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The Hunger Games (2012)
If you read the book, it's pretty much more of the same in this adaptation
While Suzzane Collins' remarkably addictive, intense and (mildly) controversial "Hunger Games" seems like something that would work well on the larger-than-life big screen, the new film adaptation suffers the same flaws of pretty much every Hollywood adaptation of a massively popular literary series: it's engaging enough but never really has a life of it's own. If it was allowed to truly break free on screen, without the demands of many eager fans and blockbuster-hungry studio executives demanding faithfulness to it's source, it could've been something much darker and crazier than the rather cautious film we end up getting in. How exactly are you convinicly going to show a bunch of kids ruthlessly hunting down and killing each other with a PG-13 rating?
While Gary Ross is an able filmmaker who has shown bursts of creativity in previous works, is clearly playing by the book here. He stays very faithful to the narrative flow of the novel, with little of the major plot points out of place and only the occasional slight deviation of certain passages for the occasional dramatic effect. It ends up feeling frigid, never quite gaining momentum as it uses the plot outline of the novel more like a crutch rather than a jumping-off point. While it's certainly accessible enough for Newcomers and satisfying enough for (most) fans, it won't quite wow those who have read the book religiously or those who have no connection to it's literary source and are expecting a special cinematic experience of the film instead.
Perhaps since the screen adaptation automatically puts it's heroine, Katniss, in the third person, rather than as a narrator, the story loses a bit of it's immediacy and the character loses a bit of the emotional weight when we're just watching her story instead of living it. It's no fault of the actress embodying her, as Jennifer Lawrence brings that well-rounded steeliness that made her so captivating in her breakthrough role in Winter's Bone, a character that feels perhaps just a bit too similar to the one she's playing now. While Lawrence sounded great on paper, she seems just a bit too mature as an actress to really liven up a role that needed perhaps someone a little more unknown, younger and, pardon my diction, hungrier to feel honest. Her performance is certainly deft but rarely surprising, and she feels more like a surrogate for the audience rather than a distinct personality on her own right.
Although Katniss's character is slightly less compelling here than on book, that wouldn't matter if the actual Hunger Games we're as visceral and provocative as they would seem to be when projected on a much larger canvass, given a sense of right-in-front-of-your eyes shock that Collins' words could never quite convey. That, however, is where the superficiality of the film becomes most apparent. Gary Ross proves to be a decent storyteller but a rather hackeyned action director, mostly constantly swooshing the camera around when the shot is wide and using endless quick-cuts during the close-ups, inspiring a sense of mild vertigo rather than genuinely felt adrenaline. Both the predictable nature of the action sequences tied with the faithfulness of the script to it's source makes the whole Hunger Games feels rather predictable and illussionary as it would be on liveTV, not quite devolping the kind of eerie mood and ominous atmosphere that would've made the desperate, creul and just plain evil nature of the whole thing seem all that more horrifying.
Really, though, was it reasonable to expect that? Hollywood taking on an untested literary sleeper and trying to turn it into an even more lucrative, blockbuster is never a sign that there are major artistic risks to be made. So you pretty much get what you expect with The Hunger Games. And by all accounts it's a fairly engaging, easy-to-swallow piece of entertainment, if too slowly-paced and long for it's own good. However, it should've been more invigorating and just plain crazier, both physically and emotionally, than this rather tame and self-conscious book reading we get instead. In order for these films to work, the filmmakers have to get out of their comfort zones and let the more dangerous aspects of Collins' novel (there a few) really take center stage. It would be nice if these films we're meomorable on their own right, not just as a companion piece to it's literary source.
2 Broke Girls (2011)
Promise alone can't keep show from being a bust
Promise alone can be enough to keep one watching a certain TV show, and "2 Broke Girls" has perhaps the most promise of them all. It intends to take a truly modern look at urban living and female friendships, with hip humor and a level-headed view of what it's like to be young, poor and unloved in the big city.
Well, it's definitely a 2010's world, where one has to work multiple jobs just to afford store-brand potato chips and where the affect of white-collar crime in New York is more than evident. And where working at a diner doesn't give you a magic key to a spacious Manhattan apartment. The only problem is that while "2 Broke Girls" may have a setting that's relatively realistic and keeping on par with the times, the major problem with "Girls" lies in the actual substance of the show.
Well, at least it has a great opening roast from star Kat Dennings, who plays the sarcastic and overworked waitress Max, but from then on it's pretty much all downhill, as the show seems compelled to make a wisecrack every 20 seconds and almost all of them seem so forced and overcooked that they serve more as a detrimental distraction to the show rather than as an attribute. And that's a problem, because the many failed attempts at sharp one-liners pretty much make-up the show, rather than being served as a side dish. Perhaps blame the tired laugh-track formant(which seems to be in Zombie mode these days), as the show never has an opportunity to work on or expand any of it's verbal or, occasionally, physical humor. This show would have you think otherwise, but the traditional sitcom is a dead art form.
So this show essentially seems trapped by it's genre limitations, and the too-broad way it paints it's main characters, especially the non-Americans, don't exactly make them particularly interesting, although there's enough quirks in Denning's Maxine to make her interesting enough whenever she's not reciting some lame put-down. I gave it a chance, just because I really wanted to see it succeed. Even if has that occasionally great zinger, for the most part "2 Broke Girls" is at it's best so-so and and it's worth entirely cringe-worthy, and rather banal in it's attempts to shock and provoke.
A familiar TV universe viewed from a slightly off-kilter angle
The well-off American suburbs have been the settings for countless American sitcoms, and it indeed seems highly unlikely that anything new can be gleaned from another show about uptight, over-concerned parents and their bored, over-privileged and frustrated offspring. "Suburgatory" however, manages to look at a well-worn setting and familiar situations with a modestly surprising and slightly warped view of suburban life.
While it has that hip quirkiness and cool, detached irony that's prevalent in many sitcoms these days, there's also a darker and even slightly somber edge to it's point-of-view that makes it, at least most of the time, stand out from it's many peers. Instead of starting out in gilded suburban hell, it starts out in downtown Manhattan, where George Altman (an unusually gentle Jeremy Sisto) "accidently" comes across a box of condoms in his daughter Tessa(Jane Levy, with a wide-eyed deadpan style that recalls a more demure Emma Stone)'s room, for which he decides that the city isn't the proper enviorment for her and moves her to the considerably less stimulating suburb of Chatswin. Tessa is understandably not thrilled by the idea.
So this time around, Suburban life is viewed from the mind of an outsider, instead of a lifelong setting for a bored and impetuous teen, where it's not part of her identity and it's pointedly mundane lifestyle looks plenty weird and just a bit formidable to her instead.
In turn this show is not so much a slice-of-life but instead a bit larger-than-life, where an Alice figure is entering a certain Wonderland that isn't particularly thrilling but where everything seems more than a bit off-kilter compared to what she's been used to, especially the overly-conformist citizens and where every possible chink in the town's armor just seems to be non-existent to all the status-obsessed adults who influence Chatswin just a bit too much.
While the show has had some early growing pains, it has way more potential, even though it's not certain it will ever get the chance to grow and improve. It's got an unusually level-headed and warm view of a modern single-father/daughter relationship, even if Jeremy Sisto does sometimes seem more like a big brother to Jane Levy than her parent. And yes, often the dialog that is spoken doesn't seem like something any real person would utter in normal settings, but "Suburgatory" isn't going for naturalism. It's going for satire, a black comedy that attempts to make all the banal situations we've come to expect in suburban-set shows seem all the more funny and just plain weird when it's viewed by somebody who's not used to them. Is it Condescending? A bit, but it remains unsparing when showing it's outsider hero and heroine's personal shortcomings as well.
Time will tell if this is given another shot, but at this point is has perhaps the greatest potential of any network show on the air.
Not a travesty, it's just a predictably pointless remake
I don't know any new pilot that wanted to be in the same situation as the new American version of the British "Skins". There was the usual prediction that the American producers would muck-up and sanitize the rather daring original series and release nothing more than a pale echo. The most hard-core fans we're expecting a complete travesty. So expectations we're very, very low for this "Skins", so it had to be better than you'd expect, right? Well, it's true. "American Skins" is not terrible, per se. It's just dull. Perhaps after the success of the American "Office", there was a feeling that many more British serials we're ripe for a Yankee makeover(rehash), but apparently we needed concrete proof that "Skins" was not one of them. Ironically the original "Skins" was in itself an answer to the over-glamorized and increasingly hackneyed American Teen Soap genre, so the fact that it was snapped up and regurgitated for stateside TV only seemed to prove the original's point even more.
If you only watched the first couple of episodes, you may have thought they we're simply attempting a shot-for-shot remake with flatter accents. It didn't help that the characters of "Skins-US" we're written as almost identical twins of the original, with a few modest tweaks. That just made it difficult for the writers to find completely new paths for it's characters, and the actors ultimately were automatically being compared to their UK counterparts instead of coming into their own and making their characters distinctive and appealing on their own right. It's a fundamental flaw that no matter what bogged down this series, no matter how much it tried to branch out. Had they started from scratch or at least cleverly recycled, it would've been riskier but ultimately much more interesting than this rather awkward tracing we end up getting instead.
Perhaps the original "Skins" just got lucky. Comprising of a core cast of mostly non-professional and age-appropriate first-timers, they grew up along with the show itself and any original awkwardness was forgiven easily as we ended up falling for each of them as real, 3-dimensional human beings who stood out from the usual ultra-polished, way-too-perfect modern-teen prototype seen throughout today's TV. "Skins-US" is also comprised of mostly novice actors still in their teens, but they couldn't really show signs of their own organic growth since they we're too tied to the characters who came before them. They don't feel like real people but rather a group of slightly modified clones.
Perhaps more out of curiosity than duty, I did watch all the episodes of the first season. While early episodes we're indeed replicas of the original, they did eventually move on to (at least on the surface) new plot lines or at least mended and reshaped versions of the originals . The differences, however, we're really only in the details. And indeed, while it did promise that same kind of gutsy style and non-judgmental point-of-view of the original, it instead felt more like watching a flat-footed Frankenstein monster, or more specifically a muddled lecture on Lifestyles of the Contemporary Teen. And perhaps the main reason it hasn't inspired the same kind of rabid cult following of the original is that it just isn't any fun to watch. It's just rolled-up oregano when we're expecting the real thing.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Condescending, useless adaptation of Stephen King novel
It sounded like a great idea on paper. Stephen King adapting his own novel on screen? Since most of the film adaptations of his novels have been criticized for deviating from the source, it would seem like he would be the perfect one to get his own vast, peculiar imagination displayed best on screen. True, "Pet Semetary" is probably one of the more faithful movies based on a King novel, following the narrative flow much more closely than other adaptations have. Unfortunately, something sounding great on the page doesn't mean it looks good on the screen. And "Pet Semetary", for all it's fidelity to the Pet Semetary book, is a truly Awful movie.
Indeed, after reading "Pet Semetary", many of its ideas certainly we're great to toy around with inside the head. The book certainly highlighted a fascinating, universal idea (the ability to control death) and managed to make it truly terrifying, knowing the reader's own imagination would be the greatest catalyst for the book's greatest shocks, with King managing to effectively convey his musings on morality while allowing the reader to do their own coloring of much of the film's narrative action.
That in turns makes the whole movie seem pointless and, in the details, rather silly on the big screen, where all the imagining is already done for us. In fact, this adaptation is just downright ludicrous. Some of King's more mercurial creations (the ghost of a dead student the film's doctor protagonist couldn't save, a skeletal-looking mentally ill sister of the doctor's wife, and don't forget a demonic toddler!) just look ridiculous on the big screen. Indeed we're not sure if the director is meaning to be Ironic, but as on-screen bogeymen there just goofy and absurd, and not in a good way. This film shows far too much, becoming far too explicit and ends up just being extremely condescending to the audience, for whom nothing but silent or uttered laughter seems to be the only appropriate response. And while King certainly knows how to write a novel, writing a screenplay is a different monster, and there are some awkward scene transitions and lapses in thematic explanations that make certain plot points that we're clear on page seem rather preposterous on screen.
All in all, stick with the book. As condescending at that sounds, the silly film you're about to watch is going to do nothing but simply snigger at you while you do nothing but snigger back.
The Loved Ones (2009)
She squeezed me tight, nearly broke my spine...
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, "The Loved Ones" has deservedly galvanized the festival circuit the past couple years. A grotesque franken-monster of a horror film that's also a faux-emo near masterpiece, the incendiary "Ones" proves that the sty-lings of John Hughes and Wes Craven are actually natural bedfellows. While also borrowing heavily from "Carrie", "Misery" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (not to mention's Freud's Oedipus complex), "The Loved Ones" manages for at least most of it's brief running time to be a gleefully demented, impishly grisly and often very funny head rush of a movie (in the blackest possible sense of the word).
Brent (Xavier Samuel) lost his dad to a car crash when a mysterious figure in the road caused him to swerve into a tree. Now several years later, he's still not OK. He just gets by and waits for high school to end. When graduation approaches, he is accosted by the school mouse Lola (Robin McLeavy, in a brilliant, bloodthirsty performance that flips the usually meek Hughes' heroines upside down) and asked to attend the graduation dance. He politely says he's already going with his girlfriend. Wrong answer.
And that's about all I want to give away here, because all the fun lies in the details. With some goofy dialog and some extremely fetishistic yet remarkably creative violence, "The Loved Ones" is an easy film to write off as a guilty pleasure, or just another splatter-fest. However I don't know any other recent film of it's brethren that has been this delightfully coarse and knowingly perverse. Or with such a keen flair for black comedy, something that's almost always missing from the rather humorless torture porn genre.
Essentialy, "The Loved Ones" is a film about the pains of adolescence and your first broken heart. Outwardly, it's about how sooner or later we all turn into human monsters. Every essential character sooner will either kill or have pain inflicted ruthlessly upon themselves, and ultimately it all comes down to personal survival, or exacting revenge.
While there's potential for a cult classic here, what puts this film just a few notes shy of perfection is it's uneven script and a counter-narrative involving Johnny's friend, which intends to be a reprieve from the house of horrors but just feels gratuitous. It would be much stronger if it just focused on it's central predicament, squeezing out every bit of pshyco-sexual tension possible. "The Loved Ones" could've very well just burst the audience like a bubble at the end, but instead it ends up having to spend up too much picking up the story pieces and fitting them back together before it's hurried climax.
So it's not flawless, but "The Loved Ones" stills stand out from it's crowded ilk by proving you can actually have fun exploring some truly sick human minds.
American and European styles make an awkward but interesting mix
Trying to bring the Italian giallo genre into the then-popular American slasher genre, Nightmare is a half-clever attempt. Those two extremes don't seem like a good fit, with the typical slash-and-hack, one-by-one structure of the slasher genre mixing a bit awkwardly with the more flamboyant, open-ended and director-focused giallo film movement. "Nightmare" isn't particularly coherent and can feel a bit half-hearted at times, but it has enough startling moments and a truly twisted (and brutal) view of sexuality to at least be interesting beyond it's initial viewing.
Often considered a Grindhouse staple, it shares the qualities of many other films of that "genre": lousy dubbing, horrid acting, completely conspicious continuity blunders, a soundtrack and film print that makes the viewer feel like their head is being held under muddy water. It's also unusually bleak and morally ambiguous for an American film, a telling sign that this was directed by an European. There's also a sense of the American-slasher puritanism, as noticed by the Killer's view of promiscious adults around him, but it's not quite as black-and-white as many of the like-minded films at the time. Largely because we're asked to look at the film's largely unseen killer with a more subjective eye.
"Nightmare" may be poorly made, although a few cat-and-mouse sequences are well-staged and engaging enough, but it's far from useless. It's cross between American DIY ethos and lavish, fetishitistic European flavoring is uneven and sloppy but always weird and alluring enough to keep you watching. The film's modest cult following is understandable.
Like Crazy (2011)
As the movie's title suggest, I truly wanted to fall in crazy love with "Like Crazy". By the end, I instead just gave it a pat on the shoulder and became more interested in what the stars and director would be doing after the movie than in the film that just screened. In a movie about the complications that ensue when an American guy named Jacob and a British girl named Anna meet in college, fall in love and then eventually are separated when the latter is denied entry back into the US after overstaying her visa, it's never as compelling as it very well should have been.
"Like Crazy", a big hit at the Sundance film festival, is well-made and has some scenes of heartbreaking immediacy that give it considerable promise. Unfortunately it only shines through it's individual moments, but as a whole it lacks a certain emotional center as the main romantic pairing, played by Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, is just not convincing.
Not for lack of trying. Director Drake Doremus has certainly made a lovely film out of a very small budget, and again proves (after his first film Douchebag) that he has a way of coaxing some nuanced performances out of familiar character archetypes. It's refreshing to see a movie where people don't always know the perfect thing to say and end up saying what they actually feel, or feeling unable to say anything at all. And his understated mis-en-scene and on-the-cheap cinematography is quite impressive, bringing a very cinematic atmosphere to "Like Crazy" despite the film's modest means.
For the central pairing, Jones (a distinctly lovely actress with a remarkably subtle face and physical acting style) in particular brings a fascinating duality to her character of Anna: she can feel both warm and reserved, naive but very intelligent and observant. Jones slowly melds what could initially seem like a contradiction into a very real, imperfect human character that you can't quite understand but you can feel remarkably close to, and it's easy to see how someone could be very drawn to her. Anton Yelchin, as Jacob, has the much harder task: his Jacob has an almost too-passive interest in this love affair, but while the character on the page might be too much of a cipher, Yelchin has a clever acting style that suggests there's more to Jacob than meets the eye.
And there's no questioning that "Like Crazy" is a consistiently engaging and intriguing experience. There's just a big problem when the central romance in an in-and-out-of-love story is the weakest part of film. Their relationship ultimately feels completely tied to plot, with no real sense that it would exist off camera. We become interested in Jacob and Anna individually, but never as a couple.
Jacob seems rather unwilling to uproot his life to be with her, or even borrow money from her parents so he can stay the post-graduation summer in England, and it is a bit baffling to wonder how someone as smart (or supposedly smart) as Anna would be willing to overlook his slowly growing indifference and find out far too late that their romance is dying.
There's a bit of suspense later on, as both Jacob and Anna get romantically tempted by someone close to them (by Jennifer Lawerence and Charlie Bewley, respectively), but that plot devolpment ultimately feels as superficial and mechanical as the movie's main immigration predicament. It's more an affirtmation of Lawrence's considerable talents as an actress that she takes a role as contrived as this and ends up making the audience truly feel her heartbreak. Though it's a big problem when we're more torn up over the affair rather than the movie's main romance.
It's not that there isn't a sense of real care and affection between Jacob and Anna, but the movie just doesn't take enough time to let us figure out exactly what exists between the two. It seems like while Anna may be in crazy stupid love, Jacob seems to see it as a passionate summer fling but nothing to change his life for. You end up wishing they would just move on and live their lives rather than root for them to make it through their immigration-complicated struggle, as the feelings just do not seem to be reciprocated. The disintegration of their relationship feels more expected and, frankly, welcome than it is heartbreaking.
Perhaps what's hindering the central romance is that the movie is far too hurried and uneven that it doesn't really have time to show a substantive, organic growth of Anna and Jacob's relationship. The early scenes of Jacob and Anna's romance are far too brief (with an excessive fondness of montages and quick scene cuts) and far too much screen time is spent after Anna's banned from the US that "Crazy" never really has time to breathe. There's never any time to truly reveal what would make these two would-be romantics not only connect but fall passionately in love with each other. Surely it's more than a mutual love for Paul Simon's "Graceland" or rides in go-karts (yep, that's in the movie too).
Perhaps it's a compliment to say that the film should've been a bit longer, but it also means we're left needing more. The movie does have a potentially terrific ending, but too bad the charming but uncogent scenes before make it an afterthought rather than something more potent and emotional. That makes the whole experience just all the more tantalizing and disappointing. We haven't fallen in love with "Like Crazy", we're just enamored with what could've been.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Starts out Tarantino, finishes full on Rodriguez
In "Grindhouse", both Tarantino and Rodriguez directed a different homage film that combined to make one movie. In "From Dusk Till Dawn", Rodriguez gets full directing credit, but "Dusk" does not feel like a single film. The first half has an unmistakable Tarantino vibe (he wrote the screenplay and co-stars with George Clooney and Harvey Keitel), despite a few goofy mis-en-scenes. A sly but ever-so-meticulously crafted tip of the hat to both classic noir and bandits-on-the-run movies of the distant past, it plays like one of his pulpy hybrids that plays by classical rules but has it's on conspicuously 90's sense of wit and subversive film-making style. The second part, which seems to blast out of nowhere during a stop into a sleazy, lushly decadent Mexico bar, is undeniably Rodriguez. A sort of Hong-Kong style crazy-making thriller mixed with florid monster movie effects and grind-house gore, it's relentlessly excited (rather than exciting) and very juvenile. "From Dusk Till Dawn" isn't so much uneven as it just feels like they're trying to make two completely different movies and don't seem to care that one doesn't feel finished and the other is never even introduced, just lunging at you and trying to bite you in the throat (it doesn't succeed). It starts out engaging and then just bleeds your senses. "Dusk till Dawn" has gotten something of a modest cult following since it's release, but I don't know how anybody would want to sit through the whole thing again.
Slightly better, no more memorable
Coming in with slightly less hype if no smaller set of expectations, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets", the second book in Rowling's series now being adapted to screen, is truly a sequel to the first film: almost identical in shape and style, though a few darker shades have been welcomely added.
The movie stills follows the book extremely faithfully: Harry is back for his second year at Hogwarts, though instead of finding a sorcerer's stone he and his pals Ron and Hermoine have to discover a far more sinister secret: the school's storied Chamber of Secrets, which may be the key to explaining why so many students have been petrified (and since they we're all muggle-born, there's a distinct Slythern connection). With a couple small exceptions, nearly every scene in the book is in the movie, so no need to worry about your favorites not being here, but that in turn makes for an overlong, often sluggish movie. Even in it's strict adherence to it's source, Chris Colombus and Steve Kloves don't seem able to convey the appeal of the books on the screen; the often swift pacing and quick-witted attention to detail that make Rowling's books such a delight are instead turned into a bit of a lumpy, routine cinematic journey, more like they're trying to outline each of the book's major plot points rather than translating their appeal to the much tighter confines of a film. It's more like a power-point presentation than a real movie
That being said, this second go-around is a modest improvement over the original, even with most of the same flaws. If Colombus and co. haven't quite been able to convey a sense of cinematic dread and foreboding, they at least make this installment a bit darker and more colorful than the original. Scenes involving a gang of angry spiders and a wild, uncompromising giant willow are nicely creepy and even have a sense of dark whimsy. Quidditch feels less like Nintendo pinball and more like a real-yet-otherworldly death match, thanks to much improved, more nimble special effects.
And nearly all the cast returns, which is more than welcome. Although there's unfortunately less of Alan Rickman's Snape and Emma Watson's Hermonine, the original's primary scene-stealer's, there are some welcome new additions. Kenneth Branagh gives one of his broadest, loosest performances ever as the fatuous rock-star new professor Gilderoy Lockheart, who can't even seem to wave his wand correctly, and Jason Isaacs gives a memorable sneer to his brief role as the debonair, possibly evil Luscious Malfoy, father of Harry's nemesis Draco. While the larger role Daniel Radcliffe takes on as Harry in this installment does show him under a bit of strain (especially since until now he could get along entirely on wide-eyed reaction shots), he does everything necessary to carry the movie, if not memorably. And there's perhaps an unintentional but welcome sense of Pathos to Richard Harris in his final screen performance as Dumbledore, especially with his characters frequent musings on mortality and death.
And unfortunately this film, although a bit better, is no more memorable than it's predecessor. It feels too undistinguished from many other big-budget Hollywood kids movie, especially with Colombus's penchant for cloying shots of constantly smiling children and an all-too-arch score. It's certainly welcome that he passes the reins for the next installment (to "Y tu Mama Tambien" director Alfonsou Cauron!), for which hopefully we'll see a more inspired makeover. For now, this will suffice (and it's creators will surely be well-compensated), but not for much longer.