The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 by Francis Lawrence (2014)

mockingjay1.1The beginning of the end – but we’re already very familiar with this kind of thing, aren’t we? I mean the splitting of the last volume of a book series into two films. Potter had it, Twilight had it, and I don’t even want to know if Fifty Shades of Bad Entertainment will have it as well. But for Mockingjay, I feel it was the right decision, because part 1 is already amazing.

What happens?

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued from the arena of her second hunger mockingjay1.2games and brought to District 13 where the rebels have gathered to wage war against the capitol. Katniss’ home District 12 has been destroyed but Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) has saved some people, including Katniss’ mother (Paula Malcomson) and sister Prim (Willow Shields).

District 13 is a military district that works from underground since it had almost been completely destroyed during the war. People there live on essentials. Katniss agrees to be the symbol of the rebellion – the Mockingjay – if the captured tributes, including Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are rescued at the earliest opportunity and given immunity.

After a sucessful rescue, Peeta tries to kill Katniss – he’s been brainwashed.

mockingjay1.3What fascinated me most with this part of the series is the barren look. While I would have wished for a more plush trainee center in the first film, the sparse set in this film fits District 13 perfectly. And it’s not just the set, the clothes and make-up of the characters reflect the military status of the district. To see Jennifer Lawrence basically without make-up… it makes her acting that much more intense. And not just hers. Once again, Julianne Moore just takes my breath away with her acting. She’s perfect as Alma Coin, the leader of District 13. Her posture shows miliatry stiffness and strength but she’s also sympathetic.

I think my favorite scene – probably everybody’s favorite scene – is the one with the group of young people (among them Natalie Dormer as Cressida) at the lake. It’s a stark difference to the scenes in the underground facility, it’s more relaxed and peaceful than the setting of the forest in the hunger games, and then there’s the song that Katniss sings – and it’s perfect. Jennifer Lawrence has a throaty, raw voice and it fits the situation and the song perfectly.

If there was something in this movie I didn’t like, I don’t remember it anymore because there were so many good things to remember, most of all the great acting by everyone involved. Effie Trinket mockingjay1.4(Elizabeth Banks) without her make-up, stripped bare of her capitol attitude and desperate and vulnarable is such a beautiful thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role as Plutarch Heavensbee… The casting is just amazing in this series and it makes this movie in particular sparkle more from within, because the setting doesn’t.

This movie series is getting better with each movie, while with the books, I will always think that the first one is the best. It makes for a nice contrast – and I’m so gonna own these wonderful movies on dvd.


On ‘The Hours’

The Hours (2002) by Stephen Daldry

Another class, another movie review. Actually it is the same class the second time around, and another movie review because I blogged the first one, so that I could not use it again (the one about The Women, 2008). Here goes (minus mistakes, hopefully):

The Hours was the working title Virginia Woolf gave the novel that was going to be published as Mrs Dalloway in 1925. In 1998 a novel of this same title was published; the author was Michael Cunningham, and the plot concerned itself with three women: the writer Virginia Woolf, a fictional reader, Mrs. Brown, and an equally fictional character of the same first name and character as Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn. This novel was made into a movie in 2002, and – just like the novel before it – won awards and critics’ appreciation.
I had read both novels before I even heard that there was going to be a movie featuring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. And, even though I am naturally suspicious of novels being made into film – if The Scarlet Letter (1995) taught me anything, it’s that it’s not necessarily a good idea to make adaptations – I was looking forward to it just because Meryl Streep was going to be in it.

I think the importance of being Meryl Streep cannot be underestimated. Casting her for a movie, producers and directors are aware that it might not be what people call a blockbuster, it might not even be a good movie, but you have cast somebody who knows her craft – and let’s face it, that is so often not the case that it sometimes hurts the eyes, yes, I am talking about you, Mr. Orlando Bloom. In a world (the movies) where things can go so terribly wrong as to cast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett (another bad idea for an adaptation that came later), Meryl Streep is a constant pleasure to watch – even if she stars in a bad movie (not that I remember a really bad movie starring Meryl Streep). She is already a movie icon – and she’s not even dead. So, hearing she was going to play Clarissa Vaughn in the The Hours-adaptation got me hooked from the start.
And I was not disappointed, and am still not. Watching the movie again after several years, I was again sucked into the lives of the three women who are portrayed, I was again fascinated by the incredible performances Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore gave.
But let’s run down a little bit of the plot, so we know what happens. The movie starts with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941 (I do not remember if the novel starts there as well, though I think it does). Everything that comes after pretty much explains why it had to come to this tragic end of so talented and tortured a writer. But we also meet her when she was just beginning to write her famous novel, and how her daily life poses a burden she does not easily handle.

The audience is introduced to Laura Brown, who is unhappily married with a second child on the way. In 1949, she is reading Mrs. Dalloway as a way out of her own life and finds a kindred spirit in the character. Laura is the heroine that does not die (as Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s novel).
We meet Clarissa Vaughn, who lives in New York during the 1990s, and she is organizing a party (like Mrs. Dalloway) for her friend, and ex-lover, Richard, who is dying of AIDS (he is the poet that has to die so that the heroine can live).
The similarities with “Mrs. Dalloway” are obvious. The movie describes a day in the life of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa – as Virginia Woolf’s novel described a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Their stories are begun with the same sentence the famous novel does: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” Virginia writing it, Laura reading it, Clarissa saying it. For somebody who is a declared fan of Virginia Woolf and especially of Mrs. Dalloway (as I am) it is like revisiting the novel without actually reading it (or even watching the excellent 1997 film adaptation). There are moments to rediscover and maybe even to reevaluate.
The details that Michael Cunningham conveyed in his own novel are taken up by director Stephen Daldry and are translated beautifully onto the screen. It is a pleasure to watch the movie. It is visually challenging (as times and places change often), the actresses (and actors) show a raw vulnerability that makes the stories believable and hard to watch at the same time. Nicole Kidman (who was awarded the Academy Award for her performance as Virginia Woolf) is portrayed without her beauty and charms, she is awkward and intense, and shows an ability few people would have granted her.
Julianne Moore shows a truly stunning performance as Laura Brown, the woman who leaves her children and husband to start a life of her own. Of all the truly great performances, hers moved me the most. And it wasn’t even her only outstanding performance of the year as she was nominated as both Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for The Hours) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Far From Heaven) – and surprisingly enough went home empty handed.

Since the performances were all fantastic and the movie was overall pleasing to eye, ear (it has a wonderful instrumental soundtrack as well, not that I hear a lot of the music that is being played in the background), and intellect, one might assume that everybody was happy and that there’s nothing to critique. Well, one could have gone home happy and not find anything amiss, had one (that is me) not read Michael Cunningham’s book. And really, maybe it is just my overcritical self that finds fault with one aspect of Stephen Daldry’s directing. In Mrs. Dalloway, Sally kisses Clarissa. The Hours (the novel) takes up this kiss in each of the three segments: Virginia kisses her sister Vanessa at the tea table behind the back of the maid, secretly, sweetly; Laura kisses her friend Kitty in her kitchen, longingly, passionately; Clarissa kisses her partner Sally in passing at the foot of the stairs of her townhouse in New York, habitually, passionless, pointlessly. Daldry takes these kisses up, and unfortunately twists them into something it should not have been. While he is true to the place and circumstances of the kiss between Laura and Kitty, he gives it an innocence the book was not aiming at. While Laura in the book seemed to have her passion awakened by that one kiss with a woman, Laura’s concern with Kitty in the film seems almost too consoling (Kitty is about to go to the hospital and it is indicated that she might have cancer). Virginia almost violently places a desperate kiss on her sister (the indication is clear, as without that kiss the audience might not have known that Virginia was involved with women throughout her life and possibly also with her sister in younger years), giving the scene a sensationalist element. But the most misleading kissing scene is the one between Sally and Clarissa, as the one in the book indicates the ending of their relationship. The film turns it around into an inevitable happy ending as we see Clarissa and Sally sitting on their bed. Clarissa finally turns toward Sally and her efforts to save their relationship and places a good and wet one on her. It is a little disconcerting to see the characters and situations of the novel turned into Hollywood standards. The need for a happy ending, a resolution in at least one of the stories, the rehabilitation of a female character who has been unhappy without even knowing why, these are narratives you will find more likely in a movie than in a book where situations are allowed to remain unsolved.

The Kids Are All Right

I fought with myself before coming here and telling you what I am thinking about it. I am still not sure if I have lost or won now that I am doing it. This might yet turn into a rant but I will try to remain calm.

So, these are the kids that are (presumably) alright. Joni and Laser (Mia Warsikowka, Josh Hutcherson) (and no, Laser is so not a cool name!) have lesbian moms (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore) and are alright with that, still they (especially Laser) want to meet their biological father and consequently they do. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) seems a nice enough guy, he owns a restaurant and a vegetable garden and a motorbike.

Still, the moms are not happy when they find out that the kids have met the sperm donor and want to meet him for themselves. This results in one of them having an affair with him. Things are being worked out in the end… so, yeah, happy ending… sorta.

I may still be traumatized from the pairing of Moore and Ruffalo in Blindness (which I absolutely hated, it’s on my list of the 10 worst movies ever!) but maybe this movie eventually added a new trauma that just coincidentally starred them, too.

But let me begin with saying that I like Lisa Cholodenko’s movies. High Art is one of my favorite lesbian movies, and I love Laurel Canyon because it is incredibly beautiful and stars Frances McDormand in leather pants (yeah, I know I am easy). So I was willing enough to love The Kids are All Right and in part I do and in part I just hate it.

I start with the part I hate, okay. Sexuality is complicated, is something Moore’s character says when Laser asks his moms why they are watching gay (read: gay male) porn and no doubt it is. It is also fluid and broad and multi-faceted etc. And maybe my definitions here are too narrow, but why (in a movie I would call lesbian themed if not outright lesbian) do I have to watch gay (read: gay male) and straigth sex but am not allowed to watch lesbian sex? It’s not that I am fixated on sex scenes, I don’t especially need them, though I enjoy a good love/sex scene like everybody else. Still, what little there is of sexual action between the two female leads is hidden, it is comicalized, it is disturbingly immature. Jules and Nic were supposed to have been together for about 20 years yet when they try to have sex it looks like they have never done it before… funny or just neurotic?

Another thing I hate is the character of Paul. Man, self-centered, arrogant, disregarding everybody else’s happiness, have I mentioned self-centered… he tries to be cool, he tries to be a little new age, open-minded but he’s just… male. The worst stereotypical male. What I hate most about him is that he thinks he is right to start an affair with Jules. That it is not wrong, that it is actually his right to satisfy her sexually because a) it cannot be called adultery if the pre-existing relationship it same-sex and b) it cannot be called sex when it is between two women and he’s only doing Jules a favor. Gag! I am interpreting here but that’s how this guy feels…

In these respects this portrait of modern family simply sucks. It is affirming the status quo, it serves to the mainstream rather than to the minority it pretends to represent. Again, I wonder if I am thinking too much in labels and should try to see the lesbian as part of an all-encompassing narrative instead of just her own narrative. But then, gay cinema does exist because mainstream was never interested enough in us, or did represent us just in the worst possible stereotypes. And do we really need a lesbian Brokeback Mountain when the same criticism holds true for The Kids Are All Right?

Yeah, I have thought about this a little…

Okay, I promised you some good: the movie is light-hearted (most of the time), it is funny, it is charming, the actors are really good (especially Annette Bening, she’s… brilliant), everything looks very pretty. I laughed a lot – up to a certain point. I mean, you just have to look at Jules’ outfit when she first enters Paul’s garden and you have to wonder if maybe she thought he owned his personal rain forest… There is a lot to enjoy, real emotions, shyness, self-consciousness in the kids, insecurities, jealousies in the adults. It’s really great… if you are straight and don’t have to think about gay stereotypes you will like it… if you are not and you do, well, get angry, argue, criticize, ’cause that’s good, too.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) by Rebecca Miller

I should say that I pretty much only wanted to watch it because Julianne Moore once again plays a lesbian. Yes, I am that easy but it is Julianne Moore after all. Then again, I was always looking forward to watching a movie with Winona Ryder again, I kinda missed her. And then there are beautiful (and talented) actresses like Robin Wright Penn, Maria Bello, and Blake Lively. So, all good, right?

Not really. I mean, this is a good movie, surprisingly good. I cannot say that I am a big fan of books with pink covers and strange lettering and titles like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or anything by Celia Aherne (I just browsed amazon, and did you know there was an actual title for this kind of literature: chick lit!… ). The Private Lives of Pippa Lee fills the description perfectly, still it had an intriguing trailer and I was willing to watch it just for the female cast and Alan Arkin (no, not Keanu Reeves… I usually pretend he is not there and it is so easy with someone who has so little talent).

The movie was entertaining, there was a lot of giggling in the audience and some laughing and some of that was from me, I am not ashamed to say. Robin Wright Penn just showed amazing talent to present a woman who is not really that interesting because she mostly gave up herself to live for her husband. In flashbacks she tells the story of her younger self who was smothered by her mother (Maria Bello) who was addicted to pills and suffering from bouts of depression. After Pippa ran away from home she got under the “evil influence” of her aunt’s lover  Kat (Julianna Moore) and posed for SM-pictures for her. When her aunt finds out Pippa continues her career without Kat but pretty much on the same nod. She does drugs and loses two years of her life just being reckless and promiscuous and not very likeable – even in her own opinion.

Then she meets Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), who is 30 years her senior, and starts an affair with the married man. When he finally tells his wife (Monica Bellucci) of the affair she shoots herself. Pippa and Herb never again talk about her, though she tries to. Twenty years later, the kids are all grown-up, Herb is retiring after three heart-attacks, Pippa finds out that Herb, whom she lived for the last 20 years, is cheating on her with a younger friend. But instead of being devastated she feels elated and wants to leave him. But he has another seizure and dies. Pippa is free to begin a new chapter in her life – and starts it by running away with the neighbors’ half-wit son (Keanu Reeves).

Let me tell you, the acting was brillant. The story was not as dramatic as it seems but had a lot of funny moments and shock moments (as when Monica Bellucci shoots herself..). I still have a few problems with the whole thing… why does one of the two lesbians in the movie has to seduce a minor girl to pose for porn? Why does Pippa Lee – finally free of the burden of a twenty-something-year long marriage – starts her new life with a new man? Instead of enjoying herself for a change? (Yeah, I know, the whole relationship to the “half-baked” neighbor is portrayed as if he is all about her and her pleasure now but gosh… why is it so hard to imagine that a woman just wants to be by herself for some time?) Why does the daughter hate her father suddenly when she always wanted his attention and his attention only and slighted her mother at every occasion? (Yeah, I know this can be explained by Freud but I am not listening to that crap anymore!)

So, on the whole I enjoyed the movie a lot but those questions bother me. I also know that the tropes behind those questions feel necessary to a filmmaker but they make me furious. I am also curious about the question of why does Julianne Moore enjoy to portray sexual egomaniacs so much? I don’t know but she looked rediculously hot without make-up, without bra and the special lesbian do…

Chloe – or what it means

Chloe (2009) by Atom Egoyan

I watched Chloe last night. These past few days I had actually become a little obsessed with the idea of watching it. I guess it had everything to do with going to watch Julianne Moore playing gay again. Julianne Moore is an outstanding actress, talented and able. And she’s super-hot.

I have not watched the movie this one based on, Nathalie. Strangely enough, I wanted to see it back in the days but never quite got to it. Now I am going to watch it and will probably end up owning both on DVD some day. So, I guess, you already think I liked the movie. Well, I am not quite sure about that, it confused me a lot. And I am not sure if it confused me because I didn’t get it or because I did get it completely. (Like Mulholland Drive which wasn’t all that difficult to understand but still confusing in it’s simplicity.)

I feel like there are many layers to this film and I would like to work through those I have detected. If we only look at the story the movie may seem a little too over the top with a few notions that make the lesbian feminist in me rather uncomfortable. For once, the implication that women seek the company of prostitutes as well as men do. Another implication is that every woman (I guess I could put “straight” in front of “woman” here) is in some way fascinated by the profession of a prostitute. Then, of course, we have the (potentially) lesbian character who obviously had a difficult relationship to her mother, seeks men to satisfy but women to love – and dies in the end. Controversial tropes and they have been discussed at length in other places so I will not go into them here.

And I almost forgot the NOT cheating husband who has the opportunities to sleep with other women but does not while the wife does not only have an affair but an affair with a woman – and she’s straight (or not?).

But if that was all there was to this it would not be based on a European (much less a French) movie. French filmmakers like to be deep and artist-y with a lot of sex-scenes thrown in for good measure. And if you have stars like Fanny Ardent, Emmanuelle Beart and Gerard Depardieu in it it will have a lot of all that. I generally don’t like French movies (even less than I like German movies) because they try to be artist-y while I am all for telling a good (straight [as not to say simple, again; not as to say not gay]) story. I am simple that way.

An underlying red thread in the story is Catherine Stewart’s (Moore) motherhood. Her relationship to her son has been disrupted (it is not told by which incident or if it was just rebellion on his side) but Michael – the son – is now in therapy and everybody seems relieved that he is. There is an indication toward an incestuous relationship between mother and son. They have been close and Catherine struggles with the new situation of his rejection toward her. Her sexual encounter with Chloe seems to draw for the most part on Chloe’s sexual relationship with Catherine’s husband David but since that relationship was invented by Chloe and never happened the linkage between her night with Chloe and Chloe’s sexual encounter with Michael establishes itself retrospectively.

Chloe can also be seen as a substitute child for Catherine (I don’t like this implication either but it’s still there). Since her own child is rejecting her she is “adopting” Chloe as her own. The token from Chloe, a slide or hair comb,  is given with the reference that it has been Chloe’s mothers. Catherine does not wear it until the very end of the movie, indicating that her motherhood has come full circle and that her relationship with Michael is as strong as it has been before (but maybe that is an illusion – the movie is very ambiguous in the end).

There are a lot of indications that the story is more about mother and son than about wife/husband. Neesen plays a sallow character; the male equivalent to a woman who has been cheated on by her husband. But he is not believable maybe because the stereotype is not believable.

The question of the relationship between the two women is not solved. Chloe seems to have become quite obsessed with Catherine (a notion I can completely understand) and Catherine is not as disinterested as she wants to be seen. Is she honestly fighting Chloe’s advances? Is she flattered? Is the token she is wearing in the end a reminder for both husband and son that she is a desirable woman that will not be taken for granted anymore? There are indeed many open questions in the end.

The movie comes full circle with the celebration in the end mirroring that in the beginnning. Only, the picture perfect which Catherine could not establish at the surprise party for her husband is intact in the end at the graduation party for her son. One might think that a family that lived through a trauma like they had, would be disrupted but it’s indeed the contrary. How deep does this picture perfect go? Did Chloe die to reestablish the perfect family? The perfect heterosexual couple? Heteronormativity?

It would be sad if this was the sole purpose for this movie. And the closeup on the token in the end belies this theory. But what does it mean?

I don’t know but it sure is fun to think about it. Chloe challenges perspective. The story is not extraordinarily clever or new but the performances of Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried give it that little extra depth to make it more than just a story about not very likable stereotypes.