Archive for November, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (feat. Isaac and Jonathan Walberg)

Sunday, November 24th, 2013—Film

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (USA 2013, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt; Director: Francis Lawrence

It’s been nearly two years since my then-nine-year-old nephew Jon pointed me toward Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series. His excitement over the books prompted me to read all three and invite him to write a joint review of the trilogy’s first movie adaptation (see The Hunger Games).

Now, with the second film installment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the stakes are higher and the play is that much more intense, so I brought in extra reinforcement: Jon, now 11, plus his younger brother Isaac, 10, who has also read the books.

The trilogy is about a dystopian future in which the people of Panem (a fallen North America) are relegated to one of 12 districts, and all live in varying degrees of poverty. The districts are controlled by the wealthy Capitol, which hosts the Hunger Games as an annual reminder of their power and unrelenting rule. As per the Capitol’s decree, each district must offer up two young tributes per year to participate in a televised fight to the death.

The first book (and movie), The Hunger Games, sees Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), win the 74th edition of the competition. Catching Fire picks up with the two on a celebratory Victory Tour to the other districts, but soon takes a darker turn when Katniss, a threat to the Capitol and a symbol for the rebellion, learns that she and Peeta must return to the arena for the 75th round of the Hunger Games.

My nephews and I live in different provinces, so we saw the movie separately. While I watched it, I wondered whether some of the dark, disturbing images would be upsetting to Jon and Isaac.

Turns out, they weren’t too bothered by it. When we did our postmortem over the phone the next day, the boys agreed that the movie was sad, with Isaac calling out the Victory Tour as being particularly harsh (he’s right; Katniss and Peeta see innocent people killed ruthlessly by “Peacekeepers” simply because they stood up for their fallen compatriots). But overall, my nephews seemed inured to the roughness and fundamentally horrifying subject matter.

I can’t say the same. I was frequently holding back tears throughout Catching Fire, thanks to the closer look it takes at life in the districts and the aftermath of the Hunger Games; the devastating performances (lead by the amazing Lawrence); and the keen and powerful direction. This film is grittier and edgier than the first, showing a necessary roughness that makes it a more apt adaptation for the trilogy. And although it doesn’t stand entirely on its own (Isaac didn’t like how abruptly it ended, saying it “just stopped”—though that is true to the book’s ending), as the mid-section of a trilogy, that’s totally justified.

Loyal readers will notice a lot of missing, or altered, details, but I was impressed by how tightly the filmmakers cut out extraneous bits from the novel—those that are wonderful in a book but become plodding and redundant within the tighter timeframe of a movie—without losing anything essential.

Jon was more meticulous in comparing the film to the book: “I found that some of the ‘wow’ moments took longer in the book; they were better described.” He mentions a moment in the arena when Katniss is gifted a spile to draw water from the trees. “In the book, she wonders, ‘What can this be?’ before figuring it out. In the movie, she just says, ‘Oh, it’s a spile.’ If I hadn’t read the book, I would have thought that it was good the way they did that, but I noticed those kinds of things just because I was so focused on how the movie compared to the book.”

Jon and I also talked about how Catching Fire, like the first movie, shows less allegiance to Katniss’ perspective than the books do, taking time away from her point of view to peek behind the scenes of the Hunger Games. As Jon says: “In the book, they can take a lot longer to make us see how Katniss thinks. In the movie, it was pretty good but they could have done it better. They could have shown more of her emotions or her reactions to what people are saying.”

In that regard, I think Catching Fire got a lot nearer to the mark than the first film did, bringing us closer (often literally, with tight shots on Lawrence) to Katniss’ inner life. And although Catching Fire still offers an insider’s view of the Hunger Games’ mechanics, the filmmakers wisely keep the audience, along with Katniss, in the dark as to what the revolutionaries are planning.

Catching Fire also does a great job of drawing on the power of the image, sometimes replacing dialogue with a visual (there’s a particularly effective moment at the end of Katniss’ first meeting with the Capitol’s President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland), other times simply bringing home the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” (audience members gasped when Katniss hanged the dummy of former Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane). In Isaac’s words: “The movie is more exciting than the book because (in the movie) you actually get to see it.”

Catching Fire is an excellent contribution to The Hunger Games franchise, which is an interesting and important reflection of the times. As Jon says: “Right now, there’s a bunch of dystopian books and (Catching Fire) is one of those dystopian movies.” He’s right; these days, there are countless TV shows, books and films that explore dystopian futures, like next year’s Divergent and this year’s Elysium, all reflecting elements of a dysfunctional present.

The Hunger Games series draws frightening parallels to current events, ranging from oppressive regimes, to the discrepancy between rich and poor, to the obsession with appearance, and shows us the drastic, violent acts resulting from each. Whether inflicted by President Snow’s Peacekeepers, by desperate tributes in the Hunger Games arena, or as a result of the grotesque plastic surgery that’s all the rage in the Capitol, the damage is done.

And, because the franchise is presented in a way that’s high quality while also being palatable to younger audiences, like my little nephews, it spreads its message very effectively across a wide range of ages. Regardless of the level it seeps in at, consciously or subconsciously, people are taking it in.

Final verdict: Jon and Isaac really liked Catching Fire, I loved it, and we’re all looking forward to the two-part finale, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Bring on the next joint review!

*            *            *

Thank you to my wonderful nephews for making everything more worthwhile.

And Happy Birthday to my wonderful friend CR, who totally gets the awesomeness of kids’ perspectives… and, of course, of Emoji.

The Millstone gives shout-out to

Friday, November 15th, 2013—News

Thanks to The Millstone for featuring my latest article, on Olympian Perianne Jones!

12 Years a Slave

Sunday, November 10th, 2013—Film

12 Years a Slave (USA/UK 2013, Biography/Drama/History), Writer: John Ridley; Director: Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave is an exceptional film that is, sadly, based on the extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped from upstate New York in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he remained until his rescue in 1853. The movie draws from the novel Twelve Years a Slave, Northup’s own account of his experiences in that period.

Watching 12 Years a Slave left me a bit wrecked, and judging from the sniffles in the audience, I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. It comes as a bit of a sock in the gut to reflect on the sickening way so many African Americans were treated for so long, on the twisted “logic” that rationalized their initial kidnapping and appropriation in the 1700s, and on the reality that racism and slavery still exist.

It’s particularly insightful to revisit that period through the eyes of Solomon Northup (played exquisitely by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Black man who wasn’t raised to accept that African Americans in the 1800s should be enslaved. As a free man with a career, home and family of his own, Solomon is appalled and indignant when he realizes his kidnappers’ intentions. Coming from a place of freedom, he knows he deserves better.

Solomon is quickly beaten into the understanding that his views are no longer welcome, or safe to express. But because he wasn’t born a slave, he manages to preserve a core of dignity and self-worth throughout his horrendous 12-year sentence—even fighting back at times—in a way that none of the other slaves around him do; unlike them, he was raised to believe the truth: that he has every right to be treated with respect.

12 Years a Slave is director Steve McQueen’s third feature, following the phenomenal Hunger and Shame. After seeing his first two films, I’d pretty much decided to see anything he makes, and 12 Years a Slave only reinforced that decision. It’s more mainstream than his previous efforts, less edgy and stylized, but it still bears his artful touch, and does a wonderful job of serving Solomon’s heartbreaking story.

Amid the horror of the tale, McQueen sets the tone with close-up shots of, for example, the steamboat’s wake as Solomon and other kidnapping victims are shipped south, carried over by ominous music. When they get there, the camera takes time now and then to linger on glorious, drooping trees and sun splashed bayous, contrasting Louisiana physical beauty with the living nightmare that took place there.

Here, McQueen again reveals his love of the long shot, perhaps more effectively in 12 Years a Slave than ever before. In one scene, Solomon is hanged from a tree as punishment, his toes barely skimming the ground. Left to dangle, the world carries on around him; the other slaves keep working, children play, his master’s wife looks on from her porch. It appears calm and almost picturesque, if you can overlook the blatant inequality and the Black man clinging to life.

In spite of McQueen’s powerful use of still moments and beautiful shots, he doesn’t shy away from portraying the vivid ugliness that took place in America’s South. But he shows them in a way that’s far more respectful—and far more impactful, from my perspective—than Quentin Tarantino did in last year’s Django Unchained, which presents his unique take on slavery.

When I saw Tarantino’s film, I was disturbed and angered by the grotesque and cartoonish violence. (Honestly, I couldn’t watch most of the Mandingo fight or the scene when a slave was fed to the dogs, but unfortunately the context and audio it made very clear what was happening.) When I shared my thoughts about Django Unchained with a friend, she said the violence needed to be included in all its glory because it showed what really happened; without it, people wouldn’t understand the full force of the evil that was slavery.

I disagreed then, and still do. We don’t need to see gratuitous gore in order to be horrified. It’s clear from Tarantino’s films, like Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, to name but a few of his bloody works, that Tarantino relishes violence. It’s a stylistic choice that’s more about indulging his vision than capturing a period in history. I think he’s a fantastic filmmaker, but that doesn’t mean I think you need his brand of gore to understand the horror of slavery.

Not that 12 Years a Slave isn’t plenty violent. It depicts awful acts of physical and sexual abuse against Black slaves. But they aren’t gratuitous, in my opinion, and they’re certainly less glorified than what Tarantino shows in Django Unchained. Not only that, but McQueen also takes care to convey the prolonged, ever-present despair the slaves suffer beyond the lashings and beatings. He lets us see the emotional carnage brought upon people who have been cruelly and suddenly removed from their families, stripped of their dignity and treated without humanity. He shows us the relentless exploitation of African Americans as they’re forced to work to exhaustion in practically unbearable conditions, with the only possible reward for a day of extraordinary effort being exemption from the whipping post—for the time being, anyway.

As with his previous films, McQueen here also draws fabulous performances from his cast, including the stellar Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsey, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender as slave owners Ford and Epps, and Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps, as well as the ever-wonderful Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw, and Paul Dano, so great in Prisoners, as Ford’s head carpenter Tibeats.

With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen does an amazing job of giving life to Solomon Northup’s story. That’s the reason it’s so hard to watch. It’s also the reason you absolutely should watch it.