Fan-Made: Case Studies Inside Film Cultures, from Tarantino to Point Break

Early on in my academic study of film history and theory, I realized that the best way to understand the impact that the Movies have on our lives, to investigate these “popular entertainments,” is to watch what is and once was popular. I’ve seen a great number of films that never interested me as a filmgoer (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3), but I feel a professional obligation to see them nevertheless. This doesn’t mean that I see everything. (Who has the time, anyway?) For instance, I draw the line at certain kinds of horror movies, like torture porn or possession flicks. Limits. We all have our limits.

But when I examine popular films (by which I mean unequivocal blockbusters or cult classics), whether I am a self-professed fan or not, I tap into another world. Or at least I try. I want to know all the angles: all the controversies, all the gripes, all the pleasures that audiences have and share with one another. I have to see what all the fuss is about.

There was a lot of fuss about the Movies in 2015. Even though comic book superhero movies, studio tentpoles based on YA literature, and reboots of long-dormant franchises still dominated the box office this year, as they almost always do, to paraphrase New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the major studios pulled off the unthinkable: they gave us stuff that we largely wanted and liked, and thank god their original flicks with mid-size budgets did well, too. Maybe this means that film isn’t dying.

Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started in Fifty Shades of Grey. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As I actively participated in the hullabaloo surrounding the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), the whole world of fandom was thrown into sharp relief. “Fan-made,” which generally connotes those cultural products that are made by amateurs, created in the spirit of or in homage to well known works, suddenly landed on a much bigger stage, with more money attached, in 2015. Now, I’m not suggesting that J.J. Abrams isn’t a professional—even if I do think he’s famous for aping Spielberg and for re-imagining other creators’ properties. He tried his best with Star Trek; he improved upon George Lucas. I also do not mean to diminish Taylor-Johnson’s talents; she elevated her source material (the poorly imagined fan-fiction/erotica drivel written by E.L. James) by focusing on the ridiculousness of what ultimately amounted to no more than the protracted business negotiations of a sexual contract between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson won’t be returning for the next installments, and Universal has allowed James, who objected to Taylor-Johnson’s choices, to pass her husband, Niall Leonard, control over the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley, 2017).

However, while we’re on the topic of credibility, it is worth mentioning again that Trevorrow only had a low-budget romantic comedy to his name (Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) before Spielberg handed him the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise and World‘s estimated $150 million budget. He foundered a few times while promoting his monstrosity, unable to convince us that the relationship between onscreen leads Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t reek of sexism and that the reason women are not called upon to direct giant studio tentpoles is because they simply don’t want to. And to top it all off, Trevorrow delivered a cynical CGI-laden horror show, without any of the thrills, wonder, or charm of the 1993 original. Can you tell that I am a huge Jurassic Park fan?

Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together in Jurassic World? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It is well established that I am not a fan of Star Wars. But I knew that I was going to see the biggest film of the year in the theater. For a while, I just didn’t know when. Originally, I decided that I would wait a couple of weeks, allow the crowds to thin out. Then I decided that, in order to fully immerse myself in the fan culture, I had to see it opening weekend. I had my heart set on seeing filmgoers dressed as their favorite characters, maybe even turned away because they forgot to read the theater’s weapons policy and misguidedly brought that plastic lightsaber from home. I attended a sold-out show on the Sunday morning of its opening weekend. There were no Chewbaccas or Luke Skywalkers in the audience. Hell, we didn’t even have to stand in line before entering the auditorium. There were no hoots or hollers when the film franchise’s logo flashed across the screen. But I had tears in my eyes then, because I knew that I was sharing an experience with a larger, more enthusiastic community of film fans, even if they weren’t sitting in that darkened room with me. (They went at 8 pm Thursday night, right?) All in all, though, it was kind of like seeing any other movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is predicated on the idea that familiarity will sell. That is, it will fill nostalgic hearts and minds and also sell a shit ton of toys. I also understand that most diehard fans of the epic space fantasy series resent mastermind George Lucas’s three prequels, not only for introducing the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks but also for boring audiences to tears. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the last two prequels, inelegantly referred to as Episodes II and III.) So it seems only logical that a Star Wars superfan like J.J. Abrams would be able to bring back for his fellow fans what I imagine is the wonder and excitement of the early films. As I like to say, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise, but that isn’t saying much.” It is a loving pastiche of the original trilogy, only it is well made. Its racially and sexually diverse cast is new and more than welcome, especially since the unequivocal lead is a resourceful young woman named Rey, who, throughout her (mis)adventures with former Storm-Trooper Finn, father figure Han Solo, and furry sidekick Chewbacca, gradually learns the source of all her magical abilities. (It’s the Force, duh.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be the ultimate fan movie experience that everyone wanted this year or any year, for that matter (just look at how its box-office haul continues to grow and grow, beating all kinds of records), but it left me with nothing more than a newfound interest in why it is so important and life-defining to so many people.

OK, I didn't go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.
OK, I didn’t go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.

Instead, I received the superfan experience that I had hoped to witness at Star Wars while attending a special presentation of The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Though I initially balked at the price for a ticket to the film’s limited Roadshow Edition ($20!), I reasoned that the promise of receiving a souvenir program and watching the shadow and light show of actual celluloid—and of a rare, large format, no less—unspooling through a projector had enough value for me. Well, that, and because I wanted to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest. His cinema of indulgence, as I like to think of it, is an acquired taste, but I love how he wears his ecstatic cinephilia on his sleeve. In the case of what is billed as “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino,” this indulgence extends to amplifying the moviegoing experience for spectators to a new extreme, even for him.

Previously, Tarantino and best friend Robert Rodriguez put on a Grindhouse program in 2007, double billing their unapologetically trashy B-movies Death Proof and Planet Terror, respectively. Just as with Grindhouse, the auteur and his co-conspirators (historically, the Weinstein brothers Bob and Harvey) have injected a film history lesson about bygone exhibition practices back into contemporary pop culture, reminding today’s audiences that going to the Movies used to be a special, spectacular event. The limited Roadshow Edition of The Hateful Eight, complete with an instrumental overture, twelve-minute intermission, a handful of minutes not included on the digital prints of the film, and, not to mention, an earlier release date, subverts current film presentation trends such as surcharging tickets for movies screened in 3D and IMAX formats. You could even make the argument that the real star of the picture was the tangible film itself. Theaters had to be retrofitted with the right technology to screen 70mm, and transporting the heavy reels of film also proved a herculean task (the film is three hours long, mind you). Just read Adam Witmer’s account of what it is like to run the unfamiliar platter system of the 70mm projector at movie theaters in Los Angeles, with Tarantino sitting in the audience, to boot. It is mighty thrilling stuff.

Two of The Hateful Eight, being... hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Two of The Hateful Eight, being… hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

I enjoyed The Hateful Eight as a film story, right up until the end, anyway. But what I will most appreciate about it is the experience that I had going to the Movies on this occasion. Unlike at Star Wars, I had to wait in line to be let into the theater showing The Hateful Eight. Before the presentation began, I watched loving couples, movie nerd guys, and families with teenage or young adult children snap photos of themselves holding up the souvenir program. It was clear that I was a part of something big, something made for fans of Tarantino and for fans of cinema. I was glad that I had plunked down the $20 to attend a film event that hadn’t been replicated in fifty years. Would I do it again? Well, not every film gets or deserves this treatment, so that’s a moot point.

The plethora of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings of popular films—or, in the case of The Hateful Eight, the reconstruction of 1950s and 60s film exhibition practices—not only allowed fan culture to come to the fore in 2015, it damn near took control of our moviegoing habits. They were everywhere, and more are even coming to the small screens. Netflix will drop all episodes of its original series Fuller House next month, and fans of the family sitcom have already proposed new (sinister) ways of looking at the story of DJ Tanner raising her own kids with the help of friends and family in San Francisco. Twin Peaks is not definitely returning, this time to the cable channel Showtime. These TV shows help prove that “fan-made” doesn’t just mean a low budget, quirky reinterpretation of known properties by pop culture consumers. It also means “for the fans.”

Returning to the realm of the Big Screen, I found myself going to movies this year that I never would have imagined wanting to see if not for the perception that they would be special opportunities for me to participate in fan culture. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was one of them, but so was Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Now, maybe it was because I had begun to appreciate the action film in all of its tense glory through repeated and ecstatic viewings of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)—more on that in part four—that I had wanted to see what one of my favorite film critics, Bilge Ebiri, had dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.”

If I had ever seen the three original films by George Miller—1979’s Mad Max, 1981’s Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—I didn’t remember them. They mostly resonated with me through their influence on my childhood favorites Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) and Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993). In any case, I loved Fury Road. All at once, it was a recycling bin filled with iconography from every corner of cinema, refashioning elements of the modern vampire myth and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in the process, but it also felt so incredibly fresh. I had never seen a setting like that, simultaneously warm and inviting but also austere and unforgiving. Still, before its release, I never could have predicted that Fury Road, a frenetic road war movie with a preponderance of supposed practical effects and real stuntwork, would go on to top so many critics associations’ lists of the best films from 2015, including that of the National Board of Review. And a nomination for Best Picture? Who would have thunk it, indeed?

Donnie accepts that he's a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Donnie accepts that he’s a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not one for sports movies. I rented Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015) out of boredom and quickly lost interest. However, I rushed at the chance to see Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) in the theater, finding it my economic, political, and social obligation to support minority filmmakers. It didn’t matter that the only Rocky movie I had ever seen was the fourth installment in the franchise. On second thought, it probably helped that I had seen Drago bludgeon Apollo Creed to death in the ring in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). For Creed is about a young black boxer’s coming to terms with his identity as the illegitimate son of the late world heavyweight champion. Aside from the stellar performances—especially by lead Michael B. Jordan—and an amazing single take that approximates what a real-life boxing match is like, I loved the call-backs to the original film, snippets that I recognized because I am a pop culture junkie and know Rocky iconography without ever having seen the movie. I loved the early scene where Adonis “Donnie” Johnson shadowboxes his father, taking Rocky’s place in one of their bouts, footage of which Donnie projects onto a wall, streaming the video from YouTube. Later, his running through the street while neighborhood kids on bikes roll alongside him reminded me of Rocky’s triumphal climb up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What an exhilarating cinematic moment; it may have been like what film audiences experienced in 1976. I don’t remember how enthusiastic the crowd was when I saw Creed, but I couldn’t stop grinning from how well co-writer/director Coogler had rebooted, remade, and re-imagined a cultural touchstone that had run out of gas in recent years, how he had made it relevant to today’s audiences. With every day bringing us news of another unarmed African American being gunned down by excessive police force, Creed is a celebration of a strong black body, a multifaceted character with a complex inner life. In other words, it is a reminder that Black Lives Matter and are full of underestimated and untapped potential. Shame the Academy couldn’t see it.

But not everything produced with a strong fanbase in mind succeeded financially or critically. No one really cared to see Terminator: Genysis (Alan Taylor, 2015), probably turned off by its confusing story. Is it a sequel, a prequel, or what? And the remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic about a group of bank robbers who spend most days catching some waves off the Los Angeles coast, Point Break, crashed and burned. Like many people who grew up loving the campy original, I was at first hostile to the idea that Warner Bros. was going to distribute a remake of my beloved romance between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. But I learned that it is possible to appreciate both versions. In fact, it is possible to watch them both at the same time.

Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Having seen the trailer a couple of times, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers (including director/cinematographer Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) had made a case for a new Point Break in 2015. It’s a Point Break set within the world of extreme sports, a picture about the forces of nature and economic inequality. In this version, Johnny Utah is an FBI cadet who, based on his previous experience as a poly-athlete (I’d never heard that term before!) hypothesizes that a series of crimes performed through gravity-defying stunts on separate continents are all the work of the same daring team. They’re chasing what he calls the Osaki Eight, a series of physically demanding stunts that bring one closer to Nature. In other words, this legendary philosophy (the progenitor of it died while attempting his third challenge) is kind of like The Force: it is meant to do good. But the group, led by Bodhi (who else?), commits criminal acts in order to give back, including hijacking millions of dollars being transported by a plane. Releasing the bills miles high to the Mexican villagers below, they also accomplish their goal of strategically falling through the sky and opening their parachutes inside a cave, effectively going from above to below the earth’s surface in one fell swoop. This is not your childhood’s Point Break. In addition to highlighting what was wrong with the original (the surfer gang wasn’t a band of Robin Hoods), the film is a showcase for the striking photography of beautiful natural landscapes and the real stunts performed by professional athletes that are littered throughout.

C'mon, Bodhi, why don't you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna... Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
C’mon, Bodhi, why don’t you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna… Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I watched the new Point Break with the original, so ingrained in my memory, playing at the same time in the back of my mind. I could giddily anticipate some gestures and exchanges, such as the moment when Utah fires his gun into the air in a blaze of bullets after just having it trained on Bodhi, thereby allowing his friend/object of desire to get away before the feds arrive. I was the only one in the theater who yelped when she saw James Le Gros cameo as an FBI director (Roach lives!). Despite these call-backs to the original, I can assure you that this Point Break is its own campy thing. It is less a remake and more a re-imagining. And I couldn’t help thinking that an early scene set in a dilapidated Parisian train station (if memory serves) is the closest either film comes to shooting a love scene between the men. Here, Bodhi and his gang hang out, fighting each other for no apparent reason. Although couched as a test of Utah’s character and mettle, the fisticuffs between he and Bodhi signal a love and brutalism that binds them together. I just hope that in twenty-four years, if they even wait that long to remake Point Break, Bodhi and Utah consummate this desire to turn the other into himself. To fuck, as it were.

Fargo Season Two
Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (center) confronts Gerhardt scion Dodd in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

However, the most immersive and rewarding fan experience that I had in 2015—and which carried into 2016—didn’t even involve going to the movie theater. I became obsessed with the FX original series Fargo, created by Noah Hawley and inspired by the 1996 film of the same name written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I initially eschewed the first season of the mock true crime anthology series because Billy Bob Thornton starred. I hold a grudge against the man for having won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the year that John Hodge’s script for Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was nominated in the same category. (More on that film in part four.) However, I had read that the show was amazing, and when I spotted the first season on DVD at my public library, I snatched up the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about Fargo.

Set in 2006, it follows Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman in a stunning debut), a sheriff’s deputy in a small Minnesota town who is the only one who can see what is really going on: perennial schlemiel Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, putting on his best north Midwestern accent) is in cahoots with the mysterious assassin Lorne Malvo (a charismatic Thornton). Malvo’s not-quite-solicited murder of Lester’s high school bully sets off a dangerous and absurd chain of events, transforming Lester from a mild-mannered underachiever into a successful insurance salesman with a murderous streak. A suitcase buried in the snow even figures prominently in a second narrative thread concerning Malvo’s manipulation of a grocery store king (Oliver Platt) who hired him to find his blackmailer. That reminds me: I really ought to check out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014).

Anyway, I fell under Fargo’s spell immediately. I devoured episodes, reveling in the show’s intricate plotting, nuanced performances, and references not just to the Coens’ film but their whole cinematic universe. I finished in time to watch the second season as it aired, but I waited until my DVR had recorded all ten episodes before diving in. I wanted to go at my own (delayed but faster) pace.

For the second outing, Noah Hawley and his new writer’s room set the story in 1979, during the so-called Sioux Falls Massacre, which Molly’s retired sheriff of a father (Keith Carradine) referenced on a regular basis throughout season one. Going in, I already knew that at least two characters would survive: Molly, now played as a young girl by Raven Stewart, and her father Lou (played as a young state trooper by Patrick Wilson). All bets were off regarding everyone and everything else. The second season is more ambitious in style, story, and setting, incorporating a Midwestern turf war between a German-American crime family in Fargo, the Gerhardts, and a bigger, more streamlined operation in Kansas City that wishes to absorb the former’s drugs distribution business. Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a Minnesota beautician with a dream, accidentally runs over the youngest brother of the Gerhardt clan while he (Kieran Culkin, who knows a thing or two about family dynasties himself) tries to flee the scene of his triple homicide inside a remote diner. Peggy enlists the help of her dim-witted but well-meaning husband, the apprentice butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons), to get rid of Rye Gerhardt’s body. A call-back to the memorable woodchipper scene in the film Fargo ensues, as Ed disposes of Rye’s body the only way he knows how: with a meat grinder.

 

Fargo meat grinder
Ed prepares Rye Gerhardt for the woodchipper meat grinder in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

Although the characters and storylines are different between the film and each season of the TV show, a cottage industry exists in which viewers spot references to the film in the new series. Originally, this activity maddened Adam Sternbergh, novelist and contributing editor of New York magazine, whose favorite film is Fargo. Writing for Vulture, he recounts the process of coming to terms with the TV show, whose announcement in 2014 made him feel “something between doubt and existential despair,” by being “able to let go and watch the show in the spirit in which it perhaps was always meant to be watched.” The widening of the show’s scope in season two to include references to the larger Coen “mythology” has influenced Sternbergh to see Fargo as “the ultimate tribute” to the filmmakers, continuing:

The show accepts as a given that the Coens haven’t just created a distinctive visual style, or a stable of recognizable character types, or a set of consistent thematic concerns: They’ve created all those things, with such richness and abundance that their films now qualify as a genre unto themselves. The Coens may have started out making noirs, or Westerns, or comedies, but now they indisputably make Coen Brothers films. Their work has become a stand-alone genre that exists to be referenced, caricatured, borrowed, even shamelessly strip-mined. And it’s rich enough to inspire not just a spinoff, but an expertly executed ongoing televisual homage.

My favorite reference in season two to the Coen Brothers’ filmography comes at the end of the seventh episode. With the eldest Gerhardt brother in his possession, Ed Blumquist phones low-level KC mob enforcer Mike Milligan (a transfixing Bokeem Woodbine) to make a deal: he’ll give him Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) in exchange for help in getting the Gerhardts off his back. The song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” made famous by the Dude’s dream sequence in The Big Lebowski (1998), plays out the scene before the end credits roll. But rather than lift Mickey Newbury’s original 1967 track from the film, Hawley and Co. do something extra geeky: they put on an anachronistic funky cover of the song by the pop-synth band White Denim. I’d never heard of this musical group before, but I can only imagine that they probably first heard the song as I did in 1998: while watching The Big Lebowski. In this way, Hawley and his collaborators have taken their Coen fandom to new intertextual heights. Like White Denim, Hawley and his colleagues have taken a text (almost) exclusively associated with the Coen Brothers film genre, to use Sternbergh’s taxonomy, and created something new. Placing the cover of the song inside the playful homage that is Fargo the TV series emphasizes the fan culture from which both the cover song and the TV program were born and which they continue to stimulate.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Long Take: Jurassic World Devours Itself–And Virtually Everything Else

Viewed June 12, 2015

This is a Special Report from the desk of a Jurassic Park superfan.

Jurassic_World_posterJurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015) is a product of its time. And by that, I mean our time. The age of bloated superhero epics that tell the same origin stories over and over—even when they’re all gathered together to “save” the world again. Because what could be better than having one superhero in a movie? Six of them, that’s what. It’s also the age of flying cars in straightforward action pics, not science fiction fantasies set in the near-to-distant future. Because how could a stunt involving cars rushing through a tower be more awesome? If it blasts through two towers!

If audiences were clamoring for bigger, meaner dinosaurs to rampage through the park, ripping people to shreds or eating them whole, then Jurassic World doesn’t disappoint. (And apparently this is exactly what the spectators wished for; Jurassic World has raked in over $524.4 million worldwide during its opening weekend alone, becoming the largest opening weekend ever.) It is big, loud, and out of control. It is Jurassic Park on steroids, and I can’t imagine that anyone is comparing the reboot of the franchise favorably to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic. Jurassic World, unlike its predecessor, is deeply mired in cynicism and devoid of any sense of wonder. It is horrifically violent but not at all scary. Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale about what you should not wish for. Jurassic World is a war movie. This essay is littered with spoilers, so keep out if you want to stay safe!

The most interesting aspect of Jurassic World is its cynical commentary on today’s movies. But first, some back story: the protagonist, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the top executive of the Central American theme park situated on Isla Nublar (the same island off the coast of Costa Rica that once housed John Hammond’s Jurassic Park), and she spends much of her day trying to woo corporate sponsorships for new park attractions. When we first meet her, she is on her way to securing an endorsement from Verizon Wireless. But what is it for? In order to attract more new and repeat visitors, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only actor returning from any of the original three films) and his team of InGen lab scientists have engineered a brand-new dinosaur, Indominus rex, whose full genetic makeup is classified information.

When the beast inevitably escapes its containment barrack by tricking the computer-controlled thermal sensors and guardsmen into believing that the dinosaur has clawed its way out, it is a good thing that raptor whisperer trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is on hand to help Claire contain the escalating situation. A former Navy man, it is unclear how Owen has wound up on the island, and he is incredulous as to why simply having living, breathing dinosaurs on display isn’t enough for Jurassic World’s owner, the oil and telecommunications tycoon Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan). Why would he condone creating an animal no one knows or understands, Owen wonders. Claire tells Owen that people—nay, focus groups—have expressed renewed interest in the park if Jurassic World can produce a bigger, meaner dinosaur, something they haven’t seen before, thereby echoing the movie studios’ persistence to churn out mind-numbing entertainments with high but unremarked upon body counts and copious stunts and explosions.

A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its jaws. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its mouth. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The problem is that Indominus rex (whose ridiculous name, Claire insists, is supposed to be easy for people to pronounce) is too familiar to be genuinely awe-inspiring. Director Steven Spielberg and his team waited more than at least thirty minutes to show the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park, figuring its appearance was all the more shocking because, like his Jaws (1975) before it, the weight and menace of the so-called “King of All Dinosaurs” had been sensed and all but completely understood by characters and film viewers alike until that crucial set-piece. Indominus rex appears much earlier in the new film, and to give credit where credit is due, it is so big that it hardly fits in most frames. Part T. rex, part tree frog, and part Velociraptor among other unnamed species, Indominus rex mostly resembles the “tyrant lizard” with the shape of its head and its short arms (although it does not always move upright through space). The creature’s long, bumpy back recalls that of Godzilla, and its pinkish gray flesh reminded me of The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988), only less like Pepto-Bismol. When he sees Indominus rex for the first time, Masrani is stunned at what he calls its “white” skin. Claire senses his disapproval, but he insists that he loves it. Unfortunately, the designer dino isn’t easy to spot amongst all of the green vegetation in the park and eventually rips the under-the-skin homing device out of its flesh.

Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Although there is a lot of Jurassic Park in the DNA of Jurassic World, the new film proves that the original never could be made today just as it was over twenty years ago, thereby making Jurassic Park even more special. For starters, in 1993 it was more than acceptable for the action-adventure picture’s heroic star to be a middle-aged scientist, because his understanding of dinosaur anatomy and behavior prepared him to outsmart the prehistoric predators. In today’s movie, we need a muscle bound hunk with Magnum and Blue Steel looks to protect people—and by extension, the audience—from the fierce predators. Owen’s expertise as a man of action, a raptor wrangler, seemingly far outstrips Dr. Alan Grant’s (Sam Neill) paleontology background, even though we (and presumably Owen himself) don’t understand to what end he is training those raptors. In fact, Jurassic World disengages with science almost completely, relegating paleontology as a thing of the past when Claire says to prospective sponsors that the park’s scientists have learned more from advances in genetics in the last twenty years than they have ever learned from hundreds of years of “digging.”

Jurassic Park's skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Jurassic Park’s skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Establishing shots of Jurassic World’s attractions demonstrate how marginalized paleontology, scientific inquiry, and even history have become. Inside the Visitors Center, a hologram of dinosaurs takes center stage, replacing the full skeletal reconstruction of the T. rex from Jurassic Park. Off to the side, children play in what is effectively a sandbox, pretending to unearth dinosaur bones. Even the crackpot science of the 1993 film is only referenced in an updated interactive computer screen showcasing Mr. DNA (the cartoon narrator of the behind-the-scenes lab tour in Jurassic Park) or in the massive amber-laden design of the shops at the park’s entrance. Just as he feared, Dr. Grant and his kind have been forced into extinction.

Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

For fans of the original based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, it is easy to recognize that the raptors still sound the same (like geese) in Jurassic World, that they’re still featherless and too big according to the fossil record. The distinctive font for the movie and park logo (what is it called anyway, “Jurassic Park?”) is the same, only it is now Terminator steel in color, highlighting its militaristic narrative that I will come to later. In keeping with early twenty-first century trends to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable, it’s comforting to know that the gates to Jurassic World contain repurposed wood from those of Jurassic Park. Upon entering the control room for the first time, Claire chastises computer security expert Lowery (Jake Johnson, the only source of comedy in the whole picture) to clean up his workstation littered with small dino figurines in much the same way that John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) called out Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) for his slovenliness in Jurassic Park. The narrative conduit through which Jurassic World raises the emotional stakes also concerns the top executive’s relatives. While their parents hash out the details of their divorce, brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) travel to the tropical paradise to be reunited with their aunt, Claire, after seven years or so apart. She is too successful and busy to show them around personally, and so Claire assigns her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath) to look after the boys—before they ditch her in a crowd and subsequently go off-road in the park, to their peril.

Unlike Tim (Joseph Mazello) and Lex (Ariana Richards), John Hammond’s grandchildren who survived a vicious T. rex attack, electrocution by high voltage cables, and a group of raptors’ stealthy predation in Jurassic Park, the moody teenager Zach and his dorky dino-loving younger brother Gray are passive, ill-developed characters. In this day and age, it seems both outdated and highly implausible that parents would even attempt to keep their divorce secret from their teen and pre-teen children. Keeping the boys’ parents off the island until the whole family finally reunites after the big, bad dinosaur has been vanquished oversimplifies the narrative and likely keeps production costs low, as if that is a real concern (the producers of Jurassic World undoubtedly followed Hammond’s maxim to spare no expense). To add insult to injury, the script’s old-fashioned sexist gender politics actually calls for the boys’ mother Karen (Judy Greer, wasted), when accused of sounding like her mother, to point out to her sister Claire that she’ll understand how right their mother was when Claire has her own children. Claire corrects her with, “If I have children.” Karen settles their dispute with, “When.” During this exchange, I leaned over to whisper to my sister that the four screenwriters can’t write dialogue between two women, let alone sisters. Why is Karen/the filmmakers so intent on defining Claire in terms of her willingness and ability to mother children?

Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

In fact, much has been made of Jurassic World’s representation of women, much of it centered on Claire’s outrageous superhuman ability to outrun dinosaurs in high heels. In her New York Times review, film critic Manohla Dargis laments that Claire “mostly just schemes and screams, before Owen melts her like an ice cube on a hot griddle.” More like a Megan Fox character in any of the Transformers movies, with her permanent sheen of attractive sweat, Claire is a far cry from the intelligent, heroic paleo-botanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Those are some tough shoes to fill: Ellie wasn’t afraid to stick her hands into mounds of dino dung or call out Hammond’s sexism in Jurassic Park. More troublesome than Claire and Owen’s romantic subplot, which Joss Whedon deemed “70’s era sexist” once a clip from the film was released online over two months ago, is how Jurassic World tortures another female character. Sure, Zara may not be that interested in keeping an eye on Claire’s nephews—she’s too attached to her phone and likely believes babysitting is beneath her (is she wrong?)—but does she deserve to die such a violent and traumatic death? About midway through the film, amateur helicopter pilot Masrani fatally crashes into the aviary, thereby inadvertently releasing swarms of Pteranodon and Dimorphodon into the park and allowing them attack visitors. Two or more play a game, passing Zara back and forth before one drops her in the pool of the gigantic Mosasaurus. This act seals her fate to wind up as an even smaller bite-size snack than the shark from Jaws, a feeding demonstration that memorably plays out like a Shamu show at Sea World in the Jurassic World trailer.

The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it's never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it’s never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

But Jaws isn’t the only piece of film history gobbled up in Jurassic World. As part and parcel of the film’s commentary on the outlandish and out-sized spectacle of today’s movie entertainments, Jurassic World also deconstructs its studio’s theme park attractions. Literally. Jimmy Fallon, the star of NBC’s The Tonight Show, makes a cameo appearance as the host of the Gyrosphere off-road experience, thereby reprising his role as the video guide of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Studio Tour. His comic hijinks shot in a studio laboratory and broadcast on the re-envisioned tram’s video screen turn glitchy once Indominus rex attacks Zach and Gray in their Gyrosphere vehicle. Contrary to Fallon’s claims, indestructible this technology is not. This is also how the only truly awe-inspiring sequence in the entire film concludes, with a callback to the T. rex’s attack on Tim and Lex’s electric-powered Jeep. Zach and Gray’s safari adventure, rolling around with stampedes of Apatosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and others, recalls the moment in Jurassic Park where Drs. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) see the Brachiosaurus for the first time. But the Jurassic World sequence is heavily edited and too closely framed. The sense of wonder so prevalent in Jurassic Park (look! living, breathing dinosaurs!) is completely absent in Jurassic World, and composer Michael Giacchino’s reworking of John Williams’s iconic score even fails to move. It just doesn’t feel earned.

Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Universal puts more of its properties through the ringer, as well. Whereas the more natural landscape of Jurassic Park was sparsely populated with brutalist concrete buildings, Jurassic World strikingly resembles Universal City Walk by way of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Its Disneyland-like Main Street U.S.A. is lined with shops that anyone would recognize from a standard suburban American mall: Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Pandora, etc. Other than visiting to look at dinosaurs, there is nothing special about this place. The only mention of what I would consider an extraordinary experience on offer at “Downtown Jurassic World” is the quick advertisement on the loudspeaker for a Chilean sea bass dining experience, which references a lunchtime meal in Jurassic Park that no one actually partakes. They’re all too busy discussing whether or not Jurassic Park should exist. There is no such philosophical reflection in Jurassic World.

Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn't such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Given what I’ve read about Michael Crichton’s literary oeuvre and his political ideology, I imagine that he would gleefully applaud the rampaging dinosaurs’ destruction of this tasteless, highly corporatized place. In its pursuit of dollars and sponsorships, the telecommunications conglomerate that owns Jurassic World (remember, Comcast owns Universal), brings about the end of civilization—the wild animals in the zoo, particularly the little-understood hybrid—fight back! (Control is an illusion, or so said Dr. Ellie Sattler.) The rampant commercialism and excessive consumption on display throughout Jurassic World gets it most exacting and seemingly innocuous indictment not in the very unsubtle product placements strewn throughout (featuring the likes of Mercedes, The IMAX Experience, and Samsung) but in various characters’ drinking soda from oversized Jurassic World paper cups. As such, those film spectators in the theater sipping Coke or shoveling popcorn into their mouths from Jurassic World tie-in merchandise containers are somewhat implicated in Jurassic World’s expensive socio-biological experiment in entertainment gone so horrible wrong. After all, the next best thing to actually being there is feeling immersed in the park’s material culture. The movie’s website outwardly projects a real-life presence for Jurassic World, giving weather forecasts and “real-time” approximations for various attractions’ wait times. Visitors can even refill their souvenir cups for only 99 cents at filling stations throughout the park. The spell is broken, however, once you click “Get Tickets” and you’re rerouted to a Fandango-like website listing movie times in your vicinity.

Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn't wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn’t wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As a Jurassic Park superfan, I admit that I would love to own a t-shirt from the movie (and by that, I am referring to shirts that were featured in Jurassic Park and were subsequently available for purchase in the real world). Jurassic World blurs this line between diegetic and real-world marketing when Claire reprimands computer security expert Lowery for wearing an original Jurassic Park tee, labeling it in poor taste to promote a park where people lost their lives. She therefore negatively judges people’s continued morbid fascination with Jurassic Park. He beams that this collector’s item only set him back $150 on eBay, a steal when they usually go for $300. Of course, this line from Claire comes across as highly hypocritical: is she not profiting now from the disaster of Jurassic Park? As for Lowery, my sister doesn’t understand why a dino-loving guy who ironically wears a Jurassic Park tee would work there, either. My only guess is that he represents the Jurassic Park aficionado that so many of us are and that he wants to prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again. But too bad. He can’t.

Of course, what brings Jurassic World personnel to its knees is another inside job. Whereas computer programmer Dennis Nedry wreaked havoc in Jurassic Park when he shut down the power in order to get away with a canister of dinosaur DNA for personal profit, Dr. Henry Wu and a U.S. military contractor named Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) scheme behind Masrani and Claire’s backs to design Indominus rex with technological advancements that make it imperceptible by all known combat weapons currently used in the field, including thermal sensors and drone radars. In other words, disaster was bound to strike Jurassic World because Wu and Hoskins engineered it just so. As I stated before, when we meet Owen, alpha papa to a gaggle of raptors, it is unclear as to what he wants to achieve with the trained predators who were arguably the principal villains in Jurassic Park. As luck would have it, he fulfills some sort of destiny to rein them in in order to hunt down Indominus rex at Hoskins’s insistence. Besides, only Owen can do it well.

Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Once Indominus rex escapes its ill-suited cage, Jurassic World leadership does everything it can to track the dinosaur down, all while keeping its grave breach in security a secret from thousands of visitors. It is worth noting that most of the beast’s victims are people of color, beginning with a Hispanic park ranger and following through to an Asian-American special forces commander and members of his diverse team. In order to protect their expensive “asset,” leadership only allows the group of deadly operatives to pack tranquilizer guns. What’s worse is that they are barely mourned. In the control room, Claire, Owen, Masrani, Hoskins, and others watch each soldier’s computer-represented lifeline go limp, one at a time. This is in stark contrast to Claire’s tearful reaction to witnessing the death of an Apatosaurus, clawed down by the Indominus rex, while on her way with Owen to the northern section of the island to rescue her nephews. This moment obviously recalls the scene in Jurassic Park wherein Dr. Ellie Sattler investigates which plant likely ails the poisoned Triceratops. But again, it rings so false. Apatosaurus, I hardly knew ye!

The last third of the movie goes beyond the conventions of a traditional monster movie; it becomes a war picture. Despite Wu’s earlier pronouncement to Masrani, who wonders who signed off on Wu’s creation (it was you, Masrani, duh), that Jurassic World and presumably its 1993 antecedent were “never natural,” Hoskins insists that war is a part of nature, as if his field test is a natural progression of the wars in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Syria. In much the same way that a hungry shark interrupts Samuel L. Jackson’s rousing speech in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999), a raptor charges at Hoskins, allowing Owen, Claire, and her nephews a way out. Eventually, Gray surmises that the surviving raptors simply don’t have enough teeth to take down Indominus rex, which lends Claire her one opportunity to enact a true, heroic gesture: she orders Lowery to open the T. rex’s compound, which, it must be said, resembles a soundstage on a studio backlot. Still in heels, Claire outruns the King of Dinosaurs on her way back to Owen and the boys. According to Manohla Dargis, “the heels are just silly and a distraction given that they’re nowhere near as insulting as the rest of her.” I’m not a Claire apologist (or, more accurately, a defender of the scriptwriters), but it is undeniable that Claire—and not Owen—bravely leads the T. rex to Indominus rex. The dino battle isn’t particularly noteworthy except for the nostalgia-tinged emotions it elicits in the film audience. Our one-time villain T. rex may die? Thankfully, the Mosasaurus emerges from the water, bites Indominus rex, and plunges the dino mutt into its tank. The last shot of the film features the T. rex roaring outside the control room, announcing its return to the top. There will likely be another sequel, because the park leadership still will not have learned its lesson. After all, Dr. Wu got away with the dino DNA.

Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Before Jurassic World began, I came to a strange but wonderful observation: unlike other franchise reboots of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars included), it’s highly probable that everyone in the packed theater—kids, teens, and adults—had seen the original blockbuster on which Jurassic World is based. The new feature may have expanded the universe of the earlier film, completely loping off its two sequels, but it didn’t use Jurassic Park’s intelligence, sense of humor, or incredible imagination. However, it’s still worth visiting in the same way that one should experience a Disney resort from time to time. What new monstrosity will they cook up next to make you long for the awesome theme park experience of your childhood?

Quick Edit: Spare Parts Builds Something Special

Viewed May 15, 2015

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m not one for inspirational teacher/coach movies. For starters, these films usually revolve around a coach searching for redemption, beginning with Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986). As the Ur-text of this kind of film, Hoosiers popularized the subgenre. Other notable entries in the canon include The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992), Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993), We Are Marshall (McG, 2006), and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006). There are some exceptions to the trope of the white male savior coach, though: Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000), starring Denzel Washington, who later went on to direct himself as an inspirational college professor in The Great Debaters (2007), and Coach Carter (Thomas Carter, 2005) both cast African-American actors as the students’ tough but fair role models. Even though a sports backdrop predominates in this field, there are films that are about teachers effecting change in the classroom, some more successfully than others. Thanks to Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), we all learned to quote Walt Whitman and seize the day. The Emperor’s Club (Michael Hoffman, 2002), also set at a tony boarding school, is a bit of an outlier, for it exposes how an honorable classics teacher failed to impart the importance of living a life with integrity on one of his most difficult students. Then, of course, there are the two most recognizable woman-centered inspirational teacher films: Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995) and its apparent remake Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese, 2007). Remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”?

Spare Parts movie posterHowever, I’d like to recommend a new and welcome entry in the subgenre: this year’s Spare Parts, directed by Sean McNamara and written by Elissa Matsueda. (Did you think I was going to say McFarland, USA?) Based on Joshua Davis’s 2005 WIRED magazine article, “La Vida Robot,” it tells the story of four Mexican-American teenagers living in Phoenix who, with a little guidance from their teacher, enter a prestigious underwater engineering competition and blow everyone away with their expertly designed ROV (remote-operated vehicle), constructed for only $800—a tenth of their competitors’ average operating budget. Fronted by funnyman George Lopez, Spare Parts resembles Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988) in that a Mexican-American teacher guides the at-risk students in developing practical STEM-related skills. However, Spare Parts also recalls Race the Sun (Charles T. Kanganis, 1996) and October Sky (Joe Johnston, 1999), simply because of its emphasis on the students’ coming-of-age while learning to work as a team to build mechanical vehicles or rockets. (It is also worth mentioning that in Spare Parts’s closest antecedents, the inspiring teachers were both women.)

Here, the real-life robotics club mentors Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi, both science teachers at Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix, combine to form Dr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), an engineer who has difficulty keeping a job longer than three months due to some emotional trauma that he experienced years ago (I won’t spoil what it is, though you can probably already guess). Desperate, he takes a long-term substitute-teaching job, and the persistent Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), a member of the local ROTC, convinces him to sponsor the school’s robotics club. Having been denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces based on his undocumented immigration status, Oscar believes competing in the underwater robotics competition is his ticket to college. Rounding out the group are Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), the bullied brainiac; Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián), the trouble-making mechanics-whizz; and Luis Aranda (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II), the muscle. Mild-to-major spoilers follow.

Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

I didn’t understand much about the technical aspects of their project, but it doesn’t matter. Spare Parts is a winning underdog story because of its characters, whose development eschews caricature and stereotypes. Each member of the group has his own set of challenges that make for compelling drama, especially since there aren’t many films about the lived experiences of undocumented child immigrants. Oscar is so ashamed that his path to serving in the US Armed Forces hasn’t panned out that he keeps his rejection from the program and his participation in the club secrets from his mother (Alessandra Rosaldo). When she learns the truth from Oscar’s math teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei), she confronts Oscar and rightfully points out that, even if the competition grants him opportunities in engineering, no company will hire him without his “papers.” Throughout the film, Oscar lives in fear that the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will detain and deport him and his family. After receiving a tip from the recruiter, he avoids returning to his family’s house, afraid that he will never be able to go home again. He also breaks up with his girlfriend, Karla (Alexis PenaVega), believing that his undocumented status is a burden, an impediment to their living peacefully.

Cristian appears to be the only man in his house, and he longs to attend a father-son science program with Dr. Cameron. It’s heartbreaking when Dr. Cameron declines, unsure of himself as a father figure. The greatest obstacle to Cristian achieving success, however, is poverty. His family is dirt poor, and he lives alone in an unheated shed outside of the family’s trailer. We do not glimpse his living situation until halfway through the film, because the home lives of Oscar and Lorenzo take precedence.

As the older brother of a budding juvenile delinquent born in the United States, it is Lorenzo’s responsibility, per his stern father’s request, to always look out for Ramiro (Ray Aguayo) or to take the blame for any of Ramiro’s misdeeds. The message that Señor Santillan (Esai Morales) is sending to his son is that his own life doesn’t matter—he’s not meant for anything else. The father would rather have Lorenzo deported—separated from the family—than an American-born son with a police record. Dr. Cameron steps in to mediate the conflict growing between Lorenzo and his father after Lorenzo stops Ramiro from robbing a convenience store. When he hears of what has happened, Señor Santillan only cares if Ramiro was arrested (he wasn’t) and resents that Dr. Cameron tried to meddle in his family’s affairs. Like Oscar, Lorenzo must now fend for himself, in fear of deportation (cops or ICE agents saw him leave the scene of the attempted crime) and kicked out of the house for not looking after Ramiro properly. Why Señor Santillan never thinks that it is his responsibility to keep his son out of trouble is beyond me, and why doesn’t Ramiro ever consider that his actions have severe consequences on his father and brother?

Luis, the only US citizen of the four, is the least developed character. A gentle giant, the rest of the group admittedly uses his stature and strength to lift and set down their 100-pound rover into the pool. Luis struggles to understand how people perceive him. He asks his mother if he is stupid or just quiet, and she answers that only he can reveal who he is. Her encouraging riddle flummoxes him, but it is apparent that the group project and the competition’s requirement that all members present on the technology that they used to make their ROV certainly lift Luis’s confidence, thereby proving to himself and everyone else that he is a capable team member.

Spare Parts is smart and poignant, dramatizing certain elements of the true story for socio-political effect. For example, while Cristian and Lorenzo design the proof-of-concept model using the spare parts found in Dr. Cameron’s science lab, Oscar sets out to raise money for critical missing pieces. He solicits funds from local businesses and banks and is repeatedly turned down. Upon witnessing the ease with which servicemen receive a loan, Oscar astutely pulls his uniform out of the closet and successfully obtains $100 to help with the project. This demonstrates that, given individual prejudice and institutionalized racism, sometimes people of color are not taken seriously, as citizens deserving of respect, unless he or she is in uniform. Later in the film, the team drives to a motel where they can test the rover in the pool. But before they begin, fun hijinks ensue as they push Dr. Cameron into the pool. Eventually everyone is in the water, splashing away, being the kids that they really don’t have the privilege of being at home. While no character’s life situation is representative of every undocumented immigrant who arrived in this country as a child, Spare Parts effectively draws out the inherent drama of their situations in order to instill empathy in the audience.

It should be no surprise that Spare Parts is also very funny, given George Lopez’s headlining presence. Once the team arrives in Santa Barbara for the competition, where they enter the college-level contest (Dr. Cameron thinks that if they lose, it’ll be a greater accomplishment to come in last among the likes of MIT and Stanford), they discover that their waterproof case leaks and resolve to find a quick, absorbent solution. Lorenzo suggests using tampons, and watching him build up the courage to ask a woman in the grocery store for help in choosing the right one (no applicator!) is hilarious. According to Davis’s article, this really happened, despite its seeming provenance from a teenage sex comedy.

In fact, Spare Parts ends triumphantly, but not without suspense. Like I said, I don’t really understand all of their techno-speak, but watching them complete the rover’s underwater obstacle course was a nail-biting ordeal. The team impresses the judges with their oral presentation, self-evident mastery of the material, and innovative and spendthrift design. I don’t want to spoil everything for you, so I urge you to check out the film. It may have taken some liberties with the original story, but as an inspirational teacher/coach movie, Spare Parts blazes a new trail and winningly focuses on the realistic trials and tribulations of the students.

Quick Edit: A Revealing Portrait of a Photographer

Viewed May 6, 2015

The Salt of the EarthI’m not really one for documentaries, and I almost never run out to see them in the theater. However, this week I made a rare exception for The Salt of the Earth (2014), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard selection and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In it, German director Wim Wenders explores the life and work of social documentary and environmental photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose haunting black-and-white images have bridged cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers for over four decades. Trained as an economist, Salgado first made the switch to photography after commandeering his wife’s camera. He started as a photojournalist, but The Salt of the Earth focuses on the self-assigned projects Salgado undertakes for years at a time. He’s been a witness to the human condition everywhere: photographing the Rwandan genocide, the end of the Persian Gulf War, Sudan, and all around South America.

The subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (who shares the director’s credit with Wenders), shot the scenes of the photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in the field—in the Russian Arctic capturing polar bears and walruses with his camera or in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, getting to know the isolated native people and their way of life. In voiceover, Juliano narrates that journeying with him to the Arctic was the first time that Juliano had ever gone on assignment with his father. Although the color landscape photography is starkly beautiful, the more plentiful sections of Salgado the Elder reflecting on individual photographs from his oeuvre were more engrossing. (It’s also curious that beyond seeing Salgado at work or discussing it in hindsight, we don’t ever learn much about his process, aesthetic choices, or the nature of his collaboration with his wife Lélia. Why does he shoot in B&W? Who are his artistic influences?)

The Salt of the Earth is captivating in the same way that Salgado’s images are similarly evocative, painful, and compassionate. They demand your attention, but they also picture deeply private and traumatic events in the lives of Salgado’s multifaceted subjects. At just under two hours long, the film documents a good chunk of Salgado’s portfolio. His Portuguese-accented French makes it easy to get swept up in the photographer’s stories, which animate a film that is largely a slideshow of the pictures he has made over the years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then he poetically fills his images with details about the people he met, the horrors he saw, the work of humanitarian aid workers he observed. He confesses that what he witnessed in Rwanda and in the neighboring Congo (where thousands of survivors fled before being forced to return home) affected him so deeply that he began exploring nature and wildlife photography as a way to move on from the trauma.

The photographer Sebastião Salgado.
The photographer Sebastião Salgado.

The documentary, like Salgado’s work, is both very subtle and deeply profound. I had no idea that his greatest achievement may be what he and his family have created in their corner of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Having grown up on his father’s farm, set in a lush subtropical paradise, Salgado was devastated in the 1990s that his childhood home had turned into a dry wasteland, unable to maintain life due to advanced natural degradation, rampant deforestation, and unchecked exploitation of natural resources such as iron ore. Lélia innocently suggested that they simply plant trees to rejuvenate the land. Seventeen years after establishing the Instituto Terra, the land is green again, populated with millions of trees, numerous animal species once threatened with extinction, and vibrant, free-flowing natural springs. It is remarkable what they accomplished in just fifteen years, and it is extremely touching that the Salgado family gifted the land to Brazil’s national parks service so that everyone may enjoy the family’s Private Natural Heritage Reserve.

I broke out in tears when, at the end of the film, Salgado reminisces about the transformation that his father’s Fazenda Bulcão (or Bulcão Farm) underwent, at peace with the notion that the land has returned to its robust natural state and should remain that way long after he is gone. What a beautiful way to accept the transiency of our existence. And what a legacy.

Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.
Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.

Considering that Salgado has seen—and shown us—the best and worst that people have to offer, The Salt of the Earth ends on a hard-won, optimistic note. The coda is also poignant because it was virtually the only scene in which Salgado speaks his native language. In the beginning, it had puzzled me as to why he was always speaking French. (He and Lélia moved to Paris in the late 60s or early 70s, and they are still based in the city where they raised their sons.) Eventually, it dawned on me that he likely spoke French so that his interviewer, Wim Wenders, could understand him. This delighted me to no end, for I have a tremendous soft spot for scenes and/or whole relationships played out between two or more people who are speaking a language that isn’t the mother tongue to either one of them. So, it was startling but oh-so poetic that Salgado should speak in Portuguese at the end, signaling a homecoming after decades abroad, circumnavigating the globe in search of humanity.

Long Take: Hector and the Search for Happiness Finds Nothing to Be Happy About

Viewed March 5, 2015

Movie poster for Hector and the Search for HappinessHector and the Search for Happiness (2014) came and went late last summer in limited release, but I don’t recall it ever coming to a theater near me. Which is just as well, because it is horrible. Ostensibly a comedy, the biggest laugh that the film story elicits occurs when a French woman struggles to pronounce the word “happiness.” The titular character, though embodied by Simon Pegg (one of my favorites), and all those who surround him are so criminally underdeveloped that it is difficult to care much about anyone in the film except in a more theoretical way that the filmmakers don’t support. What’s worse, the representation of the bored British psychiatrist’s journey around the world to find out what makes people happy paints multiple far-flung cultures in broad, caricatured brushstrokes. There is virtually no cultural specificity in any of the places that he visits, and when director and co-writer Peter Chelsom and crew attempt to add critical dissections of serious impediments to people’s general health and well-being in these places, these issues are wiped under the rug, never to be disturbed again. In case you are new to Hector and the Search for Happiness, be warned that I am going to spoil it now. And while you’re at it, take a peek at the film’s trailer to see how much potential the filmmakers wasted.

I have not read the original source novel by French psychiatrist François Lelord, but apparently its raison d’être is to educate a general readership about the psychology of happiness and to offer tips on finding it in everyday life. This explains why, after almost every interaction with someone throughout his international adventure, Hector jots down in his journal maxims such as “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” and “Happiness is not always knowing the full story.” These words are scrawled across the screen in order to keep a running tally of all the lessons learned, as if the film is a PowerPoint lecture. Hector also fills the pages of his notebook, which sexy and domineering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) gifted him upon his departure, with cutesy doodles of what his childish imagination encounters abroad. The main lesson he must learn is that losing Clara, even though she smothers him with a routine (always the same breakfast; she clips his toenails and packs his bag), would make him really unhappy. That’s right: he goes on this purportedly life-changing adventure only to realize that he likes his life just as it is. Although the couple’s Skype conversations widen the chasm between them more and more throughout, as the film drags on, there is never any doubt as to the fate of their relationship.

And this is why Hector’s first stop in “China” is so perplexing. He never gives any reason as to why he starts there (and isn’t it the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that is regularly cited as the happiest place on earth?) or what he is going to do once he arrives. But Hector doesn’t need a plan when he has filthy rich businessman Stellan Skarsgård to act as his guide in an unnamed Shanghai. It truly boggles the mind as to why Skarsgård’s Edward, so annoyed by Hector on the plane ride over from London, would take the ridiculous man under his wing and show him a good time. For, unbeknownst to Hector, Edward has secured the services of a prostitute named Ying Li (Ming Zhao) to keep Hector company in the nightclub and beyond. Although Clara gave Hector permission to fool around while on his trip, he winds up falling asleep before Ying Li can even get into the bed. At lunch the next day, believing he’s falling in love, Hector discovers the truth when her pimp whisks her away. Hector tries to do the honorable thing and stand up to him, but, despite calling her john “nice,” Ying Li hits Hector on the head and rides away. She doesn’t want his help. So in one fell swoop, Hector goes from ruminating that perhaps happiness is being in love with two women at the same time to realizing that he’s happier not knowing Ying Li’s full story. I never expected the film to engage the topics of prostitution and sexual tourism in Shanghai, but since the filmmakers did, I find it morally reprehensible that Hector, a psychiatrist, would find it so easy to disengage. It’s not as if Ying Li was happy to see her pimp, to return to her life as a sexually exploited woman. She seemed confused as to how she felt about Hector, as if wondering whether or not he could provide an escape. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a film about a white male tourist “saving” a Chinese prostitute. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how the experience of falling for a woman, no matter her profession, had exactly no consequences on Hector’s outlook other than admitting he rather just be ignorant of the circumstances of her life.

Hector and Ying Li get up close and personal. Photo courtesy of Relativity Media.
Hector (Simon Pegg) and Ying Li (Ming Zhao) get up close and personal. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

But it only gets worse. From Shanghai, Hector treks through the Himalayas to a remote Buddhist monastery. No one mentions the place by name, but it is easy to assume that he has entered Tibet, to seek the advice of Togo Igawa’s Old Monk (the filmmakers couldn’t even give him a name), who mainly just speaks in rhetorical loop-de-loops to help Hector arrive at the lesson that always avoiding things that make you unhappy is no surefire way to attain long-lasting happiness. He spends all of five minutes there, without ever contemplating how the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan statehood might affect the happiness of the people living and working there.

Then he moves on to “Africa.” I found this section the most offensive, beginning with the filmmakers’ failure to name a more specific region or country. Perhaps they left the place intentionally unidentified so as to not incur the wrath of people and governments of a particular place or area. But this lack of cultural specificity effectually purports that Hector’s “Africa” stands in for a whole continent, dominated by warlords foreign-born and native alike, backward villagers who travel with their chickens on prop planes, and “Western” organizations that provide humanitarian aid. In fact, Hector spends two weeks helping his medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) at the clinic he runs with his African boyfriend. Embarrassingly, it takes him a full two weeks to recognize that Michael and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are romantically involved, coming to the delightful conclusion that “Happiness is when you are loved for who you are.” Unfortunately, just as Michael’s work is merely the conduit through which Hector can explore “Africa,” the former’s sexual relationship with Marcel exists purely as a way for Hector to learn this widely shared belief. Hector doesn’t seem to care about the challenges that the mixed-race, homosexual couple—his friends—must face in this setting. And nor do the filmmakers.

You wouldn't know it from this photo, but Michael, Hector, and Marcel are cruising in a war-torn
You wouldn’t know it from this photo, but Michael (Barry Atsma), Hector (Pegg), and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are cruising in a war-torn “Africa.” Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

Hector continuously acts the fool, and he even comes to the aid of a local warlord named Diego Baresco (Jean Reno). Despite warnings from Michael and Marcel about warlords in the area, Hector proves his goodness to Baresco, who suspects him of working for an international peace-keeping outfit that swoops in only to leave before seeing their work through. Hector reviews the prescriptions that Baresco’s beloved wife takes and makes revisions to her regime, thereby instilling some peace of mind in Baresco. They get drunk together, and on his ride back to the clinic, Hector fails to recognize that his taxi cab has been hijacked by two armed rebels, because all black men look the same to him. He’s soon taken hostage, destined to rot in a cell with one rat as his friend. It’s unclear as to how long he is held captive, and of course we have no idea what the rebels seek to accomplish with their violent acts. We’re just supposed to accept this, because isn’t that what happens in Africa? According to this film, white European and American tourists go missing all the time and are swept into guerrilla warfare. Hector uses Baresco’s pen to negotiate his release, for his captors fear retribution from Hector’s powerful “friend.” They abandon Hector on a country road, and “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” is emblazoned on the screen. Yes, absolutely, but did we need such an extreme scenario to demonstrate this? Especially since nothing becomes of it? Hector doesn’t suffer any post-traumatic stress, and we never witness Michael’s or Marcel’s worry over Hector’s abduction. Before moving on to Los Angeles to meet his former med school flame Agnes (Toni Collette), Hector experiences the gloriousness of sweet potato stew, which a baby-swaddling woman on the prop plane promised to prepare for him once they landed safely in “Africa.” It’s supposed to be physically and emotionally fulfilling, but we viewers never see it. The filmmakers can’t even commit to showing us a traditional “African” dish.

Having survived being held hostage by an indistinguishable
Having survived being held hostage by an indistinguishable “African” rebel group, Hector celebrates by cooking sweet potato stew with local women. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

In Los Angeles, Hector takes part in Professor Coreman’s (Christopher Plummer) neuroscience study to map emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear across different parts of the brain. After breaking up with Clara over the phone because his traveling to Los Angeles has finally signaled for the couple that Hector still longs for Agnes, Hector exhibits all three emotions in the scanner, lighting up Coreman’s screen with a rainbow of colors that the professor has assigned to each emotional state. Is this the payoff we’re supposed to receive from Hector and the Search for Happiness? What makes Hector special is his ability to feel happiness, sadness, and fear at the same time when recalling a wide range of events in his life? Having been rebuffed by Agnes, a happily married psychologist with a third child on the way, Hector determines that he must get back to London to be with Clara. As I said before, they live happily ever after. He’s more emotionally available and compassionate towards his patients, and Clara finally realizes that, yes, she wants to have a baby with Hector.

What and whom they always wanted. Clara (Rosamund Pike) and Hector finally tie the knot. Image courtesy of relativity Media.
What and whom they always wanted. Clara (Rosamund Pike) and Hector finally tie the knot. Image courtesy of Relativity Media and MovieStillsDB.com.

The one bright spot in this mess is the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Although their relationship isn’t exactly desirable (she takes great pride in clipping his toe nails!), they have an appealing, silly rapport in scenes where they interact in person. In fact, most of their exchanges occur over video conferencing calls. Notably, Hector and the Search for Happiness may be implying that staying connected through this kind of technology is no substitute for human contact (when Hector tries to tell her that he’d been kidnapped, she fails to register the gravity of the situation). Even phone conversations do not go well between them. There is simply a lack of communication between the lovers, and isn’t that a definite sign of their incompatibility? Clara cannot make up her mind regarding Hector’s up and leaving her for an indeterminate period of time. Hector needs to leave the person he loves in order to realize that happiness lies in a life made with her. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, especially since we watch him come to this conclusion under the most ridiculous of circumstances. As I said before, I am a huge fan of Pegg’s, and it was disappointing to see him attached to such bone-headed and culturally insensitive material. I wonder what attracted him to it in the first place: Hector’s childhood love of The Adventures of Tin Tin, maybe? Then again, shooting a film about happiness around the world does sound really exciting. If only the film wasn’t so concerned with checking off the lessons in the original source novel and instead let the characters interact with each other in more plausible, organic ways.

Who is Laura Lamont?

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesEmma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures charts the transformation of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, into one of the starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Using Jennifer Jones’s biography as a springboard, Straub writes of a woman who juggles multiple identities throughout her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, and actress. In fact, the book is divided into twelve chapters whose titles encapsulate the roles she plays. Opening the novel in 1929, “Cherry,” at once suggesting the ripe potential of her later life’s work and the lost grandeur of Chekhov’s last play, details the special circumstances of her childhood spent behind the scenes and on the floorboards of her parents’ barn-house theater. Nine years pass between the suicide of Elsa’s older, beloved and beautiful sister Hildy and her escape from Door County with stranger-cum-costar-cum-husband Gordon Pitts. Within a few years after their arrival in Los Angeles, Gordon signs a contract to be a bit player at Gardner Brothers, and Elsa’s own acting ambitions take a backseat to her familial responsibilities. In the second chapter, “Laura Lamont,” studio executive (and Gordon’s boss) Irving Green flirts with Elsa at a wrap party and rechristens her “Laura Lamont,” telling her that, provided she loses thirty pounds once she gives birth to her (second) child, she is pretty enough to be a star. And so our heroine now sets her mind on becoming the star she always wanted to be.

Straub is a deft storyteller, and structuring her fictional biography according to the highlights of Laura Lamont’s life and career excises the fat of the more uneventful, prosaic moments of a character’s story. However, after reading all 304 pages of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, the titular protagonist still remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps this is intentional. We read as Elsa/Laura struggles to define herself, mainly as her new glamorous identity fails to wipe the slate clean. She can’t face up to her mother, who resents Elsa for leaving Door County, seemingly forgetting who she is. Laura is haunted by past traumas, such as her sister’s suicide, and, years after she has divorced Gordon and married the studio’s number two, Irving Green, her first husband becomes a drunkard, a drug addict, a costly thorn in her side. The role that she chooses to most define her is that of mother. More pages are devoted to Laura’s dedication to and admiration of her three children: Clara and Florence, from her first marriage, and Irving Jr. This isn’t objectionable, of course, but as a film scholar and historian, I was more interested in how Straub represented Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub's Laura Lamont.
Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont.

Just as it is unreasonable for a film critic to judge a motion picture against the film s/he would like to have seen, it is not fair of me to judge Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures as lacking an in-depth exposé of Hollywood goings-on from the perspective of one star—or cog in the machine. Besides, as Straub told Jacki Lyden in 2012 on NPR’s All Things Considered, “I made sure to stay away actually from Jennifer Jones’ biography ’cause I didn’t want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.” However, just as I really enjoyed Farran Smith Nehme’s engagement with the archival preservation of forgotten silent films in her recent novel Missing Reels, the characterizations of Hollywood and its myriad players in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures really delighted me. For example, when Laura starts at Gardner Brothers, whose company name recalls that of the real-life Warner Bros. but whose physical location more accurately resembles that of Paramount, she begins cutting a rug in a string of comedies with her red-haired friend Ginger Hedges. Years later, after Ginger becomes a big star in comedy, rival studio Triumph Pictures poaches her, and she later goes on to head the studio while producing and starring on a successful television sitcom with her husband. It should come as no surprise that Lucille Ball inspired the character Ginger. Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones’s first husband, does not end up as ignobly as Gordon Pitts does. At least the real-life actor, who also died young, can claim an illustrious career with the likes of BataanStrangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.

The Song of BernadetteWhen the hardcover’s opening book-flap describes Irving Green as Laura’s “great love,” I recognized that the character must be a stand-in for David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones’s second husband. Selznick produced such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and The Portrait of Jennie, the last two of which starred his wife Jones (neé Phylis Lee Isley). Before striking out on his own, Selznick worked at MGM, Paramount, and RKO. While the novel does not present Irving as an independent producer like Selznick, it does show that his decision to put Laura in more serious roles, in romantic, historical epics, eventually nabs her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jennifer Jones won her first and only Oscar right out of the gate, for her leading role in The Song of Bernadette. In crafting Laura Lamont’s backstory, Straub cleverly keeps the religious theme of Jones’s film when she writes that Laura won for her performance as a nun in Farewell, My Sister, a film whose script somewhat imitates her relationship with Hildy. Unfortunately, I found the description of Laura and Irving’s relationship lacking in intensity. Although married for years, before his untimely death from a prolonged heart-related illness, I never really understood the lovers’ mutual fascination. Irving is repeatedly described as short, slight, balding, and regrettably, Jewish, as if that is enough to characterize someone. Sure, power is an aphrodisiac, but outside of his unexamined devotion to Laura and her children, I fail to see how he is appealing. He isn’t given any thought-provoking dialogue or much to do at all, really. He mainly just sweeps her off her feet, seeing someone else in Elsa Emerson, a brunette rather than a blonde. Laura herself is a bit of a simpleton, especially when it comes to interacting with her growing children. And Laura’s relationship with her young black maid, Harriet, reads too much like one Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh had with Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel on-screen. Since we glimpse Laura mostly in her private life, it is difficult for me to imagine the character as a glamorous starlet. She mainly just upholds the Grand Narrative of the Hollywood Dream Factory: she did as she was told, read her lines, and was happy if the bosses were happy.

Coming off the heels of her beloved father’s death, Irving’s death further pushes Laura into decline. Deep in debt, she abuses anti-anxiety medication, falls into an intractable despair, and eventually attempts suicide. She gradually makes a full recovery and adjusts to a new life out of the limelight. Chapter eleven, “The Shopgirl,” recalls silent film star Louise Brooks’s biography rather than Jennifer Jones’s: the former actress died in 1985, destitute and purportedly a salesgirl in a department store. Meanwhile, in 1975 and now a grandmother, Laura supports herself as a shop assistant for dressmaker-to-the-stars Edna (clearly inspired by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was also the model for the scene-stealing Edna Mode in The Incredibles). The novel ends where it began: in the theater. In 1980, the newly rediscovered Laura Lamont makes her Broadway debut in The Royal Family, the same play that she performed with Gordon Pitts before they married and skedaddled to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom shining in their eyes. I can’t deny that the final scene is poignant. Her children reunite in New York to see Laura on opening night, but when I closed the book on her life, I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted more from it.

Women Have Risen: Examining the Year’s Best Actress Nominees, Narrative Tropes, and the Human Experience

A few years ago, I published online an essay whose title encapsulated my frustration at the time with the apparent lack of compelling, universally humanistic film roles for women: “Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?” Inspired by a vision I had of a lone woman astronaut shuttling through space (Sally Ride had just died), I contemplated a future where women characters in film might “have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women,” mainly being a wife and/or mother. The potential I see in women film characters, and women in general, is the narrative ability to illuminate the human condition for everyone.

On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony’s television broadcast, I habitually observe and reflect on the nominations. At this point, each of the four acting categories appears to offer no surprises when it will come time to announce the winners. Julianne Moore (Lead Actress, Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Boyhood), Eddie Redmayne (Lead Actor, The Theory of Everything), and J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash) have routinely won acting trophies for their respective film roles while competing on the awards circuit this season. With the outcome of these contests all but a certainty, I recognize that the most competitive category is that of Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and it collectively represents the fulfillment of my wish from over two years ago, with a few caveats. In other words, most performances in this category capture, for lack of a better turn of phrase, what it’s like to be human. If film is an art form that helps us make sense of our lives, we cannot take the woman’s experience for granted, as Academy voters have done. Of the five nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, only one top-lines a film that is not nominated for Best Picture: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. However, only one nominated female lead performance appears in a Best Picture contender: The Theory of Everything, as if to say that women-centered films are not prestigious (read: worthy) or capable of addressing everyone.

Rather than run through the list of nominees alphabetically, I want to discuss them in the chronological order that I first encountered them. Maybe it’s the simple passage of time or the workings of an unreliable memory, but every performance seemed to be better than the last one I saw. Fair warning: in my analysis, I give away many plot details of each film.

Gone Girl movie posterAt the beginning of October, Gone Girl kicked off the season of awards-friendly motion pictures, and I remember thinking throughout my viewing of it that Rosamund Pike, the titular “girl,” deserves a nomination for her portrait of a bonafide psychopath. As Amy Dunne, the dissatisfied wife of Ben Affleck’s mysterious charmer Nick Dunne, Pike both fakes her own kidnapping (and possible murder) and then frames her husband for it. It isn’t until halfway through that the viewer discovers that Amy, the subject of a statewide search, is in fact alive and on the run. Having set as her mission the complete and humiliating obliteration of Nick’s character as well as his eventual imprisonment, Amy watches from afar (using the national media circus surrounding their small Missouri town) as the forged artifacts and clues that she doctored to point towards Nick’s guilt gradually fall into place. The most lethal part of her scheme (killing a man in supposed self-defense in order to fake her abduction) ultimately reunites husband and wife. In the media spotlight she has helped orchestrate and direct, Amy uses the public court of opinion to both absolve Nick of any crime that the American public previously found him guilty of committing and to imprison him in an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive marriage.

A snapshot of Amy Dunne's fake journal. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
A snapshot of Amy Dunne’s fake journal in Gone Girl. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

While Gone Girl and Amy’s role in it do not exactly conform to fulfilling my desire to see women in films who are unattached, undefined by their relationships to men and/or children, the David Fincher-directed thriller, which author Gillian Flynn adapted from her bestselling novel of the same name, at least deconstructs the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Keeping Amy’s machinations hidden until halfway through the picture, her perspective only relayed through fake found journals, not only shifts perspectives on the couple’s lives (from Nick’s to Amy’s), it also produces one helluva denouement. Amy’s cold and clinical calculations upend our previous idea of her, whether as flirtatious (the memory of their meet-cute), sacrificial (a longtime cosmopolitan, she left New York for suburban Missouri when Nick’s mother became terminally ill), or even physically abused (her fake journal embellishes an altercation with Nick in order to vilify him). More than this, Amy presents a pathologically sociopathic and misandrous response to patriarchy, going to libelous and murderous extremes to pervert the idea of a traditional marriage. As the primary breadwinner upon their transplant to the Midwest, Amy strikes back at Nick for his philandering ways and emotional neglect so that when he finds himself trapped in this controlling and harmful marriage (to say, “loveless” would be an understatement), she is not defined by her relationship to him so much as he is defined by whatever she thinks or says about him. In this way, Gone Girl examines how relationships bind us and in this process, redefines the rules of attachment. The opening and closing scenes, wherein Nick strokes his wife’s hair and, through voiceover narration, muses about how we really don’t know what goes on in the mind of our chosen companion, index our struggles with loneliness and desire to be free.

The Theory of Everything movie posterA Best Picture contender, The Theory of Everything is ostensibly a handsome biopic of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Based upon Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of the thirty years she was married to him, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, the film is mostly focalized through her experience. While Eddie Redmayne receives almost unanimous praise for his physical transformation as Stephen, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963 at age 21 and around the same time that he met fellow Cambridge student Jane, it is actually Felicity Jones as the scientist’s first wife who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film. The Theory of Everything doesn’t propose a film story about a woman uncharacterized by her relationship to a man and their children. Just the opposite, but it is worth discussing very briefly, to correct notions that the film is about a famous man and the people in his life. In fact, given the film’s source material, it is easy to argue that the film is about a woman and the famous man in her life. This does not mean that The Theory of Everything is a so-called “woman’s film,” but it is a family drama centered from the woman’s perspective.

In his review of the film, New York film critic David Edelstein writes that, “as the film’s focus drifts to [Jane], I found myself resenting the character—not for wanting more from her life, but for yanking the narrative away from by far the more fascinating figure.” I agree that the first part of the film focuses primarily on Stephen’s experience, combining his academic coming-of-age (meeting advisors’ expectations—or not—and choosing a dissertation topic) with his struggle to adjust to a rapidly degenerative disease as well as a nascent romance with Jane. She may have walked into his life at a party, but I argue that as soon as Jane determines that he should be a part of her life, she wrestles the picture away from him, and that gesture does make her both fascinating and compelling. I still cannot shake the image of the couple’s pronounced declaration of togetherness (it’s been used in the film’s marketing campaign, to boot) wherein they hold hands and joyously spin around. Significantly, it is Jane who initiates their little ball of energy, pulling Stephen into her orbit. Young and in love, Jane doesn’t realize the kind of life she commits herself to when she refuses to forget Stephen. For he far out-lives his life expectancy of two years, and as time marches on she becomes increasingly frustrated with her life. Taking care of Stephen and raising their children are two full-time jobs, and her own academic ambitions take a backseat to her husband’s. We witness the effect that choosing Stephen has on her life, and a romantic dalliance with a widowed choirmaster offers her some release. Jonathan (Charlie Cox) assists Jane with raising the kids and caring for Stephen, who condones their sexual relationship. Unable to face up to the rumors that Jane’s third child is his, Jonathan makes himself scarce. After Stephen loses his ability to speak and acquires a computer that will serve as his voice box, Jane recognizes that she can no longer support Stephen the way that he needs and reunites with Jonathan. She is a fascinating character, because she is willing to change her life and seek the fulfillment of her desires.

Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.

The Theory of Everything shines a light on one of the brightest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates that, to rephrase that old adage, “behind every great mind is a woman.” The title derives from Stephen’s quest to marry Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics, but it just as equally signifies that love is the answer to what binds people together for however long they can hold on. In this way, contextualizing Stephen Hawking’s life story and scientific and cultural contributions through his wife’s experience makes the case that they couldn’t have accomplished as much separately as they did together. If finding (self-)gratification is one of the tenets of the human condition, then Theory of Everything demonstrates how our desires are constantly in flux.

Wild movie posterMonths later, and with memories of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones sloshing around in my head, I finally saw Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. I fell so hard for this film, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for its screenplay (by novelist Nick Hornby), cinematography (Yves Bélanger), and direction (Jean-Marc Vallée). Hell, I think Wild is easily one of the best films of the year and deserves one of those coveted spots not to exceed ten. Although I have never been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, I was in awe of the humanistic depth of her physical performance. It wasn’t so much a transformation—not like Eddie Redmayne’s or Charlize Theron’s for her Oscar-winning role in Monster where she turned out completely unrecognizable. Instead, Witherspoon perfectly embodies a woman who has been too hard on herself, on her spirit and on her body. When her young mother (Laura Dern in an achingly small but beautiful performance) dies of cancer, Cheryl grieves in an unexpected way, one that leads her astray from her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and into the arms of heroin addiction. With a painful divorce and an extramarital abortion behind her, Cheryl continues on her path to recovery under the most extreme of conditions: hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Along the way from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, she treks across a variety of terrain and climates (arid deserts, snow-capped mountains, Pacific Northwest rainforests) and encounters myriad threats, ranging from animal attacks and lost shoes to death by starvation/thirst and violent sexual assault.

Although Cheryl’s grief and infidelities may have instigated her pilgrimage, Wild isn’t about a woman defined by her relationship to her ex-husband Paul. The experience of losing him and herself in her grief even influences Cheryl to invent a new last name on the divorce papers: Strayed. In fact, Wild is a film about a woman’s self-programmed reinvention, or as the memoir’s subtitle states, she goes “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Cheryl takes ownership of the mistakes that she has made and grapples with how she took her mother for granted (but thankfully, like in this year’s indie rom-com extraordinaire Obvious Child, she unapologetically chooses an abortion when she stumbles into an unwanted pregnancy). By letting go of her social attachments for three months, during which time she calls on Paul and friends for support of the motivational and material kind, Cheryl learns to forgive and love herself again. For me, the most poignant aspect of the film is that Cheryl chooses her relationship with Bobbi as the one to define her, saying, “My mother was the love of my life.”

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Moreover, Wild comes the closest of the Best Actress nominees so far in proposing a film about the human condition that just happens to be focalized through a woman’s experience. As I have already mentioned, the film is about self-programmed reinvention, love and regret, life and death. I imagine that we can all relate to a character who hurts the people who are closest, sometimes purposefully, sometimes without thinking at all. This doesn’t make the character a bad person, just someone who needs to learn to appreciate what life and love can offer. Crucially, it is too late for Cheryl to treat Bobbi as she deserved, but Cheryl’s arduous and

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

somewhat ascetic pilgrimage brings this all into focus. Presenting a woman’s story as universally humanistic is feminist in its own right, but Wild also engages the philosophy in more pointed ways. For example, virtually everyone she meets on the trail is astonished at her abilities and takes umbrage at her insistence to hike the trail without a male companion. She even locks heads with a reporter from The Hobo News who cannot comprehend her voluntary choice to drop out of society for a while and thus identifies her as a lost soul, a “hobo” with no job, home, or family. But most surprising of all, a group of three young men on the trail adopt Cheryl as their personal hero, having read her poetic entries in guest-books, which quote feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. Believing feminism to be part and parcel of humanism, Wild makes clear, as bell hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”

Two Days One Night movie posterJust when I thought this year’s nominated lead performances by women couldn’t get any richer, I saw Marion Cotillard, de-glamorized, in Two Days, One Night. It is a much smaller film than the others, both in scale and, seemingly, in depth. Cotillard plays a working-class laborer who, given the weekend, must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their one thousand-euro bonuses so that she can keep her job. Whether or not the solar panel factory can legally put her continued employment to a vote by its employees is never questioned, but almost everyone she confronts points out that the boss’s ultimatum is unfair. Shot in their characteristic social realist/fly-on-the-wall style, the latest film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne plays out like a thriller of a cruel joke: Will she get enough votes to keep her job? How many more times do we have to hear her plead with her co-workers to vote for her? Asking for anyone’s help is an ordeal in and of itself for Sandra, who, when the film begins, is on the brink of returning to work following a long absence (it gradually becomes clearer that she suffered a mental breakdown). A pathetic decision, choosing to speak with people in person whenever possible is costly in terms of time (she zigzags all over town in order to track them down at their homes, on the street, or in corner groceries or laundromats) and an emotionally draining exercise in futility. Thankfully, no two encounters are exactly the same, even if those unwilling to help her always have the same reason: they need the money, whether to pay their child’s tuition, build an addition to their house, or cover the electric bill for six months.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.

What makes Two Days, One Night so quietly impressive is its premise: to what lengths will someone go to keep her job? How will she convince human being after human being, with wants and needs not completely unidentical to her own, to sacrifice material gain in order to come to her aid? How will she react when, based on the number of votes pledged in her favor so far, her future looks bleak? Providing Sandra with a psychiatric disorder heightens the stakes—and the Dardennes do go to some dark places—but otherwise Two Days, One Night could be about anyone. In fact, there isn’t much character development in terms of Sandra’s familial role so as to make the part gender-specific. In other words, she spends so little time with her two children that her identity as mother does not define her. Even Sandra’s greatest champion, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), frames her ordeal as one about recovering her lost pride. Her humanity, and her repeated attempts to coax the more humane choice out of her peers, defines Sandra. Of course the couple needs her income to get by, but their situation is no more dire than that of most of her co-workers. In this way, the film is about overcoming adversity and preserving your own self-worth, arguably the most humanistic ideal. Come Monday morning, Sandra is one vote shy of keeping her job. Touched by the generosity of some of her colleagues, she refuses the boss’s offer to rehire her at the end of the season, because it would mean that one of her pledges would lose his contract with the company. Initially stunning, her decision to incur further economic hardship isn’t just about worker solidarity but also personal integrity. The final scene of Sandra’s bad-news phone call to Manu represents a revolution of some sorts: walking away from the factory, smiling, Sandra is buoyant with every step, personally motivated by the support of Manu and her co-workers to find another job. If she can get through this past weekend, she can approach any new challenge with enough courage and integrity to overcome it.

Still Alice movie posterRounding out the five nominees for Best Actress, Julianne Moore presents a deeply moving and sensitive portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name. Admittedly, I am not Moore’s biggest fan (she’s usually too showy for my tastes), and the negative reviews of the film colored my perception of it going in. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the film “plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week.” However, not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, I was also overcome by profound sadness and grief, unable to talk about what I had just seen without choking up. Who cares if Still Alice is emotionally manipulative? More than any of the other films nominated in this category, Still Alice examines what makes us who we are while confronting our own mortality.

A world-famous linguistics professor at Columbia University, Alice Howland is the first to recognize that “something is wrong with [her].” Sometimes she can’t find the right word, and at other times she gets disoriented on her aerobic runs around the neighborhood. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), writes off her worries as evidence that at 50, she’s simply getting older. Determined to find the root of her newfound problems (it feels like her brain is slipping farther and farther away from her), she sees a neurologist in secret and eventually receives the dreaded diagnosis. The effects of the disease would be difficult for anyone to cope with, but as her doctor explains, since Alice carries the familial gene for early onset Alzheimer’s and is extremely well-educated, she can expect to deteriorate more rapidly than if she didn’t have the gene and wasn’t so well-educated. She simply has much more to lose, and for a linguist whose life’s work has been the study of human communication systems, the thought of losing her ability to relate who she is with words is devastating. As it is for me, as it is for anyone.

As her mother's primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
As her mother’s primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

But Alice is intellectually resourceful, and she can better compensate for her incapacities. It takes a while for her to admit defeat and leave her tenured position (her meeting with the chair of her department is the most implausible scene in the whole picture, for it would never be up to her colleagues to dismiss her because she has a health issue). John and their three children try to look after Alice as best they can. Eventually, their youngest, the Los Angeles-set aspiring actress and free spirit Lydia (Kristen Stewart), agrees to move back to New York to serve as Alice’s primary caregiver when John accepts a position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship, Alice’s older children, the lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth) and the medical student Tom (Hunter Parrish), suffer from a severe lack of character development. While Anna and Lydia sometimes butt heads as to what is best for their mother, Tom’s only real function is to accompany Alice to a talk she gives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Film critic Jason Bailey denigrated this speech as a “forced, false moment” by writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, thereby completely forgetting that the scene parallels an earlier keynote address she gave at a linguistics event where she spoke confidently on topics related to her main line of inquiry: why do humans talk and how to they learn to communicate? In the later scene, the transformation that Alice has undergone throughout the film is palpable. Anxious and insecure, she must use a highlighter as she speaks at the podium so that she does not lose her place in the speech. Frustrated with her inability to write a persuasive argument using medical and linguistic jargon, she takes Lydia’s advice and writes about how it feels to lose her mind. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. For, as it is made clear throughout the picture, we are who we are because we have made ourselves into whoever we want to be. For Alice, that has been an expert on language acquisition, an equal partner in a loving relationship with a man who confidently says she was the smartest person he’d ever met, and a dependable and accepting mother.

Still Alice also makes the case that we are who we are because of what we remember. As Alice grapples with her diagnosis, slipping farther and farther away from the people in her life, she returns to memories of her sister, whom she lost as a teenager. I initially dismissed the final scene of the film, failing to recognize that Alice’s imagining she and her sister on a beach is her defiant stance against the havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks on her mind. She clings to this memory as if to remind herself of who she is. This shot immediately follows the scene in which Lydia reads from the play Angels in America and asks her mother if she knows what the speech is about. Alice smiles and struggles to say, “Love.” Again, in his review of Still Alice, which he labels “desperate” and unoriginal, Bailey fails to see how the film’s ending illuminates something fundamental about the human experience: our appreciation and understanding of art and how it reflects our perception of what the meaning of life is. The Flavorwire film critic finds Glatzer and Westmoreland’s “desperation… particularly rancid at the end” because, “in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America.” In presumably one of Alice’s last moments of clarity, she demonstrates for Lydia that she is still present, that she can understand Tony Kushner’s complex speech, and that she loves her daughter and her long-lost sister. It doesn’t matter that these “moving and profound” words, to correct Bailey’s statement, are not Alice’s or Lydia’s. Not everything we say or do is original; the purpose of art is to draw connections between experiences, and the meaning of life is to see how art shapes us.

Contrary to what Russell Crowe thinks about roles for older women in Hollywood, the reality is that quality parts for women at any age are terribly lacking. While most Oscar prognosticators, critics, and cinephiles like myself watch the Academy Awards tonight and lament the fatedness of Julianne Moore’s, Patricia Arquette’s, Eddie Redmayne’s, and J.K. Simmons’s prize-winning, I will remember that for the first time in a long while, it seems that every nominee in the Best Actress category was phenomenal. Rather than choose a winner, I wish we could simply celebrate these five actresses and many more, because they brought to life film characters whose experiences illuminated different facets of the human condition. I hope this trend in representing women with “interesting, fully realized inner lives” continues. And I don’t care if they are wives or mothers anymore. Restricting what kinds of parts women play in film and in society isn’t humane.

The Paradise Lost; or How I Failed To Register the News

Here is a perfect example of how, in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle, whether on television, Twitter, or, you know, newspapers’ websites, something as important as a TV show cancellation can escape me. Twice.

Last night was the season two finale of The Paradise. This BBC series airs as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic program, and although I am usually indoors on Sunday nights at 8, I ritualistically DVR the show. I store the collection of episodes until they become streamable on another platform, say, Netflix. I learned to take these extra precautions when I failed to catch the first season as it unfolded last year. Back then, I had to resort to watching each of the eight installments online after they premiered but before they were yanked off PBS’s website. I know it’s not much of an accomplishment–for many have watched whole seasons of TV shows in one sitting–but it was a big deal when I watched the entirety of The Paradise season one in two days. (I did the same thing last week with the miniseries Olive Kitteridge, but that is how the HBO programmers intended.)

I recount my dedicated work ethic to TV viewing (I had to contend with buffering and commercials for river cruises I’ll never be able to afford) as a way to get across my overall pleasure in watching this show. Admittedly, I was skeptical of its raison d’etre because it premiered months after Mr Selfridge took its initial bow as part of Masterpiece Classic. Who needs two period shows about British department stores? Sure, The Paradise is loosely based on Au bonheur des dames, the eleventh installment of Emile Zola’s twenty-novel indictment of the social and political mores of the bourgeoisie in Second Empire France (1852-70), Les Rougon-Macquart, whereas Mr Selfridge is loosely based on the life of the real-life American businessman–a student of Marshall Field in Chicago–who opened his namesake department store in 1909. Although set roughly thirty years apart, The Paradise and Mr Selfridge are strikingly similar. A pretty young woman with ambitions to make a name for herself in business and/or design serves as the audience’s entree into each establishment–no, each milieu. In each program, the concept of a storewide sale springs forth from the mind of the risky but enigmatic store owner, whether John Moray in The Paradise or Harry Gordon Selfridge in you-know-what, so as to lead viewers to believe that each entrepreneur invented the idea. More than this, since each show is a primetime soap opera, there is a fair amount of gossiping behind people’s backs, securing investments with regrettable strings attached, and love triangle wrangling.

After a superb first season, one that helped me forget the wretchedness of Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge went downhill. It revolved around Selfridge’s political entanglements and a devious member of the House of Lords trying to undo him to spite the intimate-but-platonic friendship that the politician’s wife shares with Selfridge. It also got bogged down in the espionage-tinged mystery surrounding a supporting character and brought it to a rather unfascinating conclusion through solving an uncompelling love triangle.

The Paradise, by contrast, is more emotionally and intellectually complex. It can get a little hokey, like Call the Midwife, but at least it’s not afraid to engage more overtly with the feminist struggle. The protagonist, Denise, proves herself a capable salesgirl in ladies’ wear (as well as a formidable rival in the love department), but more crucially, she is an innovative storyteller and pragmatic entrepreneur. Throughout, however, Denise’s position is tenuous because she is an ambitious woman. First it is because the store’s owner, Moray, takes a much-too-obvious liking to her, thereby triggering a guilt- and shame-laced struggle for his affections between Denise and Moray’s fiancee, the gentlewoman Katherine Glendenning who isn’t so much gentle as she is… spiteful. Then, in the second season, once Denise becomes the head of her department, Moray and Katherine use her as a pawn in their individual attempts to take over creative as well as financial control of the store. Moray may have sacrificed The Paradise when he rejected Katherine on their wedding day (through investments on Moray’s behalf, Katherine’s father owned the deeds to every store on the street where Moray was hoping to expand his store, including The Paradise itself), choosing true love with the shopgirl Denise instead, but throughout the second season of The Paradise, she starts to wonder whether they are politically and therefore romantically compatible. Most memorably, the two lovers, who by now work for Katherine and her sadistic husband, confront a rather touchy subject: Denise expresses her disgust with his longtime term of endearment for her, “my little champion,” with a vigorous slap across the face. I will not be your possession! While he pines for her, he eventually realizes that what he loves most about her is that she is her own person, whose imagination and ambition are greater than his own. Thank goodness he recognized that he believes in gender equality, too, because that is how The Paradise ends.

I didn’t know this when I watched it, but last night’s episode was the series finale. It was hours later, when I read a poorly written and minimally researched news flash from the UK’s Daily Mail that it hit me. But I didn’t register what this really meant until this morning, when I noticed that it was made public as early as February that the BBC hadn’t commissioned another season of The Paradise, the lesser rated of the media-contrived war between Mr Selfridge and The Paradise. This is when, confronted with the news a second time, I finally understood that not only did I miss news of the TV show’s cancellation before its finale aired in the US, I was also blissfully unaware of its being pulled from further production for nine months.

This morning, I wondered whether knowing this ahead of watching the finale would have affected my viewing of it. I surely would have been on the lookout for how to best summarize its impact, if any, or its legacy, if any, had I known about the show’s premature cancellation. The makers weren’t aware that this would be the last episode of The Paradise, either. It’s not a bad ending: as I pointed out before, Moray and Denise come to some common ground. Again, by sheer wit and ingenuity, Denise secures a future for herself wherein she will be her own boss. In the very last moments of the show, she pitches a millionaire acquaintance who has been interested in doing business with her on the prospect of a new beauty and cosmetics shop which will occupy her kindly uncle’s abandoned drapery storefront across the street. This way, she doesn’t need to leave the unnamed northern town, but she can be her own success alongside Moray. Wish fulfillment never looked so appealing, right? Well, until Moray realized that his calling Denise his “little champion” diminished her  potential, I was ready to write him off. Moray annoyed me to no end this season because he was never satisfied with any and all success Denise obtained. I would have been content with a third season wherein Moray was driven away from The Paradise for good by the store’s evil proprietors while Denise continued to prove herself as a capable leader and innovative problem solver, eventually taking over the store herself.

The Contemporary Action Flick, the Woman’s Film & Coming of Age in a Dystopia

Divergent movie posterAside from their immediate availability, I tend to rent movies from the public library that I would never pay to see otherwise. On Wednesday, I picked up Thor: The Dark World and Divergent. I barely paid attention to what I now jokingly call Thor 2: Even Longer Hair; it was loud, stupid, and too complicated to follow while reading the New York Times. Despite its silly and childish sense of humor, the film took itself way too seriously. The same could be said of Divergent, which is the first in a series (big surprise!) of adaptations of the popular YA novels penned by Veronica Roth. However, Divergent pleasantly defied my low expectations. Once I got past the ridiculous premise, that in the undistinguished future, society is divided into five different factions in order to keep the peace, I got sucked into its dystopian world. Apparently a war some time in the past devastated the entire planet. We have no idea what in particular precipitated near total annihilation the world over; all we see is a dilapidated Chicago surrounded by an electrified fence stories high.

Given its generic provenance and overlapping themes about violence and children, Divergent is most often compared to that other YA juggernaut The Hunger Games. Years ago, I didn’t take too kindly to the first in that film series, writing that its unsubtle satire of our obsessive fascination with celebrity, competition, and violence could only really please the film’s built-in fanbase: enthusiastic readers of the novels. But catching Divergent–for free–was already on my subconscious agenda because I had just read an article by NYT film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis about the changing representations of young women and girls in cinema, a survey view of contemporary trends that compliments Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent piece about “badass” female characters in film today. Hornaday doesn’t mention Divergent, but Scott writes that protagonist Tris Prior is like Katniss Everdeen, her sister in arms, “a fighter against corrupt authority.” Since I am most interested in representations of women and femininity in all kinds of films, I knew that it would probably be worth my while to check out Divergent.

I have no idea what it is like as a novel; I have no desire to read the books, but I must admit that Divergent, as directed by Neil Burger and adapted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones), makes for quite a thrilling movie, a modern action flick with a feminist bent. It combines the trappings of a poignant coming-of-age story with those of a sophisticated political thriller. At least more sophisticated than it had any right to be.

View of Divergent's derelict Chicago cityscape. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
View of Divergent‘s derelict Chicago cityscape. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice Prior, a teen born into the selfless faction of society. The film begins on the eve of her aptitude test, which should either decide if she is indeed Abnegation material or if she would better fit in with the scholars of Erudite, the honest folks of Candor, the hippies of Amity, or the daredevils of Dauntless. It drives me crazy that Roth didn’t use parallelism when naming her fictitious factions, opting for nouns (Abnegation, Candor, Amity) and adjectives (Erudite, Dauntless). Rather conveniently, on the day that both she and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) choose their future careers, if you will, Beatrice has the option of choosing any faction to belong to. The scene, played out in a symposium-like setting with leadership from all factions present and parents sitting in the audience with the kids they may or may not lose to a whole new family, certainly dramatizes the closest real-life equivalent: choosing your college (major). Much to their parents’ surprise, Caleb elects to be Erudite, Beatrice Dauntless. But you knew that was coming from the way she watched the Dauntless teens arrive at the Choosing Ceremony, a look on her face that said, “I wish I could jump out of a speeding train and run all the way to the door!”

This is where Beatrice’s journey really begins. Choosing a faction other than the one she was born into means that she can never go home, and if she shouldn’t make the cut at Dauntless, the leaders will throw her out onto the street, where she will remain homeless, factionless, pitiful, and despised. On her first day of college, if you will, Beatrice changes her name to Tris (it sounds more futuristic, sportier), makes friends with Christina of Candor (Zoe Kravitz), and surprises everyone, especially herself, when she volunteers to jump off a building before the other “initiates.” “Initiates” is just another word for “pledges,” for the first hour or so mainly concerns the brutal training (hazing?) that the new recruits must undergo in order to join the co-ed fraternity. It goes without saying that Tris rises from the lowest performing to the top of the class, helped in so small part by her boot camp instructor named Four, a taciturn but sensitive Mr. Pamuk (Theo James). Thankfully, the filmmakers milk the sexual tension between them for most of the film; we’re never certain until the third act that Tris, and by extension, we, can trust him with her secret: the results of her aptitude test were inconclusive. In other words, Tris shows qualities from the Erudite, selfless, and Dauntless. Yes, don’t we all feel better knowing that the young woman we’re rooting for isn’t defined by just one trait? Isn’t that the whole reason the author invented this world?

Tris takes the leap to self-discovery. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Tris takes the leap to self-discovery. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Regardless, Divergent works as a film because its visuals are quite striking, beginning with the aptitude test. Injected with a serum that will induce hallucinations (only the first of its kind, you soon find out), Beatrice imagines herself in a hall of mirrors, the confrontation with her fractured identity very much actualized in her mind–and for the film audience. She stares down a fierce dog (Dauntless) until she tricks her mind into thinking it is only a docile puppy (Erudite) and tries to protect a little girl from the angry canine (Abnegation). The hallucinations seamlessly meld together in the edit, thereby heightening their lucid dream-like quality but at the same time lending her fears real power. The same goes for the second part of Tris’s initiation, after hand-to-hand combat and weapons training: the psychological torture/endurance test in which Four injects her with a serum that makes her hallucinate all of her fears and how she might use methods inherent to Dauntless members to overcome said phobias. In these fevered dreams, her world turns upside down, inside out. The escape from one nightmare just leads to the next before she wakes herself up. Four, conveniently equipped with technology that allows him to see what she was visualizing in her brain, quickly determines that, for instance, her method for escaping from the glass cube filling up with water (just tapping on the glass) isn’t something that would ever occur to a Dauntless MacGyver. It’s also what makes her better than someone who is merely Dauntless.

Furthermore, the production design is impressive and visually stunning. Tris’s descent into the Dauntless world is played out on an Expressionist stage. The exaggerated scale of buildings is like something out of a criminal underworld picture, or perhaps one about a motorcycle rebel gang. Or The Lost Boys (black leather and other stretchy, breathable fabrics dominate the Dauntless wardrobe). There is also a fair amount of shadowplay. The Dauntless’s environs contrast with those of the Erudite, whose architecture looks like its been designed by Buckminster Fuller, thereby undermining their claims to being factual or at least transparent in their research. Although the people in Abnegation live in concrete houses, their simple yet modern design recalls contemporary pre-fab homes or affordable housing blocks of the 1960s. In other words, modest and indistinguishable. Isn’t it remarkable, though, that Millennium Park doesn’t make an appearance in Divergent (but a Navy Pier-in-ruin does)?

View of Abnegation Village from the street. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
View of Abnegation Village from the street. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Divergent probably wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for Woodley’s strong, sympathetic performance. She is convincing as a rebellious teen who, once she leaves her family and faction, has nothing but her own strength and wits to rely on. Although her parents support Caleb and Beatrice in their potentially life-changing decisions, vowing to love them regardless of which faction they choose, Beatrice’s desire to break free from the world of Abnegation is a quiet rebellion against her parents. As the film’s political conspiracy gradually comes to light, Tris is the only one brave and capable enough to defy the New World Order that Kate Winslet’s character, Jeanine, represents. As the leader of the Erudite, Jeanine undermines the Abnegation-led government (of which Beatrice’s parents are a part), stirring up rumors that the selfless leaders are hypocrites who beat their children. Jeanine interprets this hypocrisy as a flaw in Human Nature, which also explains her genocidal plan to turn the Dauntless into a mindless army (again, with the help of some serum injected into the neck!) that will obey her orders to kill everyone in Abnegation. She isn’t a fan of Divergents, either, since they cannot be easily controlled. In this way, Tris’s rebellious spirit is presented as an aberration of Human Nature (believe me, the way Jeanine talks about it, it deserves capitalization). Her coming-of-age story doesn’t just converge with the unraveling of widespread corruption in faction leadership; exposing Jeanine and putting a stop to her coup d’etat almost becomes her coming of age’s reason for being.

Fish eye view from inside Erudite Headquarters. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Fish eye view from inside the shady Erudite Headquarters. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Almost. Remember, she’s still in “college,” and Divergent checks off a number of campus-living cliches: the “initiates'”original delight when learning dorms are co-ed and their subsequent squeamishness when they find out they’ll have absolutely no privacy, her aforementioned crush on an upperclassman/mentor who shows her the ropes (Four), and her impulsive decision to get a tattoo. At least the imprint of three black birds ascending from her collarbone isn’t a tramp stamp, but isn’t it a little too close to the revolutionary symbol central to The Hunger Games?

Divergent is, in my opinion, extremely violent, what with the brutal but narrative-driven fight scenes, attempted rape and/or murder of Tris by jealous male “pledges,” and the fact that her mother and father are killed within minutes of the other while trying to protect their children. It is also conspicuously bloodless thanks to its PG-13 rating. Most importantly, its scariest moments are presented as thrilling out-of-body experiences for Tris. In addition to the serum-induced hallucinations, she literally jumps into her journey towards self-discovery; if her leaping off a speeding L train onto the roof of a building doesn’t convince, her jump from the roof into the derelict building below sure does. However, I was completely bowled over and scared out of my rational mind when she zip-lined from a skyscraper on one side of Chicago to the Dauntless HQ down below, clear on the other side of town. This scene presents a very romantic conceptualization of her burgeoning identity not only as a Dauntless individual but also as an autonomous subject in general. Even if Tris is one “kick ass” heroine that film critics wish there were more of on screen these days, I can’t relate to her desire for what amounts to a militaristic life. But I do long for physical and emotional transcendence, like the one she experiences in the air. For her soaring through the sky shows her–and us, by extension–what she is capable of achieving and how that makes her feel. It’s my favorite scene in the film; it’s a bold statement about girlhood. And, dare I say, a superheroic one?

By way of conclusion, let’s discuss Tris’s sexual awakening. You knew it was coming. She’s in “college,” after all. Her first sexual experience arguably takes place when, in an effort to protect and train Tris, Four invites her into his own fearscape (it’s no match for her). The injection of the hallucination-causing serum acts as an exchange of fluids, and I immediately thought of the virtual sex scene in Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993) when Four and Tris plugged themselves into the computer, interacting (I mean, touching) through scenes visualized in their minds. Interestingly, and undoubtedly owing to the predominantly female audience, it is Four’s body that is put on display, revealed as a landscape that Tris discovers with her eyes and fingertips. She asks to see the expansive tattoo all over his back. The moment he takes off his shirt is meant to make audiences swoon, but it also uncovers that Four is Divergent, too. For his tattoo design incorporates the symbols for all five factions.

Four's body on display. Tris sees what makes him Divergent. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Four’s body on display. Tris sees what makes him Divergent. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Although taken seriously as a suppression of her sexual desires, Tris’s decision to forgo her first real sexual encounter occurs so quickly that I originally misinterpreted it as one in which she does indeed have sex with Four off-screen. Her choice not to have sex (yet) is presented as no big deal, because she has no anxiety over Four’s feelings towards her. Curiously, though, at her final exam in which she must maneuver her own fearscape like a true Dauntless member, she envisions a betrayal of trust on Four’s part. That is, she quashes his attempt to rape her by kicking him in the groin. I was stunned to see date rape represented in this PG-13 action flick, but I love its context of female empowerment. The worst part of Divergent, vis-a-vis Tris’s self-actualization, is when, in the final scene as she and her friends escape the city on the L train, she says that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Understandable, given that she has no faction and no family, but it’s a shame that it’s her (male) love interest who reassures her that she is someone because he knows who she is. Two steps forward, three steps back for strong young women in film.

Long Take: The Hunger Games Panders to a Built-In Audience and Squanders Its Narrative Potential

Viewed September 21, 2012

For months leading up to its March 2012 release, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) was billed as the next franchise based on a series of young adult novels set to break box office records, and it delivered. I stayed clear of the theater when it came out because news reports on TV showed the books’ fans camping out days ahead of time, and I will do pretty much anything to avoid a crowd. When I finally learned the premise (children and teens from “districts” all over a future dystopian North American nation are ritually forced to fight each other to the death in an annual televised event), I quickly identified the parallels with the once-banned Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000). One Saturday, my dad came home from services at shul and related that his young rabbi used The Hunger Games and a crucial plot twist from the third act to make a point in his sermon (my dad told me what it was). The film effectively spoiled, I took my time seeking it out, which I only did because, as a film historian, I am interested in what people watch. Having now seen it, I can tell you that The Hunger Games was made with only its built-in audience of fanatical readers in mind: the teenagers and their parents as well as the child-free adults under 40 who never encountered a pop culture trend they didn’t like (see Fifty Shades of Grey for more proof). I can’t comment on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, having never even read a single sentence from any of the novels, but isn’t it telling that as one of the screenwriters, the author allows co-writer-director Gary Ross to water down the disturbing conceit with a boring and self-conscious indictment of our popular culture that I’m not sure any of the rabid fans fully understands? As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Sometime in the distant future, an oppressive government in Panem institutes a sacrificial blood-letting of Olympic proportions: as penance for a past rebellion, one boy and one girl from each of the nation’s twelve districts is chosen from a lottery (called a “Reaping” and, per my dad, resembling the Nazis’ rounding up of European Jews) to train and compete in the eponymous competition. The film begins as the 74th Hunger Games get underway. Our heroine who’s handy with a bow and arrow, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), lives with her good-for-nothing mother (Paula Malcolmson) and darling younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in the impoverished District 12. A mining and milling community with sanitation systems straight from the 19th century and simple, drab clothing that contrasts sharply with the out-there fashions of other Panem citizens, District 12 brings abject Appalachia to mind (these scenes were shot in North Carolina). At the Reaping, Primrose’s name is called in what amounts to an interminable, super-serious scene that ends in Katniss becoming the first-ever voluntary participant. Like the actress’s character in Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), for which Lawrence received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Katniss is a teenage survivor who lives and is willing to die for her sister. Yes, of course, the scene is appropriately dour, but it tries too hard, what with the cartoonish appearance and overly enthusiastic pronouncements of emcee Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the audience’s failure to applaud for the Capitol-produced introductory propaganda video or the selection of Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Katniss and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol for the Games, and that’s ostensibly where the action begins, only it actually stalls.

While screening the movie on DVD, I wrote in my notes (in all caps, mind) that The Hunger Games is “indulgent”: “It takes its time [introducing characters and situations] because the filmmakers know their built-in audience has memorized everything in the book and wants to savor these characters and scenes” as much as possible. Hence Haymitch Abernathy’s (Woody Harrelson) languorous introduction as the teens’ reluctant mentor (he’s a cynical drunk who thinks neither one has got what it takes to survive and win). So much of the scene that revolves around Haymitch, on the high-speed train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, does just that: it revolves around and barely includes him. Katniss and Peeta scrutinize his character and debate whether or not they should trust his guidance, occasionally allowing a somewhat flamboyant Harrelson to participate. To me, this is storytelling as clumsy and lazy as Ross’s shooting Katniss’s earlier hunt for deer meat is cliched (with a rough, jump cut-laden, shaky documentary style). In other words, Ross proves he is not an inspired director of action (remember, he previously directed the wholesome and straight-forward Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, from 1998 and 2003 respectively).

Effie, Haymitch, and Katniss look as bored as I was while watching their movie. Not much happens in the first hour or so. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com.

The indulgence in establishing Haymitch carries over to other characters, only their purposes remain enigmatic for the uninitiated. For example, who exactly is Effie Trinket and what does she do, other than wear grotesque 1940s-inspired skirt suits? Introduced as a villain at the Reaping, she appears to be part of District 12’s trusted team. But there is no explanation or demonstration as to why or how she can make this transition. Moreover, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) doesn’t have a clearly defined role, either. I assume that he’s merely a stylist, choosing for Katniss dresses that shoot fiery flames out of their skirts (so that she comes across as both dangerous and, well, hot). Apparently, Kravitz’s casting in this part angered many die-hard fans of the books, because he doesn’t physically conform to the Cinna of their imaginations. Meaning: they were disappointed that Cinna is played by a black man. Since Cinna is given so little to do, I don’t understand how anyone could get upset by that. If anything, the filmmakers should have cast someone who can act. Of course, one solution to this problem (that Cinna needn’t have even appeared in the film), however, is impossible: Cinna, in order to appease the fans, just has to be there.

Speaking of dresses that “light” up, let’s discuss the schizophrenic production and costume designs. As I previously mentioned, District 12 is so depressed as to be imprisoned in another century. When Effie, so far the only blatant anachronism in District 12, escorts Katniss and Peeta onto the bullet train, we ogle the 1930s interior design of the space, which coincidentally is one of the best sets. Side note: it is telling that they don’t fly to the Capitol, for the train is historically a potent symbol for modernity. Unsurprisingly, it literally transports them to another era. And what do we find at the Capitol upon arrival? As you peer through the poor visual effects, trying to make sense of the setting, you glimpse traces of Washington, DC (there’s a Mall with a reflecting pool) and vaguely neo-classical postmodern architecture. Honestly, it looks like a fascistic version of any and all representations of the mythic underwater civilization Atlantis (and maybe the Bahamian resort, too). The hordes of people gathered to watch live TV interviews are clearly dressed to go to a rave, decked out as they are with neon-colored clothes and hairstyles. There may have been glow sticks, I can’t be sure. One of the Games commentators/TV interviewers, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), wears glittery suits and purple hair pulled up into a ponytail. Since everyone looks utterly ridiculous (and has an incredibly stupid name), it’s difficult to take the proceedings seriously, and the routinely oppressed’s struggle isn’t all that palpable. The filmmakers exaggerate both the built environment and the “bizarre” fashions of Panem’s citizens so as to link the inauthenticity of this world to our own celebrity-obsessed and reality TV-centric culture. From an intellectual standpoint, I get it. But as it is executed, it comes across as pained, heavy-handed, and too self-conscious. As if to say, Just look at how horrible these people are. You know, we’re not that much different… There’s nothing wrong with this message, but I’m afraid that because it is so over-the-top yet matter-of-fact, it produces a lot of noise and very little contemplation in the pandered-to viewer.

The Hunger Games being gladiatorial bloodsport, it makes sense that each district’s team rides in on the back of chariots here, in this fascistic square, their long procession resembling the parade of nations that is part of the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics. Image courtesy of http://www.mtv.com.

Despite the book being billed as a treatise on the horrific violence of war, which we send our innocent children to fight in the spirit of freedom (talk about a paradox), the film only spends the last hour or so of the 142-minute running time depicting the Games. (Collins is often reported as saying that the juxtaposition of TV channels showcasing young people alternately competing on a reality TV show or fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the story.) Instead, so much of it is devoted to the players’ Reaping, training, gaining of sponsorships (I still don’t understand how they work), and winning the audience’s favor. Again, Collins, Ross, and co. highlight how unreal (our) reality TV is through Haymitch’s packaging Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers for the media, especially as we learn about it the same way that Katniss does: watching Peeta confess to Casear Flickerman that winning the Games would be a bittersweet victory. For surviving would mean that his crush would have to have died. For much of the film, they can barely tolerate each other. Katniss holds a grudge against Peeta because he once threw a loaf of bread into the mud as she sat starved nearby in the rain. He resents that she’s a more highly ranked player (scoring 11 out of ten points) and that everyone pays more attention to her. Despite their differences, they support each other during the Battle in the Woods, and in the end, they perform their roles as younger lovers for the pervasive cameras. It’s just, are they only keeping up appearances or do they fall for it, too? It’s an interesting idea, but the filmmakers expend no energy in developing it except in the second-to-last scene when they both enjoy a hero’s welcome (I’ll get to how that’s possible in a moment) and she finds her friend/boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), out in the crowd. The expression on her face reads: “Oh shit, I forgot about him.” (And it’s easy to see why: this character consists of so little, he only watches the soap opera that is Katniss and Peeta’s romance unfold on TV and thus exists to make it harder for Katniss and Peeta to really become lovers.)

The movie’s PG-13 rating is really no indication that The Hunger Games tones down the violence implicit in its central conceit. Besides, similarly rated films with graphic displays of violence also get past the censors at the MPAA (language and sexuality are the real sticking points, and that’s a discussion for another time). I don’t seek out film reviews, but since his write-up was sent to my inbox as part of a daily roundup of entertainment news articles that I subscribe to, I read David Edelstein’s, originally published in New York. Horrified that the on-screen carnage of kids killing kids didn’t visibly “devastate” the hungry audience of which he was a part, Edelstein attacks director Gary Ross for framing the children’s inevitable deaths with “restraint” and “tastefulness” (as if that’s commendable!), which according to him, Ross has been praised for doing. I agree with Edelstein to an extent (the editing is fast and uncontemplative), but I still found the brutality of the participants profoundly unsettling: like, for instance, the way one girl shoots Katniss’s attacker in the back with a bow and arrow from far away, not out of solidarity but because killing him is merely a means to an end (killing Katniss).

More than this, The Hunger Games falls short of producing an effective commentary on war. The filmmakers fail to develop any of the Games participants other than Katniss and Peeta (with the lone exception of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, who comes to Katniss’s aid in the beginning before being snuffed out herself). And since we can’t even grieve for the fallen children-soldiers, you might ask, What is the point? Really, all we’re capable of, in Edelstein’s words, is this: “When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that the good guys have one less adversary, but we rarely go, ‘Yes!‘” The greatest missed opportunity in this regard involves the character Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who scowls at everyone during training and basks in the glory he has inherited from previous champions who overwhelmingly hail from his District (1). Cato has been gearing up for the event seemingly all his life, and in the end, before he falls back onto the ground to be ravaged by demonic dog-like creatures, he hints to the spectator that he has a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as he indignantly whines, “Killing is all I know!” So just before he falls, we can reflect that he’s been robbed of a proper childhood and is subsequently doomed. The worst of it all is that this is the full extent of the filmmakers’ engagement with the subject of how being trained or programmed to kill has wrecked their psyches. Pitiful.

Katniss doesn’t bury Rue, her sister/daughter surrogate, but she gives her the only funeral any of the children can hope to receive. Image courtesy of http://www.mockingjay.net.

But of course they’re doomed. That’s the exact point of this exercise and the dramatic irony of the oft-spoken motto, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Because beyond manipulating diegetic viewers’ emotions with stories about Katniss’s sacrificing herself to protect her sister or Peeta’s heretofore unconfessed love for Katniss, the producer of the Games, Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), influences the actions of the participants as if he were a film director (he certainly carries himself like Michael Bay). When Katniss hides out in an unpopulated corner of the playing field, he burns it down so that she runs toward those who are out to get her. The dogs that eat up Cato spontaneously appear thanks to Seneca’s puppet-mastering; he wants to up the tension and kill off Katniss if he can. Most of all, he approves of an explicit rule-change after riots break out in the predominantly black District 2 following Rue’s (televised) death: two people can win the Games so long as they are on the same team. He later rescinds the offer once Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left standing. And here’s where my dad’s rabbi supposedly spoiled the plot: the so-called lovers vow to take their lives rather than follow the renewed rules of the old game. Fearing more reprisals, Seneca allows them to be dually victorious. The scenes which demonstrate how Man has overtaken Nature through computer programming and how Katniss and Peeta repeatedly challenge the rule of law at the Games are of a piece with the central message of The Hunger Games and probably constitute its finest expression: re-evaluate the truthfulness of “reality TV.”

One of the greatest unresolved mysteries of the film is the prize that the winner(s) receive(s). Obviously, living to see another day is rewarding in and of itself, but what do they gain otherwise? Fame? Fortune? At the victory ceremony held at the Capitol, the president of the totalitarian regime, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), crowns Katniss, thereby complementing the beauty pageant-like interviews she endured earlier in the picture before the Fight to the Death commenced. Paradoxically, when she returns to District 12 triumphant, she doesn’t reunite with Primrose. (Instead, we see her look out onto Gale, confused.) As a melodrama studies scholar, I couldn’t believe that the filmmakers failed to include such a scene. If we can’t see Primrose embrace her virtuous older sister and perennial protector, then what is the point of her sacrifice anyway? Everyone, including Primrose, knows what is at stake.

This brings me to my final point. Much has been made about Katniss Everdeen as a feminist icon. Writing of the novels, Lauren Osborn of the online zine Vagina claims that, “Katniss—as a fiercely independent, loyal, and capable young woman—stands as a symbol of feminism in modern literature.” I guess she would if your only point of comparison is Bella Swan from the Twilight YA series. In her examination of this year’s female film characters (women and girls alike), Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday praises The Hunger Games for being one of the satisfying “girl-powered fantasies” to come out recently (on the other hand, she’s disappointed that adult women are not represented as strong or compelling as their younger female counterparts). In my opinion, Katniss isn’t so much a feminist warrior as she is an amalgamation of different idealized femininities. She’s maternal, as she volunteers for the Games to spare her sister from a 100% certain death and mourns the younger Rue. (Later, Rue’s District 2 partner Thresh, played by Dayo Okeniyi, stops short of killing Katniss out of respect for her honoring Rue in death.) Despite her attitude toward the government and the Games, which she thinks makes her totally unlikable, Katniss wins over everyone because of her beauty. That flame-throwing dress works wonders. And if you think her skill with a bow and arrow makes her decidedly unfeminine, think again: she’s an archetypal Amazonian. Romance may not be a priority for Katniss, as Osborn argues, but she is nevertheless at the center of a love triangle, and neither suitor deserves her. Such is always the case.

I couldn’t find an adequate photo of Katniss in her flaming dress, so please pardon the text, though it does say it all, doesn’t it? Image courtesy of http://www.theapod.com.

I give the filmmakers credit for not belaboring how The Hunger Games continues into the sequel Catching Fire. (I swear, everyone is in a tizzy about who will direct it and who will play additional characters with unbelievably ridiculous names.) The scene of Katniss and Peeta’s heroes’ welcome is cut between Seneca’s forced suicide (punishment for having failed to keep the Games under control) and President Snow’s sorrowful glance down on the Capitol from a balcony on high. The film fades to black after he turns his back and steps into the building, subtly portending his downfall. I don’t know much about the other two novels, but I assume that Katniss will lead a revolution against Snow’s highly structured Reign of Terror. Perhaps future installments will be more action-packed and ultimately less boring. Perhaps there will be more to the characters’ social interactions besides a “will-they-or-won’t-they” storyline, preferably along the lines of race and class, which The Hunger Games sets up but barely engages. What I’m saying is, perhaps viewers who have not read the books will be given a reason to give a damn. But I’m not holding my breath.