Thursday, March 29, 2012

Controversy around the character of Rue & other tangents

Amandla Stenberg, aka Rue from The Hunger Games gave a performance that really stuck out to me in the film. This is partly due to the stories I've heard about people on twitter complaining about the character being African-American (even though in the book, the character is described as being "dark-skinned"). It's also, however, because she's very adorable and effective in the role even though her screentime is somewhat limited.

What really bothers me about this whole twitter controversy is the fact that the thought was even conceived in the first place. How does anyone get bothered by a minor character from a book being portrayed by black actor? Or a major character? Why would this affect the way you view the movie? And also, how do so many people overlook the fact that the character was supposed to be black? How would this young girl ruin the way you watch this movie?

Stuff like this really showcases the worst in human behavior. Twitter, even though I use it, really brings out the mob mentality in a lot of people. Of course, seeing the "trending topics" on the left side of your screen doesn't help matters much. Everyone wants to chime in on what everyone else is talking about, but how is it that such a disturbing amount of people came together in agreement on this?

Of course there would be some black characters in this movie. How has it gotten to the point where someone gets disappointed by the presence of black characters in any movie, let alone this one? Did it offend people that Mace Windu was black in the Star Wars prequels? Or that Nick Fury was portrayed by a black actor (Actually, both characters were portrayed by Sam L. Jackson, weird how they both came to my mind). The Hunger Games is a film set way in the future, where chances are there would be even more mixed race people than there are today. If anything, The Hunger Games had too many white characters!

I always get annoyed when the subject of race comes up when discussing a movie, unless the movie is about race relations. Should it matter that a movie features only white people? Or all black people? It's funny when you watch a preview of, say, a Tyler Perry movie and someone complains, "Ugh are there ONLY black people in this movie?" How does the one movie featuring only black people bother you?

Having said that, I do have to agree with some who say that African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or even women aren't represented well enough in American movies these days. Almost every mainsteam, big-budget film features only white people, or only white men. The movies themselves do not bother me, as they shouldn't, we shouldn't judge a film based on those types of things unless it's actually relevant. There was a Q&A late last year with a bunch of directors that I think The Hollywood Reporter uploaded onto their site. They do one of these every year and they're really great. The last one featured filmmakers such as Alexander Payne, Bennett Miller, and Steve McQueen, a black British filmmaker. When the subject of lack of African-Americans being represented in American films came up, he had this to say:

"I mean, it's opportunity, isn't it? That's what it's about -- opportunity," the British filmmaker said. "And access, because some people just give up. I'm always astonished by American filmmakers, particularly living in certain areas, when they never cast one black person, or have never put them in a lead in the movie. I'm astonished. It's shameful. How do you live in New York and not cast a black actor or a Latino actor? It's shameful. It's unbelievable."

After he said that, all the filmmakers at the roundtable were completely silent. All of whom I have a lot of respect for. Hearing it from an outsider's perspective (that is, a Brit) is definitely interesting and it does raise a valid point. Why must every character in a mainstream American movie be white? Or, at least, predominantly white? It's not about political correctness, but when you set a film in New York City or any other urban area, it's simply not realistic to not have any minority actors in the film. Again, like I said this doesn't bother me within the context of the film, it's just something to think about. But it's not just that, as I think it's probably natural for a white writer/director (like Woody Allen) who grew up in a surrounding of almost only white people to cast almost only white actors in their films, it would be nice to see more diversity in the films that come out through the Hollywood system from Latino, Asian, and African-American filmmakers. It just seems to make sense, in this day and age, to have more diverse films. It's 2012 and a movie like "Red Tails" gets attention because it's a big budget war film with an all-black cast. We shouldn't be at the point where George Lucas is patting himself on the back for having the "guts" to make a film like that, it's ridiculous.

Then again, when a relatively MINOR character from a popular film/book franchise winds up being black and the twitterverse explodes with anger, maybe we're not ready for that yet. That's the most shameful part of all of this and it really reflects poorly on us as a society.

The Hunger Games: a promising piece of entertainment undone by bad directorial decisions

There are quite a few things about "The Hunger Games" that's done just right. The casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence was a smart one as she has not disappointed in a single performance that I have seen her in. She's wonderful here as Katniss Everdeen, a strong teenage girl who volunteers for the hunger games to prevent her little sister from being in it. In fact, there are a number of other great performances in this film including from Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and even Lenny Kravitz.

The film also does a great job of keeping the main focus on Katniss as she is a very easy character to like and you can easily empathize with her. It's hard not to care about a girl so well-defined in her actions. Gary Ross does of a great job in the first act with the handheld camerawork as it captures the immediacy and de-romanticizes the district that Katniss comes from.

That is District 12. As the story goes, the nation of Panem devised The Hunger Games to remind the twelve districts that they have control over them. This was done after citizens of District 13 rebelled and the district was destroyed. For the 12 districts, they must randomly select one boy and one girl from the ages 12-18 to participate in this game of survival where only one child shall remain alive when it is all said and done. For District 12, Katniss volunteers in place of her sister and her male counterpart is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Once they are selected they are brought into the Capitol where they meet a former hunger game winner from District 12, Haymitch (played by Woody Harrelson), who's been brought along to help guide them through the process. The film is effective in how it shows us the way people in the Capitol live with ridiculous outfits and lavish lifestyles which is in stark contrast of the area that Katniss and Peeta were brought up in. The Hunger Games is televised for all the districts to see and Haymitch reminds the two of them that the more likable they are, the more likely they are to survive thanks to government sponsors. Peeta seems to understand this better than Katniss, as he reveals on TV that he has a crush on Katniss.

The game starts and later, after members of District 11 witness the death of one of their own children, Rue, and see how nicely Katniss handles it, riots begin to erupt. Those behind the Hunger Games ultimately decide to change the rules so that two children are allowed to survive at the end, as long as they belong in the same district. They did this to try to instill some hope with the angry mob that is District 11, hoping the romance between Katniss and Peeta will give them someone to root for.

We never really get to fully understand just why Katniss's actions would elicit such an emotional response from District 11 because the movie never goes into it. It would've been more interesting to get more of a sense of the viewing audience for these games. But since we never get to see the other districts and their reactions (save for the moment I just mentioned), we become the tv audience. And that would be cool if that was the intention, but given that there are so many unnecessary control room shots, I don't think it was.

The choice to continue using the herky-jerky camera work in the third act is ultimately, a bad one. Shying away from showing the violence in order to get a PG-13 rating greatly damaged the impact of the action that takes place during the actual hunger games. What should be emotionally-jarring just winds up looking trivial and inconsequential. Furthermore, we don't really get to know much about the other members of the games, except for Rue, who is adorable. It would have been nice to get a little more of a sense of the other characters instead of just making them all one-note enemies for Katniss.

The film tries to work as basic entertainment, but the nature of the plot raises political issues that the filmmakers never really get into . Given that, The Hunger Games is a movie with very little layers. When every little plot development is told to the audience before the developments happen, it does not leave for much suspense or thrills. Because of this, The Hunger Games just feels flat, and for me, it isn't able to fully succeed as basic entertainment largely due to these flaws.

I'm sure the movie plays out just fine with those who have read the book, including people I know personally, who I'm sure will hate me a little bit after reading this review. But a movie should work as a movie alone, first and foremost, and The Hunger Games comes up short. The only reason why the film is continually watchable is because Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is such a well-written and interesting character.

But the biggest reason why the movie cannot work as just entertainment is because, let's face it, "the entertainment" and the action involves children killing other children. A movie centered around killing children better have a filmmaker who knows how to handle the material. The fact that, once again, all the suspense and the thrills are taken away from us thanks to countless shots of the control room showing us what is about to be done before the action happens... it just makes it worse. It's clear to me that the book probably goes way deeper into the political subtext than the movie does, that does not excuse the movie for not exploring more of its political themes. As it is, The Hunger Games movie doesn't raise questions, it doesn't make you think, its scope is surprisingly very narrow. This is a movie that's supposed to be sold as entertainment and it fails on so many levels.

Grade: C-

Friday, March 23, 2012

21 Jump Street is an unlikely, rewarding surprise

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are an unlikely action/comedy duo and yet the chemistry they have in this film is undeniable. I was never too high on Channing Tatum but I have to say he won me over here. I think a big reason for this is the great screenplay by Michael Bacall who developed the story with Jonah Hill. 21 Jump Street, of course, is an unnecessary remake of the tv show that aired in the late 80s/early 90s and the movie has no problems stating the obvious. It's self-referential without taking away from the movie, if anything, it adds to the overall experience. The movie basically asks you to take it as it is and enjoy the ride, that's very easy to do.

Jonah Hill plays Schmidt, Channing Tatum is Jenko; they both went to high school together but didn't become friends until they found themselves both in the police academy seven years later. Jenko is good at all the physical stuff but is a meathead (he can't even remember the Miranda Rights). Schmidt is the exact opposite: smart, but not very physically savvy. Their ineptitude eventually lands them in a weird, abandoned church that's actually an undercover police operation where Ice Cube, the stereotypically "angry black police Captain," tells them that they are now going undercover as high school students to find the source of the supply for a new synthetic drug which has infiltrated the high school.

What makes 21 Jump Street so fun to watch is how Schmidt and Jenko integrate themselves in a high school where many things have changed. The cool kids now wear their backpacks with two straps over their shoulders instead of one. Organized sports is laughed at, it's not cool to drive a gas guzzler. The roles for Schmidt and Jenko are brilliantly reversed as Schmidt becomes popular in the high school and Jenko is left to hang out with the chemistry geeks.

Obviously though, Tatum and Hill are the glue that holds this whole thing together. It's really remarkable how well they work together and yet you could've never guessed that was likely. Plus, there are tons of great supporting performances from Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper, and Dave Franco. 21 Jump Street is the best buddy cop action comedy to have come out in quite some time. It's always funny, sometimes it's uproariously funny. It never steers too far off its beaten path as it is very tightly written by the aforementioned Bacall as well as well-directed by the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. How good was 21 Jump Street? Well, when the ending hints at a sequel, I actually felt joy, instead of dread.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Movie Poster Awards 2011 edition part 2

Best Movie Poster (tied):

Both represent the best of what their films have to offer. They're not just bad photoshop jobs, they look beautiful.

Worst Movie Poster:

Disgusting and terrible.

The Movie Poster Awards 2011 edition part 1

Call this three months late, whatever. Apparently my 2010 edition of best movie posters got quite a few page views so I'm hoping I'll get the same response this time around.

Movie posters are an artform in themselves. They're part of what sells the movie. The problem is that a lot of studios just make run-of-the-mill movie posters and don't think outside the box. In 2011, there really wasn't a whole bunch of great posters, but there were quite a few. The best ones this year had a great concept and stayed with it and the worst one isn't just from a bad photoshop, but because it just disgusts me.

So here are kenoncinema's winners the Movie Poster Awards, 2011.

Most Bad-ass Movie Poster:

A toss-up among these Drive posters...

All have a sleekness to it, a waft of coolness. The second one is an unofficial one, but still, the rest are ace.

Classiest movie poster:

Classy movie gets a classy poster. Makes sense.

Most mis-leading movie poster:

Trying to advertisement a Hunter S. Thompson book like the next Hangover movie? C'mon...

Weirdest and Coolest movie poster:

This is just beautiful, is it not?
sexiest movie poster:

There's an NSFW version of this one, but you get the gist. No other poster comes close to being as sexually suggestive. Oh, this is for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo if you couldn't tell.