Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014
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Film review – The Hunger Games (2012)

22 March 2012
The Hunger Games: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)

The catchphrase ‘May the odds be ever in your favour’ is spoken by the powerful elite in The Hunger Games to strategically give a glimmer of hope, but not too much, to the oppressed and poor citizens who are subject each year to a brutal televised game in this futuristic parable. The phrase is uttered before the reaping where one girl and one boy from the twelve districts are selected by lottery to take part in the game, and it’s also uttered during the preparation and then right before the contest, where the 24 children are expected to fight to the death. It’s a taunting and cruel catchphrase because it implies the fate of the children is to do with luck, when in fact the games are really a ruthlessly orchestrated public event designed by the ruling class to keep the non-ruling classes distracted and fearful. When Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to become a ‘tribute’ for her district in place of her sister, she along with male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) join the 22 other tributes in the Capitol where they are taught to kill, survive and to put on a good show.

Presumably one of the challenges with making a film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s popular 2008 Young Adult novel The Hunger Games was how to present the novel’s critique of violent spectacle without the film itself providing moments of violent spectacle. Other similarly themed films where a futuristic incarnation of the ancient Roman gladiator contests was fused with reality television faced a similar problem. The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987), Battle Royale (Koushun Takami, 2000) and Series 7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan, 2001) were all set in either the future or an alternate reality where disenfranchised people are forced to take part in a violent competition where they must fight for their survival. The Running Man is the simplest of the mentioned films as there is a strongly defined good guys versus bad guys narrative, and the film is unapologetically providing violent spectacle for the cinema audiences. Similarly to The Hunger Games, Battle Royale contains a scenario where the delineations between good and bad characters are not so clear cut, since they are all teenagers from a randomly chosen school class and forced to fight to the death in a large outdoor area until there is only one survivor. Battle Royale also provides moments of violent spectacle, but in a far more uncomfortable way than The Running Man since the presentation of violence in Battle Royale juxtaposed with the films’s social critique does compel the film viewer to ask themselves what it is they are enjoying.

However, the film with the most in common with The Hunger Games is the lesser-known Series 7: The Contenders since both films undermine the voyeuristic appeal of the violence. The Hunger Games spends close to an hour establishing the world of the film, its characters and the film’s themes before the first scene of conflict. It’s what is now almost an old fashioned approach to narrative development where the film spends its time building up to the main action rather than cutting to the chase as soon as possible. A film that was more overtly focused on providing the audience with a thrilling action-packed ride would have included an action scene much earlier to establish the tone. Instead, The Hunger Game waits and when it delivers it does so with disorientating quick edits and muted sound to create the sensation of the violence being sickening and confusing. For the rest of the film the acts of violence, which are crucial to the film’s narrative, are sudden and blunt, often off screen and never glorified. Thus The Hunger Game effectively establishes itself as a drama about the spectacle of violence rather than being a spectacle of violence itself.

The production design combines modern and classic motifs and references in order to make several statements about class, exploitation and social inequity. The scenario of a populace having to sacrifice its young to appease a higher authority occurred in many ancient legends, including the Ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur who was sent youths to devour.  The modern day version of this myth as depicted in The Hunger Games is the lottery based reaping, which could also be viewed as a parable for young people being conscripted or manipulated into fighting a foreign war started by the older generation. However, The Hunger Games also explores the scarified youth theme by looking at the way in which young people are groomed to conform to an idealised image so that their youth and beauty can be commodified and exploited. Not only are the tributes trained in how to kill and survive, but they are coached to be media savvy in order to project the type of image that will earn them sponsorship. They are constantly being looked at and scrutinised and the very tight cinematography often creates a claustrophobic effect by only shooting in close up and medium close up. Shots from a greater distance are often filmed from the corner of a room so that it unconsciously gives the impression of closed-circuit television surveillance.

The ceremonial aspects of the games are a mixture of Ancient Roman and Nazi German iconography with modern day red carpet events. The vast open spaces, eagle insignias and neoclassic design captures the appearance of a totalitarian state attempting to awe its people with displays of power, while the focus on the clothes worn by the tributes echoes the vacuous commentary that takes place during events such as award ceremonies. The combined effect is like that of the gladiators of Ancient Rome and modern day reality show contestants. The tributes are briefly huge celebrities, designed to win the favour of the public in the short term until they are disposed of. It’s a highly subversive critique of mass entertainment that expresses Noam Chomsky’s argument about how the hype surrounding spectator sport is used to distract people from engaging in issues of real importance and therefore keeping them subservient through ignorance.

The representation of class divisions is overt with the wealthy members of society living in the opulent Capitol city while the poorer members of society, who are selected for the games, come from the surrounding districts. The bleak and improvised rural setting contrasts with the high tech and garish world of the Capitol where the dominant fashion is a grotesque fusion of Max Headroom type designer punk and the Rococo style fashion favoured by the French aristocracy before the French Revolution.

The final ingredient in what makes The Hunger Games so compelling is Katniss. Unlike the heroes of many other Young Adult novel and film franchises, she has not got any natural gifts or special powers that have been bestowed upon her magically, nor is she simply driven by a romantic crush, and the film even self-reflexively includes a romantic subplot to comment on audience expectations. Katniss is completely self-made, the skills she possesses are the result of experience and she undermines the machinations of the games by using ingenuity, cunning and humanity to survive and care for others. The overall combination of smart social commentary, compelling narrative, clever yet unobtrusive film style and the integrity to not be what it is critiquing, results in a very impressive film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012