The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) movie poster

director Francis Lawrence
viewed: 11/26/2013 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Catching Fire is part 2 of The Hunger Games (2012) trilogy (now a four-part movie series), and it follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, from only a year ago.  A year ago, we were still pretty fresh from reading the books and so the books were far more in mind when we watched the film.  And a year ago, it was deemed that The Hunger Games was too violent and disturbing for then 8 year old Clara, so she was left out of the viewing.  Now, 9 year old Clara got the go ahead to see the new film, but not enough opportunity to refresh by watching part 1.

The only major difference between the first film and the second film is director Francis Lawrence stepping in for Gary Ross and cutting out a lot of the hand-held camerawork that was one of the only complaints about the first film.

Catching Fire starts off slowly, with the first part of the film set in District 12, in the build-up to Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour, setting up the storylines about the evil President Snow and the fascist state that is Panem, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, and the background uprising that was sparked by Katniss in the first segment.

The second part picks up energy as the pair tour the districts, making matters worse, but the film comes together as the twist in the plot delivers that Katniss and all the other former champions of the Hunger Games are the ones who go to the 75th anniversary brutality match.  And Katniss has to play her hands right to leave Peeta alive somehow.  The arena is the site of drama and action (and brutality) and by the end of the movie, I was thinking again that they’d done a pretty good job with it.

The final segments will be interesting to see, I suppose.  I think that the final book was the weakest of the trilogy, though involved and complicated, so maybe the movies will have a chance to redeem it.

The biggest thing the film has going for it is Jennifer Lawrence.  She’s practically ideal as Katniss, and Katniss is the key to why the books and movie rise above their somewhat derivative scenarios.  Jennifer Lawrence is hot.  Gorgeous.  And a good actress.

The kids enjoyed the movie mostly.  Felix’s review was that there was “way too much kissing”.  One tends to forget that The Hunger Games are young adult novels, somewhat a stark contrast to the horridness that is the Twilight series.  Though there is still this love triangle.  It’s way more appealing because it’s much less the point of the series but rather more a background element, something that the character Katniss is pushing back against rather than embracing.

We ended up seeing the film at an early showing that was also attended by a noisy group of middle schoolers.  My kids were annoyed with them.  I told them, “That’s just how a group of teenagers act,” though appreciating that my kids are still outside of that enough to see noisy teenagers as an annoyance and not as something cool.

End of Watch (2012)

End of Watch (2012) movie poster

director David Ayer
viewed: 11/23/2013

One of those moments that is never a good sign: watching a movie and wondering to myself why I chose to watch it.

In this case, I was watching writer/director David Ayer’s latest film, End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as two cocky, best buddy LAPD cops.  Ayer employs aspects of faux-found footage, using a number of cameras clipped to the officers’ clothes, in their squad car, even most improbably in Gyllenhaal’s character’s hands (he’s moonlighting at a junior college film class?!)  The most tired aspect of this motif is just such an implausible and stupid conceit like this to get more images.  Of course, this film isn’t 100% in that style, so it’s a little cheaper and a tiny bit better.

But the fake footage is tedious and doesn’t feel legitimate. Which draws away from the film a lot.

I think that this is where I started wondering why I was watching this film.

I’d seen Ayer’s directorial debut Harsh Times (2005) and his prior film Street Kings (2008).  Even though I didn’t think it was totally brilliant, Harsh Times has lingered in my mind as pretty interesting.  But now, after Street Kings and now End of Watch I think I need to remind myself that David Ayer’s gritty, streetwise LA crime films, focusing often on the LAPD, really hasn’t been all that fascinating.

End of Watch isn’t terrible but it’s not particularly notable either.  And ultimately it’s not really all that interesting.  It doesn’t have any slant or angle that adds to the genre.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 11/23/2013 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

This viewing of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was at the Balboa Theater in the Richmond district of San Francisco as part of a birthday part for one of Clara’s good buddies.  The theater had been rented and a DVD provided and popcorn, glow-bracelets, cupcakes and pizza.  I even made Felix join us because I knew that the kids enjoyed it the last time we watched writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film from his own script.

I recollected again about having seen the release of the film in 1985 when it was released in the US as Warriors of the Wind, a heavily edited version of the film with a perplexingly unrelated poster art.

Warriors of the Wind (1985) movie poster

It was interesting to think about it because of my own odd relationship with Miyazaki’s films.  I of course had no idea who he was.  I think we opted for the film because of the novelty of seeing Japanese animated films in 1985.  I recall thinking it was “okay” but “not great”.  I would like to think that this had more to do with the chopping and reconstructing that the film went through in the version that was Warriors of the Wind because I would like to think that if I had seen the original, or even the one with the 2005 re-dubbing, which this version we saw at the Balboa was, that I would have appreciated its qualities.

Of course, this time, the most recent Miyazaki film that we had seen was Princess Mononoke (1997) and the similarities in themes and ideas struck me considerably.  The rage of nature as embodied by the forest and the giant animals reacting to the pollution and violence of humans.  Nausicaä, of course, is set in a future world, or a foreign world, and is much less a stand in for Japan.  And the creatures are not representations of traditional Japanese values and belief systems.  Miyazaki hadn’t developed that angle yet in  1984.  But his strong female leads were well in place.  It’s interesting to note that the character of Kushona, leader of the war-like and destructive Tolmekians, has a parallel in Princess Mononoke  of Lady Eboshi.  Kushona is more purely destructive, going “nuclear” with the Giant Warrior, whereas Lady Eboshi’s greed and exploitation finds some redemption in the later film.

Of all the films that I’ve watched in the last decade since keeping this diary, Miyazaki’s are the ones that I’ve seen and re-seen the most.  I do find it a tad tedious and occasionally daunting to write each time I re-see a film, but it’s also sort of the point of this diary, to explore each viewing for what it’s worth.

Definitely, the idea of renting the Balboa Theater for a movie-watching birthday party is really pretty damn cool.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) movie poster

director John Ford
viewed: 11/22/2013

A few months back, the kids and I watched John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), one of the great Westerns and it was pretty well enjoyed.  In looking for some post-Halloween horror direction in our movie-watching schedule, I bethought myself to watch another Ford/John Wayne Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I had never seen.

While it’s a beautifully-shot film, in full Technicolor glory with amazing shots of Monument Valley and lightning strikes across the grand sky, it’s a bit more run of the mill overall.

It’s the second of what is considered Ford’s Calvary Trilogy, following Fort Apache (1948) and followed by Rio Grande (1950).  Resultingly, it’s not pure Western but a Western with a bit of a War or military aspect.  The story takes place at a cavalry outpost where Capt. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is set soon to retire his military duty.  But on his final patrol, he’s asked to take two women along so that they can catch a stagecoach, amidst an uprising of Indians following Custer’s Last Stand.

Wayne is quite good as Capt. Brittles, but the best part of the film for me was the cinematography.

Typical of our movie-watching of late, Felix skipped out and went to bed and it was Clara and I who watched the movie.  She enjoyed it okay, as I did, though it’s no Stagecoach.  I’ve decided that we’re going to delve a little further into the Western, a genre I shunned as a kid, only came around to as an adult.   More to come.

Leviathan (2012)

Leviathan (2012) movie poster

directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
viewed: 11/20/2013

It probably says something about me that when I first heard about Leviathan from a friend who had seen it at a documentary festival, I was probably more excited to see it than any other new film this year.  I missed my opportunity to see it at the San Francisco International Film Festival so was awaiting DVD.  It also probably says something about me that when it did play one night at the Castro Theatre, I planned to go see it but ended up not getting around to it.  I wound up seeing it on DVD, which was fine, but not optimal.

Leviathan is an immersive documentary from director Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.  Castaing-Taylor was behind the equally fascinating 2009 documentary Sweetgrass.  The filmmakers are affiliated with the Sensory Ethnograpy Lab at Harvard University and though I know little of what that signifies, it has certainly brought forth two of the most amazing documentaries that I have ever seen.

Set on a fishing vessel, the film’s images were captured by clipping small cameras to several of the crew members, atop masts, attached to fishing nets beneath the water, removing an individual with a camera from aspects of the capturing of the images.  Not that you know this entirely.

In fact, the film opens with darkness and hard to discern images following a biblical quote about the power of the sea.  Like much of what transpires in the 90 or so minutes, there is little to tell the viewer outside the images and sounds themselves, exactly what one is witnessing, what significance it holds beyond its own presence.  There is no voiceover nor text to direct the viewer and the cameras themselves, bob and rush with the movements of the boat on the ocean.

At times, the work is intensely gory.  The crew hack up rays, disembowel nameless fish, slosh in blood, kick biological refuse out the ports.  The machinery of the vessel is loud and dangerous-looking.  The crew themselves appear occasionally, not as characters or personalities, but as men, working hard in the machinery of their chores.

There is one point  in the film that isn’t quite so intense and immersive.  There is a shot of the galley or kitchenette on the boat where one of the crew, looking-dog tired, is sort of watching a television that the camera cannot see.  The show he is watching, oddly enough, is Deadliest Catch, the A&E television documentary about fishermen.  The camera never captures the show except its soundtrack, a narrator’s voice telling what is happening to each of the men, detailing the squabbles, the personal dramas, and interviewing the “stars” of the show.  Then there are commercials.

It’s a stark contrast to the film Leviathan and no doubt a commentary on the style of the production.  It’s an interesting conceit.  I guess interesting as well since it wasn’t something that they necessarily intended to capture but within the context of this sensoria of a film, it’s clear that there are documentaries and then there are documentaries.

Leviathan‘s greatest moments are visceral.  The camera bobbing in on the surface of the water, below darkness and frothing liquid sounds, above to a sky loaded evermore with gulls and the cries of the birds, tracking the boat for its cast-offs.  A shot of the trawl net rising from the deep and hundreds of sand dollars and starfish falling from the net and sinking like some ruinous magic through the depths back to the ocean floor.  Fish heads, blankly staring, vaguely alive in the movement of the ship, sloshing and tilting, across the deck.

It’s hard to know entirely what one takes away from this film.   Sadly, unlike Sweetgrass, there is no director’s commentary from which to glean.  When this was shot, where it was shot, who the men are, what amount of fish or types of fish they capture or cast off, where the fish go, it’s all a mystery.  The vivid and intensely visceral rush of sights and sounds is all there is.  It’s tremendous, intense, and incredible.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 11/19/2013

Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, I hadn’t seen in close to 20 years, I think.

It’s a great movie, though a flawed one.   Isn’t every movie a flawed one?  There is no perfect movie, right?

One flaw of The Lady from Shanghai is Welles’ Irish brogue.  Back in the day, I guess, everybody thought they could put on an Irish brogue and get away with it.  As a friend pointed out to me, there is no part of the narrative that Welles’ character Michael O’Hara needed to be Irish.  So it’s a bit superfluous.

The big flaw in the film is that it was hacked up in editing and re-shoots, really blurring the idea of what this film could have been in Welles’ original intention.  Better or worse, one can only speculate.  Welles is the poster boy for what Hollywood does to a director with a vision.  It rips the film from the director, does whatever it wants to try to improve the film’s marketability to recoup their investment.  And back in the day, such as with this film, all original vision, version and footage is lost to time.

The film is still striking, vivid and interesting.  Individual shots and images are often intensely unusual, culminating in the film’s signature finale in the hall of mirrors at San Francisco’s long-lost Playland-at-the-Beach.  Welles shot a lot on location and there are a good deal of images of old San Francisco to make a resident swoon.

Speaking of swooning, Rita Hayworth.  ‘Nuff said.

On the Road (2012)

On the Road (2012) movie poster

director Walter Salles
viewed: 11/17/2013

On the Road has long been one of those novels that had escaped cinematic interpretation.  Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)) gives a good go of it here, re-creating the America of the late 1940’s and the coming of the Beat Generation.  A good go of it does not necessarily mean an utterly successful film, but a reasonably meritorious effort.

Here we have levels of interpretation going on, which is inevitable.  Jack Kerouac’s novel thinly hides real people behind pseudonyms, so you have things like Sal Paradise is really Jack Kerouac, Dean Moriarty is really Neal Cassady, Old Bull Lee is really William S. Burroughs, etc. etc.  So then you have this Garrett Heldlund is Moriarty/Cassady, Sam Riley is Paradise/Kerouac, Kristen Stewart is Marylou/Luanne Henderson, etc. etc.  You have actors playing characters that are also sort of real people.  Maybe it’s better if you don’t think about it.

I thought that the cast was good overall, and Garrett Hedlund as Dean/Neal has the kind of vibrant wanton appeal that one would imagine necessary in such a figure as that, the man who attracted so many of the Beats around him and drove their energies.  I was least impressed with  Sam Riley as Kerouac but that may have had to do with the semi-cypher-like nature of the character portrayal.  Kristen Stewart, who is always more likable outside of a Twilight movie, is also likable here, still playing a young teen.

Years back when I read On the Road, the only time I’ve read it, I had just finished reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and I found a fascinating contrast in those two books that were essentially “road stories”, tales set on the American road, ultimately journeys that found themselves in California and even at points in the San Joaquin Valley.  But the contrast was the periods, the Great Depression and the immediate post-WWII America, still only perhaps a decade apart in their temporal settings.  The contrast is the what the road and America means to the impoverished Okies of Steinbeck’s novel and the footloose and fancy-free rambling whimsy of Kerouac’s.  On the Road could not have happened in the 1930’s.  World War II changed everything.  And the post-War alienation of the Beats and Kerouac’s story is the a very different reaction perhaps than Noir, but is part of the collision of what America came to define itself as in the 1950’s and the souls of those who didn’t fit that concept.

The movie makes the story more cohesive, I suppose.  I don’t recall a story arc in the novel quite as clear as in the film.  While Salles sought inspiration from the Beats and perhaps the French New Wave, it’s not at all a radical document itself.   It derives some flavor from some nice jazz and blues that pepper the soundtrack.  But it doesn’t let itself go to the same occasionally incoherent jive that is the voice and heart of Kerouac.  Maybe it would have been foolish to try that.

I didn’t love the film, but I did like it.  It’s one of several films about the Beat Generation that have come or are coming in the last couple of years.  What does it find in context of today?  I don’t know.  Perhaps in attempt to understand and contextualize a moment and people from the past, it offers some insight or contrast to the world of today?  I don’t know.

The Book Thief (2013)

The Book Thief (2013) movie poster

director Brian Percival
viewed: 11/17/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

The kids and I have been on a little jag of watching movies that are adapted from books that we’ve read together:  Ender’s Game (2013), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), and now The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zuzak.  Along with watching a lot of movies with Felix and Clara, I’ve also had a long-running thing of reading to them before bedtime even though they are both old enough to read to themselves.  It’s still a thing.

Interestingly, I had been trying to tempt them to see Thor: The Dark World (2013), not because I was particularly keen on it but it was out there.  Neither of them showed much interest but they were interested in seeing The Book Thief which we read earlier this year, not aware but not surprised to hear an adaptation was in the works.  The kids had also spoken to other kids at their school who had seen the movie and said it was good.

For me, I thought the book was good, but not great.  It’s currently going through a surge in recommendations for kids of a certain age.  It’s about WWII from the perspective of non-Nazi Germans, those who were not aligned with the Nazis, but did not live in a culture in which they could say that.  It’s not just a fascist state, the majority of the culture are all fascists too.

It’s the story of a girl who goes to live with adoptive parents when her brother dies and her mother, a Communist, departs probably to eventually be captured and imprisoned.  She begins stealing and reading books, and finds a world of sympathy among the hard times in her kindly adoptive father and her coarse but loving adoptive mother, played in the film by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.  They take in a young Jew and hide him in their basement for years until the heat becomes too intense and he runs out on his own.

It’s an empathetic story, oddly enough, narrated by Death, as the novel is.  It’s actually one of the weakest conceits of the book and certainly, though reeled in considerably in the film, also one of the weakest conceits.

Actually, I was more interested in reading them Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.  And in thinking through this story of Germans during WWII, I thought often of The Tin Drum by  Günter Grass and its filmic counterpart, Volker Schlöndorff’s 1979 film of the same name.  Both the book and the film of The Tin Drum are much more profound and interesting than either the book or the movie of The Book Thief but I guess it’s perhaps still a bit more adult than the kids would be ready for.

Overall, the film The Book Thief features good performances by Rush and Watson and it’s a better adaptation than that of Ender’s Game, but it’s not great cinema.  It’s well-done but it’s a lot more obvious and mushy, “Words are LIFE, Liesel,” says the hidden Jew, Max, to the titular heroine.

Beat me over the head, Max.  What’s one of the themes of this movie?

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) movie poster

director Sidney Lanfield
viewed: 11/16/2013

Not exactly the rosetta stone of Sherlock Holmes films, but certainly the key touchstone for the cinematic portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved sleuth.

See, we’d read The Hound of the Baskervilles, the kids and I, at Clara’s behest.  Somehow, sans prior information, she became interested in detectives and Sherlock Holmes in particular.  We did see Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), which I had sort of forgotten about as potential point of inspiration.  I don’t entirely know.  She selected the book and we read it.

The kids did enjoy the book, especially the latter chapters as the mystery unfolded.  But a lot of the language was difficult and required a few stops and starts and explanations.  And Felix often fell asleep and said that he didn’t know what was going on.  But again, the book ended on a high note and I bethought myself that watching a film of the book might be of interest.

So, of course we had to go to the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films, the cinematic Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Certainly not the new Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes (2009), if only because we really were going for the more traditional approach.

Set among the moors of Devonshire, the cinematic moors, actually very appealing in their fog-shrouded art design, the film does a pretty bang-up job of rendering the story in tight, efficient form.  Of course, the kids are pretty keyed in on differences between book and movie in the adaptations that we’ve seen recently, director Sidney Lanfield’s film packs in the important stuff and simplifies the narrative quite a bit to at least make good, cohesive sense in a 90 minute time frame.  Although, the boy gets the girl in this version, so typical of Hollywood.

Typical of Felix, he fell asleep very shortly into the film and it was just Clara and I watching the story unfold.  She did enjoy it.

Rathbone and Bruce proved so popular that this became only the first of 14 films that they made in the roles.  While numerous others have played them, will play them, had even played them before, it is these two images of the characters that are so typical of popular cultural images of the detective and his good-natured sidekick.

Will we journey farther into the series?  Not sure.  Time will tell.  But it was enjoyed by those of us who stayed conscious.

A Band Called Death (2012)

A Band Called Death (2012) movie poster

directors Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett
viewed: 11/15/2013

Like a lot of people, the first that I ever heard of the proto-punk African-American rock trio, Death, was in the article “This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk” when it was published in 2009.  And like a lot of people, I was like “Huh!?”

A Band Called Death is a documentary not just about the band, but about the rediscovery of the band and the story after the NY Times article.  It’s a great story.  A remarkable story.  And the music is pretty damn good too.

Three brothers, Bobby, Dennis, and David Hackney, growing up in Detroit in the 1960’s, the heyday of Motown, learned their instruments, jammed together, and eventually took to inspiration from David’s seeing The Who in concert.  They decided for a very intense rock’n’roll sound, very unusual in the 1970’s for African Americans in Detroit, and they crafted their unique and inspired sound.  They lucked into a recording contract with a local studio and wound up laying down enough tracks for an album, but could not find a label willing to give it a go.

More than anything, it wasn’t the sound of the music but the band’s name, Death, that put them off.  But David stuck to his guns as the name of the band was integral to their sound and music.

Eventually, despite cutting a 7″ with two tracks and trying to get signed, they disbanded, though Dennis and Bobby went on to careers in reggae music.  Obscurity ensued.

The rediscovery is amazing, especially as Bobby and Dennis’ children are second generation musicians who were as unaware as everyone else about this amazing band and their “lost’ album.  Sadly, David passed away before the rediscovery kicked into gear.

The story is fascinating.  And the music is cool.

It’s not unlike last year’s Oscar winner, Searching for Sugar Man (2012), another music story out of Detroit, another musician who almost made it.  The differences are that Rodriguez from the other film did cut an album and went on to obscure fame in far reaches of the globe.  Death, on the other hand, if it wasn’t for the 7″ single they cut, it might never have been rediscovered.  It’s interesting, I think, that both of these stories emanate from the Motor City.

The movie is good.  It would be hard to be bad with such rich material.  But there are questions that puzzle me.  They never talk about the band playing gigs back in their day.  It strikes me that a band playing their style of music would have had a lot of impact in a city that also spawned The Stooges, MC5, and Alice Cooper.  Did they not gig much?

It’s easy to fantasize about an alternate universe in which Death had been signed and had an impact and a place in the history or rock’n’roll, rather than being some strange, obscure anomaly.  A few years later the greatest African American punk band would break on the world, Bad Brains.  Wouldn’t discovering Bad Brains have somehow reinvigorated them?  While questions continue to nag at me, I definitely recommend the film.  A great, though sort of sad rock’n’roll story.