TV Party is a new Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Okay, so this is cheating just a bit, since The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t actually on Netflix Instant until Wednesday. But all the same, it’s available in plenty of other places already, and odds are you know at least one person who owns it, so why wait?
The transition from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence as the directorial figurehead of the Hunger Games film adaptations seemed at first like a hasty exit from the frying pan into a wall of fire and brimstone. While Ross’ first film was a muddled mess of poorly executed shaky-cam and Suzanne Collins’ rich universe building being hastily reduced to a series of expository cutscenes, Lawrence’s work on films like I Am Legend and Water for Elephants hardly suggested him as the man for the job. But as it turns out, he was exactly the man for the job.
Catching Fire does a far better job of fleshing out the particulars of Panem than its predecessor and lets Jennifer Lawrence bring more to Katniss than a glower and a series of confused questions. Because the film is centered more on a world boiling with the spirit of revolution than one beaten into submission, Catching Fire feels vastly more alive than the first film and is a damned fine piece of action filmmaking in its own right. It’s a blockbuster with a conscience and one that offers some difficult ideas about the unsung costs of rebellion. Not bad for a franchise that could’ve easily rested on its laurels and printed its own money regardless.
Killing Them Softly
Here’s a weird little movie for you this weekend.
Killing Them Softly is a movie about the recession, only it doesn’t focus on everyday Joes losing their jobs or families struggling to get by in trying times. Instead, it chooses to follow hitmen, small-time crooks, and the mafia as they try to get by. One of these hitmen (Fury’s Brad Pitt) is hired to locate and eliminate a couple of losers who get in way over their heads by robbing a mob-organized poker game. Issues of payment, discussions of a failing economy, and the ever-present TV in the background with images of the Bush administration (G.W.’s) dominate the movie, though there are beautifully orchestrated action sequences to break up the lengthy passages of dialogue.
Pitt’s hitman and a fellow hitman played by James Gandolfini (imagine if Tony Soprano never rose in the ranks) provide stellar performances, but it’s the foolish twosome of Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn who steal the show. Both are continuing their rise on the small and big screen, with McNairy just appearing in Gone Girl (Mendelsohn has a small role in December’s Exodus: Gods and Kings).
The film is also notable for re-teaming director Andrew Dominik with his star (Pitt) from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and while Killing has its problems (apparently 50 minutes were excised from the original cut), it’s certainly worth a look for its unique portrayal of modern problems amidst all the gunfire.
Earlier this week, I ranted and raved about Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, insisting that the sequel is “even more fun than its predecessor thanks to tight pacing, clever plotting, and an expanded mythology that stays true to its aura.” Well, guess what? You’re gonna need to see the first one if you plan on seeking out its cheeky bloodbath of a follow-up this weekend. Good news: The film’s since expanded into several theaters; in Chicago, it’s playing at my church — the Music Box Theatre.
Similar to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi zombie masterpiece follows a group of friends seeking out a fun weekend at the cabin. The key difference is that they’re shacking way up in the Norwegian mountains, which apparently has a bloody history involving Nazis. So much so that the evil creeps are still lurking around up there as carnivorous zombies. Rest assured, Wirkola cuts to the core of what fuels any shithead Nazi: gold.
Look, it’s a dumb movie by all accounts. But Wirkola injects enough campy humor and subverts so many of horror’s most ridiculous tropes that the tongue-in-cheek premise eventually becomes rather brilliant. Die-hard horror heads will also revel in the film’s hyperactive addiction to gore, which only turns more robust and over-the-top as the minutes pass. In fact, there’s one scene involving a window and someone’s skull that’s worth five minutes of A-B repeating.
So, catch this and then champion the film’s unlikely hero in its tighter sequel.
Josh Radnor, best known for playing Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, is more than a vaguely recognizable actor from a long-running sitcom. He’s also an accomplished writer and director (his directorial debut, Happythankyoumoreplease, won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010) with a knack for naturalistic dialogue and intimacy in the most unexpected of places. His Liberal Arts is a little film that leaves a lasting impression, perhaps because Radnor, who wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in the 2012 indie dramedy, chose to shoot on location at his alma mater, Kenyon College, and based the story on his own experiences there.
Radnor’s Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions officer dissatisfied with his career and life in general, returns to his old stomping grounds for clarity and purpose, but also, of course, romanticized nostalgia and escape. “This is the only time you get to do this,” Jesse tells liberal arts student Zibby (a radiant Elizabeth Olsen). “You get to sit around and read really great books and talk with people about ideas.” Remember freedom without responsibility? Those were the days.
But who says your “best years” have to be behind you? Luckily, Liberal Arts provides plenty of credence to the contrary; and thanks to acute performances from Radnor and his ensemble, particularly Richard Jenkins and fellow Kenyon graduate Allison Janney as professors and Olsen as the idealistic 19-year-old with whom Jesse begins a tricky relationship, this passion project is more genuine (read: less pretentious) than most. Plus, the gorgeous panoramic shots of the leafy Ohio campus will probably make you wish you were back in college, too, even if it’s just to sit under a tree and fully immerse yourself in Infinite Jest.
Found footage horror is a trend. I get it. It’s the new slasher, the new torture porn — perfected rarely, imitated endlessly. Yet the intellectual backlash that’s ignited since Paranormal Activity started sprouting multiple heads continually blames the genre, not the filmmaker. Nearly every review of every found footage movie to come out these days begins with the critic denouncing the form and calling for its demise.
I understand the criticisms, of course. They’re often slow to get going, visually disorienting, and deserving of the question, “WHY ARE YOU STILL FILMING, YOU MORON?” But the first-person perspective is often thrilling, and the traditionally low budgets result in an embrace of minimalism, of ambiguity, of the glimpse — almost always more effective than prolonged exposure. Even the most dire entries into the canon — shit like Apollo 18 and Devil’s Pass — give me more thrills, spills, and chills than garbage like Insidious.
Still, no found footage horror film has unnerved like 2007’s REC, a Spanish shocker from directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza that finds a reporter, her cameraman, and numerous others trapped inside a quarantined apartment building with … well, things. The limited perspective that is so often a constraint of the genre serves as one of this film’s greatest assets, as many of its most unnerving moments come from the ignorance we share with the characters of the enormity of the situation, conveyed through scraps of newspaper and the inexplicable appearance of men in hazmat suits.
REC is also just damn scary, thanks in no small part to the just-shaky-enough camerawork, which makes the most out of every jerk and pan. Look no further than the final five minutes, a masterwork of obfuscation and escalating tension that’s resulted in no less than three of those “Scariest Horror Gifs” internet memes.
REC got its own American remake, Quarantine, in 2008. Found footage horror: perfected rarely, imitated endlessly.