Saturday, November 23, 2013

Movie Review: Catching Fire

First let's clear up one thing:  I did not cry during this film.  Okay, I didn't cry a lot.  Okay fine, I at least didn't cry quite as much as the young woman behind me, who from the sound of things was in tears from beginning to end.  I'm not sure even she understood why she was having this reaction, but I can say that I don't blame her a bit.

That's just the kind of movie Catching Fire is--it takes your emotions and tugs them up through your throat, wraps them around your neck, and then asks you to try and breathe through the choke-hold.  This review is itself being delayed for several hours after my initial viewing because I needed that time to process everything I thought about during and after this film, and to figure out how to best put it into words.

With a new director at the helm, Catching Fire could easily have felt choppy or jarringly desperate to stand out from its predecessor (think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), but it just didn't.  Francis Lawrence understands the importance of maintaining and escalating the unique tone of the first movie, and his vision is executed beautifully onscreen without feeling like too sharp a departure from the universe established for us in The Hunger Games.  Improvements were made in the few places they were needed, and while a few tidbits from the book were omitted, the film was admirably and almost completely true to its source material.  The few instances where creative license is taken with scenes or characters feel organic and fit smoothly into the existing plot, and I find myself hard-pressed to think of one that ought to have been changed.

If memory serves I said this about the first film, but it feels doubly true now:  looking at the directors, the screenwriters, the performers, I can't find a weak link in the bunch.  It's almost as though they've all conspired to turn in some of the best work of their careers in the name of making this movie a success.  I fully expected Jennifer Lawrence to be brilliant, as she so reliably is.  What I didn't expect was for Jena Malone and Sam Claflin to so skillfully embody their fan-favorite characters.  What I didn't expect was for Phillip Seymour-Hoffman to portray an intriguing new gamemaker with a cleverness I haven't seen since Alan Rickman humanized Severus Snape on the big screen.  I didn't expect (though I hoped) that Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth would overcome the heartthrob status assigned to them and bring better performances than anticipated, showing that though neither of them will ever outshine J-Law, they are at least entitled to play on the same field.  Further praise goes deservedly to Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland for preventing their characters from becoming caricatures, and for bringing some of the most punch-in-the-gut emotional moments of the film.

When I initially read the book series back in late 2010, devouring all three within a week's time, I viewed Catching Fire as a hinge, a bridge between the initial horrors of The Hunger Games and the roaring conclusion of Mockingjay.  Seeing the film, however, helped me appreciate the tight narrative it is in its own right.  Catching Fire provides the most character development of the three novels, and the film fully rises to that task.  One can seen the tone, as well as Katniss herself, travel from fear to anger to violence, inciting the revolution that will make or break the districts of Panem.  Francis Lawrence has depicted it just about flawlessly, and the intensity of the film's proverbial call to action makes the audience want to join the rebellion themselves, or at the very least set some shit on fire.

As with many great films, there are a number of little things that really enhance the experience, making the film stand out not just as good, but great.  Catching Fire incorporates the musical score from the previous film, using familiar refrains as callbacks to critical events which unfolded in The Hunger Games.  It is also careful to re-establish certain visual elements as important, so that we feel re-immersed in Katniss' world rather than like we're being introduced to something brand new.  The pacing is fairly remarkable as well-- this film approaches the 2.5 hour mark, and yet it feels smooth and free of those restless moments in which most viewers might feel tempted to check the time.

It is also worth noting just how well this film serves as the middle piece of the puzzle:  it hearkens back to The Hunger Games without tediously recapping, and it foreshadows what is to come without forgetting itself as a standalone plot.  The final scenes do feel ever so slightly rushed (one of my few complaints about the film) but in them we get a very clear preview of what to expect in Mockingjay, which rumor has it will be split into two parts.  Questions of staggering significance lay on the table unanswered, and Katniss herself is in a state of visible turmoil, both anxious and afraid but also enraged and thirsting for revenge.  Moviegoers will leave the theater feeling similarly, and eagerly awaiting the final installment.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Is Steubenville the New Norm? Questions We Should Be Asking

In a 24-hour news cycle, stories big and small eventually get swept under the rug.  This should not be one of them.   The issue of rape in our country goes hand in hand with our culture of violence, and needs to be discussed, analyzed, and most importantly, changed.  This particular case raises a few very important questions, ones that ought to finally get the attention they demand.

1.  Why do none of these young people seem to understand the definition of rape?

The fact that so few of the people involved in this case and its coverage seem to understand what rape is or isn't is appalling (especially given that many of those people are adults).  Most notably frustrating, though, are the soundbites from the young men involved, young men whom it would seem have been failed by the adult role models in their lives as well as their own moral compasses.  One student who took video of the assault on his phone indicated that he "didn't know it was rape" at the time, while one of the rapists issued an apology in court, not for his assault on the girl, but for the fact that they'd recorded and circulated the video footage.

Let me provide some clarity, a sort of SparkNotes definition of rape, if you will.  These are all things that have been said elsewhere and often, but apparently the point still has not been made.

-An intoxicated person cannot consent to sex.
-A drugged person cannot consent to sex.
-An unconscious person cannot consent to sex.
-A person who is being coerced (physically or otherwise) cannot consent to sex.
-A person who is, for any other of a spectrum of reasons, unable to give an enthusiastic 'yes' has not consented to sex.

Act without that enthusiastic 'yes,' and you are committing rape.  Bottom line.

The fact that just about no one in the case seems to comprehend this has inspired me to try and recall my own education, and whether it included any guidance on rape and sexual assault amid the calls for condom usage and obligatory photos of every STD imaginable.  To be honest, I don't remember learning anything about rape (except, offensively, different methods for "preventing" myself from getting assaulted).  That's part of the problem too-- girls these days are trained to believe that rape is inevitable and that it is incumbent upon them to protect themselves.  And often that's the entire conversation.

There's probably no one person or even one group of people to blame for these boys' actions (they acted of their own free wills, after all), but the whole case begs the question of where we are missing out on opportunities to teach our young people what is and isn't acceptable to do to another human being.  Maybe we've just been assuming that those are things that go without saying, guided by common sense, but the evidence is stacking up that we're wrong about that.

2.  Why has victim blaming become the norm in cases like this, something everyone seems to accept as inevitable?

Teenage girls are sending death threats to the victim.  Death threats, to the girl who has already not only been physically assaulted, but had her character dragged through the mud during her pursuit of justice.  And do you want to know the worst part?  She knew this would happen.   Several sources have quoted the victim as being initially reluctant to come forward, believing that everyone would blame her and direct their anger her way.  What kind of awful world to we live in where a person who has had something taken from her in such a brutal way fears the people who should be supporting her in her fight to punish those responsible?

A staggering number of rape cases go unreported every year, every week, every day, because victims are afraid of a culture that will blame them for a crime that was committed against them.  This case has proven yet again that such a fear is, tragically, completely warranted.  It brings to mind the recent case of a young woman in India who was brutally raped aboard a moving bus.  The issue of rape and victim-blaming in that culture was brought up frequently, and time and again I read people's insistence that such a thing could never happen in America.  These people are part of a willfully blind majority in this country.  Wake up, folks:  it's already happening here.  It's happening where you live, where you sleep, to your children.  And it needs to stop.

3.  How are we not more disturbed at the details of this case?

I don't know if you've ever been to a party, but if you haven't, I can tell you that they're usually crowded.  As in, full of people, all of whom have the potential to become witnesses to any events that should transpire.  How in the world could a house full of young people, inebriated as they may have been, fail to notice something so awful happening right in front of them?  Further, is it really the case that not one of them felt inclined to speak up, to say or do something (anything) to try and stop it?

I can all but guarantee you that this sort of behavior is not restricted to Steubenville, Ohio.  It's even possible that this is one of the tamer cases, that there are young people out there simply letting this sort of behavior become the norm.  And if that doesn't make you angry, sick, ashamed, or all of the above then congratulations, you are part of the problem.

Even more appalling is the fact that several of the victim's female friends did speak up, testifying against her in court.  They said she was drunk, that she'd had a crush on one of her rapists prior to the incident, and that she was a dishonest person.  Just so we're all clear, absolutely NONE of those things justifies what these young men did to her, even if they were 100% true.  I have been wracking my brains trying to think of a more heinous violation of female solidarity, and gosh darn it, I'm coming up blank.

4.  Sympathizing with rapists is an outrage.  Their lives are ruined?  How about the girl they assaulted?

A reporter at CNN (we'll get to that) lamented the fact that the two rapists (and notice, interestingly, how she never referred to them as such) are going to be placed on the registry of sex offenders for the rest of their lives.  Uh, yes.  THAT'S HOW IT WORKS.  That's why the list of sex offenders exists in the first place, so that we can be aware of who among us has a tendency toward sexually violent or abusive behavior.  If Joe Pothead has to report his possession for narcotics charge on every job application for the rest of his life, then you're goddamn right I want these two individuals to have to acknowledge the crime they committed every fucking place they go.

Yes, maybe these young men's lives are, in fact, ruined.  But they're the ones that did the ruining, no one else.

5.  Why does no one at CNN or other news outlets seem to know better?

Back in my day, CNN was something of a respected media outlet, utilizing things like discretion, integrity, and ethical boundaries.  It would appear that this is no longer the case.  I'll refer you to this video of their coverage of the rapists' trial and let you experience your own outrage, because it truly is something that needs to be seen to be believed.

What grinds my gears about this is the fact that this isn't just a matter of one on-air reporter (or three, in this footage) spewing ignorant bilge; someone wrote the story, someone researched the details, someone is behind the camera...and so on.  Was there really no one on the entire CNN team who realized they were about to go live with a look at the poor, sad, mistreated RAPISTS and thought that maybe, just maybe, the piece could use a rewrite?

There's also the small fact that no less than 4 major media outlets aired the victim's name during their coverage of the trial, something which violates a policy utilized in sexual assault case's to protect the victim (I'd imagine that goes double for underage victims).  More than anything this careless error seems to prop up the notion that this wasn't a "real" rape; and perpetuate a culture in which we downplay all manner of sexual assault as well as the significant danger of taking this issue lightly.