DVD Review: The Hunger Games

'The Hunger Games' Looks More Like the Past than the Future -- and Too Much Like the Present

"The book covers a lot of ground, from wealth inequality to the media’s desensitization to violence. It’s a good thing, then, that the adaptation landed in the hands of a director as confident as Gary Ross. He understands that the movie should stand for itself, as opposed to functioning as a staged reading of the novel.

The most important shift, and ultimately the most successful one, is the decision to liberate the movie from Katniss’s point of view. The movie is thankfully voiceover-free—which would’ve been a cheap, easy way to sneak in both Katniss’s reactions and Suzanne Collins’s words—and actors’ facial expressions are allowed to stand-in for pages of inner monologue. The universe of the movie unfolds without being over-explained. Ross trusts his actors’ performances to get across the information we need to know without necessarily saying it, and he trusts the audience to absorb all of the movie’s nuances without underlining every revelation and reaction."

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Film Review: Red Lights

Red Lights doesn't exactly work, but at least it fails in an interesting way.

'Red Lights': Paranormal Beliefs and Doubts

"This situation also indicates that the movie takes place in a heightened reality, if not a downright alternate one, where paranormal activities and parapsychology are of such importance that a university funds not one, but three faculty positions dedicated to researching the subject. In this world, cable news breathlessly reports on every step of a retired psychic’s comeback—which draws sellout crowds in seconds—and someone else’s doubts about him wind up on page one of the newspaper."

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DVD Review: Dark Tide

Dark Night, Dark Sea, Dark Wetsuits, 'Dark Tide'

The rest of Dark Tide picks up a year later, and clarity does not come with the passage of time. Mathieson, still saddled with guilt, has traded free-diving with sharks for a life as a safe-and-boring (and financially strapped) seal-watching tour guide. Her estranged husband and former documentarian Jeff (Olivier Martinez) returns with a proposition to make her some money and get her back in the water, taking a wealthy adrenaline junkie, Brady (Ralph Brown), and his son out to go swimming with sharks. Though Mathieson is angry with Jeff, haunted by Themba, opposed to shark tours, certain that the dive would be too dangerous for the inexperienced visitors, wary that mating season would make the sharks quick to bite, and hostile to the idea that she should give into the whims of a craven thrillseeker just for his money, she agrees to take him, anyway.

No, it doesn’t make sense. And it just gets murkier from there until the visuals of movie become as confused as the narrative, eventually devolving into an indistinguishable group of people in black wetsuits swimming on a black ocean against a black sky in a tumultuous rainstorm. Yes, that’s the climax of the movie—and it is near-impossible to follow.

 

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DVD Review: W.E.

There's a Lot of Moviemaking Going on in W.E.

"...The jumps in time are not the only trick in Madonna’s directorial grab-bag. There’s a lot of moviemaking going on in W./E.. Madonna cuts a lot. She incorporates both 16 mm and Super 8 film. She pulls in tight on her subjects, honing in on faces, eyes, feet, and knicknacks with a not-so-steady steadicam. As the emotions get more and more heightened in the movie, the close-ups get closer, and the images shakier.

On top of all of those flourishes, she pans the camera constantly (usually as music swells in the background). In the one behind-the-scenes look included on the Blu-Ray—the sole extra feature, which lacks even a commentary—Madonna explains that her background in dance influenced her camera swirls and swoops, as she is inspired by “movement”. The intention definitely comes across, as she circles the camera around her subjects until it becomes almost dizzying.

Yet while the shooting style of the movie is very fluid, the look of the film also comes across as extremely stiff. Sure, half of the appeal of the movie is seeing Arianne Phillips’ costumes, especially with respect to Simpson, known for being a fashion plate in her day. (Phillips was nominated for an Oscar for her efforts.) But both Simpson and Winthrop are styled to within an inch of their lives. You never see errant locks of hair; their outfits are perfect. The extra feature included in the Blu-Ray notes that each woman has 30 to 40 costume changes throughout the film.

Their living quarters are similarly impeccably art-directed, thereby giving off the impression that no one actually lives in them. Madonna can move the camera as much as she wants—in the end, it still comes across like she’s filming carefully assembled magazine photo shoots."

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May Issue: Summer Movie Preview

Hot Box Office
How to navigate this year's summer cinema.

Rock of Ages
June 15, Warner Bros. Pictures
Tease your hair and pull your studded leather jacket out of storage: it’s time to head back to 1987, when hair bands provided the soundtrack to adolescence—and this movie. Based on the Broadway show, the film, about two kids in Los Angeles trying to fulfill their rock ’n’ roll dreams, features songs by Def Leppard, Poison, Foreigner, Warrant, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Journey, and other ’80s mix-tape staples.

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DVD Review: Footloose

Shakin' It in a Pair of Red Cowboy Boots: 'Footloose'

The world didn’t need a remake of Footloose, the 1984 movie where outsider-rebel Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) takes on a town-wide ban against public dancing.  Even remake director Craig Brewer thought so at first, revealing in his meaty solo commentary that his first reaction upon hearing the project was, “You can’t remake Footloose! It’s Footloose!”

But this Footloose remake is pretty well done, with clever nods to the original alongside subtle improvements. Brewer is a natural fit for the material, being a self-admitted Footloose fan, a teenager of the ‘80s, a music-lover, a connoisseur of the South, and a parent, and all of which he draws upon to make the movie smarter than it needs to be.

For fans of the original, the wit becomes first becomes apparent through its references. The VW bug Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormak drives in the 1984 version turns up in Brewer’s film, only the new Ren (Kenny Wormald) receives the car as a broken-down beater he has to fix up—a literal remake. In another scene, Brewer replaces Bonnie Tyler’s thoroughly ‘80s-sounding “Holding Out for a Hero” with a twangy, countrified version by Ella Mae Bowen, which works better in context.

But the new Footloose, thankfully, isn’t just a faithful retelling of scenes and backward-looking nods. Brewer grounds the movie in a way that would make sense even if there were no 1984 original. It starts with the central conflict. The catalyst for the dancing ban—a tragic car accident that’s only hinted at in the original movie—is heavily emphasized in the opening scenes of the remake. It calls to mind other instances where personal freedoms are sacrificed in the name of public safety, which makes it feel more contemporary.

 

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DVD Review: Chalet Girl

 

To Watch 'Chalet Girl,' You Have to Really, Really Suspend Disbelief

 

As a pair of convenient sportscasters will helpfully explain in the first few minutes of the movie, Chalet Girl is the story of Kim Matthews (Felicity Jones), a championship skateboarder who gave up the sport after a family tragedy. Three years later, she’s retired from the world of competition and working in a fast-food restaurant to support her hapless father (Bill Bailey), until she lucks into a job at an upscale ski resort that takes her from her native England to the mountains of Austria.

Once in the Alps, Chalet Girl takes on a fairytale quality, like Cinderella with extreme sports. This is more for its improbability than its magical qualities. After all, it’s as if a fairy godmother got Kim the chalet gig, since the movie makes a point of showing how unsuited she is for the job. In her interview, she drops plates, is unable to match a wine glass to its correct purpose, and doesn’t display the grace and manners of the other people applying for the job. But, wouldn’t you know, a position needs to be filled at the last minute, and there’s no one else available for it, so off Kim goes.

Once at the chalet, she’s greeted by her two ugly stepsisters, Georgie (Tamsin Egerton), and Jules (Georgia King), frenemies for the rest of the film who keep reminding her how much of a fish-out-of-water she is. “A chalet girl who can’t ski?” remarks Georgie, and it comes across as mean even though it’s a fair point. Luckily, fairytale magic steps in once again, and Kim’s background as a skateboarder translates effortlessly into snowboarding, and Kim picks it up so quickly she decides to enter the big competition at the end of the season.

And yes, Chalet Girl has a Prince Charming, too, in the form of Jonny (Ed Westwick), the wealthy son of the chalet owner And, like the Prince Charming in most fairytales, his character isn’t entirely formed, and it’s hard to put a finger on what’s supposed to be desirable about him except for his station in life.

When it all comes together, much is improbable about Chalet Girl. Felicity Jones doesn’t look like a gritty skateboarder, no does she look like the Ugly Duckling that Georgie and Jules insist she is. It’s hard to believe that she would secure employment at the chalet. It takes a real leap of faith to believe Kim’s rapid progress from snowboard novice to pre-professional competitor.

The love story that develops between Kim and Jonny is the hardest to take in of all. To enjoy Chalet Girl, you have to give in entirely to the fantasy, because once you start to pick at the pieces of it, it all comes apart.

Unfortunately, director Phil Traill doesn’t make it so easy to get lost in the world of Chalet Girl, mostly because much of the story feels glossed over. Every few minutes, he inserts a montage as a shortcut for storytelling. There’s a montage of Kim cooking. There’s one for her cleaning. There’s one for her being bad at snowboarding, then being okay at snowboarding, then being good at snowboarding. (There’s also one of Kim not-snowboarding when the weather is bad.)

Even Kim’s great romance with Jonny is told through a succession of scenes of them frolicking in the snow. You start to wonder if, in a warmer climate, the two would have anything to talk about. This excessive shorthand is probably because Traill is used to working with a short amount of time to get his story across; with the exception of All About Steve, his credits are all for television.

And in the end, Chalet Girl feels more made-for-TV than anything else. The DVD features, too, seem ill-suited for a feature format or one-time viewing. There’s wealth of material, including a not-so-insightful commentary with Traill and Jones that mostly talks about where the scenes were shot. (The story is all there on the surface, so there’s not really much to address there.) But there are also interviews, behind-the-scenes bits, “viral videos” and “YouTube videos” that seem to punish all-at-once viewing. The interviews, for example, are a series of one-on-one Q&As with every single member of the cast. In each case, the actor is asked to describe the plot of the film from their character’s point of view. That means, if you select the “play all” feature, you get ten plot recaps in a row—and the plot isn’t that sophisticated to begin with. It’s hard to imagine who the producers had in mind when putting these extras together.

Ignorable extra-features aside, there’s nothing too taxing or offensive about watching Chalet Girl. It works if you’re looking for the bullet-points of a sports movie, protagonist-comes-into-her-own film, and romance all thrown in together. Nothing is too nuanced, and it’s easy to figure out who the villains and heroes are—just like in a fairytale.

 

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PopMatters: The 40 Best Films of 2011

I voted, then contributed two blurbs for PopMatter's list of best movies.

The 40 Best Films of 2011

No. 27: Super 8

In a year full of film nostalgia, Super 8 does double-duty, recalling the Amblin movies of the ‘80s while also touching on the joy of making homemade low-budget movies (and the never-ending quest for “production values”). While the monster-movie aspect of Super 8 is its weakest facet, its ensemble of youngsters is as strong as you can find in this year or any other. They’re plucky without being typical “movie kids”, their feelings ring emotionally true for adolescents, and director J.J. Abrams really nails the way a group of kids all talk over each other. As much as Super 8 made me think about the movies from my 1980s upbringing, what it really made me nostalgic for is hanging out with a gang of awkward-but-creative  pre-teens.

No. 13: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s most recent movie comes with the strong script we expect from him, effortlessly weaving one family’s personal tragedy into the history of Hawaii with a laid-back, island-time pace. But what’s most remarkable about The Descendants is how Payne coaxes great performances from unlikely places. Sure, George Clooney, who carries the meat of the storyline, is as good as ever. But supporting him are career-making turns from Shailene Woodley (best known from The Secret Life of the American Teenager), Judy Greer (normally relegated to playing rom-com best friends), and Matthew Lillard (most often used for his goofball qualities). You wouldn’t expect to be able to throw a teen soap star, a perpetual best friend, and the comic relief onto an island together and get something so emotionally rich from them, but Payne did.

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DVD Review: Another Earth

'Another Earth' Applies More Thought, Less CGI

"Too often characters in movies reveal too much of themselves to each other, or describe exactly how they’re feeling to each other. Another Earth never falls into this trap. John doesn’t come out and discuss his dead wife and child with Rhoda, and Rhoda doesn’t talk about her time in prison. Those experiences weigh heavily on them, but go unremarked upon. They exist in the background, like Earth Two.

Other times, though, it feels as if Another Earth somewhat squanders its best idea. Once the concept of Earth Two is introduced, the mind races with questions: How similar is it to Earth One? Is there a second version of me on the planet? If yes, is that person identical to me, or are there differences? If there are differences, who has the better life? Another Earth raises all of these questions without really exploring them. Instead, it spends all of its time on Earth One, detailing a story about grief, loss, and guilt—a story that’s not as original or intriguing as the double-Earth conceit."

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PopMatters: Worst Films of 2011

I contributed two blurbs for PopMatters's list of the most terrible films that came out last year.

The Worst Films of 2011

No. 8: Abduction

True, spoilery fact: There is no abduction in Abduction. Sure, main character Nathan, played by Twilight’s second-fiddle Taylor Lautner, sees his own face on a missing-persons website. But it’s not because he was abducted as a child—and the real reason is almost too stupid to go into. (It was a trap so the bad guys could lure him out of his safe, secret-agent-led foster home?) What follows is a series of fights and chases led by the ultimately charisma-less Lautner, who doesn’t really sell his character ultra-trained CIA spawn, but is even less convincing as a normal teenager. What’s most confusing of all is how director John Singleton and actors like Maria Bello, Sigourney Weaver, and Alfred Molina got dragged down with him.

No. 3: Just Go with It

Let’s see what Adam Sandler had been doing surrounding Just Go with It. He played a rich guy with a hot wife in Grown Ups. He played a rich guy with a hot ex-wife in Funny People. Immediately following Just Go with It, he played a rich guy with a hot wife (and his awful twin sister) in Jack and Jill. Sandler’s most interesting comedies arise when he creates a character—either real people with real flaws that drive the action, like Billy Madison, or strange outlandish types like in Little Nicky. Now, he seems content with being the normal, rich dude who puts in the minimum amount of effort to woo whatever young actress is roped in to play his love interest. Just Go with It is the peak of this sort of Sandler laziness. He has to choose between the young paramour he’s been chasing (Brooklyn Decker) and his female best-friend-all-along (Jennifer Aniston). What’s unclear by the end of the movie is what, apart from his successful plastic surgery practice, either of them see in him.

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