Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is set in what remains of a post-apocalyptic North America. It's a time and a place in a dystopian society that likely marks a turning point in its evolution. America's descendants are governed by a totalitarian regime, many of whom are afflicted with a terrible disease that prevents both men and women alike from dressing (or applying makeup) in a sane fashion.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a coal miner's daughter, literally. Well, not literally, because her father was killed in an industrial accident some years earlier, one that rendered her mother depressed and useless. Katniss now cares for her little sister and mum, hunting squirrels with bow and arrow to supplement the family's diet.

Katniss lives in district 12, one of the 13 industrial zones that revolted against the government 75 years ago. As penance for their bloody rebellion, citizens from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18, are required to enter a yearly lottery. From that lottery, two lucky winners are chosen from each district, and all 24 of them fight to the death on TV. But that doesn't add up, does it? If there are 13 districts, then why only 24 participants? What they won't tell you in the movie is that unlucky district 13 (specializing in nuclear technology and weapons) was obliterated by the Capitol during the uprising. A little mystery about a film's backstory can be intriguing, but The Hunger Games leaves volumes unexplained.

After a 200 mph, cross country train ride seated next to their new mentor and raging alcoholic (Woody Harrelson), Katniss and her teammate Peeta arrive in the Capitol city to crowds of cheering fans. As it turns out, the Hunger Games are more like a political campaign (or beauty pageant) than they are an Ultimate Fighting match. Making a good impression on the game's patrons and finding sponsors to drop you care packages while you're fighting in the arena is important.

Leading up to the beginning of the games, competitors are treated more like celebrities than captives. Let's see, you get your own private entourage consisting of clothing stylist, chaperone and 3-person prep team. While staying in the Capitol, you and your friends will be housed in a luxurious, penthouse apartment that comes complete with a well stocked bar not even Woody can drink his way through. However, the horse drawn Roman chariots and flaming dresses that they parade you around in aren't going to make a difference against the districts who've been training their children to kill from an early age. Sorry, but you're probably toast.

Suzanne Collin's attempt to write a screen adaptation that's "faithful in both narrative and theme" left me somewhat disappointed. It's often the case that books don't translate well to film, but there were problems with this production that could have been avoided. With a budget of 80 million dollars, I expected better set design and general appearance, but much of the look and feel of this movie is cheesy. The white jumpsuits and riot helmets worn by the peacekeeping forces reminded me of that made for television version of Brave New World back in the early 80's. The training facility provided for contestants was nothing more than a big room full knives and targets. As for the characters, both adult rulers of Panem's Capitol and their teenage "guests" are caricatures of good and evil, bullies or victims.

This may be one of those rare instances when I go back and read the book upon which a film is based. Even though the story is targeted at teenagers, many of the author's ideas are relevant to today's society. A fascist state resulting from some unnamed apocalyptic event (I could see that happening). Genetically engineered wasps whose venom causes hallucinations and death (why anyone would make wasps nastier than they already are is beyond me).

May the Schwartz be with you!
May the odds be ever in your favor!

- Ron Shaker

Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Action-adventure, sci-fi, drama
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Prometheus

There are many places this review could begin, but let's start with the premise. Tens of thousands of years ago, galactic travelers visited our planet (and seeded it with life). We know this because of cave pictograms they left inviting us to visit them someday. Now that we've grown up, and are able to build space ships such as Prometheus, it's time to pay them a visit.

In case you aren't aware, the story of Prometheus is set in the same universe as director Ridley Scott's original Alien films. Scott's newest movie is a prequel to the well known series about "Why Everyone Should Avoid Contact with Xenomorphs". The franchise is not without its comedic moments, but this latest installment achieves new levels in terms of dark humor. It's one of those situations where you're not sure if the screenwriters are pulling your leg or trying to be serious. There are a lot of talented actors in this film (Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, and Guy Pearce just to name a few). However, the life choices that their characters make are mind boggling. Let's take a look at a few of their more critical mistakes, by reviewing some important rules that every space traveler should abide by.

The 6 Golden Rules of Space Exploration


Rule #1: Don't touch things that don't belong to you
In some scf-fi horror screenplays, the characters make one or two crucial errors that lead to the mission's demise. But then there's Prometheus, where the screenwriters felt a disaster was inevitable, hence any semblance of caution is discarded the moment the ship lands. If you ever find a pile of dead aliens, rooms full of canisters seeping mysterious black goo, take a moment to consider your options. Don't be like exobiologist Millburn (Rafe Spall), don't try to pet the giant, gastrointestinal worm when it rises up out of the goo to greet you. I can't quite recall the dialog from that scene, but Spall's character might have called the worm "cute" or a "nice little" something before it crawled down hist throat.
Rule #2: Pack light, don't bring the whole house
Creature comforts are part of what makes life bearable. A nice hot shower, some comfort food, a little television, or maybe a jigsaw puzzle to pass the time while everyone else is in hypersleep. When you're light years from home, you probably want a ship's manifest that's heavy on food, water, medical supplies and spare parts. AAA is not going to respond to your distress calls, so self reliance is a necessity, not an option. But Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) has made sure her ship has all the options. For example, instead of proper surgical equipment for women, she's opted for a grand piano, full bar, sofa, chandelier, and pool table. Vickers isn't there to work, her mission is to hold the best damn cocktail party this side of Orion's belt.
Rule #3: Never, ever, trust an android
David is the name given to a series of androids manufactured by Weyland Industries, the funder of this mission. The newest model, 8th in the series, possesses human emotions. He comes complete with an unbalanced ego to match his superior intellect, and as an added bonus, he's terribly insecure. In his spare time, David enjoys re-watching Lawrence of Arabia and fashioning his hair to look like Peter O'Toole's. Are you creeped out yet?
Rule #4: Practice safe sex, try to avoid unplanned pregnancies
It's a long trip, and you're bound to get lonely. But after that astronaut boyfriend of yours is infected with an alien parasite, the least you can do is to use a condom. The love child that results from your roll in the bunk probably won't be a boy or a girl. Sure, there's the Med Pod 720i for emergency caesareans... wait, the pod you're using is only configured for men. If this operation doesn't go as planned, you can blame it on Vickers and her baby grand.
Rule #5: Leave your helmets ON people!
I can't stress this enough. Airborne viruses, allergens, microbes, poisonous gases, radioactive particles, acid rain, mosquitos, lyme disease, falling rocks, and bats! It's mostly for the reasons you can't think of that you should keep your heads covered. However, I'm often wrong and this is a democratic age -- People are routinely free to make bad decisions, so let's take a poll. Helmets on or off?


Rule #6: Psychiatric evaluations for the entire crew
Think about how many times you've seen spacemen go insane. Space sickness afflicts more people than say... hemorrhoids. Just ask any of the Soviet cosmonauts that served on the Mir space station. Prolonged isolation, mechanical malfunctions, and fires take a toll on a person's psyche. To be fair, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) isn't channeling Jack Nicholson's character from The Shining in this scene. She's fighting for her life after a long series of avoidable mistakes. Her delusion was in believing that the creators of mankind would welcome her with open arms.

Most of the offers from Groupon don't really interest me, but a $19, two ticket, two large popcorn coupon for the Cinerama movie theatre in Seattle is a good deal. That's especially true when applied to a $15 per ticket 3-D presentation like Prometheus. And if you've never been to Cinerama, no matter where you live, it's worth the trip. Picture one of the last grand theatres in the country, owned and operated by a cinephile who also happens to be one of the wealthiest people in the world. State of the art projection and sound systems. They are operated as an independent theatre, and show whatever movies strike their fancy. Profit is apparently not the objective, because many of the shows I've gone to see there are mostly empty. And the concession stand isn't the cheapest date, but it also doesn't try to rape you.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Cinerama Theatre, Seattle
Country: USA / UK
Language: English
Genre: Sci-fi, action thriller
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, April 14, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill

From up on Poppy Hill, one can see the ocean, and all of the ships that pass through Yokohama harbor. Each morning, a young high school girl named Umi raises maritime signal flags (on a flag pole built by her grandfather). Her father's supply ship was sunk by a mine some years earlier during the Korean war. Umi's flags are meant to guide her father home. The year is 1963 and Tokyo's summer Olympics are almost upon Japan. It is a country looking to the future instead of the past, and from that the film's tension is generated.

The story is based on a Japanese manga series written by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, and serialized by publisher Kodansha from January to August 1980 in the shōjo manga magazine Nakayoshi. I assume you understand most of that, but shōjo is a form of manga marketed specifically toward teenage girls. With that in mind, From Up On Poppy Hill is half love story, between a girl and a boy. An innocent romance begins to bud between Umi and Shun, one of her classmates. Shun enlists Umi's help to protect their school's "clubhouse" from demolition, and the time they spend working together kindles the love that they share for each other. Did I mention that they're secretly brother and sister? No?

One of the last reviews written by renown movie critic Roger Ebert was of this film. In his words, "The latest film from Japan's Studio Ghibli ... is a disappointment." I wish I could disagree. For American audiences, this will not be on the same scale as Spirited Away. But, if you have a little boy that likes boats (and there are lots of boats in this movie), or a little girl that likes strong role models (Umi runs a boarding house, and goes to school, and helps preserve a historic building, and finds time for her boyfriend), then you will enjoy it.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Egyptian Theatre, Seattle
Country: Japan
Language: English dubbed
Genre: Animation
Rating: 3.5/5

Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed

The newspaper ad could read: "Man with prosthetic ear seeks alternative girlfriend to hold hands with during botched burglaries and time travel to the past. Must be proficient in firearms, and able to empathize with a tormented soul. Preferably, you still live at home with your parents and have no messy social loose ends to tie up. Oh, and I drive a beat-up 1980's era Datsun 280z by the way."

"Safety Not Guaranteed" is how I've come to think of SIFF's programming choices for films that are set in Seattle. At the 2010 festival, I sat through a movie called The Penitent Man. Some of the film's footage was shot in my neighborhood (Capitol Hill). The story involved time travel, and it was one of the worst productions I've ever witnessed.

Fast forward to last year's debut of director Colin Trevorrow's new film starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. Yes, it was partially set in Seattle, and it did involve time travel, but the acting talent made this movie very enjoyable. Though I felt that the script was fun and engaging, the excellent performances are what really made the characters interesting and worth caring about.

The idea for the screenplay was inspired by an actual ad placed on page 92 of the Sept/Oct 1997 issue of survivalist magazine 'Backwoods Home'. The ad was written by John Silveira, who often supplied fillers when the classified ad pages of the magazine came up short. It was, of course, a joke. The film's writer, Derek Connolly, then created the part of Darius specifically for Aubrey Plaza after stumbling upon a re-posting of Silveira's original ad on the Internet in 2007. It's interesting how plots evolve.

Safety Not Guaranteed was shot in 32 locations over 24 days in Seattle and surrounding areas. Most films and television shows that are set in Seattle are filmed in Vancouver B.C. or some other location. I don't often see film crews closing off our city streets, but there is the occasional exception.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2012
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Sci-fi, romantic, action thriller
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB