Posts Tagged ‘Film’

The Hunger Games movie posterFor a carefully engineered pop-culture phenomenon and money-minting machine, the movie version of The Hunger Games ain’t half bad.

As you likely know, the film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has become the totalitarian nation of Panem (a country that seems to be built from equal parts Walker Evans photography and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).

Every year, the rulers of Panem hold the Hunger Games, a live televised gladiatorial spectacle for which 24 teenagers are chosen by lottery to participate. These children are required to fight and kill each other until a single boy or girl remains alive.

The movie follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who volunteers for the games to save her younger sister, and who joins the boy chosen from her “district” to participate in the games – a boy we’ll discover soon enough has a crush on her.

What The Hunger Games Gets Right: Totalitarian Brutality, Katniss, and Haymitch

Gary Ross’ film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel gets many things right. The bland, calculating ferocity of Panem’s leaders – who use the games to terrorize the half-starving masses and distract the luxury-addled ruling class – is persuasive as is the palpable fear and loneliness you can read on the children’s faces each time no one, except the audience, is watching.

Ross and the actress Jennifer Lawrence also get Katniss right. She is brave and resourceful, but she is not a preternatural self-confident and decisive Alpha girl. Katniss possesses an awkwardness and uncertainty that make her seem like a real teenager, too, although these qualities can also make Katniss a blank sometimes.

Woody Harrelson, as former Hunger Games’ winner Haymitch Abernathy and Katniss’ mentor, does more with a smaller role, suggesting both the damage the games have done to him and the caginess of a man who knows that the rulers of Panem still want to use him as a pawn.

Finally, and thankfully, the deaths of the Hunger Games participants’ are brief and discrete, rather than exploitive, although this discretion is much more about making the movie safe for mass consumption than it is about making a statement concerning the violence itself.

What The Hunger Games Gets Not-So-Right: Moral Quandaries and Teen Romance

Rendering The Hunger Games safe for mass consumption requires more than not lingering over the dramatization of children killing children, however.

It also requires contortions to prevent the moral depravity of the movie’s premise from tainting its heroine and our sympathetic identification with her (not to mention our willingness to pay $12.00 to watch fictional children slaughter each other).

To do this, the movie turns some of the Hunger Games’ victims into villains: specifically the kind of sadistic bullies that have populated movies for teenagers every since Hollywood started making movies for teenagers, except instead of insulting your clothes or hitting you in the nuts during dodge ball, they – you know – stab you in the heart with a sword.

This same requirement also demands that Katniss never have to make a morally compromised choice. She only directly kills one on the villain-victims as an instantaneous, defensive reflex. She is the indirect cause of the death of two other bullies, both of whom were threats to her. And she is the stalwart protector of the games’ youngest and most vulnerable participant as well as that boy with the crush on her, a doe-eyed but strapping young fellow by the name of Peeta.

Peeta is, of course, the other great concession the story makes to the imperative of mass consumption, in this instance to the ostensible requirement of young female audiences that a movie have a romance no matter how utterly out of place it is.

For example. When a girl is trapped in a high-tech colosseum run by dystopian dictators, what does she need more than food and shelter? More than medicine? More than better weapons or allies? More than a Deus-ex-machina revolution breaking out to save her?

She needs a boyfriend, apparently.

Anyhow, following the old formula, Peeta is sexually non-threatening, but following the newish formula (I’ll date it from the 1997 appearance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV), he is less lethal than Katniss, but still able to throw a pretty kick-ass sack of flour in a pinch. I’m not making that up.

So The Hunger Games distorts itself around the creation and preservation of this relationship, to the extent that even the ruthless despots running the Hunger Games are helpless before it.

When Katniss and Peeta decide to go Romeo-and-Juliet on the murderous bastards, rather than decide who will die for the other, the bastards cry “Uncle!” and declare both can live.

Thus it appears the moral of The Hunger Games is that when Power Lust throws down against Puppy Love – Puppy Love wins. It sure sells more tickets, in any case.

Read Full Post »

Bela Lugosi's DraculaFilmmakers generally take liberties with novels when they turn them into movies. And they should. What director wants to make a movie that is simply a faithful adaptation of someone else’s work?

At the same time, it comes as no surprise – for those with a nose for box-office profit – that the liberties directors like to take with novels often have to do with matters of sex.

This is certainly the case with two familiar versions of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula: the 1931 movie directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi and the 1992 movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with Gary Oldman in the title role.

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is a predatory monster who is indifferent to his victims. He is also a peripheral character. Dracula is largely absent from the pages of the book after the scene shifts from Transylvania to London.

In both 1931 and 1992 films, however, Dracula is a central character who develops a romantic relationship with the heroine of the story, Mina Harker.

Lugosi’s Dracula is a debonair aristocrat who tries to cart off Mina to be his demon bride against her will. Oldman’s Dracula, by contrast, turns up the dramatic volume. His vampire is a Romantic hero who finds in Mina the reincarnation of his much beloved, long-dead wife and who persuades Mina to fall in love with him and participate in her supernatural transformation.

The 1931 version is a classic, but the film is no longer interesting to watch except as a period piece. Its major problem is that it is just not scary anymore. The old-fashioned style of the acting, which mixes the naïve with the declamatory, doesn’t help. And the film is a victim of Bela Lugosi’s indelible performance, which is so familiar even to people who haven’t seen it that his original interpretation looks like a caricature.

Gary Oldman's Dracula directed by CoppolaCoppola’s version is a middling success, not a classic, but it’s more fun despite its problems. Most of these are caused by the cast. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are bloodless in their roles, which is a big problem in a vampire flick; and a post-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Van Helsing serves up a disappointing piece of lukewarm ham, instead of his savory fava beans and Chianti.

Luckily, there is an exquisite Gary Oldman as Dracula. Coppola’s film restores enough of the characters and story lines eliminated from the 1931 version to make the title’s claim to being “Bram Stoker’s” Dracula reasonable. Further, Coppola gives the film an interesting visual style. It doesn’t have the pedigree of German Expressionist films, from which Browning cribbed for his Dracula, but it is distinctive enough.

All in all, you could choose many worse films to get you ready for Halloween than these two movies.

But having rewatched both films and read Stoker’s novel recently, I have to admit the best vampire movie I’ve seen doesn’t feature Dracula and doesn’t come from Bram Stoker.

If you’re only going to watch one vampire movie this month, it’s hard to beat the superb combination of sex, style, horror, melodrama — and especially haute cheese — that Neil Jordan delivers in his film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Sorry, Bram.

Read Full Post »

** I have a habit of including spoilers in my reviews. This one is littered with them. **

"Sunset Boulevard" by Billy WilderBilly Wilder is the greatest of all 20th century American film directors because he created masterpieces in two genres: the sublimely silly “Some Like It Hot” in comedy and the wrenching “Sunset Boulevard” in tragedy.

Now “Sunset Boulevard” is more often described as a combination of film noir and black comedy than a tragedy, with characters that shade toward caricature instead of complexity, and this is also true.

Both the deluded, forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, and her creepy butler Max, played by Erich von Stroheim, sometimes behave as if they are in a horror movie. And the film’s main character, the thwarted writer turned boy-toy Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, narrates the story in a style that would make Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe smile with recognition.

But beneath the surface caricature of each of these characters are moving, complex human qualities that give “Sunset Boulevard” its force and its greatness. And the force of the movie begins with Norma Desmond.

Norma Desmond: A Woman Destroyed by Hollywood

Norma Desmond has been broken in that particular way Hollywood breaks people, by persuading them to trade their humanity for stardom. She was once worshipped by millions. As “Sunset Boulevard” opens, she has been forgotten for years and lives alone in a decaying mansion.

Norma Desmond has almost no identity left outside of her movies and the photographs of herself that are everywhere in her home. She is an example, as Cecile B. DeMille says in the film, of how “a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

Norma seems incapable of forming a meaningful relationship with another human being, and almost hollowed out of humanity.

Almost, but not quite. Norma Desmond is imperious, deluded. She treats every interaction with another person as if it were a scene in a silent movie, with the grand exaggerated expressive gestures actresses used before sound came to film.

But Norma Desmond is still human enough to be desperately (even pathetically) lonely; still human enough in her despair to attempt suicide; still human enough to command the sympathy and devotion of the only two people who care about her at all: Joe Gillis and her butler, Max.

Max Von Mayerling: Sinister Servant, Selfless Friend

Max Von Mayerling may be the most intriguing character in “Sunset Boulevard” because, at first, he seems the most preposterous.

Wilder makes Max a horror movie sidekick, the “Igor” of “Sunset Boulevard” – going as far as to have him play Bach’s “Tocata and Fugue in D Minor” on the mansion’s organ . Wilder reinforces this idea by shooting Norma Desmond in a way that makes her look like the Bride of Frankenstein in several scenes.

Max becomes more preposterous when we learn his back story. He was the director who made Norma Desmond a star as a teenager and who became her first husband. He begged to return to her because life without her, as he tells Joe Gillis, was “unbearable”.

So by all the facts, we should see Max as a creepy stalker-ex-husband with twisted, selfish motives.

But I don’t think this true because I can’t answer one question: “What’s in it for Max?”

Max has turned himself into Norma Desmond’s servant and she treats him like one. He gets no affection or respect from her. Max works tirelessly to maintain Norma’s belief she is still a star. He delivers her every wish, including to help her trap Joe Gillis the way a spider traps a fly.

Max watches constantly over Norma to make sure she has neither the means nor opportunity to commit suicide. He has no visible life outside the mansion. If he is stealing Norma’s money, there isn’t a hint of it in the movie. If he gets pleasure from being mis-used, he never shows it.

The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Max Von Mayerling is in that empty mansion with Norma Desmond because he’s trying to help her, as best he can, and because there is no one else in the whole wide world who gives a two-cent damn about her. Until Joe Gillis comes along.

Joe Gillis is Not a Gigolo

This statement should be easy to refute. Norma Desmond is a rich once-beautiful woman of 50. Joe Gillis is a poor, handsome man of 27. Joe lives in Norma’s house, eats her food, drinks her champagne, wears the clothes she buys, and sports the jewelry she showers over him. And Joe has sex with Norma.

That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is proof Joe Gillis is a gigolo far beyond a reasonable doubt.

Except Joe Gillis is not a gigolo.

Joe Gillis is the main character in “Sunset Boulevard” and deserves to be because he is the movie’s most engaging and complicated person. Joe has been half-seduced by the promises of Hollywood – but only half.

He’s perfectly willing to sell his talent as a writer to earn a big paycheck. But Joe Gillis isn’t willing to sell his humanity, his essential decency, to live the Hollywood life. Joe is morally compromised. He isn’t, however, morally bankrupt.

This is demonstrated by all his interactions with Norma Desmond.

When Joe stumbles on Norma in her Hollywood palace, while trying to outrun the men who want to repossess his car, he doesn’t try to sweet-talk or seduce Norma. He makes fun of her.

It’s only when Norma mentions she’s written a movie about Salome that Joe sees an opportunity to take advantage of her. He offers to edit the screen play, for a fancy price, even though he doubts he can salvage anything good from Norma’s work.

Norma makes living in her mansion while he works a condition of the job, and with a few qualms, Joe makes himself comfortable, and manages (so he tells us) not to notice that Norma Desmond is trying to seduce him with fancy clothes, manly baubles, and a better room in her house.

Regardless, when Norma makes it clear that she wants Joe to be her lover – during a New Year’s Eve party at which he is the only guest – Joe rejects Norma and leaves. Then he calls Max from a friend’s apartment and asks him to pack up just his own old clothes and his typewriter.

Why would Joe Gillis leave with nothing, at the moment when he has snared Norma, at the moment of his triumph, if he were a gigolo? Why would he leave if what he wanted was to get Norma’s money?

During the phone call, Max tells Joe that Norma attempted suicide after he left the New Year’s Eve party. Joe rushes back to the house and refuses to leave until Norma promises not to try to kill herself again. Norma, distraught, says she will and Joe surrenders to her.

Like Max, Joe realizes Norma is alone and like Max, he can’t abandon her. Joe also sees the change in Norma his love causes. She becomes happy, even playful, and confident she can restart her career with her screenplay for Salome.

Everything slowly falls apart, of course. Joe can’t save Norma from the delusional and desperate belief that she’ll be a movie star again, and he can’t save Norma from her jealousy, and Joe can’t save Norma from his own unhappiness and self-disgust.

Again, he packs his old clothes and typewriter. He give her back her clothes and trinkets. He turns down her offer of money. And he leaves Norma’s mansion – or tries to leave, until Norma shoots him – with not a dollar more in his pocket than the day he meet her.

These are the human stories beneath the film noir and the black comedy, beneath the Hollywood stereotypes and the horror movie trappings. It is these human stories that make “Sunset Boulevard” superb. And it is the humanity beneath the caricatures that makes Norma’s madness, and Max’ failure to protect her, and Joe’s death, tragedies.

And I’ll go further and add an adjective to that noun: “Shakespearean”.

Read Full Post »

It’s a mystery to me why there are not more movie versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s perfectly suited for the big screen. It has superb characters. A dramatic plot. Extraordinary dialogue you can lift right from the page. And a happy ending.

Nevertheless, there have been only two film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice during the same time period in which Hamlet has made it to the big screen five times. It makes you wonder if it is a conspiracy, or obtuseness, that causes producers to bet their money on the sulky Danish prince instead of the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet.

At least when Jane Austen’s great novel has made it to the screen, big or small, the results have been worth watching. Here are my picks for the best Pride and Prejudice movies, in order of personal preference:

Best Pride and Prejudice movie - Keira Knightley1. Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. The celebrated 1995 A&E mini series features better performances from its two lead actors, but I think this movie directed by Joe Wright is the more satisfying adaptation overall.

One of its strengths is the fresh perspective Keira Knightley brings to the role of Elizabeth Bennet. Her Lizzy is a teenager, not a woman. She is less polished and more vulnerable than other Elizabeth Bennets, while retaining the intelligence and self-possession that make Austen’s most famous character so appealing.

Another strength of the 2005 film is its refusal to deal in caricature. Austen often diminishes the humanity of her secondary characters in the pursuit of comic effects, a tendency the screen can amplify. Not so here. Donald Sutherland locates a dark vein inside Mr. Bennet’s aloof benevolence, while Brenda Blethyn brings a gratifying sympathy and balance to her Mrs. Bennet.

Wright neatly compresses the plot and many of the liberties he takes with the book work quite well. There are some clunkers, however. The second proposal scene is almost entirely replaced with new dialogue, and manages to feel both overheated and undercooked. Austen purists may also find the cooing, post-coital coda a bit hard to take.

As for the acting, Knightley and Macfayden performances are quite good – and more impressively – survive two moments of extreme danger. During both the Netherfield ball and the rejected marriage proposal scenes, Knightley and Macfayden come close to overplaying their parts and throwing the movie off a cliff. That they stumble along the edge, but don’t fall, somehow makes the film more affecting to me.

2. Pride and Prejudice (1995) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. This television series justly deserves its reputation as the definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice based on the strength of its two lead actors. In particular, it is a pleasure to watch Ehle inhabit every corner of Elizabeth Bennet’s character over the six hours of the mini series.

But this length also has disadvantages. The pacing feels dutiful and the camera tends to pick a spot and sit there. This may be true to the book, but books and movies are different mediums, and must play to their different strengths. Movies need motion to be effective.

A more serious issue is the “Mrs. Bennet problem”. She is such a shrill fool in this adaptation that she can make the scenes in which she appears nearly impossible to watch. And she’s not the only one-note character in the series. Mr. Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine all add up to less than the sums of their very few parts. That fully realized human characters are presented side by side with (sometimes grotesque) cartoons is jarringly dissonant at best. At worst, it comes close to a moral failing.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1940) starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. This is a highly entertaining romantic comedy of the period, but it ain’t Austen’s novel.

The film-makers have used almost nothing from the first half of the book, and pretty thoroughly eviscerated the second half. Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy is charming and solicitous, with few marks of the pride which is such a driving force in Austen’s work. Mr. Collins is a librarian. Lady Catherine conspires with Darcy to promote his engagement. In the end, all five Bennet girls have husbands, although Mrs. Bennet seems to have kept Kitty and Mary’s men stuffed in a closet until the last twenty seconds of the film, then yanked them out to make sure everything’s tied up neatly.

And yet the spirit of the two main characters is somehow intact. Greer Garson gives a wonderful performance as Elizabeth Bennet and Olivier is appealing in his role. And much of the re-writing is very good (Aldous Huxley worked on the screenplay). It’s just not as good as the material it replaces.

Read Full Post »