Category: Thriller


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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

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Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

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Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

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Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

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Certain movie ideas shouldn’t work. A movie about two pretentious intellectuals having a two hour long dinner conversation in real time shouldn’t work. But My Dinner With Andre somehow does. A film adaptation of a decidedly internalized, fantastical religious thought experiment/coming of age tale shouldn’t have been possible to make. But Life of Pi is a modern masterpiece. An animated children’s film (per the filmmaker’s intentions anyway) chronicling a brother and sister slowly starving to death in the wake of the destruction of the second World War would never be greenlit in America. But, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful war films ever made. One can add Robert Altman’s 1973 film noir deconstruction The Long Goodbye to a list of that films that seem insane on paper but turn out great despite any initial misgivings.

Philip Marlowe, the beleaguered but cocksure private eye at the heart of a series of seminal Raymond Chandler mystery novels, became an archetype of all hard-boiled detectives to follow and his portrayal in Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep by Humphrey Bogart set the standard for practically every movie Brother Sheamus afterwards. And Robert Altman’s decision to update the iconic gumshoe from his native 1940s to the decadent 1970s and to transform Marlowe from a portrait of street-wise masculinity to a zen, cat-obsessed stoner makes no sense on paper. Leave it to Robert Altman to utterly buck convention and still craft a noir mystery that outshines many of the films that came before by becoming a masterful commentary on the genre itself (although there’ll never be a better Marlowe than Bogie).

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The Long Goodbye is a loose and modern adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name. Living in a high-rise penthouse across the way from topless, acid-dropping female yoga enthusiasts, Philip Marlowe (American History X‘s Elliott Gould) has few worries other than getting his cat to eat the off-brand cat food she despises. That is, he’s worry free until his old friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) shows up at his door and asks Marlowe to give him a lift to Tijuana. And the next day, Marlowe quickly learns to regret giving his friend that simple favor when Lennox’s wife turns up dead and days later, Lennox apparently commits suicide in the jungles of Mexico.

And it isn’t long before the cops want to pin Marlowe as an accessory in the murder of Lennox’s wife. And even if he’s able to clear his name from those charges, a gangster by the name of Marty Augustine (The Rose‘s Mark Rydell) thinks Marlowe is covering up the disappearance of Terry Lennox, who stole $350,000 from Marty’s organization. And to round out The Long Goodbye‘s appropriately large Altman cast is Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) and Roger Wade (The Godfather‘s Sterling Hayden) as a married couple whose problems with a suspicious psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) may be related to the murder/suicide of the Lennox family.

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The Long Goodbye is a deliciously anachronistic creation. Taking a story ripped right out of the early 1950s, with one of the most beloved fictional characters of the 1940s, and placing it in the coked-out world of the 1970s and cramming it chock full of period details of both eras is as inspired a decision as Altman has made in his lengthy, illustrious career. Whether it’s the ever-present 1940s jazz standards, Marlowe’s glorious 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible, the suits ripped right out of classic noir wardrobes, and the signs for food prices that are too low even by 1940s standards, The Long Goodbye creates an almost delirious atmosphere of a man totally out of time and place minus the nearly zen koans that pass as his occasional conversations with passer-by.

And, that’s the first of a major string of commentaries that forms the subtext of Altman’s neo-noir masterwork, The Long Goodbye. Film noir hasn’t been fashionable as one of the go-to American movie genres since the 1950s, but heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe (both played by Bogie at different points in his career) or Jake Gittes are timeless favorites of all serious movie fans. Although there are aesthetic elements in the appeal of noir (the black and white photography, the gorgeous femme fatales, the fashion), much of the love of the genre is the counter-culture heroes who stand just outside of normal society while still adhering to their own strict codes of honor and morality (something Altman plays with as well in the film’s shocking denouement).

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But other elements of classic noir are on display throughout, yet always in a way that subverts the traditional mold. I’ve read Chandler’s novels and there’s always an undercurrent of perverse homosexual villains (despite the fact that many Chandler historians think he was a closeted homosexual), and The Long Goodbye turns this on its head with one of the most intentionally hilariously homoerotic scenes in noir history in a scene featuring one of the first movie appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Chandler’s twisting-turning tales with ambiguity are only amplified by this film’s psychedelic, drug-soaked haze.

In practically every way, The Long Goodbye deals with the subversive sexual undertones of Chandler’s works in more honest and apparent detail than The Big Sleep. Released in 1946, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep was forced to censor so many elements of Chandler’s novel that if you hadn’t read the book, it was nearly impossible to follow. I’ve never read The Long Goodbye (I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely), but the film never had to skirt around the darker elements of the story although it also never felt the need to hammer things home in completely ham-fisted trite ways either. This is a Chandler adaptation that captures the spirit of the novels like no other film before or after.

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And, of course, The Big Lebowski couldn’t exist without The Long Goodbye. If The Big Lebowski‘s story is ripped whole-sale from The Big Sleep, it’s visual style is taken directly from this film, and I was honestly stunned by the number of direct visual shout-outs I was able to pick up on just from my first viewing of The Long Goodbye. All of the devil-may-care satire that Robert Altman crams into this film would ultimately be perfected by the Coens in their cult magnum opus. And unlike many later Altman films (i.e. Gosford Park), the film never gets bogged down with so much dialogue that you never quite know who to pay attention to although Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue is still present.

For fans of the 1970s neo-noir renaissance, including gems like Chinatown (arguably the greatest American film ever made) and Arthur Penn’s criminally underappreciated Night Moves, The Long Goodbye should be required viewing. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe may never capture the public’s imagination the way Humphrey Bogart did, but there’s a drug-fueled logic to his performance and the entire film that is there for the taking if you allow yourself to get lost in the nearly surrealist atmosphere that Altman cultivates. Alongside the film version of M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye is one of the crown jewels in the career of one of America’s most innovate filmmakers.

Final Score: A

 

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Chinatown is arguably one of the five greatest American films ever made if not the greatest period, and while the subtext of cruelty and random violence exists alongside a masterful deconstruction of the elements of classic noir, Chinatown‘s genius primarily resides in being an excellent story perfectly told. It has those elements of being about more than the story of Jake Gittes as well as great characters, but unlike most of the films I herald as “the greatest ever made,” it’s story is 99% of the draw. Chinatown is practically the Platonic ideal of great screenwriting, and 2000’s Memento from director Christopher Nolan is the greatest neo-noir since Polanski bowled us over 40 years ago.

Memento‘s reputation as “the movie told in backward chronology” kept me from watching it for many years. As someone who’s found Christopher Nolan’s work to be very good but not as great as many others seem to believe, I assumed the film’s gimmick was its only draw. That isn’t the case, but even if it had been and there weren’t any more layers to Memento other than its tightly-layered narrative, Memento would have been one of the most expertly paced and structured crime thrillers of the last decade. But by becoming a commentary on how we remember things and what we choose to remember (as well as a slick discussion of the emptiness of revenge), Memento is so much more than its gimmick.

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Though it is more than its gimmick and as sharply scripted and clever as any film of the aughts, Memento‘s unique structure provides half of the thrills of any first viewing. Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) plays Leonard, a man suffering from a severe (and not medically accurate but I honestly don’t care in this film) case of anterograde amnesia. Leonard’s wife was raped and murdered, and during the assault, Leonard was given serious brain damage. He can remember everything before his injury with perfect clarity, but Leonard no longer has the capability of producing short term memories. Before long, Leonard forgets everything that’s just happened to him, and the only way he’s able to function is through an elaborate series of tattoos and photographs that direct him towards his next action.

Leonard’s sole raison d’etre is to find and kill the man who murdered his wife and left him with his condition. And the film begins with Leonard killing the seemingly friendly Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) because a photograph of Teddy that Leonard is carrying says he is the one and that he must kill him. And from there, the film continues to unravel back towards the beginning as we find out that maybe Teddy wasn’t him, and we get to know a dangerous femme fatale (Carrie Anne-Moss) that is helping Leonard and his photo says that he can trust her, but can he really? And what secrets are being hidden from this man who is constantly meeting people for the “first” time?

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Part of Memento‘s clever conceit of being told backwards is that it is actually a perfectly “structured” story of the Syd Field/Robert McKee vein. Yes, we’re getting all of the facts in backwards order, but if Memento were told from start to beginning, it would be a terribly structured tale with the revelations in a jumbled, poorly paced mess. Memento is a classic mystery/noir based around picking apart what is the truth and what are the lies in the life of Leonard and why he kills Teddy at the beginning and whether or not he should have done that. And few films can match Memento on a twist-by-twist basis as you navigate the minefield of its mental gymnastics. But, from a point-of-view of pure structure, it follows the classic mold to a tee; it just warps and plays with it to its own (and the audience’s) delight.

But Memento distinguishes itself by having more to say than just your traditional crime thriller. And that’s funny because I was almost content to give this movie perfect marks before I realized what the film’s real point was. I can’t talk too much about what this film is about without ruining some of the major twists of the film’s final act, but Memento is a stark subversion of your average revenge tale (as any film about revenge should be). Leonard can’t remember more than 20 minutes of his life at once, but he functions perfectly during those moments of time. And that means he can fall prey to human vice and human flaws, and are the facts that Leonard has written on his body really facts at all? Or do we simply remember what we want to even when we can barely remember anything at all?

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The worst that can be said about Memento is that it is not a visually imaginative film. With the exception of The Prestige and Inception, Nolan’s films are rooted in a gritty realism, and Memento‘s visuals are no exception. Although the claustrophobia of anonymous motel rooms and abandoned buildings works to Memento‘s advantage as it adds a level of disorientation for the viewers that matches Leonard’s state of mind. And, the black and white sequences that are running concurrent to the main story (without following the backwards tale [I don’t want to spoil this too much]) is a nice if perhaps too simple way of segregating these lanes of Memento‘s story.

Guy Pearce’s performance is one of those rare performances that you might think is stale and boring at first (because he’s a dude who literally can’t remember more than 15 minutes ago) but you grow to appreciate it more and more as the film progresses until you reach the end. But, as the layers of his character are revealed, you see the obsessiveness and cold brutality that is lying beneath the seemingly lost exterior of Leonard, and Guy Pearce (and Christopher Nolan) peel back these characters with laser precision. Carrie-Anne Moss also shines as the femme fatale whose real motives are constantly up in the air.

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For those, like me, who found the cult of Christopher Nolan to be a bit insufferable, Memento may likely be the only film capable of changing your mind. For those whose itch for neo-noir can never be fully sated, Memento and its labyrinthine layers will keep your brain working long enough to scratch that itch. Great story is so rare in today’s world of sequels, remakes, and reboots, and while Christopher Nolan has never managed to live up to this remarkable second feature, it’s one of the most refreshing and intellectually invigorating stories of the 2000s and a true can’t miss for any real cinema lovers.

Final Score: A+

 

 

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Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.

But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.

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After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.

Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.

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The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.

And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.

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Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”

King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.

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King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.

If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

 

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When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.

Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.

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Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.

With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.

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Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.

What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).

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Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.

The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.

Final Score: A-

Vertigo1It is one of my great hopes for this blog that I watch an established Hollywood classic that I had seen for the first time when I was younger and didn’t particularly enjoy and suddenly find myself transformed by the film’s power upon this viewing where my tastes have matured after three years of reviewing films. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. Although I’ve watched films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey which I loathed as a teenager but appreciated their technical merits as an adult, I’ve yet to find a film that I’ve completely changed my mind about. 1958’s Vertigo, long considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, is the closest one of these films has come yet, but it, too, falls short.

Vertigo is the easy answer for most critics when asked to name Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (my money is on Rear Window or North by Northwest), and it was recently named the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound critic and director’s poll. When I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was an almost irredeemable bore, and now, a month shy of being 25, I still think that’s true. For the first hour and forty minutes. Then, the film’s major twist is revealed and Vertigo starts picking up momentum. And it closes out on one of the best final sequences of any film ever (the only ending that immediately springs to mind as being better is Cinema Paradiso). I just wish the first hour and forty minutes weren’t slower than Jordan Belfort on one too many Quaaludes.

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John “Scottie” Ferguson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is a retired police detective who has developed a crippling case of acrophobia, the fear of heights, after he is indirectly responsible for the falling death of a fellow policeman. Scottie’s acrophobia has developed itself as a dizzying vertigo that appears any time he’s near heights. After Scottie’s retirement from the police force, he is asked by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to shadow the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because Gavin believes that Madeleine has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Spanish countess. But the truth is far stranger as Scottie begins to fall in love with the woman he’s meant to follow.

I won’t ruin any more of the plot of Vertigo for those who have somehow managed to not see this film over the years. Not that Vertigo goes out of its way to hide the film’s most famous plot twist. Viewers know what’s really going on half an hour before Scottie finds out. But, the transformations, both real and imagined, that occur in the film’s closing acts make up for the turgid spell that comes before. And if you don’t know what’s really happening with Madeleine, Scottie, and a new friend Scottie makes later on, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you.

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Vertigo is a Hitchcock film, and from beginning to end, it looks it which makes the film soporific first half a little easier to swallow. Hitchcock’s camera is light and fluid (much credit must be given to cinematographer, Robert Burks), and there are extended sections of the film with little to no dialogue where Hitchcock lets the story unfold through the sheer power of image. It’s fascinating and, for technically minded viewers, a treat to watch a film-maker who understood the value of composition better than any director since Sergei Eisenstein. But, somewhere along the lines, the pretty camera work grows stale, and you keep waiting for the story to finally kick in.

And therein lies Vertigo‘s most fatal sin. It’s opening stretch is vital to establishing the film’s powerful pay-off, but it all unfolds at such a languid pace. Scenes last too long. Hitchcock floods the scenes with so much compositional detail, and they certainly invite the viewer into Vertigo‘s world, but they are just bandages masking weak storytelling. Scottie is a flat character for 60% of the film, until he isn’t and that leads to the film’s astounding denouement. Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience any glimpses of the darkness simmering beneath his surface beforehand.

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But, when Jimmy Stewart is finally given real material to work with, he pulls one of cinema’s all time “against type” performances out of it. Dark, possessive, angry, paranoid. These aren’t adjectives we ever use to describe Stewart who is one of the definitive All-American movie stars. But Scottie takes a tumble down a well of pitch-black, misogynistic darkness, and Jimmie Stewart’s performance is rightfully one of the truly iconic performances in Hollywood’s history. Kim Novak is also marvelous as the mysterious Madeleine, and Madeleine is certainly one of Hitchcock’s greatest female creations.

I would talk about what makes the final sequence so brilliant (and so deliciously subversive of the feminine identity roles of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as the traditional values of masculine heroes), but I don’t want to spoil what happens in the film’s closing moments. Had the first half of the film been half as good as it’s second half, this would clearly be one of the true greatest movies of all time. As it is, it finishes on a note of absolute perfection that few films have since touched, but it isn’t enough to excuse the film’s unfortunately dull start.

Final Score: B+

 

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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’ve generally thought that the school of film criticism thought which says you should judge a film by the standards of when it was released is… and pardon my French… horse shit. From a technical perspective, The Birth of a Nation remains an astounding masterpiece, but its politics are as abhorrent today as they were in 1915. From the opposite end of the spectrum, yes, there are elements of Rebel Without a Cause which seem dated by modern standards, but its portrayal of teen angst (and subtle homoeroticism) has a universal, timeless appeal. The best movies are great no matter when they were made, and films that are simply great for their time are really only of interest to students of film history. 1948’s The Naked City plays hopscotch with my feelings on the matter. As one of Hollywood’s first great crime procedurals shot on location, it broke new ground in many ways, and while a healthy portion of the film has lost its luster over the years, the movie’s cinematography and tone kept me engaged through out and it remains a highly enjoyable proto-noir.

The Naked City was directed by French director Jules Dassin, most famous his French crime thriller, Rififi, though The Naked City couldn’t be more American, specifically more New Yorker, if it tried. There’s a lengthy montage at the beginning of the film where the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger, explains that the movie was primarily shot on-location in the streets of Manhattan (and other boroughs as the movie progresses) and it lends an almost documentary feel to most of the film’s exterior shots. Though there are campy elements to the actual crime procedural at the heart of the film (it can’t decide if it wants to be hard-boiled noir or a light mystery), when the film is outside and walking the streets of the Big Apple, you feel lost in the titular naked city and no film before and few since have so aptly captured the chaos and everyday street life of New York City.

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After clothing store model Jean Dexter is found murdered in her high-rise apartment bath tub, old school NYPD homocide detective Dan Muldoon (Going My Way‘s Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to investigate the case. Though Dexter’s murder is staged to look like a drowning, Muldoon quickly deduces (I know I’m using that word wrong like Sherlock does) that it was murder, and the hunt begins to figure out who would kill the beautiful model. Muldoon is joined by his young and fresh-faced partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who gets to do all of the real leg work of the case, with an emphasis on leg work. And when Muldoon and Halloran find a handsome young swindler named Frank Niles (Howard Duff), they realize that there’s more to this case than they ever expected.

I don’t want to say any more and ruin the pleasure of diving into the twists and turns of The Naked City for the first time even though it’s a 66 year old movie. Because most of the pleasure of watching the film is watching one of the first really detailed crime procedurals in the cinema. This isn’t a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade-style detective story. There are no tough guy private eyes. It’s a group of cops working leads and interrogating suspects. Only occasionally do hunches lead to major breakthroughs in the case. In fact, it’s safe to say that future movies like Zodiac or TV shows like The Wire owe their existence to The Naked City even if they would ultimately do the things The Naked City does, only better. And, unlike most modern crime procedurals (I’m looking at you Law & Order), the investigation rarely begins to feel stale.

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I’m not sure if The Naked City technically qualifies as a film noir even if it’s generally lumped in with most of the proto-noir films of the late 1940s. The movie feels a little too light-hearted at times to be true noir, but one can’t doubt the film’s cinematography carrying that noir banner. It is gorgeous. As mentioned earlier, the film’s exterior and on-location shots are stunning enough considering how rare they were for the time, but even the indoor shots make perfect use of shadow and striking composition. Jules Dassin is one of the film-makers most associated with inspiring the directors of the French New Wave, and his innovative camera techniques are on display throughout the whole film. For fans of cinematography, that aspect of The Naked City is worth your time alone.

Charming performances from Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor also help ease the film along. I doubt that Dan and Jimmy are cinema’s original old/young cop partner pair, but, I’m hard-pressed to name any from this era that were as immediately likeable and compelling. In one of the film’s sadly rare character driven moments, Jimmy comes home from work to spend some time with his wife, and you get a peek behind the veil of these cop’s lives. In fact, if the movie had spent even a little more time diving into the lives of its leads, it may have truly been a real classic rather than falling just short. Barry Fitzgerald (the only redeeming part of the abysmal Going My Way) was particularly appealing as the aged Muldoon, and I wanted to know more about this wizened cop veteran.

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And that lack of attachment to the characters ultimately proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald make us care about their detectives through sheer force of performance and charm. The writing has nothing to do with it. Throw in an omni-present voice-over narration that vacillates between clever and too obvious, and The Naked City becomes unfortunately hit or miss for much of its running time. When the movie is hitting all of the right notes, it never quite reaches the heights of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street but it’s a hell of a great time. One can only wish that the movie was able to maintain a high level of quality and interest from beginning to end, which it sadly can not.

Final Score: B+

 

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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+