Saturday, March 24, 2012

Down and Out in District 12: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, based on the young adult event novel by Suzanne Collins, is a gimmicky story that is, fortunately, less gimmicky as a film.

The film’s strengths are the solid presence of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, an empowering female role model for millions of teenage girls, and a gripping opening sequence: the Reaping, a ceremony in which two “tributes” are randomly picked from 12 districts of downtrodden proletariat to provide fodder for a gladiatorial survival contest that entertains the aristocrats of the totalitarian Capitol.

Here, director Gary Ross employs a jittery camera and harsh lighting to capture the visceral gravity of a ceremony that is essentially ritualistic execution. The seriousness of this situation is also present in scenes set in the aristocratic Capitol, a vast city standing in bold contrast with the poverty of District 12, where the gaudily coiffed and costumed families of the privileged class get gleeful enjoyment out of a ghastly spectacle.

But the Reaping sequence stands out as the film’s most memorable moment. Thoughtful art direction and an excellent musical score provide a strong introduction to this sequence. The twang of guitars accompanying various shots of drab clapboard houses, clothes lines, and an old man nibbling on bones establish a setting as poor and forlorn as regions of Appalachia. In addition, the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and little Willow Shields, as Katniss’s sister, Prim, pack this episode with a poignant punch.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Enigma of Kevin: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Yesterday afternoon I took in a screening of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a devastating, artistically shot, beautifully performed film about a woman who must suffer the eternal anguish of being the mother of a teenage son who has committed multiple murders in a high school killing spree.

It was playing in the screening room in the basement of the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis where I suffered very curious viewing circumstances. The small theater, that seats out a hundred, is simply big screen projection of a DVD. (The Cape Cinema was closed for renovations.) It was Thursday afternoon, I had no afternoon classes, so I was able to catch a 2:00 o’clock showing with an audience of retirees whose viewing manners left much to be desired: rustling of homemade popcorn in paper bags; talking during the opening scenes; and the woman next to me actually sang along with one of the rock songs used in the film. On top of that, the owner of the Cape Cinema had trouble with the projector, and it took a good five minutes to get the thing going.

Never again to the screening room for me! But I appreciated what I saw, and I offer a few observations in the way of encouraging other moviegoers to see the film and comment here.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, a passionate traveler and writer who becomes an erstwhile mother of a difficult child. Kevin constantly cries as an infant and is late to speak and become potty-trained. As a teenager, Kevin is clearly a sociopath: withdrawn, hostile, without remorse, capable of cruelties that escalate in severity. He is a scary child without a conscience, played memorably by Ezra Miller. Strangely, neither Eva nor her complacent, oblivious husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), ever suggests that Kevin needs to see a psychologist, even after Kevin grinds up his little sister’s guinea pig in the garbage disposal.

Besides being wonderfully performed, the film is visually provocative. In one of the opening images, a massive scrum of bodies surges back and forth in a red mess of tomatoes churned up during the tomato festival in Bunyol, Spain. Eva, the free-spirited traveler, revels in a sea of red. But this chaos of redness is suggestive of much more serious issues, and the film keeps reminding us of redness throughout.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The 84th Academy Awards in an Alternate Universe

Best Director: Terrence Malick

Best Picture: The Tree of Life