Monday, December 09, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013); Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013)

(Warning: storyline and surprise twists of the following movies discussed in detail)

Smoke and mirrors

Francis Lawrence's Hunger Games: Catching Fire, second of the Suzanne Collins' franchise, is a marked improvement over the first. Which isn't saying much. 

The action's better--not a lot of shaky cam, not a lot of ADHD editing, Lawrence's camera actually follows the action--without elevating the movie overall from its Young Adult roots: it's still weak-tea dystopian science fiction*, with a little Young Adult soap thrown in (who does Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation to the director) love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) or Gale (Liam Hemsworth)?).

*Give it this much credit, at least it is science fiction--a sincere attempt to engage the conventions of the dystopian genre--as opposed to mere sci-fi (i.e. the usual Star Wars crap).

That said, the science here isn't exactly topnotch: a fog that induces instant boils (a dermatological tear gas?) then washes away with water, like bad makeup? Force fields that look as if they'd been borrowed from Cabin in the Woods? An island that spins like an out-of-control carousel? The mind doesn't so much boggle as wobble, unsteadily.

Lawrence the director manages to make the movie look a tad more interesting by taking a page out of Lang's Metropolis for pointed contrasts between rich and poor, and Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will for Capitol's fascistic architecture--but production design aside, the satire in the movie (haven't read the book) is largely toothless. Where's the ferocious wit skewering media, social corruption, and public competition found in films like Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, or Elio Petri's The Tenth Victim? Where's the equivalent moment when Frankenstein (David Carradine) in a fit of childish pique runs over his own pit crew, or Catherine (Ursula Andress) dispatches her pursuer with a deadly .38 caliber metal bra? Hell, where's Lawrence the actress' deadly .38 caliber metal bra? I'd pay money to see that

Lawrence the actress is nicely physical here--handles the bow like an extension of her arm, and somehow Lawrence the director fudges the action in such a way that we forget her character Katniss still hasn't developed much of a short game--once the enemy gets past her bow she's helpless, and needs a little damsel-in-distress rescuing. She's given a little PTSD moment that lingers in memory a minute (we're meant to think she's far from being a stone-cold killer) and her tour of the various districts promoting the repressive regime is a mildly amusing procession of embarrassments (if Bartel were available to direct the procession might have been elevated into an orgy of humiliation) but beyond that Lawrence the director (and presumably Ms. Collins before him) has carefully set things up so that her moral fiber isn't truly tested in the games: she's not called upon to cold-bloodedly murder anything more advanced than a bad-tempered mandrill.

And what's with her obsession with Peeta? The kid--he doesn't look old enough to grow facial hair, much less a beard--doesn't have the charisma or warmth to inspire our interest, and Katniss' determination to keep him alive at her expense is well nigh inexplicable. Did he save her life in the first movie (don't rightly remember and don't really care to go back and find out)? Does she feel so much despair, so much contempt for herself that she would rather he survive (slightly more persuasive--remember that PTSD episode--though wouldn't she have to worry about her family back home if she were eliminated?)? Was the sex that good? Vulgar question to ask, but (while we're asking) I might as well confess how annoying these movies can be whenever the subject of sex looms, or even threatens to loom, especially as Lawrence the actress has already moved on to grown-up, sexually active roles (would they be this chaste if the movie were, say, a French production?).

As for the rest of the cast--Philip Seymour Hoffman radiates more threat with an impassive face than many an actor can with a villainous sneer. Donald Sutherland is nicely menacing as President Snow, though I can't help thinking his equivalent character in Battle Royale (played by Takashi Kitano) was far more unsettling: an authority figure who literally didn't give a fuck, who regarded the whole thing as not just a game but a joke (which it is), and who despite everything is still the baddest ass around.

By movie's end Katniss shoots an arrow literally into the air and brings the whole fragile, rather silly premise down; enough with the game play, now we're moving on to the serious business of revolution, leaving as many questions unanswered as has been answered (Wouldn't it have been simpler--and safer--to abduct Katniss before the games began? Wouldn't it be smarter not to do that silly Mockingjay gesture and avoid having the head cracked so you can do some real revolutionary work (see Hoffman)?).

But that's the subject of the next book adaptation, which, alas, has been divided into two separate pictures, to increase box-office takings. While we're talking about greed and corruption has anyone mentioned the people back in Hollywood? Because they make the nasty folk back in Capitol look like choirboys in a chapel, singing. 

Staying alive

Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club is for all the foul language, raunchy sex and drug use on display a surprisingly sweet-souled enterprise. Imagine a Schindler's List only with Schindler himself Jewish (or infected, if you like) and not enjoying the being kosher one bit--here we have Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-drinking, hard-living homophobe, forced to admit he's got a "Gay Disease."

I suppose if one must adopt a true-life story (which from the evidence of recent efforts is the equivalent of biking into a minefield blindfolded) Woodroof's is better than most: his life isn't all that well-recorded, and it's easy for the writers (Chris Borten, Melisa Wallack) to appoint themselves experts on the subject. They have the material, they're open about what they've changed or deleted or combined, and they are pretty much free to do whatever they need to do to make the material more palatable.

Which apparently doesn't really mean cleaning up Woodruff. As McConaughey plays him he's not just rough to deal with (he'll hustle you for what he wants and if he doesn't get it starts pushing hard) but rough to look at as well; McConaughey lost a reported forty pounds for the role, and looking at him you're not sure where the intestines go, much less larger internal organs.

Sharing an emaciated body image is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgendered AIDS victim who becomes Woodroof's reluctant ally and business partner. Rayon unlike Woodroof isn't from real life, rather a composite of several characters Woodroof had to deal with; that said, Leto manages to make a whole from the many and not just play a mere "tragically-dying-gay-victim" cliche. He's so convincingly transgendered when at one point he shows up in a suit to beg money from his estranged father, you have to laugh--he looks as if he'd dressed to go trick-or-treating (which when you think about it isn't far from the truth). When in a grocery store Woodroof manhandles a former friend into apologizing for some choice homophobic remarks, Leto manages to show us--sans words, sans histrionics--Rayon's dawning realization that Woodroof is more than just a companion or partner, but a real (albeit spiky, gruff, hard-to-get-along-with) friend. You realize the full extent of both their character arcs, and you're startled at just how far this film has come, in what direction it has gone.

I'm not saying--it's not exactly a great example of the genre like, say, Akira Kurosawa's masterful Ikiru, where we're totally immersed in a man's last few days, then the action shifts midway into a kind of static courtroomlike inquest into the significance of those last days (Kurosawa first measures the man, then measures the wake in the man's passing). They say God is in the details and in my book He granted Kurosawa the kind of divine insight a filmmaker would kill to possess, even for a few days (Kurosawa had it most of his life). Vallee isn't blessed with such intense grace; what he does have is an amazing cast, some profanely funny dialogue that once in a while trods upon the truth, and the raw material of a man who for all his flaws and failures stumbled into genuine heroism. One of the best of the year, I'd say. 


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