Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (and a brief mention of About Time)

             Only You Can Light Revolutionary Fires
                          Review by Ken Burke

                                    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Round 2 of the futuristic sci-fi conflict between the oppressed 12 Districts and the vicious Capitol takes Katniss back into fierce competition but with unexpected twists.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

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In my previous posting (November 21, 2013, with reviews of Dallas Buyers Club [Jean-Marc Vallée] and Blue Is the Warmest Color [Abdellatif Kechiche]) I noted that I usually don’t take much note of significant calendar days that just happen to coincide with our posting dates but had done so recently given that a previous one landed right on Halloween even as I had coincidently seen some relevant horror films while last week’s Dallas inclusions couldn’t allow me to ignore the melancholy context of the JFK assassination’s 50th anniversary.  I guess that leaves me with no choice but to acknowledge Thanksgiving this week, given that I’m posting a couple of days earlier than usual in an attempt to take some time off from this self-appointed task in order to spend it with my wife, Nina, many members of her family, and a few of our close friends.  Therefore, my condolences to the many big birds who will serve as a feast for the gluttonous pleasure of people like me over the next few days (as we project ourselves into the mindset of the beyond-material-concerns of The Hunger Games’ upper-class of Capitol-dwellers, if all we care about for the next few days is how much we eat and what football game to watch), in hopes that their corn-fed sacrifice contributes to a happy holiday respite that’s more about sharing time with loved ones than taking part in a Hunger Games-like assault on fellow consumers as the final month of the holiday-shopping-season moves into full-commando-mode.

Obviously, this intro leads us back to the ever-grim-life-lessons of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she and the other-put-upon-citizens of bleak-future-post-Armageddon-Panem—especially her fellow Victor from the previous movie, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)—continue their struggle for a tolerable existence in the context of a harsh, totalitarian society.   (The name of this re-established-and-rigidly-regulated-nation comes from the Latin for “bread,” as in the “bread-and-circuses”-populace-diversion-strategy of the ancient Roman empire, except in President Coriolanus Snow’s [Donald Sutherland] rearranged-North America it’s mostly “circuses” in the form of the annual Hunger Games, where 24 young people [1 male and 1 female, ages 12 to 18, from each of the 12 Districts chosen by lottery as Tribunes at the dreaded yearly Reaping] fight each other to the death in order to remind everyone that a long-ago-rebellion was put down by the rulers of the Capitol and that the lives of the many District-dwellers are completely under control of the cruel central government—although the Victors do live in relative luxury for the rest of their lives while being expected to mentor new Tribunes [those who choose to are also welcome in the Capitol where they can carouse with the elite, although seemingly only those from the few already-more-favored-Districts even have a desire to do so] in an attempt to retain some form of sanity and hope that their collective burdens might someday be lifted.  Having never read the Suzanne Collins trilogy that these movies are based on, I won’t even attempt to present myself as much of a Hunger Games expert, but if you want to get further into the backstory of Katniss’ world you can explore the official website and/or a very detailed summary of the Panem universe—although at this one the site managers are calling for further documentation, but there’s certainly a lot that already rings true just from what I’ve seen in the first 2 movies so I think you can be reasonably assured of decent reportage; however, if any of you do look into this latter link and find problems with it, we’d all benefit from you making a comment to this review far below on this page).  The first time around, when the cinematic adaptation was simply called The Hunger Games, my rating was 3 ½ of 5 stars (review in our April 6, 2012 posting), with my reservations based mostly on how familiar the whole concept and its current re-enactment felt and the rather-obvious-marketing-ploy of choosing a popular-young-adult-novel-cluster which easily translates to the ongoing-target-demographic that movie studios try to corral when they offer up these mega-million-dollar-budget-investments in hopes of a grand payday (which has been wonderfully realized for Lionsgate with this latest installment of these “mockingjay diaries” with an estimated domestic haul of $161 million, almost $308 million worldwide, on opening-weekend alone which sets respective-all-time-records of 4th and 12th place for any 3-day debut).  I’m not as fully overwhelmed as some of my critic brethren tell me I should be with this sequel either, but I do find useful additions and extensions in it—along with continued effective control of the narrative arc and the production values—so I’ve retained the same rating, with hopes that the 2-movie finale in 2014-15 will really bring this tale to the dynamic conclusion that it seems to be seeking, as the situation evolves from another Hunger Games battle this time into what shapes up to be more full-scale rebellion when we next connect with Katniss’ cohort.

For now, though, Katniss finds that the previous strategy that she and Peeta formulated to allow both of them to survive the 74th Hunger Games—that of being lovers who were willing to each commit suicide by eating the poisonous nightlock berries rather than either killing the other (with Peeta the likely loser given Katniss’ archery/hunting skills compared to his background as a baker, although he does prove to be a determined survivor as, with help from Katniss, he makes it to the final twosome before they’re saved from further homicide by a change in attitude from the enraptured Capitol audiences [hidden cameras and microphones all over the Hunger Games arena allow viewers to follow almost every aspect of the competition; more on that later]; however, this whole scenario was given some complexity as Peeta publically announced that he’s in love with Katniss [true on his part, despite her lack of private reciprocation], setting up the whole sympathy-for-the-romantic-pair-attitude that helped bring about the rule change allowing 2 Victors from the same District to survive, especially if it were to be these 2)—has led to private problems from jealous-almost-real-romantic-partner Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth; yes, he’s “Thor”’s [Chris Hemsworth] younger brother, so now Nina has 2 of them to lust after), frustration from Peeta that he must continue to play the lover to Katniss on their upcoming Victors’ tour of the Districts even though she’s only marginally civil to him as neighbors in their slightly-better-than-the-rest-of-coal-mining-District-12’s-bleak-surroundings-Victors’ Village, and direct pressure from President Snow for them to be more convincing as star-struck-romantics so as snuff out the rising revolutionary sentiment starting to flare up in some of the Districts as a response to their Hunger Games-escape as more of a defiance of Capitol rules than 2 lovebirds willing to kill themselves rather than harm each other.  Under Snow’s explicit threat to sell their “romance” to the Districts’ crowds, lest our newest Victors along with Katniss’ mother (Paula Malcomson) and younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), suddenly find themselves terminated in some vicious manner (Snow further indicates that he’s even willing to eliminate all of District 12 as subversives if necessary to achieve his objective), Katniss and Peeta make attempts, but insurrection brews anyway, beginning with the largely Black population of agriculture-oriented District 11 where many in the victory-tour-crowd offer the 3-finger-salute of District 12 which has become a symbol of revolution, at least until the saluters are clubbed or shot by the cruel Peacekeepers army (who look suspiciously like Star Wars Stormtroopers, especially given that few of them ever take their face-covering helmets off, except for fierce new District 12 Head Peacekeeper Romulous Thread [Patrick St. Esprit] who whips Gale mercilessly for interference in the Snow-ordered crackdown on any infractions of Panem's rigid rules as another ploy in turning the people against popular Katniss).

We’re intended to see Snow as someone who conveys a sense of the absolute power of a Roman emperor (with echoes of how that authoritarian domination was imported centuries later into Nazi oppression), visualized with huge architectural edifices that make him seem like a demi-god as he commands all that he surveys, yet he’s concerned that his harsh rule still faces rebellious challenges unless he can force Katniss to lose all sense of being an oppositional-leader, instead being perceived as newly-caught-up with her recent fame, relative wealth, and comfort within the protected enclave of the Capitol (San Francisco Chronicle Film Critic Mick LaSalle also notes a Star Wars-type connection in his November 22, 2013 review when he says: “These leaders are evil—and not in the grand way of Darth Vader, but in the small, scared way of despotic politicians.”; however, in the same review he notes one of the new Hunger Games dangers as orangutans rather than baboons [again, see below for more details] so even as I admire his prose and analytical skills I also have to recommend that this newspaper start sending his copy editor to those preview screenings as well for fact-checking-purposes [and not to just dump on accurate-much-more-often-than-not-LaSalle, I’ll also note that in Owen Gleiberman’s November 29, 2013—amazing how they manage to get these things published a week before they exist—Entertainment Weekly review he mistakenly says Katniss is from District 9; neither of these misspeaks are that important, but given how ubiquitous all things Hunger Games are in this culture I’m just amazed that slips like this occur in such big-ticket-media-outlets, so if either of these organizations wants to hire me as a fact-checker [just as long as they don’t discover any errors that I’ve likely made but haven’t heard about yet] I’ll be glad to tell them where to send my check).  When their District 12 former-Victor-now-mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), informs Katniss and Peeta that their lives will never be private again, Katniss—who never desired to be any sort of warrior or social leader but simply got into the last round of the Games as a substitute when sister Prim’s name was drawn from the fishbowl—is willing to make whatever concessions are needed to save any number of lives, so she suggests a public engagement between her and Peeta to dumb-down their situations for the melodrama-desiring-Capital-masses as much as possible.  This initially goes over well with Snow because he wants the image of Katniss to be assimilated into the decadent ranks of preening Capital showbirds such as her image-coordinator, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and the grotesquely-pandering Hunger Games TV host, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci; to also be fair to Gleiberman’s eloquent prose and usually-accurate-statements I’ll quote his description of Flickerman: “the Ryan Seacrest of Oz”)—both of whom play their absurd roles to perfection, making you want to include them front-and-center in an attack by the downtrodden masses of the Districts (even as you quietly admire their wondrous lifestyles).

For truly evil Capitol-consciousness, however, only one of the elite is of the same petty-but-dangerous-wickedness as Snow, new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—who replaced predecessor Seneca Crane, a victim of state-ordered suicide for allowing Katniss and Peeta to manipulate the 74th Games into a situation of dual survival.  Heavensbee (I’ve got to hand it to Collins for her creativity with character names, many of which are as outlandish as Capital couture and makeup) helps Snow turn this Quarter Quell (a special edition of the Games every 25 years) into a contest populated only by former Victors, in an effort to eliminate many of them, thereby further reducing the ranks of would-be-revolutionary-idols.  Katniss is horror-struck at this, not only because she must put her life on the line again but also because she feels certain that Peeta is a more-likely-non-survivor whom she’s developed a fondness for, despite her reluctance to give too much of herself to anyone along with her continued semi-connection with Gale.  In this sense, I found more to be interested with in Catching Fire than in the first Hunger Games because it emphasizes how un-warrior-like Katniss truly is, how traumatized she remains with visions and nightmares of the Tributes she previously killed, and how she longs for a rebellion to break out although she’d prefer to just try to sneak away with Gale to somewhere far from Panem (I have no idea what condition the rest of the planet is in beyond this toxic super-state, but the implication is that there are other societies that at least aren’t as atrociously run as this one), but he insists on staying to be an active part of the emerging resistance.  With Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch the only Victors in District 12, though, she has no choice but to return to the Games; Peeta is spared through luck of the draw but he immediately steps forward to take Haymitch’s place (an irreversible act) so our would-be-lovers are back in the frying pan (although Peeta tries a last-ditch strategy of gaining sympathy from the Capitol audience with the false claim that he and Katniss were secretly married and she’s now pregnant—the other 22 thought-they-were-safe-and-secure-for-life-but-now-have-those-lives-on-the-line-again-Tributes support the long-shot hope for cancellation of the Quarter Quell but no dice, so once again they’re all forced into an arena [actually a large circular lake surrounded by a forest, all contained within an invisible domed structure that emits a deadly force field to prevent escape]).  Then, to make matters more difficult, Heavensbee and his control crew are able to initiate various additional horrors—hot blood pouring from the sky, a poisonous fog, a large tribe of killer baboons (mandrills, to be specific, Mr. LaSalle), a huge tidal wave across the forest and lake, an attack of jabberjay birds that duplicate Prim’s voice almost driving Katniss mad—that are as dangerous to the lives of the Tributes as they are to each other with their various weapons of personal destruction.  Additional imposed obstacles were a part of the previous Games as well, but this time we get a different on-screen dynamic in how all of this is presented to us.

To begin with, Katniss and Peeta realize even in the initial rush for weapons when the Games are officially begun that they have allies in the District 4 Tribunes, dashing, trident-wielding Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and likely-oldest-of-any-surviving-Tribune Mags (Lynn Cohen), who normally has to be carried by Finnick as the frantic foursome attempt to escape into the forest but shows great fortitude in sacrificing herself into the deadly fog so the other 3 can more easily get out of harm’s way, later finding that their wounds are literally washed away when they return to the starting point of the lake.  They also get help from one of the District 6 camouflage experts who sacrifices herself to save Peeta during the baboon attack, then find themselves with more allies in the brainy Tributes from District 3, Wiress (Amanda Plummer)—who’s in shock from the various attacks but discerns that the arena is set up like a 12-hour clock so that each added challenge occurs only for an hour at a time and only within that hour’s sector of the space—and Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright) who concocts an electrocution plan to finish off the remaining killers in the woods (unlike in the earlier Hunger Games we get a lot of announcements of dead Tributes via cannon fire and video projections in the sky but we don’t see many of the deaths, with even the few that we do witness made quick and mostly bloodless keeping this movie more appropriately in the realm of its PG-13 rating than so many others with this designation that seem to wallow in oddly-sanctioned-depicted-violence—I admire LaSalle for frequently writing about this maddening discrepancy within the manner in which movie ratings are arbitrarily applied).

OK, I assume you’ve read this far well aware of my standard Spoiler Alert back at the beginning of the review, but if you need to protect yourself from major plot revelations then you may need to jump on down to my brief comments on About Time before you end up cursing me into the next two generations of my non-existent children!  The other ally that our intrepid band join up with is axe-master Johanna Mason from District 7, a wary friend but one willing to hope that somehow the intended (by them) Final 5 (Wiress didn’t make it when another assault required some visible deaths) will be able to stand together against their Capitol masters when the other threats have been neutralized; she also is the one most indignant about the changed rules of the Quarter Quell, forcing her back into action after having already survived 1 of these inhuman trials. When those last 2 killer opponents thwart Beetee’s electrocution plan, forcing Johanna and Katniss to stand their ground (much as I’m coming to despise that term when it takes on political connotations), I got a bit confused when Johanna first attacks Katniss (cutting her arm) but then pushes her into protective cover while Johanna leads the killers away in pursuit of her escape (maybe it was to trick them into thinking that Katniss was dead?), but anyway Katniss returns to the huge tree where lighting is programmed to strike at midnight, ties the loose end of Beetee’s wire which is wrapped around the tree to one of her arrows (magic’s not supposed to be part of the Hunger Games’ world, but her quiver sure restocked itself plenty during her roughly 36 hours in this arena as she always had more arrows to shoot no matter how depleted it looked in earlier scenes), and fires it at the dome just as the lightning is unleashed, setting off an explosive reaction that breaks open the dome, allowing a Capitol aircraft to enter, airlifting Katniss and Beetee out of the compromised arena.  When she finally awakes from the shock of the electrical surge she finds herself not just rescued from the now-abandoned Quarter Quell but in the company of Finnick, Haymitch, and … Plutarch Heavensbee … who tell her that the long-awaited rebellion is now underway, that this whole Games set-up was a plot from the beginning to get Katniss out of the arena (Plutarch is an undercover rebel; half of the Tributes were in on the ruse, explaining their unexpected cooperation), and that they need her as the face of the revolution (just to make things interesting for the final episodes of this “trilogy”—which will borrow a tactic from the Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows [David Yates; 2010, 2011] and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn [Bill Condon; 2011, 2012] movies by dividing the final novel of the set into 2 filmic adaptations [not to mention The Hobbit (Peter Jackson; 2012, 2013, 2014) which stretches 1 book into 3 movies]—we also learn that Peeta and Johanna are Capitol captives).  She still seems a bit stunned and unsure about the whole venture (especially when they tell her they’re flying to District 13, which supposedly was obliterated years ago as a punishment for attempted revolt) until she’s reunited with Gale who tells her that while he was able to rescue her mother and sister from the destruction there is now no longer any District 12 (so that I can now add to my catalogue of bothersome “resemblances” that I cited about The Hunger Games in my previous review another— more substantial—Star Wars parallel, that of an initially-hesitant-savior-figure-with-specific-combat-skills being pushed into action by the death of loved-ones, although with Luke Skywalker it was just Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru whereas Katniss lost almost everyone she ever knew to the heavy hand of an evil empire).  The determined look on her face as we fade to black (along with a fiery mockingjay symbol, echoing the wedding-dress-costume-turned-to-flaming-reveal-of-a-winged-outfit that she surprised everyone with in the final telecast before the Quarter Quell, further branding her as a subversive rather than a desperate lover, setting Snow on a [failed, for now at least] course of seeing her die in the arena, and resulting in the apparent retaliatory death of her supportive designer, Cinna [Lenny Kravitz]) tells us that Snow and company are going to have hell to pay before the fate of Panem is decided.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an aspect of a cluster of related futuristic and outer-space sci-fi and fantasy films of this anticipated-big-box-office-season of mid-to-late-autumn, including Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood) and Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor; these 2 reviewed respectively in our November 7, 2013 and November 14, 2013 postings, soon to be followed by The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), but one that offers the needed human-interest-aspects so absent in the first 2 noted above as well as trying to rise above the frustration that often occurs in the middle episode of a planned trilogy where the action is pushed to a climatic point only to be suspended for a year or so before the desperately-awaited-resolution is finally allowed to emerge.  While, for me at least, Catching Fire doesn’t fully establish itself as an almost-stand-alone-middle-episode (as did Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back [Irvin Kershner, 1980]—with its introduction of Yoda and the game-changing [for the time, before Anakin's expanded life story in the first-occurring-but-later-released-trilogy] revelation that Vader was Luke’s father—and Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers [2002]—with its introductions of Saruman the White, the Ents, and the massive battle of Helm's Deep) it does give us a useful shift in tone from the “exciting” blood-sport focus of the first Hunger Games narrative, allowing us to see in a bit more tragic manner the unrelenting cruelty of the Capital-imposed regulation of life in the Districts and the unwavering determination of President Snow to snuff out any sense of disloyalty while relieving us of the focus on depicted death that was so evident in the first round of Katniss and Peeta’s awful situation.  It also left me a bit confused more so than last time (but, as I said earlier, I’m no Hunger Games-trivia-encyclopedia, so any fill-in clarifications are welcome) about just what the audiences in the Capitol and the outlying districts actually see on their large video screens of the arena combat (some of that comes from me not being able to remember specific shots of the first movie, especially having nothing much to compare to this time because I don’t recall any instance of any audience except Snow or Heavensbee’s control team seeing any imagery of these Quarter Quell Games).  I’m not sure if everyone has the multi-screen feeds that are available in the Capitol control rooms (or even on the high-speed train that whisks Katniss and Peeta on their Victors tour, where she sees the emerging rebellions in the various Districts, imagery I’m sure isn’t shown anywhere outside of command centers, including to the Capitol residents-at-large) or if they just get a specific, limited view intended to sway the general population toward the fates of the various combatants and to encourage Capitol sponsors toward helping pre-determined Capitol officials’ favorites in order to better rig the outcome.  Further, given that there seem to be hidden microphones along with the ever-present cameras I wonder how any of the Tributes’ strategy-conversations ever elude their overseers, along with wondering how quickly the Capitol Hunger Games control team can react to unintended actions such as Katniss’ dome-destruction tactic given that Heavensbee must have already been in the air heading toward the arena when it happened so he wouldn’t have been back at central control to overturn pro-Capitol decisions made by his underlings.  Questions just kept coming at me this time faster than I could ascertain answers to them, a minor distraction but a distraction nevertheless regarding full appreciation.

Yet, as with anything else in such a creatively-exaggerated-narrative-setting (sadly, exaggerated only to a degree from equally-absurd-realities of our own societies, such as the various Survivor-type “entertainments” on our worldwide TV screens, with the most extreme I’ve seen being the Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid where a stranger-male-and-female-pair must survive 21 days with no food, clothes, etc. in jungle-ish territory [a new version, this time with 2 sans-clothing-couples, premieres on Dec. 8, if you can possibly wait that long]) we shouldn’t be too critical of such possible laps of logic (or laps of memory from your conscientious critic, frantically trying to scribble notes in the dark, thereby possibly missing occasionally-important images or snatches of dialogue) but instead focus on the overall impact of the total package.  From that perspective, I accept The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as well-crafted-suspense-and-thrill-inducing-entertainment (despite its many similarities to others of its type, as already noted) which likely resonates with its more-intended-target-audience a bit better than with me (as even-less-than-1-week-ticket-sales have already proven) and has me hoping for a rousing storm-the-Capitol-finale when the rebellion is fully engaged over the next couple of years (as long as Snow doesn’t counter with a Death Star, which wouldn’t surprise me too much at this point), so I recommend it, just not as any sort of masterpiece (even a pop-art one; and, with a similar backhanded-compliment, let me say that Lawrence—Jennifer, that is, not her director—won't be up for any Oscar-nominations for this role, although you never know what may come of her return-work with David O. Russell this winter with American Hustle given that he steered her to the Best Actress statuette last year in Silver Linings Playbook [I'd still have gone with Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (Michael Haneke) or even Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow; reviews of these 2 films in this blog in our January 24, 2013 and January 7, 2013 postings, respectively); however, you can never tell what you're gonna get with Oscars as I've been brutally reminded lately by re-watching the spectacular work of Meryl Streep in Ironweed (Héctor Babenco, 1987) which lost to the effective-but-inferior performance of Cher in Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987), although no one's offering me an Oscar-picking-job either]) but rather as a well-oiled-thrill-ride that promises increasingly-better impact when we jolt around the bend to its final segments.  To cap things off on Katniss and her fiery future, I’ll offer my weekly musical metaphor with the most obvious links I can think of (trying to stay in spirit with the sense I get of this Hunger Games series), Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhE6Izmkpx4 (performed in 1968 at the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN, when the tune was more current to its 1963 origination, but you can also go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tmzxM_XvQA [from the 1994 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland] where the more-weathered look and sound of Cash is akin to the ground-down reality of Panem’s huddled masses) and The Beatles in a live performance of “Revolution” at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=tH9zG28GQEg (which begins its life on their 1968 "White Album"—officially named just The Beatles—where this song is what's called "Revolution 1" but in a much-slower tempo than the single-record version sung in this video, although I'm not sure who's doing the keyboard part [Nicky Hopkins plays it on the album]); the images are a bit ragged, but, like the later Cash video above, that's in keeping with the underground attitude in this latest episode of The Hunger Games so please embrace the grit.

Finally, while I’m offering no thematic connection between The Hunger Games series and another movie with an aspect of sci-fi—time travel—in About Time (Richard Curtis), I do want to make a couple of brief comments about the latter before it slips my memory completely.  I held off writing about it after seeing it a few weeks ago because I had hopes from my someday-writing-partner Pat Craig that he was going to do a review of it so I didn’t want to distract from that long-awaited-other-one-of-the-Two-Guys-debut, but in that nothing has yet emerged I’ll just go ahead and put my thoughts out there for now and hope that Pat has more to offer later from his own perspective.  In this unusual story, where you have to mostly ignore any previous connections between time travel and sci-fi (such as in The Time Machine [George Pal, 1960] and the Terminator movies [James Cameron, 1984 and 1991; Jonathan Mostow, 2003—but note that McG’s 2009 Terminator Salvation takes place just in the future with no travel back to earlier eras]) in order to properly focus on the temporal dislocations just as an aspect of what you’ve previously seen in certain drama (Slaughterhouse Five [George Roy Hill, 1972]), comedy (the Back to the Future series [Robert Zemeckis; 1985, 1989, 1990]), or romance (Somewhere in Time [Jeannot Szwarc, 1980], The Time Traveler’s Wife [Robert Schwentke, 2009) plots.  In About Time, our main male character, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson [noted by one San Francisco Bay Area reviewer—not LaSalle, but I’ve lost track of who it was—as looking enough like Harry Potter’s friend Ron Weasley to have been cast as his brother—apparently without checking a few sources that would easily reveal that Gleeson was in fact Weasley older-brother Bill in both Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1 and … 2 [David Yates; 2010, 2011]—my availability for that high-paying-fact-checker-job is still open, but I guess I could be persuaded to just pick each year's Oscar winners), is a rather ordinary young man who would love to get into a serious relationship but sabotages himself frequently with clumsy acts or poorly-stated-thoughts; on his 21st birthday, though, his delightful Dad (Bill Nighy) tells him the secret that men in his family can time-travel backward within their own lifetimes, which allows them the exceptional opportunity of being able to re-live any given event so they can “correct” its outcome, a life-and-love-saving-device that allows Tim to smooth over the rough spots in his initial encounters with charming Mary (Rachel McAdams)—the most “devious” change gives him the advantage over another guy that she was about to meet before Tim had the chance—allowing them to progress to a blissful marriage.  However, there’s also a limitation that has to do with not being able to go back any farther than the birth of your youngest child without causing notable, possibly unwanted, changes in all aspects of your life (a plot device also explored in a similar manner by Steven King in his 11/22/63 novel where another time traveler is able to prevent the JFK assassination, only to find this break in the space-time continuum leads to dire circumstances, forcing him to travel back once again to reset everything—just as what happens when Tim revisits an event that occurred before the birth of his first baby, requiring him to go back again to undo his attempted revisions) so when Mary wants to add to the brood after Tim’s father died he has to sacrifice his deep love for Dad and the easy ability to revisit him in the past for the sake of the future of his own immediate family, adding a bit of sentimental strain and decision to what is otherwise a pleasant comic romp (although one that has been criticized for not letting Mary in on his secret, so that Tim is able to reorder his life from his perspective without ever consulting with her on the outcomes), that ends with the oft-repeated advice to simply live each day as if it’s your last so that even if you don’t have time-travel powers you will have maximum appreciation for what you’ve experienced.  If I were doing an actual review of About Time I’d say about 3 of 5 stars because it’s all sweet, pleasant, and romantic enough, but doesn’t do all that much to transcend the basic human appeal of its delightful stars as they attempt to bring interest to their characters (the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic folks weren’t wild about it either, respectively rating it at 68% and 55%); if you’d like to explore it further, you might want to start with the official site (may be a bit of a slow download) and a trailer.  However, I’ll leave such explorations to you while you’re mulling over your 4th turkey, dressing, and cranberry sandwich this holiday weekend, awaiting my trip to the farm country of Nebraska (Alexander Payne) next week.

If you want to know more about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCnCcg589xg (12:50 very informal interview with actors Josh Hutcherson, Jena Malone, Sam Clafin, and Jennifer Lawrence)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club and Blue Is the Warmest Color

   Blue Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair—But Not Anyone’s 
   Blood, Even Those Who See Themselves as Untainted
        Review by Ken Burke       Dallas Buyers Club
Again this cinematic year we have a marvelously well-crafted film based on reality, this time the story of a man diagnosed with HIV who sets out to help himself and others.
                                                         Blue Is the Warmest Color
Graphic lesbian sex is what gets too much of the press about this film when it’s much more about awakening love in a young woman but the difficulties of maintaining it.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

As I noted in our posting of October 31 this year (mainly a review of The Counselor—which most critics and viewers seem to regard as a bad trick [and appropriate for a Halloween posting because of its “horror movie” status, although not in the positive George Romero or Rob Zombie sense of that phrase] but I still found treat qualities about it at http://filmreviewsfromtwoguysinthe dark.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-counselor-plus-brief-of-mention-of.html), I don’t normally take note of the quirks of the calendar as it coincides with the public debut of Two Guys reviews but I did it then because I’d recently re-watched a Halloween-worthy classic (The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, 1980]) and wandered in out of curiosity to the remake of another horror standard, Carrie (Kimberly Pierce, reprising Brian De Palma’s 1976 origina]).  However, as one of our featured explorations this week takes us back to Dallas in 1985 (a place from where I had moved a year earlier, after having lived and worked there 1977-1984)—providing a connection to the present enormous media attention on what happened in that near-mythical Texas city on November 22, 1963 as we reach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—I can’t ignore that this new Two Guys posting comes near that fateful day this Friday, which is relevant to our first film in question because in Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée), beginning over 20 years after the killing of a beloved national leader (not by everyone, but there was lots of us in Texas who found him to be the embraced manifestation of a new generation, bringing a fresh brand of politics and charisma to what had seemed dreary and institutionalized under Eisenhower [despite Ike’s Texan birth and WW II accolades]) in a city that seemed to seethe with extreme right-wing hatred (I was a mere high-school sophomore hundreds of miles away in Galveston on that terrible rain-soaked Friday in 1963, horrified that the ultra-conservative contempt for JFK so glorified in Dallas had led to the death of my ideal political leader then somewhat [grotesquely] relieved to find out that the assassin [?] was not a KKK hitman but instead a nut-case Communist), the story of HIV-positive Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) occurs within the context of yet-another-brand of Dallas hatred, that of rabid homophobia, practiced not only by the usual collection of home-grown-rednecks but initially by the protagonist of Dallas Buyers Club himself, the perfect epitome of the self-assured, reality-denying homo-basher, giving me reason for private celebration once again not only that I had been able to trade my Dallas home for one in northern California before Woodroof’s situation even emerged but also leaving me saddened that a huge metropolitan city such as this (in my birth state) that prides itself on tasteful wealth, cultural sophistication (which includes, I acknowledge, a high respect for all varieties of the fine arts, including leading independent and foreign films), and a level of civic pride intended to put its citizens on a plateau above the “common folk” of the rest of Texas is once again being rightfully taken to task for its historically-accurate-inbred-intolerance.

After having spent a good number of years in college and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin—largely a unique community of progressive lifestyles and time-capsuled hippies in this otherwise-long-ago-former-independent nation that so honors “visionaries” such as G.W. Bush, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz (although we may not agree on what they’re looking at or where their heads are placed for the view)—I was loath to even drive through Dallas, let alone live there, but employment at Southern Methodist University called so I tried to put aside my own prejudices and make a life in north Texas; it was better than I anticipated but still not what I had in mind for a future (despite unique opportunities at SMU such as meeting William Wyler, Ingmar Bergman, Roger Ebert, Charlton Heston, and Gene Kelly among others), yet even when I flew the coop to California I knew that the collective consciousness of Dallas wanted to see itself in a loftier vision than how it had responded to people like JFK and Ron Woodroof, but when indictments such as Dallas Buyers Club come crawling out of the woodwork we’re all reminded once again that Dallas—and much of the rest of the world—has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do, even though Woodroof was somewhat living out his own karma in a mode of self-reclamation before he’d dare start knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door, hoping for entry.

(My apologies if I’ve rambled on too long at the outset about things that are as deep in my heart as they are “deep in the heart of Texas,” but I still have a lot of inner turmoil about certain aspects of growing up and living there for so many years, which are especially raw with all of this focus on the Kennedy killing 5 long decades ago, an event that significantly shaped my outlook on the world, just as with the landslide Nixon victory in 1972 [effectively ending 1960s counter-culture aspirations, at least from my perspective on the country as a whole] and the vicious Ben Laden-crafted assaults of 9/11/2001, probably the 3 most profound public events so far in my life.)

As we finally (thanks for your patience) jump into the actual events of Dallas Buyers Club, we find Ron as a redneck electrician, a rodeo aficionado, a guy at best one step ahead of big trouble (but often not able to keep up that pace as his need for constant sex, alcohol, and drug stimulation—we first meet him banging two women in the shadows of a rodeo arena while other sorts of “riding” are going on in public view—leaves him ecstatic one minute and passed out from excess the next).  However, when an accident at his oil-field-day-job sends him to the hospital for some needed treatment, a standardized drug test reveals the HIV contamination, which he later understands likely comes from his easy access to women who have just as easy an access to dirty-needle users so that his initial denial of his condition because of his angry, complete rejection of anything associated with a homosexual lifestyle soon has him believing that the projection of his lifespan to be merely another 30 days is no mix-up of blood tests nor lunatic pronouncements from incompetent doctors (one of whom, Dr. Eve Saks [Jennifer Garner], has good reason to be disgusted with both his early mindless rejection of his condition and his later interference with early-stage AZT trials going on at her hospital, although she does become a dependable ally later on when his attitude and actions change drastically).  In fact, as his already compromised health (he seems to have taken no notice at all that he’s become so skinny—much has already been made of how McConaughey lost about 40 pounds to substantiate the deterioration of Woodroof’s body—that his navel seems close to touching his spine while his jeans are almost hanging off of him, barely held up by a belt that ‘s pulled so tight that the loose end droops almost halfway to his knee) starts to noticeably nosedive during those prophesized final days he spends lots of time at the local library researching his symptoms, which leads to acknowledgement of his situation, a desperate attempt to buy his way into the AZT trial (given everything else we learn about him it would seem that his fortune at gambling is pure luck, but it does pay off regularly, especially when his would-be-retaliatory-victims are held at bay by concerned-cop-semi-good-friend Officer Tucker (Steve Zahn]—easily confused with Woodroof’s blue-collar-buddies, as all of them sport the trendy-for-the-time-mustaches that would drive an eyewitness trying to pick a perp from a lineup crazy in discerning any difference among many of these guys, including Woodroof if he weren’t so cadaverly-thin and didn’t evolve his appearance a bit more as the film carries on long beyond that initial death sentence), and an even more desperate scouring of the hospital’s dumpsters for AZT remains when he realizes that this might be his only hope, despite the ugly side effects this drug causes even before his supply dries up due to better security procedures.  Yet, we can easily appreciate his desperate attempts at salvation, as he sums up for Dr. Saks: “F**k the DEA.  I’m on the DOA!”, although we can never be sure what’s up with Woodroof—as shown in one of the film’s best scenes as he seems to be praying in a dark church, lit only by the votive candles burning right in front of him, until the next shot cuts to the wider view of a strip club where he’s still more at home despite his terminal condition, even as we’d seen him earlier chasing his AZT remains with a snort of coke.  His life definitely isn't polished up for this film, making it all the more effective.

Not one to ever be held back by circumstances (except anticipated ones such as his continued determination, right after his fatal diagnosis, that he wasn’t sick, which he set out to prove by overdoses of substance ingestion and sexual hijinks in his ratty mobile home, leading to expected unconsciousness until breakfast time the next day) and stymied by his sudden reversal of fortune where he’s not allowed to return to his job, then finds himself locked out of his mobile home (with “F****t Blood” now painted on the outside), Ron’s soon off to Mexico to visit Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who may no longer have standing with the AMA but is seriously concerned with helping the growing number of AIDS patients, not with a destructive drug such as AZT was in its early, almost-lethal use but with combinations of other less-invasive drugs, vitamins, and proteins, which do help Ron overcome his first-proclaimed-30-day-life-expectancy (he visibly gains some weight so that his belt now fits properly—or maybe he just got a new one in a more appropriate size) and encourage him to don a priest’s persona so that he can smuggle a carful of this mixture back to Texas (although, as he points out, these medications aren’t illegal, just not-yet-approved by the FDA) where he’s sure that other willing buyers await, including the ones involved in Dr. Saks’ AZT trials.  Later in the film we’re convinced that Ron is simply trying to help as many people as he can, through his $400-a-month-membership “buyers club” stymying of the law where he’s not actually selling drugs but simply memberships in his organization where his clients can avail themselves of the substances as they wish.  But early on it’s just as clear than his basic survival-at-all-costs and homophobic natures haven’t changed a bit as he’s simply looking to deal directly with customers straight out of his car trunk as a means of anticipated-lucrative-income from a clientele that he still disrespects if not outright despises.  His perceived hostility and unknown-quantity-status to his prospective buyers results in no response to his goods until he enters a begrudging partnership with a transsexual he met in the hospital, Rayon (Jared Leto), who provides the trust needed for the buyers to come around and a willingness to more-or-less accept Ron, despite his rejection of Rayon as anything but a business partner until Ron finally starts seeing Rayon as a human being with real needs, especially when Ron’s former buddies turn away from him with the uninformed assumption that his illness could have come only from gay sex, which allows Ron to finally suffer the same homophobic rejection that he’d been only too willing to previously dish out himself.

Ron’s business thrives but with ebbs and flows because of constant attempts by FDA agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) to bust his operation, often calling in police and DEA agents as well to confiscate Ron’s products because—as the film bluntly argues—the FDA is in league with the highly-profitable pharmaceutical industry to promote expensive “cures” for exotic diseases rather than more available products which work just as well, or better, but don’t provide the huge profits that come after copyrights and R&D investments by one of the most powerful industries on Earth.  Thus, while Rayon and friends are often running the day-to-day “club” business out of a decrepit motel back in Dallas, Ron is running all over the world trying to find new supplies of various compounds, as well as effective tricks to get his purchases through U.S. Customs, while constantly being outmaneuvered by fluctuating FDA policies that are intended to put him and similar “buyers clubs” around the country out of business.  When Dr. Saks finally understands Ron as having evolved to making all of this effort not out of a desire to get rich off a large, desperate client base but to actually help these people—most of whom, admittedly, are homosexual, but Woodroof is quickly moving beyond caring about that as he challenges various statues designed to thwart his business, based on his new-found desire to simply keep going for the benefit of his clients whom he has come to care for as needy-but-socially-ostracized-fellow-humans—she offers medical and moral support as well, even to the point of jeopardizing her own mainstream career.  It’s just a shame for Garner that—like Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, review in our November 14, 2013 posting)—by the time we can even pay much attention to her role after the on-screen presence, power, and dominance of McConaughey and Leto, too much else has already absorbed our attention so that we have little sense of her contributions to this story except as a roadblock-turned-advocate but one that can bring little but empathy to the Woodroof-Rayon crusade because she has neither the financial, medical-establishment, nor scientific-discovery clout to help her friends overcome the constant harassment they’re getting from the feds that makes it difficult for these patients to find the relief they are seeking, including Rayon who finally succumbs to the inevitable (as will Woodroof, but not until 1992, beyond the limits of this presented story, somewhat aided in his final years by the FDA finally allowing him to use Peptide T for himself but not for any sort of sale to others).

Much as the filmmakers may have wanted for audiences to embrace Dallas Buyers Club as a shining testimony to the ability for even the most bigoted people to work past their ingrained prejudices in order to appreciate and accept a wider inclusion of humanity than their assumptions had previously allowed, I think that the main impact this film will have is honoring the outstanding acting displays by McConaughey and Leto. Certainly in watching this powerful depiction of the terrible life-draining-and-ending-horror that AIDS imposes upon a notable segment of the world's population we get a sense of what a deadly, terrifying disease it is (although treatment approaches, including the use of AZT, have improved greatly since 1985, allowing a somewhat better command of containment rather than just abandonment to the “inevitable”) and how inhumane the social ostracization of AIDS sufferers was at that time—and continues to be today in less-accepting segments of ours and other societies, especially those still intent on criminalizing homosexual behavior—but what really grabs you about Dallas Buyers Club is how commanding the lead actor and his main supporter are on screen, offering superb depictions of their characters, both presented with a wealth of nuance and reasonable evolution (even by the end of our story Woodroof is no bleeding-heart-social-worker but is still as ornery as ever; Rayon always refused to be held down by social convention, although at one point he makes an effort to give in to his father’s worldview by dressing as a suit-and-tie man asking for financial help from his well-off dad to aid the Buyers Club expansion into a self-contained building, as the motel location was becoming too small and inappropriate for what the group was trying to accomplish).  However, although it means little in terms of the impact of Leto’s performance, it is a bit disconcerting to find out after the fact that Rayon and Dr. Saks are concocted characters (according to esteemed San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle [a compliment intended with all sincerity; Mick is one of only 10 nationwide critics surveyed on a regular basis by Entertainment Weekly in determining their Critics Average for current films, a high honor which deserves the respect that I give him, even when I disagree with his decisions, such as his mere average rating of Enough Said [Nicole Holofcener] based largely on his inability to see Gandolfini’s character except in the context of a very-recently-deceased actor, which impeded his engagement with the movie [although this could serve as another example of “one critic’s misperception,” just as he admits regarding his dismissal of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character’s romance with Gandolfini’s character may be]—you can see his review [may be a bit of a slow download] and mine of Enough Said if you like), so I now am left with a strange feeling about what went on with the actual Ron Woodroof’s situation if he didn’t have these specific interactants in his life, holding back a bit of the film’s full impact for me (you can get a bit of your own sense of the real Woodroof and what he was like if you want), even though it doesn’t impede in any way the stunning, Oscar-nomination-worthy performances of the 2 primary males in Dallas Buyers Club.

Similarly, homophobia as a theme—although more as subtext than primary concern as the next film enters its second of 3 hours—and after-the-fact information impacts my response to Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche), a sure contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, given its generally strong critical reception (both it and Dallas Buyers Club score in the mid-80% to mid-90% range with both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic reviewers; details in the links far below) and its triumph of the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where the honor was uniquely given to both the director and his lead actors, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.  Much of the pre- and post-release focus was initially on its marketing-deadly-NC-17 rating, awarded for the several graphic sex scenes between the leads.  Yet, LaSalle (again) claims in his review of this film that these were still simulated, not with true genital contact as we’d see in actual porno films—a charge still made against these scenes, not by the usual moral crusaders but by some lesbians who consider these depictions to be more about the erotic fantasies of the male director rather than something genuinely recognizable as a stimulating depiction of female-with-female lovemaking; I can see how upon careful inspection of what occurs on-screen between the 2 leads (and stuff those “careful inspection” jokes back into your reptile brain; I’m trying to be respectfully serious here, really) could lead to this distinction given that we don’t get any true-porno “money shots” inside of anyone’s vagina nor do we actually see any finger penetration into said locations (or any revelatory angle onto a tongue-into-an-anus-move in one of the more “for-your-consideration”-implications, also questioned by some lesbian commentators) and even the quick-but-direct view of seeming-mouth-to-crotch in Emma (Seydoux) and Adèle’s (Exarchopoulos) first hookup could be the result of viewer’s mind over matter, implying more than was actually there in a manner done by Eisenstein in the 1920s and Hitchcock in Psycho (1960) with rapid montage, although implied—if so—here by the power of suggestion in a single wide shot (but, I must admit, upon first viewing, the direct contact of all of these implications is clearly there, at least for naïve, straight-guy me, but my wife, Nina, saw it as I did; nevertheless, I leave your viewing experience to your own perceptions).  In a related manner, we have a clear depiction of sex between Adèle and her almost-boyfriend Thomas (Jérémie Laheurtre) prior to the lesbian engagements where we never see his penis so I can buy that Kechiche isn’t going for barely-tolerated-borderline-porno in Blue Is the Warmest Color (plus he also has a discussion-at-a-party-scene later in the film where the male speaker talks of the mythological Tiresias who lived first as male, then was transformed to female, afterward saying that female sexual pleasure is definitely superior), but I also have to note that he may be indulging himself more than trying to respectfully depict what occurs in the intimacy of a same-sex-bedroom.  As Peter Debruge, Variety Chief International Film Critic, notes in "Despite Its Graphic Sex, 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' Leaves Much to Be Desired" the several sex scenes between the 2 women focus on a catalogue of writhing erotic positions between straight women playing lesbians (with these Kama Sutra-esque orgasms playing out like “an infomercial for a kitchen product” according to a lesbian viewer cited in a November 20, 2013 article in the Huffington Post); Debruge further cites concerns about the director’s unseemly fascination with the younger lead actress, so much so that “the film was originally released as La Vie d’Adele: Chapitre 1 & 2 or The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2— a choice that reflects Kechiche’s decision to rename the character after its star, his muse”—she was Clementine in the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh, who has also distanced herself from Kechiche’s version, acknowledging that his is a very different manifestation of this narrative than hers (more from her in this Salon article if you wish).

Putting this all together, I must acknowledge that it takes me a bit out of my initial strong connection with Blue Is the Warmest Color, not because these post-viewing considerations make the on-screen lovemaking any less steamy (if that’s all you’re looking for in this experience—but be forewarned that these scenes occupy probably less than 15 min. of the total 3 hour running time so for that purpose you probably would be better off with a clandestine-credit-card-charge on an Internet porn site [if you’re trying to hide it from an indignant significant other—don't forget to Clear History—as depicted in Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt; review in our October 3, 2013 posting)]) but because they clarify that, as Degruge explores, the on-screen sex that we do (virtually) see is too much of a departure from the intensifying intimacy of the rest of the film, becoming graphic-for-graphic’s-sake, rather than giving a better context of how sex is a part of these young women’s relationship rather than something to be cut to and from, as if it emerges as nothing more than manifestations of the raging hormones of ready-to-pop-youth rather than any sense of a deeper aspect of who they are for each other (Debruge also cites an [unreferenced, so I don’t know when it was supposed to have happened] experiment by graduate students at the University of Texas [Austin campus, I suppose, although sadly I had no involvement with it] polling women to see what would appeal to them in a porno film, which resulted in the students making a video that focused on emotional connection rather than closeups of body parts in various stages of motion/lubrication, which was seemingly well-received by its female viewers).  Of course, one could make the argument that whether Kechiche is disturbingly hung-up on Exarchopoulos or not, and whether he understands anything about the realities of lesbian sex or not, he may still be on solid ground with his overall depiction of blossoming love/passion gone astray in this film if we’re focused on the realities of young people’s constantly-redefining-self-understandings, as many other reviewers of this film have said we should be, no matter what the sexual identity of the characters involved.

With that in mind, I’ll shift—as my objective critical consciousness should (unless you want to endlessly debate what theoretical approach should inform carefully-considered criticism, which could easily get us into arguments over the validity of such perspectives as Hermeneutics, Audience-Response, Ideological, or Postmodern aesthetics, all of which would essentially justify not only the inclusion of extra-filmic insights and research but would also require such for any informed discussion; however, for today’s purposes let’s just stick with the assumption that we should mostly be paying attention to what does happen on-screen as opposed to what doesn’t or could and get on with an analysis of this film as a viewing experience more so than a sociological one)to how I perceived what went on in this story rather than the shortcomings it may or may not have when analyzed from the equally-valid perspective’s of author’s (original and adapted) intentions, validity of depiction (yet, we must remember that sex scenes are just as much a part of a filmmaker’s artistic license as are serendipity of events, character motivations, geographical reconstructions, and other literary/theatrical/cinematic elements that don’t always hold up under the scrutiny of “undeniable plausibility” [if we want more accurate portrayals of what happens when people copulate we can always watch Showtime’s Masters of Sex about orgasm-researchers Masters and Johnson, although there’s plenty of narrative fictionalization going on there as well so as to distance this critically-acclaimed TV series from the realm of documentary]), and enhancement of female roles in the male-dominated cinematic universe.  In other words (and, as you know, I’ve got plenty of them, useful or not), what I found in Blue Is the Warmest Color is a true-to-experience-presentation of what happens when anyone is “struck by the thunderbolt” (to borrow a line regarding Michael’s instant infatuation with Apollonia in The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972]) at any age, with any partner, then must navigate the treacherous waters of any relationship that begins instantly rather than grows slowly, so instead of gradually getting to know someone, growing to appreciate their virtues, and ultimately seeing that there’s real potential in coupling with this familiar-but-yet-unfulfilled-treasure; with the instant connection comes the possibility that there are yet-to-be-discovered aspects of their character that make them unsettlingly-surprising or seemingly-incompatible with you, or the two of you may just have needs that pull you in opposing directions that you couldn’t have foreseen because you were already caught in the whirlwind of compelling passion early on in your mutual discovery, setting you both up for problems you couldn’t possibly anticipate with your short amount of shared history (my own coupling history has usually been one of instant attraction rather than emerging appreciation, with the related revelation problems that invariably led to clashes and crashes; another complicating factor in such potential-disaster-relationships in my younger days was simply the younger days themselves, with their attendant-mood-and-body-chemistry-fluctuations, which in hindsight can easily explain how a first marriage at 23 to a woman of the same age when we’d known each other for a mere 6 months could be a disaster although at the time it seemed that we were destined to be together forever [which turned out to be a negotiable term, one that lasted just 4 years in that case; fortunately, a few thunderbolts later I finally was lucky enough to be hit by one from my wife, Nina, who’s proven to be much more compatible for me than anyone else I’ve ever attempted to connect with, as we approach our 27th year of being happily together, even as inevitable rough spots had to be smoothed out).  Similarly, we meet Adèle when she’s a 15-year-old high-school junior in the northern French city of Lille in a comfortable relationship with her parents, part of a group of close friends, filled with an ambition to be a teacher of young children after her education is complete, and nursing a desire for a romantic partner, which seems to have strong potential with attractive, interested Thomas, except that she doesn’t connect all that well with him even after sex but has more satisfying encounters with herself while imagining the presence of Emma, whom she doesn’t even know but once passed on the street with intense eye contact (Kechiche presents this well, intercutting shots of the reality of Adéle’s  masturbation with inserts of Emma as part of the act).

In regard to the various complaints raised by Debruge in the Variety link noted above, he says that Kechiche deviates from his own filmic structure by moving away from the intimacy which we’ve seen so much of in the film when we first move into the bedroom with Adèle and Emma, as we go from a constant structure of midshots and intense closeups (made all the more visual-field-filling by being part of what is a wide-screen Cinemascope-type format so that gigantic images of faces leave little to the imagination about what emotions the characters may be experiencing or at least mulling over) to the wider shots that show these two bodies in various realms of connection as they seemingly explore every possible combination of getting their various orifices in contact (the first sex scene emphasizes this transition by cutting from intense CUs of their eyes and mouths as they first kiss to the notably wider shots in Emma’s bedroom).  Again, while I didn’t find that these sexual couplings were either offensive or outlandish (given that Emma is a second-year-college-Fine-Arts-student of probably about 20 herself, I understand their intense lust and desire to find pleasure with each other in every possible manner—as well as Adèle’s initiation into this mode of pleasure after having had just one fumbling attempt at puppy-love romance with one of her high-school female friends, so that fully-committed-lesbian Emma is an eager teacher of her young paramour—to be plausible, although it’s just further evidence that the genitals are connecting more so here than the hearts, although that’s not always an easy distinction to make, especially when you’re awash with pheromones and endorphins that constantly tell you that this other person is “The. Best. Ever. And. Always. Will. Be!”)—and passionate, satisfying sex is definitely part of any relationship that I would consider to be successful and affirming—I do think that if we pay attention to how events are unfolding in this very-French-New-Wave-influenced-film (where we jump around from event to event—in homes, classrooms, street demonstrations either protesting austerity measures or celebrating gay pride—and find ourselves much more engaged with conversational interactions than with more dramatic actions and reactions of calculated plot) we’ll know as soon as we enter what we must understand as Chapter 2 (especially given the original French title—oh, by the way, did I mention, if you haven’t figured it out by now, that this is a foreign-language-film where you’ll have to read a lot of subtitles because there’s much, much more talking here than intercoursing), although that’s another event jump-cut, where we just go directly from high school for Adèle to a few years later where she’s a kindergarten teacher (I assume with college credentials, although the sudden shift in situation had me thinking initially that she was just interning while still in school) and Emma is an up-and-coming painter with a large group of artist friends, that Emma has the more commanding life where her colleagues are open to Adèle’s presence but have little in common to even talk with her about except Emma.  We also begin to understand that while Adèle is happy enough with her new job it’s something she eagerly leaves behind each day in order to return home to Emma, even though her slightly-older, more-ambitious lover is becoming increasingly focused on her career and not exactly distant from her former lover, Lise (Mona Walravens).  As events evolve over this steadily-paced story, we lose touch with each woman’s parents—Emma’s, who’re from a wealthier background and embrace their daughter’s new partner with a casual flamboyance as they encourage her into the joys of raw oysters, and Adèle’s, who’re more working-class, enjoying the simpler pleasures of dad’s well-seasoned spaghetti and kept in the dark about their daughter’s change in interests, led to believe that Emma is simply a friend and philosophy tutor with a(n imaginary) boyfriend—and those intervening years of relationship growth, with the two now living together, but we do perceive the widening gap in ambition and maturity between them, as Adèle sees herself as largely a willing, beloved appendage of Emma’s, an attitude that leads to excuses in bed for no sex from the older artist, a desperate attempt by Adèle to ease her increasing loneliness through a limited affair with a male teaching colleague, and a furious disavowal of the relationship by Emma in which she calls Adèle a slut, then throws the younger lover out of “her” house and life (we can also note some hair-change-signifiers with each of the women, as Adèle normally only lets her long hair down when she’s actively involved with Emma while Emma seemingly grows out of her blue-hair-phase as her career picks up in the later years of this story).

These harsh events (the breakup scene clearly takes us out of warm-human-interest-relationship-François-Truffaut-territory into the bleak encounters so characteristic of Ingmar Bergman films) lead us to another need to fill in a few more missing years to where we next find Adèle, who remains despondent except when teaching (although she’s increasingly stern and commandeering, exactly what she once said she despised about instructors who tried to insert their interpretations of the topic too firmly on her—although I must admit that my teaching experience has been in high school and college so maybe as she’s worked her way up to first-graders just learning language structure she has to be that demanding with such young students), and Emma, who has now taken up with Lise again, although she agrees to the café meeting with Adèle who begs to be taken back into this increasingly-famous artist’s life.  Their encounter runs a gamut of passions but ends Bergman-esquely as well as Emma resists the temptation of her more-recent-former-partner in deference to the renewed union with the previous-former-one.  As the film ends, Emma’s career arc continues to rise at another lavish gallery opening that Adèle attends but leaves in sorrow, unable to fully disconnect herself from Emma.  There’s a hint that another option may be in the offering for her as an actor-acquaintance (sorry, didn’t get his name because to me he looks a bit too much like a couple of other young, suave Frenchmen wandering through this plot, so it was hard to keep them all straight [so to speak; OK, I’m edging away from my serious composure now] when I had to keep looking down at my note pad so often and couldn’t follow the dialogue without reading the subtitles) who’s attracted to her tries to follow her when she leaves but he goes the wrong direction so we’re just left with Adéle walking away from us at fade out with no indication as to whether something might ever connect between them.  At least this isn’t as sad as the original work (as noted by June Thomas in “Blue Is the Warmest Color: How Is the Movie Different From the Book?”), where she dies because the social homophobia that descended upon her from her fickle high-school friends but essentially disappeared for the later scenes of the film remains a constant aggressive force in the graphic novel, even resulting in her angry parents throwing her out of their home; eventually this constant ostracization leads to pill addiction, resulting in fatal arterial pulmonary hypertension.  Even so, the film’s version spirals into sadness for Adèle, who just can’t find stability in the dreamy hopes she had of an ideal life with Emma, even though we leave her in her mid-20s when this current crisis may someday be washed away by eventual happiness with a relationship that will work better for either her sensibilities or her more-mature-self after some further growth that often comes from weathering personal breakdowns such as what we witness here (as noted above, this is one area where I can testify from personal experience whereas lesbian sex will just have to remain a cluster of assumptions and abstractions for me).

We certainly leave Adèle with empathy for the heartbreak that she’s suffered (visualized so agonizingly well in a shot during the final termination scene between her and Emma, a face-on closeup where liquids are running from her eyes and nose in her abject sorrow, but we still regard her with dignity for her hurt rather than just pity for her loss—she notes in her early stages with Emma that her name means “justice” in Arabic but she clearly feels the victim of unjust circumstances, even if they’re just [as in random] events that have no higher connection with fairness nor fate); yet, we also know better than her than life still likely presents her with a long road of other possibilities, that her story is not truly the stuff of great tragedy (as is, for example the true horror of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave) nor do I agree with oft-mentioned-this-week Mick LaSalle that Blue Is the Warmest Color is the first masterpiece of 2013, unless he's referring to public screening dates in that Blue … was shown at the late spring Cannes festival whereas 12 Years … didn’t debut until the Telluride festival in late summer (otherwise, I go with the latter as the year’s first masterpiece and can’t fully go to that designation for the former no matter when you consider its release date).  However, I do feel that Blue Is the Warmest Color is a strong cinematic experience, one that after a lot of internal debate I’m giving 4 stars to because just like my similar rating decision for Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen; review in our August 16, 2013 posting) I feel that this film has some distracting flaws (the borderline-porn-feeling of the repeated sex scenes, the somewhat-overlong-quality of several other scenes that result in an epic-length-running-time for what’s ultimately a rather ordinary—although insightful—we-have-all-been-there-before-story) but ultimately gives us a fulfilling sense of how relationships emerge and evolve between two sincerely-caring individuals, how those individuals must struggle to expand upon what they initially assumed would be easy growth of their mutual affection, and how the changes—or lack thereof—that confront all of us can impede even the most heartfelt of romantic connections.  Further, while I have great admiration for both actors’ successful contributions to this well-crafted film that shows great respect for all of its characters, I must give my highest accolades to young (ironically she turns 20 this November 22, somewhat taking us back to where I began this review) Adèle Exarchopoulos, who presents us with an amazing range of attitudes and emotions in the course of this film and might well be competing for a Best Actress Oscar herself (a difficult task given the American bias of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters) to go along with the one that is a strong possibility for this work as a whole in the Foreign Language category, but we’ll just have to see how this plays out over the next couple of months.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my usual musical metaphor, this time just one to speak to both films under review this week, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” from her Blue album (1971), with not the greatest video quality but at least Joni performing live at http://www.you tube.com/watch?v=i5mlE9Pezes; if you prefer a slightly cleaner recording with just the album cover as visual accompaniment here you are at http://www.you tube.com/watch?v=w5782PQO5is.  Or, if you’re really into blueness, you might want a fuller musical investment with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album (1959), regarded by most music writers as one of the best—if not the very top— jazz album ever released; you’ll find a full presentation of its 55:25 length at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSUUFduCdRE.  Just don’t get too blue in listening to any of this (despite the ongoing, depressing homophobia that infests so much of our planet and was so oppressive to individuals in our films this week, as well as the melancholia that might result from all of the JFK remembrances; these are morbid circumstances, but I ask you to use the music to soothe your soul, not trouble it further).  I’ll try to give you something more upbeat next time, as we all search for things to be thankful for as our next major holiday event approaches.  (Which means that once again I’ll have to abandon my normal who-cares-what’s-going-on-in-the-rest-of-the-world-attitude and acknowledge the presence of Turkey Day, but don’t think you’ll have to get used to such mass-media-merchandising-mania-kowtowing from me, because my highfalutin blue-blood-heritage won’t stand for that—oh, wait, I just looked it up and we all have the same plain ol’ red blood; how boring!  Well, anyway, until we meet again, always look for the gold that complements the blue, another version of a cloud's silver lining.)

If you’d like to know more about Dallas Buyers Club here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSeTcSTHrWQ (20:29 interview with director Jean-Marc Vallée, actors Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, and Matthew McConaughey, producers Rachel Winter and Robbie Brenner, and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival)

If you’d like to know more about Blue Is the Warmest Color here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mE21XuKx7bM (15:30 interview with actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos at the Telluride Film Festival talking about the film’s sex scenes [very low audio on the interviewees]) somewhat contrasted to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIjJ_VtU9PA (6:15 video from Posture Magazine where some lesbians mostly critique the film’s sex scenes in a negative manner)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.