Solo: A Star Wars Story

No, you’re touchy!

l3Usually, when someone refers to a movie as “fun” (especially in a review), it translates to “This movie is poorly written/made, lacks artistic merit, and is not worth watching again.” Since the announcement of Solo: A Star Wars Story, even before Ron Howard replaced Lord/Miller, I didn’t want it. I never related to Han Solo the way other people seemed to when I was a child (while I thought he was cool, I didn’t think he was particularly deep, and for myriad reasons, I identified more with Leia). Beyond that, Han was always an interesting character because of the absence of a solid past – this guy was a drifter, a space cowboy straight out of a western, only this cowboy didn’t drift out of town after helping save the day; he stayed the course for the good of everyone else, something a Sergio Leone joint would never give you. So as a whole, I didn’t think the Solo movie was a good idea. Then again, I thought Rogue One was a good idea, and it wasn’t.

Plot details/spoilers ahead, obvs.

The film is essentially a linear rehash of the Han Solo Adventures with a better supporting cast, a few names changed, and less time to spend on each adventure. We get a nice, gritty-ish opening with Han (Alden Ehrenreich), a typical “scrumrat,” trying to finagle his way off the Imperial-controlled shipbuilding world of Corellia with girlfriend and apostrophe-abuser Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who looks suspiciously clean for an oppressed homeless person running dangerous schemes in sooty back-alleys, but I digress. Han and Qi’ra’s district is under the thumb (or, y’know, tendrils) of the White Worm gang, led by the terrifying Lady Proxima (an incredibly cool subterranean creature voiced by Oscar winner Linda Hunt). Through one thing and another, Han and Qi’ra steal some valuable phlebotinum to bargain their way offworld, but Qi’ra is detained by Imperials, and the duo is separated for several years, during which Han joins the Imperial Flight Academy, is kicked out for insubordination, and relegated to the “mudtroopers,” which when you think about it, doesn’t sound like a much more prestigious designation than “scrumrat.”

Han doesn’t fare much better in the Imperial infantry, and his on-point observation that “It’s their planet; we’re the hostiles” during a brutal colonization mission makes you wonder how he got as deep as he did. But soon, he runs into a crew led by Tobias Beckett (fantastic-as-ever Woody Harrelson), which includes redshirts Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). Beckett’s crew is planning on lifting great quantities of coaxium (aforementioned phlebotinum) from the Empire. Han develops a good rapport with them and admires their self-made nature, and when they refuse to take a greenhorn like him along, he attempts blackmail, which results in Beckett selling him out to an officer who hates him anyway, and he’s sentenced to a fight against “the beast.” Due to his modest prowess at speaking Shyriwook, Han is able to talk his way out of fighting this beast, whose name is Chewbacca, and the duo stage their first of many legendary escapes together.

From there, the film becomes the “space western” it promised to be, staging heist after chase after high-stakes card game, and planting seeds for the double-crosses we know are coming. The coaxium heist goes sideways after the Cloud Riders (the first of many Expanded Universe deep-cuts here) a group of marauders led by the mask-wearing, cool-suit-having, because-this-one-doesn’t-have-Vader-or-Kylo-in-it, Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), have the same idea. This is where Han starts to think about things. Up to this point, he assumes that everyone is out for themselves, but Beckett is actually working for Dryden Vos (a menacing Paul Bettany in a role inherited from the previously-cast Michael K. Williams), a Bond-villain-type who heads up Crimson Dawn, one of the five syndicates of the Shadow Collective (that galaxy-wide criminal organization that Darth Maul runs because he’s 0 and 2 against the Jedi). Han, Beckett, and Chewie visit Vos’s lavish, monolithic yacht to grovel, and wouldn’t you know it, Qi’ra is working for him, and she’s got a Crimson Dawn brand on her wrist. New mission: replace the shipment due to Vos so that he doesn’t kill the group.

The new crew’s adventures include all of the “greatest hits” you’d expect from a Han Solo movie: obtaining a ship (which involves the legendary Sabacc match with Lando Calrissian); making the infamous Kessel Run, Chewie tearing someone’s arms out of their sockets, and of course, Han shooting first. But it’s the supporting cast and the attention to detail that form the film’s magic. L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a self-built droid who is old friends with Lando, is one of many characters who seem like they have their own (sometimes better) movies going on, independent of what we see here. Her ideas about droid personhood are something not yet seen in the franchise, and it says loads about Lando that he considers her an equal. By the same token, we get Enfys Nest, who could have just been another masked bad guy with generic sinister dialogue/motivations, but her band of “marauders” turns out to be one of the first Rebel cells, and Enfys is in fact an indigenous young woman kindling the fires of her own revolution. It’s a masterstroke of nuance (read: not just a twist) in something that could have just been a dumb action movie.

In part, though, it is. Not that the movie doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but you can always do better. The film’s structure sort of feels like walking through the hallway of a movie theater and watching one scene from a bunch of different movies, as the movie never quite lets you settle in (it retains that “greatest hits” feel all the way through). Furthermore, Thandie Newton probably should have played the more central Qi’ra role rather than the ill-fated and barely-seen Val, both for performance ability and representation reasons (seriously, does MucusFlem actually listen to people? But hey, gotta make that paper, so snatch up the Game of Thrones actors). At least Vos is a legitimately scary enemy, but his demise is basically a discount version of Snoke’s.

There’s also a throwaway line that mentions Beckett being the one who killed Aurra Sing, a famous bounty hunter who was active during the Clone Wars and beyond. Hey, I get that you need to make Beckett seem impressive, but 1) that’s a kick in the shins to those of us who invested in that character for years and wanted to see what became of her, and 2) casual viewers don’t know who she is, so you didn’t accomplish anything here (and for the record, I blew a very loud raspberry at the screen when this line was spoken). Couldn’t you have had him kill Cad Bane instead? Cad Bane sucks.

My biggest nitpick, though, is the treatment of L3, and this is where the film’s fast pace creates problems. She’s the most lovable character in the piece, has potential for meaningful relationships with every character and for big involvement in every part of the story, but only lasts about twenty minutes in a movie that runs over two hours. I try to ignore media hype over new characters in order to avoid disappointments like this, but she’s also a vital in-universe presence: in the recent Han and Lando novel Last Shot, it’s revealed that L3 became aware of a virus that would eventually turn all droids against their creators, annihilating organic life, so she created an antivirus and built a group of droids (in her own image) that could potentially solve the problem. Sure enough, the problem arises post-RotJ, and with the help of Han and Lando (who still misses her to death and is unbelievably thrilled to see droids that look like her), she saves the whole damn galaxy. L3 is a savior of droids and organics. She’s also queer-coded and as feminist as you please.

In the film, although she commands every scene she’s in, she’s blown apart after triumphantly freeing slaves in the spice mines of Kessel. Lando, in perhaps Donald Glover’s most honest bit of acting here, scrambles to save her, but must resort to uploading her consciousness into the Falcon. Translation: she’s still alive, but now exists as the brain of the Millennium Falcon, which explains why the ship’s programming language was so unique and eclectic in The Empire Strikes Back. Overall, that’s great, because it means L3 is there for all the big victories, including the one where Lando pilots the Falcon to destroy Death Star II, but as far as her function in this movie, as the saying goes, they wasted a perfectly good character, because once she’s uploaded to the Falcon, we don’t get to hear her voice anymore, and the whole thing takes the wind out of the movie just as we’re getting to a big exciting part.

I’m starting to believe that the canon Expanded Universe novels are becoming a way to make us fall in love with characters who are going to be underused and then needlessly killed in the flagship films (L3, Amilyn Holdo, Kor Sella, Phasma), and I just don’t get it. I know it’s a cash grab, but some of us are emotionally invested. Worst of all with L3 is that she emphasizes freedom for droids from the control of organics, then is forced into the Falcon’s computer by organics. Bah.

Unlike the previous spinoff, Solo‘s joys outweigh the garbage. Warwick Davis reprises his role as Weazel (a podrace observer who jeered Anakin in The Phantom Menace), now working for a good cause alongside Enfys Nest (and by extension, working against the Empire Anakin is now part of). Also working for Enfys is “Two-Tubes,” the single Saw Gererra Partisan whose death was never accounted for. Other EU deep-cuts include Abeloth, the giant space-Cthulu-thing from the old Legends continuity that was central to the Kessel Run, and maybe best of all, Han actually says “Bantha crap” instead of “Bantha poodoo.” The performances make all of this stuff matter, so much so that it’s hard to pick a standout, but Harrelson’s Beckett is the most layered, at once a dedicated friend/lover, helpful ally, and charming rascal, but also a ruthless pragmatist. He’s just not always as great a judge of character as he thinks he is.

As for the appearance of Maul, I don’t feel any one way about it. It’s not a surprise if you’ve seen both TV series, but it’s a surprise to see Ray Park back in the movies after they killed Maul only a year ago on Rebels. Are they going to do an Obi-Wan movie and just reshoot their final duel on Tatooine? I don’t know. And I have to not care, because at the rate we’re going, I’m not going to live to see the last Star Wars film, and the countless hours I spent worrying about how it ends will probably be the last thing I think about on my deathbed.

Solo is the best Star Wars prequel. Unnecessary? Yeah. Only made for revenue? Yep. Should these spinoffs be canceled so we don’t have a Star Wars movie every year, and no time to process the saga films before having more multimedia shoved in our faces? Definitely. But if any Han Solo movie should have been made (albeit “with deficiencies,” as my department evaluations would say), this was the one.

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterSolo: A Star Wars Story (2018); written by Lawrence and Jon Kasdan; directed by Ron Howard; starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Glover.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

They wasted a perfectly good short story title

billboardsMartin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes you question what you want to know, sympathizes with lots of people no other film will, challenges characters who have the best intentions, and ends in a much different place than viewers probably want it to. In other hands, the film would focus on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, because that’s Mildred’s single motivation throughout the story. However, reality ensues: it’s not always that easy. Resources for such a quest are hard to come by. The authorities are useless. She has another kid (Lucas Hedges) to focus on. And beyond all that, it’s just not what the movie is about.

Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) left the house one day after a fight with her mom, and was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. A year later, the police have come up with nothing, having seemingly forgotten about the case, so Mildred purchases ad space on three defunct billboards on a lesser-used route into town. Put together, the message reads, “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson at his best) isn’t exactly an obstructionist, but he’s done all he can legally do, and on top of that, he’s dying of cancer. If that weren’t enough, his most assertive officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist layabout whose brutal nature and utter incompetence have gone unpunished for years, so hell if there’s anyone in Ebbing who can actually hunt down a suspect who may have been nothing but a drifter who passed through town a year ago.

The film’s narrative involves Mildred’s war on the town rather than the hunt for the killer (which may or may not begin at the very end, depending on how you look at it), and is mostly a study of Ebbing’s various personalities. Mildred is a classic anti-hero, complete with plenty of anvil-drop scenes that emphasize just how badass she is, but the film often invites us to critique her actions: blowing up a police station, beating on minors, being rude to dwarfs and the terminally ill, etc. But she’s been through it all. Besides the loss of her daughter, she’s had to endure years of abuse by her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who still won’t just go away. Bits of her real self – or at least the caring, mama-bear-type side of the self we see here – reveal themselves in interesting places, but her emotional scars prevent her from ever being who she was before, just like the literal scar on the town where Angela’s body was burned.

Willoughby and Dixon are the other characters who are examined closely, sometimes in the right way and sometimes not. The film spends a perhaps unnecessary amount of time with Willoughby and his family, leading up to Willoughby’s inevitable suicide, whereupon he leaves parting gifts and advice to a few folks, including Mildred and Dixon. These sequences are mainly used to beat the audience over the head with the idea that one needs love and compassion to achieve their desires – advice both Mildred and Dixon can use in spades. However, Willoughby could have spent more time guiding his right-hand man more closely, rather than making excuses for his race-motivated torture of citizens and allowing him to just keep on squeaking by.  By the time Dixon receives Willoughby’s heartfelt letter, it’s too late for him to become a real detective. Worse, the film turns Dixon into Mildred’s fellow anti-hero without punishing him for his racism or his unwarranted violence against innocent people (which includes punching a young girl in the face), or even giving the slightest hint that he’s going to change his ways. Instead the film creates this “face turn” in the cheapest way possible: simply introducing someone much shittier (a bar patron who threatens Mildred and brags about sexually assaulting women). McDonagh’s thematic material needs some work in this respect. It’s difficult to reconcile the film’s overt messages of love and compassion with its demand that the audience show these things for characters that haven’t really earned it.

This is McDonagh’s third film to include conspicuous racism (In Bruges had the “race war” tirade; Seven Psychopaths had Woody Harrelson throwing the N-word around and murdering Black women), more or less without comeuppance for the perpetrators. It’s his second film to use a dwarf as a comic sidekick/victim of “midget” talk. Maybe I’m being too critical of minutiae, but if the whole point is just that shitty people exist and aren’t usually punished for their shittiness, then fine, we get it. But you’re making works of art. Do something with that. Or at least have an idea about it.

The film ends with Mildred and Dixon driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist who had nothing to do with Angela’s death, beginning a possible cycle of vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. Much like Mildred’s experiences must be for the real-life people who experience them, the final shot is the beginning of a story that never ends. Ultimately, the film’s greatest success is what it says about agency, and the lengths the desperate are willing to go to obtain it.

billboards2Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

 

Mockingjay 2

Recognition, restoration, reparation

hunger-games-mockingjay-2-teaser2-900Just when I was trying to have a quiet year over here (not completely voluntarily – the indie theater I frequent around here has changed ownership and is currently closed for who-knows-what-horrifying alterations), the sluice gates of ignorance opened upon the release of the final Hunger Games film, and I felt the need to add my spices to the pot, as it were.  So here’s how it actually is.

The second part of Mockingjay, based on the final novel in Suzanne Collins’ subversive-heroine-in-generic-dystopia trilogy, continues to center on its characters, particularly Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who narrates the novels and stands at the center of nearly every scene in the film.  The story follows Katniss’s involvement in the rebel District 13’s final move against the autocratic Capitol, led by President Coriolanus Snow, played once again by Donald Sutherland, who continues to smirk his way into movie-villain history.  Although Katniss has become the symbol of the rebellion, she does not fight on the front lines as most “YA” protagonists would; instead, she is placed with a filmmaking crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and tasked with creating propaganda videos.  However, Katniss has her own plan, which is to kill President Snow herself.  Her crew, of course, is in no less danger than anyone else, given the fact that Snow has placed deadly “pods” around the Capitol, which makes the journey to his mansion resemble the old Hunger Games arenas.  Roughly half the movie deals with the most expendable members of the crew being picked off in traditional adventure movie fashion whilst Katniss attempts to talk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson ) into becoming himself again. The second half concerns what happens after the war ends – something too few stories about war actually explore.

Criticism has been aimed at the fact that this is not the expected ending of a series like this.  Apparently, the absence of a rousing finale with orchestrated victory music, a concrete happy ending, and a “final battle” is too much (or too little) for some to handle (none of whom have actually read the source material).  But Mockingjay ends as it should, with Katniss trying to find her place in the new system of government, or rather, being told what her role is going to be in an administration that has used her as a pawn for years.  Now bereft of her sister and countless friends, plagued by PTSD and nightmares, and without any sense of “mission,” not to mention recognizing that a horrible cycle is about to repeat itself, Katniss has never been more truly alone among other people.

How do you reconcile with a best friend whose aggressive carelessness is responsible for the death of your beloved sibling?  Do you?  How do you move on with your life when a war that has lasted your entire adult life finally ends?  How do you accept the mantle of “hero” when your victory was achieved through the slaughter of countless innocent people?  To whom do you turn when everyone close to you is equally broken, despite the larger goal being achieved?  These are the sorts of questions the film asks, and it doesn’t shy away from them or pretend that the future is bright just because the “correct” side won the big battle.

I’m not sure The Hunger Games really is “YA” anymore.  Sure, Collins’ prose is accessible to even the least well-read of preteens, and sure, giant cinema chains pair the film with trailers for teenage brainjunk and Justin Bieber albums, but its themes resonate in a way that is important now, especially for ambitious young people, but also for adults who don’t think about the way they talk about war and death.  In the world of Katniss, just like real life, killing is not glorious, and the idea of “war heroes” is fiction.  But although Katniss sacrifices her chances at normalcy and calm (not to mention becomes irreversibly disfigured in a way that is severely toned down onscreen), there is a mite of optimism.  She’s done this out of hope for the next generation: the hope that her children will be the first living people to experience an entire life without the Hunger Games.  She may be too shell-shocked to bond with them, may have taken the guy she ends up with only because he’s the sole person who knows what she’s been through (save for Johanna, but she’s another story), but ask yourself this: has any entire generation of Americans been able to live without witnessing our country involved in any kind of organized violent conflict?

J-Law is at her best once again in this (and on fire – at least one trailer before the film has her in it, albeit as David O. Russell’s muse for the third time).  Jena Malone is still incomparably powerful and seen too little, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who makes his final-final-final onscreen appearance, fades away with a (digitally rendered) smile.  It’s obvious which scenes he was supposed to be in and unable to do, and it’s heartbreaking.

Katniss is an important character for the unique place she finds in the YA canon.  Her very real vulnerability turns off the faux-masculine and those who need their heroes to be blocks of wood with just enough stubble and the same inability to express emotion that they themselves are inflicted with.  Her self-sufficiency, take-no-shit attitude, and various talents are enough to make anyone root for her, but in spite of what we (or the people of Panem) might demand of her, she refuses to stop being a real person, and in a world where so many narratives, especially for young people, feature only girls and women who find themselves in the stock roles of the virgin, the Tsundere, the whore, the nerdy friend-zoned best pal, and so on.

I’m not made of stone.  The Hunger Games is populated by characters with dumb names (combine a random nonsense word with a name from Shakespeare, and you’ve got someone who could live in Panem without making anyone flinch) and contradicts its own anti-reality-TV/anti-coliseum/anti-war-as-spectacle commentary by being a blockbuster film series in the first place.  But I think we’re well-served to also recognize its importance as a popular franchise that not only has a fully realized woman at its center, but confronts themes of death, futility, and the horrors of war.  It just hasn’t happened enough to be tired yet.

220px-mockingjay_part_2_posterMockingjay: Part 2 (2015); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, and Josh Hutcherson.

 

Mockingjay Part 1

Stranger things did happen here

MockingjayLet’s just start where we left off.  In the next section of the Hunger Games story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) heads to District 13, once thought destroyed by the Capitol (but actually putting a revolution in motion), along with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and others.  In 13’s cramped underground bunker (which made me feel like I was once again conscripted onboard the Matrix‘s Nebuchadnezzar), Katniss meets some new faces: President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the inscrutable-yet-not-ice-cold leader who plans on Fidel-Castro-ing her way to rulership of Panem; Cressida (Natalie Dormer), the shaven-headed-and-tattooed film director whose job is to feature Katniss in propaganda videos in order to rally support for the rebellion; Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Coin’s right-hand man, who might be more accurately described as “the guy who fetches Katniss when other people need her for something;” and Paylor (Patina Miller), the leader of the rebellion in District 8.  Most importantly (to Katniss, anyway), she is reunited with her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), such an ingénue that she’s named after the most delicate of flowers (and she even bears a resemblance to Mary Pickford).

Director Francis Lawrence navigates the slow-burning first half of the source novel through the eyes of Katniss (the lens through which the entire book series is told, and in present tense, no less), occasionally breaking away for Bad Guy Stuff between Donald Sutherland and whichever unlucky mooks happen to be within earshot of his garden-variety evil pontificating.  Otherwise, the main narrative is built of Katniss’s interactions with various others in 13, most importantly Coin, Prim, Plutarch, and the recently liberated Effie (Elizabeth Banks), seen for the first time in the series without buckets of makeup (yep; there’s a real person with real emotions under there!).  The main goal now is to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from the clutches of the Capitol so that a full-on assault can happen without endangering the lives of those who made Katniss’s escape from the arena possible – in other words, there’s still the promise of actiony stuff for casual non-readers.  But the best parts of the film are the haunting reminders of what will come in any war story, especially one that wants to show younger folks a thing or two about the horrors of combat.  This is done not by melting people’s skin off onscreen (that’s next time), but by elegant flourishes like having Katniss sing an a capella version of “The Hanging Tree” (a made-up folk song that actually sounds like a folk song) as requested by a poor sap who’s had his tongue hacked out by the Capitol.  Moments later for us, weeks/months in-universe, a gang of citizens martyr themselves in order to destroy the Capitol’s power source, all the while singing Katniss’s song.

As Katniss must now keep track of everyone’s most minute movements, so must we.  What kind of leader will Coin be?  She wants to use Katniss as a symbol to fuel her own ambitions, but at least she’s honest about it.  Julianne Moore could have played the character as shifty-eyed and overtly duplicitous, but instead plays a character whom it’s very easy to feel close to, even though your brain is telling you to keep your distance.  Hoffman’s Plutarch reveals his sense of humor, as well as his stake in all of this, and his lone scenes with Moore’s Coin bring back fond memories of The Big Lebowski (memories that will unfortunately only be memories from here on).  Dormer’s Cressida more or less encapsulates District 13’s attitude in a single person: “We like you, Katniss, but not as much as we like the rebellion, and only as long as we can still use you.”  Miller’s Paylor is underused and underseen, especially considering upcoming events, but I’ll save that.  Almost completely MIA is Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason, who appears in a silent cameo after being rescued, yet (and this is to Malone’s unbelievable credit) we’re assured that her entire personality is still intact just by the look she gives Katniss after tearing an oxygen tube out of her nostrils.

The most important part of the Hunger Games films is the characterization of Katniss.  A film inherently cannot spend as much time inside the character as a written narrative can, but both Lawrences are intent on not reducing Katniss to a Boring Hero (that role goes to steadfast pragmatist Gale [Liam Hemsworth] – imagine if he were the main character?).  Mockingjay dedicates plenty of scenes to Katniss alone and brooding, but never whining or dejectedly sulking.  The serious PTSD has started to set in, ensuring that what’s to come in Katniss’s personal life will be neither pleasant nor a surprise.  Furthermore, attention is given to the minutiae, which affects characterization far more than any of the “deep” thematic stuff: Katniss’s adoration for her sister is illustrated through little mannerisms that they both recognize.  They sleep in a bed together like children do.  Katniss reacts the way a person is supposed to when they see a pile of human skulls in the middle of a street (hint: not with a badass one-liner about vengeance).  She’s not your straight/narrow Harry Potter type, regardless of how YA narratives may get lumped together.  But she’s not a femme fatale either, and even after three films, she refuses to be anything but human.

The final installment will be fast and violent, but if this film and Catching Fire were any indication, Katniss’s voice will be heard more clearly than the myriad explosions will.

Read my writeup of Catching Fire here.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Danny Strong and Peter Craig; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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.

 

Seven Psychopaths

It’s very emotional

It never occurred to me that Martin McDonagh, a renowned Irish playwright and director of In Bruges, might end up making the quintessential Guy Movie, or that the latter might be a movie about dognapping.  Seven Psychopaths, the newest from the Oscar-winning director of Six Shooter, had me saying “Jesus Christ” aloud quite a few times in the theatre.

Funnily enough, the film immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s masterwork, Adaptation., which was also about a struggling screenwriter attempting to find a good movie in a slough of terrible ideas.  In both films, the protagonist is named after the screenwriter. Kaufman’s assignment was to adapt a movie from a book; unable to accomplish this, he wrote a screenplay about himself trying to adapt a screenplay from a book.  I wonder, then, if McDonagh was wrestling with a concept and finally settled on writing about himself wrestling with a concept.  The tone of the film, ill-tempered and seemingly aggravated with its characters, may suggest this.

Marty (Colin Farrell), sits on his porch, enjoys the breeze, drinks heavily, and scribbles ideas for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths,” on a yellow pad.  His best friend and roommate, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) wants to help Marty with his screenplay by any means necessary, and to an obsessive degree: he not only offers to co-write the story, but he even puts an ad in the paper calling for criminals with crazy life stories to come to Marty’s house and share their experiences.  Ultimately, he resorts to an unbelievable, too-good-to-spoil solution, which involves a madman called the Jack O’Diamonds Killer – a serial killer who specializes in killing members of organized crime syndicates, shown in action in the film’s opening, which features brilliant banter between Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.  Billy is unpredictable, sexist, and gratingly annoying, and takes his surname from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.  You might think this is a coincidence until you see Billy in front of a mirror rehearsing a conversation.

Here’s the trouble – Billy has no success in his acting career, so he makes ends meet by teaming with his other roommate, the aging Hans (Christopher Walken), in a scam that involves stealing dogs and later returning them to their owners in order to collect the reward money.  Hans’ wife, hospitalized with cancer, does not approve, but Hans, a steadfast pacifist, believes he’s doing the right this as long as he gives the money to her.  The duo, of course, steal the one dog they should not steal: a Shih Tzu belonging to the most psycho of the film’s psychopaths.  This is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a gang leader with incredible love for his dog and absolute disdain for humanity.  Costello ruthlessly hunts down anyone remotely involved with the dognapping in scenes that would normally fit into harrowing, violent drama like No Country For Old Men, but due to McDonagh’s decision to make the film exceeding self-conscious, result in raucous laughs – I was a tad ashamed of laughing at some of the film’s humor, but dammit if I could keep from cackling at Woody Harrelson popping wheelies in a wheelchair while interrogating a hospital patient.

Marty’s problem is that he begins with a concept instead of characters.  He names the film “Seven Psychopaths” before he even comes up with one psychopath.  His first character idea?  A Buddhist psychopath who does not believe in violence.  Thinking aloud on this, Marty says, with a hint of resignation, “I don’t know what the fuck he’s gonna do in the movie.”  This is one of the ongoing themes: the movie we’re watching, parts of which may or may not be happening in Marty’s jumbled thoughts, continuously seeks to find a place for its characters, and the colorful weirdos orbiting Marty (namely Billy and Hans, who make it all too clear that they know they’re in a movie), offer rolling feedback.  Billy recognizes Costello as the “chief villain,” constantly tries to set up a “final shootout” between himself and Costello’s gang, and balks when Marty suggests that the film should ultimately be about love and not shootouts.  Hans, portrayed by the eclectic Walken as buckled-down and cavalier, takes the opposite approach: he tells Marty that his women characters are all either hookers or unintelligent, and are killed within five minutes of being introduced.  This comment comes a few scenes after Olga Kurylenko’s character, Angela, is introduced and immediately killed, and after Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him and is killed (albeit in what amounts to a dream sequence, but it’s the last time she’s seen).  This provides another funny, self-conscious loop, but doesn’t change the fact that in McDonagh’s film, the actual film released in real-life theatres, the women are minimally seen and either naked or dead.

As was the case with In Bruges, the seemingly minor tidbits piece together to form a brilliant conclusion.  While Marty claims that he wants his film to have “no payoffs, just a bunch of guys sitting in the desert and talking,” Billy insists that the movie will end his way.  As such, we must remember Billy’s rules for movies, which include never showing sympathy for the villain, and never killing animals (Wes Anderson might disagree).  If he acknowledges this as a movie, then he knows he must follow his own rules, and Billy’s moments of hesitation are where Rockwell’s performance shines (a supreme achievement in a film that contains way too much of him).

The film also contains a short appearance by Tom Waits as one of the serial killers who answers Marty and Billy’s ad.  He’s a red herring for the Jack O’Diamonds Killer, but provides one of the movie’s many alternate-movies, which play like Marty’s rough drafts (or, more likely, McDonagh’s rough drafts for the real movie).  Luckily, these sequences all hold a special significance revealed later (yes, even Marty’s idea about a Quaker psychopath).

Seven Psychopaths is showy about its violence, and despite its humor, is one of the bloodier movies of the year (imagine Lawless as a comedy).  I wonder if McDonagh was going through a funk when he scripted/made this film, considering the amount of unpunished racial slurs and woman-bashing happening onscreen.  Whether McDonagh is taking a dig at the notion of being truly literary in Hollywood or was as frustrated as Marty when making this, there blooms an undeniable sense of exhaustion (and a big hint at McDonagh’s view on the less-than-fulfilling life of a screenwriter) once the action is over: sitting in his room, Marty receives a phone call from Waits’ character, to whom he broke a promise, and who calmly tells Marty he’ll kill him on Tuesday.  “That’s fine,” Marty says, distracted, his eyes glazed over.  “I’m not doing anything on Tuesday.”

Seven Psychopaths (2012); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.

Rampart

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The above statement proves all too true when Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) tries to talk with his daughters near the ending of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.  Everyone in this film seems to have a plan, the fundamental fibers of which have begun deteriorating long before the beginning of the story.

Dave Brown is a bad guy.  He’s a Los Angeles police officer in the wake of the Rampart scandal, determined to retain his job despite the laundry list of allegations against him for everything you can think of, including unnecessary brutality, to which we bear firsthand witness.  He lives next door to his two ex-wives, sisters who each have a daughter by Brown.  This makes his daughters both sisters and first cousins; when the younger daughter asks if she is “inbred,” Brown responds, “I married your moms consecutively, not concurrently.  It’s all perfectly legal and up to insurance industry standards.”  I can’t help but wonder how the sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both married to Brown within such a short time frame, get along so famously and nearly always stick together when it comes to issues involving him.  Perhaps their lives have reached such a low point – not to mention a point at which nothing can surprise them – that acceptance is the only fallible response.

Rampart is not presented as a film with a plot as much as a mulligan of vignettes and sideplots meticulously woven together to await their respective inevitable results.  What we might consider the major meat of the story involves Brown facing sanctions and possible forced retirement for a suspicious shooting set up by a former gangster simply named Hartshorn, played by convincing old-timer Ned Beatty.  As all of the Hartshorns in America are related, I naturally wanted to root for him, but the film makes that a bit difficult.  In the face of the allegations, Brown repeatedly tries to talk his way out of trouble using the wit, crude humor, and pretense of intelligence that got him so far on the force (for example, we learn early in the film that he often makes up quotes from nonexistent court cases in order to illustrate points to police rookies).  However, it is clear from the get-go that he has no chance of charming assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), agent Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), and politician Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi).  When the womanizing Brown meets a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright, the Princess Bride herself), a conflict blooms in that it would be much more beneficial for her to work against him.  When she attempts to discuss feelings vs. professionalism and the reality of the situation with him, he cannot get past the fact that she will not simply do as he says.

The movie would be over in a hurry (or quickly shift focus to the domestic conflicts only) if Brown wasn’t so desperate to keep his job as a police officer, despite everyone knowing he’s a loose cannon.  Why is staying a cop the most important thing?  “Because I am a hard-charging, dutiful motherfucker and I want to explicate the LAPD’s somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache regardless of my alleged transgressions,” he says with pretentious, self-conscious eloquence in front of a group of big-shots who know he has no respect for them.  The story, then, represents a series of struggles, perhaps a two-way struggle against a river that runs both ways: Brown is not going to convince his superiors, who are more concerned with the public embarrassment the force has become because of him than with the fact that he’s beaten and killed countless unarmed people for the hell of it, and he’s not going to make any headway with his daughters, who are young, but old enough to know he’s an all-around ne’er-do-well.

The scenes showcasing Brown’s shady dealings with Hartshorn include some great tough-guy dialogue, most often seen in movies we might now think of as fossilized (Bogart, Mitchum, John Wayne) and more recent movies that seem to know they’re gangster movies (Reservoir Dogs, for instance), but it seems to work organically here:

Brown: “Look, if this was the gang fucks, I don’t mind.  Generic criminal scum, bogus lawsuit settlement scum, press scum – I can deal with scum.  But if this is Rampart, LAPD, some fucking girly politician setting me up as a shit-magnet to take the heat off the fucking scandal, I gotta go deep into this.”

Hartshorn: “Lookit, what can I do?  I am just a law-abiding retiree enjoying his golden years.”

Brown: “Fuck you with the Mickey Cohen routine, old man.  You’ve got your fingers in more department pie than any active cop I know.  Now, milk your contacts.  I’ve got cash left from the Harris job – thanks for that, by the way.”

Hartshorn: “You could just stop, um, beating people up.”

The more touching parts of the film involve Brown’s attempts to reconcile (or, as far as we’re concerned, to develop an anything-but-antagonistic relationship) with his older daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), who smokes, dyes her hair, and is dating another girl.  She also has a deep knowledge of her father’s treatment of his family, and needs only a television to see what he’s been doing elsewhere.  When she treks far from home to see what he’s up to at work, he asks, “How’s school?”  She answers, “It sucks.  It’s full of candyass future fags and dykes like me,” adding that these are Brown’s own words.  “You’re a dinosaur,” she says.  “You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer,  a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic, clearly, or maybe you just don’t like yourself.”  As an audience, we cannot help but admit that this is what we’ve been thinking since square one, and root for our protagonist as we might, we know that if he were a real person, we would ostracize him the same as everyone else.  This argument takes place beautifully and ingeniously framed between two very different trees growing from the same soil, one bare and ragged (the one closest Dave) and the other, closest Helen, covered with sturdy bark, leaves and ivy.

But there is one bond that these two share: they’re outcasts.  Even after Brown has alienated every possible character in the story, that fact cannot change.  We don’t get the sense that Helen’s mother and aunt are any more gay-friendly than Brown, but only because they don’t seem to care about much of anything too deeply (how else can their casual living situation be explained?).  When his exes decide it’s time to sell the house and move, Brown desperately tries to stop this.  Why?  Is this just further proof of his unwillingness to accept change, or does he really see potential for reconciliation?  For love, even?  The final scene of the film seems to speak to this: after all of his schemes have failed, he trespasses on what was once his own property and spies on Helen, who sits on the porch with a cigarette, experiencing what looks like a peaceful moment.  Brown does this earlier in the film, watching Helen with her girlfriend and perhaps noticing how happy she looks; after the way she acts around him, it may come as a shock to him that she even has the ability to smile.  As she sits on the porch smoking, she seems to notice him in the bushes, and he makes no attempt to hide.  After a few seconds of wordless and expressionless eye contact, the two part ways, with Brown leaving and making his way back to his squad car, which will probably not be his for much longer (along with everything else), the camera lens seeming to crack apart with reds, blues, and combination shots of Brown’s face.  Was Helen happy to see him?  Do either of them recognize their potential as father and daughter?  Is there any hope of getting that back once the family disappears from Brown’s life?  The film leaves it up to our scrutiny of Helen’s facial expressions and body language, and it’s a very rewarding scene (albeit not absolute by any means) to watch over and over again.

Rampart is a difficult film.  I’m writing about it nearly two months after seeing it.  It’s a film you must see for Woody Harrelson’s performance and its expert treatment of an ensemble cast, and it deserves an Oscar for the former, but in my experience, it’s also a film you must see, think about in great detail, rewatch parts of, try not to think about for awhile, then come back and face, just like Brown must do with Helen in the end.

Rampart (2012); written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman; directed by Oren Moverman; starring Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Robin Wright, and Ned Beatty.