Catching Fire

The only solution

Quarter_quell_johannaJennifer Lawrence returns for another romp as Katniss Everdeen, but this time under the direction of Francis Lawrence, who has only directed formula films, but has both experience with character-centric sci-fi and the good sense to direct Catching Fire as more of a reserved drama than a Cloverfield-esque “found footage” battle epic.

J-Law is springboarding from a Best Actress win last year (undeserved over Jessica Chastain, but deserved in and of itself), and she shows no lack of seriousness as Katniss.  In the story, which features our heroine living through the year after the original Hunger Games, Katniss experiences severe night terrors and still lives in general poverty despite the monetary reward for her victory.  Perhaps worst of all, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of Panem, has a personal vendetta against her for publicly embarrassing the Capitol and forcing their hand at the end of the Games.  He approaches her at home and strong-arms her into participating in the Victory Tour, during which she and co-victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are to publicly thank the Capitol for their generosity, and to convince the masses of their love for each other, which Katniss faked in the first story in order to increase the “reality TV” value of the Games broadcast and win the hearts of the viewers.  Schmucks like TV host Caesar Flickerman (the ever-hilarious Stanley Tucci) eat this stuff up, but the people in the Districts are not fooled.  Revolution is brewing, and unbeknownst to Katniss (but knownst to us!), she is their symbol.

Meanwhile, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) harbors real romantic feelings for Katniss, and after an impromptu kiss, claims that he “had to do that at least once.”  What a wretched attitude.  Even after knowing her since childhood, he can’t just be her friend?  Regardless, the director wisely stays away from the romantic triangle that bogarted much of Katniss’s brain in the novel, because as readers know, it doesn’t really matter.  Gale, alongside Katniss’s family (played by Paula Malcomson and Willow Shields) have their own problems: Snow brings the hammer down on District 12, threatening to raze everyone’s homes if Katniss doesn’t behave during the tour.  He brings in Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) to enforce martial law on the District, flogging people in the square for minor infractions, and shooting people on sight for breaking curfew.  It’s all fairly silly, mustache-twirling villain material, but St. Esprit sells it, despite his short appearance, with one of the scariest performances I’ve recently seen.

The Victory Tour, of course, does not go as planned.  It mustn’t.  Katniss and Peeta ditch the speeches given to them by human peacock Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and instead speak to District 11 about the friends they lost in the Games.  The scene is truly emotional and difficult; these are the kinds of scenes we need in YA.  Scenes that remind the target audience (read: teenagers and impressionable people) that killing people isn’t fun and exciting, that military life is not made of glory and reward, regardless of what the heavy-metal TV propaganda says.

Through one thing and another, Snow realizes that the only way to shut Katniss up and turn the people against her is to put her back in the arena.  Because this is the 75th year since the installation of the Hunger Games (an event meant to illustrate the Capitol’s power over the people), a special Games must be held.  This time, the tributes are reaped from the existing pool of victors, and since Katniss is the only victor in the history of her district, hers is the only name in the bowl.  Katniss’s grizzled, alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is also chosen, but Peeta predictably volunteers in his place.  Even Effie, the Capitol’s bright-eyed mouthpiece for the reaping in the first story, starts to feel the agony of this process, showing reservation in the live broadcast and weepily apologizing to Katniss in private.

Something isn’t right in these Games – half the tributes seem to be protecting Katniss from the other half.  Katniss meets previous victors Johanna Mason (Jena Malone!), a fiercely intelligent and sarcastic axe-wielder who goes so far as to strip naked during a long and confined elevator ride simply to make Katniss uncomfortable; Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a vain musclehead with a big mouth; Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), an eloquent and rather enigmatic engineer who knows everything about manipulating electricity; Wiress (Amanda Plummer), Beetee’s partner, who seems unstuck in time; and Enobaria (Meta Golding), one of the “Career” tributes (people who train from birth to volunteer for the Hunger Games and usually win), who has had her teeth filed into fangs for purposes you can guess at.  Moreover, Snow has brought in a new head Game Maker, the unfortunately-named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to ensure Katniss’s death by any means necessary.  The star power is almost too much to handle, but amazingly, the characters all fit into their roles well.  The issue with having so many great actors in supporting roles, however, is that each of them only get so many lines, and only so many of that small number are memorable – a shame when considering how little we’ve seen Amanda Plummer lately.

Thanks to Suzanne Collins’s original prose, Katniss is never a Boring Hero.  Despite the action in which she participates, she never seems like a role meant for [insert popular male action star].  She’s layered.  She’s feminine.  She’s strong-willed, but she’s as scared as any of us would be.  She’s determined, but still a kid in all respects; she’s never going to have the perfect plan.  She must learn, she must toil, she must improvise.  Since Collins was a producer on the film, the narrative sticks pretty closely to that of the novel, and the perspective never breaks away from Katniss (save minor breaks for evil dialogue between Sutherland and Hoffman), which means Lawrence has to carry the story on her back.  She does.  She just does.

Jena Malone, however, steals the show whenever she’s on.  A multi-talented actress/musician playing a multi-layered character whose complexity does not match the amount of attention she gets in the film, Malone completely owns Johanna Mason (one of the best characters from the novels) at every corner.  One second, she’s mercilessly taunting Katniss.  Another, she’s laying down her life for her.  But even in a film under two hours, this relationship is earned.  Far more so than the “will they, won’t they” between Katniss and Peeta, leastways.  What is her true allegiance?  What will her fate be?  There are some answers, and some big questions left to the next story.  The filmmaker, in an uncharacteristic move for this kind of film, avoids shoehorning in character deaths for emotional impact or creating big boss battles to ensure audience satisfaction.  No one gets any particular comeuppance here, and only with the absence of that do we see how much these formulas routinely distract us from real attention to character.

I have one fundamental issue with The Hunger Games: the fact that it was made into a movie at all. Here you have a story that essentially displays how reality TV and movies that people become addicted to are actually harmful tools used by the power structures to keep people complacent. This is a piece of text, a piece of writing, i.e. the freest and most liberal form of art, made to closely mirror our current culture and to demonstrate the court of public opinion’s destructive power, and now you have made it into a movie, into which people dump endless sums of money, and which you have advertised on network TV channels that also show reality TV shows and conservative news. So as stories, I like The Hunger Games, and as visual art, the films have something, but it’s a property that contains a vicious commentary on our power structures, and it has now been appropriated by our power structures, which is exactly what Big Brother does. This dystopian future is not a future: it’s where we are now. It was the present when Huxley and Orwell wrote it, and it is the present now.

The higher-ups see something that might start a fire (to use a metaphor from the book) – in this case, young people (namely women) starting to think that the government may not have their best interests in mind – and they say, “We must take possession of that. If it looks like we support it, the people remain on our side.”  Sound familiar?  I wonder who those involved in the films’ production think the “real enemy” is.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013); based upon the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson.


The Butler

We have no tolerance for politics in the White House

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Robin-Williams-Forest-WhitakerLee Daniels takes a page out of John Carpenter’s book: attempting to force us to give a crap about who directed the movie by putting his own name in the title.  This always fails.  Why not include the DP, the key grip, and the editor in the title as well?  What about the makeup artists who made Forest Whitaker look like an old man?  Or what about, y’know, the writer?  I’m not against everyone involved getting proper credit, but a film not written by the director belongs to the director insofar as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World belongs to me just because I bought a copy and had my own reading of what it was all about.

Thankfully, the film itself does not fail.  The Butler features Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, in part based upon Gene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House under several presidents.  Starring alongside Whitaker is Oprah Winfrey, who should really quit the talk show/phony philanthropy schtick and become a full-time actress, as Cecil’s patient wife, Gloria, who must deal with not only Cecil’s long hours at the White House (which he’s not allowed to talk much about anyway), but the absence of her son Louis (David Oyelowo), who embarks on a life of activism in spite of his father’s insistence that the family stay apolitical.  The film’s narrative runs through Cecil’s and David’s entire lives over several decades, showcasing the points at which they intersect.  Gloria’s home life is touched on to some degree as well: she battles her own alcoholism, the horror of not knowing what’s happening to her own family members while they’re away, the advances of her lecherous neighbor (Terrence Howard), and whatever Cecil himself happens to bring home from work (and she is left in the dark for so long that JFK’s assassination doesn’t seem like such a big deal to her).

The various presidents are played by a cornucopia’s worth of movie stars, including Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower completely straight, John Cusack as the opportunistic Nixon, heartthrobby James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as the characteristically befuddled Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Minka Kelly in a great (albeit tiny) performance as Jackie Kennedy.  Best of all is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose hilarious vignettes could have carried an entire movie.  Each character fits into their sections well, but the star power becomes overwhelming sometimes – Vanessa Redgrave appears in a small role during Cecil’s childhood on a plantation, and Cecil’s coworkers (larger roles) are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  The inevitability of another famous person showing up every ten minutes is not too distracting, but it’s a bit funny, giving the film a “meta” quality it probably doesn’t want.

Where the film falters is the use of thematic voiceover – something never necessary to a film’s movement; didn’t we learn that in Blade Runner?  Cecil’s rich voice sums up each section of film by restating exactly what we just watched and heard, while we see real archive footage of things that actually happened at that time.  This is not ancient history, however; this is historical information that everyone living today already knows about.  And when a film is already upwards of two hours, this stuff needs to be chopped.  There’s also some sloppy and obvious dramatic irony: Nixon tells Cecil, “I’m not going to resign, no matter what!” when the audience knows full well that he will.  Sentimentalism also nears full stride: piano music over melodramatic dialogue, and so on.  Much of the movie is genuinely emotional, but attempting to squeeze tears out of an audience using every device possible actually takes away from that.  We even get a Hollywood Mentor played by Clarence Williams III, who tells Cecil that the “N word” is “a white man’s word, filled with hate,” and after a lifetime of using the word, Cecil never speaks it again.  Is the character’s advice good?  Yes, of course it is.  But moments of epiphany are a sham, and scenes like this are designed for synthetic echoes later in the movie.

I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the film’s overt messages about racism are oversimplified (and whether the portrayal of the Black Panthers is as cartoony as what they showed us in school), but what cannot be denied is the genuine impact of seeing the Freedom Bus torched with Louis aboard (one of the historical events wisely dramatized and not shown entirely in archive footage); the cringe-inducing image of a segregated water fountain; our collective concealed rage at Cecil’s boss’s apathetic reactions to Cecil’s insistence year after year that the black staff be paid as much as the white staff.  In the showing I attended, there was plenty of cheering at triumphant moments (and, not surprisingly, in a theatre full of white people, an obnoxious amount of “What did he say?” in reaction to Cecil’s dialect [which, by the way, is spoken in an American accent!]  I consider myself adept at understanding dialect, but it sometimes seems like no one else is even trying).

In spite of its rigid narrative, The Butler manages genuine impact and a whole lot of true moments.

The_Butler_posterLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013); written by Danny Strong; directed by Lee Daniels; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo)

The Hunger Games

Game so hard, Peacekeepers wanna kill me

jlawBased upon the first volume in Suzanne Collins’ young adult sci-fi trilogy, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games is a quiet, understated survival/rebellion story carried by a badass female protagonist.  At the theatre, a friend and I were encircled within a clot of rambunctious adolescents of varying ages – the perfect environment in which to witness this spectacle.  I’m only kidding about half of that.

The Hunger Games book series is a diamond-in-the-rough amongst Y.A.: soundly-written (albeit in need of a better copy-editor), engaging, and headed by a confident female character, Katniss Everdeen (played in the movie by Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence).  It’s the age-old tale of a dystopian future in which the Capitol, a government born from the Big Brother school of logic, has oppressed its people after a failed rebellion.  In order to remind the citizens that their government could crush them at any moment, the Capitol holds an annual fight to the death between twenty-four children (aged 12 to 18), two from each district.  Since its inception seventy-five years ago, the Hunger Games has become not only a horrifying tradition, but the country’s greatest form of entertainment, as the Capitol’s citizens excitedly bet on tributes and passively discuss their favorite killings.  This setup provides not only an effective entertainment for real-life readers and viewers, but an operative commentary on present-day reality TV and the fact that absolutely nothing can shock us anymore.  This commentary is hopefully thinly-veiled to the point that the intended audience can read into it.  How long will it be before kids are stabbing each other on ABC’s 10-11pm lineup?

Katniss volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games so that her twelve year-old sister, Prim (Willow Shields) will be spared.  She and the other tribute from her district, the sloppily-named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only former winner of the Games from District 12, who has long since become an alcoholic and all-around misanthrope.  His reasons for mentoring the young tributes are never explored, though we can infer that this job position was more the Capitol’s choice than his.  Also appearing in the film are Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, a glitzy Capitol flunky who collects the tributes from each district; Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the main antagonist of the series, who spends his time clipping rose bushes and brooding silently behind his villainous beard; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist and one of the only Capitol folks she can trust; Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’ dreamy childhood friend; Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, a talk show host who can work a crowd better than Oprah but who seems to truly sympathize with the tributes’ predicament; and Isabelle Furhman and Alexander Ludwig as Clove and Cato (respectively), two Career Tributes who train their entire lives for the Games and consider it a glorious opportunity.

The film wisely makes little use of music, relying on realistic sound effects to percuss quiet scenes in which young people are brutally murdered: this is not epic, glorified, Hollywood-glossed action filmmaking, and Ross displays an understanding of the material through these scenes.  You’re not supposed to cheer when a twelve year-old receives a spear through the chest, when a teenage girl of model beauty is swarmed by killer wasps, or when Katniss is forced to mercy kill a mortally-wounded enemy.  Every dead child is a victory for the Capitol and the evil President Snow, whose appearances are limited, but who promises to be a big problem for Katniss in the future, even after she leaves the arena.

The film’s best moments come in the form of Jennifer Lawrence’s solo scenes.  I was with her when she was treating her own burn wounds, crying at her failure to save a friend, throwing fits of frustration – and don’t confuse frustration with teen angst; this is not Twilight.  It’s not Harry Potter either – the coming war is much more real.  Lawrence’s Katniss is believable and sympathetic all the way through; through her experiences, most notably the death of her father, she has become a protector, both of her family and her friend (the appropriately homely and weak Peeta), and Lawrence plays this role resolutely.  The filmmakers make no attempt to sex her up, not even when the Capitol does, and while the book’s scenes of lone Katniss were far grittier, the PG-13 rating allows germane grit without frivolous gore.  As long as we can feel for Katniss, we can do without (most of) the bloodspray.

My biggest issue with movies based upon books is that while I try to hold them apart as starkly different mediums, I know what the key events are ahead of time, so instead of enjoying the film as an entity of its own, I find myself anticipating how the next scene will be adapted, which lines characters from the book will say, whether plot threads will be properly tied off.  In this case, the material is, for the most part, expertly handled, aside from a few book-to-film deviations and the relegating of certain important characters to background roles.  I couldn’t help feeling (and knowing) that Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, and the other tributes, specifically Clove, Cato, Rue, and Glimmer, all had more to offer in terms of character and had the life squeezed out of them in the painful transition from novel page to script page.

Since the film has been critically acclaimed, there is the natural backlash of the Moron Brigade, the latest claim being that The Hunger Games lifts material from the Japanese novel Battle Royale.  Let’s put this to rest right now.  I’ve read both, and the similarities literally stop at “young people forced to fight each other,” a convention used a thousand years (both in real life and fiction) before either story was written. Whether Collins was “aware” of Battle Royale is inapplicable at this point; she would have been better off saying “I’ve heard of it, but I deny ripping it off” instead of the knee-jerk reaction when accused of plagiarism (or most other offenses) – “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” which, when you’re in the public eye, you must stick to, lest you be called a liar later.

The Hunger Games, if anything less than original, can be classified as the unraveling of a new story from a familiar story environment. We’ve all heard that every-story-has-already-been-told rubbish. The list of stories involving the “arena” plot device (and device only, not plot as a whole) goes on forever – Series 7, The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, etc. If we want to say they’re all variations of the real-life Roman Coliseum, I’d be more willing to buy that, but to say the entire plot of The Hunger Games is a bold-faced ripoff of Battle Royale is, in my view, completely ludicrous and ignores a few important details – you know, like characters and the entire rest of the three-novel arc.

If The Hunger Games (the whole trilogy) should be remembered for anything, it’s a female protagonist in a male dominated dual-genre (Y.A. and sci-fi). When I have young women in my Comp classes telling me how empowered Katniss makes them feel, I’m more than willing to accept a bit of genre-sampling (which is ages away from plagiarism).

The Hunger Games (2012); written by Suzanne Collins; directed by Gary Ross; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks.