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Knight at the Movies: The Hunger Games; The Deep Blue Sea; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-03-28

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Having once again obstinately refused to succumb to the entreaties of family and friends (not to mention an omnipresent marketing campaign to read the damned books) I have availed myself at last of that cultural juggernaut better known as The Hunger Games—well, the movie version, anyway. Having done so, I can now report that, I, too, have fallen under the spell of this expertly made movie that takes its time to unfold; is headed by the fearless Jennifer Lawrence and sunny Josh Hutcherson; and is that rare example of science fiction that enthralls and entertains at the same time that it's delivering its pseudo-cautionary message. However, I am disturbed by that message (more on that later) and I also have a theory as to why the series has become such a cultural touchstone.

To put it rather simply, the world created by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games is closer to science fact than science fiction. It's akin to the landscape of Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World and, especially, The Handmaid's Tale. These works all share the same theme of the lone individual bridling under the conformity forced on society by the yoke of overwhelming political and societal oppression. All of these continue to resonate because they seem like one election, one insurrection—and one conservative revolution away from happening. In a world of reality-competition TV shows as well as a disenfranchised population aware of the huge disparity between rich and poor but narcotized into a general malaise by junk culture, mass media and the virtual reality of social networking, the possibility of the elite of The Hunger Games trotting out 24 teens and forcing them to partake in a televised competition to the death for their pleasure seems almost frightening real.

Basically, this survival-of-the-fittest theme is a throwback to the decadent Romans tossing Christians to the lions dressed up in a new variation—but what an enticing variation! Gussied up with a big budget and a comely young cast that earnestly goes through its paces (Lawrence and Hutcherson and the other teen actors are ably supported by some terrific adult actors like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Lenny Kravitz, et al), director Gary Ross' movie is superb entertainment. Ross keeps things moving but pauses to let his leading character, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, grieve over her losses (that become ours, too) and grow in emotional and courageous stature. And he gives us a minimum of violent gore (a bonus) when the reality competition starts, as the teens are hellbent on killing one another. (Only one can survive, it seems.) Ross is greatly helped by his costumer (Judianna Makovsky) and production designer (Philip Messina) in creating this cruel new order.

So, The Hunger Games, while a great ride of a movie, is also one wrapped around an oddly disquieting message. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of affect the lust for violence layered on top of the morality tale that is The Hunger Games would ultimately have on such a receptive audience as the one I saw it with (filled with teens and young parents with little kids). Or maybe that train has already left the station?

Openly gay writer-director Terence Davies—noted for his gorgeously photographed, nostalgic films set in the early 1950s London of his childhood—returns to that time period in his adaptation of Terence Rattigan's '50s-set play The Deep Blue Sea, Davies' first narrative film in more than a decade. With its stately pace, paint-like cinematography (by Florian Hoffmeister), use of Samuel Barber's classical violin concerto and, especially, the complex performances of Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale, Davies' movie is a triumph of style and substance—a rare distinction that he has managed time and again.

The material focuses on Hester, the unhappy wife of a wealthy, prominent British judge who leaves him for a hot affair with a psychologically damaged war vet but then increasingly questions her choice. As the movie opens, Hester's suicidal and at its fade-out, her prospects don't seem much brighter. Weisz, who has no hesitation about plunging to the depths of her rather fraught character, gives Hester a vivid intensity that makes you believe that happiness is out of reach for a woman whose passion and intelligence is tamped down by the two men on either side of her and the constraints of the society around her. Adding an odd undertow to the emotional goings-on, both the male characters set off my gaydar—big-time. Although this certainly wasn't Rattigan's intention and probably wasn't of Davies' either, this extra psychological layer added a very interesting twist in my mind and might do the same for like-minded queer film fans looking for another reason to check out The Deep Blue Sea.

Film notes:

—The series Cinema Q II concludes Wed., March 28 at 6:30 p.m. in the Claudia Cassidy Theater with the 2003 documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. The film, by out director Bennet Singer, celebrates the life of Rustin, the justly celebrated, openly gay African-American civil-rights activist who has been lauded with a series of tributes and commemorations this month on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Singer will attend the screening, which is being co-sponsored by The Legacy Project Chicago (Rustin will be inducted in October as one of the group's initial honoree's) along with Affinity Chicago. A dessert reception, provided by Ann Sather, will follow a post screening discussion with Singer. Windy City Times is one of the series' media sponsors. www.legacyprojectchicago.org

—Out writer-director Stephen Cone's film The Wise Kids is going to have a rare local screening Thursday, March 29, at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., at 7 p.m. The 2011 movie—which focuses on three teenagers (including one who's gay) raised as Southern Baptists, and their sexually confused choir director (played by Cone)—was the opening-night selection of last fall's Reeling film festival. It's a tremendously subtle, gentle movie that is deservedly receiving lots of critical acclaim (including a critic's pick recently from the New York Times), which will hopefully lead to a hometown theatrical run. Cone and Tyler Ross (who plays the gay teen) will be present for a post-screening discussion. Admission is free. www.thewisekids.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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