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The Hunger Games – Catching Fire: Now This Is More Like It

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instantly goes on the short list of sequels that not only surpass the original film, but the source material as well. (For the record, I'd also put the second James Bond outing From Russia with Love and Peter Jackson's thrilling distillation of The Two Towers in that rarefied air.)

Indie Snapshot: Winnie Mandela

by Ethan Alter September 6, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: Winnie Mandela

Originally shot in 2011 and sneaking into theaters before the November release of 2013's higher-profile Nelson Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom -- starring Idris Elba as the iconic South African civil rights crusader -- Winnie Mandela purports to be a life story of Mandela's now ex-wife, chronicling her personal bravery and public activism during her husband's long incarceration. But even though it's her point of view, the movie is still very much his story. Despite the title and the presence of an Oscar-winning actress (Jennifer Hudson) in the central role, Winnie Mandela turns out to be only moderately interested in the woman for bears that name.

The Heat: Cop and a Half

by Ethan Alter June 28, 2013 6:00 am
The Heat: Cop and a Half

Once a reliable formula in the '80s and '90s, the buddy cop comedy has fallen on hard times of late, with occasional bright spots like 21 Jump Street mostly surrounded by such dreck as Cop Out. Although entirely disparate in quality, both those films are alike in the way they continue the genre's relentless focus on dudes, with women sidelined or wholly absent from the frame. So what makes Paul Feig's The Heat innovative in its own modest way isn't the plot or the big and brash comic sensibility, both of which are standard buddy cop fare. Instead, it's the way the film lets the ladies -- specifically Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy -- have all the fun, while the guys are relegated to the back of the squad car.

Indie Snapshot: Julianne Moore Times Two

by Ethan Alter May 17, 2013 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: Julianne Moore Times Two

Having recognized that mainstream Hollywood holds few options for her beyond roles as mothers and/or cougars, Julianne Moore has established primary residence within the independent film world in recent years, where the range of characters is supposedly broader. For example, Moore's latest indie features The English Teacher and What Maisie Knew -- both of which have already opened in limited release in select markets and expand wider today -- cast her as... um, a cougar and a mother respectively. So much for range, I guess.

Admission: Put It on the Reject Pile

by Ethan Alter March 22, 2013 6:01 am
Admission: Put It on the Reject Pile

As the driving creative force behind 30 Rock (and, to a certain extent, Saturday Night Live during her tenure as head writer) for its seven-season run, Tina Fey generally tried to cut against the television comedy grain, unafraid to chase after comedy that was offbeat, ambitious and downright weird, particularly for a network sitcom. Perhaps that's why Fey's feature film career has been, for the most part, so disappointing. Instead of letting her freak flag fly, she's pursued middle-of-the-road mainstream star vehicles, from the pregnancy-themed Baby Mama (which was more sitcom-y than 30 Rock), to the "zany" night-on-the-town adventure Date Night (which managed to waste the combined talents of Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, James Franco) and now Admission, which feels like an American version of those refined (re: pleasantly dull) British comedies -- think Waking Ned Devine and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- that only people over 40 go and see. It's mostly harmless, but also pretty lifeless.

Spring Breakers: There’s Beauty in the Breakdown

I've been trying to come up with a pithy way of describing the experience of watching Harmony Korine's much-hyped beachsploitation picture Spring Breakers and here's what I've come up with: If Terrence Malick and Sofia Coppola had a baby and that baby grew up to be Britney Spears who began every performance of "...Baby One More Time" by taking a gigantic hit of cocaine, that's Spring Breakers. Much of the pre-release hype has centered on the casting of former tween superstars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as spring break-bound girls gone wild and that bit of stunt casting is obviously a publicity-friendly coup for a filmmaker who has mostly worked on the fringes of the industry. But the bigger coup that Korine pulls off is using those actresses and their rowdy "spring break forever" mantra as window dressing for a highly stylized art film that brutally (and, at times, brilliantly) sends up a society and (pop) culture that enables and enhances all the things it claims to bemoan, from the oversexualization of young women to glamorizing thug life. Spring Breakers doesn't pretend that it has any solutions to offer or that it's not, to a certain extent, part of the problem; like Natural Born Killers (another obvious stylistic inspiration), it's attempting to be both a critique and the thing its critiquing.

Oz the Great and Powerful: Because of the Wonderful Things He Does

There were many reasons to dislike Tim Burton's 3D-enhanced (but 1D-executed) version of Alice in Wonderland, but chief among them was the fact that it felt like a Tim Burton movie in name only. The production design and costumes had the familiar Burton touch, but the film itself was practically anonymous -- the personality bled out by the director and his backers at Walt Disney Studios to better ensure mass market appeal. (Of course, considering how poorly the more traditionally Burton-esque Dark Shadows turned out, maybe that wasn't such a terrible thing after all.) So whatever its problems, Disney's newest family blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful trumps Alice in that it's recognizably a Sam Raimi picture. Granted, it's not exactly the same Raimi who made The Evil Dead back in the day, but his interests and particular set of skills still manage to stand out amidst the big-budget spectacle instead of getting swallowed up by it.

Stoker: All in the Family

by Ethan Alter March 1, 2013 6:00 am
Stoker: All in the Family

Here's how I like to imagine the way that the making of Stoker, the only vaguely indie-ish new thriller from Fox Searchlight, went down: Screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, the same Wentworth Miller who got Mariah Carey all hot and bothered in a music video and then spent four seasons breaking out of various fake prisons on television) turned in his script, and then the studio took one look at it and realized its wannabe Hitchcockian tale of a twisted family was never going to fly if played straight. So they bought playfully perverse South Korean director Park Chan-wook a plane ticket from Seoul to the movie's Tennessee set, whereupon they handed him the screenplay and told him to just go nuts with it. The result is one of the most beautifully directed bad movies I've seen since the immortal Brian De Palma trifecta of Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale (known unofficially as De Palma's Trilogy of Awesome Awfulness). Thanks to Park's endless creativity behind the camera, it's impossible to look away from Stoker, even when what's happening on the screen is truly risible.

Indie Snapshot: The Paperboy, Butter, The Oranges, Wuthering Heights

Nicole Kidman gets an extreme makeover in the ridiculous potboiler The Paperboy. Also, our takes on Butter, The Oranges and Wuthering Heights.

Boys vs. Girls: Bachelorette and The Inbetweeners

by Ethan Alter September 7, 2012 6:00 am
Boys vs. Girls: Bachelorette and The Inbetweeners

The eternal battle of the sexes spills over into the multiplex this weekend, as two raunchy comedies -- one female-driven and one distinctly for the boys -- compete for moviegoers' attention. In one corner, you've got Bachelorette, the Bridesmaids-like ensemble piece about a trio of bridesmaids (triple threats Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher) who get up to a whole lot of trouble the night before their best friend's wedding. And in the other corner stands The Inbetweeners, the feature film version of the hit British sitcom about four horny high-school kids (Simon Bird, James Buckley, Joe Thomas and Blake Harrison, reprising their small-screen roles) who celebrate their graduation by going on an alcohol-fueled holiday to a sunny Mediterranean party town. So which movie does its gender proudest? Here's how they stack up in a few key areas.

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