Friday, April 20, 2012

Lionsgate picks Francis Lawrence to helm Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire: When a 'safe', 'cheap' choice is also a good choice.

If you discount his last-minute attempt to salvage Jonah Hex, Francis Lawrence has made three films since 2005 and I have liked all three of them.  As such, while he is not a particularly brave/bold, or outside-the-box choice for Lionsgate to hire to helm the next Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, he is a good one.  All three of his films show an emphasis of character and substance over visual razzle-dazzle, and his sure-footed and confident eye will be a relief after sitting through Ross's shakey-cam hysterics.  While I was hoping Lionsgate would pick someone a bit off the beaten path (one of the female directors I mentioned, perhaps?), Francis is a solid choice.  In short, he makes good movies, casts good people in them, and delivers quality mainstream material that entertains without insulting their respective audiences.

His two genre entries, Constantine and I Am Legend, are both rock-solid character-driven dramas that happen to involve the fantastical.  They put plot over spectacle and character over action and while neither rise above good, they earn points for being uncommonly stingy in the realm of needless action set-pieces.  I Am Legend boosts a terrific one-man-show performance by Will Smith and it a fine example of the sort of lean, character-driven, uncompromisingly bleak mass-market entertainment we say we want more of (that it made $256 million is a testament to audiences' good taste).  While the original intended ending is superior, it's hard to carp with the artistic integrity of a finale where the lead character dies violently.  Despite its $150 million budget, I Am Legend is a 'real movie' that genuinely works on an emotional level.  And carp all you want about the last ten minutes of somewhat frantic 'vampires attack' action, but it's an earned action climax to a film that has stayed awfully quiet for the majority of its 100 minute running time.

Constantine is based on a comic book that I never read, so I can't comment on its allegedly infamous inaccuracy, but it works perfectly fine as a stand-alone film.  Keanu Reeves is fine (as he usually is, natch), it has fun supporting turns from Peter Stormare, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Tilda Swinton.  It also has an ironic co-starring/top-billed turn from Rachel Weisz, ironic because Weisz's first big-studio vehicle was playing the token love-interest to Keanu Reeves in Andrew Davis's mediocre Chain Reaction nine years prior.  Constantine earns kudos for being a straight-forward supernatural variation on the hard-boiled detective movie, with only one genuine action scene and special effects only when the story requires them.  It also has a strong finale, centering not around Reeves having to defeat a villain or defuse an evil device, but rather his doomed character making a proactive and selfless choice that alters the course of events.

His most recent film, 2011's Water For Elephants, is an unabashedly old-fashioned period romance melodrama.  I didn't catch it until it came to Blu-Ray, but it is a fine and emotionally-compelling character drama with an uncommonly moving prologue and epilogue.  While Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon may not share the kind of chemistry that Pattinson shares with Kristen Stewart in the Twilight films (especially the first one), he shines during his often intense moments with romantic rival and antagonist Christoph Waltz.  It's not a great film, the much built-up finale is a bit of a letdown, but it is a good movie, the kind of old-school 'movie' that we are only recently seeing studios making an effort to make more of.  That 20th Century Fox financed the film, that Lawrence delivered it for under $40 million, and that it made $117 million worldwide are all positive things for an industry slowly trying to kick its addiction to all-tentpoles all-the-time.

I'm in a strange situation here, discussing the much-anticipated follow-up to a film I rather hated.  But enough people have told me that the next two novels, especially the third-and-final Mockingjay, have enough to recommend to keep my interest for the time being.  But despite the perception (probably not inaccurate) that Lionsgate went for the best director that was both available *now*, could be controlled by the studio, and that they could get for cheap is belied by the fact that they picked a reliable filmmaker of solidly intelligent mainstream fare.  As always, we'll see...

Scott Mendelson          


Liam_Ho said...

Especially the third and final Mockingjay? I haven't read the books but I hear from fans that the last books is pretty divisive.

Rfaddict11 said...

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