Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie Weekend: How Novel!

So I'm sitting in an art theatre in Long Beach which is literally CALLED The Art Theatre on Friday night, waiting to see The Hunger Games. Yes, this thing is so saturating the market that it's even playing in a single-screen art house. I check my email and Variety says that at press time, the movie has already pulled down $70 million. I look around me; the place is packed. Last time I was here it was a French-language film about Algerian monks and there were 12 people watching. The money the Art Theatre makes for the next month is going to pay for a lotta monk movies.

Predictable phenomenon it may be, but it's hard to find a bad thing to say about Hunger Games. It's an adaptation of a novel that young adults embraced, which means we aren't post-literate yet. The movie itself is solid, well-made with few missteps, shows more than it tells, and doesn't embarrass anyone involved. Is it plausible? Welllllllllll.... when you're in the same situation, you tell me.

The Hunger Games takes place in a future North America (now called Panem) where some unspecified unpleasantness has resulted in an economic collapse. All the wealth is concentrated in a central city but most people live in 12 surrounding districts which make the world in The Road Warrior look luxurious. Once a year, the overlords of Panem televise a contest in which two teens from each district are drafted and made to fight to the death over the course of several days. The story follows a plucky underdog from District 12 as she struggles to survive without killing anybody, except in self-defense.

And of course, even if no one finds you to kill you, you're still at risk from exposure, starvation, attack from wolves, attack from genetically engineered wasps, infection, and whatever. And there are cameras everywhere. It's like Big Brother only instead of getting voted out of the house, they hack your head off at the neck.

Tucci, Tucci
Most of the fun in the movie (let's put fun in quotation marks, because this ain't no party) comes from the city folk. Decadent to a fault, they are an excuse for production designers to binge like Bukowski on his first day out of the tank. Stanley Tucci, as the host of a talk show for contestants, has a foot high blue pompador, George Hamilton's tan and a suit made out of rainbow trout skins. All-American girl Elizabeth Banks is like some sandpapered Marie Antoinette doll. Weirdly, Lenny Kravitz (the rock star) is probably the most subdued city character, and even he wears gold eyeliner.

Any good fantasy story is actually about reality, and this is no exception. If you're a teenager it's important to be popular; here it's REALLY important because if sponsors like you they'll airlift medicines or weapons to you. If you think reality TV is immoral in real life, imagine it jacked up like this. And even in a fight to the death, the show is at least a little scripted.

As I said, The Hunger Games ain't no party. The one thing I'd fault this movie for is sincerity. Everybody is terribly, terribly earnest and I think they couldn't have thrown in a little slyness without upsetting the mix. But then, I haven't made $70 million bucks in a single day. 


Similarly sincere to a fault is the movie I just finished on streaming Netflix: Atlas Shrugged (Part 1), based on the libertarian's favorite novel by Ayn Rand. It's pretty interesting as a document and kind of a sad misfire as a movie. It takes place in our future, but since the source material was written in the forties and they wanted to remain faithful to it, it's all about trains and manila folders and maps on walls. There are computers but no one uses them. 

I kind of got the feeling that the filmmakers have been enraged by the way Hollywood depicts capitalists as sneering 2-dimensional villains, and all they had to do was depict Government regulators the same way. It doesn't work. "I'll force your company to pay extra taxes so that the poor will be able to eat, muah-hah-hah" turns out to be a bigger leap than they anticipated. You keep returning to the problem that the poor are going to starve. When I say you there, I mean me. And unlike The Hunger Games, here there is little at stake and the lack of laughs provided by the filmmakers gradually makes you start to supply your own. Well, maybe Part II will be better. Will there be a Part II? I hope so. I'd still rather see a movie that read that damn book.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting juxtaposition of films: Not hard to draw a line from Ayn Rand's worldview to Suzanne Collins' Panem. It's Atlas Shrugged perfected: Government serves corporation, and Rand's "looters" have been banished to distant regions.

    You also point out that fundamental problem of making villains out of governmental functionaries. it's the biggest perceptual shift in conservative thinking, one not everybody can manage. It's straight Orwell: Seeing taxation as the ultimate evil, rather than a hallmark of civilization, is O'Brien holding up fingers in Room 101: How many fingers? One you burned away any amount of caring about people, the correct number will appear.