Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) has nothing to worry about. At least, that's what her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) says. Primrose's name is only in the Reaping once - which means she has a very, very small chance of being selected to participate in the Hunger Games. But when the fateful day comes, Primrose's name is the one pulled out of the glass bowl. Katniss immediately volunteers to take her little sister's place. And, just like that, she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away from dirt-poor District 12 to the sparkling Capitol. In a few short days, they find themselves inside an arena with twenty-two other young men and women in a fight to the death - the Hunger Games. But Katniss is determined to come through alive. After all, she promised her sister that she would do everything she could to win.

A good movie adaptation should always try to stay close to its source material. Unfortunately, the definition of "close" can be disputed when the two media are as different as books and movies. But no matter what definition one uses, The Hunger Games movie is very close to the book.

After the text in the beginning of the movie explains the concept behind the Games, the intensity jumps in and completely takes over. Right from the outset, terror reigns supreme. Primrose is terrified of being chosen, and though Katniss gently comforts her, the overall impression of the scene is one of entrapment in a cruel, unfair situation with an undertone of fear. This continues throughout the movie, getting successively amped up as the story develops. Considering that the book has a similar level of intensity (though not as immediate), this was quite an achievement for the filmmakers.

The level of intensity is not the only similarity between the movie and the book. The story is virtually identical, which is to be expected when one considers that Suzanne Collins, the author, helped write the screenplay. However, the most startingly accurate part is the characters. The casting job was about as perfect as it could be. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is maybe a little better looking than I would have made him, but everybody else is pretty much spot-on. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the best actresses I have ever seen, is Katniss to a T. Josh Hutcherson is gentle Peeta - but with a masculine side that could easily have been left out. Liam Hemsworth plays a strong, rebellious Gale. Even Donald Sutherland is good in his part. (Of course, bad actors are particularly good at exuding insincerity, so don't go thinking that this is an Academy-Award-worthy performance.)

However, while the story and characters don't deviate one iota from the book, there are a few themes left by the wayside. For example, the Capitol still exerts complete (or nearly complete) control over its citizens. But the Capitol as a mysterious, almost omnipotent - and almost faceless - power just doesn't exist in the movie. Whereas in the book the leaders are seen by Katniss from afar and only occasionally, these same leaders have their own scenes in the movie. This lowers the creepy sense of "The Capitol" that makes it akin to "Them" or "The Others." In other words, the sense of a looming, unseen (and, therefore, unassessed) power is largely gone.

Generally, I like to watch movies before I read the books on which they're based. Because books are nearly always much better than their movies, I get to enjoy the same story twice without being disappointed by the second version. But this movie is very, very close to the book - and is therefore not a disappointment. Because of this, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games should be read before watching this movie. The book has much more depth - and explains things barely touched upon by the movie. On the other hand, while the movie doesn't quite live up to the book, it's still an enjoyable experience. That is, if your hands don't lock up after gripping the arms of your seat for two hours and twenty minutes.

Note: Since such a big deal has been made of it, I think I should address the issue of the violence. Is it too violent for a tweenager? Definitely. But I wouldn't go so far as to slap an "R" rating on it. There's a little blood, spears, necks broken by hands, and other kinds of violence. Much of it is hand-to-hand. But most of it is also filmed with a jerky camera or not quite seen. Because it doesn't have the same psychological terror associated with it, I would say that this movie is not as violent as The Dark Knight. But then, that's not saying a whole lot.

My Rating: T/MT (violence, intensity)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Great Expectations (2011)

Pip (Douglas Booth) is a rather ordinary little boy. He lives with his sister and her husband, a blacksmith, and wants nothing more than to follow his brother-in-law into the trade. Then his entire life changes. First he encounters an escaped, chained convict named Magwitch (Ray Winstone), who makes Pip steal a file from the forge. He obliges out of fear, but he also brings along a piece of pie. Then Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), a great lady, asks him to her house to play with her adopted daughter Estella (Vanessa Kirby). Though his life may have been unexciting before, young Pip now has great expectations for the future.

This movie is very, very well done. Though a little dark and weird in the first hour (my sister says that grown Pip looks like a vampire in that part; I don't disagree), it brightens up with Pip's expectations. The acting, writing, and directing are all par with most British mini-series. In other words, they're fantastic. But even more than the production value, the filmmakers' decision to make it into a character study of nearly all the characters in the film makes it a worthwhile movie.

The entire focus of this version of Great Expectations is on the characters. It doesn't wallow in Pip's bad circumstances, and neither does it depict the story as a slow, painful descent into deeper and darker places. (In other words, it's nothing like the 1999 version with Ioan Gruffudd.) Instead, the filmmakers, sometimes lovingly and sometimes callously, push aside the well-known story in favor of the well-known but often neglected characters.

"Neglected" is not a word generally used to describe the character of Miss Havisham - even those who have not read the book know who she is. But any real complexity in her character seems to be overlooked in favor of the basic idea of her: She's a cold woman out for revenge on men. In contrast, this version of the film embodies her in an entirely different way. In this version, she is a woman whose anger never really allowed her to grow up. Her high-pitched voice, curled hair, thin body, and nervous habits together help to create the impression that she is a child possessed by childish rage. For another example, the sneaking, evil Orlick (Jack Roth) is small, thin, and looks almost like a wild animal - a wild animal tired of being chained and mocked. Pip looks the very picture of innocent youth. The list could go on, I believe, until every character in the movie has been listed.

The material point, to put it in the immortal words of I-don't-remember-which-BBC-movie-character, is that Great Expectations is about its people. There's certainly a story (complete with the requisite Dickens twists), but the story is dependent on the characters' choices and interactions, not the other way around. Ultimately, the point of Great Expectations is to show which people are, at heart, good and which are bad. Who can receive redemption, and whose heart is simply too black to even want it? Who is willing to change to receive it? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.

Note: Since I haven't read the book in years, I can't comment on how faithful this movie is. I've heard that it's not particularly close to Dickens' original - so purists beware!

My Rating: T (mild sexual content, sexual references, spooky images)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Yeah, What She Said

"The Founding Fathers had it right: the greatest threat to liberty is a meddlesome government. This is especially true when many persons look to the government to solve problems caused by human vices. Such problems have never, will never, and can never be solved by governments."

~Ruth Pakaluk, in a 1993 letter to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Printed in The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God: The Story of Ruth Pakaluk, Convert, Mother, Pro-Life Activist, edited by Michael Pakaluk.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Madonna's Secret (1946)

James Corbin (Francis Lederer) has a deep, dark secret. Two, actually. The first is that the woman in his paintings is not his model, Helen North (Linda Stirling). The body might be, but the face is the face of a woman from his past. The second is that his name is not really Corbin. It's Corbet. The rather infamous Corbet who was tried for and acquitted of murdering his first model - the woman in his paintings. Then Helen turns up dead on the river and the questions begin again. Determined to discover his secrets, Helen's actress sister named Linda (Ann Rutherford) gets herself hired as Corbin's latest model. As time goes on, she finds herself stepping deeper and deeper into murky waters. What kind of man is this brooding, talented artist? Is he a murderer? Or is some unknown enemy trying to frame him?

This is a fairly impressive movie, considering when it was filmed. The production values are decent. It seems to be an odd sort of cross between the film noir genre and an Agatha Christie story. Definitely dark, dramatic, and a little bit of a psychological thriller in parts, it still manages to hold onto a bit of the good old-fashioned mystery story.

Taken as a forties B movie, the acting and especially the writing are pretty good. Lederer plays a marvelous Corbin (with the exception of a few rather strangely-directed scenes), and Rutherford pulls off sweet and spunky Linda better than a lot of actresses I've seen. The exposition is particularly well done. In general, conversations reveal only as much as the viewer needs to know. On top of that, I never felt like I was listening to a voice-over. (Well, except for the opening line. But that really is a voice-over.) The Madonna's Secret shows the story as it is without taking the time to make sure everybody knows exactly what's going on at all times. That's part of the charm of the film noir genre: One can never be too sure that one didn't miss something important.

The other film noir elements in this movie are pretty obvious. It's dark, with a conflicted main character (who may or may not be bad) and a girl who ultimately finds herself in over her head. There's also a sexy temptress and, of course, crime in the mix. But the crime part is also a bit like an Agatha Christie murder mystery as well. Clues are established as to who might be killing these girls, but these clues are subtle enough that they don't construct neon signs pointing to the murderer. (At least, I hope not. I totally missed them until the last scene of the movie. Of course, that could be because I didn't want to think that that person was the murderer. But I'd better shut up now; that's getting into spoiler territory.)

Judged by the standards of its peers (both in time and in genre), this movie is pretty decent. The production values are impressively high for such an old and evidently cheap movie, and the slight mixing of genres is interesting and well-done enough to earn The Madonna's Secret a spot on the list of old movies that are worth someone's time.

My Rating: T (frightening scenes, thematic elements)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

He Is Risen!

Jesus Christ, the King of glory,
Lord of goodness, love and light,
Victor over death and evil,
Rose in majesty and might. Alleluia!
As the Saints in Heaven praise Him
With their joyful Easter song,
So on earth, you faithful servants,
Honor Him with heart and tongue. Alleluia!

~Translation of a Traditional Spanish Hymn

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Onegin (1999)

Onegin (Ralph Fiennes) is a lonely, bored, spoilt aristocrat. He has no real friends, a cash supply that can no longer support his decadent lifestyle, and absolutely no goals in life. Then his uncle dies and leaves him an inheritance that includes both money and a country estate. Onegin leaves St. Petersburg for this estate - and, once there, decides to stay. Suddenly life seems better. He makes a close friend and meets a beautiful young lady named Natalya (Liv Tyler). Can a man ever really change? Or does a long life of sophistication and pride leave him without the backbone to alter his future?

This movie really hasn't much story development. At least, compared with the five to eight hour masterpieces made by the BBC. Suffice it to say that the novel on which Onegin is based was written in verse - and that this is highly appropriate in light of the poetic justice that is meted out at the end. Choices - some good and some bad - are paramount. This is true with the choices made by the filmmakers as well.

Onegin moves at a dreamlike pace in parts. The movie is really only about an hour and forty-five minutes long, but it seems much longer. This is helped in part by the frequent use of slow-motion filming. In general, slow motion should not be used in movies. It jerks the viewer out of the movie and into his/her seat and lends a very melodramatic atmosphere to whatever scene upon which it has been inflicted. The slow motion in Onegin, on the other hand, is sometimes used in good taste. Feelings like boredom and despair are portrayed well by the use of slow motion. But the technique is used too frequently, and it becomes evident that slow motion is being used to create the illusion of a longer movie.

Having said all that, one of the most redeeming qualities of the movie is that it is visually quite pretty. The filmmakes chose Liv Tyler as the lead female role. Normally a bad actress and a bit strange looking, she fits Tatyana's part perfectly and is absolutely gorgeous. Her clothes and hair are stunning throughout the movie. She shines particularly brightly in the last few scenes of the movie, when her hair is not as severely twisted and her clothes are richer in color and texture. The choice of setting is very pretty as well. The Russian countryside is beautiful in both the winter and summer scenes.

Finally, the filmmakers chose to convey as much as possible visually and through dialogues that would naturally take place. For example, we see rather than are told that Onegin is a ladies' man (although I personally think this could have been left out, it's handled rather delicately). Later, Tatyana speaks of her troubles to no one, but what passes through her mind is evident by what she does (again, this could have been skipped or shown in a more family-friendly way). This is a good approach for a filmmaker to take. There are few things in movies that are more cringe-inducing than when unnatural dialogue, which would never have taken place in real life, is used to explain to the viewer certain plots developments. Like slow motion filming, such unnatural dialogue almost inevitably tears the viewer from the story.

In all, Onegin is a strange mixture of good and bad choices. This is evident in the story (which I will not reveal for spoiler reasons), but it is also evident in the way in which the filmmakers made the movie. The slow motion is sometimes effective - and sometimes not. The use of "show, don't tell" is effective - but also a bit risqué. In other words, it's a flawed but interesting movie, perfect for anyone willing to spend a slice of time on watching the consequences of choice.

My Rating: MT (bedroom scene between a man and wife, sexual content, sexual references , violence)

Note: Could be appropriate for younger teens if a few scenes are skipped

Friday, March 30, 2012

What Makes a Good Book? Part 1

(Disclaimer: This series of posts is about fiction alone. Nonfiction is a whole other cup of tea.)

It's pretty easy to judge books. This one's good, that one's bad, the other is so-so. But, when asked to define a good book or a bad book, we often cannot come up with anything really intelligent. Some people say it depends on the characters... but then, who hasn't read a good book that also has rotten characters? Or what about a plot? Again, there are many good books that have indifferent plots. Bad books mirror good ones; they can have good characters or plots. So what really separates the good from the bad? The short answer is: A little bit of everything. But, since this is a blog and not a twitter account, I'll expand on that. This first post will focus on the most important thing a good book must have: A good moral foundation.

Nothing that is rotten at the core can be good. Books are no exception. For example, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series is about as rotten as they can be. From what I remember, they are fairly well written. I certainly enjoyed them... right up to the moment when I realized he was attacking my faith. Ultimately, the whole rancid trilogy is about how God doesn't really exist. He is a myth that has been invented to keep people in chains, blah, blah, blah. And kids should escape from His "tyranny" by... having sex. Well, at least by breaking the moral boundaries set by God. Since Chrisian ideas of the sacredness of sex are the things on which most atheists are fixated, having sex is the easiest (and most shocking) way for the kids to break away. The ultimate message of the book is rotten, and, by extension, whether it is well written or not is entirely irrelevant.

On the other hand, good books are built around a good core. Just one example of this is Michelle Buckman's Rachel's Contrition. In this story, a young woman with a dark past is troubled by depression and a host of other problems. But, with the help of other broken souls, she finds her way to a better place. Through the murky depths of addiction, loss, suffering, and sexual abuse of many kinds, the bright light of redemption shines through this book like a beam of sunlight on a rainy day. This beam casts a rainbow, reminding readers that God has promised to help all who seek His face. Now, this book is definitely well written. But, as has been established, it is its beautiful core that is the ultimate factor in whether or not it is a good book.

In short, where Pullman attempts to pull readers away from God, Buckman bucks them up with reminders of the vastness of God's mercy and of the beauty that exists in even very troubled souls. (Forgive the puns; I couldn't resist.) Whereas the one book is built on a foundation of hatred and lies, the other is supported by the strong arms of love and truth. Regardless of whether a book is well-written or not, it must have a good moral foundation in order to be good.