Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reality Show of the Flies

Artemis lives: Jennifer Lawrence flexes in The Hunger Games

* * * The Hunger Games. Written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins & Billy Ray. Directed by Gary Ross.
Once upon a time “young adult” books lived in a ghetto—a niche market of fantasy, adventure and cautionary tales for ‘tweeners and young teens not yet in the coveted 18-24 year old demographic. Perhaps it was Harry Potter, or perhaps just the inevitable next step in the juvenilization of American culture, but those days are long gone. The Twilight series regularly tops The New York Times bestseller list. J.K. Rowling’s books occupy no fewer than seven of the top ten spots in USA Today’s list of the 150 bestselling books of the last 15 years.  (Pity poor Dan Brown by comparison, who nominally writes for adults yet ranks only #3 and #13.) Suzanne Collins’ teen survival epic The Hunger Games has sold more than 24 million copies just in the US. Gary Ross’ movie version of Games just recorded the third-best opening weekend in movie history, at $155 million. “Young adult” is not just out of the ghetto now, it is mainstream.
            These big numbers are driven not just by sales to kids.  Collin’s book is pretty grim material—the story of Katniss, a 16 year-old girl living in a dystopian future where most of the population of “what is left of North America” are enslaved, and 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death in an annual televised reality show called The Hunger Games. For anyone old enough to be dead in Logan’s Run, reading the book brings on a regular series of responses. Stage One is recognition of the many obvious sources of material for Collins’ premise—Survivor, The Most Dangerous Game, Gladiator, Logan’s Run, The Truman Show, Lord of the Flies, Rollerball, at least one episode of the original Star Trek. Stage Two is dismay at the threadbare prose, which has the feel of a movie treatment more than a full-fledged novel, with language that is decidedly not from the upper slopes of Mount Parnassus (“You could hear a pin drop,” she writes. “I’m biting my nails like there’s no tomorrow.”) But then comes Stage Three, absorption, because Collins’ plot has such enormous momentum it is physically impossible not to turn the pages. After devouring it, the reader at last enters Stages Four, acceptance—followed perhaps by awe at the commercial juggernaut Collins has unleashed.  
            Like the makers of Watchmen a couple of years ago, Ross (Seabiscuit) seems to have made the movie version of Hunger Games half-gazing over his shoulder, as if worried the slightest departure from “canon” will be punished by its fans. And indeed, the virtues of the movie match those of the book—the engrossing, hurtling plot and likeable heroine offsetting the derivative premise and under-imagined setting. As Katniss, a teen from the coal-lands of Appalachia forced to grow up early, Kentucky-born Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast, for she played a virtually identical character in Winter’s Bone in 2010. Her modesty and anti-glamor, which give all signs of not being an act, give Games more heart than most spring blockbusters I can remember.
            This being election season, it’s tempting to interpret how this movie will be read politically. The Hunger Games are staged by Katniss’ overlords in the Capitol, whom Collins and Ross portray as supercilious ninnies living off the honest labor of the working-class Districts. The actor playing “Effie Trinket”, for instance, appears under so much pancake makeup, periwigged and perched on such high and tiny heels, she’s barely recognizable as Elizabeth Banks. Such freaks can be read as the bogies of either end of the political spectrum: for conservatives, the Capitol obviously represents the class of rich, out-of-touch government regulators, living it up inside the Beltway. On the Left, meanwhile, they might be read as the Wall Street 1%, living large on the rules they have rigged for their own benefit. All that sounds like a wash—except for one small but telling detail: when Katniss and her team-mate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked from District 12 (Appalachia) to the Capitol (somewhere in Rockies), they go not on a plane, which obviously would be fastest, but by high-speed rail.  You know—the kind of train Obama wants to build, but Republican governors from Wisconsin to Florida have refused as big-government boondoggles.  If you heard that dog-whistle, you just might be a Tea Party “patriot”.
            Much of the Games-related scuttlebutt in the Twitterverse is over on the question “Do kids really kill kids in this movie?” Yes, Virginia, they indeed do, and sometimes with extreme prejudice. In a post-Columbine world, this may have a more ominous ring than Collins intended. While there are bloodier movies around, and I sincerely doubt many kids will be tempted to stage Hunger Games of their own, this movie deserves its PG-13 rating. Best keep the smaller Tributes at home until they’re of age.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Parent Trap

Not pleased to meet you in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

* * *  We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Written by Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver. Directed by Lynne Ramsay.

According to recent figures, 20% of American women don’t even start planning their pregnancies until after the age of 35. Instances of male infertility are likewise up because more potential fathers are putting off the big plunge. The delay is usually blamed on the demands of career or education. But all that seems more like a symptom than a cause, the consequence of a larger shift in priorities toward personal fulfillment—the notion that one needs to perfect oneself before venturing to procreate. At its crudest, it’s wrapped up in anxieties about the expense and bother of parenthood, because once you have a kid your life is basically over, right?
            Whatever its other virtues and weaknesses, Lynne Ramsay’s domestic horror We Need to Talk About Kevin trades skillfully in these anxieties. It’s the story of Eva (Tilda Swinton), a woman we first meet in a maelstrom of guilt and despair after some undisclosed tragedy. Through deftly arranged flashbacks, the script by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear fills out the story of Eva’s relationship with Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller), the son who seems to have taken root in Eva’s womb with the sole purpose making a hell of her life.  As an infant Kevin is so colicky Eva seeks out jack-hammers to drown out his crying; in toddler-hood he’s so unresponsive she fears he’s autistic—until he opts to respond only with spite and viciousness. Dad (John C. Reilly) doesn’t get it, of course, because Kevin is a perfect angel around him. As the terrible twos give way to even more terrible ‘tweens and teens, Kevin’s machinations against his poor Mum become ever more sadistic, culminating in a final act of senseless violence that leaves Eva alone and reviled by everyone around her.
            No doubt, Kevin is chilling. Ramsay (Morvern Callar), a British director adapting an American novel with a British actress playing an American mother, builds to a steady crescendo of dread with her camera often no more than a foot or two  (and sometimes a few inches) from the face of pure evil. Much like Adrian Lyne in Fatal Attraction a generation ago,  she tells what is by nature an implausible story—a worst case scenario in the course of human events—with such skill that its remoteness from actual human behavior is never an issue. Or hardly ever, except when Ramsay indulges a few sledgehammer visual metaphors, such as the blood-red paint splashed on Eva’s front door she struggles to strip off (“Out, out, damn’d spot!”).
            Ramsay’s most consequential choice lay in casting the cool, humorless Swinton in a role that could have gone in nearly an infinity of directions. Alternatives like Ashley Judd or Vera Farmiga, for instance, would have been similarly intelligent, authentically American, and more obviously sympathetic. But Ramsay doesn’t want Eva to be automatically sympathetic. Kevin, after all, is a reflection of her, of her dread at the prospect of compromising her life. As Ramsay clearly shows, she is dejected by Kevin’s arrival virtually as soon as she leaves the delivery room, long before he can do much more than burble and suck.  Swinton is not so much a mother here as the Thin White Duke, a figure so otherworldly and androgynous as to be beyond the need for mere mortal reproduction. And indeed, it’s one of Kevin’s ironic pleasures that Miller plays Kevin with more feminine silkiness, more bewitching bitchiness than Swinton ever could if their roles were reversed.
            There were many times in this film when I wanted to yell at the screen, to tell Eva to show some wit, some trace of creativity in dealing with Kevin and his deliberately soiled underpants. To adapt a phrase, it takes a heart of stone not to laugh at a child’s self-defeating spite. But of course I was missing the point: Eva is a modern martyr on the cross of procreation, and it isn’t in the nature of a martyr to relieve her burden with clever tricks. Her part is only to suffer.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

No Thneed for Biggering

* * Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda.

* * * 1/2   The Secret World of Arrietty.  Written by Hayao Miyazaki &  Keiko Niwa, based on a novel by Mary Norton. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

The Once-ler takes a whack in The Lorax.

A day at the movies should be magic, you see
for kids who are ninety or only just three.
So Hollywood set about making a film very large of a short ecological screed
called The Lorax.

Dr. Seuss wrote this book long ago,
When hippies in town let their hair grow.
It was short and sweet and oh so clear,
this elegant plea to save all we hold dear.
Read it on a plane and you’ll see,  or a boat,
a car, a train or in a moat.
Won't you read The Lorax?

The story is classic, about a young youngster
who learns the tale of a man called the Once-ler,
a newcomer to the forest of truffula trees,
who cut them all down because of his greed
to fashion their tufts into garments called Thneeds.
He was warned, of course, of life's bitter facts,
like what happens when our forests get whacked.
Who spoke for the trees? It was the Lorax.

But don't see the movie, I beg you and plead
for busy it is, and too long and guaranteed
to bore you to death with its desperate need
to be all things to all ages, and indeed,
it is much like a thneed, this Lorax.

It really is nice in this age of Santorum,
With its war on sense and all with clitorum,
to close your eyes and imagine a fellow
of such grace, wit, and decorum
As the Lorax.

But the movie strikes all the wrong notes
as it offers lame songs and unfunny jokes,
As Seuss says, though "biggered" to an extreme,
I guess we can be thankful at least
that making this film harmed no truffula trees.

*  *  *
Small is beautiful in The Secret World of Arrietty.
If truffula trees were native to Japan, there probably would still be plenty of them. Notwithstanding its industrialized image, Japan is among the most heavily forested nations on earth. This is because Japanese Once-lers pay other nations to cut down their trees instead.
            Thankfully, along with deforestation, Japan exports the films of Studio Ghibli, the now legendary house of animation that gave us Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Ponyo and a half dozen other truly unique creations. Lately, the studio’s visionary co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has stepped back from directing, leaving the task to animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi for Ghibli’s latest, The Secret World of Arrietty.
            Delegating those chores away hasn’t diminished the final product: this is a Miyazaki film in all but name, and is quite wonderful. That’s “wonderful” in the literal sense—as in full of wonder. Based on Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers, it concerns the unlikely friendship between a sickly boy (voiced by David Henrie) and Arrietty (Bridget Mendler), a four inch-tall sprite who lives between the floorboards with her Pop and Mum (David Arnett and Amy Poehler). The little folk are human in all but size, and just want to be left alone to filch bay leaves and cubes of sugar and other small necessities of life from the humans. Having discovered the Borrowers by accident, the boy sees them as the cures for his loneliness; Arrietty, likewise curious, encourages him despite herself and the dark forebodings of her father.
            The root of Arrietty’s appeal, as in most Ghibli films, lies more in its treatment than its story. Using old-fashioned hand-drawn cel animation, it conjures a universe in the space of a single backyard. Miyazaki asks “what is important for us to see?” and forces nothing more—in contrast to The Lorax, which seems to demand how much more banter and music and color it can shoehorn into the frame. Where the American film feels over-stuffed and over-busy, as if afraid it can’t sustain close scrutiny, Arrietty is confident enough to entertain us and invite us to think at the same time. Often, it takes the patience of an adult to tell the best stories for children. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro