The Hunger Games: a tasty exercise in bread and circuses

hunger games poster with jennifer lawrenceWe saw the Hunger Games movie on Friday night in a packed theatre heavy on the teen girl demographic, some still in school uniform. It had the hallmarks of a dreadful event — I’m still haunted by the twittering of prats in the back row during the Exorcist redux — but it turned out okay. Those gaps, those giggles, the occasional interjection from a boof in the front row, all added to the ambience. I’m not usually one for interactive theatre like this, but given the arena styling of the Hunger Games, it made sense.

Premise: a boy and a girl between 12 and 18 are taken by ballot from each of 12 districts, to fight to the death in a controlled landscape arena for the entertainment of the masses. There’s a propaganda element to it, this being the fallout from a rebellion about 50 years ago. This arena is a forest, with controlled bushfires, lots of mobile and embedded cameras, a PA system for ‘Big Brother’ style announcements, and a roof which functions as both bulletin board and artificial atmosphere.

The movie scored points for not trying to explain everything to do with the back story, but simply hint; the clues were enough to allow suspension of disbelief. Wisely, it took its time getting to the showdown so we weren’t treated to a mere game of cat and mouse. The casting and the performances were spot on. Jennifer Lawrence brings the perfect level of expression to the relatively complex hero of Katniss. The love interest — real or clever survival tactic? — was also deft. Special effects and setting were well done. And the brutality of children fighting 18-year-olds: very nicely handled indeed, neither overdone nor glossed over. It was no coincidence that Roman architecture featured in the cityscapes of the Capitol where the games are held.

The movie didn’t blow me away but it didn’t bore me witless either and I’m keen to read the books to get the full benefit of the world-building and, frankly, see what all the fuss is about. But I’m not dying to know what happens next, which is curious from a part one of a trilogy. I’m not sure the movie had the time to make all the connections it perhaps needed to, in terms of the games’ impact outside the arena, for instance. In truth, and I know the focus is a little different, I’d rather watch Salute of the Jugger again. Maybe it’s the Rutger factor …

It was interesting that afterwards in the loo the young boys were discussing the poor tactics that had got half the tributes killed in the first encounter. I wonder if they noticed, or cared, that the heroine didn’t wear PVC and have exposed cleavage? That it was the less-martial lad using emotion and attraction as survival tactics?

The Running Man and Series 7 are two other movies to have explored the idea of death matches for entertainment, but Hunger Games is riding the books’ fervour; it’s opening weekend has been massive. The YA component makes it confronting and offers a point of difference.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is already looking for its next big thing: the ‘mommy porn’ of Fifty Shades of Grey is being plugged as a forerunner of a new wave of erotica. Can’t wait to see what the action figures for that one will look like, but I’m guessing they’ll be fully articulated.

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Monsters – a thoughtful alien ‘invasion’

If you’re looking for a bug hunt, you should probably head over to the aisle with Alien vs Predators or Aliens or somesuch. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is not about the critters from outer space, but our reaction to them.

The scenario is this: a NASA probe carrying alien life from somewhere in our solor system has burnt up in the atmosphere, but consequently, strange creatures have appeared in Central America, to such an extent that much of that region has been declared a quarantine/infected zone. The creatures have a seasonal migration during which things get particularly hairy for those caught in the zone. In this case, there’s a photographer, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), and Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of his media mogul boss. Kaulder, who would rather be chasing fame and fortune with his camera as the creatures hit the road, is instead saddled with babysitting duty — daddy wants his daughter shipped out on the first available ferry to the USA, where her fiance is waiting.

Naturally, the travel plans are somewhat interrupted, and the two get to reveal certain truths about their personalities and lives.

There’s no real big picture to the alien encounter, and I don’t want to give away much about the nature of the critters, but this is a very localised story — the opening titles annoy with mention of ‘half the country’ without saying which country (we presume America, the movie is set in Mexico); there’s no mention of how the rest of the world is faring, or even why Sam has to leave by ferry rather than say, by air, or by going to a different country south of the zone. Maybe I was dense and missed the salient details. Certainly, at movie’s end, I wished I’d paid more attention to the opening scenes; now I really want to see those again, just to confirm some things.

The thing is, this IS a very personal movie. It’s about the two Yanks and the place they’re in, about how the politicians have responded to the arrival of the alien lifeforms — America, for instance, takes its Mexican border fence a massive step further and builds a modern Great Wall — and how this varies to the response of the people still living within the quarantine zone who are dealing with this change in their natural environment while the jets rain down bombs and chemicals and the tanks rumble through the streets.

Monsters is elegant and understated and beautifully acted, the dialogue so natural in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some was simply ad libbed. The relationship between Kaulder and Sam unfolds at such an unforced pace, it’s a delight.

The director knows when to use handheld and when not to and the use of the aliens is wonderfully controlled to deliver moments of tension and of wonder. Not a bad effort for a low-budget flick! (IMDB says the estimated budget was a mere $200,000. Amazing.)

There are some clever Jurassic Park/War of the Worlds moments to add tension and action, but it’s the very believable portrayal of two ordinary people, and indeed a nation of ignored people, under stress that makes this movie one of the year’s best, and certainly a sterling addition — following on from District 9‘s alien-as-refugee scenario last year — to the canon of alien invasion movies.

The Loved Ones – skin-deep Aussie torture porn

First, the good news: Australian horror movie The Loved Ones looks very good. Nice effects, effective acting — I really enjoyed Lauren McLeavey’s psycho killer Lola — and some wicked camera work (there’s a gorgeous shot, coming out of a cellar, with mirror ball highlights moving across the ceiling). Special effects were on the money.

It’s a high school horror drama, set in regional Victoria, in which, as you will gather from the trailer, a side-lined girlfriend gets even with the help of her good ol’ dad (best line: this one’s for the Kingswood!), while the victim’s girlfriend is left to pine and his best buddy gets it on with the self-destructive goth girl (sigh).

Note that the core plot ie boy being tortured, and the secondary plot ie sex with goth girl, have little to do with each other.

And therein lies the rub. The connection between the characters and even the scenes in this flick just don’t add up. Just what kind of movie are we watching here — high school drama, family grief drama, edgy comedy, sicko horror? I’m sure I was laughing at the wrong times for all the wrong reasons, here.

There is so little development of character — here is the guilt-ridden hero, feel sorry for him; here is the patient girlfriend, cheer for her; here is light relief in good-hearted side-kick and here is the total outsider who, in some strange act of self-humiliation, deigns to date the class loser for the night of the formal (I think the reason that she’s goth, or maybe emo, I can’t tell after a certain age these days without hearing the music, is because she HAS SUFFERED LOSS: hence the fashionable black, the drugs, the booze, the screwing). (Nice girl Holly gives blow jobs, but they’re for the good of others.)

Lola the psycho could’ve been fascinating, but sadly she’s psycho from the moment the light goes green and has nowhere else to go. I really wanted to know her, her and her dad, and how it had come to this, but nup, it was all power drills and emotional power plays. Oh, and there’s a quasi-zombie moment.

The movie could’ve been fascinating: a history of disappearances, guilt-addled and grief-stricken dysfunctional families, and some really cool defensive driving lessons were all on the cards here, but alas, style held all the aces.

Anyway, it’s a solid little slice and dice if you’re up for seeing some people suffer, even if it is short on logic and lacking in give-a-damn, and the actors do a great job with what they’ve got. And it really does look very good.

Best screen vampires

Another day, another list … this one of the Ten Best Screen Vampires at the Guardian was winning me hands down until the very end, where once again the confusion about popular equating to good kicked in. Honestly, if you want a vampire struggling with their nature and trying to practise restraint, wouldn’t you go for one that actually makes you feel the true weight of that struggle rather than just mooching about – at best a cad, at worst a dirty old man? Like, say, Louis in Interview, or eponymous Angel, or even Nick Knight (probably more the TV show than the movie)? Still, nine out of 10 ain’t bad (even if I’d probably have plumbed for Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia in Interview as my child representative).

Alice in Underland, er, Wonderland

johnny depp as mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland

First impressions of Tim Burton’s addition to the Alice in Wonderland canon: it’s pretty darn cool.

A few of us saw it in 3D and agreed the extra dimension was pretty much overkill and at times a little distracting, except for the absolutely stunning end credits.

I have studiously ignored reviews and comments about the movie — I usually do when I know I want to see something, and I’ve managed to stay blissfully ignorant, except for a few comments about the film not being particularly well received (critically), and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Mad Hatter being panned.

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland as I remember it, but I’m not a purist; I don’t have much affection for the original story or film versions since. It’s just a fine yarn to me, and so Burton’s monkeying around with it hasn’t raised my hackles. But I can see why it might rub some up the wrong way.

I enjoyed Depp’s very edgy Hatter, and the “almost 20” Alice played with suitable innocuousness by Mia Wasikowska, and Helena Bonham Carter (the bobble-headed Red Queen) is always a delight. The critters were fine, Alan Rickman adding a lovely dourness to the grub, and the Cheshire cat’s coming and going was a lot of fun.

Burton seems to have had a foot in two camps, unable to completely let go his love of the Gothic (eg the whimsical White Queen’s necromantic tendencies (played sweetly by Anne Hathaway)), but still conforming to the fact that this was a Disney film; I’m not sure it straddles both audiences well.

But there are some absolutely gorgeous “sets”: twisted bare trees, soft light through dust and fog, a ruined chess-set battlefield and final battle sequence between a dragon-like Jabberwocky and Alice that was just lovely (the scene reminded me a lot of a striking piece of fantasy art by the wonderful Clyde Caldwell).

I don’t think I needed to see Alice in 3D and I don’t think it’s something I need on my shelf — it skated a little thin for my liking — but I enjoyed it for its darkly tinted escapism, which sometimes is just the ticket.

Here’s a trailer.

Also, in the theatre there was a poster for a new Tron movie: not a remake, but a sequel, I’m told. Here’s a trailer for that: it looks flash and the sound, even through my wee PC speakers, sounded pretty hot.

Daybreakers – what a bloody mess

daybreakers movie poster

Oh dear. And it seemed like such a good idea at the time. The vampires have taken over the world and established a night-time society, sadly seemingly stuck in much the same pattern of commerce as ours, but alas, they’ve literally drained their food supplies to the point of extinction (humans be warned: this could happen to you). It’s a race: to track down the last humans, to synthesise a blood replacement, or find a cure. At the end of the day, the future of the planet actually comes down to corporate greed. The leeches!

Daybreakers fails to deliver on its promise. Once the story starts and people start talking, it quickly turns into a bloody mess. Maybe that’s me looking for a shiny new take on vampirism when all that was ever on offer was just more schlock hanging off a neat idea. Nothing wrong with schlock, mind you; it’s just, I wanted more from this. I’m not sure why.

The Spierig brothers’ previous movie, Undead, was gloriously schlocky, even with aliens, and I loved it. So maybe I shouldn’t have expected this to be any different.

But, what the hell is with the bats? I haven’t seen such horrible effects since Hammer Horror (hurray, back online and makin’ movies!) dangled a stuffed one on wires and jigged its wings about. The bats, flitting about both night and day and glorying in swooping the camera, were inappropriate, cheap, tacky.

And where was the logic? Does not drinking human blood make vampires turn into primal bat-things, or doesn’t it? If vampires can survive on pigs’ blood a la Nick Knight, then why don’t they? Why does mixing blood with your coffee (just coffee, we presume, the only foodstuff on-screen – viscera notwithstanding) make it palatable? Why does Ethan (and his little heart-monitoring do-hickeys) not burn but Willem gets toasty scarred? Why does throwing gratuitous buckets of blood and hosting cannibalistic frenzies (really blurring the line between vampire and zombie, there, lads) make boys coo with glee?

And isn’t it a sad day, really, when you have to (presumably to secure funding) throw some weird-arse colour filter over your lens to try to disguise the fact you shot your movie in Australia, not the US of A. Location was hardly a factor in the plot, so why force the crap accents on otherwise wonderful actors? Admittedly, I was familiar with a hell of a lot of the scenery in Daybreakers, it being filmed around my former hometown, but I’m still scratching my head about the massive Moreton Bay fig having pride of place on a ridge somewhere in Nowheresville, USA.

Stupid lookouts who get surprised in daytime when they’re standing in the middle of a massive open space with 360-degree visibility; humans who simply must charge around in convoys at night; a seemingly endless stream of last-minute saves by the handy off-screen ally. And even in 2019 we’re still trying for the (presumably) heart shot with a crossbow. Oh God. And did I mention the bats??

I’m sorry, but ‘because it looks cool’ is not a sufficient answer.

So, Daybreakers for me is a B-grade vampire movie, maybe flitting down around the C+ level, which puts it on a par with the rest of the Aussie crop. Sigh.

[Addendum: What I liked about Daybreakers: the concept; the visualisation of the vampire society; the fact that being a vampire didn’t automatically make everyone a martial arts expert; no wire work; female lead Claudia Karvan not being made into some kind of sex-glamour-combat heroine (but she gets jumped twice, dude, so a little nous might’ve been nice); that the hero’s brother has the actual hero’s arc; Sam Neill]

Here, have some decent bats, care of a certain Nick Cave and his Birthday Party. And someone pass me a copy of Near Dark and a bottle of red. Cheers.

The Road – a damn fine journey

the road, movie poster

Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road can breathe easy — the movie is a damn fine adaptation.

In fact, it’s probably one of the best that I’ve seen.

The mood of the book is perfectly captured on-screen, thanks to wonderful sets depicting the ruins of civilisation and the death of nature. Abandoned cities, broken roadways littered with wrecked cars, devastated forests, wildfires and electrical storms all show the grim future. The actual event is barely mentioned, no blame apportioned. It just is.

As in the book, the movie does not provide a strict narrative journey, but rather a series of vignettes marking the progress of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) through this blasted landscape, with flashbacks to the father’s life with his wife (Charlize Theron) before, during and after the calamity fell.

On the road, father and son have to dodge cannibal gangs while they head south, every day a search for warmth, shelter and food. Other stray travellers they meet are viewed with suspicion, providing a crux for the film’s thematic centre.

I felt a little let down by the conclusion in the book, but the movie, while changing it only slightly, manages with deft subtlety to make it work, and work brilliantly. Likewise there are some minor changes to events in the novel, but none are jarring, and all work to enhance the on-screen story.

There were some likely lads in our theatre who might have been expecting some kind of Mad Max/Cyborg storyline, and I suspect by their chatting and quick departure that they left disappointed by this thoughtful portrayal of the hopelessness and drudgery of life on the road. Or maybe they’d got the wrong cinema and only stayed in the hope of Theron getting her kit off — more disappointment, there, boys. But my goodness, doesn’t she just chew up the camera?

The casting (including Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall) was uniformally superb, some actors almost indistinguishable underneath their soot and grime and filthy teeth.

A soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis enhanced the tone without being overly dramatic or sentimental, the camera work was striking without being flashy; there was nothing not to like about this movie.

Director John Hillcoat has delivered an amazing reading of McCarthy’s novel that both readers and non should enjoy.