(On Cable TV, November 2018) I’m not that impressed with Red Sparrow, but it did make me realize that I miss those espionage thrillers that used to be far more prevalent. If recent geopolitical events have taught us something, it’s a fresh reminder that spying is still a thriving business, even between the USA and Russia—and I miss the tone, the excitement, the style of those movies. Red Sparrow is a watered-down substitute for what I’m looking for, although it does have its good moments. Much of the central conceit of the film feels out-of-place in a mainstream Hollywood movie: the idea of agents trained to do anything (well past the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” definition of anything) to get targets to talk. In order to make this premise credible, the film relies on Jennifer Lawrence’s sex appeal which is a … specific choice. (Tastes vary, and so Russia if you’re listening please don’t bother with a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike in my case. OK, thanks.) Poor Lawrence gets mistreated in all kinds of ways here, as the universe of the film demands us to believe in Machiavellian Russian operatives willing to do anything to bring western civilization down, and that includes roughing up poor Jennifer – this is not a film made for titillation. Not that Red Sparrow is a bore—as the machinations of all characters develop and crash into each other, we get down to a cold icy runaway prisoner exchange scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cold-War-era spy thriller, and that’s what I wanted out of Red Sparrow more than the sexual torture, extended chemistry-free romance between Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, or training minutiae that could have been handled in flashback. I could have used less violence and meanness in the overall result, as a similar and just as interesting espionage thriller could have been possible without the gratuitous exploitation. Alas, you get the films you get, not those you wished for. Frankly, I’d rather watch Atomic Blonde again.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) Whew—In today’s bland unchallenging environment for movies aimed at the multiplex, it’s almost refreshing do see a film designed to divide audiences. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! may be a lot of things (and I suspect that it may not even understand what it is, and may offer deliberate wild goose chases) but it’s certainly not made to be safe, likable or bland. Conceived on a deliberately metaphoric register, it does not take refuge in mimetic realism or conventional plotting: it’s metaphors piled upon metaphors, with Christian symbolism blended with horror-movie visuals, audience-alienating images and a steadfast refusal to offer anything like explanation or comfort. It’s very pretentious and charmingly daring at once, challenging audiences to dislike it. The film has more emotional than narrative meaning, and that can lead to some profoundly self-contradictory feelings about the film in the same reviewer. Reading about Mother!, I was convinced that I would hate it: I don’t react well to non-narrative films, I’m far too quick to label experimental work as pretentious, and the multiplicity of interpretations about the film had me rolling my eyes—especially as the Bible metaphors were being sized up for fitting. But watching it was far easier than I expected—there’s a progressively frantic rhythm to Mother!, and the fascination of seeing what was going to happen next (especially in the film’s most nightmarish moments) easily outweighed the desire to have it make sense, especially once properly forewarned that the film escapes most rational interpretations. While I know that there’s a lot of what Mother! tries to do in experimental arthouse cinema, I rarely see those films, and they don’t usually have the means (the name actors, the special effects budget, or Aronofsky’s expertise as a writer/director) to execute their full vision. And Mother! is indeed about a highly personal and idiosyncratic direction. I actually dislike quite a bit of what writer/director Aronofsky’s is doing here—I think that his use of Jennifer Lawrence compounds the growing exasperation I’ve got with her overexposure (including her being usually too young for the roles she’s being asked to play, although this may not count in a fable such as here), I think that he’s deliberately creating false leads in an attempt to create perceive depths, and I think that the violence goes too far. And yet, and yet, I do end up with a growing liking of the result, even as I’ve renounced to even try to make sense of it. Mother! remains a defiantly unusual ride, and those are all too rare in multiplexes nowadays.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Hmmm. As much as I’d like to like Passengers a lot, there a bit too much nonsense, mismatched tones and wasted opportunities to be entirely comfortable with the result. On the one hand, I do like that it’s an original Science-Fiction movie (for Hollywood values of “original”, which is to say one that only has half a dozen predecessors in print SF) and one that’s slickly made: the setting is terrific, and the film has the budget to fully presents its environment. I love the first half-hour, in which a man wakes up alone in a gigantic spaceship, 90 years from its destination: With a bit of tweaking, it could stand in for the first section of an adaptation of Allen Steele’s terrific short story “The Days Between”. Chris Pratt is pretty good as the desperately alone protagonist, stuck in a nightmare caused by automated arrogance. Never mind that the plot doesn’t make a bit of real-world sense yet, because there’s more to come. The film becomes uglier as our protagonist decides to wake up a carefully chosen passenger, essentially dooming her to the same drawn-out death than him. That moral choice is not indefensible as a plot point, but it does set up expectations that are dashed when the film moves on to “but there was a catastrophe on the way, so it’s all OK!” as an excuse for his actions. A harsher conclusion would have made the gesture carry more weight, although it likely would have robbed Passengers of its mainstream appeal. There are quite a few logical and scientific errors later on, and they do sap the movie of its accumulated goodwill. Not much of the film’s problems can be blamed on its very short cast, though: Chris Pratt makes for a credible everyday man, and while we’re past peak-Jennifer Lawrence adulation, she’s rather good in a role that asks for some very dramatic moments. To be fair, I also liked Passengers a whole lot more watching it moment-by-moment than I would have expected by reading some of its harsher reviews—at times, the vitriol-versus-film ratio reminded me of the Prometheus episode, in which a slickly-made SF movie gets roasted for factors that don’t faithfully reflect the entire film. It’s also worth noting that what bothers people most about Passengers is an integral part of the film’s plot, and that it’s never avoided or downplayed. If this sounds like a half-hearted defence of the film, then I suppose it is—Passengers doesn’t have what it takes to be a great SF movie, but it definitely has its strong moments and haunting sequences. Passengers also shows, in many ways, how mass audiences are now willing to accept and play with concepts that used to be cutting-edge SF a few decades ago—as much as I can quibble with the errors, the distasteful nature of its premise or the way it plays safe, it’s also a polished piece of space-set SF the likes of which I’d like to see more often.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I thought I’d like Joy more than I did. I may not like director David O. Russell’s penchant for re-using the same actors and relying on improvisational acting rather than structured plotting, but he can usually be counted upon for solid enjoyable films, as well as a few moments de cinéma in-between the more prosaic material. At times, Joy certainly plays to his strengths. As an inspirational story of a woman who rediscovers a talent for invention and takes herself from misery to success, it’s the kind of film that ought to work in most circumstances. At time, various snippets of the film make fantastic vignettes. The scatter-shot nature of the first’s first half is held together by a willingness to blur reality with soap operas, whereas the story takes a marked turn for the better midway through as our protagonist is introduced to the world of shopping via TV networks. But other things work against the film: If you’re not as much of a Jennifer Lawrence fan as Russell appears to be, then it won’t be as effective. What’s worse is the film’s surprisingly blunt messaging about pursuing dreams and being inventive: By the third or fourth time the film beat the same message over and over again, Joy becomes actively irritating about its own themes. It’s surprising to see a veteran director like Russell bump up against this kind of on-the-nose scripting—it certainly undermines the rest of the film. By the time the protagonist has a final face-off with business enemies and ex-partners, Joy feels more exhausting than anything else. Despite the good actors and the feel-good message, Joy feels too leaden and too initially unfocused to be as good as it could be.
(Netflix streaming, August 2016) It would be tempting but unfair to start holding Mockingjay Part 2 accountable for the faults of the entire young-adult dystopian subgenre. Even though The Hunger Game launched the category in 2012, it can’t be entirely held responsible for the flood of imitations, including those executed as trilogies with split last chapters. Especially not given how many flaws it has on its own. Surprisingly enough, this last chapter in the Hunger Games series holds true to the third book’s second half, even despite the bad reviews and disappointed fans’ reaction to the end of the series. Here, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, once again holding the series on her shoulders) heads to the Capitol for a final confrontation with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, just as good in his slimy-cold mode) as the rebels are nearly done overthrowing the established tyranny. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up one last time in a small role that he manages to make much better. Of course, things aren’t so black-and-white: the rebels once again prove to be just as bad as their oppressors, Katniss is suffering from some significant psychological issues, she’s surrounded by a people she can’t trust and the Empire is ready to throw some tough obstacles in her way. The rest is an urban war movie with enough teenage melodrama (helped along by some brainwashing and questionable character choices) to reach most of the four quadrants. Some bits drag on and on, such as an almost entirely superfluous zombie battle in the sewers. There are a lot of special effects, last-minute betrayals, musings on propaganda and a downbeat ending that (as in the novels) makes a mockery of the first book’s initial triumph. On the one hand: how sad and depressing—are we sure this is what we should be teaching today’s already-depressed young adults? On the other: how daring and unconventional—isn’t such nuance what we’re always saying we want from fiction aimed at younger people? I still haven’t figured out, and so my rating for Hunger Games 3b remains in the middle range. But if there’s anything to push me over to a side in particular, it’s that I’m glad it’s over, because it means another dystopian series I won’t have to keep remembering plot details in anticipation of the next instalment. That may not be entirely fair to the film, but when you can mix-and-match elements from three different series in one common structure, it’s hard to avoid a bit of burnout.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2014) The root of the problems with Mockingjay 1 (or Hunger Games 3a) is the business decision, well before the movie had started shooting, that the third volume in adapting Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy was to be split in two separate movies. While there is some justification to the split (the book itself does feel as if it has separate halves), it means that this first half isn’t much more than seeing the lead character mope around despondently for a full hour and a half, with much repetitive material thrown in, over and over again. The pacing isn’t just off: it’s the entire point of the film that’s dulled by this decision. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be better than the material she gets: even a relatively low point like Mockingjay 1 showcases how much the series relies on her performance. It’s not as if the other actors stand there doing nothing (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pretty good as a manipulator working against his former masters and Natalie Dormer gets a meatier part than usual here), but she remains the foundation on which the series is built. While there’s something encouraging to be said about the film’s production values, its jaundiced view of revolutions and the vulgarized exposition of propaganda techniques, Mockingjay 1 isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch – and if the producers stick to the book, Part 2 won’t be a bag of happy puppies either. But then again, I’m comfortably older than the target audience for this trilogy. At least it’s a bit better than most of its emulators have managed to be so far.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) There are few surprises in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. If you’ve read the Suzanne Collins book, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. If you haven’t, then it’s a straight continuation of the previous film, with somewhat better direction by Francis Lawrence and a structure that consciously echoes the first film… before breaking out of it. Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the anchor of the series, while Josh Huchinson does his best to stay out of the way. The background details of that imagined future still don’t make sense, and the story gradually picks up steam until it sparks into the long-awaited insurrection. Otherwise, though, it’s serviceable without being particularly memorable. It sets down the necessary element required for the sequel. If that’s less than enthusiastic as a reaction, it’s largely because there’s a glut of such young-adult films all crowding the marketplace and their cynical intentions are only too apparent. It is what it is, though, and as far as execution is concerned, this second volume is competent enough, with just a bit more spark to it than the first film. Bring on the third and fourth movies… it’ll have to end at some point.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) As a plot-driven moviegoer, I’m always a bit frustrated when contemplating movies such as American Hustle: While I had a pretty good time watching the film, much of this enjoyment was based on getting to know the characters, appreciating the gorgeous re-creation of the late 1970s, humming at the soundtrack and enjoying the costumes. Plot? Well, there’s some kind of bare-bones caper/con action going on, but it’s not particularly heartfelt, nor all that interesting once everything has gone down. This a director/actor’s kind of film, and so the real joy of American Hustle is in seeing David O. Russell having so much fun with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that all five of them get Oscar nominations. Much of the acclaim is justified: Russell may not be as interested in telling a story than in letting his actors run with the scenery and the costumes, but American Hustle is filled with feel-good energy, tense dramatic confrontations, steady forward rhythm and plenty of laughs. Christian Bale turns in another performance unlike anything seen from him before, while Bradley Cooper carefully undermines his own all-American good-guy image, Amy Adams brings subtlety to a complicated character and Jennifer Lawrence almost makes us forget that she’s roughly ten years too young to play that particular character. Frankly, American Hustle is so successful in what it gets right that it practically minimizes what it doesn’t get so right. It feels scattered, loose, improvisational and filled with badly-tied loose ends. But at the same time, it’s a fun movie and an invigorating viewing experience. Who cares if the plotting isn’t tight enough: At a time where nearly all major cinema releases are excuses for bigger and shakier special effect sequences, it’s almost a relief when a character-based film comes along and ends up being a massive success.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Buzzwords from Silver Linings Playbook’s script read like a bingo card of stuff I don’t particularly care about: mild mental illness, ballroom dancing and rabid sports fandom. So it’s perhaps a relief more than anything else that this dramatic comedy ends up being better than expected. Much of the praise should go to Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who manage to navigate a tricky path in portraying badly-flawed characters that nonetheless become endearing. Lawrence, in particular, portrays a character far beyond her age, rounding an increasingly multifaceted screen persona. The rest of the film’s success should go to writer/director David O. Russell, who doesn’t specialize in easy movies and here manages to deliver a refreshing blend of independent sensibilities with Hollywood A-list actors. The mixture is tricky and doesn’t always work (Anyone bored with sports fandom will find lengthy stretches of the film almost interminable, although Lawrence does get a laugh out-playing superstitious armchair statisticians.) but Silver Linings Playbook does work more often than it should and that’s enough to qualify it as a success.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) For a straightforward low-budget woman-in-peril thriller, House at the End of the Street isn’t too bad: There are a few narrative curveballs, the lead actress is compelling and the brisk pacing forgives a lot of other issues. Few people outside the Ottawa area will care that the film was shot in the neighborhood, but plenty will see the film because it stars a then-little-known Jennifer Lawrence. Fortunately, Lawrence has what it takes to play a plucky teenager in danger: her performance is compelling as she holds her own alongside Elizabeth Shue. The rural setting is good enough for a few chills, and after a clumsy start, the direction builds a decent sense of tension as each suspense set-piece is put together. It wouldn’t be fair to overhype House at the End of the Street as anything more than a run-of-the-mill thriller, especially during its first act, but it’s quite a bit better than its savage critical reception may have suggested. If nothing else, it shows Jennifer Lawrence running around looking scared in the classic tradition of exploitation thrillers.
(In theaters, May 2012) Massively hyped as The Next Big Thing in teen pop-culture, The Hunger Games generally lives up to its billing as a decent piece of filmmaking. It’s hardly perfect, but it keeps getting better as it goes on: Viewers will have to make it past the drab cinematography of the first section of the film and a premise that doesn’t sustain a moment’s scrutiny to start enjoying the film. Jennifer Lawrence is remarkable in the lead role (the first few minutes suggest the same self-sufficient Appalachian character she played in Winter’s Bone) but director Gary Ross’s work is a bit shaky at first. The Hunger Games only gets going on the way to Capitol, and then in the wilderness where the teenage protagonists start killing each other off. The script has its moments (as well as its anti-moments, such as blatant game manipulation that would send Games audiences in a righteous rage) but don’t expect much more than competence in this middle-of-the-road adaptation. Lead character Katniss comes across as more admirable than most film heroines, tapping into that same hunger for positive female role models that helped the book become such a success. Compared to the book, however, The Hunger Games comes across as a bit less disturbing (no mentions of the enslaved Avox, no hints as to the Wolf Mutts’ origins, fewer injuries to the participants, mere slight ambiguity as to Katniss’ true feelings for Peeta) and seems to err in trying to replace Katniss’ clipped narration with exposition-heavy scenes featuring third parties. Still, the result isn’t too bad once you can make it past the dreary first section and the dubious premise. Woody Harrelson turns in another winning performance as an over-the-hill champion, and the film finds a certain rhythm once the game gets underway. The film lags a bit toward the end (and makes sure that Katniss doesn’t really kill anyone in cold blood) but who really care? Preordained to be a mass pop-culture phenomenon from day one, The Hunger Games has the good luck of being actually watchable even by people who don’t buy into the central premise.
(On DVD, January 2011) There are films I won’t see unless they’ve been nominated for Academy Awards, but Winter’s Bone goes father in being a film I wouldn’t have seen all the way to the end unless it had been nominated for an Academy Award. Taking place deep in the rural Ozarks area, the film is set in a desperately poor way of life where petty crime and family loyalty override more wholesome values: this, clearly, isn’t the virtuous middle-America lauded by social conservatives. It’s in cold weather that our wise-by-necessity teenage heroine sets out to discover where her missing father has gone, despite violent warnings, the quasi-certitude of illegal activity and the bone-chilling landscape of winter in hillbilly hell. What could have been an intriguing criminal investigation set against an unusual setting instead turns into an experience of endurance as the film quickly becomes a trek through a place that I desperately wanted to escape. The harsh naturalistic cinematography, coupled with ugly characters, desperate circumstances and bleak landscapes, does everything to repulse viewers. Meanwhile, the slow pacing, lack of plotting and repellent circumstances only prolong the agony. While there are a few nice sequences in the film (the lake scene is brilliantly gruesome), an interesting inversion of the usual city=bad; rural=good clichés, and Jennifer Lawrence is a solid anchor for the film, much of it feels like an endless nightmare: I spent most of Winter’s Bone thinking Get me out of here… even as I was doing something else at the time. Goodness helps those who see this without distractions.