Movie/DVD Reviews

 Unless otherwise noted, all reviews posted on this page have been written by Jed Pressgrove, who is a technical writer and master’s student in sociology at Mississippi State University.

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The Hunger Games Parallels American Society

 I recently saw The Hunger Games, a movie based on the book of the same name. The film has become a worldwide phenomenon, over the past month. It is projected to make north of $1 Billion, worldwide, which will make the fantasy flick one of the highest grossing movies in history.

As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but notice the different themes in the movie. The obvious ones are “corrupt government” and “a love triangle”. But I felt other elements in the movie parallel current American society.

Death Match

The central plot of the movie, the death match, is what I want to focus on first. I know some people might ask, “How does this relate to American life?” But, it reminds me a lot of the “rat race” mindset;  trying to reach the American dream is comparable to the Death Match in The Hunger Games. The different districts have to sacrifice themselves to reach the ultimate prize. How does that differ from America? Different ethnicities have to sometimes sacrifice their own traditions to succeed, at times.

The country gets divided along racial and political lines, and brother has to take out brother, sometimes – like in The Hunger Games. The last thing the higher-ups want to see is for brethren to come together, like at the end of the movie, when Katniss and Peeta refuse to adhere to the final rule change. It infuriated President Snow and they planned to make them pay for their defiance.

Katniss

I actually thought Katniss mirrored President Obama, in several ways. Her character represented “hope and change” in the fictional world -just like Obama in the United States. She also came out of nowhere, similar to the way Obama did, to become the favorite in the Presidential race. The fact that Katniss was beautiful and had a good public image helped her gain support from sponsors; Obama’s being considered handsome and having a great public image made him desirable to voters. Is it art imitating life? Perhaps.

Rue’s Death

I feel Rue’s death compares to what happens in America, when an important figure dies fighting for a cause. It resulted in civil unrest, which has happened in America when certain leaders have died; Martin Luther King is a good example. It’s just a coincidence that Rue was African-American from an agricultural district – or was it?

“Don’t Go The Easy Route”

The mentor in the movie, Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson, tells Katniss not to go the easy route by using her weapons, right away, because it is a bloodbath. He told her to, instead, go for higher ground and try to outlast everyone. This is actually the formula for success in America. If you follow the crowd, then you might have some success, but, eventually, you fail because of it. If you remain above it all and take your time and strategically strike when it’s needed – then, you will be successful. There is luck that plays into what Katniss had, but viewing life as a marathon -instead of a sprint – is the smarter route to move up the ladder.

“Don’t Give Too Much Hope”

The final thing I wanted to address was President Snow telling Seneca Crane, the game maker, not to give the people too much hope, but, rather, to contain it. I think America does that, also, but in a different way.

I remember, in a class, once, I told my teacher that I didn’t know why people got so emotional over affirmative action, because black people haven’t said much about anything since then. Some view that as controversial, but – speaking as an African-American – I feel that  I’m qualified to make that statement.

I’ve always felt that America is an aristocracy—not a democracy -meaning the country is ruled by the elite. I feel the elite gives the regular citizens just enough to keep them satisfied; things like sports careers, entertainment careers, and solid nine-to-five jobs. But they know Americans should really strive to work for themselves and dictate their own futures. We have social welfare programs and government assistance that breed complacency, and that’s how the elite like it.

Again, is it art imitating real life? It could be.

In the remaining two books in The Hunger Games trilogy – Catching Fire and Mockingjay – the citizens of the world begin to grow restless with the government and look to rebel against it. I don’t think America needs to have a revolution literally; mentally, people should take some cues from The Hunger Games and wake up to what’s really going on.

This review was written by guest reviewer Jeremiah Short, who also serves as our ace Sportswriter.

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New to DVD: Dragon Tattoo Should be Removed

A remake of a 2009 Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is easy enough to watch, even though it runs two-and-a-half hours long. The problem is that it mistakes darkness for depth. Director David Fincher seems interested in nothing more than serial killing, sex and sorrow.

The opening credits feature stylish but meaningless sex and violence in liquid imagery. With an industrial version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” playing along, these credits resemble a disturbing commercial. The film doesn’t get any more sophisticated. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an inept mystery, with zero emotional resonance.

The plot is best summarized as Daniel Craig (James Bond!) and Rooney Mara (the girl in the film’s title) investigating the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, 40 years ago. The two investigators suspect the girl was killed by a member of her wealthy family, and they eventually discover a series of murdered women that coincide with the girl’s vanishing. They also find that these murders were inspired by the Book of Leviticus, from the Bible.

The mystery is just stupid. The film gives simple answers to its questions, like Nazism and a crazed interpretation of the Bible. When the perpetrator was revealed, I blandly accepted it. The movie doesn’t cause one to think of the possibilities, as any good mystery should. Instead, it hands the explanation to you. The whole thing is a silly campfire story.

Oh, but David Fincher’s film is very serious. With a dire tone, the tattooed girl references a famous movie, when she takes revenge on a rapist: “And there will be blood.”  What a misplaced reference, given that There Will Be Blood is a dark comedy, not merely dark, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

As the girl with the dragon tattoo, Mara has screen presence to spare, but her character is poorly written. What we know is that she’s had a tough life and is crazy because of it. We also know she likes drinking Coke, eating McDonald’s Happy Meals and using Apple computers. Product placement equals character development in Fincher’s slick mind.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fails most profoundly with its theme of unrequited love. Fincher doesn’t establish any believable emotion between Craig and Mara. He only shows Mara’s breasts multiple times and asks her to have an orgasm in one scene. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo absurdly believes its focus on sexuality is somehow similar to, say, Pip’s struggle in Great Expectations.

Fincher wasn’t this banal with his other serial killer movies. In Seven, he upended genre conventions. In Zodiac, he demonstrated how unresolved murders take a toll on humankind. However, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he attempts to pass off a trashy television special as cinema. It’s too bad for McDonald’s, that children can’t watch this movie. The chain could have sold even more Happy Meals.

Originally Published in March 28, 2012 Print Edition
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Project X  Wastes Potential with Sexism, Idiocy

Project X seems mysterious given its title, but the film is about teens drinking, doing drugs, having sex and being degenerates, in general. What separates Project X from other teen movies is its presentation. The movie is “filmed” by a character using a camera – a technique popularized by The Blair Witch Project and used in many recent horror movies, including Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.

It’s not exactly novel for a teen comedy to copy horror movies, and it would’ve been a mistake for Project X to pass off its absurdities as “real”, with its camerawork. But director Nima Nourizadeh doesn’t fall into that trap. Project X cleverly resembles a horror movie during its hilarious and exciting climax. In doing so, the film pokes fun at the mockumentary style that has plagued the horror genre, while pointing out that teens can be monsters when it comes to having a good time.

One cannot deny the rampant sexism and homophobia displayed by the male characters of Project X. In fact, the film has been widely criticized for this. While it is true the male characters of Project X are not moral people, one must keep in mind they’re teenagers. It would’ve been dishonest to leave out the sexism and homophobia, which are, whether we like it or not, prevalent in the culture of male teens. And at least the main character in Project X, played by Thomas Mann, somewhat comes to terms with his own sexism.

But one can only defend Project X so much. Its female characters are essentially meat. The film is exploitative, with numerous shots of nude female breasts. The sexism is at its worst, and most preposterous, when the main female character, played by Kirby Bliss Blanton, lets Mann off the hook for exploiting her sexuality and friendship. The film portrays Blanton as a self-respecting girl until the resolution. It’s even more insulting that Nourizadeh treats this moment as sweet, rather than idiotic.

Project X does approach sanity and maturity when Mann must confront his dad, played by Peter MacKenzie, about the destruction he and his friends have caused to his home, the setting of the party. MacKenzie is stunned by Mann’s immaturity and asks him how many people attended the party. Mann answers, and MacKenzie is impressed by the number, as Mann says it was awesome. MacKenzie then delivers the best line of Project X: “Well, you’re still f***ed, Thomas.” If Project X had ended there, it would’ve been funny and fitting. Instead, the film ends on a positive note for Mann, and features obligatory and stupid “Where are they now?” segments for the male characters.

Todd Phillips produced Project X, so it doesn’t surprise me that the film shirks responsibility and comedic timing. Phillips was the director of The Hangover, a terrible movie about terrible people. Project X is better than The Hangover, but that’s a mighty low standard for entertainment.

Jed Pressgrove is a technical writer and master’s student in sociology at Mississippi State University.

Originally Published in March 14, 2012 Print Edition

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New to DVD: In Time Denies Political Reality

Although it takes place in the future, In Time is about current economic inequality in the United States. Unfortunately, the film suggests that revolution can justify criminal activity of any sort, ignoring the use of political power in a democratic republic.

Director/writer Andrew Niccol creates a fascinating world where time is both money and one’s lifeblood. Every person, starting at age 25, stops aging but starts losing time from a genetically engineered clock in the left arm (perhaps an allusion to the Mark of the Beast). When the time runs out, you die.

This idea of people being 25 until they die results in a strange moment when protagonist Justin Timberlake first talks to his 50-year-old mother Olivia Wilde, who looks more like Timberlake’s 25-year-old girlfriend, of course. But their mother-son relationship is ultimately as flimsy as paper. Wilde serves no purpose other than to die and inspire Timberlake’s war against the system.

At the same time (it’s difficult to write about this movie without a pun), the film has great pacing. Within 10 minutes, Timberlake is on the run. Before you know it, he’s been granted a century of time by a 105-year-old man who is tired of living. The old man’s line “We want to die. We need to.” is probably the film’s most interesting idea, but it’s wasted, given that In Time becomes a Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Robin Hood fantasy.

With his new fortune, Timberlake attempts to fit in with the time-rich crowd and woo an overprotected daughter (Amanda Seyfried), but his sociological lesson and love plans are interrupted by authorities called Timekeepers, led by Cillian Murphy. Timberlake then uses a gun to take Seyfried hostage and escape; Seyfried goes through Stockholm Syndrome and falls in love with Timberlake, and the two become bank robbers, to give back to the poor.

In Time is basically an “Eat the Rich” rant. Niccol’s story ignores aspects like government and citizenship – Timberlake’s hero is a nutty parallel to the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the United States, robbing the rich is a hysterical idea. Not only does it overlook methods of gaining political power (voting, assemblies, striking, etc.), but it forgets our laws are enforced by authorities much more effective than Timekeepers.

One could say I’m taking an action-packed movie too seriously. The truth is that In Time takes itself too seriously. The dialogue has more puns than I thought possible, but the movie is rarely light-hearted. As far as the action goes, there are good car chases. Other than that, In Time is serviceable, rather than exhilarating like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Even though In Time is kind of stupid, its premise is attention-grabbing. The film can be enjoyed as an absurd response to hard times, and the only dancing from Timberlake is, thankfully, unforced. However, this movie inspires complacency, rather than political action.

Jed Pressgrove is a technical writer and master’s student in sociology at Mississippi State University.

Originally Published in March 7, 2012 Print Edition

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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance Sells Art in Trash

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is the first visually stunning Marvel comic book movie. In the film, Nicolas Cage plays a hero trying to get rid of his demonic powers – he basically doesn’t want his head to become a flaming skull. Several scenes separate Spirit of Vengeance from X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and others, but the first great visual comes after Cage gives a frenzied and hilarious interrogation. Cage’s internal struggle is showcased on a blindingly fast bike ride as he screams and his head twitches and changes shape. This sequence alone demonstrates a creativity that no other Marvel film has, and other visuals in Spirit of Vengeance, such as a boy reenergizing Cage by breathing fire into his mouth, rival its audacity.

Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor forget superhero movie conventions and give the Ghost Rider character its own cinematic energy. Neveldine/Taylor originally shook things up with two action masterpieces, Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage. These films ran at breakneck speed, as they dared to be more extreme than any action movie, all the while commenting on the ridiculousness of a hero who can never be stopped. Similarly, Spirit of Vengeance is always moving. Neveldine/Taylor use brisk animated sequences to get you up to speed on the good guy, the bad guy, and the source of the good guy’s power. In contrast, other Marvel superhero movies waste scene after scene on origins and backstory.

Undoubtedly, you’ll notice the acting in Spirit of Vengeance is over the top. If Cage’s involvement isn’t a clear warning, Christopher Lambert’s role should be. Even Ciarán Hinds hams it up as Roarke, A.K.A. the Devil. But what else should we expect? With lines like “So you’re the devil’s baby mama,” we’re supposed to laugh and not take obvious fantasy seriously. Neveldine/Taylor doesn’t pretend this material demands grave attention. This honest sense of fun is epitomized by the pissing-fire inside-joke between Cage and the boy he must save.

For all its silliness and talk of demons, Spirit of Vengeance is more respectable than Thor or X-Men: First Class from a cultural standpoint. Idris Elba was the only black character in Thor, but he played a mythological doorman, a new spin on the old butler stereotype, as critic Armond White pointed out. In Spirit of Vengeance, Elba is an ass-kicking priest who offers Cage a chance at spiritual redemption. Even though Elba dies like Darwin (the only black character in X-Men: First Class), Elba’s death is memorably defiant, unlike Darwin’s “And there goes the black guy” demise.

Whereas the Iron Man films, Thor and Captain America may serve as advertisements for the Avengers movie, Spirit of Vengeance is a trash can filled with art. It neither promises a sequel nor cares about the original Ghost Rider film. Neveldine/Taylor and Cage reject the pretensions of Marvel’s movie line and offer a fun cinematic experience.

Jed Pressgrove is a technical writer and master’s student in sociology at Mississippi State University.

Originally Published in February 29, 2012 Print Edition 

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New to DVD: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil Defends Country Folk

The premise of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil sounds like a one-joke skit. While on vacation in the woods, a group of college students assume that two country boys in a strange cabin are out to kill them. In reality, the country boys are on vacation, too, with the goal of restoring an old cabin. Blinded by fear, the students wind up killing themselves in a variety of stupid ways, while the country boys try to figure out what’s going on.

Oddly enough, this comedy/horror film works best as a love story that corrects stereotypes about country folk in American horror movies. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil has several funny and gruesome moments, but director Eli Craig shows a connection between a burly country boy and a pretty college girl that’s sweeter than any of the movie’s laughs.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance and their imitators have given country folk a bad name, but our film culture hasn’t responded to these movies with anything like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, a Canadian production. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil dares to make a farce of Leatherface’s iconic chainsaw waving in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In Deliverance, Burt Reynolds’ observations about life are presented as philosophical and deep (for example: “I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk.”). Tucker & Dale vs. Evil features its own version of Reynolds, with actor Jesse Moss. Moss is a college kid, with a popped collar, whose speeches about survival expose Reynolds’ observations as adolescent nonsense. Just because Reynolds and Moss are city folk doesn’t mean they’re more cultured than country folk.

But even as Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes on stereotypes, it isn’t preachy. The film is simply a fun ride with sociology. When two of the college students enter a country store, they are put off by the stares of the clerk and a customer. As the students walk to the back of the store for beer, the clerk suggests to the customer that the kids were the ones looking weird. Cultural misunderstanding often goes both ways, and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is able to see the humor in it.

The film also depicts, on both sides, the psychological violence in cultural misunderstanding. Much of it is self-inflicted and, of course, leads to physical violence. Many films, like Deliverance and Wrong Turn, ignore this sophisticated cultural process and present country folk as born killers. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil rejects these films, with Tyler Labine, who plays the aforementioned burly country boy. When Moss threatens Labine’s dog with a gun, Labine starts crying and says, “If you kill my dog, I swear to God, I swear to God I’ll be really mad!” The scene is as funny as it is authentic.

As I said above, the movie ultimately succeeds because of the relationship between the burly, bearded Labine and the pretty college girl, played by Katrina Bowden. Their connection isn’t forced, but genuine: Bowden was raised on a farm, and Labine is smarter than he thinks he is. As they learn about each other, the comedy and horror take a backseat. For a movie that takes aim at cultural stereotypes in popular films, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is surprisingly touching.

Jed Pressgrove is a technical writer and master’s student in sociology at Mississippi State University.

Originally Published in February 22, 2012 Print Edition

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The Woman in Black Wears a Familiar Dress

The Woman in Black cares more about characters than it does plot twists, so much so that the film gives away its ending, instead of presenting it as a shock. This odd detail is the only way the film breaks from horror movie tradition.

As you may know, the main character of The Woman in Black is played by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, whose maturity as an actor must be noted. The other important character is played by Ciarán Hinds, not a household name but a great actor, with dominating screen presence (watch him in Munich). After facing deaths in their respective families, Radcliffe has gained a belief in spirits while Hinds prefers to think rationally. This dynamic makes for an effective climax, in which faith and rationality are challenged.

The nicest thing that can be said about The Woman in Black is that it doesn’t pretend to be original. Unlike recent shams, such as the Paranormal Activity series, Insidious and Black Swan, The Woman in Black wants us to enjoy the things we’ve seen in many horror movies: menacing villagers, strange dolls, faces that appear out of nowhere, idle figures, decaying mansions, ghosts talking through people – the list is long and familiar. Although this film cannot be considered more than a minor accomplishment in horror nostalgia, at least it isn’t condescending.

It also doesn’t resemble a television show, unlike the mockumentary and found-footage horror films that cash in on the success of The Blair Witch Project, a detestable fit of a motion picture. Thanks to good cinematography, art direction and lighting, The Woman in Black actually looks like a movie. The sound editing is even better than the visuals. Clearly, director James Watkins is not a hack who would be better off filming an episode of Hoarders, though he could improve as a filmmaker if he developed his own ideas.

By now, you’re noticing a theme: I like this movie because it doesn’t suck like a slew of other horror movies. The truth is that The Woman in Black sets its goals so low that it would’ve been hard to screw up. Unlike great recent horror movies like The Descent, Pontypool and The Last House on the Left remake, The Woman in Black isn’t daring or provocative, just serviceable. It also takes its sweet time building excitement; some of the first hour is boring.

There isn’t much else to say about The Woman in Black, other than it is produced by Hammer Films, a popular horror film company that was out of the game for decades, until a few years ago. Since The Woman in Black has more than tripled its $12 million budget in box office sales, we can expect to see more horror movies from Hammer Films. Hopefully, the company’s next film will be as honest as The Woman in Black – and more compelling.

Jed Pressgrove is a technical writer and master’s student in sociology at Mississippi State University.

Originally Published in February 22, 2012 Print Edition

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