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Catching Fire Review–This is What Movie Making Should Be!

Catching Fire, the movie, was very good–everyone agrees. The first half is the best as Panem descends into a police state (or moreso) with endless Peacekeepers, public whippings, and the ominous lines of trucks driving in. Gale and Katniss’s transgressions are made more sudden and dramatic, but worked well in the film. All around them are bits of graffiti alerting the public to the Mockingjay.

Scenes from President Snow’s point of view seemed briefer than in the previous movie (though this might be an illusion) and could have been more nuanced as he and Plutarch summarize their plans in what feels like mildly colorless exposition. His granddaughter, only mentioned in the books, is shown here, with a braid like Katniss’s as she mimics the world’s heroine. She’s one of several excellent bits of foreshadowing not present in the second book as Katniss and Johanna allude to Annie Cresta as “the one that…” or there’s an early threat of bombing District 12 into ashes like 13. In fact, as a little girl tells Katniss she wants to volunteer for the Games and Prim tells Katniss she can handle herself now, a theme of this next generation and their place in Panem is cautiously cropping up.

Some fans were wondering if the plot of poor Seneca Crane, martyred gamemaker, would continue through the sequel, perhaps with soppy memorials to the poor “filmmaker” who was sacrificed for his art. (See John Granger’s “Gamesmakers Hijack Story: Capitol Wins Hunger Games Again” at http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com for more on this).

To my relief, it didn’t. Nonetheless, as Snow watches Peeta and Katniss’s love story and discusses it with his little granddaughter, they’ve turned into the audience…passive helpless audience by the end. Katniss and Peeta are performers on multiple levels, though they seem sincere within the games–their pretense for the camera dies when they’re flung inside. (And in fact, the spile is all the sponsors give them…perhaps Haymitch and company have bigger things on their minds). Katniss’s Seneca Crane dummy, compete with her perfect curtsy from the previous film was a perfect giant middle finger to the gamemakers, only surpasses by Johanna’s dirty mouth. Ever Caesar had trouble putting a lid on her.

She shines as one of the beloved book characters brought to life. Mags and Wiress, the show’s sad victims were well done, but I adored Johanna’s snark and Finnick’s terribly sincere range. Whether preening in his outfit or offering Katniss her sugar cube, he’s the right mix of defensive, pragmatic and charming. “What about you, girl on fire? Any secrets?” he smirks. In the Games, he’s panicked, desperate, but also self-willed enough to charm Katniss with only the force of his personality…and us along with him. He, like Haymitch in the first movie, is the Katniss character, defensive and traumatized. Both characters struggle to protect a loved one under their flippancy, both are tortured by the jabberjays. Seeing them side by side emphasizes that Prim is Katniss’s truest love as Annie is Finnick’s, that both characters are emotionally wounded. When Finnick loses Mags, it foreshadows Katniss’s loss to come.

The film compensated well for losing the first person point of view–Katniss and her friends have three kinds of mortified expression when Johanna strips in front of them (with perfect comic timing, just after Haymitch claims the Victors aren’t so strange). In her first scene of the movie, Katniss’s PTSD comes out clearly as she freezes before a crowd of turkeys. Even frivolous Effie comes out devastated when she must choose Katniss in the reaping and bid her goodbye in her wedding gown. Scenes like the Tributes’ fighting to end the games during their interviews, or Katniss finally, sweetly making friends, are brought to life beautifully, with stunning emotion.

In many ways, this one’s closer to its original than movie one was (movies 3 and 4 have me wondering if we’ll suffer from Harry Potter 7 syndrome with all the good stuff ending up in one of the two films). We see the terrible prison camp of District Eleven and the brighter, prettier Career Districts. Katniss’s Appalachian home is stark and cold with winter, like her feelings at the start. And for those disappointed about minutiae the last time (as I was, admittedly), Buttercup the cat was recast with an animal the right color (obviously, this still works in the story, as Prim could have gotten a new pet). Director Francis Lawrence notes:

That was a request from Nina the producer and Suzanne the author. That they thought the cat from the first movie was not the way he was described in the book. And that had annoyed a bunch of fans, and things like that. But it also just kind of bothered them that Buttercup was not a black and white cat. So I was happy to get one that felt like the Buttercup of the book…That was, quite honestly, the only simple thing, the Buttercup situation. http://io9.com/the-hunger-games-author-insisted-the-cat-be-recast-in-c-1462912646

This show offers a believable love relationship with Peeta and also Gale…as Katniss remarks in both book three and this movie, she’s trying to survive, not obsess over boys. Nonetheless, she, Peeta, and Haymitch have become a family as seen in the previous movie…though complete with their sass and teasing (“Take a bath, Haymitch” after Katniss has pelted him with water “I just did”). By contrast, Katniss meets with Snow while the holo of her act with the berries is playing right on the table, both reminding/warning the audience what she did and compelling her to watch along with them as her guilt is played out in front of her.

Capitol fashions are more disturbing than ever, with Effie’s devotedly cheerful butterfly dress that might even be constructed from real ones. The Capitol citizens celebrate in front of the President’s horrid pink and blue mansion with multicolored fireworks, and as he toasts, in a sinister moment, his drink turns red. Of course, much of the costuming was an acknowledgement that it was a reestablishment of moments seen in the previous film–she’s the girl on fire again in the parade, Effie dresses horribly as do the Capitol citizens again as well. Finnick and Johanna’s parade outfits were impressive, but once again, not strikingly unique. There was little surprise there until the beauty of the Mockingjay gown.

This long-awaited moment was impressive–the original gown is designer but with a metal winglike structure suggesting her own strength and the Capitol’s artificial cage. As she twirls, the metal vanishes, and for a moment, she breaks free. “The metal pieces rising up from the bodice are meant to signify fire and flames, while laser-cut feathers at the waist and shoulder hint at Katniss eventual transition into a Mockingjay.” EW reports.

Katniss’s gown for the Capitol party is reminiscent of a mockingjay, dramatic in red and black as she prepares for battle. I thought the reaction to the food wasting should have been bigger–Katniss obsesses over it so in the book, and it’s part of the central message. The Avoxes once again are basically cut, as is the suffering of people in District 12.

I was surprised Plutarch had lost his watch but the movie did a delightful job of keeping new viewers guessing. He’s excellent as a self-serving gamester using other as Snow dies…until it’s time for the Game to end. Katniss’s final shot, now seen in the Gamemakers’ lair, is wonderful, though on the practical side I must be concerned over the rescuers nearly smashing her with fallen debris. She rises into the air with a messianic glow, the Mockingjay, flying at last.

Fans will miss a few other moments–Cinna’s famous line that he’ll risk his own neck through his art but not anyone else’s, the teens’ discovery of how Haymitch won his Game. The sponsor gifts to encourage the new team. However, Haymitch’s snarky notes are back, or at least one.

Many fans likely admire the movie’s incredible similarity to the book, but I would have preferred a different ending – with the new medium, graphics, and point of view, the camera could have stretched over the revolutions and war-torn Panem instead of focusing on Katniss’s immediate world. All in all, Haymitch’s line brings the point of all war stories home – “No one ever wins the games, period. There’s survivors…there’s no winners.” As Collins’ saga of the torments of war and its afterefffects, this seems the standout moral of the story.

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The Hobbit Review: I Blame Radagast

Yes, like most fantasy writers, I’m a hopeless, committed, Tolkien fan. When I saw Fellowship of the Ring, I loved every minute with no reservations. I saw changes happening, but I also how they were a wise idea when changing book to film. In fact, I’m fine with changes, IF they make a good story. I enjoyed The Hobbit, but this time, some of the film’s issues were more heavily pronounced, so I can’t approach this in such a head-over-heels delighted manner. Of course, I realize Peter Jackson was somewhat backed into a corner. The studio insisted on three films, while he thought (correctly) that he had the material for about two. There must be a giant franchise or nothing, it seems. Well, it seems the franchise has returned, but a bit shakier this time around.

The movie begins with a hefty prologue explaining what happened with Thorin and Smaug’s invasion. THEN there’s a second prologue, as older Bilbo chats with Frodo and writes his book. Yes, we get to see Sting, the party sign, Frodo, and the Hobbit hole that looks incredibly messy over the dialogue about its snug tidiness. We even get Ian Hom uttering “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit” and see Frodo set up the events in Fellowship. But none of this is really a part of the story.

I grew up loving the cartoon pair of The Hobbit and Return of the King (I was less thrilled with the oddly filmed LotR part one). Their catchy music and silly cartoons made them Disneylike, though as I learned later, they were reasonably faithful retellings. In the cartoon movie, as with the book, we are introduced through the simple, fussy, homebody of a Hobbit who hates adventures. He is us, the reader unused to the wider world. The dwarves and Gandalf usher him and us through the wider world of Middle Earth together as we come to empathize more and more with Bilbo. The cartoon Return of the King (which skips the other two books) introduces Bilbo as a heavy frame – he is celebrating his 111st birthday (or something like it) with Gandalf and Elrond (introduced to us in The Hobbit movie) and the four younger hobbits, and Frodo tells him about his epic quest in Return of the King. Gollum and the ring provide another heavy link, as do repeated songs and themes.

In this film series, LotR was our introduction, so it’s oddly framing The Hobbit, rather than the more logical reverse. Gone is our introduction to the fussy little nearly-human character, and instead, we’re introduced to the large foreign world of “Erebor,” home of the dwarves. This is a land unseen  in LotR, and even for book fans, the name comes oddly to our ears –the book dwarves are obsessed with “Lonely Mountain” as they call it.

Then comes the link with the previous movie trilogy: Ian Holm and Frodo are our guides, the party scene is just about to start, and Bilbo remembers smoking smoke rings long ago…cut to the actual story. This has been a terribly long introduction to give us a summary of past events and then link us with the other tale.  All this, especially the scenes in Erabor is beautifully crafted with cgi and the amazing detail that made LotR a favorite. But the scenes have little place in the story. As we continue, we’re thrust into D & D style dungeons and complex, unhelpful subplots. In the attempts to be epic like LotR, the story is less linear and thus less charming.

This trend continues through the film, a voice crying, “Look, it’s the same story over again, please go spend on collectible rings and goodies from the franchise. Look how every moment matches the other so well!” Some scenes like Bilbo’s green door or meeting Elrond must match up with Fellowship, that was inevitable. Even the new scenes are filmed in similar locations in New Zealand. Casual references to Bree and the First Alliance of elves seem unnecessary, but make sense.  But the number of new scenes and filming choices that ALSO echo Fellowship are truly numerous, so much so that they turned from cute to tedious:

  • Gandalf whacks his head on the iron chandelier in Bag End
  • Thor’s goblin battle in Moria seems nearly identical to Isildur’s battle in which he took up the shards of Narsil and avenged his father.
  • Thorin himself, the deposed dark-haired king filled with nobility, who risks his life for bumbling hobbits and seems a born leader, is much more like Aragron than book-Thorin.
  • Balin seems the replacement Gimli, with an older, settled wisdom. He says “laddie” a lot.
  • The fact that they’re being hunted, Gandalf’s demands to know who our heroes told.
  • A mass of bad guys converges from all directions in the same scenery as the Nazgul scene, our heroes flee into Rivendell
  • A morgul-blade warns that Sauron is about
  • The wargs attack in what looks like the LotR warg setting
  • Gandalf says, “This way, you fools!”
  • Saruman criticizes Radagast’s mushrooms like Gandalf’s smoking in Fellowship
  • Galadriel, mysterious and somewhat imposing, offers vague comfort and strokes a hero’s hair
  • Gandalf praises “the everyday deeds of ordinary folk” – this is why he recruits Bilbo in this one and Sam in Fellowship.
  • After Rivendell, montages of trudging single-file over snowy mountains and other scenes.
  • The storm giants versus Cruel Calhedras
  • The goblins’ hole resembles the goblin factory of Fellowship
  • The ring flies up into the air and lands on a finger
  • The shadowy ring-world
  • They all race down narrow bridges that are collapsing
  • Gandalf uses the moth to summon the eagles, complete with music
  • They end in the forest, as our hero makes a tough choice of what he stands for, then they’re attacked
  • Azog is like the Head Uruk-hai, a big bad guy created to give the part one movie some closure.  Aragorn/Thorin has the epic battle with him.
  • Boromir dies against the Head Uruk-hai, Thorin gets semi-squished.
  • They look far across Middle Earth to their final destination, say something optimistic, and end part one.
  • The narrow-pupiled eye (admittedly Smaug’s) that’s seeking them

Most of these moments share the same music with the original trilogy. As a fan, I enjoyed the musical allusions, but they do emphasize the repetition of the scenes. Also, after offering us these three time periods: Bilbo’s birthday, Smaug’s invasion, and the “present,” no dates are mentioned. This is also a bit disconcerting for those trying to stay focused. Much worse was the 48fps speed, which gave me a headache. More oddly, when the camera panned, everything looked blurry to me. I truly pray this style doesn’t catch on.

Returning to the story, the setup in Bag End irritated me a bit. Bilbo fails to mention Gandalf is most famous for dragging Hobbit kids off on crazy adventures, so it’s less than clear why Gandalf is there harassing him and why Bilbo assumes that’s why he’s around, until much later. The revelation that Gandalf knew Bilbo was adventurous as a child and has adventures in his Took blood is a bit too late, only after they’ve been arguing over the adventure part for some time. In the book, Bilbo invites Gandalf to tea, so there was an appointment on some level – again, this made a tad more sense in the story than the unwitting invasion in this one. The invasion itself was played quite well, however, from teasing Bilbo about his plates while juggling them expertly and singing, to our hero in his Arthur Dent bathrobe acting completely kerflomoxed, yet determined to stand up for his precious doilies.

After this, the dwarves gather to sing of Smaug’s destruction and their need for vengeance. In book and cartoon, this was the opportunity to explain to Bilbo (with colorful flashbacks in the cartoon) what exactly happened in the past. But we’ve already had the out-of-nowhere lengthy summary, so when they sing, the story just stops. Creative writing students like myself recognize the exposition moments and talking (or singing) heads scenes that do not advance the story, and thus interfere with the plot moving along. Sadly, however, Peter Jackson has left them in place. Fellowship cut a twenty-year gap between Bilbo leaving and the ringwraiths coming for Frodo (Frodo also moved house, hiked, and sang songs in the bath, all worthy of cutting). This added action and urgency to the story, changing it to a desperate flight. The Hobbit seems to have added those twenty years back in.

Radagast the Brown is partially responsible for this. As in the book LotR, he shows up to spout dire warnings of unspecific direness. He’s amusing-looking as he drives his wonderful rabbit-powered sledge (not, as far as I know, canon from anything) and loses track of all his thoughts. But again, when he comes onscreen, the plot basically stops. In LotR, when Gandalf leaves, he has a wizard war with Saruman. Even when Frodo just wanders, he stumbles into Faramir’s small-scale battles. But Radagast doesn’t take on the Necromancer — he plays with hedgehogs. (And he could’ve fought the Necromancer and gotten somewhat creamed, thus giving his plot arc a plot). Instead, he just strolled. Gandalf’s white council with Galadriel and Saruman, while a treat for fans, is just as bad. It’s no wonder the dwarves ditch in the middle of it.

The dwarves themselves aren’t very individual. In fact, most of them don’t have much dialogue at all, with nothing that sets them apart. There’s Thorin the Aragorn ripoff.  Kili the hot archer. Balin the wise advisor, Dwalin the messy eater, Bombur the fat guy.  Even after Bilbo has a long conversation with Bofur, the dwarf says nothing to particularly individuate him from his fellows. Granted, they’re all dwarves, all with the same mission. We don’t have the obvious differences of LotR with a dwarf, an elf, a man of Gondor, etc. But Merry and Pippin made an effort, to say nothing of Sam.  Aside from different weapons, these dwarves don’t seem to have different personalities. Admittedly, book and cartoon don’t separate them much either. But with this scope, there seems a missed opportunity.  In canon, Balin dreams of restoring Moria, and Gloin is father to Gimli. There must be more to show.

This film also seemed to have too many villains. Azog hates Thorin’s family, the Necromancer is filling the woods with evil, the goblin king (played by the Marshmallow Man?) knows all about Thorin and hates him on principle. The storm giants are too long and too realized for a force with no personality and no foreshadowing, who, it seems, is out to get them too. The moose-riding wood elves hate the dwarves; they’re just waiting for movie two. And of course, the dragon’s coming. While there are hints a dark evil may have sent the dragon, we lack the certainty of LotR –you are either on the side of life (though elves and dwarves may squabble a bit) or you work for Sauron (like Saruman the traitor and his spells on Cruel Calhedras). In this one, everyone’s out to get Thorin, who, let’s face it, isn’t actually as important as Aragron. Only the meeting with the elves, wary but courteous, felt like a normal encounter. The book has the dwarves mostly encountering strangers and having isolated adventures with them. There are hints of a larger world and backstory (“Bilbo, the Necromancer’s so nasty, I know even you have heard of him” or “We punished Azog for what he did to my grandfather”) but they don’t tell all those stories – that would distract from the main plot. Here, all those stories have been added. It’s cluttered.

Fans will be happy to note that Gandalf’s silvery scarf appeared. However, he seemed rather a bumbler. “Is he [Radagast] a great wizard or is he more like you,” Bilbo asks, and after Gandalf’s not very persuasive of anyone back in Bag End, he seems to deserve that. The flaming pinecones he hurls at the wolves are a disappointment, as I expected colorful fireworks or at least small explosions (he’s a wizard, not Bilbo with a matchbook!) His light-filled rescue in the goblin cave likewise lacked much of special effects or pyrotechnics. Sting glows, but it seemed a disappointment that Glamdring doesn’t.

This seems like a lot of negativity, but honestly, I enjoyed the film and would see it again. Unlike some fans, I’m not desolated by heresies committed on the adaptation. It was fun and clever, with great tie in moments to the first set of movies. Thorin is very different (and very Aragorn) but noble and likeable as he risks his life repeatedly for the useless hobbit, since that’s what a king does (like Aragorn). While Thorin’s and Bilbo’s relationship isn’t identical to the book, it has some interesting room to develop, and I can’t wait to see how they feel about each other in the War of the Five Armies. Our hero, who played befuddled terribly British Arthur Dent and terribly puzzled  British John Watson seems ideal for proper English gentleman Bilbo. I’d always pictured Bilbo as pudgier, but there was enough roundness to get the point across. His power of “hiding” is not really addressed with the LotR hobbits, but it works well here, laying the groundwork for current and future heroic deeds.

Gollum seemed straight out of The Two Towers, with his split personality and fish song. That said, he was fantastic and delightful in every way. The riddle game was realistic, with the right blend of playful and truly creepy.  The moment where Bilbo showed pity was beautifully done…though Bilbo somewhat spoiled it by kicking him in the face. Nice pitying.

There were other delightful moments: The elves were not as “silly” as in the book, but they did try to entertain the dwarves with fresh salads and graceful harping, to predictable results. I loved that the dwarves wanted chips (though those seem more British Hobbit than Germanic dwarf to me). The White Council was believable as they bickered over whether the current peace was real, or foreboding of darker times to come. And I’m sure fans were thrilled to see this scene, which was absent from the book but important in the bigger picture. It was also interesting to get into Gandalf’s touching reason for recruiting Bilbo (and presumably other hobbits): “[It’s] the small things – the everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.” Very nice, and it links with LotR themes and Bilbo’s future.

Should you see this film, LotR part four? Sure, if LotR part four’s what you’re in the mood for. But I should warn you, its attempts to be “more epic” and tell a “big LotR story” have robbed it of some original Hobbit charm.

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Thoughts on Brave

At first glance, of course, it’s a warrior-girl story, meant to appeal to both boys and girls in an example of butt-kicking girl power. As expected, we have the traditional fairytale structure. However, within, there are some unusual choices that sap power from the heroine.

She begins as that most classic of fairytale heroines or heroes: the adolescent who doesn’t fit in and longs to escape the humdrum world of the home. She has an unusual talent, archery, not permitted to her and she’s tired of being a traditional princess. She discovers a path open to her, using her special talents– “I’m fighting for my own hand” is a delightful moment of modern girlpower in the ancient world.

However, from the moment she runs away, meets an ancient witch and requests a spell to “change her mother” thngs take an odd turn. First, the spell costs her nothing—for her necklace, trapping of the world she doesn’t want, she earns not only the spell but also an entire house ful of carvings.  Second, she the heroic quest isn’t Merida’s but her mother’s. The mother indeed transforms…into a bear! From there, Merida’s entire quest is undoing the spell she caused. But Merida doesn’t grow or  change; only Queen Elinor does. From the proper lady setting a breakfast table even as a bear and stopping a battle with her stately presence and self-possession, she turns into an animal eating raw fish in the stream and romping with her daughter. She’s the one to battle the evil bear Mordu, enemy of her family; she’s the one to learn a lesson and caution Merida she should abandon her arranged marriage. Merida makes a stab at silencing a room with her queenly presence, but apart from that, she’s like a chastened child trying to wipe up a mess she’s made, not an independent heroine. Even with her mother mute, Merida doesn’t voice her anxieties about getting married, instead concentrating on undoing her rash actions. The heroine’s journey is about growing up and learning the lessons of life and death needed to be an adult. Merida gains the maturity to admit she’s made a mistake and fight (quite literally) to fix it, defending her mother with a spear. But she likely had both the determination and the humility from the start, as from the  instant she makes her mistake, she’s cleverly, apologetically, fiercely working to undo it. She doesn’t really learn the wisdom of peace or other knowledge she didn’t already possess. And that’s problematic.

The theme here may be “Don’t worry kids, your parents are really wrong and you’re really right.” But if it’s brave to do something scary,something far outside one’s comfort zone, then it’s the queen who’s brave, not really Merida.

 

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Shadow World, Shadow Self: The Heroine’s Journey in Mirrormask

When Helena’s mother falls ill, Helena descends into the shadow world to wake the sleeping queen and restore her world. But when she does, she discovers the princess—shadowHelena—has gone to earth and taken her place. Shadow Helena fights with her father, rages and storms. She’s the dark, angry side of Helena, the side she usually keeps buried beneath the paper-covered walls of her room.

More than simply the inverse of the heroine, this shadow has hidden positive qualities as well, often strong and assertive where the heroine is silent and passive. In her battle to achieve a higher consciousness, the heroine pits herself against this shadow, and must integrate it into the self.

In the Otherworld,Helenatries on the shadow princess identity like a costume. What would it be like to look mature and glamorous, to sit at a stately table and be a perfect daughter? Through windows and mirrors the rebellious princess rages, screaming for attention and independence as she battles through adolescence. And yet, the rage and power she has evoked are too strong within her and she can’t figure out how to fight through it, to return to the sunny Helena the juggler she once was.

At last,Helena harnesses the power of the mirrormask—a tool that both lets her perceive the world and show the world the face she wants to reveal. Using it she climbs out of the darkness and reclaims her place from her bratty, miserable self before the world of pen and paper, of imagination, creativity, and beauty is lost forever. Here is the heroine’s classic journey.

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