Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

     Sometimes when I want to mix things up a bit, I take a more casual approach rather than trying to sound academic. This time I'm really mixing things up with my review after my recent viewing of The Hunger Games. And once again, I haven't read the books, so let's move on. So you don't misinterpret my thoughts, know that I rather enjoyed it. Whether or not it was worth all the hype is another matter, but it was a good movie. It spends a great deal of time building up to the actual Hunger Games event, and then spends the rest of the time covering the details of that event. The movie seems to be almost equal parts rising action and main action, with a some overlapping teen drama and social commentary.

     As far as the social commentary goes, the story takes a harsh jab at reality TV. Although it's true that so far The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, and Survivor have not had anyone butchered onscreen, the desensitization shown by the citizens of Panem is not as unrealistic as we might like to think. The Hunger Games shows a future world where the citizens of outerlying districts are selected at random to participate in the annual Hunger Games and outlast one another, all for the entertainment of the flamboyant and ridiculously opulent citizens of Capitol. Like reality TV, much of the action is rigged and manipulated by the broadcasters. The original purpose of the games was a reminder of the penalty of rebellion, but over time the Capitol citizens decided they enjoyed it so much that the games continue every year with no real purpose other than savage enjoyment in the carnage and dehumanization of the young people from the outlying districts.

     Observe that there is a slice of teen drama incorporated into this story. Unfortunately, Katniss and Peeta lack convincing chemistry and the immaturity of their relationship clashes with the circumstances in which they are thrown together. In other words, you are in the middle of a fight to the death! This is no time to think about a crush! I'm not against love stories, really. But a logical question here seems to be "what? ... now?!" The pair goes from having a teenage crush to making a suicide pact together. Sorry, but no. And then to find out that Katniss is mostly just playing to the camera and by extension playing Peeta, this brings me to my prediction for the next movie:

     All in all, The Hunger Games is enjoyable. Storywise it is a road less traveled by, at least until that inevitable teen drama kicks in. There are plenty of intense moments that keep the story moving, and the movie does a respectable job of making Panem look familiar enough to be figuratively tangible. Handheld camera was a bold choice for this kind of piece, but it works well as it keeps the action chaotic enough that it stays relatively bloodless while still seeming grisly in its PG-13 kind of way. I would recommend The Hunger Games as a popcorn flick, even if I am a little skeptical about the direction of the story from here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Man Who was Batman

This is the third installment of my Dark Knight Rises analyses.

     When Batman Begins debuted, it was clear that Bruce was going to be a different kind of hero. His motivation began as a personal quest to ease his own emotional pain, but those reasons gradually became greater and larger than himself. In The Dark Knight, Bruce was shown to be at the top of his game as Gotham's savior, having met his legendary foe the Joker, and pushing the limits of technology and physical strength further than they had ever been before. Bruce battled with how far he would go before crossing the line into becoming a villain himself, often barely different in his methods and approaches. By the time the film wrapped, he allowed a villain to be hailed a hero, and took the blame for all the man's misdeeds himself. In essence, Bruce chose to become in name what he stood against in his heart. Eight years later, Bruce is weary, physically weaker, heartbroken, and considerably less resolved to be Gotham's hope. Bruce is now a has-been hero, no longer jumping from buildings and leaping from aircraft, but a recluse; shut-up in the confines of his manor with only Alfred for consolation. 

     Batman Begins is a perfect origin story. Bruce is seen as a child, a college student, and finally a man. He grows from one stage to the next and through his experiences determines to become the Bat Man in order to take Gotham back from the corrupt powers that have overrun it. In a city so bad that there is no higher power to appeal to, Bruce dared to stand alone against the tide of evil and corruption, using his billionaire funds to equip himself to be mysterious, powerful, swift, and terrifying to those who stood in his way. Everything from Bruce's martial arts training to his fancy toys were accounted for and explained in Batman Begins

     As a sequel, The Dark Knight stands as one of the greatest sequels ever made. Where Rhas Al Ghul challenged Batman's definition of justice, the Joker tested Batman's limits. Bruce was once a young idealist who refused to become an executioner, but how long could he hold to that? Deeper still, what is the true difference between a hero and a villain, and how far can a hero go before he becomes a villain? Even Bruce couldn't answer this one, but he found out the answer before fleeing into darkness for eight years. Now as a worn out, discouraged, and seeming failure of a hero, the question is whether or not Bruce will rise again and come to Gotham's rescue one last time.

    The Dark Knight Rises is first and foremost, a tale on perseverance. Bruce is not what he used to be and even his faithful Alfred declares "You're not Batman anymore!" Bruce knows it. He grapples with whether or not it is time to don the cape again, even though he doubts that Batman even exists anymore. Physically, Batman is no match for Bane, and Bruce is for the first time, struggling financially. But somewhere between all of this, Bruce realizes that not only is he still the most able to save Gotham, he is the only one who can. The question then becomes, will he? The city that demonized him now cries out for his aide, while the only person that he truly cares about is telling him that he can't. Will he lose everything or sacrifice it? And will any of it really make any difference?

     Gotham City is exactly the type of place that seems doomed to continue attracting the world’s most maniacal breeds of Fausts and Mephistopheles for the rest of time, which raises the question as to why Batman/Bruce would go to such great lengths to save it. As previously mentioned, The Dark Knight Rises is a tale on perseverance. It is a story of plodding onwards in the face of truly overwhelming odds with only the tiniest glimmer of hope that any victory is even remotely possible. Bruce lies in a pit with a broken back, watching news reports of Gotham rip itself apart, yet he musters the courage to crawl out and rise to Gotham’s aide. Why? Because it is the right thing to do, and it is the hill he has chosen to die on, figuratively speaking. Gotham will not stay saved forever, but Bruce still rises from his fallen and broken state to give the last that he can before leaving Batman behind.

     When Bruce first became Batman, he knew the workings of a criminal mind and the complexities of the not-so-simple nature of right and wrong, yet he was still something of an idealist. His vision was that his example as a symbol of justice would inspire others to fight back, and that eventually a legion would rise to restore Gotham. With very few allies, it seemed a one-sided battle for many years, and when white knight Harvey Dent turned two-faced, the battle seemed to be losing. Now in the final showdown, the conflict demands that this be the end of Batman. But before Bruce leaves Batman behind forever, he chooses a successor who is everything that Bruce used to be, and more. Gotham will still need saving, but Bruce’s time has passed. So young Detective Blake is chosen to be Gotham’s next savior. Like Bruce, he graduated from the school of hard knocks, but unlike Bruce, he is untainted by it. Blake has a heart of compassion and purity that Bruce no longer has, if he ever did, and Bruce recognizes that it is time to pass the mantle off to someone who is still good, and willing to give as much as Bruce did to the cause.

   Batman Begins was the start of the story, The Dark Knight was the climax for Batman, and The Dark Knight Rises seems to be the climax for Gotham, and the epilogue of the Batman tales. Bruce has been challenged in his notions of justice and his motives for becoming the Bat Man. He has tested his moral and ethical limits and his emotional strength. He has been forced to ask himself how far he can go before it is too far. Now he has learned endurance. The Batman trilogy of movies do not necessarily seek to dictate whether or not Bruce passes these tests, but to posit that rather than doing the best that he could; he did what was necessary.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

   This is the year of fairy tales. This trend will probably bleed over into 2013 as well, but as it stands at the moment, Snow White and the Huntsman is the second movie this year based on the classic fable, not counting small-screen attempts. This is going to be moderate in length and not particularly academic in tone, because I really just don't feel like thinking about it too much. So you've been warned: I’m not mincing words here, I’m just going for it and typing as it comes to me.

     First things first so that you can stop reading now if you disagree, Kristen Stewart is simply a dreadful actress. While the role of Snow White has historically not been a demanding one, Stewart seems to do little more than breathe heavily, the entire film. It must also be noted that during these intervals of dramatized inhaling and exhaling, she continually hangs her mouth open, which is apparently her only facial expression. Throughout the film she turns foe to friend by gazing lazily at them and breathing deeply. Most of the movie she looks on the brink of tears, but there is absolutely no development to her character to justify it. As the leading character, she is grossly flat. She has very little depth or personality at all. After she spends the first two thirds of the movie trembling, it seems stupid that when she wakes up after the inevitable apple incident, that she would be ready to ride into battle (which raises another inconsistency, but a flaw in writing rather than acting, so I’ll save it for later).

    The good news is, there are good actors in Snow White and the Huntsman, but it doesn't seem to help much. This is by no means the finest of Charlize Theron, but nor is it her worst. She adds an interesting dimension to her depravity in this retelling of the evil queen by rounding up young women to feed upon, or ravenously tearing into the ravens that surround her and eating out their hearts. There is also a slight insinuation that her relationship with her disgusting brother may be…well, unusual. She does not seem to really care much for him other than his ability to do her dirty work for her sometimes and play to her vanity, so her coldness is thoroughly constant.

    The huntsman is never given a name in the film, so he is referred to throughout simply as “Huntsman.” This might have been an intriguing turn for Chris Hemsworth, but he spends most of the film in a drunken fog. What is most disappointing is that the huntsman had potential to be a very interesting character, and could have been much more developed as the protector or bodyguard. The one little nugget we learn from his past is just enough to make his alliance with Snow White plausible, but not altogether entirely understandable. Not that it matters—he brings a bit to the story, but could have done much more so with a tad more development and maybe a smidgeon more mystery. It does not really matter to me one way or the other whether or not the huntsman is a love interest, but it would have been exciting to wonder just a little bit longer how trustworthy he really is. As a matter of interest, there are plans to make a spinoff movie about the huntsman, which might prove my point.

    Naturally, the best actors to this piece are given the smallest amount of screen time. The troupe of dwarves boasts some very familiar faces, but they feature only slightly in the story, which is unfortunate because the chemistry among them seems that it would be both entertaining and relatable with a little more time given to them. Between Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, and the rest of the  dwarves, there seems to be a true sense of bickering brotherhood, like a band of rogue has-been knights. Their presence brings a little buoyancy to a mood weighed down with labored line-delivery by everyone else. And sadly, even this merry band can't save this movie.  

    The setting of Snow White and the Huntsman is appropriate to the tone of the story, and the artistic direction of the visuals excellently drive the mood-- dark and dull. When the credits rolled, I was actually waiting to see if Guillermo Del Torro did any sort of consulting on the project, as the creatures and sets seemed to echo the style of Pan’s Labyrinth, which can only be a good thing. And to its credit, the movie doesn’t overuse these touches, but integrates them strategically into the world of the story.  Other than these mystical little features, the movie’s portrayal of Snow White’s world is bleak, wet, and dark, which fits.

    I will admit that this retelling of Snow White is unique, but not in the way that it needed to be. Unfortunately, Snow White falls into a series of traps that run it through with dangling plot trails and clichés. For example, Snow White starts out in the customary manner with her on the run in the haunted woods, but then enters into the completely unnecessary Act Three, involving a “chosen one” twist and the girl miraculously springing battle skills when minutes before she was afraid to even touch a knife. It felt like the finale of Alice in Wonderland all over again. Speaking of unnecessary, the tribe of Amazon-like women might have been an interesting plot point, but once again feels gratuitous due to the lack of development. The whole bit with Snow White being the savior and the one who can break the power of Ravena’s magic is just a little too convenient.

    All in all, Snow White and the Huntsman falls into the category of mediocre at best. The story begins ambitiously, and then gets lazy and takes the easy way out by going the cliché route. I’m not saying that every story needs a love story, but it might have legitimately helped this one. A little rivalry between the huntsman and the prince could have brought some much needed audience-connection to the story. Perhaps a little more of the delightful band of dwarves would have brought a few more characters worth caring about to the forefront. And let's be honest-- the studio didn't want to make a movie about Snow White; they wanted to find somewhere to use Kristen Stewart while her Twilight appeal was still bringing in money from those unfortunate folks who care about that particular series. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

the Gotham Revolution

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” 

The above quote appears in a completely unrelated trilogy of films that have absolutely nothing to do with Batman, but the description could easily and accurately describe Gotham City. Each Batman film has faithfully portrayed Gotham City as a hub of corruption, darkness, and crime. The depravity of Gotham is so thorough that Bruce Wayne’s mission to save the city seems nothing less than complete absurdity.

In order to really accept Gotham as a setting, Gotham must be viewed as a sort of hypothetical Rome in which the state of the city indicates the state of its empire. Like Rome, Gotham is the center of its world, and therefore when things go wrong in Gotham (such as mass hysteria or anarchist government overthrows), there is really no higher power to appeal to. As a viewer watching The Dark Knight Rises for example, it is clear that Gotham represents the entirety of Bruce’s world, and any setting depicted outside of Gotham is on another continent, and therefore outside Batman’s realm of influence (with the exception of the abduction in The Dark Knight). Also like Rome, Gotham City has world significance. It is a center of trade and commerce, drawing companies and corporations from around the globe.

The conflict of The Dark Knight Rises reflects multiple parallels to the French Revolution, so much so that I can’t help but be slightly impressed by this bold interpretation on the part of the writers. Although the French Revolution did not have a particular revolutionary to credit with its launch like Bane in Gotham City, both the French and lesser classes of Gotham target the wealthy upper class. Looking at Gotham as a fictional and futuristic Paris, the same motives seem to apply. Selina Kyle whispers threateningly into Bruce’s ear “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Soon after, the “aristocrats” of Gotham (the politicians, company owners, and tycoons) are violently targeted and attacked.

Many accounts of trials during the French Revolution reported mock-trials in which the accused aristocrats were brought before a biased judge and jury to be scornfully tried. Once the accused were inevitably found guilty, the only thing that remained was to await their appointment with madam guillotine. Similarly, the fallen Gotham creates a mock-court, led by former nemesis Dr. Crane/Scarecrow setting himself up as Citizen Robespierre. Crane’s flippant and derisive attitude perfectly communicate how the purpose of the trials are to parody legal proceedings and deal out justice to those who have lived well while most of Gotham struggled.

Those found guilty as charged do not face the guillotine, but an equally certain sentence of death. Crane offers most of the accused a choice of death or exile. Those who choose exile are pushed onto thin ice and forced to walk out on it until the ice yields, resulting in death by drowning or hypothermia. Furthermore it does not take a historian to recognize the mass breakout from Arkham asylum as bearing close resemblance to the storming of the Bastille.

After all the organized crime, disorganized crime, and criminal incidents that Gotham has hosted, a full-scale anarchist overthrow really shouldn’t be too big of a surprise. Gotham seems to be the breeding ground of criminals and corrupt powers on all levels, or at the very least the culminating point for them all. It would stand to reason then, that Batman is wearied by his schemes to weed out these poisonous influences. Unfortunately, Batman and the rest of the good guys are vastly outnumbered. Gotham is a place of corruption, darkness, and danger. The city is a squalid poison that grows ever more venomous, entrenching even noble hearts with the best of intentions in the filth of its depravity.

The pulse of the city clearly reflects the hearts of the people. Gotham is in deep trouble. This is not a place you want to live if you can possibly help it, but the perspective of the Batman movies do not offer a real alternative within the pseudo- United States. Certainly the wealthy of Gotham have the arts and high life to enjoy, but as The Dark Knight Rises reveals, that lifestyle comes at a high price. Gotham is its own world, and it is not a pretty one.