FROM RUSSIA AND ITALY WITHOUT LOVE: COLD COMES THE NIGHT and THE BEST OFFER


cold-comes-the-night-cranston-eve-610x343Cold Comes the Night is a movie genre that is often described as: it does absolutely nothing, but does it very well—except that in this case, it only does it fairly well.  As usual for this sort of movie, it’s a thriller and revolves around a woman who runs a sleazy motel that a local police officer uses for his pimp trade.   She has a daughter who social services is threatening to take away (which is hard to argue with), so when a mob bagman who is going blind comes through and his driver is killed by a prostitute he attacks, the mother sees a way out of her circumstances. Continue reading

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE



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The most tension filled moments, the ones crammed with the most conflict, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to, need we say it, but I guess, of course, we must, The Hunger Games pére, are not the violent back and forths in the reality TV series at the center of the story.  It’s actually watching accomplished and well respected actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lenni Kravitz (even Josh Hutcherson) trying desperately to find a personality for their characters.  
The winner of these particular games?  Donald Sutherland, perhaps our most underrated actor today, an old pro who has been with us since his first role as a switchboard operator in a TV drama on the omnibus series Studio 4 in 1962 and has since graced us with strong performances in such movies as MASH, Klute, 1990, Fellini’s Casanova, Ordinary People (I could go on and on).  While all the others are frantically floundering (and very dispiritingly from an audience point of view, as far as I’m concerned) in the competition here, Sutherland inhabits the role of the despot President Snow with all the ease and casualness of putting on a morning coat and going outside for his daily constitutional.  You almost feel sorry for all the others; once Sutherland enters the scene, none of his opponents really stand a chance.
Of course, Jennifer Lawrence does come in for a strong second.  She’s as committed to the role as she was in the first in the series and she plays the role of Katniss Everdeen as if her life depended upon it as much as her character’s does in the games themselves.  And there’s something satisfying about seeing a representative of the older and the younger generations meeting on the field of battle, striving valiantly against each other.
But the pitiful plight of Hoffman, et al., may not be entirely their faults.  The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt doesn’t really provide the actors much to work with and the direction by Francis Lawrence seems more devoted to making sure the freeways don’t get backed up and the traffic keeps moving.  Perhaps the real tragedy in this movie is not what happens to the inhabitants of Katniss’s District 12 (and it sure ain’t pretty, that’s for sure), but that writers like Beaufoy and Arndt, both of whom showed solid talent for penning above average middle-brow movies (The Fully Monty, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), may now be stuck writing below average tent pole blockbusters like this.  Once the games are over, will they be able to return to their roots, or will the President Snows of the studios trap them forever?  Only a sequel will tell.
The movie as a whole works a little less well than the earlier one.  Again, it all feels more outline than fully realized drama.  And gone is the bloom on the rose; there’s not really enough new here to warrant much excitement and the story drags too much of the time.  One reason for this is that the screenplay makes the same mistake as the earlier one; everyone involved seems to think that it’s what happens in the games themselves, who kills whom in what grotesque and savage way, that is the most interesting part of the conflict when, in reality, it’s the manipulation behind the scenes, the way the people watching the show can control events, the ratings, the efforts of Harrelson’s Haymitch and other mentors to try to win support for their favorites and determine the outcome, etc., that is the real source of suspense.  But alas, almost all of this happens off screen.  
And the authors have been trapped so to speak by the character of Katniss and what they need to do with her.  President Snow, along with Plutarch, the designer of the games (the aforementioned floundering Hoffman), need to turn her into a lean, mean fighting machine, someone so merciless in killing, the viewers watching the show will turn against this bastion of the newly fermenting rebellion.  But the only way to do that is to keep Katniss out of the action, make her incapable of killing someone because there’s no one around her to kill.  So in order to give her something to do, they throw arbitrary, non-human antagonists at her (a poisonous gas here, a few baboons there, a tidal wave or two for good measure, etc.).  The forward momentum really stops here as everything is on the same level of tension and the plot just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  And all anyone in the audience is really interested in at this point is the outcome.
And not just the outcome.  Everyone is also waiting, and more so, for the big twist.  Or to be more accurate, to find out if they are right about the big twist, which is not that much of a surprise since the whole thing is given away when Plutarch gives Snow some advice that is so ludicrously bad and Snow, completely out of character, actually goes for it.  The screenplay tries to finesse this by having the advice, like all the other interesting stuff, given off screen.  But if one wanted the rebellion to grow, Snow did the one thing that would insure it (take two former winners of the games from each district, people who have been promised they will never have to enter the games again, two people who are heroes and icons of their districts, people who everyone looks up to and worships, and kill them in front of everybody—it’s genius, I tells you,  genius; what could possibly go wrong with this scenario). 
I’m not sure that The Hunger Games ever made a lot of sense in the first place (and one could argue whether it’s really important that it needs to).   Where it is strongest is in its metaphors, the modern day referencing of current problems, especially the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and our Greek and Romanesque obsession with reality shows.   And when it does introduce something new, the rebellion itself with people willing to sacrifice themselves and bravely stand up to authority by holding up their three fingers as a symbol of the mockingjay, the movie is at its most emotional, even causing a fleeting catch in the throat and a near tear to fall at times. 
And the technical aspects are impressive and often steal the whole mess of a movie.   The production design (Philip Messina), art direction (John Collins, Adam Davis, Robert Fechtman) and set direction (Larry Dias) is everything one could hope for and often says more than the screenplay and characters do about their situation.  But I’m not sure anything can beat the wonderful costumes of Trish Summerville, with men’s designs influenced by Edwardian England and the women’s by Lady Gaga. 
In the end, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is probably a bit too critic proof at the moment.  Telling kids not to like it is like telling kids to not get a tattoo or not like Twilight (shudder); it just ain’t gonna happen.  Whether I think the movie works or not, or whether I even think it’s any good or not, seems pretty irrelevant in the great scheme of things.  And if I was honest, even after all the sub-standard comic book sturm and drang on the screen, I still want to know what’s going to happen in the third and fourth installment as they go Harry Potter on the final entry and split the final confrontation into two movies.    

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.