Friday, March 30, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES....Action and Character can coexist.

I have always stayed away from dystopian novels and films. Only a few have really intrigued me. On film, Ray Bradbury's fantasy FARENHEIT 451 received a somber but effective treatment from French director Francois Truffaut. In a future world firemen don't put out fires, they burn books. One scene stays with us. A woman's library is burned and she steps into the conflagration raising her hands to the heavens and becomes a martyr for reading. P.D. James' CHILDREN OF MEN pictured a future where there would be no more births. The film version by director Alfonso Cuaron is one of the great dystopian films, a riveting suspenseful story that ends with hope for the human race.

When Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY exploded on the young adult novel scene in 2008 it became a sensation just as the TWILIGHT phenomenon began to ebb. When I read a plot summary, I was horrified that a teen novel had a premise that was sadistic and violent. However, when I finally read the first novel recently on my daughter's kindle, I changed my mind. It had ideas, a strong plot, and something really unusual--a strong feminine leading character who is both vulnerable but also able to "kick ass," as the target audience might say.

And naturally I went to see the highly anticipated film version, which far exceeded my expectations. Director Gary Ross has cleverly reduced the actual violence through fast cutting and quick shots of the victims. He has earned his PG-13 rating, a necessity for the teen audience, and he has lost very little of the novel's drive. As most of the world knows, THE HUNGER GAMES tells the story of a dystopian future in which the repressive government holds a yearly competition pitting 24 young people between 12 and 18 in a violent game in which only one survives. The first half of the film is an emotional roller coaster in which the heroine Katniss Everdeen volunteers when her 12 year old sister is chosen by lot. Soon she and the male tribute Peeta Mellark are whisked to The Capital, where they are prepared for the the hunger games. The Capital has an eerie set design, recalling other fantasy films, especially THE WIZARD OF OZ's dazzling Emerald City. Oddly the sets and people in the Capital are bizarrely off kilter, emphasizing a society that lives only for pleasure.

The 24 tributes are groomed, beautifed, and presented to the public to gain support for their efforts. This scene looks back to Roman games and men and animals fighting to the death for the amusement of the people. And it seems influenced by reality tv shows like SURVIVOR and BIG BROTHER, where public embarrassment seems the lure. There is also a whiff of LORD OF THE FLIES, especially as the youngsters hunt and kill each other. The second half of THE HUNGER GAMES plunges the tributes into the wild (played beautifully by nature in North Carolina). Almost immediately 8 tributes are slaughtered, and Katniss must fend for herself, something she knows how to do since she is from District 12, which used to be Appalachia. And here, to avoid spoiling the rest of the film, I must stop.

Jennifer Lawrence, who won a Best Actress Nomination for the Appalachian drama WINTER BONE, gives Katniss a fierce, determined grace. Her best scenes are in the wilderness as she fights to survive and save the wounded Peeta. What seems most important in THE HUNGER GAMES is that for once we don't define a hero as male. Katniss Everdeen is a hero for all seasons...well, at least until the last film of the series is shown.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I never thought I could warm up to Sarah Palin and I never wanted to. But HBO's new film GAME CHANGE has softened me up a bit. People expected this to be a cutthroat attack emphasizing all her mistakes, her accent, and the constant comedic satires, especially from Saturday Night Live. All of these elements are here; they have to be because they occurred and were viral through out the campaign.

GAME CHANGE begins with John McCain ( Ed Harris) and his chief political advisor (Woody Harrelson) desperately trying to find a "game change" candidate for the GOP ticket. After eliminating almost every possibility, they pick Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), the Governor of Alaska. Who? Where? We follow a totally inadequate five day vetting in which the small team is snowed by Palin's in your face charm and lifestyle. Somehow no one asks about policy...any policy.

The major part of the film deals with the education of Sarah Palin. Not the re-education, but Education. After her famous interview with Katie Couric, her team is determined to teach her foreign policy, and all the rest. Meanwhile Palin has struck a chord with a vast swath of similarly uneducated supporters, which she calls "her people." (I readily admit a certain bias in the last description) And she begins to get heat from comedians on late night and especially Tina Fey's dead-on impersonations on Saturday Night Live.

All this pressure finally leads Palin to a complete shutdown a week before the vice presidential debate. Her advisors take away her hundreds of note cards and have her memorize 25 policy statements. This works, and her popularity rises, causing her to make erroneous statements that embarrass McCain.

The writing, the use of actual footage from the campaign, and the intensity of trying to combat a force of history (a black president) are all viable forces in GAME CHANGE. But the acting is on a par with almost any Best Picture candidate around. Harrelson is amazingly real as the political advisor. Reading his facial reactions from hope to disbelief to despair sums up the worst in a political campaign. Ed Harris, one of our finest actors(THE RIGHT STUFF, POLLOCK) makes a sympathetic McCain, a man who wants to be honorable in a sometimes dirty game. Julianne Moore (THE HOURS, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT), cleverly tones down Palin's eccentricities and emphasizes her growing recognition of what politics can do a person and a family. The close-ups on Palin's face as she watches the SNL parody of the Couric interview reveal her pride and her painful disappointment.

GAME CHANGE is a much finer political film than most, including NIXON, TRUMAN, or JFK because it takes itself seriously without giving in to cheap shots.

Monday, March 12, 2012

This time no movies...instead Books

One of the best perks of retirement is the time we have to sit down and read a good book. As a teacher, I find I'm no longer too tired to read. All those papers, required readings, tests, meetings, bells kept me from reading my favorite fiction, old and new. So here are some of the best novels I've read in the last year.

1. STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett tells the story of American-Indian female research scientist Marina Singh who travels into the deeps of the Amazon to find her supervisor who has not returned. The drug company they work for is attempting to find a plant that will enable them to create a fertility drug for women into their seventies. From the frozen winter of Minnesota, Maria is enveloped in eternal summer with its bugs, flowers, rain storms, and some suspicious people with dark secrets. Patchett, who gave us one of the finest novels in BEL CANTO, manages to echo Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS and still be original and relevant.

2. THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach is a highly readable novel about baseball, growing up, secrets in Academia, Melville and lots more. Who would have dreamed a novel about the world's slowest game could be so fresh and entertaining as well as so thoughtful? This one is!

3. THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenidies follows the romantic highs and lows of three college students, all of whom are beautifully developed by the author. The lovely heroine Madeleine Hanna is a bright Brown English major who loves 19th century fiction and the "marriage plot," which depicts the women who know they are superior to their male counterparts but wind up marrying them. As she graduates she chooses the man she is obsessed with but knows little about. What follows is a difficult journey for Madeleine who gives up almost everything for love, while Mitchell, the more prosaic but more truly devoted suitor runs off to India to find himself. The descriptions of these jouneys and their endings offer a truly wise and fascinating portrait of growing up through experience.

4. THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern features a magical traveling circus that that travels the world arriving unannounced and leaving without a trace. The circus Le Cirque des Reves is no ordinary circus. It offers "ethereal enigmas" like a fire-breathing dragon and a garden of ice with magnificent blooms. Two great magicians pit their young proteges against each other without their knowing. Naturally they fall in love, and the suspense and wonder builds to a smashing climax. Can't wait for the movie!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The recent outrage caused by Rush Limbaugh involved his incredibly stupid, totally misogynistic, and cruel attack on Sandra Fluke, a young woman who testified before an unofficial hearing about contraception and who should pay for it. Miss Fluke, a Georgetown student, said that she represented the women of Georgetown (a Jesuit school). She said also the school does not offer compensation for contraception. Rush jumped to the bait and accused Fluke of being a "slut," "a prostitue," who wants "to be paid to have sex." He also accused her of having so much sex that we the people would be paying for it. According the shock jock, Fluke should "post videos so we can all watch." He extended his tirade for several days and finally offered two tepid apologies that blamed his poor choice of words, not the hatred behind them. First, the school nor the tax payer will not being a cent. It's up to the insurance companies, and, if Obama Care stays on the books, the government and tax payers stand to benefit. Naturally, Rus is trying to stir hot issues among far right Republicans--abortion, gay marriage, taxes, health care, and contraception.

This may be the core of the problem. Rush Limbaugh is only the nastiest symptom of a national disease (one which he fostered and supports), hatred for any person or group with whom you disagree. The battle for civility seems almost impossibe. Turn the other cheek? The millions who listen to Limbaugh on his 600 radio affiliates want to hear such narrow-minded filth. What has happened to our country?

The responses from the GOP candidates were weak and frightened, as if wishing to say more but lacking the guts to do so. And this brings us to
last Sunday's Fareed Zakaria political program The The Global Public Square. His first guest was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter's
Advisor on National Security Affairs and a man of reason and statesmanship.
Not only did he criticize the GOP primary candidates he also considered them a disgrace to the process. He stated what many feel: "They are embarrassing to our political system" America will choose its President in November. Let us hope for civility and an end to hatred, but let us be ready to fight.