Capsule Thoughts: The Hunger Games, Matha Marcy May Marlene, Underworld Awakening, Wrath of the Titans, We Bought a Zoo
The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Wes Bentley, Woodey Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Anadla Stenberg
I didn't like it. As directed by Gary Ross, The Hunger Games movie is bland and curiously unmoving. Based on a young adult novel by Suzanne Collins (which I did like), the movie follows the exploits of teenager Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who's been drafted into an annual fight to the death competition against twenty three other teenagers from different districts across the country. The screenplay, by Ross, Billy Ray, and even Collins herself, stays as true to the book as one could possibly hope, but the narrative unfolds with all the grace and passion of someone blandly reading off a check list: the scenes are there, but they feel so stagnant and rushed through that it's almost impossible for one to stay involved with the proceedings. Ross doesn't help matters any by giving the film a curiously inept visual polish, relying heavily on shaky camera work to a sometimes numbing degree (this is especially true of the film's opening half hour) and CGI effects that are sporadically eye-catching but are for the most part underwhelming (ie our first shot of the Capitol is kind of a disappointment). Even the games themselves are sadly unexciting, as most of the set-pieces are rushed through and marred by the incompetent cinematography. The acting is actually really good. Lawrence is well-cast as the leading heroine, and Josh Hutcherson makes for a very likable Peeta (the scene where he tells Katniss how he wishes there was a way for him to show the Capitol that they don't own him is easily the best scene in the film). I especially like Amandla Stenberg as the youngest fighter (or tribute) Rue; she has such a sweet and charming presence that it's kind of a shame the movie doesn't give her more screen time. I wanted to like this movie, I really did. But like Katniss when she tries to show off her archery skills to the game makers, this first shot at adapting Collins' trilogy to the big screen misses the target by a landslide. Here's hoping the next film will hit a bullseye.
Final Grade: ** (out of ****)
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Watts, Christopher Abbot
A few weeks ago, I praised Elizabeth Olsen for her performance in the horror drama Silent House, noting that she was “the constant beacon of light even when the film goes wrong.” It was a stunning performance in what was otherwise a ho-hum film, but as great as her acting was there, it did not even begin to prepare me for her work in the haunting and often times creepy character drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. She plays the title character, a seriously disturbed young woman who moves in with her married sister (Sarah Paulson's Lucy; Hugh Dancy as her husband Ted) after escaping the Manson like cult she spent the last two years living with. Debut writer-director Sean Durkin does a superb job of developing Martha's bizarre and almost child-like behavior (ie she doesn't see what's so wrong about crawling into bed with her sister while she and her husband are having sex) by intercutting the events in the present day with the traumatic events from Martha's past (the most disturbing scene in the film shows a drugged out Martha waking up while the cult leader is in the middle of raping her). The story unfolds in an admittedly deliberate pace that takes some time to get used to, but even when the movie lags, there is always Olsen to carry us through, all the way to the film's unnerving closing scene. It is simultaneously stunning and heartbreaking watching Olsen become this damaged woman. She creates one of the most tragic characters of recent memory, and you won't be able to take your eyes off her for a second.
Final Grade: *** 1/2 (out of ****)
Director(s): Måns Mårlind and Björn Leonard Stein
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, India Eisley, Stephen Rea, Michael Ealy, Theo James, Sandrine Holt, Charles Dance
The less said about this debacle, the better. In Underworld: Awakening, humans are finally made aware of the existence of vampires and lycans (what, that subway shootout in the original didn't tip them off?) and have declared war against them. After Selene (Kate Beckinsale, just as bland here as she was in the previous films) is freed from her imprisonment from within a block of ice, she springs into action and makes it her mission to protect a mysterious young girl (India Eisley) she seems to share a psychic connection with. It's amazing, really, how quickly Selene springs into action after having been frozen for 12 years, or how she's able to bring a character back from the dead by slicing open his stomach and...oh, never mind. The movie is virtually a dead zone from scene one, an ugly, cynical noise machine that exists simply to rob as many unsuspecting film goers of their hard earned money as possible. The action scenes are boring, the tone of the film is oppressively dreary, the acting is terrible, and the plot twists in the final third can be seen from roughly the twenty minute mark. There is just nothing about Underworld: Evolution that works. This is a total botch on all accounts.
Final Grade: no stars (out of ****)
Wrath of the Titans
Director: Jonathan Liebsman
Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Rosamund Pike, Ralph Fiennes, Edgar Ramírez, Toby Kebbell, John Bell, Danny Huston
The end credits to Wrath of the Titans note that a total of three people were responsible for thinking up the story, a fact I find difficult to believe considering there is even less story here than there was in the already shallow 2010 predecessor (which was a remake of a 1981 movie of the same name). Picking up a dozen years after the end of the original film, Wrath of the Titans finds the now widowed Perseus (Sam Worthington) living peacefully as a fisherman with his son Helios (John Bell). He's called back into action when his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) comes to him for help. Because people have stopped praying to the gods, the gods are now starting to lose their power, which means the Titans the gods have kept imprisoned for so long in Tartarus, including Zues' lava creature of a father Kronos, can be released and wreck havoc on mankind. After first, Perseus declines to help, but he soon suits up for battle after a two headed monster attacks his village and he learns from Poseidon (Danny Huston) that Zeus has become imprisoned in Tartarus by his evil brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes). Director Jonathan Liebsman imbues the film with a disasterously incompetent visual strategy that completely robs the proceedings off all excitement. He films many of the action scenes with a head-ache inducing shaky camera (the sole exception being the attack on Perseus' village, which was entertaining until it climaxes on an incomprehensible note) and paces the movie at such an astonishingly lightning pace that it's almost impossible to develop any interest in the proceedings. Worthington doesn't help matters any by turning in such a lifeless performance that it becomes downright impossible to root for him. The movie comes to a complete halt during a scene set inside a labyrinth, which could have been exciting had something more interesting happened there (And had the movie explained how our heroes managed to get out. Seriously, does anyone know how they managed to get out?) To be fair, some of the special-effects are first rate (Kronos himself is wondrous to behold) and the movie profits from a colorful supporting performance by Bill Nighy as Hephaestus. But none of that is enough to make Wrath of the Titans anything other than what it is: A dreary and boring action spectacle.
Final Grade: ** (out of ****)
We Bought a Zoo
Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johanssen, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, John Michael Higgins, Thomas Haden Church, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit, Carla Gallo
I feel bad for hating this movie. I really do. But once the end credits started to roll for We Bought a Zoo, I questioned how a movie that's meant to make you feel so good left me feeling so angry and depressed. Am I really that much of a grinch? We Bought a Zoo tells the true story of journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon, whose performance is the only watchable thing about the movie), who quits his job at the paper because his boss is showing him too much sympathy over his wife's passing (and he hates that) and buys a zoo out in the country to try and start over. From there, it follows an agonizingly predictable formula: We know that Mee's son Dylan (Colin Ford) is going to whine about moving to a new location away from his friends; that Mee will fall in love with the bodacious zoo keeper Kelly (that fact that Kelly is played by Scarlett Johanssen is a big give away); that Dylan will fall for the only girl near his age who works at the zoo (Lily Miska, played by the criminally wasted Elle Fanning); that Benjamin and Dylan will get into a big argument late in the movie and will reconcile their differences soon after, and so on. The entire thing feels fake and contrived, and it doesn't help that some of the characters come across as cartoonish caricatures (this is especially true of John Michael Higgins' snooty state inspector Walter Higgins, who brings the movie to a dead halt every time he's on screen). Director Cameron Crowe directs the proceedings with an anvil heavy hand, and paces the movie in such a lugubrious and turgid manner that when it finally reaches its "feel good" conclusion (and lingers there for what seems like an eternity), I was ready to scream at the screen “Enough already!!!” But maybe I'm not meant for this movie. Maybe I've become too much of a jerk to appreciate a sweet and inspiring story like this one. There is an audience for We Bought a Zoo, and if you end up liking this film, dear reader, then God bless you: You did what I wanted desperately to do, but couldn't.
Final Grade: * (out of ****)