Review: The Hunger Games

HungerGamesPoster

What would happen if you mixed George Orwell, Battle Royale, and the fashion sense of a tailor for a royal family whilst having an acid trip? You’d get The Hunger Games.

Now before I get into my review it seems appropriate that I add this disclaimer at the front, considering the hype for this adaptation has been massive: I DID NOT READ THE BOOK BEFORE VIEWING THE FILM, SO MY CRITICISM IS GOING OFF THE FILM AND THAT ALONE. I WENT IN SIMPLY AS AN AVID FILMGOER, NOT AS A FAN OF THE NOVELS, AND I VIEWED IT AS SUCH, SO I APOLOGIZE IF MY VIEWS OF THE STORY AREN’T AS COMPLETE AS YOURS–THE FANS’–ARE. Okay, so that’s out of the way.

The film opens in the world of Panem, a totalitarian society comprised of the ruling Capitol and its subordinate twelve districts. The Capitol is comprised of affluent, wealthy, and flamboyantly-dressed people who keep the working-class citizens in the districts under control after they organized an unsuccessful rebellion that led to the destruction of a thirteenth district over 70 years prior. To show the extent of their authority, the Capitol subjects two children, a boy and a girl, from each district to a battle-to-the-death-style competition each year (which is broadcast in real time to all the districts, with play-by-play commentary) called the Hunger Games.

In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence) has her life thrown out of balance when she volunteers to replace her sister as the chosen female “tribute” for her district in the upcoming Hunger Games. She and her district’s male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are taken to the Capitol and submitted to a life of luxury and intense training before they are placed within the arena with twenty-two other contestants in the deadliest and morally-complex battle of their lives. Blood is shed and truces are tested.

Many critics have noted the film’s similarities to the 1999 Japanese book and subsequent 2000 film Battle Royale, and having seen said film I was surprised as to just how similar they were in terms of certain plot elements. However, thematically and visually they are at quite a contrast, so I am willing to put my pseudo-hipster grievances of originality to the side.

Speaking of themes, for a film aimed primarily at young adults it’s surprisingly deep and morally complex. It poses the question of: “Would you be able to kill another human being”–(The Most Dangerous Game, much?)–“and a child, at that?” It serves as a great critique on the state of entertainment in our Western world, on how we are tolerable of the levels of violence portrayed in our media and our obsession with these grotesque shows we like to call “reality” television. Secondly, the film is an interesting observation on social class division, showing how the higher classes can so easily ignore the inequality and struggles that the lower classes face. (Okay, I’ll stop with the sociopolitical angle now.)

The pacing of the film is great–it never drags but it doesn’t feel too short. The plot always denies your expectations–that is, there are a lot of twists thrown in; they’re not always satisfying, but they do keep you actively guessing. There is a lot that’s left unanswered, though, including the history of Panem and the rise of this totalitarian state, which I hope is explained in the later entries in the trilogy.

The acting was surprisingly decent, as well, with all of the leads and even the supporting actors showing a great amount of emotion and/or eccentricity, the latter of which was thankfully never overdone (Stanley Tucci probably stole the film for his enthusiastic role as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman).

Technically speaking, the CG effects were average, but the costume design, make-up, and overall production design was fantastic and successfully added to the film’s themes and the characters’ personalities. I’ll be surprised if the film doesn’t get at least a couple nods at the next Oscars in these fields.

But where it won’t be getting a nod is in the cinematography field. Maybe it was because I was sitting in the front row of the theater (it filled up FAST), but it was irritating to watch at times because of the constant motion of the camera–sometimes you really couldn’t tell what was going on (I was actually glad when a stationary shot came up!). I mean, there are times when the Shaky Cam method is effective and involving (see: Children of Men), but this is not one of them. This level of intensity does not make the viewer feel involved or intrigued, but instead jolted and disoriented (which doesn’t really fit within the context of the story). I mean–goddamn!

However, looking at the business behind the film, I think it’s safe to assume that the Shaky Cam method was used so drastically because it had to do with securing the film’s PG-13 rating. Being based off a novel aimed at young adults, a large percentage of the fanbase would not have been able to see the film if the violent deaths during the game segment were clearly shown. With the camera shaking back and forth, the image is blurred and thus the violence is slightly less noticeable, and voilà!–a PG-13 rating can be secured. (If I may be honest, I was actually looking forward to a little more violence and was a little let down when most of it was “shaken” out…but maybe that’s just my sadistic side showing.)

It’s not the defining film in its genre, and I doubt that it will be the best film of the year, but it is a thought-provoking piece of young adult cinema that is stylistically impressive and emotionally deep. And considering what teen drama has devolved to, I’d say that this is the best you’re gonna get.

7/10

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GEARS and the Film Set Experience

Back in February, I was kept busy working my first job on a professional film set. No, it wasn’t a huge Hollywood project with a multi-million-dollar budget and a plethora of big-time actors, but it had more hierarchical structure and technical prowess than a few guys getting together with a Canon Vixia and saying: “Hey, let’s make a movie!”

A little info. about the film itself: the film is a short entitled GEARS, and it is being produced by the student-run Production Club at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. From the film’s Facebook page, the synopsis is as follows:

“GEARS is a sci-fi drama about a father and daughter who live in a typical, suburban home. After the daughter is in a near fatal accident, the over-protective father investigates the origin of an unknown gear discovered after the incident. As his daughter is recovering, he continues to find intricate gears throughout their home.”

The film has been funded through grants and kickstarter projects, allowing the club to use professional equipment such as the RED camera (pictured below). It has been filmed at multiple locations in the Milwaukee area. (The project is in the middle of filming right now–inclement weather at the end of February set back our last weekend of filming, so those days have been rescheduled for the end of March.)
On the set I’ve helped out on the sound department, usually as boom operator (that’s the microphone on the end of a long pole). I’ve also helped out with the art department.

Because Milwaukee isn’t particularly a big hub for the film industry, it’s a privilege that this project even exists. Production Club is giving the film students of UWM a chance to experience what it is like to work in the industry: it’s immersing them into the structure of a film crew and allowing them to discover just how much time and effort goes into creating even a short film. When you realize just how many specific jobs there are behind the scenes to make the film perfect, it’s both a humbling and an empowering experience.

That being said…

The best way I can describe being on a film set is to say that it is almost surreal. That may be confusing…let me explain: When you’re on the set, you’re looking at the setting of the film that you’ll be watching later, and it’s absolutely clogged with cameras, lights, people, and a bunch of other equipment. When a scene is being shot you see the actors moving about and reciting their lines, yet you also see the camera and sound crews moving around to catch their every movement. The scenes themselves are also a hassle to set up–sometimes taking upwards of half an hour. Also, the actors, when not filming, will occasionally act out of character–like regular people. Yet, when the final product is seen, none of this is visible: you don’t see the equipment and the people that filled up the whole house in the background even though you knew it was there all along; the scene doesn’t run for half an hour showing its entire set-up; and the actors seem to embrace the characters that they are–completely alien from the normal people you know from behind the camera. What I’m trying to say (and pardon me for rehashing basic film theory) is that film viewing is subjecting yourself to an illusion: in the back of your mind you know that what you’re viewing isn’t real yet you ignore those facts for the time that you sit in front of the film and take it all in, and being a part of a film crew turns the tables for you are now the one creating the illusion. It’s empowering, in a way.

Or maybe the surreality is just a result of the 12-plus-hour days on the set and a lack of sleep…

More information can be found at these links for GEARS and UWM’s Production Club.


Poster: Rian Johnson’s “Brick”

I’ll start out with both an apology and a warning.  I apologize for leaving you, dear readers, at the end of August.  Adjusting to the college and dorm life has been time-consuming and a bit tiresome.  So, here’s a blog post for you to enjoy, but here’s the warning: It’s just some artwork with a description–nothing too intricate.  Come back later for some of that.

Anyway, I was bored and decided to take a stab at creating my first minimalist movie poster.  The goal of making a minimalist movie poster is to choose one particular aspect or detail of a movie and to make that the main focus of the poster’s design.  It is also rather simplistic in nature and doesn’t normally involve complex structure or other imagery.  You can look here for examples.  I chose to make a poster for one of my all-time favorite film’s, Rian Johnson’s 2006 neo-noir Brick.  It follows a high schooler named Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he investigates the murder of his ex-girlfriend.  What he doesn’t realize is just how high up this mystery leads into the social strata of high school, and what involvement the mysterious neighborhood drug king, The Pin (Lukas Haas), and seductive cheerleader, Laura (Nora Zehetner), have in the case.

So, for your pleasure, here is a poster highlighting a couple important details from the film.  I’m not going to tell you what the details mean, though–for that, you’ll have to watch the film yourself.  But you should watch it anyway; it’s well worth it.


A Look at Stylized Flicks, Genre Films, and B Movies.

The other day I finally got around to seeing Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It was sitting on my “To-See List” for too long so I decided to sit down and watch it. It was quite an experience, simply put. The story, which is based off of a series of comic books by Bryan Lee O’Malley, follows a 22-year-old slacker/loser by the name of Scott Pilgrim (played by Michael Cera) as he endures the hardships of young adult love in Toronto. He eventually meets the love of his life, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but quickly finds out that if he is to be with her he must defeat her jealous and violent Seven Evil Exes. The geeky nerd in me got a kick out of the story’s format, which plays like some sugar-hyped hybridization of a comic book and a classic arcade game. You can never look away, because there’s always something so visually stunning that it’s like a roundhouse kick to your eyes.

Unfortunately, that’s all the film really has going for it. Some of the dialogue is eclectic enough to keep you entertained and some of the characters are humourous, but the story seems rather patched together and the characters are very one-dimensional. But, in a world where everything plays like a comic book/videogame is that okay? Does anything have to make sense? In this case, does style trump basic storytelling?

This is difficult to address. As suggested in my previous posts, I value character development and solid storytelling above much else. However, I still enjoyed Scott Pilgrim even though it was rather lacking in these qualities. I don’t know if this makes me a hypocrite, or if I can just appreciate the execution of style.

In fact, lots of movies tend to rely on their style for support, and that isn’t necessarily bad. Just look at genre films: they rely heavily on particular tropes to set the mood and convey their story. (That’s not to say that all stylized films are genre films, but it’s a considerable portion.)

For example: Films that fall under the category of noir all tend to utilize lighting to set the mood of mystery with shadows and the contrast between dark and light, good and evil. Their stories follow the same basic set-up: a lone protagonist who’s been jaded by life, a femme fatale who gets in the way of his crime-solving, and other supporting characters who tend to be one-sided yet help the protagonist with clues that lead up to him solving his case. The plot is detailed but the characters aren’t, yet the dark setting helps keep the viewers intrigued.

This brings me to a new discussion point: B movies. Generally speaking, they’re low-budget films with little publicity and commercial tastes. They usually don’t have big stars in them, yet they’re not considered “artsy” enough to fall into the category of a serious independent feature. More recently, the terms has been used to describe multiple types of genre films and even exploitation films. These, too, tend to focus more on their style than anything else.

Many people associate B movies with bad tastes, but that is not always the case. Just look at films like Primer and π, whose films have gone deep into their subjects of time travel and math/numerology, respectively. They were made on very small budgets, had at the time no-name actors or directors, and used many techniques such as lighting and music to set their offbeat, chaotic moods. They weren’t trying to be very artsy, but just immersed in their science fiction.

That isn’t to say that all B movies are what we might consider “good”. In fact, some are terrifically bad (Plan 9 From Outer Space, anyone?).

But their being bad isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They don’t aim high to begin with, and they don’t expect you to expect much of them. They’re the kind of films where you can sit back and say: “This is so stupid, it’s funny.” A. O. Scott of the New York Times described them as “…the cheesy, campy guilty pleasures”, yet fears that “those cherished bad movies” are nearly a thing of the past. In a 2005 article he noticed how what used to be considered B movie material is now moving into the A-list arena, describing the process as how “…the schlock of the past has evolved into star-driven, heavily publicized, expensive mediocrities”. Is it bad that genre films and B movies are getting more mainstream attention now? No, but it is annoying to see all that money wasted on films that focus in on the negative aspects of B movies instead of the positive. It’d be nice if those two categories stayed a bit more separate, instead of having the A- and B-movie lines extremely blurred.

In conclusion, stylized, genre, and B movies are vital aspects of cinema. They are meant to fulfill a simple purpose, whether that is to keep you visually/thematically entertained or give you cheesy enjoyment. And if that purpose is served, it’s a success.


Movies That Make Me Laugh

Hello, fellow readers. I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus, so I thought I’d start up again with an easy piece.

People who are well-acquainted with me know that I have a very particular taste when it comes to comedy. Even I can’t always describe it that well, much less at least assume which films will make me laugh. This leaves me with very few comedies that I actually find funny, and even fewer that I continue to laugh at after multiple viewings. Those few that do make me laugh time and time again, though, are cherished additions to my film collection, and thus worthy of sharing. The following have been attempted to be placed in an ascending order of favoritism.

10. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Pure, quality, and hysterical British comedy at its finest. When I first saw it in eighth grade or so, I didn’t know what to expect. I left amazed at how crazy it was. It was a different form of comedy than what I was used to seeing at the time, one that seems to dabble in parody without becoming bogged down with the cheapness of it. This was also my introduction to British humor, and it didn’t make a bad impression at all.

9. Burn After Reading (2008)

The first time I saw this I was at a party with a bunch of friends. I was laughing my ass off at the movie. My friends weren’t. They complained that they didn’t understand what was going on or what the main idea behind the film was. It’s simple, really: all of the major characters are selfish and a bit stupid and through their greed/stupidity their lives become a bit worse off than they were at the beginning. Plus, there’s a good chemistry between all of the leads that when placed in the story’s whacky situations and with the Coen Brothers’ excellent dialogue, it’s a joy to watch it play out. I don’t see how one couldn’t like it.

8. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

This is more or less on here because this was probably the first Will Ferrell movie I saw and it made an impression on me before I could find out that he plays the same character in every other one of his movies. The comedic timing and delivery in this film was spot-on, which is what keeps me laughing every time I view it.

7. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The only Apatow-directed movie I’ve seen, and that may or may not be a good thing. With Apatow’s movies (and I’m counting the ones he produced with this description), it’s very hit or miss. His style of humor seems to take the traditional vulgar comedy routines and put a certain sort of charm, if you will, on them–sort of like a refresh. Sometimes this works, sometimes it’s just mediocre. This one works, particularly because of Steve Carell’s terrific performance as the friendly-yet-socially-awkward Andy Stitzer and the great dialogue that he’s given. That, and the decent supporting cast of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco basically set this film up for non-stop laughs. Apatow had a good directorial debut with this–and can’t much speak for the two films he succeeded this with.

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6. The Simpsons Movie (2007)

As Homer points out at the beginning of the film, who would want to see a movie in the theater that everybody could see on television for free? Apparently many people did. The Simpsons have always been a source for sharp, witty satire, but their style is to blend that with parody and that combination is usually successful only in half-hour fragments. Even though this film seems like the combination of three or four individual episodes with a basic plot to hold them together, it never starts to become trivial. The jokes retain their quality and stay pretty fresh. Predictable? Sometimes,but boring? Never.

5. Kick-Ass (2010)

Ultra-violence, comic book references, and geek humor? Sign me up! It’s not really a comedy, but Dave Lizewski’s (played by Aaron Johnson) dialogue and narration both as himself and his superhero alter-ego Kick-Ass is at times awkward to the point of being comic gold. Add his friends and the mysterious and violent superheroes Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage channeling Adam West) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and you’ve got a perfect laugh-cringe flick.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)

I thought this would be higher (even though this is a stoner film, no pun intended), but there were too many other ones to still fit in the list. However, this cult classic has it all: witty dialogue, terrific characterization, and wacky situations that are handled once again with perfect comedic timing by the Coen brothers. Plus, bowling never seemed so trippy before. This film, Dude, definitely abides with me.

The Dude and his companions.

3. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

What do you get when you have three dumb but good-intentioned escaped convicts trudging their way through the 1930s South and involving themselves with all sorts of tom foolery? A great comedy. It basically has everything that the previous Coen brothers films have that make it so great, but this was the first of their films that I ever saw, so it left a special imprint on my film tastes.

2. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Not only is this one of my favorite comedies but it’s also one of my all-time favorite films. It’s a perfect blend of laughs and mystery, a comedy with a neo-noir twist. Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer have great chemistry as a East Coaster out of his comfort zone and a hard-as-nails and gay private detective, respectively, as they try to solve a case of murder and deceit in Tinseltown. Not only that, but this benefits from Shane Black’s sharp writing and terrific direction when handling this cross-genre flick. He knows how to get you to laugh even in the darkest and worst situations. And for that I applaud him.

1. Pineapple Express (2008)

I know, you’re probably thinking: “Seriously? This guy chose this film to top his list, and nothing that would be considered more or less a classic?” And my answer to that is a solid YES. You don’t have to be high to appreciate this great comedy. This Apatow-produced film centers on bromances, and though there are only two main ones–Seth Rogen and James Franco (and later Danny McBride), and Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan–they are terrifically acted out that it makes it not only convincing that these guys are best buds but that they are also true and sometimes dumb stoners. The action is choreographed and the dialogue is written so perfectly and hysterically that you cannot not watch this film and have a smile creep across your face. This film picks me up and makes me laugh no matter what mood I’m in. This film is the bee’s knees, man, and that’s why I place it as my favorite comedy of all time.


Animation Test.

I threw together a test animation over the past few days. It’s not very long and it’s not even that good of quality, but it did put into perspective how much time I’ll have to set aside for animated projects.

For your viewing pleasure:

Like the video description says on its YouTube page, I use the software Pencil to animate and Audacity for sounds. I also use the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet to draw my animations–a low-end but affordable tablet for simple projects like this.

Hopefully this was enough to help kick-start my filmmaking once more. I have some time before I head off to school, so expect to see a project or two before then.


Escapism Through Sequels: Substance May or May Not Be Included

Updated: 08/13/2011 (slightly edited for grammar)

After writing my previous post, my attention was directed at an interesting opposite viewpoint.

The m0vie blog thinks that film buffs’ criticisms at Hollywood’s overabundance of sequels is low. He admits that not all sequels are good, but says neither are many originals either. He thinks it’s unfair for moviegoers to immediately judge movies based on their sequel status. He also says it’s bad to label original movies “good” by default. (Sturgeon’s Law is brought up to validate his point.)

I have to concede to his argument to some degree. Yes, there are many creative and original movies that are crap. And yes, we do tend to forget those original movies that were crap. Why? Because they weren’t worth remembering and odds are nothing new will come of them.

The blogger also states that it’s unfair to claim that independent films are better. Yes, sometimes independent films can be too esoteric for their own good. Yes, sometimes they can be too artsy for anyone to relate to and enjoy. And yes, sometimes there are studio films that are better than the indie ones. But he’s forgetting the problem with sequels: familiarity.

It’s the studios that are hitting low here. They’re dishing out multiple sequels and bad adaptations because of audience familiarity. They assume that moviegoers will think: “Hey, I know those characters!” “Isn’t it fun to see them in a movie?” This allows the studios to cheaply throw something together in favor of recognition than creativity. And it’s a practice that’s becoming rather upsetting.

When a movie is good, it leaves us with an everlasting effect. We as viewers enjoy the characters and script, as they contained a human element. The characters were more than one-dimensional and the story was strong and worth following. Those elements made the film feel genuine and thus provided a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. Thus, we expect any sequels to this film to live up to the original’s grandeur.

But when studios release many of these sequels, it’s offensive to the original film’s legacy. Characters become cardboard cut-outs as action sequences and special effects become the movie stars. Plots simply become maps for the new stars. Actors and other filmmakers behind the scenes are simply names to help in advertising. We might recognize the name of a character, but everything else has changed. It is no longer the film we knew and loved.

The fact that studio heads believe that moviegoers like this cheap garbage is infuriating. Whatever happened to escapism with substance? Why does originality and creativity have to be discarded after a series’ first entry? At times it seems as if that’s all we’re being served. And the studios are serving it with the attitude of: “It’s all that’s available. Take it or leave it.” And that mindset is starting to grow old.