CVIndependent

Mon06172019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I watch Donnie Darko every few years. It’s one of those great weird movies in which new things hit you each time you see it.

It’s also fun to see how young Jake Gyllenhaal was in this 2001 film. He was just a lil’ baby.

My discovery with this viewing: I had forgotten Seth Rogen is in this movie. He plays a bully who harasses Gretchen (Jena Malone). Also, I’m not sure I’d watched it since Patrick Swayze passed away. The film is just a little bit darker knowing the former Outsider is gone.

This new limited edition includes a director’s cut, as well as the original version. Honestly, I can’t remember whether I’d watched the director’s cut before; the version does not seem all that different, other than it’s about 15 minutes longer. I did see a few scenes that struck me as new.

Mary McDonnell plays one of the all-time-great screen moms here, as she’s bemused by all that’s going on—including casually smoking a cigarette after a jet engine lands on her house.

And, of course … Sparkle Motion.

This is a good time-travel film that stands the test of time.

Special Features: As mentioned before, this new four-disc limited edition comes with both versions of the film, along with commentaries, including one with Kevin Smith. OK, now I remember: I have seen the director’s cut before. There are tons of deleted scenes and docs, as well as a Q&A with director Richard Kelly.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

After the misstep that was Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn gets things back on track with The Neon Demon, perhaps the nastiest film ever made about the modeling industry.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She’s underage, naïve and lost, but finds a helping hand in Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who knows what it’s like to be the new girl in town.

As her career begins to take off, Jesse begins to gain confidence—to a fault—and a couple of other models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) develop sinister intentions along with their envy of Jesse’s spectacular looks.

Refn memorizes yet again (his Drive remains one of the best films of this decade), combining stunning visuals and an excellent soundtrack to go with the outstanding performances from Fanning, Malone, Heathcote and Lee.

Keanu Reeves has a small but memorable role as a sleazy hotel manager, while Alessandro Nivola is most memorable as a fashion designer who must have Jesse for his show.

Refn has produced a fine piece of dark, cynical satire here—with elements of horror mixed in for good measure. This establishes Fanning as one of this generation’s best actresses. Hers is one of the year’s best performances so far.

The Neon Demon is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Heavy action is back in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2, a satisfying—albeit super-dark—conclusion to the saga of Katniss Everdeen.

This whole Hunger Games thing could’ve been a super-drag without the presence of one Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. There are moments in this film, and throughout the saga, that suffer a bit from subpar writing—yet Lawrence makes any dialogue sparkle, no matter how mundane it may be. She is an actress who slices through the screen and smacks your face with her every gaze and word.

This film picks up exactly where the last one left off, with Katniss getting her neck tended to after a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) tried to choke her out. Peeta is in a bad place thanks to evildoer President Snow (Donald Sutherland); he’s as unreliable as a friend who dropped some very bad acid. He’s prone to spells during which he wants to kill Katniss, which makes things difficult as she leads Peeta and a squad of rebels on a mission to wipe out Snow for good.

Peeta is on the mission despite his altered state thanks to rebellion President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who wants the squad to film him and Katniss for propaganda purposes. Katniss is instructed not to engage with the enemy and simply to film videos to inspire the rebel troops—but we all know circumstances will call for her to raise the bow and arrow.

Part 1 was a more laid-back affair, while this chapter amps up the action, especially in the second half. There’s an underground sequence during which Katniss and friends must battle mutants that look a little like the cave creatures from The Descent. It’s during this sequence that returning director Francis Lawrence lets us know that Part 2 will easily be the darkest and nastiest film in the franchise. It pushes the PG-13 rating to its very limit.

In addition to a surprisingly high body count, Part 2 hits hard with its “Don’t trust the government!” message. While we already knew President Snow was quite the scumbag, this film adds another surprising villain to the mix. (Yes, all of you readers of the book knew what was going to happen, but my ignorant, non-HG reading ass got taken by surprise when I saw which way things were going.)

This includes the last screen performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who didn’t quite finish his planned scenes as Plutarch Heavensbee, but did enough for editors to put something convincing together. Plutarch actually makes his exit via a letter to Katniss in a surprisingly poignant move. Hoffman, in his few scenes, commands the screen like no other. It’s lousy that he isn’t with us anymore.

The most improved Hunger Games franchise performance award goes to Sutherland, who took Snow from a preening goofball in the first chapter to someone deliciously villainous by the final film. Like Hoffman, Sutherland only has a few scenes, but they are powerful. Snow’s last two encounters with Katniss are bone-chilling.

Hutcherson does good work as a twitchy Peeta, while Liam Hemsworth is bit humdrum as Gale Hawthorne, the other man after Katniss’ affections. The Hawthorne character winds up being, more or less, useless and disposable by the final chapter. Jena Malone has a couple of good scenes as crotchety Johanna Mason; during one of them, she sports an impressive bald head courtesy of special effects. (She apparently used a stunt head.) Her character’s hair seems to grow back awfully fast, though.

So that’s it for now with The Hunger Games, although I’m sure somebody’s working hard to come up with a way to continue the franchise, just as they did with the Harry Potter universe and the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You can’t keep a multi-billion dollar franchise down.

I ultimately wound up liking The Hunger Games phenomenon after a crap start, but I am happy to see Lawrence totally free to do other things, like David O. Russell’s soon-to-be-released Joy. She’s only 25, and she’s just getting started.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 is playing at theaters across the valley, in various formats.

Published in Reviews

I abstain from weed because some people really shouldn’t do drugs. If you are like me, you might need two or three viewings to completely get the vibe and plot of Inherent Vice.

However, if you watch the movie while mildly high, you might follow everything in one shot.

I’ve watched director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film twice now, and it was almost like watching a different movie the second time through. I enjoyed it both times, but the language and proceedings made more sense to me on the second go-round. I must have some sort of latent stoner sensibility stored in my brain from bong hits in years past.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sloppy private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles who operates, inexplicably, out of a doctor’s office. When an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) goes missing, he conducts a haphazard investigation into her disappearance that involves dead people who aren’t dead, drug-dealers and kidnapped real estate moguls. All of these things are being investigated by a guy who is seriously high most of the time, and who pieces things together at his own mellow, clumsy pace.

Along the way, Doc comes across a parade of colorful characters—with each one played by a brilliant actor or actress. Josh Brolin is perfection as an unstable, macho cop with a penchant for kicking down Doc’s door. Phoenix and Brolin have a lot of fun making the characters bitter enemies, even though they’re almost chummy at times. Brolin’s final scene is, shall we say, surreal and bizarre on joyous levels.

Owen Wilson does some of his best work in years as a musician, believed dead, who has gone into hiding. He has scenes with Phoenix that are borderline brilliant, as does Martin Short as a lascivious dentist with a taste for young girls and pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. Anderson may have given Short his best role since his SCTV days, even though Short is only in a few scenes.

Benicio del Toro shows up as Doc’s attorney; his character reminded me of his similar role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Reese Witherspoon caps off a great year by playing Doc’s uptight current girlfriend, and Jena Malone has a terrific scene as a wife who pleasantly and happily discusses her drug addiction and missing husband.

The mystery, if you want to call it that, ties up fairly cleanly. The film, despite what some folks are saying, has a beginning, a middle and an end that makes sense. You just have to work at it a bit.

The locations, clothing and hairstyles are very 1970s. The film plays like a stoner mood piece, swinging from relaxed to paranoid, unintelligible to highly coherent—as if you are going through the various phases of some high-grade kush.

You might be thinking, “Hey, this sounds a little bit like The Big Lebowski.” Lebowski was a lot cuter, and far funnier. Both stories do, however, feature a stoner dude investigating a missing person. (It should be noted that the Coens wrote and produced Lebowski 11 years before Thomas Pynchon put out the novel on which Inherent Vice is based.)

If you’ve never smoked weed, but have a friend that does smoke, go see the movie with them. You may not get it, while your friend’s mind will be blown. He or she will explain some things to you, and you’ll be all set for a second, more-informed viewing.

Also: Do not smoke weed for the first time before seeing Inherent Vice. The stuff out there now is pretty damn powerful, and the site of Phoenix’s Wolverine chops will surely freak out a first-timer.

Inherent Vice opens Thursday, Jan. 8, at theaters including the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

A new director, some well-placed cast additions, a brand-new cinematographer and a strong central performance from Jennifer Lawrence make The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a vast improvement over the franchise’s first chapter.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless) get rid of most of the goofy, baroque sheen that made The Hunger Games so annoying. They also have a much better technique for filming action scenes—and as a result, they have made a film that feels quite brutal at times. A film about kids being forced to kill each other should be brutal, and not feel as if it is pulling punches, as the first movie did.

Watching this new film, I was reminded of how the Harry Potter series switched into high gear with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Alfonso Cuarón washed out the color palette and added a new element of darkness to the proceedings. In many ways, Francis Lawrence steals Cuarón’s game—and that’s to the viewer’s benefit. This is an efficient, well-oiled movie machine now.

The sequel picks up soon after the events of the first film, with Katniss and Peeta (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson) enjoying a relatively calm, reluctant celebrity life after their rule-bending victory in The Hunger Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not happy with the rising popularity of Katniss, and he lets her know that, in person. Soon thereafter, Katniss and Peeta find themselves fighting for their lives again in a rarely invoked tradition of former Hunger Games victors competing against each other.

Gone is that quick-cut, shaky-cam, messed-up way of filming action to mask the violence in what is essentially supposed to be a violent movie. (The movies thus far have been rated PG-13; an R rating would keep many young fans away.) The action is not only easy to follow, but quite exciting. A sequence in which Katniss and friends flee some sort of creeping gas cloud stands as one of the better action scenes this year.

Lawrence takes Katniss to a new, far-more-interesting level this time out. In front of Willems’ lens, she’s looking a little more worn and embittered; I found her believable as a war-torn survivor. She also seems a little more engaged in this movie, as if the new director simply pulled a better performance out of her. Her performance in the first film was fine, but the environment she was put in felt staged. Catching Fire feels more organic.

Sutherland’s Snow gets a chance to be more involved and far more sinister; he is establishing himself as a true villain. Philip Seymour Hoffman climbs onboard as the shady new game master; he’s a far more menacing presence than Wes Bentley and his lame facial hair.

Hoffman is good, but Sam Claflin wins my pick for best new addition to the cast as the preening Finnick Odair. He’s a great, mysterious Hunger Games competitor whose motivations are complicated. He also provides some decent comic relief. Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer also join the cast as competitors, making the group of people in the game far, far more interesting than those in the first film.

In the great tradition of mega-franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire leaves you with a big cliffhanger. Don’t worry; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (two films will cover one book) is merely a year away. Even better news: Francis Lawrence will direct the two Mockingjay films, so they have a solid chance of being good.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews