Monday, March 26, 2012

A tale of two premieres: "Hunger Games," "Mad Men" satisfy

Big weekend for us entertainment/pop culture junkies (March madness, what?), between the debut of "The Hunger Games" movie franchise and the return, after a 17-month hiatus, of our favorite ('60s) men behaving badly. I'm happy to report that both premieres met my expectations and even slightly exceeded them.

THE HUNGER GAMES first. Most people I know who read the book(s) - including me - seemed generally pleased with the adaptation. It was SO much better than the first Harry Potter movie, though I've always maintained there's a certain bagginess about the Harry Potter books, much as I love them, that just doesn't transfer very well to film. The leaner, meaner (but not too mean) "Hunger Games" has a much more promising recipe for cinematic success, from its dystopian setting to its PG-13 love triangle (only hinted at, albeit none too subtly, in book 1) to the riveting contest of Survivor-meets-Mortal Kombat at its center that draws equally from classical and classic sci-fi influences. The tricky part, of course, is to convey the sickening suspense of the games without falling into the moral trap of glorifying their inhumanity - the very sin that author Suzanne Collins is so careful (and rightfully so, unless you're a total nihilist) to condemn.

And while I had doubts about the choice of director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit"), I give him props for tailoring the movie to a PG-13 audience without overly dumbing it down or losing the story's basic edge. In particular, I liked that he took his time to set up the postapocalyptic, socially schizophrenic world in which such a horrific rite could be both dreaded and celebrated. Visually, the Capitol (seat of power and entry point to the Games) could have been a bit more eye-popping, perhaps, but the film still managed to draw a stark contrast between those who bet money on the Games and those who bet their lives.

Interestingly, a friend who saw the movie without having read the book complained that the first half (leading up to the Games) was too slow, too muted, and didn't pack as much of an emotional punch as he'd have expected. Maybe I'm just projecting what I remember from the book, but what my friend saw as listlessness and lack of energy I saw as a haunting portrayal of just how beaten down these people were - beaten down but not completely crushed. Same friend, not surprisingly, preferred the games part (though he was disappointed it wasn't grittier and darker, target audience notwithstanding). I, on the other hand, was a little less taken with the actual depiction of the games. Oh, they were handled competently enough - and again, I appreciate the attempt to suggest enough of the barbarity without wallowing in it - but I felt that in trying to be faithful to the main beats of the plot the filmmakers were shortchanging some of the character development and, as a consequence, the emotional stakes.

I haven't yet decided whether the latter problem was mitigated or exacerbated by the complete absence of the main character's interior monologue. On the whole, I think neither. Jennifer Lawrence was terrific and wonderfully expressive as the protagonist, Katniss, and I'm grateful that the movie didn't resort to voice-over (a lazy device if there ever was one). On the other hand, some of the other characters - such as Katniss' competitor/potential love interest Peeta - remained more opaque without Katniss' voice telling us about their history or her feelings towards them.

Overall, though, the film was a remarkably successful realization of the book's bleak-but-not-too-bleak vision of the future of humanity. More importantly, it was damn entertaining without feeling exploitative. If it didn't dig down as deeply or scratch as sharply at our collective societal unease about where we're headed as other, greater sci-fi films have done, chalk up those limitations to a combination of the nature of the source material and Lionsgate's canny marketing instincts - which, judging from the initial box office returns, paid off handsomely. May the odds be ever in their favor.



I'm scrambling to get ready for a work trip, so I can't give MAD MEN the in-depth discussion it merits. But some thoughts on the season 5 premiere:

-Damn you, Matt Weiner: just when I thought I was out (I'd about had it with Don Draper, and the show in general, by the end of season 4), you had to pull me back in.

-More yuks than usual, which I for one welcome. When "Mad Men" is funny it is very, very funny. Between every act of physical comedy that happened in Pete's office, every word that came out of Roger's mouth, and the office game of Baby Hot Potato (which turned into a game of "see if you can top THIS awkward moment"!), I must have laughed out loud several times.

-On the more serious side, I guess they weren't kidding about race being more front-and-center this season. Some of the writing felt a bit on-the-nose (though not nearly as much as the forced Vietnam argument between Bert Cooper and Peggy's beatnik boyfriend), but apparently the water-bombing was a true story, down to the line "And they call *us* savages." I'm interested to see how far SCDP is willing to go to become an equal opportunity employer. (Side note: I was somewhat surprised to hear Don, rather than Pete, ask why the firm couldn't just hire a black employee. But I guess Don, while hardly a liberal, has never shown any overt racism.)

-The period decor is marvelous, as always. I could eat up the art design of this show. We're well into the swingin' '60s, now, and I'm digging the lighter spaces, brighter colors, and zanier fashions, even if the latter sometimes border on unfortunate. (Also, is it just me, or does there seem to be a lot more trash in the streets?)

-Speaking of unfortunate fashions...a moment of silence for Pete's plaid party jacket. There are simply no words to do it justice.

-That party, btw, was a showstopper. (Parties on "Mad Men" always are.)

-And the showstopper of the showstopper was, of course, Megan's sultry rendition of "Zou bisou bisou." Ooh la la! Painfully awkward yet fascinating on so many levels. The awkwardness would have been worth it just for Harry's self-humiliation (man, what a lame pig that guy has become) and Lane Pryce's hilarious imitation of Megan's shimmy to Joan. Btw, how sweet was that Lane-Joan tete-a-tete? Much more compelling than the weird wallet/"Dolores" subplot, which I hope does not lead to Lane getting mixed up with the Mob.

-I'm liking Megan more than I expected, even if I can't yet gauge how deep a game she's playing. She's got Don's number sexually - at least for now - and she seems to have his trust (she knows about Dick Whitman!) but she hasn't really figured him out as a person, as her misfire with the party proved. Still, she got the rebound with her, er, cleaning routine.

-Still hate Don. He's turning into a skeevy dirty old man who doesn't have the grace or sense to keep his paws off his wife at the office. And he's put Peggy in an impossible position with respect to Megan (whom I don't really blame - she seems to be trying to make the best of it; it's Don who should know better).

-Peggy is still socially tonedeaf, and Pete is still Pete. (And I still love him for it, at least when I don't think about au pair girls.)

-An astute observer on another site commented that despite their very different personalities, Pete seems to be turning into Don 2.0 (rainmaker with house in suburbs), while Don's turning into a version of Roger (coasting and distracting himself with a young wife). Does that mean Roger's turning into Bert Cooper? He's still getting the best lines, but there was also something sad about seeing him trying so hard to assert his relevance. I could say the same of Bert, for that matter. I don't like seeing Yoda get sidelined!

And that's it from me, for this week. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to recap "Mad Men" this season. Truthfully, I'm not sure I'll have time, and if I did have that kind of time I should probably spend it catching up on my movie reviews. But we'll see.