American Hustle needed more, well, hustle

The talented and established foursome of Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper were poised for a smash hit when they released American Hustle, a tale of con artists, the Mob, and the FBI. I left the theater feeling like this film was full of unfulfilled potential however.

Christian Bale is a ’70’s mystery man who dabbles in laundromats and ponzi schemes. He meets Amy Adams, an attractive loner herself, and the two begin an affair that incorporates Adams as the frontwoman in the couple’s simple con to entice desperate investors and collect on a non-refundable down payment. Bradley Cooper enters their office one day playing the part of one of those desperate investors, but is setting the two up for Federal charges. As a part of a deal to secure their freedom, and partly to appease Cooper’s consuming ego, Bale and Adams agree to aid Cooper’s FBI career in entrapping politicians in bribery and extortion charges. Cooper wants the best con artists to help in his con on the part of the government agency in order to bust corrupt public servants. The movie proceeds in a twisted web of “who’s conning who” which thankfully avoids the ever popular “got-ya” ending but the pace is far too slow.

Many of the background stories that were necessary to explain characters’ ambition, motivation, and propensity for trust vs. conning were very much underdeveloped. Many times the audience was asked to accept that a certain character would trust another just because an aspect of their backstory had been enumerated one sentence before such as when Christian Bale uses his Bronx roots to gain the trust of Camden native, Mayor Carmine Belito, to convince him to take a bribe that he had moments earlier vehemently turned down and was appalled by the notion altogether. Because of three lines of dialogue, his tune changes completely and the plot continues. It just lacked authenticity by its own standards at times.

I’ll spare details but I would not recommend paying to see this movie in theaters. The acting is very good however. Jennifer Lawrence was infuriating which “made” her character. Amy Adams was seductive and convincing. Bradley Cooper was pathetic, enraged, and erratic which differed greatly from Christian Bale’s calculated, small scoped approach to conning, providing for an interplay between these two lead characters which should’ve been expounded upon. Overall, wait until this movie hits cable networks and see what you think but save your Christmas money this month and pass on American Hustle. It is a movie that couldn’t find its identity. It lacked hustle if you will…

“Catching Fire” Ignites New Life into ‘Hunger Games’ Franchise

As I sit here on this cozy winter night on my couch with wireless keyboard on my lap and Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat beer in hand, let me regale you the tale of what happened last night when I went to see the next installment in The Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire.

Now, as you may have previously read, I rather disliked the first Hunger Games movie. I felt it took a pretty good book, and made it worse. The first novel was imperfect but built on a solid concept, in which a quality film could have built a firm foundation. Yet, it failed utterly. If you wish to read that certain post, I’ll save you the time of digging and quick link you to it. https://pictureperfectbottledrage.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/the-hunger-games-how-and-why-the-book-and-movie-should-have-been-better/

Usually, I’ll provide spoilers with a movie that I review. Not so this time. What I’ve discovered is, that with movies I dislike I need to provide all the reasons why it’s terrible. I need to spoil the movie to you the reader so that you do not waste your money in seeing it. Instead, because I liked this movie, I’ll merely tease you with spoilers, and tell you why you should go see it. A good production is literally worth gold, and I’ll encourage the development of those works of art. A bad project is worth flushing down the toilet, and thus I should discourage the masses from viewing such filth.

Which leads me  to assess the franchise as a whole, starting with the books and first movie. The Hunger Games franchise can be brought to life by this complex analogy. The overlying concept is like Aztec Gold. It’s shiny, valuable, creative, pretty, and intelligently made. Suzanne Collins then puts this concept into a book, and is like Hernan Cortez melting down all the Aztec Gold. It’s still shiny, valuable, and it’s still gold, it simply lost some of its intelligence and attractivity along the way. Then, the first movie comes along. This is like black market traders buying and selling the melted down gold bricks. The original vision (concept) gets a bit lost, and even the nice features of the gold start to get tainted as it switches hands and is used as a means to an end instead of as a work of art.

THANKFULLY, if we stick with the analogy, the second movie is like someone put a curse on all the Aztec Gold (sound familiar, Captain Jack?) and it all had to be brought back to one place to start from scratch in order to end the curse. All the gold is back in the same place with some of it restored, maybe not for the right reasons, but it’s there nonetheless. This is where we pick up with the second movie, if you still follow my analogy.

First and foremost, we switch directors. Which is a godsend. Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water for Elephants) takes the film into an entirely different direction than Gary Ross did. He takes the ideas that the second novel was built on, and creates a film based on them. All the parts of the book that drag on for too long or that the plot gets lost in (such as the overlong Arena setting and overemphasis on the teenage romance) get slimmed down and trimmed to fit in a fast paced movie focused on the characters and the setting, instead of the futuristic mushy love story told by the first movie.

Secondly, we get set and cinematographical (I may have just made that up) redesign. Remember how I said that the setting in the Capitol should reflect Rome? Francis Lawrence hits that nail on the head, keeping the futuristic feel but also paying much homage to ancient Italy. There are nice wide angle shots that capture how Panem should have been imagined by most of the readers. And for those of you that did not read the books, it gives a grander and more epic feel to the entire movie.

Third, it’s more menacing. Certainly the books get darker as the series goes on, but this movie actually feels PG-13 instead of the lighthearted romp that was the first film. The government is clearly defined as the real enemies, and it shows. Unlike the first movie where the villain and even the roles of the Gamemaker and President were totally passed over (even though they weren’t included in the book), it is clear who the antagonists are even if the film tells us “remember who the enemy is”. The peacekeepers uniforms have (thankfully) been redesigned, which although still imperfect reflect a much more totalitarian feel. Patrick St. Esprit (Sons of Anarchy, Green Zone, Super 8) plays the head Peacekeeper in District 12, and does a pretty good job for a guy that I laughed at when presented on screen because of the pushover character he plays in SoA. Instead, he channels Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars more than anything else, which is a remarkably good thing.

Fourth, the casting. Although Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist is still a ridiculous babe, she might only be the fourth best actor in the film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is wonderfully cast as head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, and is beyond a doubt the best actor in the movie. Lenny Kravitz reprises his role as Cinna the stylist, and Jeffery Wright ( Agent Felix Leiter in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) contributes well to the expanded cast, as does Woody Harrelson who comes through yet again as the mentor Haymitch Abernathy. More new cast members arrive (and will stay for the remainder of the sereis) in Finnick Odair (Sam Clarfin, Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides), who plays his role fantastically, as well as the sexy damaged goods that make up Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, Into the Wild). I do still wish that President Snow were replaced by a more diabolical actor, but Donald Sutherland does his best to personify the films villain.

Finally, the soundtrack. I critiqued this in my last review, and it picks up considerably in this installment. Although the composer (James Newton Howard) remains the same, the times where the score is edited into the movie make quite the difference. From soft piano to Chris Martin singing the end credits song, it is a marked improvement.

Besides the obvious upgrades, everything about the movie seems real, as you identify so much better with the characters and setting. The PTSD that the characters experience from the trauma in the games is real. The brutal violence and oppression of the Capitol based regime draws parallels to not just historical fascism, but our own current government as well. The plot, which is more setting and character driven, feels conceivable and believable. We are finally sitting in Panem and buying into the universe that Collins created, even more so than those of us that read the book. This is no longer a strict romance movie (sorry to disappoint all the girls aged 12-20 that flocked to the theater last night), but instead it has turned into a work of art.

Is this movie perfect? Certainly not. The “love triangle” between Katniss Everdeen (J. Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is muddled at best. Katniss’ true thoughts and feelings are never really dissected, and it’s hard to see the motivation for some of the decisions she makes relationally. Gale, like in the books, is a very shallow and undeveloped character, and the adult audience is unsure of the relationship between Gale and Katniss even though the teens and tweens will swoon when the two “lovebirds” appear on screen in romantic moments. The movie also suffers from some poor source material, although the second Collins novel is a good read, it is far from great and has many imperfections and inconsistencies which you’ll notice in the film. Is that the film’s fault? No, but you’ll notice it nonetheless. And finally, it also suffers from a poor prequel. The movie has to constantly be referencing the previous movie, because after all, it’s built right on top of it. Changes in between movies may leave some viewers confused, although rest assured that the changes made from first film to second are more than likely for the best.

The Hunger Games : Catching Fire is a well done movie based on rather good source material. Neither the book or the movie will ever enter the realm of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series, but the franchise takes a giant step in the right direction with this most recent film. It boldly showcases the bleakness and oppression of the fascist regime in the fictional Panem, and even draws fantastic parallels to the entertainment industry’s hype machine that is responsible for such debacles that are “music television’s” VMA’s. Where this movie is at its best is when Catching Fire draws allegorical comparisons to the culture that created it. I rarely say this about a movie based on a book, but in this case….

The book is good.

But the movie’s way better.

8/10

My Year at the Movies (ranks in order of best to worst of movies I have seen that have been released this year)

1. Rush

2. Star Trek Into Darkness

3. Man of Steel

4. Catching Fire

5. Pacific Rim

6. Despicable Me 2

7. Monsters University

8. The Great Gatsby

9. Oblivion

10. Elysium

11. World War Z

12. Oz the Great and Powerful

13. Fast and Furious 6

14. Iron Man 3

15. Hangover Part 3

16. Thor : The Dark World

17. A Good Day To Die Hard

The Hunger Games : How and Why the Book and Movie Should Have Been Better

I know I’m rather behind in this scene, but I just finished reading “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, and watching its film adaptation. The book was an enjoyable if not a transcendent read, while the movie was a complete disappointment.  I’m writing this “review” to compare and contrast (and criticize) both versions, already assuming that you have either read the book or seen the movie, or are merely interested in what I have to say. Which means, there WILL be spoilers. So, if you, like I was, are planning to read or watch the movie, bookmark this post and see if you agree or disagree with my words afterward. That also means that instead of summarizing the plot, I’m going to jump right into the action and talk about the events and characters of the medium again assuming that you know what I”m talking about.

First off, I’ll start with the book. It’s very fast paced, interesting, and has a fantastic concept that I picked up on and almost fell in love with in the first chapter. Basically, it’s a futuristic Rome and Gladiator Games contest, with the Tributes representing the Gladiators, where winners are showered in gifts, and losers systemically killed. It’s a bloodthirsty and cold-hearted tradition, but it works for the government in the Capitol (curious how it’s an “o” not an “a”) to keep control of their realm. And, choosing children as the Gladiators is utterly horrifying yet fascinating, it’s a tactic that shows the heartlessness of the Panem government to pit those aged 12-18 against each other in a Battle Royale. The characters are relateable and three dimensional, if not somewhat predictable. The action and violence is realistic, if even at some points it’s rather graphic. And, Collins kills off a loveable main character, which is something that all good novelists need to do to accurately convey realism and portray danger. Rue was an adorable character that the reader truly cared about, and when she took one for the team it was right up there with Dobby dying in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as far as emotionalism. It’s a good book, but not a great one.

And that’s because of the romance between the main characters, the two tributes from District 12 in Katniss and Peeta. It’s really boring. For the first part of their relationship in the book, you can feel the tension, but you don’t know how it will turn out with them supposed to be pretending to be in love during the games. You can predict that it’s going to turn out badly for one of them, as one might fall for the other in the midst of pretending, but it doesn’t pan out that way. Instead, Collins draaaaaaaags out the pretending part of their relationship,  muddling it and drastically overplaying it. And then to make matters worse, she doesn’t even resolve their true feelings in the end, OBVIOUSLY bating the reader for a sequel in which there will be more kissy-kissy overplayed, clear as mud teenage romance. Blech.

Secondly, there’s how she writes the book. It is written in present-progressive first person tense, which makes NO sense, but improves the pacing of the book. For example, a normal first person narrative is told like this.

“I ran through the woods, seeking my prey out amongst the evergreens, attempting to follow the blood trail as it became faint on the pines and needles.”

Present-progressive is told like this :

“I run through the woods, as I seek my prey in the evergreen forest, following the blood trail as it is becoming faint on the pines and needles.”

It’s very very confusing, because when a story is being told in first person, it’s usually the main character relating facts to you, the reader, told as a story. But instead, in present-progressive first person, it’s like she’s telling you what is going on as it’s happening, and you’re there with her. Which makes no sense, because diaries aren’t even written in present-progressive. Basically, the reader is a split personality of Katniss who she is relating what is going on to. Uh, okay? It improves the pacing, because it feels like the events are currently happening, but it makes for a bit of confusion.

The book doesn’t play to its strength of the concept, failing to expand the universe as much as it should, and wasting too much time on a romance that doesn’t even become terribly clear. Still, it’s a good book. The point of adapting a book into a film, however, is to reach a wider audience while staying faithful to the source material. However, a film adaptation can play to the strengths of the novel, and focus less on the weaknesses because it is actually an adaptation. So, in order to make a successful film, the filmmakers could do one of two things. 1) Create a teenage-romance film, and pander to that audience only OR 2) Create a heartfelt and realistically (for a fantasy) gritty film, AKA the later Harry Potters, that plays to the universe of the book. Sadly, the producers stuck with option number one, banking on the Twilight audience to bring in the box office receipts.

Here’s my problems with the movie, listed in no particular order.

1. The Film Score.

Unmemorable. All good novel adaptations should have a fantastic score, like The Lord of the Rings series. It emphasizes all the right moments in the movie and impacts the audience drastically. Which means, you need to hire a good composer, just like Peter Jackson did in LOTR (Howard Shore) or the Harry Potter producers did in John Williams. James Newton Howard is an accomplished composer, but you gotta pair him with someone like Hans Zimmer to get something truly memorable.

2. The Non-Linear Storytelling

If you’re not Quentin Tarantino or Zack Snyder, don’t tell a story non-linearly. We get these awkward flashbacks of Katniss’ father being killed in the mine explosion, and of Peeta throwing Katniss bread in the rain. We have no background or emotion tied with either scene, it just feels so utterly disjointed and awkward that we’re not sure what exactly to make of the scenes. Here’s how I would have incorporated those events into the film.

START out the film with the Everdeen’s father being the main character (like in Star Trek with Kirk’s father), with a young family in a dirt poor mining community. Show his relationship with Katniss and how he passes down his skills to her, and show what a caring parent he truly was. Then, in an emotional and tragic death scene, with piano music such as this playing……(skip to 13:10)

….show the death of their father in the mining accident, and the grief and spiraling depression that it sends the girls mother into. Then, altering the book a little bit, show Katniss running away from home in her emotion, and THERE have her encounter with Peeta as she is starving and hurt in the rain. Have her return home, and then in a voice-over by Jennifer Lawrence, have her say something like “My Name is Katniss Everdeen, and this is my story.” She can then narrate the history of Panem as the audience returns to the present events starting with the reaping. The part with Peeta has to be downplayed enough however, that when he gets chosen to be a tribute, the audience is thinking to themselves “oh my God that’s the kid that saved her in the rain!”

3. Casting and Character Changes

I don’t understand why Donald Sutherland plays  President Snow in this movie. The President isn’t featured in the first book, and Donald Sutherland isn’t a politician or intimidating. And, take the creative liberty to ax the term “President”. Make the ruler of Panem have a sweet title like “Augustus” or something Roman that implies dictatorship. If you insist on having an older guy be “President”, cast Christopher Lee while he is still alive, PLEASE. Or, if you want a truly intimidating two faced politician, Kevin Spacey should get the role.

The rest of the cast is actually very well done, they’re honestly just given bad lines. Someone please kill the writer for this movie, it’s another Michael Bay-esque film where they decide to explain entire things by throwing in a line of script instead of actually showing something. It’s a book, your movie is allowed to be 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Also, WHO IS THE VILLAIN OF THIS MOVIE?? You think it’s President Snow but he isn’t even in the book and is in about three scenes. You might think it’s the Careers (District 1 and 2 tributes), but you don’t hate them at all and they’re left totally undeveloped. I think the villain is the director, who butchered this movie completely.

Which brings me to the part of Rue. Her death in the book was very emotional, and she was a great developed supporting character. However, she isn’t developed AT ALL in the movie, and when she dies you just think to yourself, “oh, well she’s gone even though I don’t really know how because the filmmakers are afraid to show violence in an inherently violent movie.” HERE’S how you do an emotional impalementish death scene.

At this point in the movie, YOU DON’T EVEN LIKE BOROMIR. But, wow. This death scene is just unreal, as he comes to terms with everything. The music, the slow-mo, the dialogue is just off the chain. Which is how it should have been in the movie.

My final gripe as far as characters go is with the Peacekeepers. Supposed to be the policing force, they’re totally lame and not intimidating. You want intimidating and memorable? Go with something like this.

http://www.starwars.com/watch/encyclo_tear_this_ship_apart.html

Or, if you want to stick with the Roman theme, go with a Centurion design. That works too.

4. The Setting

The Capitol is described as being in the middle of the Rocky Mountains with mountains surrounding it on all sides. In other words, it’s Denver. But, we get no real notion or idea where it is, for all we know it’s in DC. They also describe District 12 as being in Appalachia, in other words, West Virginia. But again, the audience isn’t informed about this, and we can’t connect with the setting at all.

Furthermore, there should have been way more Roman architecture to go with the theme. Steal a page from the book of Gladiator and have more white stone paved streets, arches, and pillared structures. Yet, maintain the futuristic feel by incorporating more technology into the vast courtyards and plantation styled houses.

5. The Little Things The Movie Has To Do

-Create a convincing romance between the main characters. This is foremost and premier (and is hardly a little thing_, this drives the movie. It’s boring and unconvincing, and it’s what the producers tried to make a movie about. Thus, the movie failed.

-Create an “Evil Empire” feel for the Capitol and the Government. This means NOT omitting the fact from the novel that the Muttations are given life from the corpses of the rest of the killed tributes.  Show their atrocities and their reign, create empathy for the rebellion and hatred for the Capitol.

-Be much more faithful to the book’s portrayal of Haymitch and Katniss’ relationship. They have an understanding but not a like of each other, which the movie doesn’t show at all. Woody Harrelson does a great job as Haymitch, his part simply isn’t written well at all. It’s like the director wanted to dumb down their relationship just so simplify the movie. Collins creates a unique dynamic between the characters, showcase it as best possible.

-Expand and enhance the scene where Thresh spares Katniss’ life. This is about a 40 second scene in the movie, where it’s several pages and is very dramatic and the book. Make the audience feel the pressure and the emotion of having to owe somebody for a kindness

-Show the REAL way that Katniss obtained the Mockingjay pin. In the movie, she gives it to Prim “for luck”. Apparently, it’s not lucky at all because Prim gets selected as Tribute. And still, Prim gives Katniss the pin as Katniss volunteers to take her sisters place, “for luck”. Uhhhhh……..why? It was just proven that that pin is not lucky what-so-ever.

-Include Cato’s Body Armor from the book. At “The Feast” where Katniss receives the medicine for her and Peeta. It’s integral to the plot, and the fact where in the movie she puts Cato out of his misery while being devoured by the Muttations. The body armor came without a facemask, which would amplify this further.

-Don’t skimp on the exposition of the movie. The audience needs to understand the disparity between not just the Capitol and Districts, but between the Districts themselves. Explain the universe as best possible.

-Don’t be afraid to push the limits of a PG-13 movie. I feel like this could have easily been up for a PG rating, whereas the book can get rather graphic and definitely merits a PG-13 rating with its brutality. You shouldn’t go overboard, it being a teen novel for the most part, but portray more of the violence more realistically, make the audience feel the pain and the sorrow in having children kill each other.

Despite all the negatives I’ve listed, the movie is very well cast (other than Sutherland) and the last 20 minutes are done particularly well. However, if you really like the book and have half a brain, you shouldn’t love the movie. I only enjoyed the book and I still hated the film. I did just purchase the second book which I’m told is an improvement, but there’s no way you could drag me to see the second movie after this chop job. My advice? If you want a good read, buy it cheaply (I did for $6) or borrow it from the library. It’s a good read and great concept that you won’t regret, but it without a doubt pales in comparison to Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter. The book gets a 8/10 whereas the movie 5/10.