Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Hunger Games

Rare indeed are the times I would go to watch a blockbuster film release, aimed at the teenage demographic, on opening day. Rarer still are the number of times I have watched a film surrounded by an audience less than one-third my age (usually I’m among the younger folks in attendance at the kind of films I watch). I didn’t plan to see this film on opening day (or on any subsequent day). I knew nothing about the book it’s based on or the film itself except that it was called a sci-fi (and I’m a sci-fi buff) and starred Jennifer Lawrence, who had blown me away with her performance in Winter’s Bone and whom I had identified as a major up-and-comer (looks like I was right). But I was in the neighbourhood and needed to kill a couple of hours and it was the only film playing that I was willing to pay $10 to see.

The Hunger Games is actually two films. The first half sets up the games, the second half is the games. Not surprisingly, I found the first half much more intriguing. It shows us a world where twelve districts are reminded of their attempt at revolution against the Capitol by annual games which require a teenage girl and boy chosen randomly from each district (a total of 24) to fight until there is only one survivor. The second half shows us how far this world will go to provide the kind of entertainment the TV producers think people want to see, with 24 teenagers fighting to death in a huge outdoor (or is it?) arena full of hidden cameras. This all reminded me, of course, of The Truman Show as well as a couple of Stephen King novellas (The Long Walk and The Running Man).

So was The Hunger Games worth $10 and 142 minutes of my time? The short answer is yes, but there are a lot of qualifiers. Let’s start with the bad news. Hand-held shaky camera work is not my thing (as you know). The sci-fi is lightweight at best and silly at worst, depicting a strange world that is remarkably inconsistent. But by far the worst news is all the wasted potential for thoughtful political and social satire. The insane entertainment industry (news, reality TV), the corrupt political system, the plight of the poor and the absurdity of violence are all subtly exposed, but none of it goes anywhere. It just stays in the background, where only those who want to discuss the film will look for it. As a result, the overall plot is very thin, characters don’t discuss what they should and the last half of the film is generally unsatisfying.

The good news? Jennifer Lawrence, perfectly cast, IS The Hunger Games and she does not disappoint. The score by James Newton Howard is more than acceptable. There are moments when the odd futuristic world captured my attention. AND the violence is almost always ugly, making the teenagers around me cringe. That is as it should be. When the heroine is forced to kill one of the ‘baddies’, I heard groans around me instead of cheering or sighs of satisfaction and relief, as if my fellow viewers were upset that she was forced to kill. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but at no point in the film did I sense any appreciation for the violence depicted. That is impressive and worth praise, though in the end the myth of redemptive violence always wins out.

I did find myself enjoying much of The Hunger Games and stayed engaged throughout, so I will give it a solid ***. My mug is up, but the contents could have been ever so much tastier.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A Separation

Another powerful and excellent film from Iran, this one from writer/director Asghar Farhadi, A Separation tells the story of a few traumatic days in the life of an urban middle-class Iranian family. The wife/mother (Simin, played by Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country and just spent six months obtaining the necessary visa. Her husband (Nader, played by Peyman Moadi) wants to stay with his father, who has Alzheimer’s and is unable to take care of himself, so Simin files for a divorce. Complicating things is an eleven-year-old daughter whom both parents want to stay with them. Simin moves out, forcing Nader to hire a caregiver (Razieh, played by Sareh Bayat) to look after his father. But Razieh has secrets, secrets that lead to an altercation with unfortunate consequences for all concerned.

What makes A Separation such a great (if gut-wrenching) film is the superb insight and empathy Farhadi shows toward each of the five primary characters involved (the fifth is Razieh’s husband). Each of these people is trying to live a good life under Islam and each of them is in a traumatic situation even before the film starts. The result is that when the altercation mentioned above forces them all in front of a judge (well-played by Babak Karimi), most of them are forced to tell lies to protect themselves and their families. Would things have worked out better if they had all stuck with the truth? Would we have told the same lies?

The acting in A Separation is very good, with a particularly outstanding performance by Moadi, whose actions and lies lie at the core of the film. All of the characters are believable and we can identify with each of their choices even if we disagree with them or find them infuriating. I desperately wanted the characters to find a way forward, to find a resolution to a situation which gets out of hand so quickly, even with a fair-minded judge. But no clear resolutions are on offer.

A Separation is about life in modern-day Iran, but it’s about human life everywhere. It’s a great discussion film and gets an easy ****. My mug is up! However, A Separation is not, in my opinion, as good as Monsieur Lazhar and thus does not quite deserve its Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Mill and the Cross

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting, The Way to Calvary, is a masterpiece, but my appreciation for the painting has been heightened manyfold by watching another masterpiece, The Mill and the Cross, a film written and directed by Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, based on a book by Michael Francis Gibson.

The Mill and the Cross is unlike any film I have ever seen (rarely a bad thing). It takes us back to the sixteenth century, to the days when Bruegel created his masterpiece, telling us why Bruegel painted it in exactly that way and and taking us deep into the painting itself - to the life of the characters depicted within it. All of this is done with such a love for the painting that The Mill and the Cross not only breathes new life into this particular work but promotes a greater appreciation for all the world’s best works of art.

The Way to Calvary, as the name suggests, is a painting of Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha, though Jesus is a figure lost at the centre of the painting, with the focus of attention lying elsewhere during the moment being captured. What makes the painting particularly unique, for me at least, is the windmill that sits high atop a mountain of rock overlooking the procession. The role of that mill is explained and becomes one of the focuses of the film.

The Mill and the Cross is gorgeously filmed. The painting itself often provides the background as the film blends real location landscapes in four different countries with painted ones. There is almost no dialogue in the film, with almost all of the lines going to the three main actors: Rutger Hauer (Bruegel), Michael York (Bruegel’s patron) and Charlotte Rampling (Mary). They all do fine with the fairly limited opportunities they have. I believe a second viewing is required to get a full appreciation for the characters in the painting and to pick up on more of the symbolism.

The Mill and the Cross is an inspiring and thought-provoking film, first because of the background it provides to the painting and secondly because of its reflections on Jesus’ last days and the role of God. The film suggests that Jesus would have been crucified by the ‘powers that be’ no matter when he showed up in the past 2000 years. In the sixteenth century it is the Spanish soldiers who represent Christian orthodoxy and are persecuting the Flemish protestants that do the deed. Today, I am certain that some representatives of Christian orthodoxy would still be the first to want Jesus dead.

The Mill and the Cross will not please the demographic toward which most Hollywood films are aimed. It is a very slow-moving deliberate film with little narrative and almost no action. But for those who want to see what film is capable of, and want to see a work of cinematic art, don’t miss this one. **** My mug is up and full of the finest ingredients.

P.S. This year, the Academy rewarded another unique and excellent film for trying something different (being silent, B&W, etc.), but The Mill and the Cross is, in my humble opinion, far more interesting and profound.