Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bella Has Nothing on Harry, Frodo and Katniss

It took me a few hours to process The Hunger Games, and when I did finally see it for what it was, it made me realise, again, how terrible Twilight is.  I’ll fully admit that Twilight is my guilty pleasure.  When it is on TV, be it FX or Showtime, and I see it, I stop and watch it.  It isn’t quite a train wreck, but it comes pretty close.  I’ve blogged about this countless times and will probably do so every time I come across any Young Adult literature that surpasses Twilight in every way. 

In Twilight, we have a girl, Bella Swan, who doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere.  The beginning of the book places her more as the parent than the child in her relationship with her mother, and this forces her to move so her mother can live a carefree life without her.  This isn’t to say that her mother doesn’t care, but it is clear from the very beginning that the self interests of the characters will always overshadow their concern for one another.  The growing trend of this is made more real by the relationship that Bella and Edward share as the story progresses.  In even the simplest of terms, Edward is controlling and manipulative, to the point that if he weren’t super-human and good looking, any self-respecting girl would file a restraining order and have nothing to do with him.  But not Bella, no, Ms. Swan internalises this and decides that she can’t do better than Edward because he is ‘perfect’ for her and his lifestyle of eternal life is just right for her.

I could deride this story for poor writing, but that would be unfair of me, until I myself publish a novel, I have no stones with which to throw.  However, I would be overlooking the obvious by not pointing out how terrible a role model Bella and Edward both are for young kids, though Jacob is actually, for the most part, a respectable, ‘good’ kid.  He is loyal to a fault and places Bella’s needs over his own in what can only be seen as a true act of kindness and friendship, something neither Bella nor Edward ever exhibit in the entire Twilight Series.

Why this came to my mind I blame on a friend asking me to see The Hunger Games at midnight on Thursday night.  I haven’t read the books, I think I’ve said that enough, but the movie was surprisingly good, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe surprisingly good.  And while I have a lot of issues with the Chronicles of Narnia series, it too shares the same overall theme with the yet to be named books I’m referencing in the title.

One theme that I found in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Hunger Games that is missing from Twilight, but is an important one for kids to learn is sacrifice.  It wasn’t until I watched yet another trailer for the movie when I realised that was the piece that made Hunger Games stand out to me, more than Twilight ever will.  In the first twenty minutes of the movie, Katniss sacrifices her own life for her sister’s, knowing that by making the decision she makes, she has a very strong likelihood, if not absolute certainty, that she will die.  It is in this act that Katniss, and Suzanne Collins, brings her book to another level.  One that is built to slowly in Potter, but is alluded to just as quickly in Rings.

If you’re unfamiliar, for some odd reason, and if you’re reading this blog, you should know better than to come here without this knowledge, but both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter embrace any number of admirable qualities, including willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good.  In Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is given the most powerful weapon ever forged, and is tasked by men (and others) much smarter and stronger than he, but he freely and willingly takes on the task of destroying the ring.  Ultimately, his sacrifice comes full circle and he does give up his mortal life, going to the Undying Lands with what is left of Elf-kind.  Frodo is forced to make a sudden decision, like Katniss, and while we come to realise that part of his sacrifice is the hold of the ring already taking effect, much of it is also a wish to save those he cares about most, as we see in his vision in Galadriel’s mirror.

In Harry Potter, a similar fate is bestowed upon the main protagonist, Harry Potter.  In the first few books, Harry doesn’t always come face to face with the sacrifice, so much as impossible situations he can’t possibly survive, as in the first two books.  But it is in the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, where Harry fully realises that either he or Lord Voldemort will have to kill the other, because both can’t live while the other is alive.  The weight of the novels increase both in pages as well as tone once this realisation is made.  Potter goes so far as to try and elude his long-time friends Ron and Hermione in an effort to save them, but they stay with him almost until the end.  As the story draw to its close and Harry is faced with the choice to live, and be on the run for the rest of his life, endangering everyone he cares about, or sacrifice himself for everyone else to live, the choice seems easy.  He goes into the Forbidden Forest to meet his death.

In all three cases, though less so for Frodo, the characters that sacrifice themselves for the greater good are saved, in some form or fashion.  I’m basing The Hunger Games on the first movie only and not the books at all.  They all realise that while they value their own lives, there is something greater to be had if they do what is right.  And then there’s Bella.  The entire goal of Twilight seems simply to have a boyfriend/husband.  And I can certainly admit to wanting one or the other at some point, but to base an entire novel on it, that isn’t a Harlequin romance, and is geared towards kids, seems uninspired.  I think we all want to have a storybook romance, but to have no substance in that romance makes for a hard novel to stand behind.  I am happy to say that the staying power of Twilight isn’t strong, but as a guilty pleasure, I’ll continue watching it for that dream that can’t possibly be real, and puts foolish ideas in my head that are utterly unrealistic, such as men actually being chivalrous or liking you for something that isn’t shallow and derisive.  Twilight is many things, but none of it good.  Hunger Games may fill the void that Potter has left behind.  I often worried that Twilight would fill that gap, but am glad to see that isn’t the case.  I’ve resisted the urge to read The Hunger Games, but will be less able to do so as time goes on.  For those of you familiar with all four series, I am curious what your take on each is, in comparison to one another, but expect no disagreement with respect to the lack of credibility in Twilight as a redeeming novel.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

I start this blog with some reticence, I never read the books, which are appareantly a world-wide phenomenon, but still agreed to go to the midnight release when one of my friends asked me to.  In hindsight, I think I am glad I didn’t read the books, even though I was wishing I had as I watched the movie.  If you’re like me and you’ve never read the books, then the following may contain SPOILERS for the movie.  But if you’ve read the book, then this should all make sense.

The movie is set in a not too distant future, but you wouldn’t know that at first.  The first few scenes capture a town that is like that of a third world country.  The movie is set in North America, but the location is unknown, though the main occupation is mining of various sorts.  The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a young girl who lost her father some years ago and takes care of her mother and sister.  The tradition in this new world requires that each district (somewhat like a state or province), is required to sacrifice one boy and one girl to the event call the Hunger Games.  These games are set up to punish those that took part in a rebellion that cost countless lives.  All the provinces are required to submit children, between the ages of twelve and seventeen, but some provinces are better off than others, giving those children an advantage over others.

As the selection process begins, Katniss’ younger sister is being entered for the first time and is terrified.  When her name is selected, Katniss only has one option, but to volunteer in her sister’s place.  A boy, Peeta, is selected as well and the two are ushered off to be taken to the capital, where the game will be conducted.  In many ways, the game is basically a Battle Dome.  All the kids are put in one place; none can leave until all the others are dead.  The event is broadcast live on television for all to watch.  The scenes from the previous event are brutal and bloody.

Katniss and Peeta are joined by a pair of people, one a mentor, the other a publicist.  The two are supposed to help the children deal with their new situation, and ultimately their imminent deaths.  Once they arrive in the Capital, the squalor that was seen earlier is gone, and the city is teeming with affluence.  The kids are put into a posh apartment and begin a two-week training session and audition for sponsors.  The kids are also joined by Cinna, who is basically a costume designer, but also provides much needed support to Katniss. 

As the games draw near, the tension and apprehension are felt palpably by all the kids entered.  The sheer panic that each child exudes knowing he or she may die any moment had most of the theatre in tears.  Once the event begins, half of the field is eliminated by the kids from the most affluent districts.  The rest of the Hunger Games are much more strategic and require some kids to team up with others, much like the TV show Survivor.  Initially, Peeta teams up with the other kids once he realises that Katniss has a much larger likelihood of winning based on the odds.  As each child dies, a cannon goes off and a display is produced that indicates who has been lost.  The tension grows as Katniss is cornered by five kids, including Peeta.  She gets help from an unlikely source, Rue, who advises her to drop a hornet’s nest on the kids to get away.  This tactic works, but Katniss is also stung and feels the effects of the hornets.  Rue helps Katniss recover and the two work together to try to take an advantage over the kids who have banded together.  They find a way to destroy their things, but in the process, Rue gets caught and killed.

As the game progresses, Katniss manages to find Peeta, injured and trying to hide.  She is forced to fall into a clear trap to get medicine for both to get better.  Though she is attacked, the boy from Rue’s district kills the girl who has her cornered and she is able to help Peeta.  The two manage to survive long enough to be one of the last three alive.  During the competition, the hosts are able to initiate any number of elements into the area to change the game.  At one point they use a fire to move Katniss closer to the rest of the team.  At the end of the game, they introduce what look like jungle cats to hunt the last kids down.  With this added danger, Katniss and Peeta race to the place where the competition started and hide on the large structure that is too high for the animals to reach. Once they get there, the find the other last kid and he tries to kill Peeta, but Katniss saves him and he falls to his death.

The rules that had been amended earlier to allow two winners is stopped, but Katniss decides they should both die so that the game is ruined and there is no one winner.  They fall for her bluff (unless it wasn’t a bluff) and both are spared.  After winning the contest, the last few scenes show Katniss and Peeta going back to district twelve, leaving the ending somewhat unfinished but open for a sequel.

Overall, I have to admit it was better than I expected it to be.  I didn’t know much about the books at all, so was expecting an Eragon-like movie.  The hype seemed similar to me, but I was wrong about both the story and the actors.  While I didn’t realise that Jennifer Lawrence had been nominated for an Academy Award in 2010, I was surprised how her performance grew on me as the movie progressed.  She captured the fear and anxiety I would imagine Katniss would feel knowing she was basically going to her death.  I still felt like she had very wooden moments.  The supporting cast was quite good as well, though I felt some of the characterisations were caricatures of something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Woody Harrleson was believable, but also somewhat unconvincing.  I wasn’t overly impressed with him.  On the flip side of that, Lenny Kravitz was actually really amazing.  I didn’t think he had a gift to act, but he portrayed a lot in the few scenes he had, outshining Jennifer Lawrence.  I felt like much of her performance was elevated by her supporting cast.

The story made sense, but I still had a lot of questions.  I assume these are answered in the book and couldn’t be fit into a two-and-a-half hour movie, but I didn’t understand what the expectation would be once they won, or what caused the rebellion and the Hunger Games to be chosen as the only resort for punishment.  I also felt like the back story for all of the characters was striped down, which is often the case in movies based on books, but I’ve seen it done better.

Overall, the story doesn’t hit me as a Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter calibre story, but it has merit and may win me over in a sequel.  The real conundrum comes now as to whether I should go all in and read the books now or wait it out.  I went in with low expectations and was happily surprised.  Though, a midnight movie may be costly as the day goes on, as I didn’t take today off, and it is still very early.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Best Harry Potter Movie: Prisoner of Azkaban

As I make my way through my DVD queue, I got a real treat last night, finally getting to see the Ultimate Edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  I know, let the debate begin.  I just discovered that, of all the Potters, Prisoner of Azkaban is the lowest grossing of all eight movies, so far.  That is a dubious honour indeed, but to me doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you’re not familiar with the Harry Potter series at all, for whatever reason, then this blog may bore you.  But I’m a convert to the Harry Potter way of life.  Perhaps in a situation of sharing too much information, years ago, my sister and I had a bet as to who could finish the others’ favourite series first.  I had Lord of the Rings, this should come as no surprise to you, and she was a huge Harry Potter fan.  We set of before the Deathly Hallows came out.  I finished all six books with a week to spare.  She still has my copy of Lord of the Rings under her bed.  I won, but sadly didn’t wager anything, so the jerk that she is, won’t let me ‘win’ in reality.  This is actually very telling about our relationship, but that’s a blog for another day.  The point is, in a little less than a month I read the entire series and for those of you that have never read the books, JK Rowling is masterful.

JK Rowling creates a world within our own world, one that is believable and yet mysterious.  Kids around the globe want to go to Hogwarts, they want to learn magic.  Some ultra-religious types think that the books teach black magic, which is absurd for those of us that have taken the time to read the novels.  Harry Potter teaches being loyal, doing the right thing and having integrity.  I always love the comparison to Twilight, where it is said, Potter is about being a better person and doing the right thing and Twilight is about finding a boyfriend.  I thought that gem is always worth sharing.

The first two books are tame, while Harry is in great danger in both, the writing doesn’t make you feel the enormity of those situations.  It is later, in books three and four, that you begin to see Rowling evolve the writing to make each decision that much more meaningful.  In the third book, the only really self-contained story exists.  In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is confronted with a very real threat of a man who betrayed his parents and they died because of this betrayal.  While there are small side-stories to the main story, my favourite being Ron thinking Hermione’s cat ate his rat and Ron once again showing he’s a hate-filled brat (I know, I hate Ron), but it shows a great subplot that is furthered by the outcome of the book.

In the first two movies, the director Chris Columbus filmed the movies back-to-back, creating a seamless aging for the actors and also went easy on them acting-wise.  In the third movie, a new director, Alfonso CuarĂ³n, comes aboard, who has an impressive resume.  When he joined, he changed the way the movies were made and how the actors portrayed their roles.  It is here that I think the audience truly gets to see Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint come into their own, not to mention excellent work by Tom Felton as everyone’s favourite bad boy Draco Malfoy.  It is an interesting side-note that Rowling feels uncomfortable with girls loving Malfoy, as he is a very troubled, spiteful character.  But Felton’s humanising performance makes him likable and to some women, fixable.

Secretly, before the bet my sister and I made, it was this movie that I used to watch on ABC Family on one of their many Harry Potter weekends.  It was only this one that I could watch from beginning to end, fascinated by the story and the cinematography.  What always caught my eye were the kids having grown up from the earlier movies.  Daniel Radcliffe really became Harry Potter.  He carried himself in a way that made the character come to life, unlike the earlier two iterations.  Rupert Grint was decent, his role muted, as in most of the other movies and I’m thankful for that.  It was really Emma Watson who transformed herself into the insufferable know-it-all that is Hermione Granger.  By far one of my favourite characters, Hermione is thoughtful and smart, but also cares a great deal about her friends, Harry and for some reason Ron.  Watson really shined in this movie and it brought the others’ acting levels up as well.  I won’t comment on any further Potter movies and those performances, for any of the kids, but for this one, Prisoner of Azkaban was owned by Emma Watson.

Acting aside, the story is actually rather compelling.  Harry is able to confront, in theory, the man who led his parents to their death.  As the story progresses, the reader discovers that it is not the supposed criminal Sirius Black, but Ron’s rat, Peter Pettigrew, who betrayed the Potters.  What I always found confusing is why would Black go to jail for something he didn’t do?  Some may argue that he was devastated by the loss of his friends, but he knew he was Harry’s godfather, and we see the repercussions of that with young Teddy Lupin.  I suppose Rowling knew Black’s fate from the beginning, but I think any Potter fans would have preferred to not have Harry live with his cousins, but with Black.  In some ways, I think Black was being selfish by not defending himself.  But as the story goes, there was no way for Black to prove his innocence.

I may have expounded too much on things that don’t matter, but the point of this blog was to go back down memory lane (or Privet Drive) and reminisce about the best Potter movie.  While the books tell an amazing story, the movies pale in comparison in almost every way, except Prisoner of Azkaban.  Each book grew in length as they were published and despite Warner Brothers’ need to bilk the fans, I often wonder if, after Prisoner of Azkaban, why they didn’t break the movies up to cover more of the lore from the books.  It is only Prisoner of Azkaban that melds the book and the movie with deliberate strokes to make the two into a one piece of media that truly captures the depth and breadth of what Rowling set out to accomplish.

Let the debate begin!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movie Review: Silent House

I watch a lot of horror movies; few are able to make me actually afraid of anything.  It is rare to find a movie that can keep you literally on the edge of your seat, at least for the duration of the movie.  In at least once case, this movie achieves that.  While watching this movie, like Paranormal Activity, I found myself unable to look at the screen, but was doubly scared as the screen went to black and all you could hear was the breathing of the heroine and the click of the polaroid camera she used for light.

The movie starts out slowly, as most movies do, the main character, Sarah, is helping her father fix their former house up.  They are aided by her father’s brother, Peter.  A friend from her childhood at the house stops by, asking if they can catch up later.  Sarah shows little recognition of the girl, but agrees nonetheless.  Peter leaves the house, leaving the other two in the house, alone, and that is when things become strange.  Sarah hears a loud noise upstairs and beckons her father to investigate it with her.  They both go upstairs, but find nothing.  Her father notes that she hasn’t done her due diligence cleaning her old room up, and leaves her there while he goes back to the basement.  She hears another loud crash, and when she goes to investigate, she begins to see things that may or may not be there.

What follows in the movie is a break-neck pacing that keeps the viewer planted firmly in his or her chair.  I was terrified for Sarah.  She was being pursued by unknown assailants and the circumstances could not be more threatening.

After she eludes her unseen attacker (unseen because I had covered my eyes) she finds her father upstairs, bleeding from the head, having been attacked.  She realises he’s seriously hurt and must brave the attackers to get him help.  She creeps down two flights of stairs and finds a door on the first floor locked. She skirts to the basement and manages to escape being discovered and find a way out.  As she runs away from the house, she finds her uncle driving back, and jumps in the car with him, begging him to get help.  But as is customary in horror movies, they go back to the house and try to find the attackers.

When the secret of the house is revealed, it wasn’t unpredictable, but that didn’t make it any less horrifying.  But the horror here was not of the slasher movie variety, but a psychological variety.  I will say this, which may be a slight SPOILER, it was reminiscent of a Donald Sutherland horror movie, I believe it was called An American Haunting.  The real horror of the movie was truly in the eyes of the heroine, Sarah, and the camera followed her throughout the movie.  The strategies used by the film-makers were similar to the aforementioned Paranormal Activity, but had more of a shaky-cam feel like Blair Witch Project.  Like the Donald Sutherland movie, this one was indeed scary, but won’t stick with you or make you feel the terror once it is over.  The horror I feel, now knowing what happened, has more to do with what happened to the characters not during the movie, but before the story was told.  The movie was quick ride down a distasteful lane of horror, but one that isn’t employed much, but when it is, it has a great effect.  I can’t recommend this movie, but if you like horror movies, then this is one you should give a chance.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Movie Review: Chronicle

I know this movie opened a month ago, but on a lazy Saturday, a friend and I decided to indulge in a movie that hadn’t gotten the best reviews, and I’m glad to say I don’t regret going.

Chronicle, in its most basic form, is a coming of age movie, where the story centres around characters receiving strange powers and learning how to deal with this newfound ‘fame,’ for a lack of a better word.  The main character, Andrew, decides to chronicle his life story, using a beat-up video camera to record all his adventures.  What is quickly discovered is Andrew is a young man who is bullied by his father and has a deathly ill mother.  The combination of which makes him introverted in dangerously depressed.  It is in stories like these that bullying and depression often culminate into something tragic.  Andrew and his cousin Matt and friend Steve, after attending a rave party, come across a strange cavern that has a suspicious sound within.  Once they explore it, they discover something they can’t explain, and afterwards, discover strange new abilities.

As the story progresses, the two more well-adjusted members of the trio, Matt and Steve, have no trouble having fun with their newfound power.  Andrew, on the other hand, is harassed by bullies at school and at home and lashes out accidentally, throwing a passing car into a body of water injuring the driver. After this, Matt puts down ground rules that Andrew disagrees with.

To not give away the entire story, though the stage is set, for a large misadventure that culminates in what I would argue is not expected.  The story is told from a first-person camera point of view, alternating from different characters carrying the camera to further the story along.  The actors portray believable stereotypes from high school, the popular kid, the loner and the usual suspects.  The story is well told, a quiet burnout for anti-hero Andrew, who loses control of his power, and in his rage and sorrow, loses everything he gained from his newfound power and fame.

While the story was well told and the actors were more than acceptable, nothing stood out in the movie to make it memorable.  There were plot holes with respect to how the power was attained and that could have eaten up a whole slew of more material to work with.  The movie relied heavily on the characters being developed than anything else.  In a way, the story seemed less about the powers, and more about how people react to altering circumstances in life.  Andrew, by the end of the movie, had nothing left to lose, and lost himself in the process.

I felt like the story was well told, but all said, it was a somewhat sad movie that seemed strangely uplifting by the end.  It is worth watching, though probably not for more than a fee for a matinee.