20 March 2012

Viewing Journal: Week of 19-25 Mar

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

/What's Eating Gilbert Grape/ (1993, Lasse Hallström): 70

Another example of why I'm doggedly rewatching everything halfway decent from my formative years. I just assumed I didn't like this movie, because (a) 19 years later all I remembered was that DiCaprio plays mentally disabled, which sounds unappetizingly I Am Sammy; (b) the title is an abomination unto numerous nonexistent deities; and (c) Hallström has since become an utter hack, so I now just assume he was never any good. (Don't really remember My Life as a Dog, either; it's been over 25 years for that one.) But I must have at least mildly enjoyed this at the time, because it rarely steps wrong—only the treacly guitar score actively stinks. Mostly it suffers from being overemphatic about underlining how trapped Gilbert feels, between Juliette Lewis' itinerant history and John C. Reilly getting ludicrously excited about purchasing a Burger Barn franchise and Steenburgen's sad housewife actually telling Gilbert she picked him for her affair because she knew he'd never leave town. WE GET IT. That aside, though, it's pretty wonderful, with striking performances even from the unknowns (particularly the girl who plays the younger sister, with her wild eyes and her nostrils constantly aflame); credible family dynamics and small-town detail; a generally realistic sense of life's frustrations and pleasures; and a climactic conflagration that caught me by surprise with its tender funereal power. Hallström acquits himself quite well, keeping things nicely low-key—excepting of course DiCaprio, who perfectly embodies Arnie's propriety-impaired joie de vivre and richly deserved his Oscar nomination. Not quite a revelation, but a much stronger film than I dimly recalled. Could everyone stop making new movies for about 20 years while I'm reassessing?

/Eraserhead/ (1977, David Lynch): 94

So many superlatives. Best sound design ever. Best nightmare evocation of young adulthood ever. Most disturbing "character" of all motherfucking time EVER. (Presaged by the classic line "Mother, they're still not sure it is a baby," which I suspect is the first thought most new parents have if they see the kid straight out of the womb, before it's been cleaned up.) I had a vague memory of finding some of the surrealism willfully obscure, but this time was deeply affected even by things I can't necessarily "explain"—most notably the Lady In The Radiator, whose gigantic swollen cheeks still baffle me, but whose loving embrace of Henry in the final shot feels exactly right, especially in contrast with their earlier encounter. Really, the entire film works on such an intensely visceral level that trying to analyze it, even in a flippant capsule format like this, seems counterproductive somehow. Can any words even remotely evoke the flesh-crawling queasiness of e.g. Henry's visit to Mary's parents' house, in which he sits uncomfortably on the couch exchanging forced pleasantries with Mom while some ungodly squeaking/squelching noise threatens to drown out the dialogue? Is it worse when the source of that sound is unknown (and unacknowledged by anyone in the room), or is it somehow inexplicably worse when the source is revealed and it's not the horror show conjured up by your imagination? And to be honest I don't think I can even bring myself to talk about that...thing, except to admit that it hits the precise amalgam of repulsion and vulnerability that's capable of ripping my soul apart. Which I guess is the difference between David Lynch and somebody like Matthew Barney, who I don't despise as much as some of my more avant-gardey film-buff friends do, but whose similarly dream-symbolic approach to cinema lacks the emotional core that would make it powerful as well as arresting. Then again, that's exactly how I feel about Inland Empire...

Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku): 59

Hate to just do a compare 'n' contrast job with Hunger Games, but (a) it's unavoidable given that I saw them nearly back to back (after having waited over ten years for a print of Battle Royale; not much point anymore, since its commercial run in L.A. was on video) and (b) the differences really are instructive and well worth noting. Collins' scenario has far more thematic and satirical heft, even in its diluted form onscreen—remove the entertainment aspect and it's not even fully clear what BR's societal function is, especially since these kids obviously had no idea the program exists before arriving on the island (i.e., it's not being used as a deterrent). Moment to moment, however, Fukasaku's film thrills, startles and wounds in ways that put its American counterpart to shame. Despite having a couple of designated heroes and over twice as many combatants, not a single kid is faceless; every death registers, and the spectrum of reactions to their joint predicament—suicide, pleas for cooperation, open rebellion against the system, homicidal lunacy—acknowledges the messiness of human nature, which prevents even students who get offed shortly after we meet them from coming across as props. (It helps that they all know each other, as opposed to having been plucked from separate walled districts.) And then of course Fukasaku is a film director, not a screenwriter with a camera, and also has the luxury of not needing to deliver a PG-13 rating, so the violence is expertly composed rather than shrouded in shaky-cam. Truly exciting for the first hour or so, but it loses steam as it approaches the endgame, pulling a too-obvious fakeout and then seeming to ask us to suddenly care about Kitano's home life, or about Kitano at all frankly. In the end, it's not clear to me what Battle Royale wants to be about (yes, that old bugaboo), apart from perverse mayhem as a means of accelerating our collective pulse. But at least it works on that level.

The Ambassador (2011, Mads Brügger): W/O

[Pedigree: IDFA '11; Sundance; ND/NF.]

Brügger irritates me almost as much as Morgan Spurlock. With The Red Chapel, he was at least obtaining footage from the world's most isolationist country, even if the film's toxic smugness drove me out of my seat. But what the hell are his hidden cameras revealing here? That the poorest continent on Earth is a hotbed of corruption where everything is for sale? Knock me the fuck over with a feather, man. Worse, this time he spends the entire duration "in character," self-consciously performing the role of an amoral, racist mercenary not only in his interactions with the locals (where it's defensible) but even in the voiceover narration. A real journalist would have played tinpot diplomat for a little while, then gone home and written about it in detail, rather than play-act for us.

/Island of Lost Souls/ (1932, Erle C. Kenton): 67

Hollywood to H.G. Wells: I wanna sex you up. Introducing the Panther Woman (billed by that name in the opening credits, alongside the actors!) makes Wells' anti-vivisection allegory play more like a progenitor of E.C.'s Vault of Horror, which featured a stacked, vacant-looking bimbo in virtually every story; Kathleen Burke succeeds in investing her version with a little pathos, but she's still mostly around to flash some leg and make the idea of miscegenation between man and beast seem seductive. And since Richard Arlen's a chiseled drip, we're inevitably drawn to Laughton, who deftly straddles the line between creepy and campy. ("You're an amazingly unscientific young man," he memorably sniffs at one point in response to some moral outrage.) What's most striking to my eyes is how matter-of-factly the film introduces its manufactured mutants, in broad daylight on the ship that rescues our hero, without the emphatic reveal you'd expect—they're just wandering the deck like the regular humans, looking vaguely disturbing. I have no real sense of Kenton as a director, as this is still the only film of his I've ever seen , but that choice alone makes me curious. Nicely atmospheric; kinda creaky; mostly a pale shadow of its source until the last few minutes, when it suddenly metamorphoses into a keening, nerve-shattering nightmare vision so powerful that the early sound era can't contain it, meaning the movie just has to abruptly end. The pat irony of Moreau's fate (a complete divergence from the novel, also anticipating E.C.) is overwhelmed by the creatures' almost lascivious brutality; the survivors haul ass to sea, leaving us with the grave admonition of the angel to Lot and family: "Don't look back."

/The Last Temptation of Christ/ (1988, Martin Scorsese): 71

Let's not pretend this movie isn't blasphemous. It clearly is. (Fine by me, since as far I'm concerned it replaces one largely made-up story with another, far more compelling one.) Protesters in '88 who hadn't seen it and got worked up about Jesus boning Mary Magdalene were misplacing their proxy wrath—the real fuck-you to true believers occurs later in the temptation, when Paul tells Jesus that it doesn't matter whether or not he died and was resurrected, so long as people believe that he did/was. That the film ultimately has Jesus accept the cross and die exultant doesn't really contradict this very secular thesis, as Kazantzakis never provides a decent counter-argument explaining why Paul's ministry in the alternate, Jesus-lives reality is in any way problematic, or why it couldn't (ahem) accurately describe the actual reality in which we the viewers live. Instead, Judas and the other aged disciples show up at Jesus' deathbed to more or less guilt-trip him into fulfilling God's plan, with the tone of someone bitching that you promised to pick him up at the airport and then didn't show. Again, doesn't matter to me, and I mostly dig this all-too-human depiction of a figure who's traditionally beatific to the point of tedium; Dafoe gives good anguish, portraying Jesus as a sort of manic-depressive who vacillates between holy ardor and abject terror, and Scorsese encourages the actors to perform Schrader's script naturalistically, so that e.g. Keitel sounds credibly exasperated saying things like "No you listen. Every day you have a different plan! First it's love. Then it's the axe. And now you have to die! What good could that do?" Which is closer to how I'd imagine the disciples would truly react than, say, Matthew 16:22, in which Peter merely expresses his preference that Jesus not die, and gets called Satan for his trouble.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross): 48

Since I'm getting a halfway decent word count for my Las Vegas Weekly review, let me use this space to ask a few spoiler-heavy questions of folks who've read the book(s).

(1) Is any justification provided for the age range of 12-18? Ostensibly, the purpose of the Games is to keep the populace of the outer districts willingly enslaved, but seems like tossing pre-teen girls into the arena as chum for the college-age kids would only set off precisely the sort of angry riot that's provoked by Rue's death.

(2) Clearly Gale must play a larger role in the subsequent novels, but does he have a discernible function in the first one, or is he just a complete waste of space like he is onscreen?

(3) Does Collins actually write it so that the Asshole Alliance chases Katniss up a tree, decides to wait until starvation forces her to descend (itself not that credible, frankly), and then goes to sleep en masse, without taking turns keeping watch like any group with even a dozen functioning brain cells among them would surely do?

(4) What's the deal with the sponsors? So much is made of this early on, and then as far as I can tell the only result is two care packages that it's implied—unless I completely misunderstood—are sent by Haymitch. Which that's more like having your pit crew change your tires than like being forced to pimp yourself out to a national viewing audience, which is by far the story's most compelling aspect. Which brings me to, most crucially, and this I do intend to address at length in the review proper...

(5) Does the book make it abundantly clear, via Katniss' interior monologue, that her feelings for Peeta are manufactured, or at least that she initially believes herself to be feigning them as a cynical strategy? Because that's the impression I get from the Wiki synopsis, and the film seems to me to deliberately mute that angle, to the point where it's barely even perceptible to viewers like myself who are coming to the movie cold (while at the same time, I can see in retrospect, being very perceptible to those who already know via the book what's going on). "Afterwards, Peeta is heartbroken when he learns that Katniss's actions in the arena were part of a calculated ploy to earn sympathy from the audience," it says here, for instance, which is decidedly not how that bullet-train scene in the epilogue plays. Feels like Ross and the screenwriters worked hard to have it both ways, gutting the story's heart in the process. I'd like to credit Ross with being enormously subtle, but, y'know. Pleasantville. Seabiscuit. It's kinda hard.


Scott Tobias said...

Having read all three books-- they're really good, I swear-- I'll do my best with your questions.

1. No, though the film doesn't account that well for the odds. Prim is entered only once into the drawing, but other kids have multiple entries based on their age and, crucially, the number of rations they accept from the government. But I sense that question is rhetorical, in which case, yeah, maybe 12 is too young for people to accept-- though the Games have been embedded in the culture for 75 years.

2. Gale does play a slightly bigger role in the novel. Like everything else in this film version, his character is thinned out in the abridgment. The book at least establishes a close platonic connection between them, forged by those secret hunts, but once the Games begin, it's obviously Peeta who gets the bulk of the attention. I think if you consider this first movie like the first act in a three-act story, it becomes a little easier to accept.

3. Rhetorical question again. I believe the scenario is more or less the same, but seeing it on the screen makes it seem less plausible.

4. It's costly to send these little gifts into the arena, so attracting sponsors is important. And while Haymitch does do some behind-the-scenes wrangling, Katniss perhaps lays the groundwork in the days leading up to the event.

5. Yes. Katniss' interior monologue is critical to the books and its absence is a major problem for the movies. Her feelings for Peeta are complicated, and she often doesn't know herself whether they're manufactured or genuine-- or whether his are manufactured or genuine. The end of the book has the revelation that their feelings are not terribly aligned-- she's still playing the part; he's in love. Stupid movies...


Steve C. said...

On #3 - I do believe it's the old saw about how one of them WAS supposed to stay awake, but then got drowsy... and well, you know...

(And if Ross & Co. couldn't be bothered to even get that across... well, damn.)

Also: Yeah, the success of the novel pretty much hinges on Collins' exploiting of Katniss' limited perspective. Skeptical at how that's going to pulled off in the film.

TL said...

To expand on Scott's answer to #4, my recollection is that it's implied that Haymitch is the behind-the-scenes pimp who tries to turn audience affection into sponsorships.

Also I recall that once sponsors step up, Haymitch has some control of when and where their gifts appear and what they are, making Katniss try to suss out whether their appearance (or lack thereof) is a message from Haymitch (i.e., he's not sending her water, therefore water must be naturally available close by).

Scott Tobias said...

Good point, TL, on Haymitch's message-sending, though the books (so far at least) make a lot of those strategies clearer.

md'a said...

Still not sure I understand the sponsor thing. Speaking just of the movie now, are you saying that the two packages Katniss receives were sent by Haymitch (with his personal notes) but were not actually from Haymitch? That ordinary viewers who want to help their favorite tribute out contact the tribute's mentor, and (s)he then sends the item into the arena? Because boy does the film not get that across at all.

Even if it had, that whole angle still seems underdeveloped to me (which I gather is largely the result of our having no access to Katniss' thoughts, i.e. the usual adaptation problem). Maybe it's just that I perked up so enormously when Haymitch said "You get people to like you," written in my notes in such gigantic letters that I had to turn the page. Sounds like the book achieves exactly what I was frustrated that the movie didn't.

TL said...

"are you saying that the two packages Katniss receives were sent by Haymitch (with his personal notes) but were not actually from Haymitch? That ordinary viewers who want to help their favorite tribute out contact the tribute's mentor, and (s)he then sends the item into the arena?"

Yes, that's pretty much it, at least as far as I remember the book. But if she gets actual written notes from Haymitch in the movie, that is not in the book, and I can see why that would be confusing. Book Katnis has to infer what message Haymitch is trying to communicate based on what he sends and when he sends it.

md'a said...

The notes are short—"Apply liberally and stay alive" (of medicine) and "You call that a kiss?"—and are signed simply "H." But since there's no other notable character whose name begins with H, one draws what seems to be the obvious conclusion.

TL said...

Yeah, in the book all she gets is the object with no writing. Sounds like they are trying to externalize what she's thinking in the book.

I think that in the book immediately after she kisses Peta some food shows up, which she takes to mean she'll get something better if they start getting hot n' heavy.

Zack said...

What Scott and TL said. Katniss's ability to intuit the meaning of Haymitch's packages (or the absence of them) is evolves over the course of the book. Haymitch coaches Katniss to behave in ways that will appeal to viewers, and uses that to drum up sponsorships. He manages that money and uses it to send in the gifts, which (IIRC) get increasingly expensive as the games continue.

Anonymous said...

Another spoiler-heavy question:

Is there any reason why they don't let both Peeta and Katniss die at the end of the game? The Wes Bentley character was under much pressure from the president and must've known there would be consequences if he let not one, but two people from District 12 win. Why doesn't he let them eat the berries? If there would be any logical reasoning behind this, the ending would've been a lot less frustrating.

Russ said...

Frankly, so much of the book(s) happen inside Katniss' head that I find it hard to believe that the movie will really work. It would be hard to understand much of what she does without 'hearing' what she's thinking at any given moment.

I guess I'll know tomorrow, since my family has already purchased tickets for all of us to go see this.

I liked (not loved) the books, if that matters.

Is there any reason why they don't let both Peeta and Katniss die at the end of the game?

In the book it's more clear -- the game makers has to decide what to do in a very short timespan, and his instinct is that the capitol citizens would not tolerate breaking 70+ years of tradition by having no champion, nor the loss of both of the (very popular) District 12 tributes. Don't know how this is played in the film.

Anonymous said...

For my money, the "He can die" bit in Island of Lost Souls is Lugosi's career-finest moment, goofy makeup and all. I got chills.

Anonymous said...

Mike, BR is about Japan. More specifically, the competitive nature of post-War Japanese society, which made the country's youth what it is today (kind of a mess).

It all comes more os less together when the girl sees the island from afar and says "It's beautiful... even though it's where everyone died."

Slayton said...

I think Battle Royale is kind of problematic - 'horror of violence' tract with teens as the victims packaged as a fetishised gore parade for teens as the audience. But it is a lot of fun if you ignore the fact that multiple young Japanese murderers since 2000 have cited it as a favourite film...

Kou Shibasaki is brill, at least, and I do get a bit verklempt over the bathos of the lighthouse scene.

eugene n said...

I'm lukewarm on Hunger Games (mostly because its Battle Royale centerpiece is such a somber wet noodle), but I think you're pretty far off-base w/r/t point number 5.

Here's what happens in the final minutes: (1) Haymitch tells Katniss that she's in serious trouble, and she needs to play like she defied the Capitol because she was love-crazy; (2) Katniss goes on Stanley Tucci's talk show and, wearing a horrible painted-on smile, makes obviously false (or at least trumped-up) proclamations about her feelings for Peeta; (3) further showboats for the cameras at the District rally (there's a pointed close-up of her grabbing his hand to wild applause, and again that smile); (4) the train scene, where Peeta asks Katniss "what happens now" and she says something like "we try to forget," to which he replies that he'd rather not forget, thank you very much. End film.

Admittedly I've read the book, so maybe I just fall within your parenthetical disclaimer, but I don't know what more the screenplay could have done to emphasize the ambiguity of Katniss's feelings, short of voiceover narration (which I'm frankly impressed that the film avoided altogether).

md'a said...

Perhaps it couldn't have done anything. I think the vast majority of novels shouldn't be adapted into films, and this was very likely one of them. But speaking as a viewer who went in knowing nothing of the story, the sequence of events you outline did not powerfully convey much of anything. Especially not that dialogue exchange on the train—"we try to forget" is entirely credible as something Katniss might say in response to that question even if she were in love with Peeta, and her reaction to his reply is entirely noncommittal. Which I really do think was very carefully engineered so that non-readers (and fans of Twilight) who'd prefer that it be a love story can easily draw that conclusion. It's a fence straddle.

Matt Cornell said...

I'm a fan of the books, and you nailed my problem with the film. Lacking Katniss' internal monologue, the film largely ignores the novel's most interesting theme. Katniss is a girl struggling to figure out who she is and what she wants, romantically and otherwise-- but she's always aware of the audience. Her confusion comes from the conflict between what she wants and what she thinks others want from her. This idea of feminine identity as performance is the most allusive theme in the novel and probably the main reason so many girls and young women connect with it. Ross blew it, but hopefully the books will find more readers as a result of the film's popularity.