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.
Two of the biggest names in comedy working together on a political comedy? Almost sounds too good to be true, right? Unfortunately, it is and isn’t.
The good (and possibly great) news is that Warner Bros. Pictures has purchased a pitch that will bring together Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell in a couldn’t-be-better-timed political comedy set to be released during the 2012 mad-house election cycle. Despite what you may think of their movies (Due Date was funny, but it was no Hangover. The Other Guys was refreshing for Ferrell, but he has made crap like Blades of Glory), they are two of the funniest actors working right now. Ferrell’s flame might have burned out as of late, but Zach’s (give me a break, it's really hard writing Galifianakis over and over, and your pity checks can reach me by mail) stock couldn’t be higher.
What holds me back from declaring this the next great American Comedy is the peripheral players. Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell are writing the script while Jay Roach will serve as one of many producers. These three guys have worked with some of the top comedic talent in the past decade to extremely varying results.
Let’s start with the easy one first. Harwell is a relative newcomer, his only produced credit is second season of Eastbound and Down, on which he served as a lead writer. While the season was spectacular, how much of that credit can go to Harwell remains unclear. And since Eastbound and Down is a Gary Sanchez production (headed by Ferrell and his writing/directing partner Adam McKay who will also produce this new comedy), he could be their new go to writer. It’s really easy to say you’re a great writer when you’re also working with Danny McBride and Jody Hill. So I’ll hold judgment until he’s proven himself (I’m nice like that).
Henchy is a Funny or Die staple (also another Ferrell/McKay joint), having produced and written several of their most notable videos. He also co-wrote The Other Guys, which, as mentioned before was rather good all things considered, but like Harwell he has worked with some mighty big talent, making it difficult to tell how much he contributes. I should clarify that I’m not accusing these guys of coat-tailing the talents of better men, rather, I'm playing devil’s advocate. They could be the funniest guys on the planet, I’m just not sure of how much funny is their own. Not knowing the behind the scenes workings, I’m only going on what I’ve seen.
Roach, again, has worked with some great talent (Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Steve Carell) and produced some mixed results (Yay to Austin Powers, nay to Dinner For Schmucks). He’s obviously capable of handling the talent of two giants like Ferrell and Galiafinakis (both of whom he has worked with before) so we shall see how this turns out.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and put my neck on the line by saying that this will be a better than expected movie (a truly bold prediction, I know, I’ll be taking my Pulitzer at any time). Even if the script is crap and the directing sucks, Galiafinakis and Ferrell are two of the best improvisers in the industry. The people in front of and behind the camera are not idiots (I hope) and they have the best scenario going into the film. I don’t think they’ll screw it up. Or rather, I hope they don’t.
Rumors of Will Ferrell’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. After falling from his perch atop the comedy world with a trio of high-profile disappointments Semi Pro Land of the Lost and Step Brothers the venerable funnyman seemed destined to join the tragic ranks of fellow SNL alums Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy comic geniuses who fell prey to their own spectacular success. But he makes a triumphant return to form in The Other Guys a riotous action comedy from longtime Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay (Anchorman Talladega Nights).
Playing Allen Gamble a straightlaced NYPD detective happily confined to his desk job as a forensic accountant Ferrell dials down the goofball element that metastasized in recent years instead exhibiting a kind of earnest cluelessness more reminiscent of his character in Elf. Safely in his element crunching numbers and combing paperwork for accounting irregularities risk-averse Gamble is more than willing to concede the spotlight to the precinct’s glory-hound celebrity cops Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel Jackson) who’ve charmed the citizenry with their heroic indifference toward danger private property or common sense.
Gamble’s good-natured obliviousness earns him the disdain of his embittered cubicle mate Detective Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) who unlike Gamble didn’t come by his desk job by choice. In a city scarred by accidental police shootings and devoted to its beloved Yankees Hoitz committed the ultimate sin clipping an unarmed Derek Jeter in the leg during a moment of panicked confusion. (“You should have shot A-Rod!” one heckler shouts.) Removed from the street indefinitely by his boss Captain Gene Mauch (a scene-stealing Michael Keaton) Hoitz is a snarling ball of impotent rage most of which he directs at Gamble. (For those of you keeping score yes Keaton’s character is named after the former baseball manager.)
This being a buddy comedy Gamble’s and Hoitz’s fates are destined to intersect. Sure enough their chance to seize the fire comes when the city’s all-star crime-stoppers Danson and Highsmith are abruptly taken out of commission in one of the most shockingly hilarious twists in recent movie history.
Wahlberg and Ferrell may not make the best cops but they’re an absolutely stellar comedic team. To their credit McKay and Other Guys screenwriter Chris Henchy know we won’t settle for just the tired bickering odd-couple scenario of buddy comedies past (see Cop Out) and they take care at several points to flip the script on the formula when Gamble and Hoitz hit the streets together giving Wahlberg as many opportunities to flex his comedic muscles as Ferrell. It’s a bit of a gamble — the rapper-turned-actor isn’t exactly known for his range — but it pays off handsomely in the film.
Wahlberg has shown a welcome willingness to make fun of himself in recent years with his cameos on SNL and in Date Night. His performance in The Other Guys is in many ways a straight-up parody of his abrasive expletive-spewing character in The Departed a role for which he earned an Oscar nomination. (This still boggles my mind — I hope Mark is sending weekly gift baskets to both Martin Scorsese and the Academy.) The Other Guys is easily his funniest work since The Happening.
For his part McKay throws in some solidly-crafted action sequences to complement the comedy and even makes a stellar cameo as the leader of Dirty Mike and the Boys a gang of homeless men who terrorize the Priuses of New York City with their all-night orgies for which the interior of Toyota’s trendy hybrid are apparently ideal. But as a storyteller he still struggles mightily with the third act (see Step Brothers a film that all but fell off a cliff). The film loses some of its momentum in the second half mainly because it must get down to the business of resolving its nebulous plot which centers around the corrupt dealings of a hedge-fund charlatan (Steve Coogan) and some improperly filled-out scaffolding permits. But resolution issues notwithstanding The Other Guys still marks a solid upgrade over Step Brothers in the McKay-Ferrell pantheon and is arguably their best collaboration since Anchorman.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.