Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games

When I read Suzanne Collins' runaway best-seller I was sucked in by the relentless force of the narrative, but when all was said and done I was undecided on whether I could actually advocate it as either literature or pop entertainment.  That was several years ago before I knew it would be turned into a movie.  Now that I've seen the movie I have come to the conclusion that I like it about as much as I like burning the roof of my mouth on steaming hot mozzarella cheese.

There was a reason I didn't choose to read the final books in the trilogy, but it wasn't apparent until after seeing the movie when I realized that there is a flaw in the central premise itself.  Collins and the filmmakers ask us to look on with guilty excitement while the continent formerly known as North America (now a fascist state named after PanAm's distant cousin Panem) forces 24 youths to kill each other on National television.  What follows is a cautionary tale about the perils of dictatorship and the possible fate of our future society.  The Hunger Games are a thinly veiled allegory for willful consumption.  Many of the "tributes" competing in the death match willfully slaughter one another to survive while we are treated to glimpses of the hungry masses eating it all up as if it were an episode of The Amazing Race.

The flaw is in the way the movie is engineered to generate grim excitement around the carnage.  In spite of its blatant moral agenda, the message is confused.  For every minute of screen time that's devoted to lamenting the cruelty of the audience that applauds the competition, there are 20 equal minutes of slick soulless shaky-cam suspense dedicated to immersing us in the games.  The movie encourages us to pick favorites in the battle (and there's no real contest there), but it never really demands that we think about what the spectacle of death actually means.  The ideal movie adaptation would seize on the irony of this contradiction to tell a story that is morbidly fun, kind of like A Clockwork Orange with minors.  This film plays it straight without so much as a wink and consequently fails as both allegory and entertainment.

The plight of Panem's citizens deliberately evokes the atmosphere of a concentration camp and the buildup to the games is constructed with such solemnity and rigor that I thought I had accidentally wandered into a screening at the Simon Weisenthal Center.  Any and all flashes of character development that may have existed in the book have been traded for shallow thrills.  The movie is suspenseful, but it falls apart any time the characters attempt to express any recognizable human emotion.  All of this only underscores how inadequately the premise is executed by director Gary Ross and company.   Ross has returned to the director's chair nine years after having directed Seabiscuit and 14 years after directing Pleasantville.  Both are thoughtful films, but here he asks us to check our brains at the door.  He applies all his efforts to making the proceedings more 'real' by virtue of his hand-held camera, but the effect is distancing and drains the movie of all its guilty fun.  The movie is manufactured as crassly as the games are manufactured by the Panem media and the result is so indulgent that I was tempted to rise out of my seat in protest and plead for a revival of The Running Man...or Gladiator...or The Most Dangerous Game...or especially Battle Royale.  The list goes on.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

War Horse

Steven Spielberg's War Horse, bears the distinction of being the only film this year to bring me to the brink of mean, ugly, sissy tears.  In the first 30 minutes I began to dread the climax and how it might shatter my masculine front amidst my fellow theater-goers.  With mounting anxiety I found my eyes (particularly my left) filling with a clear salty discharge that could only be one thing.  For much of the movie I succeeded in masking my tears with an infrequent dab of my finger but by the end I had come undone like a patient who had undergone an appendectomy without the use of anesthetic.  The frequency with which I was wiping my eyes had betrayed me to everyone including my wife, but thankfully I wasn't alone.

The story based on the acclaimed novel and pulitzer prize winning play concerns a teenaged boy Albert, who is separated from his horse with the arrival of World War 1 and ultimately enlists in the hopes of both serving his country and reuniting with his equine best friend.  Although this makes it sound impossibly maudlin, this is vintage Spielberg filled with un-jaded optimism, sincerity and imagination.  The fact that it works is a testament to his supreme artistry.  The movie itself is an affirmation of the classic Eisensteinian theory of montage, which states that two disparate pieces of film can give birth to a powerful idea when they are put together in appropriate sequence.  Nobody can so blatantly play to the heart-strings and get away with it like Spielberg for the simple reason that the details ring true.  War Horse doesn't illustrate the horrors of war the way Saving Private Ryan does, nor does it attempt to reduce war to adventure film heroics like the Indiana Jones films.

War Horse approaches the surreal and fantastical aspects of war from the point of view of an inhuman being; a point of view which is alternately humbling, disorienting and disquieting as the horse changes sides (its gifts appropriated by both the Allied and Axis powers).  The fact that individuals on all sides have the empathy to recognize the value of the horse's life and to care for it it is one of the film's many inspirations.  It is indeed bold to tell a story so hopeful and unabashedly sentimental in an age of such pervasive irony and intellectual posturing, but Spielberg pulls it off because he believes in what he's saying and he is remarkably clear-minded in the telling.

The movie unites two of the central themes in Spielberg: the wonder of communication between humans and non-humans and the clash between blind hope and worldly obstacles.  In doing so, Spielberg dares us to accept the quaint idea that each and every living being (including the horse) understands the intrinsic value of a life.  Spielberg is a believer in hope as he has demonstrated countless times.  In War Horse hope is pure.  It is instantly felt when Albert first succeeds in passing a plough harness from around his own neck to that of his horse.  Hope is embodied by the horse himself as he is rescued and cared for by his various benefactors, wisely navigating their various loyalties.  Hope is embodied by the scene in which the wounded horse lies docile as he is rescued from a tangle of barbed wire by an English and German soldier working together.

Technically, the movie is without peer this year.  The images are photographed with astonishing beauty and the use of sound is subtle and immersive.   In evoking the classic films of John Ford and Victor Fleming, War Horse transports the willing and uncynical to a place no brighter than our own where we follow characters who are perhaps more idealistic than we commonly find in our daily lives.  Although the picture is sometimes externally implausible, it achieves a measure of truth through the honest interplay of the characters and the actors who portray them.  Spielberg is a master of the epic because of his ability to contrast such a sweeping backdrop against a keenly observed succession of intimate gestures.  The movie is unashamedly sentimental but I've never believed that sentiment should be a bad thing so long as it is true.  War Horse is one of the best pictures of the year.