Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

It makes the news when a film manages to make 155 million dollars Stateside in its first three days of release, which makes the opening for the above movie the third highest gross ever.  So, we may ask, what kind of fantastic film spins gold so readily?  Believe you me, I am stymied to give you a rational answer to this question.

Through a series of circumstances rather than active planning or desire, we found ourselves at the 2pm showing of this movie on Saturday afternoon, along with a crowded cinema of noisy teenagers and a fair sprinkling of much younger children accompanied by a token adult.  Reader, they seemed to lap it up and this scenario was duplicated, I understand, world-wide.  So we have something of a phenomenon to unravel.  To say that this film is better than the soppy "Twilight" series beloved by its legions of fans is to damn it with faint praise.  Yes, it has more meat on its bones than that saga of teen angst, yet there is probably insufficient substance to nourish the adult appetite.

Apparently this ever-so-long flick is fairly faithful to the book, the first of a trilogy from writer Suzanne Collins, who also had a firm hand in the screenplay.  That leaves two follow-up films to come and indications are that both the writer and the studio have unleashed a goldmine. The story has been sufficiently hyped to be well-known: In a post-apocalyptic America the workers (or drones) have been herded into twelve enclosed districts to support the decadent life-style of the Capital city, whose denizens dress and act in sybaritic splendour.  These districts are portrayed as grey and undernourished slums, like something out of Depression-era black and white photos, and they hardly seem large or vital enough to support the fat cats of the city-state.  Each year there is a 'reaping' in these regions to choose a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 as 'tributes' to be brought to a large wooded arena in the capital to flight to the death, a modern-day Coliseum of bread and circuses.  While the viewer is given some gobbledegook as to the reasoning behind these games which have been held for yonks, there is no clear reason why twenty-three youngsters should be sacrificed each year to keep the nation in thrall as they watch the televised slaughter.

The heroine of this saga is strongly embodied in Jennifer Lawrence, still in her hillbilly heroine mode from "Winter's Bone". There is never any doubt that, as the lead player, she will be the ultimate survivor, although the rules are changed midstream to a possible second survivor to play up the would-be 'romance' between her character, Katniss, and her area's second tribute, Peeta the baker's son (a somewhat more feeble Josh Hutcherson). Even the character names both locally and in the city suggest a parallel world to ours and one that is both foreign to us and hard to comprehend.  With her survivalist skills and her fearsome bow and arrow, Katniss is possibly an admirable role model for teen-aged girls, that is if one wants to encourage them in the way of the warrior, as it were. The cream of the supporting cast is reserved for the bizarrely dressed and made-up 'patricians': Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as lavishly coiffed M.C.s, an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as an androgynous liaison, Donald Sutherland as the chief tyrant, an ornately bearded Wes Bentley (where has he been in recent memory?) as the games organizer, and a very good Woody Harrelson as the pair's laid-back mentor who glams them up for the audience to obtain the necessary sponsorship.

This business of youngsters killing each other for their own survival was handled more graphically in the Japanese "Battle Royale", and in keeping with this film's certification, scenes of horror and blood-letting are mitigated by fast-cutting and a shaky camera.  Most of the massacre is a bit of a blur! This first movie avoids the philosophical questions that need to be answered -- perhaps the next two films will deal with them more fully.  There is far too much emphasis on the 'hunt' rather than any real rebellion against a corrupt system.  The film-makers avoid developing the characters as rounded human beings or focusing on the real conflict between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. They prefer to give us an example of Reality TV taken to its extremes without the requisite dose of social comment.   

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Round Ireland with a Fridge (2010)

Some films sound so bizarre that they demand to be watched 'just in case'.  So it was that I viewed this movie about a struggling and stale comedian, one of whose oft-told routines was to relate how on his first trip to Ireland he saw an old man trying to hitch with a refrigerator in tow, and how as a result of a drunken bet he found himself attempting to hitch all the way around the coast of Ireland, within one month, with his own fridge for company.

The idiot in question is one Tony Hawks, a writer, comedian, and television 'personality' -- completely unknown to me -- who actually published a humorous book with the above title in 1998, telling the true story of this challenge.  Apparently the book has had massive sales both in Britain and overseas, and the film version has now been made.  A number of the comments on IMDb suggest that the book is far, far superior to the movie which is really 'a pile of shite' to use the Irish vernacular. Hawks plays himself in this film, directed by Ed Bye -- mainly a television director, but also responsible for some bummer feature films like "Kevin and Perry Go Large" and "Fat Slags" (I kid you not).  Hawks begins this silly story of a silly person doing something silly as a somewhat wooden and unappealing personality, ready to pack in the whole futile exercise after a few days of not getting lifts and staying in unappetising guest houses.  However he is encouraged to carry on after his story is picked up by a radio 'personality' and he meets the DJ's dishy assistant, Roisin (Valerie O'Connor), and her tracking radio car.  Gradually through a series of vignettes we follow his purportedly amusing journey and see that his character is getting a new lease on life, as he meets a selection of yokels and finds that he is giving them something to smile about.  The world-weary Hawks who starts the movie as an English 'eedjit' gradually learns more about the meaning of life from the laid-back Irish.

That he stands to win £100 from the bet and has already spent £130 to buy the small fridge and its trolley, plus of course his actual travel expenses are neither here nor there in this saga.  So he finds his pet fridge blessed by nuns, baptised "Saoirse" (like the actress), covered in graffiti by friends met en route, and even taken for a ride on a surfboard.  One night he is forced to sleep in a vacated doghouse when no other accommodation is available, and his now budding romance with Roisin goes adrift when she finds him kipping there with a local 'Australian slut' ("I'm a Kiwi slut" the young lady protests).  None of this is even remotely funny although small parts of his trek are mildly amusing.  The funniest gag is reserved for the name of the film's production company -- Fridge d'or -- think about it. Meanwhile the radio host who has been monitoring his exploits plans a triumphal march on the day he is due to return to Dublin, urging crowds to turn out carrying their own domestic appliance, to escort him back to the shopping centre where his pilgrimage began.  In actuality about twenty people turn up, but the 'magic of radio' makes their cheers sound "like the Pope's visit". 

It wasn't particularly painful to watch 90 minutes of this nonsense, but I can hardly recommend it to your attention.  I gather Mr. Hawks has now written another book called "Beating the Moldovans at Tennis", which is also being made into a film.  It seems that the gist of this one is that he tracks down the former members of a Moldovan football squad and challenges each of them to a game of tennis.  I think I just might manage to avoid watching that movie if ever it comes my way!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Born to be Bad (1934)

In the entry below, I refer to the actress Loretta Young as 'dewy-eyed' and in fact she made a long career of playing goody-two-shoes leading ladies and angelic heroines.  It is therefore a rather shocking change of pace to find her as the no-good, more than somewhat whorish lead in this early film.  Made as the pre-code era drew to an end, but not yet quite as restricted as movies would become, the film did face some cuts before it was released -- namely in respect of the full details of Young's character and her somewhat revealing gowns. It remains an interesting product of its time, if not a particularly important film for any of its cast.  Parenthetically it is interesting to consider Young's saintly transformation in the light of her later hushed-up affair with Clark Gable which produced an illegitimate daughter whom Young raised as her 'niece'.

Here she plays an unwed mother who became pregnant at fifteen and who was taken in by kindly bookshop owner Henry Travers (everyone's favourite angel Clarence) before moving out on her own with her now eight or nine year old son and finding that there was a better living to be made as a high class escort, waiting for the opportunity to snare a sugar-daddy. The son, a singularly unwinning brat played by one Jackie Kelk is an early version of one of the Dead End Kids and plays hookey from school, smokes, and drinks -- all with his mother's knowledge.  She seems to love her son, but has absolutely no idea how to raise him.  When he is recklessly roller skating in the street, he is hit by a  truck owned by dairy magnate Cary Grant.  Mother and her shyster lawyer ( a singularly unappealing and very Semitic turn by an actor called Harry Green) see this as an opportunity to play the son's supposed injuries for all they are worth and to sue for huge damages.  In court, however, Grant's lawyers show recent film evidence of the so-called 'crippled' boy skating and leaping about.  Mom loses custody and son Mickey is taken into care.

Neither Young nor her son are happy with this turn of events and she persuades Grant to intervene.  He is happily married to actress Marion Burns (nor me! - not that she had much of a subsequent career) who is unable to have children and Mickey is sent to live with them as a surrogate son.  Despite his new lavish surroundings, the unappealing child keeps trying to run away, packing whatever loot from the household he can swag until he finally begins to be won over by Grant and wife's loving care.  So lawyer Green suggests to Young that if she can seduce Grant and get evidence on a secret recording device, her future will be secured.  She insinuates herself into the household for a few days and uses her wiles to come on strong to her host.  Grant, who is still not quite the dashing Cary Grant we all love from subsequent years, succumbs to her trampy behaviour and is ready to confess his new 'love' to his devoted wife. For once we really hope that Young will receive her comeuppance from a noble Grant, but no such luck.  Mind you all of this action is squeezed into a scant 59-minute running time and we never get to see much of Grant's change from benefactor to besotted lover.

However something happens that finally causes Young to see the light -- or at least a small glimmer -- and she finally realises that it is best to leave her son with this potentially caring couple, telling Grant that he was just another fling and that she is ready for more with other men.  Very like "Stella Dallas" some years on.  Noble mother-love or some such! Although characters at various stages of the film comment on how beautiful Young is, she didn't look all that great to me, and her acting as a tough, streetwise floozy frankly did seem a little forced.  The film was directed by erstwhile silent screen actor Lowell Sherman, who died shortly after it was made, again for 20th Century under Zanuck's watchful eye.  As an example of the cusp of the 30s' film-censorship production, it is historically interesting, but both Young and Grant would go on to far more memorable roles.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)

A scary feature of today's cityscape is seeing crowds of people shuffling about talking into their mobile phones, with slightly glazed eyes, occasionally reminiscent of a bunch of Romero's zombies.  So who, we may ask, is initially to blame for the invention of the telephone?  Well, Don Ameche of course!  Or rather Alexander G. B. as embodied by this actor, to the extent that it threatened to become his signature role and slang of the following years did call the phone an Ameche. 

The 1930s were a landmark period for the various studios churning out biopics of 'great' men from "Young Tom Edison" to "Edison the Man", from "The Story of Louis Pasteur" to "Doctor Ehrlich's Magic Bullet".  The above movie was 20th Century Fox's prestige entry in this field.  All of these films share the objective of making what is largely a history lesson into a popular entertainment and this movie is as good an example as any.  While the facts of Bell's life were roughly adhered to, they were simplified and condensed to produce a rattling good yarn under the aegis of the legendary Daryl F. Zanuck.  Set in Boston in 1875, it's the story of a teacher of the deaf struggling to invent a better telegraph until he became captivated with the idea of 'sending sound over a wire', of his falling in love with a woman left deaf after an early bout of scarlet fever, and of his staving off the breach of his patent by wealthy rival Western Union.  It may not sound exciting stuff, and the film does have the occasional longueur, but an accomplished cast make it all worthwhile.

Ameche was a stalwart at 20th Century, but studio contractee Tyrone Power was offered the cream of lead roles -- and yes, he was far prettier than Ameche.  However while Power's looks hardened with age and while he unfortunately died young, Ameche's career went on until the early 1990s and included such late career highpoints as the popular 1980s' flicks "Trading Places" and "Cocoon".  He plays Bell with great conviction and earnestness and it is just as well that his sidekick Henry Fonda, just before his elevation to leading man status, brings some humanity and humour to their inventive struggle. The dewy-eyed Loretta Young plays the object of his affections and parenthetically it is the only movie in which Young and her three actress sisters (Sally Blane, Polly Ann Young, and Georgiana Young) all appear in the same film.  They play the daughters of prolific character actors Charles Coburn and Spring Byington, where Daddy discourages Bell's affections for his daughter until he can provide her with a secure life and Mommy knows that her deaf daughter is lucky to have found a suitor.  A big deal is made of the fact that Young is able to lip-read so her character is graced with plenty of dialogue.  The cast is rounded out by other recognizable faces including Gene Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Elizabeth Patterson, and Beryl Mercer as Queen Victoria, who agrees to have Bell's newfangled invention installed at Buckingham Palace.

Despite contrived heart-tugging moments like Bell's teaching Lockhart's deaf son to speak his first word -- 'father' --, the film's excellent production values and art decoration ensure that this is a polished production, and it continues to be more than watchable today.  The movie was later renamed "The Modern Miracle" according to IMDb, but somehow I doubt that Bell could have guessed that his original invention would morph into the indispensable attachment of today's cellphone shufflers.