Adapting books in to movies is really hard. I’m not covering new ground by saying that. Part of what makes it hard is showing the passage of time. It can be tricky when all you have is a couple hours of quickly flickering images to get all your stuff across. What struck me in my second viewing of Catching Fire is just how badly they deal with that problem in this film and how that might be the only flaw in an otherwise excellent movie (next week I will almost certainly have found more flaws).
This story must take place over months right? It starts with Katniss and Peeta touring the districts as the winners of The Hunger Games. That can’t be that long after the games right? I would have figured almost immediately but the internet tells me it’s six months later to kind of keep the spirit alive all year. We will eventually be in this place with Christmas. It’ll last all year and 23 people will die on Black Friday.
So, the film ends with another games and we know those are annual events so this is a six month story but it seems to take no time at all. When Katniss leaves on her tour she says she’ll be back before the snow starts to melt but every time the movie goes to District 12 it looks like there’s snow on the ground. I get that it’s a two and a half hour movie already and that montages of seasons changing or whatever they would have done to show that time would only have made the film longer but it seems clear that the movie jumps several months at one point and doesn’t say anything and that’s really weird.
One more thing that really got me the second time was the dress Effie wears at the reaping scene that appears to be dozens of monarch butterflies is just fantastic. I just love the Capitol fashions and that was the best example. It’s a hard line for science-fiction to feel out there and plausible and that hit it for me. Really well done,
Arvin’s Take: Not having read the books proves a serious disadvantage during a second viewing because that’s when you’re supposed to see all the little references you missed the first time around, which is useless when you don’t know what you’re looking for. But, while I was struggling to stay awake about right before they got inside the arena, the movie still deserves credit for its impeccable editing, which does a magnificent job of keeping the tension up and letting the characters breathe during the slower moments. It’s a very tough line to tread, as we saw in Ender’s Game, which just whizzed by to little emotional effect.
I respected the first Hunger Games film. It was a great adaptation of an ok book. That was a respect given to it after a Stockholm-syndrome-inducing four theatrical screenings. There was none of that needed this time, Catching Fire is a fantastic film. Well, that or I’m still brainwashed from last time but it’s probably actually good.
I often criticized Twilight for being bloated and joyless and on the surface you could probably say the same things about Catching Fire. It’s a 146 minute behemoth of a film that’s chiefly about pain, suffering, deceit, and despair. That doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable on the surface but they really wring all the whimsy they can out of it and it helps that the cast is exceptional. They aren’t all winners but the Jennifer Lawrence/Josh Hutcherson nucleus is rock solid and letting them be orbited by Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland works forwards and backwards. Philip Seymour Hoffman is new to the cast and shines in limited time and I was overjoyed to have the tragically underrated Jeffrey Wright join the cast.
There’s also a general technical proficiency to the film that dazzles me. It looks good, it sounds great. It’s a very long movie that doesn’t feel very long at all. I don’t know if that’s editing or directing but whoever it is deserves all the credit in the world. I’m also quite impressed with the costuming. I know the Academy always gives the costuming Oscar to some slavishly done period piece but could we just consider giving it to the freaky futuristic movie? I’m not even talking about the way out there prom dress style things but there’s an incredible consistency to the world and I kept noticing how the outfits helped there.
I can’t believe I just said a 146 minute movie that I’m going to have to see at least three times “didn’t feel very long.” I am going to regret that statement.
Arvin’s Take: Catching Fire succeeds as a film in almost every way that its predecessor fell short. It may well be the best-directed movie I’ve seen so far this year, while I put the previous film in the bottom half of my list last year. Catching Fire is in fact so effective that I was personally disturbed through much of the film at how much I was spirited away by the fake drama and slick violence from the comfort of my reserved Arclight seat as the movie hammered me with its treatise against using drama and violence as a means of distracting the masses from society’s true ills.
Wow, who saw the strong opening from The Best Man Holiday coming? It totally ruined my ability to see movies this weekend. I’ve been afraid of mediocre African-American comedies for almost two years (because of the Madea franchise which looks like just the worst thing in the world) and then one finally made a good charge and it didn’t look that bad. Perhaps I’ve been afraid for no reason. A coward dies a thousand deaths but a brave man dies but once. That said, I would rather die a thousand times than see a Madea movie.
The rough edges of Thor: The Dark World smooth out in a second viewing. I cringed all the way through the human scenes the first time but the second time I got a pronounced Ghostbusters vibe from them. They say a lot of science-y words and then do nothing that even resembles science while doing some schtick. Comedy gold! Natalie Portman is still the worst one in this analogy because she’s not particularly funny about it. I’m also not super psyched about having to compare Kat Dennings to Bill Murray but here we are.
Other than that I’m sorry to report that Thor: The Dark World is just not a strong enough film. The high points aren’t high enough, the action beats are a little boring and get worse and worse as the movie goes on. The fantasy crossed with sci-fi aesthetic for Asgard doesn’t really do it for me when Thor is fighting people on horses at the beginning and elves in spaceships at the end and seems to have similar levels of difficulty with both. Aside from Loki I’m never going to be in love with this franchise.
Arvin’s Take: Nothing much changed after the second viewing of Thor 2: some things were made more clear, and there were even fewer surprises. Credit really must go to the movie’s sense of humor and levity because as I mentioned before, the nonsense with the Aether amounted to little more than a Natalie Portman red hair dye commercial. But all the gags surrounding the climax were just as fun the second time around.
Marvel Studios has had a bit of a charmed run with its films. All of their “Phase One” movies from Iron Man to The Avengers were good, some better than others but all more good than bad. Phase Two kicked off with Iron Man 3 which felt uneven and now that we have Thor: The Dark World to add to that set it seems that Marvel has fallen to just making average super hero films. This leads to a sense of disappointment with a film that is not all that bad and a decade ago probably would have qualified as a revelation. It’s frustrating but I just want more out of this franchise.
I find the gods in this movie so much more relatable than the humans. The relationship between Thor and Jane Foster just seems so forced. We hear that Thor has spent all of his time pining away for her and that Jane more or less dedicated her research to finding him but their relationship doesn’t feel believable because through two movies they’re scarcely on the screen together and when they are they don’t ooze chemistry. I don’t love Jane’s presence in this movie but she’s miles better than the other humans in this film. We need humans in movies about superheroes to give us a lens through which to view the indescribable and we get that by having the normal people interact with the gods. We do not get this by having Stellan Skarsgard run around in his underwear or having Kat Dennings there to make jokes about interns. These characters should do more than be cheap comic relief or they shouldn’t be in the movie at all.
The god stuff is great. Loved all the stuff on Asgard, loved getting more Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo, especially loved more Idris Elba. If they want to blow off doing a third Thor film and just make a Loki film instead I’d be fine with that because Tom Hiddleston is just crushing that part. The action sequences are great, they’ve given such a distinct visual style to the way Thor fights with his hammer that is just so different from the way other heroes fight and a good different not a boring different like we get watching Iron Man shoot slightly different stuff at people all the time.
I’m going to pace myself a little with this movie because I’m absolutely watching it again next weekend and I want to make sure everything has a chance to crystalize but I have to speak out against the elves in this movie speaking some weird elvish language. The Norse gods in this movie speak English, The frost giants of Jotunheim spoke English, the aliens that ordered the attack on earth depicted in The Avengers spoke English. Everything in the nine realms seems to speak English except this band of dwarves? Bullshit, stop ripping off Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II and come up with your own aesthetics.
Arvin’s Take:Thor: the Dark World is an amped-up version of the first Thor, managing to enhance most of the elements that made the first film a pleasant surprise: good characters, good relationships, good comedy, and a nuanced balance between fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, and romance. However, it also does little to assuage people who didn’t like the peculiar tone of the original, plus it’s got a more generic villain and an obnoxiously arbitrary maguffin. Still, Marvel’s accomplished the true modern-day-equivalent of the movie serial, and I have no complaints accepting and enjoying these in-between-Avengers installments as good, disposable, low-stakes fun.
If someone tried to get to know me by only reading this blog you might get the impression that I don’t read at all. I’m not sure I’ve read any of the book’s that have become movies in the last two years. This is true again, I have not read Ender’s Game. I promise I read other books though. Lots of other books. My apartment smells of rich mahogany.
So, with no available context, I liked Ender’s Game. The plot suffers from kind of becoming science fiction cliche in the almost 30 years since the novel was written. I believe I saw every plot point in an episode of Futurama at some point or another but that doesn’t make the ideas worse. It’s well-directed and for the most part has great pace. Director Gavin Hood puts some amazing visuals on the screen that really play with the orbital space station setting of the first half of the film. I honestly thought that after Gravity I could no longer be impressed with orbital visuals but here we are.
Only a few people in Ender’s Game seem to get the luxury of emotional response. I get that we’re depicting a hardened future military school but this is still a movie and I want to see the event impact the characters and with the exception of Ender and his sister I didn’t get the sense that anyone else cared. The cast is full of people that I knew I knew but couldn’t place until I went home and looked them up. For example Petra is played by the girl from the True Grit remake and the Colonel is played by the guy who was Han Solo in Star Wars. It’s nice to see all these people still getting work. Seriously, Harrison Ford is just a snarling exposition dump in this film so the fact that I walked away from this movie feeling positive about him is a serious testament to his prowess.
I can’t decide if it’s good that this movie exists and is successful. It’s a 30 year-old story so it isn’t a new idea. It’s a sic-fi action movie in a period overflowing with sci-fi action movies. It’s based on a book so maybe it’ll get some young person to pick up a book and start reading but then we’re giving more money to an author who’s kind of a cock about a lot of things. It’s a good movie, I had fun watching it but it all just seems so pointless.
Arvin’s Take: Ender’s Game truly does an admirable job of adapting a novel full of challenging ideas. But after the sprawling Harry Potter movies and the edgy pastiche of The Hunger Games, two franchises who owe much of their commercial and critical success to Ender’s Game, Gavin Hood’s effort seems second rate. I needed Harry-Potter-esque relationship building, and I needed Hunger Games' commitment to the emotional weight of its plot contrivances. If Ender’s Game had come out before both of those movie franchises it would’ve been an achievement, but instead, for all its gorgeous design and effects, it just feels dated.
Three new movies! Controversy! Old men acting!
There is a very good chance that Gravity is the highest grossing holdover this week. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa has been dropping all week while Gravity is holding audience like nothing I’ve ever seen (and nonsensically as it’s not a movie that rewards repeat viewing). Neither dil should be competitive unless all the new movies are massive failures.
Opening this weekend
Ender’s Game: I would normally consider Ender’s Game a slam dunk for what should a slow weekend. It has a big action-y trailer and a star in Harrison Ford who if he’s still selling tickets to any one it should be to science fiction movies. It doesn’t seem to have seized the zeitgeist though and part of that might be because of the pushback against Orson Scott Card. That campaign hasn’t really hit a critical mass either but I think the set of people in to science fiction and the set of people sensitive to political causes has a lot of overlap.
Free Birds: An animated movie that I cannot imagine a parent taking their child to. This is a movie about turkeys traveling back in time to stop turkeys from being eaten at Thanksgiving and they want parents to subject their children to that in November? If this is a remotely effective movie it will lead to countless crying fits at Thanksgiving dinners across the country in four weeks. There has been a bit of a family movie drought and Free Birds is in the most theaters this week but I’m struggling to see it.
Last Vegas: I’m sure there is a market for this. I’m sure in fifteen or twenty years when I’m no longer a spring chicken myself I’ll love seeing comedies about old people living it up in Las Vegas. I’m not there yet and even with an aging population I don’t think we’re there yet as a nation. Never fear producers of Last Vegas, I think this will run on TBS forever.
My Pick: I don’t feel fantastic about it but I’m going to take Ender’s Game. It’s just too much of a shiny object not to get snatched up in this market right now.
Arvin’s Pick: Honestly I was all ready to boycott Ender’s Game, one of the most important novels of my adolescence, for a myriad of well-thought-out ethical and personal reasons, so I’m glad there’s the conceit of this blog that I can use as an excuse to break my vow.
I’m a big a fan of the Jackass films as I imagine one can possibly be without having actually seen all of them. I even spent time in 2010 and 2011 asserting that Jackass 3 was a much better use of 3D photography than Avatar was. Despite that I’ve never felt any urge to seek out Jackass 2, the one I haven’t seen. These are fun little films but I don’t need to seek them out. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is about the same thing for me. I didn’t think about it once in the lead up to its release but once I was in the theater I was having a good time.
Bad Grandpa takes what is basically my least favorite part of the Jackass films and blows it way out. 80% of this movie is hidden camera pranks which is not the strength of the franchise. They spend a lot of time on Johnny Knoxville as a perverted or drunk old man trying to pick up random women with or without the assistance of his grandson and that’s a joke that gets old very fast. There’s also a stunning amount of plot scenes, scenes with just Knoxville and the kid trying to move the narrative forward and I wanted to scream at the screen that no one cares. It never even affects the content of the bits.
The set pieces do just work. There are fantastic sequences in a funeral home, in a male strip club, and in a biker bar that work. Comedy should primarily be judged by if the audience is laughing and these all killed in my theater and have had me trying to describe them to friends (and failing miserably all week). I would have rather had a movie full of Jackass-esque stunts but that’s not what I got and I’m pretty happy nonetheless.
One thing that did give me pause is the movie tends to focus on economically disadvantaged areas and that made me worry about who exactly the film is asking me to laugh at. I don’t want to be watching movies about people laughing at stupid poor people. They fill the credits with scenes of the crew revealing to their unsuspecting victims that they’re in a movie and that did just enough to assuage my guilt in the matter but I hope they tread lightly if they go to this territory in the future.
Arvin’s Take: I’ve never actually seen the other Jackass movies but I feel like the hook is seeing guys do impossibly stupid stunts, right? And MAYBE there’d be some shocked innocent bystanders to get reaction shots of? Cause I feel like Bad Grandpa got the ratios reversed, and then wrapped a narrative around it. Granted the kid is adorable and the story is fortified to melt your heart, but in a Jackass movie I was expecting more nut shots and things catching on fire and less of the awkward hidden camera stuff that Sacha Baron Cohen put to bed five years ago.
It’s been brought to my attention that this week’s preview never went up. I have no idea what happened, it isn’t even in my drafts anymore. I blame the Tumblr mobile app because it’s the only thing I did differently.
Arvin and I both picked Bad Grandpa. You’ll just have to trust me.
I have nothing new or interesting to say about Gravity. It is still well-acted and pretty but ultimately feels meaningless. I am staring down the barrel of having to see this movie a fourth time as there’s a very weak slate of movies coming out this week. I thought I would reach back to the coverage of the last movie I saw four times The Hunger Games and attempt to come up with a drinking game for Gravity.
At first I thought it would be very simple and just go with “drink any time Sandra Bullock makes a noise that aren’t words” but it was pointed out to me that that includes gasps and that would lead to horrible alcohol poisoning before the midpoint of the movie. If you exclude gasps it probably isn’t enough drinking although it would still be front loaded which is very important.
I also considered having it be “drink whenever an alarm sounds” but I wasn’t thinking about that the whole way through so I’m not sure if it’s enough. There are a ton of alarms and it would keep things interesting throughout. Maybe do it with beer and chug through all alarms? That sounds like fun/super dangerous.
I promise if Gravity wins a fourth week I will test multiple drinking games for level of intoxication and overall fun. I’m eager to report back.
Arvin’s Take: I’m going to talk about George Clooney’s return in the second act. You’ve seen the movie already, so I’m not spoiling it for you. This is my least favorite section of the film (worse than the nonsensical Clooney-letting-go moment), because it’s such an on-the-nose copout that would have been SO much more compelling if wasn’t a hallucination.
Anyway, it occurred to me this time that not only is the scene still inane, Clooney’s character (or Bullock’s psyche) doesn’t really offer a compelling reason for Bullock to NOT just let herself die up there. He basically says “your kid died, and that’s the worst ever,” which makes sense, but then says “but you have to live life,” and doesn’t explain that. Why does she? Her chance of survival continues to be slim to nil (even with the landing jet trick), and there’s a good chance that she’d die a way worse death than falling asleep and asphyxiating.
It makes a scene that was already bad for explicitly telling you the movie’s theme even worse because it can’t actually justify itself.