Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Hunger Games: not all that nourishing

Following in the wake of the mega-successful Harry Potter and Twilight franchises this year’s teen fiction/blockbuster movie crossover hit looks to be The Hunger Games. Directed by Gary Ross and adapted from the books by Suzanne Collins, this first movie in what will presumably become a sequence is significantly grittier than the two antecedents mentioned above, and also a couple of degrees less fantastical (in that there don’t appear to be any supernatural or magical characters or devices involved, at least). It’s set in a future version of the United States, where after a bloody civil war a central metropolis has established dominance over twelve outlying regions, who every year are required to select a teenage girl and boy to be sent to the capital to take part in a fight-to-the-death version of extreme Duke of Edinburgh Awards camping, which is televised Big Brother style to the nation and from which there can be only one winner.

That this is hardly an original idea for a speculative fiction doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. The notion of a select group of young people being rounded up and sent as a tribute has been used as far back as the Minotaur myth, and gladiatorial style ordeals in contained environments occur time and again in science fiction (the forest, river and pastures of the combat zone here reminded me immediately of Blake and Travis facing off in the hallowed Blake’s 7 episode Duel). And the serious, but not deadeningly portentous, tone established in the first hour or so of this film seemed pretty promising. The poverty of the remote District 12, from which lead character Katniss is drawn to take part in the games, is credibly depicted with resonances with the depression-era Southern states, and the contrast with the gaudiness of the effete figures controlling the media presentation of the event is properly effective (if for no other reason, this movie may be worth going to see just for the extraordinary, burlesque-goes-dada, hairpieces and costumes on display in the capital city). Ostentatious digital effects are kept to a minimum, and refreshingly made to serve the needs of the script rather than the other way round, and most importantly, in Katniss we’re given a credible character to identify with, someone from a disadvantaged background with native intelligence who’s not overly charismatic or unconvincingly gifted. Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to have cornered the market in this type of thing, following her similar role in Winter’s Bone, where she also played a resourceful outsider looking after a spaced-out mother and a vulnerable younger sibling. She has to more or less carry The Hunger Games singlehanded at times, and does so with grace and efficiency.

After a long preparatory section showing the tributes being trained in the arts of killing and survival between being presented to the public on glitzy chat shows we eventually get to the game itself, and by now we feel that we’ve earned some action, preferably with some tough moral choices thrown in. Unfortunately, the film cops out on both counts. While there’s certainly a lot more in the way of brutal child massacring than in your average multiplex entertainment you don’t get to see, or more importantly feel, much of it at all, as practically every character involved has been set up explicitly as either a one-dimensional sadist or just cannon fodder, and the killings tend to happen either offscreen or in impressionistic slow-motion montages which obscure rather than reveal. I guess this is probably a compromise necessary to earn a 12A certificate, but it seems to jar with the earnest feel of the early parts of the film, as does the inexplicable removal of multiple corpses from the fields of combat in instances when they’re returned to by surviving participants. More disappointing, and a more serious failure of the film, is one’s increasing awareness that Katniss, while undoubtedly being put through the mill in terms of discomfort, anxiety and personal injury, is never going to be called upon to make the sort of unpalatable decision as to who who lives and who dies that a scenario like this ought to be forcing upon her. The good players help her, the bad players attack her and if she’s having to dispatch someone it’s always an act of self-defence. Towards the end of the film even the controllers of the game seem to be conniving to let her avoid hard decisions, and by the denouement this audience member at least had stopped caring. It also doesn’t help that the movie seems far too long – one’s good will seems to run out surprisingly soon once the game begins. It’s a shame because The Hunger Games is far from terrible, and there’s enough good stuff here to make it worth watching (did I mention Donald Sutherland, turning in a great performance as the amoral President?) It just could have been so much better.

The Kid With A Bike: top gear

The Kid With A Bike, the new film from writer/directors the Dardenne brothers, is a little triumph: fresh, unpretentious and immediate, while at the same time tackling the potentially weighty issue of personal responsibility. It’s a shame that it’s probably destined to be shown only in arthouse cinemas due to it being shot in French but there’s nothing inaccessible or needlessly provocative about it and for me it stands comparison with Kes as a sympathetic portrait of a disadvantaged boy’s needs and concerns.

The kid of the title is Cyril, who’s been abandoned at a care home by his feckless father without even being left his precious bicycle as a consolation. Cyril’s not one for giving up easily however – despite a number of authority figures telling him that his dad has moved on he insists on making his own way to the vacated flat to make sure, and even then won’t be satisfied until the caretakers have let him inspect every square inch of it. This admirable doggedness is Cyril’s defining characteristic, although it does sometimes lead him into despair when he finally realises the extent of his father’s lack of interest him in, or trouble when he finds himself committing questionable acts out of misplaced loyalty to a manipulative older boy. Happily a guardian angel is on hand to help steer him in the right direction in the form of Samantha, a childless woman who agrees to give him a home at weekends, and in contrast to the various selfish and useless father figures that Cyril encounters she’s able to provide him with security and consistency (and even manages to get his bike back). The question the film poses is whether the boy can at last trust someone else to help him.

The Kid With A Bike is exhilarating to watch, for the speed and sense of purpose that the boy moves with at all times and for the effortless way it captures the constant present tense existence of a child – what’s happening right now is always the only important thing, with the impact of one’s actions on other people a remote consideration. The film moves along at the same pace as Cyril on his bike, with no irrelevant subplots included to extend the running time and no scene lasting a second longer than it needs to. Interestingly this pace is achieved without resort to intrusive background music or rapid-fire cutting (many scenes play out in single shots lasting a minute or longer) and you feel there might be a lesson here for the makers of big budget action films as to how to keep an audience excited without assaulting its senses with gimmickry. There’s nothing here that doesn’t ring true, which makes the eventual moments of high drama surprisingly affecting. A brilliant film.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia: night shift

A title beginning with the words “Once Upon A Time In…” might lead you to expect an epic sweep of a film packed with high drama, heart-pumping action and big emotion. If this is a reasonable assumption we must therefore conclude that Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest from Turkish writer and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is entitled somewhat ironically, being concerned as it is mainly with the coping strategies of a small group of officials forced to hang around in the middle of nowhere while a murder suspect tries to remember where he’s hidden a body.

After a short and mildly cryptic opening section showing three men drinking in a remote and rundown outpost somewhere on the Anatolian plateau in Turkey the film proper starts with the night-time arrival of two cars and an army truck at a featureless turn in the road somewhere in a bleak expanse of fields and gullies. A dozen men get out, including a dishevelled handcuffed prisoner whose inability to accurately recall exactly where the men with spades need to dig is trying the patience of the harried police commissioner who has promised his superiors a quick resolution. While the policeman pressures his suspect we start to get to know the other men who are standing around waiting: the drivers, a doctor, a photographer, the court prosecutor. They talk amongst themselves about matters professional and personal before the prisoner is eventually forced to admit that they may be at the wrong location, whereupon they get back in the cars and move on. This sets the pattern for the rest of the night.

About the only epic thing about Once Upon… is its running time of two and a half hours, but it manages to be miraculously engrossing for most of it despite the deliberate absence of pretty much anything in the way of explicit event – the drama here is all to do with what’s going on in the characters’ heads, and Ceylan would seem to be something of an expert in giving us access to their inner feelings without resorting to clunky exposition and contrived conflict. There’s one stunning shot in particular that slowly closes in on the haunted face of the prisoner in the back of the police car while his guards chat idly about yoghurt around him that reveals acres of character. While this undoubtedly a slow and measured film it’s by no means an irritatingly arty or willfully obscure one. If anything it’s so absorbing because it’s hyper-realistic, with the men behaving reasonably and believably throughout, one or two moments of short temper notwithstanding, and its something of a coup on the part of the director to be able to convey their fatigue and discomfort without boring the audience.

My only problem with the film is to do with the last section, set in the local big town the following day, which seems a little drawn-out, even though it does in its quiet way present a shattering revelation for one character and a moral dilemma for another – the distinctive spell the movie casts seems to break once the business of the night comes to an end and we return to civilisation. This is assuredly not a movie for anyone wanting quick thrills but it cuts deep and has stayed with me for a couple of days now. Recommended.

Stiff Little Fingers at The Junction, Cambridge 22/3/2012

My intermittent campaign to try to see all the post-punk bands I was too young to get to first time around continues: after bagging Magazine and Adam Ant last year I can now tick off fiery Belfast agitators Stiff Little Fingers. This group’s been gigging pretty regularly for over twenty years, after breaking up in 1982 and being on hiatus for a relatively short while, and by now they sure know what they’re doing in terms of putting on a tight yet passionately delivered show. Lead man Jake Burns boasts a considerably fuller figure than he did back in the day of independently released 45rpm singles and sessions for John Peel but he’s also a much better singer, his famously hoarse and raspy yelling having now matured into a confident bellow that could even be described as soulful. The band crack through the highlights of their back catalogue with a vigour that belies their combined age and even get away with throwing in some new material without alienating their audience, who in general display a touching loyalty by supplying backing chants where needed and even showing willing to form a middle-aged mosh. Burns is clearly as politically committed to worthy causes as ever and provides plenty of engaging between-song banter, putting the old songs in context, introducing the new ones and taking time out to definitively rebuff the BNP leader Nick Griffin’s co-opting of the band into his loathsome agenda and lament the absence of questioning and radical voices amongst current so-called alternative acts. All in all, pretty inspirational. The band was supported, appropriately enough, by Spear Of Destiny, another socially conscious outfit from way back when. I arrived a little too late to give them a fair hearing, but I felt I had to remark on Kirk Brandon’s close resemblance to Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films.

La Grande Illusion: all in it together

There’s always a risk of disappointment when one finally gets to see an established classic for the first time and there’s been more than one occasion that I’ve left the cinema feeling a bit “is that it?” after seeing a gilt-edged critical favourite. Jean Renoir’s 1937 prison camp drama La Grande Illusion is about as highly and universally lauded as films ever get so I was slightly apprehensive on going in to see its 75th anniversary re-release the other night, but all turned out well – this is a touchstone film that really does live up to its formidable reputation.

La Grande Illusion is set during the First World War and concerns the fortunes of a group of French prisoners-of-war in a succession of German stalags. Right from the start an easy and relaxed atmosphere pervades the proceedings, with a dramatic aircraft capture happening offscreen and polite, even convivial, relations being shown between the airmen and their hosts. Representatives of a wide cross-section of society are present in the camp (the working man, the aristocrat, the nouveau riche businessman) but all of them are depicted as civilised compassionate men and none of them are mouthpieces for crass reductions of opposing political viewpoints. The early sections of the film present an unusually cosy and unthreatening version of prison life, with the guards tolerating a high level of dissent and freedom of speech (I hadn’t realised that Casablanca lifted the scene showing resistance fighters defiantly singing Le Marseillaise to German officers directly from here), but this is a necessary prelude to events later on, when three of the prisoners are transferred to a high security camp located within an imposing and seemingly escape-proof castle and find themselves having to make terrible sacrifices and undergo soul-testing ordeals in order to survive and win freedom.

The film’s success is something to do with its director’s lightness of touch and total disinterest in contriving and exploiting emotionally manipulative situations and heavyhanded polarising conflicts. This is, apart from anything else, a very funny film for most of its running time, and every single character is allowed to retain their dignity, with even Erich von Stroheim’s prison commander being painted as a decent and humane, if somewhat misguided, man despite his villainous appearance and trappings. Most of all, La Grande Illusion is a humanist masterpiece, showing clearly the need for people to connect across cultural and class barriers and the immense benefits when they do so. It’s no wonder the Nazis tried to suppress the film.

The new anniversary print has been struck from an original camera negative and fully restored and it’s a thing of wonder to behold: clean, clear, crisp high-contrast black-and-white with only one or two slightly abrupt edits between scenes to distract one from the drama. Definitely the best film I’ve seen this year, and probably not far off the best film I’ve seen any year – go see it as soon as you can.

In Darkness: beneath contempt

The true story of a group of people forced to go into hiding in sewers when the Nazis liquidate the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lvov is the basis of the tough but ultimately compassionate new film In Darkness directed by Agnieszka Holland, whose previous credits include not only the similarly themed Europa Europa but quite a few episodes of acclaimed TV series such as The Wire, Treme and The Killing. In general terms the new film is more or less a hybrid of Schindler’s List (cynical mercenary helps a group of Jews and rediscovers his humanity) and The Pianist (opportunities for survival in an increasingly bombed out city get more and more precarious) and a lot of its sewer sequences seem highly reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda’s brilliant and nightmarish Kanal, in which a group of resistance fighters find themselves cut off and lost in the tunnels under Warsaw, but this is far from a knock-off and has a particular power of its own deriving from the unflinching way it depicts the frailties of even the most courageous and selfless of people when they come under inhuman pressures.

The central character is Leopold Socha, a hardbitten drainage worker and black marketeer who spies a chance to make some extra bucks when a band of refugees turn up in his section of sewer. He’s no saint and initially treats his desperate clients with casual disdain, but he does at least honour his side of the bargain and his attitude doesn’t look so extreme once we’re given a taste of the atrocities that are being routinely doled out above surface. Eventually various unpalatable situations force him to choose which side he’s on, but he’s not the only character who’s loyalties are being tested – one of the most notable aspects of the film is its success in bringing out the individual and often subtle facets of the personalities of the trapped group, and the conflicts and alliances that result are not necessarily those you anticipate.

In Darkness is, as you’d expect, pretty murky visually for much of its running time, but the audience is given careful signposts throughout to ensure that we can differentiate, and sometimes even navigate, different parts of the tunnel complex. The film is treated to look grainy, with the bright colours that do occur full and saturated. It’s not really documentary-style, but it’s certainly effective. The performances are naturalistic and convincing, and really sell the enormity of the situation – frequently we’re presented with normally reasonable people yelling at each other and there are no artificial Hollywood-style inspirational orations here. A lot of bad things happen, and a lot of worthy people are denied a happy ending but the grimness never quite gets overwhelming, if only because we know, even if the characters don’t, that salvation via Russian tanks is on its way. Socha managed to keep his Jews hidden from the Nazis for an extraordinary 14 months and was posthumously honoured by Israel. This is a pretty bleak film to watch for much of its two and a half hours but it surely documents an amazing act of humanity.

Bel Ami: didn’t ring my bel much

Bel Ami is an adaptation of a Maupassant novel that seems to want to be a fin de siecle equivalent to Dangerous Liaisons but ends up curiously lifeless and uninvolving. Robert Pattinson, current go-to guy for all things smouldering and glowering, has the star role as discharged soldier Georges Duroy, whose unpromising prospects in the whore-infested bars of Moulin Rouge era Paris are considerably improved when he falls into the orbit of his former comrade-in-arms Forestier, now an editor at an influential newspaper and a man of impressive means. Duroy is initially beguiled by Forestier’s high-mindedly independent wife, who introduces him to her circle of friends, which appears to consist mainly of the bored wives of important men looking for some light thrills. Duroy worms his way into the hearts of various women while at the same time rising upwards in status at the newspaper without ever demonstrating much effort or talent, and needless to say there are certain personal and professional comeuppances lying in wait for him.

There’s nothing obviously terrible about the film, but there’s not a great deal to hold your attention either. Someone’s gone to some trouble to assemble authentic looking costumes and set dressings, but you never really believe you’re looking at anything other than actors in mocked-up parlours laboriously explaining the plot and their emotional states to each other. Pattinson certainly looks the part, but doesn’t show much in the way of charm, and neither do any of the women he seduces, although it is interesting to see Kristin Scott Thomas in an uncharacteristically submissive role. It is possible to make a good period film where the protagonist is essentially a jammy doofus (prime example: Barry Lyndon) but they certainly haven’t pulled it off here. It also doesn’t help that, where a milieu like this would seem to call for a bit of directorial sweep and flair, the film’s shot and edited like a TV drama, with very conventional back-and-forth cutting between the speakers in every conversation scene and few establishing shots and bold camera moves to exploit the lush environments. There are some pretty nasty and sordid things happening in this story which could provide real moments of shock and disgust but the film-makers always seem to be selling them short and failing to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the source material. Still, if you like top hats, side burns and big dresses this might be up your street.