THE HUNGER GAMES


No matter what faults the movie has, and it’s not perfect by any means, it’s certainly entertaining and it does get you going emotionally (surprisingly so at times) while still being one of the uglier views of humanity I’ve seen lately. As anybody who hasn’t been on the moon for the last year knows, it takes place in a dystopian future where two teenagers, male and female, are chosen by lottery from twelve districts to participate in a televised contest to the death as punishment for a rebellion that took play more than seventy years earlier (presided over by Donald Sutherland, one of those actors who, like Michael Caine, is good in everything he does and who does just about everything he can). The heroine here, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poorest district, an Appalachian mining town, and volunteers to replace her barely eligible younger sister; her father died in a mining accident and her mother has a habit of checking out emotionally. To paraphrase Birdie Coonan from All About Eve, she has everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end. One should resent the filmmakers for pushing the underdog button so strongly here, but no, it works, possibly due to the strong performance of Jennifer Lawrence, who is now cornering the market on backwoods teenagers. The forward momentum never really flags until we get to the money shot, the battle royale that makes up most of the second half. It’s not dull and it gets the job done, but shouldn’t it have been just a bit more exciting? Not particularly well directed, it wasn’t always easy to know who was fighting who and what was at stake during various skirmishes; Lawrence spends a lot of time up a tree (both figuratively and literally) and almost always manages to survive by having someone else do her dirty work for her. But what is perhaps really missing here is what is going on outside the competition. The battle itself is pretty much a done deal; we know what’s going to happen there, it’s only a matter of how many variations on a theme the filmmakers can come up with. But it’s the citizenry’s reaction, what the television audience is thinking; it’s what is going on behind the scenes, the politics and infighting, that is really missing. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? No matter how many teenagers kill each other, the real story is the society that created such a nightmarish reality show. There are indications that there may be a ton of stuff left on the cutting room floor (to be included in the DVD release, I’m sure). Toby Jones, who has been in the Harry Potter series and played Truman Capote in the movie that didn’t star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is shown quite often with Stanley Tucci, who plays the commentator (you know, Jeff Probst); yet Jones has maybe one line the whole movie; to paraphrase Ronald Regan in Kings Row, where’s the rest of him? There was one moment when Lawrence is cradling a fellow doe-eyed contestant; from the movie audience’s point of view, one gets choked up; but, oh, how I wanted it to cut to Tucci who would say, “Yes, folks, that is really touching, that is really sweet—what do you think will happen when they have to kill each other”. I also wondered where all the commercials were; American Idol doesn’t exist just because people like it; it exists to make a profit. Certainly special credit must be given to the screenwriters Gary Ross (who also directed), Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for squeezing in an incredible amount of information and characters in such a short period of time (the whole thing might have worked better as a mini-series); they can’t do much more but sketch in things, but their damn good sketchers. The Art Direction and Production Design also deserves special recognition, though, as a friend asked me, what were all the kids doing on top of the Walt Disney Concert Hall during the climactic fight scene? In the end, the set up doesn’t give the filmmakers an exit strategy. There is no way the movie can have a happy ending, no matter who survives—the Hunger Games will continue on, a reality that the movie doesn’t capitalize on enough. For a similar type story, see Series 7: The Contenders, also about a reality show fight to the death.

BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962)


A biopic about Robert Stroud, a man who, while serving a life sentence for murder, became obsessed by birds, eventually discovering cures for several avian diseases and wrote a book on ornithology (at one point, he had 400 birds in his cell). The title, as with the movie Krakatoa: East of Java, is a bit of a misnomer; Stroud never had any birds while he was interned at Alcatraz. All that happened earlier while he served time at Leavenworth (and Krakatoa is actually west of Java). It’s an earnest film; maybe a bit too earnest—the filmmakers didn’t seem to think that Stroud’s obsession was enough to make a film about, so they kept throwing in criticism of the penal industry, a tug of war that throws the film a bit out of focus. Stroud is presented here as a man with anger management problems who loves his mother a bit too much (as opposed to James Cagney in White Heat, who is a psychopath with a mother fixation); he’s more sinned against that sinning. In real life, Stroud was a sociopath who had no qualms at killing (a couple of his fellow inmates referred to the film as a comedy, Stroud’s true character was so fictionalized). Stroud was also a genius, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. In the end, the filmmakers didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with the guy or what attitude to take—how bad can we make him without losing the audience, but still be true to the original character type thing. As a result, Stroud comes across as neither fish nor fowl. This also seemed to be too much of a straight jacket for Burt Lancaster in the title role; he got an Oscar nom for it, but Stroud never really comes to life. Telly Savalas, as his next door cell neighbor who also has a bird for a pet, gives the best performance, probably because he doesn’t have to worry about the audience liking him or not; he’d sooner kill you than look at you, but is in anguish at the thought of his pet bird dying. Thelma Ritter, one of our greatest character actors, also got an Oscar nom for playing Stroud’s mom, a role that has almost no impact (she’s certainly no Margaret Wyncherly, that’s for sure); but it’s hardly her fault, there just wasn’t much there for her to work with. Guy Trosper wrote the screenplay (he also wrote Jailhouse Rock, a different kind of penal story). John Frankenheimer replaced Charles Crichton (who made his name at the famed Ealing studios) as the director. The striking black and white photography is by Burnett Guffey (also Oscar nommed). Stroud was never allowed to see the film.

THE LAST DEADLY MISSION (aka MR 73) (2008)


Also know as MR 73, …Mission is a crime drama written and directed by one of France’s leading practitioners of the genre, Olivier Marchell, best known over here perhaps for 36th Precinct and Tell No One. It revolves around a police officer Louis Schneider who has become self-destructive ever since a traffic accident put his wife on life support and killed his child. Schneider drinks so much that in the opening scene he puts a gun to a bus driver’s head and makes him turn around because Schneider forgot to pull the cord indicating he wanted to be let off. Things go downhill for him from there. He’s taken off a serial killer case and the woman who took his wife’s place in bed for awhile has become the lover of Schneider’s chief rival (who also replaces Schneider on the serial killer investigation). Meanwhile, a psychopathic killer is being released from prison after twenty years because he has found God and is getting so old, no one thinks he’s a threat anymore, except for the little girl, now a fragile adult, who saw him viciously murder her mother. To make the plot even tidier, this was one of Schneider’s earlier cases. It all takes place is large open spaces, both interior and exterior; whoever is responsible for the locations seems to have a fetish for square feet (the police department looks like it was built in a loft). Schneider is played by Daniel Auteuil, who seems to have the perfect face to play either comedy or drama (in comedy, his visage looks doughy and cute and there’s a twinkle in his eyes; in drama it looks like it’s survived a bit too long passed its expiration date). Like Marchell’s other films, this one keeps moving. There’s ne’er a dull moment to be had and Marcehll seems to revel in how corrupt he can paint French law enforcement and politics. Schneider’s investigation into the serial killer case (like all good self-destructive cops, tiny things like alcoholism and banishment to the complaints department hardly stops him from continuing looking into things) is very clever. The direction does hit you over the head at times (it’s very much of the in your face variety) and the talk about God is a bit too on the nose not to seem forced; it feels a bit tacked on in a seeming effort to give a story meaning that probably could have stood on its own two feet just fine. But the whole thing is very entertaining in its own go for the jugular way.

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME


Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a shaggy dog story with a shaggy dog performance by Jason Segel in the title role (he’s referred to as Sasquatch at one point in the film and comes across as a hairless Chewbacca). It’s a feel good movie that gives feel good movies a good name. It’s written and directed by the Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) who are earlier practitioners of what is called “mumblecore” films (low budget indies who tend to use unknown actors who have a reputation of mumbling–since they don’t have the training not to, I suppose). The duo made their screen debut with the Puffy Chair (during which I wanted to shoot myself in order to end my agony, a reaction that’s not unusual for me when it comes to mumblecore) and ever since have been making solid strides in getting away from their origins, starting with the fun film Baghead. After that, they made a tremendous artistic leap with the romantic comedy Cyrus. I was hoping for an even bigger leap with Jeff…, but though that leap isn’t there (the movie never really tries to be any more than what it is), it’s still a charming little film that should win most people over. It has as its theme and philosophy the idea of letting destiny be your guide. Jeff (who lives at home, appropriately enough, in his mother’s basement) is told by an infomercial to pick up a phone just when said phone rings; when Jeff does, it’s a wrong number for a Kevin; subsequently while on a bus, Jeff sees a teenager with the name Kevin on his basketball shirt; Jeff follows him and thus is set off on a series of adventures that entangles him first with his estranged brother who is having a midlife crisis and thinks his wife is cheating on him (played by Ed Helms, who is doing the Edward Norton thingy of wearing a goatee so we take him more seriously that if he’s clean shaven, as in his movie Cedar Rapids) and then with his mother who feels the world is passing her by until she gets a mysterious paper airplane mash note (Jeff’s mother is played by the wonderful Susan Sarandon who has graduated from leading roles to significant supporting ones as actors these days often do once they pass a certain age, one of the unfortunate results of the studio system collapsing). The basic farce structure, in which the last person you want or expect to run into is always the person you do, grows in increasingly frenetic plot turns until it reaches the moving climax that proves Jeff’s philosophy of life is the correct one. If the movie has any sort of real flaw, and it’s probably trifling to bring it up, it’s Segel, who is perhaps just a bit too shaggy a dog and laid back in the role; one may not notice because of the strong casting around him (Helms, Sarandon and Judy Greer as the possible straying wife; if you don’t have Muppets for a supporting cast, these will more than get the job done); Segel may be a tad lethargic, but no one else is. The sweet music score is by Michael Andrews. For those of you who care, the movie also answers the burning question, whatever happened to Rae Dawn Chong, who is perhaps even lovelier now than when she was an up and comer.

NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1941)


Directed by Carol Reed, it was released two years after Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Lady Vanishes and is often called a kind of, sort of, but not really sequel. And one can see why. Like …Vanishes, it opens with hokey miniatures for sets; much of it takes place on a train; it’s an espionage thriller with Nazis as the bad guys; it has the same writers (the ever witty Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder—real British treasures); and both star Margaret Lockwood in a role in which she clashes with the person she eventually falls in love with (Michael Redgrave in …Vanishes, Rex Harrison here, though it feels a bit more forced with Harrison). But perhaps the most enjoyable comparison is the reappearance of the have to be seen to be believed Charters and Caldicott, one of the earliest embodiments of the British upper class twit mixed with hobbits; they’re the sort of Englishmen who have a hard time realizing there’s anything more important going on in the world than cricket (at least in The Lady Vanishes; in Night Train to Munich it’s a worry that they might not be able to retrieve a set of golf clubs now that Germany has invaded Poland); but have no fear, when it finally, finally dons on them what is really going on, they’re as game as any man, proving that there will always be an England. These two characters were so popular, they reappeared in many films, as well as spawned a television series; in addition, the two actors portraying them (Basil Radford, Charters; Naunton Wayne, Caldicott) would often pop up in movies together as well, like Dead of Night and Quartet. In Night Train to Munich, Lockwood is a daughter who got left behind after her father, a Czechoslovakian scientist, escaped to Britain (don’t you just hate when that happens to you). Lockwood is then smuggled out with the help of Paul Lukas, but finds out it’s all a trap and it’s up to Rex Harrison, super agent, to go to Germany and rescue her. The plot is rather ridiculous the closer it gets to the climax. Hitchcock was always able to disguise the somewhat absurd parts of his stories, but Reed here can do little about any of it except keep things going and try to have as much fun as possible. Perhaps the oddest twist is that Lockwood is sent to find Harrison in order to meet up with her father; he sings songs at a pier in order to sell sheet music and is described as someone everyone knows, he’s that much a part of the area. But why the British intelligence would bury as brilliant an espionage agent as Harrison at some out of the way pier is never really explained. It’s fun if you’re not expecting The Lady Vanishes, but then nobody expects The Lady Vanishes.

THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS


The violent, unpleasant, ugly and very impressive first film by Australian director Justin Kurzel and his co-screenwriter Shaun Grant and originally called only Snowtown (the title change seemed to come about because the action really doesn’t take place in that city, but is where the murder victims were eventually found—that and maybe it just sounded like a Christmas movie otherwise). The film seems to pose an interesting question: which would you rather have in your neighborhood—pedophiles or people who kill pedophiles. By the time the movie is over, don’t be surprised if you go for the former. It’s based on the career of John Bunting, Australia’s most famous and notorious serial killer (a dubious honor, but an honor none the less), played by Daniel Henshall in a scary and captivating performance. Teenage Jamie (played by first timer Lucas Pittaway in a role that doesn’t really require much more of him than to look around blankly) is molested along with his younger brothers by a man who lives across the street and is courting his mother. When it all comes out, into Jamie’s life comes Bunting, a roly-poly teddy bear of a man who is all warmth and eagerness to become a nurturing father figure. There is a twinkle in his eye as bright as the aurora borealis (he’s the sort of character the audience instantly knows is a sociopath, while the characters on screen are always a little slow to catch on). He woos Jamie’s mother Elizabeth (whose sucked in bony cheeks and worn beauty say everything about her socio/economic background), as well as Jamie, and then uses their house as home base for he and his friends to viciously murder people he doesn’t like (at first pedophiles, but then anyone who isn’t perfect enough-a drug addict, a spastic). And he does it in a way so clever one wonders why no one else has done it this way before: he tortures them (for those who like seeing toenails removed with pliers) until they say what he wants them to into a tape recorder, a message that can be left on an answering machine in which the victims tell their nearest and dearest that they are leaving town, not coming back and don’t come looking for them. And what helps is that most of the people he kills are ones whom no one cares about anyway and are just as glad to be rid of. It’s a dark and brooding film, set among homes and lawns filled with years of accumulated junk and trivia—everything feels cluttered, choked and messy; nothing gets thrown away, just layered on top of each other. It’s the sort of art decoration (production design Fiona Crombie, art direction Chris Jobson) that never gets awards, but is just as brilliantly done as any Merchant and Ivory period piece. The faces of the characters have the same worn look; the weather is equally drab; and no one and nothing seems to have a future. Highly recommended.

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)


The four and a half hour film directed by the great Portuguese filmmaker Raoul Ruiz and written by Carlos Saboga. The length might terrify you, but the movie is quite possibly a masterpiece. It’s basically a series of short stories gathered together under one roof by somewhat loosely putting a boy (and later young man), the illegitimate son of an heiress and who has been hidden away in a Catholic school, as the narrator and center of much of the action. All the stories revolve around people who fall in love so passionate that it takes over their lives and dictates their actions, including a jealous countess; a pirate who has worked his way into Portuguese society; a man who runs off with another man’s wife; and the heiress and her murdered lover. The results are invariably tragic, though touched by spiritual forgiveness (with the characters often ending up joining the Church as priests and nuns). The way the various encounters interact and turn up in each others stories suggest Dickens and other Victorian writers, which makes sense since the novel, by the prolific author Camilo Castelo Branco, was written in 1854. However, the non-linear structure of the movie suggests a very modern approach, something closer to Luis Bunuel or even Quentin Tarantino; in the end, it’s what is known as a puzzle movie. The story also takes its own sweet time, not rushing any of its myriad plots. Some people might find this taxing, but I was slowly enticed into this world and the director’s style of telling his story until I had to know how it all turned out. The movie is beautiful to look at. The cinematography, by Andre Szankowski, captures the drama in a never ending series of tableau like paintings. The characters all live in mansions of captivating good taste (art director, Isabel Branco; set decorator, Paula Szabo). And the lovely costumes (Tania Franco) go a long way in helping one keep the different time periods clear. Ricardo Pereira gives the performance that stands out the most as the reformed pirate with eyes so piercing he can make people faint (he lives in a newly redecorated mansion where he constantly yells at the servants for not working hard enough and who has one servant who never stops moving—the servant runs wherever he goes, and when he stops, he bobs up and down on his legs).