The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) – Arriving on DVD and Blu-ray over the weekend, Gary Ross’ mostly faithful and pretty darn good adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster young adult novel became the first zeitgeist tapping film of the year that would lead to 2012 having more films grossing over $400 million domestically than any other year. As for the film, it starts off wonderfully for the first hour as Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) builds the world of Katniss Everdeen before settling into a bit of a more standard groove once the titular fight to the death arises.
For those who live under a rock or scoff at anything at all culturally relevant or popular, the film and the book it’s based on tell the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman living in the distant future in an impoverished district of the new world of Panem. Every year, two children from each district between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected at random and offered up as “tribute” to compete in a national tradition known as The Hunger Games: a battle to the death that includes one boy and one girl from each district. After being horrified that her 12 year old sister is chosen, the hunter and gatherer Katniss volunteers to take her place alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the local baker, in the biggest blood sport in the world.
When the action switches from the agrarian, hardworking, and intelligent denizens of District 12 to the refined, “civilized,” and overly comfortable world of The Capitol where the tributes train, Ross further reinforces his points by turning Collins’ page turner into a really effective treatise on America’s past and future. The production design of the film might be “retro forward” (meaning some aspects don’t look futuristic at all, while other elements seem almost incongruous), but Ross uses his visuals to add nuance to a greater argument about a world where the rich have truly gotten out of control and created a bullshit competition to instil fear in the lower classes. Whenever the film sticks to the dust bowl and the silver spoons, the film really cooks.
Even though, it’s been done to death by now, Ross also crafts one of the more interesting digs at the rise of reality television. In order to rise above their peers, some of whom trained for these games for years and have actual sponsorship deals, Katniss and Peeta are entrusted to a team of three image consultants: a garish looking handler (a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), an alcoholic, antisocial former winner with a gift for spin (Woody Harrelson), and a kind hearted stylist (Lenny Kravitz). In a sly move, Peeta makes his puppydog crush on Katniss made known on national television, much to the hard headed Katniss’ chagrin. On the other hand, Harrelson’s Haymitch seizes the opportunity to create a human interest story out of it to help save at least one of their lives, if not both. The performances are also across the board great in all these roles, with special consideration to be given to Harrelson who actually elevates his character above the chronically drunken caricature he was in the novel.
The Blu-ray looks about as great as one would expect and as good as it can be with regard to Ross’ shaky-cam aesthetic, and it boasts one of the best sound designs of the year, with a crystal clear 7.1 DTS Master Audio mix (which the Blu-ray even provides a great sound test for to make sure your system is up to snuff) and even an impressive 2.1 mix that’s “optimized for late night viewing” so you don’t piss your neighbours off. All bonus features appear on a second disc including a 122 minute making-of documentary full of great insights by Ross on every decision he made which makes the lack of a commentary track forgivable by comparison. The doc isn’t afraid to go a bit “inside baseball” with the behind the scenes talk of securing rights, casting, and financials, but the lack of participation from Collins seems a bit curious. There are also numerous featurettes that seem to just be deleted scenes from the greater documentary about the phenomenon behind the books, Gary Ross preparing for his day, Donald Sutherland eloquently describing his role as the leader of Panem, a look at the design of the games centre (which never appears in the book and was necessary here due to the abandoning of Katniss’ first person narration from the book), a propaganda film that feels like a deleted opening to the film, and a fifteen minute sit down between Ross and film critic Elvis Mitchell that shockingly doesn’t cover the same ground as the other featurettes. Fans of the series should find more than enough here to tide them over until the next instalment.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) – One of the best films of last year was something that could’ve been a standard domestic melodrama about a failed marriage, but instead becomes something far more complex and intriguing thanks to one of the best screenplays in quite some time and some stellar lead performances. It’s win for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars earlier this year was undeniably deserved, but it probably also won for best screenplay, as well.
As writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s film opens, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are going through the arduous process of getting a divorce in Iran, with both parties stating their case to a largely unheard judge. The animosity that has built between the two is palpable and partially because of Nader’s insistence on caring his Alzheimer’s ridden father from home. Simin fails in her bid to secure the divorce and goes to live with her mother, while their child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) stays with her father.
Without Simin to watch over his father and his daughter in school, Nader hires an easily distracted caretaker (Sareh Bayat) with aprideful, hot head of a husband (Shahab Hosseini). When the caretaker proves to be less than honest, two failing marriages are brought together in a court case involving two tragic accidents, theft, and a potential murder charge being brought against Nader.
A Separation unfolds like a literary classic, doling out information in small, subtle bursts that build towards dramatic revelations. When the film shifts focus from a housebound domestic drama to almost entirely taking place in a courthouse that Western audience aren’t used to seeing depicted on screen, the real pleasures of the film begin to set in. Farhadi’s knack for realistic dialog and gifted sense of pacing allows the audience to become transfixed by the drama at the heart of the story.
The performances from the principal cast members are all equal to the material, especially Moadi, who has to play as simultaneously outraged, confused, and heartbroken in almost every scene, and Sarina Farhadi, who has to play the child caught in the middle of an increasingly worsening situation. The real revelation here is Hatami, who plays Simin as a woman firm in her convictions that she wants to leave her husband, but realizing that she’s the only real support he has in a potentially bogus trial.
For the most part, the film doesn’t try very hard to cater to western audiences in terms of creating a fictional world. It does cater to them, by giving them an easy to understand and universally believable story full of poignant moments and thrilling conflicts. It falls apart slightly at the end with what could be construed as being a “cop out” ending, but following the ambiguous contentions the first two hours of the film wrested with, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate ending. It equally leaves the audience wanting more because of how good it is, but eventually makes them realize that they, like the characters, have been through more than enough already.
The DVD boasts more special features than one might expect from a foreign film release, including a French interview with Farhadi about why he became a director, a 30 minute sit down Q&A conducted via a translator about the genesis of the project, and a subtitled commentary track. The Q&A and the interview work a bit better as supplemental material since Farhadi admits to being nervous and not knowing what to say about his film as he watches it. Also, the subtitles of the commentary negate the subtitles of the film, so if you haven’t seen the film previously (or you can speak fluent Farsi) it should probably only be watched by those with a deep affinity for the film. But after a single watch, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2012) – The latest film from Dazed and Confused and Slacker director Richard Linklater, Bernie, is a bit of a rare a kind of film. Blending documentary filmmaking almost seamlessly with coal black comedy, the film is more evocative of the works of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog thanks to its true life story. Subtly creepy, thematically spellbinding, laugh out loud hilarious, and featuring the best performance of Jack Black’s career in the lead, this film stands toe to toe with the beloved director’s best.
Black stars as Bernie Tiede, the assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie cares about his job and his town so much that he literally bends over backwards to please everyone around him. One day while delivering a bouquet of flowers to Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the most hated woman in town, following the death of her husband and for no particular reason, Bernie begins a multi-year romantic and financial relationship with the execrable dowager that ultimately leads to Bernie growing so disgusted with his former friend that he shoots her several times in the back with a rifle, killing her. The impending trial shakes the town to its very core thanks to a showboating assistant district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) who knows he can’t get a fair trial in Carthage because Bernie was so well liked and Marjorie was so abjectly loathed that no jury would ever convict him.
Based on a bizarre real life case, Linklater uses his actors to dramatize the story, but he also includes testimonials from actual people in Carthage that were familiar with the case either on a personal or passing basis. These on camera interviews are more playful than one would get from a straight documentary, but instead of distracting from the more fictionalized elements of the film, they lend an air of authenticity to the production.
The story might be a bit of a tough sell for some on the surface, but there’s a lot more going on here than just a bizarre murder mystery thanks to some extremely strong characters and great performances from a capable cast behind them. MacLaine and Linklater make the wise decision to make Marjorie a woman of few words, hardly saying anything in her first few scenes, but creating someone who can easily be seen as pure evil. McConaughey gets the role with the most comedic relief, but it’s also interesting that the guy with the most suspect social skills actually might be the only person telling the actual truth.
This brings us to Black in the lead as the possibly closeted and generally kind Bernie. Aside from singing numerous gospel songs and showtunes in the film (the one gag that does honestly get old after the third or fourth time it happens), Black allows his vocal register to retract to a John Waters styled murmur, and his usual brand of physical comedy is completely absent here in place of slight fey mannerisms and expressions. He’s exactly the kind of person the town wouldn’t want to believe could kill someone (his acts of kindness to the locals don’t cease after suspicions are raised, but they intensify), but the audience can see both where the character is coming from and how that could easily turn into something a lot darker.
After dabbling in studio comedies, remakes, and arthouse fare for the past few years with varying success, Linklater reasserts himself as a true filmmaker with real vision. While fine for what they were School of Rock and the remake of The Bad News Bearsreally could have been made by anyone, and aside from A Scanner Darkly and the sequel Before Sunset he hasn’t really pushed himself all that hard as a filmmaker for roughly a decade. Bernie has real personality and the stamp of someone who understands this particular southern subculture completely and fully. The subject matter might be dark and pretty twisted when one stops to think about it, but it’s a film made with the utmost degree of love and understanding. It’s a thin line to walk, but Linklater doesn’t falter in his vision, crafting one of the best dark comedies that the Cohen brothers never made.
A Girl Walks into a Bar (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2011) – Dreadful in every sense of the word, the “ensemble comedy” A Girl Walks into a Bar doesn’t even feel like a feature film, but rather a hastily assembled, barely coherent demo reel that feels like director Sebastian Gutierrez (writer of Snakes on a Plane and Gothika) simply calling in favours from his famous friends to make a darkly comedic riff on Crash, but devoid of anything approaching comedy or insight.
The ball gets rolling when a dentist (Zachary Quinto, fighting to figure out what he’s even doing as a character) meets an assassin (Carla Gugino) at a bar to talk about killing his wife. It turns out less than five minutes in that Gugino is playing a former undercover cop who has her wallet stolen by a frequent strip club patron while she was flirting with him. So the film then naturally goes to a stripper who never gets naked (Emmanuelle Chriqui) that has the worst and most out of place internal monologue ever that says nothing and goes nowhere, before it then goes to Danny DeVito telling an unfunny joke in the same vein as the title before Quinto hits him up for money. The film keeps bouncing around like a pinball in a machine that never once lights up for an unconscionable 79 minutes before simply ending with no satisfactory resolution. Josh Hartnett, Rosario Dawson, Alexis Bledel, and Robert Forster are also set hopelessly adrift in thankless roles that are only there to give pointless information, quirk, or underline the painfully obvious.
The only special features aside from the box making a nifty coaster holder are some cell phone videos shot by the cast which actually hold slightly more joy than the entire film.
Breathless (Jesse Baget, 2012) – It’s not often that something can be described as “being stagey” when talking about a film and have it be a compliment, but Breathless (which is a pretty misleading title since it doesn’t actually mean anything) is a rare exception. Director Jesse Baget’s well thought out if somewhat slight and occasionally draggy film takes place in a single confined setting which allows the talented cast of actors free reign to focus on the dialogue and the material instead of forcing them to move all over the place.
In an isolated trailer in Clark County, Texas circa 1981, Lorna (Gina Gershon, playing trailer trash for the second time this year following Killer Joe) has grown tired of her husband (Val Kilmer) and his unreformed thieving ways. She knows he’s recently graduated from knocking over convenience stores to pulling off a $100,000 heist of a savings and loan and she ties him to a chair to try and find out where the money is so she can finally get a cut. Unfortunately a local sheriff (Ray Liotta) that’s parked down the street waiting for a warrant also knows the score. She invites her best friend Tiny (Kelli Giddish) over for moral support, and that’s when things get complicated and extremely messy.
As a black comedy that turns intensely gory and cartoonish, Baget’s decision to only sparingly go outside the trailer works wonders, and Gershon and Giddish have a wonderful chemistry together that only strengthens as the two friends grow closer and closer apart thanks to some great twists. Liotta doesn’t have much to do, but Kilmer has some great over the top moments as the dumb ass husband. Wayne Duvall also shows up later as a hopelessly sexist private investigator with one of the worst combovers ever witnessed, and his arrival, although welcome, signifies a downturn in the story as the twists become more and more arbitrary, leading to an ending that betrays all of the character motivations that had been previously established. It just doesn’t make much sense, but thanks to Gershon and Giddish, the film never ceases to be entertaining.
The Blu-ray boasts nice colours and sound and comes with a 15 minute making of featurette and commentary from Baget and producer Christine Holder.
One in the Chamber (William Kaufman, 2012) – Arriving just in time to hopefully cash in on a resurgence in Dolph Lundgren’s career after this past week’s theatrical release of The Expendables 2, the incoherent and sometimes dull action thriller One in the Chamber does forward the idea explored in this week’s biggest box office earner that Lundgren does have a natural funny bone, can still perform action sequences well, and he might be a better on screen presence than ever before. This makes it a shame that the film sets him in conflict with a hopelessly miscast Cuba Gooding Jr., who has taken the exact opposite direction in his career.
Gooding stars as Ray Caver, a haunted, bible reading hitman of few words living in Prague and working as a Russian mob enforcer. After a botched job starts a mob war, Carver gets hired by the family he was once trying to kill at twice the rate of his previous employers. Clearly pissed off after he kills a high ranking family member, Carver’s former employers turn to the services of Alexi (Lundgren), a.k.a. The Wolf, a Soviet era relic and legend with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, jaunty hats, one liners, and kicking the shit out of people.
The plot of the film is completely incomprehensible and boring since the audience knows nothing of this blood feud and there’s no real reason to care, yet director William Kaufman tries way too hard to get the viewer to care by devoting nearly half the film to the warring families threatening everyone in sight over the phone. Kaufman also can’t settle on a single tone, bouncing between brooding drama, 80s action, Tarantino styled stylistics, and ill advised grindhouse looking flashbacks.
Gooding seems to care just as much as we do, looking often like he just woke up in dramatic scenes and occasionally smiling so we know he still has a pulse. It’s not his fault, though. His character is written to be pretty much a blank slate, so there’s only so much he can do, especially when he’s given a ridiculous meet-cute romance with the surviving daughter of one of his victims. Lundgren, however, seems to be having a blast single-handedly keeping the movie afloat, acting a bit like what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Red Heat might have been like with a more pleasant disposition and he was a tourist. Lundgren’s fun to watch, but the rest of the film is the pits. A 10 minute assemblage of behind the scenes B-roll is the lone special feature, offering nothing.