a "scary judge of talent" and sees James as prime CIA meat. When James hesitantly accepts the offer to come to The Farm he does so motivated less by helping his country and more by trying to find out what happened to his father who died mysteriously several years before and whom Burke alleges he knew. Once at The Farm James proves his mettle and is told again and again "it's in his blood." Ah then should we believe James' father who supposedly worked for Shell Oil really worked for the CIA as an NOC or Non-Official Cover agent one of the Agency's more prestigious--and dangerous--positions? The plot thickens. James also falls for fellow recruit Layla (Bridget Moynahan) but during an intense interrogation set-up he makes a serious error trying to save her and "washes out" of the program. Just when he thinks he's out forever James gets pulled back in by Burke who tells him all his trials and tribulations were just a test and that he is really NOC material and needed to root out a mole. Is it what it seems? Heavens no.
You'll be seeing a lot of Farrell in the coming months. Along with The Recruit this year alone he'll be in three major feature films including the upcoming comic-book actioner Daredevil; S.W.A.T. yet another feature based on a TV series; and the sniper movie Phone Booth. How has this 26-year-old Irish hunk risen so quickly in the ranks you might ask? Maybe it's because he has an uncanny ability to make the parts he plays completely believable. He slips easily into the Clayton character the quintessential CIA recruit with a daddy complex and fuels the film with the right amount of acting skills and smoldering good looks. Unfortunately his co-star the high and mighty Mr. Pacino is becoming a caricature of himself. Playing Burke is certainly no stretch for the actor and the film would not be complete without the requisite ranting scene where CIA veteran Burke tells the world all about it--voice booming words punctuated. It seems this has become the standard in any Pacino performance and frankly it's getting tiresome. Where's the quiet but powerful Michael Corleone when you need him? Moynahan (The Sum of All Fears) is somewhat bland as Clayton's love interest Layla. Word of advice: if Colin Farrell is making eyes at you go for it immediately. Don't waste any time.
For all its obviousness The Recruit does some things right. No stranger to the inner workings of our government agencies director Roger Donaldson who directed the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days and the Pentagon thriller No Way Out gives us access to the CIA training program or The Farm as its lovingly referred to--and it's one scary place. Obviously when making the film things had to be handled delicately as not to divulge too much so the film does take some creative liberties in showing the intense training the eager recruits have to face. That's fine with us--if we can't rely on death-defying stunts and car chases then outrageous mind games are generally good enough. But once The Recruit takes leave of The Farm the movie begins to fall apart. The inherent action set up for us in the first part--James finding out about his father the blossoming relationship between Layla and James who will be the NOC and the whole mole plot--just isn't as convincing to carry the film through its fruition. And being able to guess the next move isn't much fun either.