Saturday, September 22, 2012

Short Take: The Hunger Games (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Gary Ross’ film version of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ terrific dystopian adventure novel, is dull and unimaginative. The script, credited to Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray, sticks close to the book. In the North America of an unspecified future, the nation is divided into twelve districts and a capital city. Every year, each district must send a teenage boy and girl as tribute to the capital. The teens are to participate in the Hunger Games, a reality TV competition in which they are to hunt each other and fight to the death. The victor is the last one left alive. The story’s heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 16-year-old who volunteers to save her younger sister. She has two goals in the competition: the first is to survive and win, and the second is to do so without losing her humanity. One might think the material a natural for an exciting movie thriller. However, Ross doesn’t shape the scenes for effect, and the story lacks momentum onscreen. The competition section, which takes up most of the second half, is especially disappointing. The action gets lost in the restless camerawork and disjointed editing. That said, there probably wouldn’t have been much suspense even if the action had been clear. Ross doesn’t do much to introduce the other players in the competition, so the viewer has no idea what the heroine is up against. He isn’t telling an adventure story so much as he’s providing a series of cinematic illustrations of the novel. He did put together a good cast. Jennifer Lawrence has considerable gravitas in the lead--more than enough to get the viewer past her being physically wrong for the role. (That tall, strapping build may say action heroine, but the lumbering way she moves sure doesn’t.) Woody Harrelson is perfect as her alcoholic mentor for the games, and Donald Sutherland is so perfect as the capital’s sinister, autocratic ruler that he’s practically an archetype. The other actors, including Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and Wes Bentley, are uniformly strong. The cinematography, art direction, and costume design are solid, too. Ross seems to have had everything he needed to make an entertaining film. What’s missing was the vision and craft for pulling it off.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Short Take: The Killing Fields

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1984 film The Killing Fields, set during the 1970s Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia, has great passages. The director, Roland Joffé, working with the superb cinematographer Chris Menges, does an awe-inspiring job of depicting the chaos of the fall of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. The images of the country in the years that followed, when the Khmer Rouge turned it into a nationwide reeducation camp and killed between one-third and one-half the citizenry, go beyond the horrific into the hallucinatory. There are moments that invite comparison to Bosch and Doré. The recreation of the story’s setting is a work of visionary imagination, but the story the movie tells doesn’t begin to live up to it. The poorly developed script, credited to Bruce Robinson, focuses on the real-life friendship of New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor). The first half follows their time together covering the civil war; the second juxtaposes their experiences afterward, with Schanberg in the U. S., and Dith trapped in Cambodia. One may feel as if the first half-hour of the movie is missing. The camaraderie between Dith and Schanberg seems to come out of nowhere, and Schanberg is portrayed as such an insufferably self-righteous jerk that one can’t understand anybody dealing with him more than they had to. The film also takes an offensively patronizing view of Dith. He is clearly an equal among Schanberg and the other Western journalists, but the picture insists on treating him as their subordinate. And several of the scenes, particularly early on, have no discernible dramatic point. The script does have its moments, particularly in the tense sequence involving the efforts to fake a passport for Dith, but overall it’s shallow and not terribly well thought out. The film is a frustrating mixture of grandeur and ineptitude. The distracting, heavy-handed electronic score is by Mike Oldfield.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Short Take: Drive

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Drive is a piece of low-grade schlock that uses an A-list cast and a faux-existential tone to put on airs. Ryan Gosling plays the taciturn man-with-no-name protagonist, a mechanic and stunt man by day, and a freelance getaway driver by night. He’s cold-bloodedly violent when necessary, but he has his gentle side: he takes a shine--platonic, of course--to the young mother (Carey Mulligan) who lives next door, and he becomes something of a surrogate father to her son. He’s nothing less than chivalrous towards them; when her husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, he’s calmly accepting. And when the husband is corralled into a robbery to pay off a debt, he offers his driving services for free to get the fellow off the hook. The robbery, of course, goes horribly wrong, and the rest of the movie has the protagonist trying to square the situation while the body count rises. The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, does a sleek job with a pre-title chase sequence, but the rest of his work is largely identical to Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking schtick: shapeless, dead-air scenes of the characters standing around, which are punctuated by moments of grotesque violence. As with Eastwood’s work, the viewer is left too stupefied to recoil from the crude sensationalism. And of course this gets mistaken for an existential atmosphere and proof of the filmmaker’s artistry. (The picture won Refn the Best Director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.) The staging is so lackadaisical at times it’s almost funny, such as the scene in which Gosling’s character assaults a mobster in a strip club. The dancers just sit there as if nothing’s happening. Gosling and Mulligan, two of the best young actors working, are completely wasted in their stock roles, as are Christina Hendricks as a moll, and Bryan Cranston as the protagonist’s mentor. The only performer of interest is neurotic-comedy master Albert Brooks, who is cast against type. He plays a gangster whose steely, violent ruthlessness rivals the protagonist’s. Brooks is, by turns, a droll and chilling presence. But he is the only fresh aspect of the film. The rest is a collection of exhausted clichés, notable only for the pretentious manner in which they are presented. The screenplay, based on a novel by James Sallis, is credited to Hossein Amini.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Short Take: The Shop Around the Corner

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is considered by many to be one of the finest romantic comedies to come out of Hollywood. However, one may feel this reputation is undeserved. The story may strike one as thin, the central romantic relationship unconvincing, and the film as a whole tiresome. James Stewart stars as the senior salesperson at a small department store, and Margaret Sullavan plays the store's newest hire. They don't realize it, but they've been corresponding thanks to a lonely-hearts ad in the local newspaper. They can't stand each other face to face, but both are enamored with the person they imagine on the other side of the letters. The script, based on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László and credited to Samson Raphaelson, doesn't evoke the push-pull dynamic central to this kind of romantic comedy. One never senses the pair's conflicts reflect an attraction they're trying to deny. And the script doesn't provide enough development to the central situation in any case; it gets sidetracked into an irrelevant subplot regarding an affair the store owner's wife is having with an employee. Lubitsch's staging and camerawork are unerringly graceful, and the cast brings the material all the conviction they can muster. Stewart in particular is an assured and appealing presence. But nothing could turn the sow's ear of a script into a silk purse of a film. One eventually watches the couple wishing they'd get together just so the film could end. But as indicated above, this is a contrary view of the picture, and mileage may vary. The film's setting is ostensibly Budapest, but nearly everything about it feels American.