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 the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Parodies are a dying art. I hate to say it — because I love them so much — but over the last few years the unrelenting hacks known as Friedberg and Seltzer have systematically killed the art form with their brainless pop culture-stroking disguised as commentary. I remember the good ole’ days of Abrams and Zucker (prior to their Scary Movie entanglements) when parodies where funny precisely because they established their own voice and didn’t use the material they were lampooning as a crutch. Airplane! mercilessly mocked the bizarre run of airport disaster movies in the '70s but it also transcended easy jokes and script aping. Today thanks to inexplicable box office validation an entire generation now thinks that the “Random celebrity what are you doing here?” gag is the appropriate formula for parody.
Kick-Ass is going to put a giant boot in the face of that mentality. It is a pitch-perfect send-up of everything that is characteristic of superhero films. It is versed enough to cite convention but clever enough to find the humor in the genre’s absurdity. And the biggest advantage Kick-Ass has in the parody department is that it is unrelentingly entertaining. It seems that in the last few years terrible parodies have made undeserved fortunes at the box office while better-crafted entries have gone largely unseen. Kick-Ass on the other hand has all the necessary components to clean up at the box office and be well deserving of its success.
The performances in the film are all top notch. Nicolas Cage showcases yet again how he can make his personal lunacy work very effectively under the right conditions. The overly Leave It To Beaver dialogue he and his daughter exchange prior to assuming their crime-fighting alter egos is charmingly silly and if you don’t get a kick out of his channeling of Adam West from the 60’s Batman series when he is in the suit I highly suggest a humor implant immediately. Aaron Johnson in the title role plays the lovable loser to perfection. He brings a lot of heart to the character that drives the emotional crux of the film. And as much as Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the most recognizable young actor in the film it’s Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl who totally McLovins the film; stealing every scene she’s in. The personality comedic timing and ruthlessness that she brings to this character demonstrate a talent level well in advance of her age.
In terms of the treatment of the teenaged characters in the film this script is tantamount to something written by the late great John Hughes in so much as the teens are allowed to speak honestly and in their own limited vocabulary without the pretense of wit. I think teen comedies are improving dramatically of late but the obsession with making teens pithy wordsmiths baffles me to no end and I’m glad they were allowed to just be vulgar. And my God this thing is vulgar…and violent to boot. We get to watch an 11 year-old drop f-bombs and stab thugs in the forebrain. I mean come on the movie is called Kick-Ass for a reason and while it is a comedy the action sequences are unstoppably exhilarating.
A smart somewhat genre subversive parody Kick-Ass is also action-packed and entertaining enough to stand on its own two legs as a film and not just a lampoon. The costumes the music the fight choreography all work in harmony to bring us a blockbuster superhero film that is legitimately humorous in both its homages and honest characterizations. Do not miss this film.
In the tradition of a classic Disney-esque animated fairy tale The Tale of Despereaux based on the award winning children’s classic by Kate DiCamillo is about a mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) with Dumbo-sized ears and an oversized heart. His home the Kingdom of Dor was once a happy place but now due to unexpected events it has been shrouded by doom and gloom. Not for Despereaux! The fearless rodent doesn’t adhere to the usual mouse-like criteria but instead yearns for adventure especially after he starts reading fables from the castle library. He also bonds with Princess Pea (Emma Watson) who is sad and lonely her kingdom is in such disarray. Despereaux looks at her as a damsel in distress and wants to help. Unfortunately these are all serious no-nos in Mouseworld and so Despereaux is banished him to live in the dungeon with the evil Rats where he meets an agreeable rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who is also different from his kind. Roscuro wants to right some past wrongs but is spurned by the princess. Needless to say things do indeed go awry and Despereaux must summon all his courage and bravery to save the day. Some of the best ensemble casts in movies are being assembled for animated features these days and The Tale of Despereaux is a prime example. Broderick is ideal as the dignified and ultimately courageous little mouse. Hoffman -- in his second ‘toon turn of the year (Kung Fu Panda) -- proves again as the soup-loving Roscuro he has a real future as an animated character. Harry Potter’s Watson has the perfunctory English princess role but plays it with compassion while Tracey Ullman as maid-cum-wannabe princess Mig doesn’t go for the laughs but portrays Mig as a hopeful outcast looking for a fairy tale ending to her humdrum life. A whole set of other wonderful vocal talents in Despereaux include Kevin Kline Frank Langella Richard Jenkins Stanley Tucci William H. Macy Robbie Coltrane and Christopher Lloyd. And to top it off with just the right touch of whimsy is the lilting narration of Sigourney Weaver whose comforting voice will assure the youngest kids in the audience that things in Dor aren’t quite as dire as they appear. Co-directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen invest into this gorgeous-looking film all the care that went into the art of DiCamillo’s beautiful book. In fact unlike many other recent animated features Despereaux is distinctly old-fashioned despite all the CGI. The look of the movie is definitely inspired by older more traditional Disney-style fairy tale classics. Gary Ross’ (Seabiscuit) fine screenplay is reverential to the book and doesn’t back away from the darker aspects of the story which despite its G rating might be a little on the scary side for the very young ones. For everyone else The Tale of Despereaux is most likely this season’s must-see movie event for the entire family.
Brenda (Angela Bassett) is a single mom living in the big city; thus it goes without saying that she is struggling mightily to make ends meet for herself and her three kids--Michael (Lance Gross) Tosha (Chloe Bailey) and Lena (Mariana Tolbert)--each of whom has a different father. Brenda’s problems come to a head when she goes in to work only to learn that her office has been shut down and moved to Mexico. Now it’s not so much her young daughter’s daycare that she can’t afford; it’s electricity and food! With literally nothing else to lose Brenda takes the advice of her friend (Sofia Vergara) and heads down to rural Georgia where Brenda just found out her estranged father is going to be buried. It is there that she also learns about her long-lost gigantic family and her father’s clandestine life. Most importantly though she meets a very persistent charmer (Rick Fox) who may or may not change her life in more than one way. Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett takes a huge step down in giving in to the hit machine that is Tyler Perry. Her bad decision to take on the role of an emotionally and financially battered single mom turns into an equally subpar performance. She is overly made-up both character-wise and physically--Brenda appears better-suited for one of Perry’s stage productions--and Bassett greatly overacts albeit somewhat appropriately for such a melodramatic film. Former Los Angeles Laker/Mr. Vanessa Williams Rick Fox playing a somewhat fictional version of his own life (i.e. retired basketball star) continues to attempt in vain to prove himself as an actor and not just a jock. Unfortunately he again comes off as an athlete trying his hand at acting with an emotional range and vocal monotone that make Shaquille O'Neal seem worthy of another acting gig. The lone bright spot is House of Payne (Perry’s TBS sitcom) star Gross who as a high school basketball star/super-son is thankfully unwilling to indulge in the overacting that surrounds him. In supporting roles the countless Brown family members are good for a few laughs but little else. And Perry himself pops up as the beloved Madea character for what can only be considered a cameo. As sure as a new spoof from the Scary Movie guys an under-the-radar Woody Allen film and a Saw flick Tyler Perry will put out at least one film a year these days. Between his own movie productions acting gigs on the side and hit TBS sitcom House of Payne Perry is clearly the busiest man in showbiz--gotta give him that. What’s not so clear however is how he has such a loyal fervent fan base. Meet the Browns like every other movie he’s written and/or directed (five of them) is very occasionally silly-funny or touching but otherwise verges on absurd and not the good There Will Be Blood kind of absurd. It’s everything that probably makes Perry’s plays--which are the basis for almost all of his work and his subsequent meteoric Hollywood rise--successful: histrionics theatrics melodrama and preaching. None of those elements translates to anything more than an uneven film yet apparently throngs of moviegoers couldn’t disagree more--and hey at least it’s a (welcome) change from almost everything else at the local multiplex.
Maybe you’re concerned Snakes on a Plane isn’t going to live up to the hype. Stop worrying. Those fanatic Internet bloggers who’ve been raving about the movie just from the snippets they’ve seen pegged the movie to a tee. SoaP is everything its cracked up to be and more a monster movie and disaster flick rolled into one. Granted the plot is wafer thin: FBI Agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) has to transport a key witness Sean (Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to L.A. so he can testify against a nasty mob boss who in turn hatches such a diabolical plan to dispose of the witness that even James Bond would be impressed. That’s right. Said nasty mob boss arranges the release of several varieties of poisonous snakes on the flight so either a) Sean will get bitten and die and/or b) the plane crashes. End of story. How can you go wrong with that? Jackson is one smart cookie. He heard the title of this movie and said yes immediately--despite the objections of his agents--recognizing the brilliance of a title so obvious it's foolproof. “My agents have finally figured out that I’m going to do what I want ” the actor told Entertainment Weekly. “Every now and then I want to do a movie that isn’t ‘stretching my abilities.’ It’s that simple.” All we have to do to be satisfied is watch Jackson scream a few cuss words lay down the law with the freaked passengers say lines like “Well that’s good news. Snakes on crack ” and kick some serious serpent booty. There’s a bunch of unknown actors also onboard to serve mostly as snake food but a few do survive including former ER nurse Julianna Margulies who does a nice turn as the head flight attendant sparring with the snakes and getting a little cozy with Jackson. In the words of Indiana Jones “Snakes. Why does it have to be snakes?” There’s a distinct phobia in the air whenever you mention those particular reptiles so that’s why the “monster” part of SoaP is even more horrifying--and changing the rating from PG-13 to R makes a world of difference. I mean um OUCH. That’s basically what I was mumbling through the harrowing parts watching through splayed fingers. Director David R. Ellis even goes as far as to give you a snake’s perspective as it zeroes in on its next victim. Shiver. Yes the premise is ridiculous. Yes you have to sit through some silly exposition before the snakes show up and will be able to pick out the ones who’ll make it through till the end. But honestly if you love a good disaster-y thrill ride and don’t mind snakes SoaP is the last summer movie you should see.
A truck carrying hazardous materials accidentally drops one of its containers into a small lake contaminating it and its delicate ecosystem. Trouble arises when the wacky town entomologist feeds his collection of exotic spiders contaminated crickets which act as a sort of spider "steroid." The result is a horde of giant hairy spiders that prey on the town's unsuspecting inhabitants. Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) doesn't believe her son Mike (Scott Terra) when he tries to warn her about what's going on but blames his "media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare" on too much boob-tube watching. Then when mining engineer Chris McCormick's (David Arquette) aunt gets spun--literally--into one of the spider's webs he enlists the help of Sheriff Parker and paranoid radio announcer Harlan Griffin (Doug E. Doug) to fight off the eight-legged freaks. Armed only with rakes ski poles and chainsaws the townspeople fight off the spiders in a losing battle before Chris comes up with a master plan that will blow the arachnids to smithereens.
Prankster Arquette (See Spot Run) tones down his funnyman routine in Eight Legged Freaks and takes on the role of the humble hero. It's refreshing to see Arquette playing a more subdued character with less of a slapstick edge although I half expected him to start yelling at people to "dial straight down the center." As the sheriff Wuhrer (Berserker) plays her dual role well as a headstrong single mother of two and the town leader. Sure she looks a little too hot to be a chief law enforcement officer but maybe some sheriffs really do look like that in small-town America. While the laughs may not have been coming from Arquette there were enough to be had thanks to Doug whose most memorable role to date has to be Sanka Coffie from the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings. His radio announcer in this film believes the government is conspiratorial and that the spiders are the alien invasion he has been warning people about for decades. Doug delivers some of the movie's funniest lines.
New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (Larger Than Life) wrote and directed Eight Legged Freaks a sort of homage to mid-1950s B-movie sci-fi thrillers like Tarantula or Earth vs. the Spider. But while these cult films were funny merely by accident--Tarantula director Jack Arnold probably wasn't being intentionally campy--Eight Legged Freaks at times seems to try too hard. Packing in one joke after another takes away from the spiders' scariness making them seem more like a practical joke than a potentially annihilating threat. The special effects are extremely slick however and the spiders are well done with techniques approaching those in the 1997 sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers (but none of the gigantic CGI spiders are as scary as the real-life tarantulas caged up in terrariums at the start of the movie). Although at 99 minutes the film moves quickly the final scene in which the townspeople are being chased through a labyrinth of mining tunnels drags on a bit too long.