Friday, November 29, 2013

"The Hunger Games" Sequel Is A Cut Above

It's been a while since we've been faced with a real trilogy.

There have been a couple of threes lately--Iron Man 3 happened this summer.  The Chronicles of Narnia got around to three before it sputtered and went out.  Harry Potter got us to eight, somehow.  The Dark Knight Rises brought us to three for the new Batman franchise.  But we haven't seen trilogies as a thing since Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

About an hour into The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I realized that I was in the middle of one for the first time in years, and I started to think about the whole thing differently.  By the end, I was convinced that we were looking at a pretty darn good one.

Trilogies are a tough business but they make a gorgeous structural challenge, with beautiful potential.  Look at the Star Wars films--if we only had a sequel, we would get Hoth but not Endor, Yoda but not Jabba.  If The Lord of the Rings ended with The Two Towers, we would explore Rohan but not Gondor, Theoden but not Denethor.  A trilogy gives a chance to explore deeply the world we have already met once, and to change our relationships with things we thought we understood.

Gosh, am I getting emotional?  So Catching Fire starts us in an unspecified amount of time after the first film, when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) jointly won a yearly massacre funded by the Capital of Pan Am to appease and distract the starving inhabitants of its Twelve Districts.  In order to win, Katniss and Peeta staged a sort of on-screen love affair that the world got attached to.  Katniss did it against her judgment, as she still had some sorta feelings for Gale back home, but Peeta from all accounts seems to reciprocate.

Katniss is a tough protagonist this time around.  At first glance, she seems weak.  Katniss is still haunted by the murders she committed the previous year, and Gale (whose only apparent virtue is being Liam Hemsworth) is still haunted by all the smackers she laid on Shorty McBreadmaka. And of course, like any self-respecting pseudo-boyfriend, he stays mopey about it for the entire movie.  Still, Ms. Lawrence's Katniss is still the most kick-butt heroine we've seen on screen for a while.  The middle installment of the trilogy shows a near-manic side of her, but the things we value her for (her love of her family, her self-sacrifice, and her prowess as a fighter) remain unchanged.

She seems weak, however, because she rarely makes decisions or follows clear objectives.  To her credit, Ms. Lawrence is not afraid of contorting her face in anguish, grief, or fury, but Katniss is even more accidental of a heroine this time than she was last time.  When attacked by a frightening sound of her sister being tortured, she curls up into a ball, showing no nerve.  When helping a wounded woman, she can do little else but give her a watered cloth and say "That should help" and run away.  At first this bothered me, but I think it's somewhat necessary.  In order for Katniss to come into her own as a powerful figure in the third film, she must go through a time of weakness here.

The film's story is surprisingly elaborate and surprisingly long, and both of these surprises thrilled me.  In an age where good stories are being compressed for movie-munching mindless audiences who can't sit still for two and a half hours, Francis Lawrence and company take their time, and it pays off.  Catching Fire, while full of heart-pounding action sequences, interesting characters, and an epic story, takes enough time to balance it with quiet moments of conversation, character development, and feeling.

Numerous characters stand out, and one of the film's strength is that all of them mean something to us by the end.  From Donald Sutherland's difficult tyrant President Snow to Jena Malone's elevator-stripping, f-word shouting Johanna Mason, portraits in Catching Fire always come three-dimensionally.  The film doesn't let us write off characters as bad, self-centered, or stupid.  Of particular note: Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), an arrogant-rival-turned-friend, shimmers with complexity.  Mr. Claflin balances shirtless shallow-boy with selfless caretaker, and his journey for the audience is an achievement by the whole team.  Plutarch Heavensbee, the enigmatic new Gamemaker, is clearly important because he is played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but even the Great PSH manages to live in the world of the Hunger Games believably and with the proper weight.


But the real star of the film is Mr. Hutcherson's Peeta Malark.  In an early scene with Katniss on a train, he admits "I don't really know you.  Friends tell each other the deep stuff." "Like what?" she replies. "What's your favorite color?" he asks. "Now, that's going too far," she answers.  I connected with Peeta because in a world where any sort of normalcy or friendship seems impossible, Peeta is trying to make things work.  Where Katniss often stands by, mouth contorted by fear or pain or wrath, and does nothing, Peeta steps in.  He makes bold moves.  He tries to help people, even as they are dying in his hands.

This might come from his need to be loved.  Everyone loves Katniss, but Peeta admits "Nobody needs me".  It's the same old unrequited love story, but Peeta gets the credit that is due to many unrequited lovers--they fight for what they want.  He is made even more heroic by Haymitch's description of him to Katniss: "You could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve him." In yet another stroke of subtlety, the film doesn't let us love people simply because they are handsome or romantice--it asks to question why we do.

Like a good trilogy, Catching Fire lets us look at the characters and the story through a new lens.  The political commentary is never terribly deep and the moral lessons are surprisingly shallow for such a twisted story, but the characters make it worth seeing and experiencing.  It asks us to question our American-Idol style celebrity worship and asks us why we follow people, why we believe in other people.  This is still young adult literature, but rarely is such material treated with this kind of respect.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Ender's Game" is Beautiful, Thoughtful

When I was eleven, my mother brought me to an audition for a Children's Chorus.  I capitalize those words for a reason--the three years I spent there demanded excellence from me in ways I had never expected.  In my first audition we were given a piece of music, taught it in a group of 300, and asked to come to the front of the group and sing for the rest.  Seeing a pattern in others' manner of doing things, I gathered my wits, memorized the words, and set down the paper on the auditioner's table before singing.  I was part of the eighty or so children who moved on from that audition and joined the chorus.

I felt like a loner for almost my entire experience in that chorus.  I accidentally hurt myself very stupidly in school during that time, and several other singers mocked my bandages, reinforcing my sense of absolute loneliness.  I barely made any friends, even at the summer camps we attended, and I spent all my energy trying to sing as well as I could.  Not make friends with the leaders, not make friends--I worked as hard as I could.  I saw other singers as rivals, and when I got solos over them, I rejoiced inwardly.  I was not a child prodigy, but I fought like one.  Perhaps for this reason, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is one of the shaping stories of my childhood.  Though it surely is not perfect, Gavin Hood's adaptation does a passable job of bringing it to us untainted and unhindered.

"Young people integrate complex data more easily than grown-ups," says Colonel Hyrum Graff, the hard-bitten recruiter (played with a thoughtful ruthlessness by Harrison Ford) to Ender, the young strategical prodigy.  Graff has a hard job: enlisting young minds to help humanity wipe out the aliens that almost killed them fifty years ago.  His journey and Ender's--not only to save humanity but to become adults in the process--is the basis of one of the most powerful, emotional, and effective pieces of science fiction ever written.

The story is centered on children fighting one another.  Even in his small school on Earth, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin beats everyone.  His strategy makes a much bigger boy call him a cheater, and when the boy corners Ender after school, Ender gives him a beating that makes the other cronies tremble.  He is not only smart, he is vicious--characteristics that make Ender at once frightening and fascinating.

Ender's nature as a fighter is very much played down in the film.  Asa Butterfield's performance shows a consistently compassionate, thinking boy who cries more than he shouts.  Though the screenplay shows him talking too much about his near-psychopathic brother Peter, he is clearly more like his sister Valentine (played lovingly but not very deeply by Abigail Breslin) whose compassion made her unfit for Battle School.

But fit is exactly what Ender is, and a housecall from Graff and a Colonel Anderson (Viola Davis) sends Ender skyrocketing up into orbit, where a few score children under the age of sixteen train for combat, leadership, and the eventual command of Earth's Fleet.

And this is where the games begin.  Once there, Ender and his new friends (enemies) are thrown into a zero-gravity space game that allows them to experiment, lead, and fight one another.  The film presents the idea more excitingly than could have possibly been done even ten years ago, and it is a sight to behold.  The few matches that we actually see are gripping and exciting, and the victories are satisfying.

The great weakness of the film comes in its first forty minutes.  Main characters are introduced and voiceovers tell us why they are important, but rarely do we get to see the interactions that make them that way.  Bean and Petra, key characters from the book, never have true interactions with Ender to show us why to care about them.  Thus their quips, little glances, and interactions later do not come with the emotional impact that makes the end of the book so moving.  The entire story clips along so fast that even Ender's family does not draw us as much as the beauty of the game.

Though it weakens the film completely, it still is somewhat appropriate.  Ender's Game reminds us how believing children are.  If they are told that the people around them are their rivals, their competition, they will believe.  They will fight one another, even when it makes them depressive, even when it makes them insane.  This game that may not be as serious as everyone believes comes to rule these children's lives, until they are willing to kill one another for it.

But the movie also explores compassion as an antidote or even a companion to competition.  The game begins with a text quote from "A.E. Wiggin" saying "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him"--an axiom that, though arguable, brings up some interesting questions.  Ender thinks constantly about how to deal with his opponents compassionately, or more significantly with those he commands.  In order for him to succeed, Ender must know the weaknesses and strengths of his friends as well as his enemies.

The rest of the film brings us farther from the battle room and from Earth, to simulations of space battles with the aliens.  These antlike creatures, called Formics, possess a massiveness and terror that, through impressive work on the part of all the creators involved, become beautiful in their own way.  Ender's journey questions what the effect of any battle, even a simulated one, has on our consciousness and the way we view the world.

In the end, Ender's most impressive quality is his story.  The film can have all the weaknesses it will, but the depth of its story and the issues it considers might make it one of the best science fiction films ever, easily surpassing the Star Wars series for depth of meaning and emotional imagination.  Given these things, it is incredible that portions of the film community can brush off something so intelligent and worth-considering because of opinions held by the original author or (worse) because of the man's religion.  Such a thing is so petty that I wonder if even these children would do it.

I highly recommend Ender's Game, the film, and the book even more highly.  In watching it I considered myself again.  I have never been to Battle School, never fought aliens, but I have been a child who thought he had to fight other children in order to be better.  I have thought winning was better than friendship, that survival was better than love.  This book helped me recognize the cost of excellence, and though I do not think that I am perfect yet, I am glad to be able to look back and say that I have found, like Ender, a higher purpose.  I hope someday to teach this to my children, and when I do, it might be after we watch the 2013 film of Ender's Game.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

'Thor' Is Not The Hero We Need

A few years ago, in another superhero galaxy, we heard: "He's the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one that Gotham needs right now. So we'll junt him.". Batman, made a criminal, rode off into the night in the twilight of the best superhero movie perhaps ever made. The world considered anew what it meant to be a hero, the human toll of obsession, and the insanity of unbridled self-reliance.

Last night I watched "The Dark World", and as armored, red-caped Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bounded from a London street into a dark red cloud of CGI Evil, a shot of his lover-girl Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) showed a big red bus in the background. The ad on its side blared cheekily a false movie poster, for a film called "Moral Sacrifice". You, like me, might sense a lack of literary value.

Despite its clunkiness, "Thor: The Dark World" starts explosively. The beginning sequences shovel heaps of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings onto the pile, and it's admittedly glorious. Asgard soldiers (read Elves) swing glowy swords (read lightsabers) at white-helmed laser-shootin (Stormtroopers) foes, dark forces are locked away, and ashy landscapes in The Dark World contrast with the gold, fertile castles of Asgard. For anyone who has ears to hear, I kept waiting for some Protoss to show up.

See what I mean?

More impressive than the animators and art designers, however, is the establishment of characters. Tom Hiddleston's ever-Shakespearean Loki arrives in chains like an imprisoned Aaron (Titus Andronicus),Thor himself arrives making quips like Petruchio, and a particularly well-written scene shows the romantic tension and unrequited interest between Sif and Thor. Some of these moments are so believable, creating characters with whom we can connect, that I can legitimately compare it to the Lord of the Rings.  Elegant, deep, simple.

The rest of the film fails on this.  Sif, easily the most compelling and least predictable character, is shunted out of the limelight before she's had two seconds in it.  A lengthy subplot with Loki, instead of bringing any changes to his and Thor's relationship, resorts to name calling, even in a scene on a boat that had at least some potential.

Natalie Portman gets entangled in the plot, which seems basically to be: The bad guys need the red goo in order to destroy the universe.  The good guys fight them.  Poor Jane Foster gets some of the goo in her blood, making her dangerous and doing absolutely nothing to her in any other way.  (Another shoutout to the animators for the scene where is examined by Asgard "doctors" using some very fun equipment, clearly touch screen but cooler even than what us earthlings have.) Portman pales in comparison to Freda (Thor's mother) and Sif, who not only are totally awesome fighters and independent women, but stay modestly dressed throughout the whole film (if you're worried about nudity, Thor's impressive breasts are thoughtfully considered by the camera at one point).

The story is predictable, the fights are interesting but never emotionally compelling, and worst, Thor does not change in any way.  As a hero, he has no characteristics to admire or dislike.  He is blandly righteous, blandly temperamental, and blandly self-sacrificing.  Sort of.  Even when he is in danger he comes out with wounds that avoid his beautiful features.

Here I know I am in a comic book, not a story about heroes. Thor is a brightly drawn figure with very few defining lines, drawn by animators who make money on making more books. He "sacrifices" for his friends, and it leaves us thinking, "you know, I would do that. I would walk through fire for the people I care about".  What a good thing to be encouraged.  But that's rarely a story we live. Rarely are we faced with someone near death who we can heroically save. But we are faced every day with people who need help. Little things can be cries for help.  We can help even when we are not asked, instead of waiting until it makes us look heroic.  We can choose to open ourselves up and be vulnerable, allowing our faults and failures to be seen.  We can choose to care.  Thor does none of those, and still gets offered to be the King of Asgard.  It doesn't seem to be a good recipe for me for real heroism.

If Marvel is really hitting its stride in Thor, it is in connecting it stylistically with its source material.  Comic books were intentionally numerous, serialized, and individually rather bland.  We can feel comic book sensibilities in the naked Dr. Selvig running around Stonehenge, with Thor's hammer chasing him around the nine realms, with Jane's silly sidekick.

Perhaps it is a success, then, just not in my style.  The reboot genre has become a medium with value because it allows us to reconsider old things.  Thor: The Dark World is instead a loving revisiting of the same old melodrama.