"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Not with a Wimp but a Banger: KICK-ASS 2, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, ENDER'S GAME



Look deep into the screen, my children. Any screen, all screens --this is your new reality: screens in the classroom -- a big one instead of a blackboard, a laptop on your desk, the phone on which you secretly watch movies with a well-concealed earbud instead of watching the screen your teacher is pointing at; screens on the way home on the bus (your phone) or car (DVD player above the dash); screens at home, the big flatscreen in the living room, the small one in your room, your laptop and phone still flickering as well... wake, and repeat. How many more minutes of life can the screen co-opt? There aren't any left. 

With their action figure and video game readiness, their graphic novel and teenage sci fi novel roots, a batch of films recently regurgitated up onto Blu-ray and prove, to my 'grown-up' eyes, to be great examples of what Guy Debord called recuperation, which is to say using the trappings of subversion in service of the institutions you're subverting (i.e. the Che Guevara emblem used on a Budweiser label: "Viva l'revolution... responsibly.") I saw them all over the weekend so I feel, however falsely, plugged into product placement pulse of teen fantasy nerd America and all the synergy and branding that implies! Piggyback on, Jackie! Wonder Twin Powers Activate! Form of Coors Lite Ice! 
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KICK-ASS 2 (2013) nearly drowns here and there in coming-of-age platitudes about being yourself and collecting 'wherever outlaws rule the west' merit badges come sailing down the Donkey Kong ladders of your life, but if that justifies dressing up in goofy costumes and sticking your pretty face harm's way in the name of a safe America, then Yog Soggoth blessings on you, the both, because if like me you loathe the bloodless PG endless ammo expenditure and zero body count of the old A-TEAM show (or T2's "Casualties Zero"), then its very realistic damage done to property, life, and limb makes KICK-ASS a priceless precious thing, as gleeful in its sociopathy as Wendy Kroy or Mr. Blonde.

Christopher "McLovin" Mintz-Plasse is the supervillain again, hiring cop-killing badasses from the dregs of his late father's mob business to kill, pummel, strangle, gut and maul Kick-Ass and all his friends and family. Meanwhile witless cop Morris Chestnut doesn't want his orphaned ward Hit Girl (the still-glorious Chloe Grace Moretz) doing any more killing. He wants her to experience the 'beauty' of a childhood (where the hell did he grow up?) I kept praying Chestnut was one of the cops to be killed during the massive slaughter inflicted by 'Mother Russia' - a gigantic female ex-KGB assassin, just so Hit Girl could get out from under his buzzkill sanctimony. But noooo.


That's the real lesson here: just because you promise something to an adult doesn't mean you have to deliver on it. And don't hide anything in your room. Searching your kid's drawers for drugs seems to be the in thing these days. Kids acting weird? Search the drawers. So hide your drugs outside your window, on a string, like Don Birnim's bottle in THE LOST WEEKEND!

Complain all you want, and some have, even co-star Jim Carey (I think he took his kids to the premiere, and was shocked at all the beheading), but to me the film's absurdist brutality-- its gleefully 'real' cartoon violence-- is a long sigh of relief after an eternity of teen-friendly action movie hypocrisy. That said, the romantic / sexual elements are sexist and cliche'd. Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) has a great midriff but she's subjected to a strange rape gag which I did not care for. I also don't like that Carey's character would be so stupid as to crate his attack dog upon realizing he's under attack. Someone breaks in your house you don't lock up your attack dog! Schwontz, indeed!


But the rest of it is sublimely subversive, whether in a deliberate STARSHIP TROOPERS crypto-fascist way or just unconsciously doesn't matter. With Hit Girl + her awesome vampire in LET ME IN and as Jack's nemesis Callie Hooper in the much-missed 30 ROCK, Chloe Grace Moretz is the promise of Angelina Jolie's Lisa in GIRL INTERRUPTED fulfilled. She's not squeamish about ripping someone's throat out with her teeth. Viva la revolution... irresponsibly, as Thanatos intends!


Speaking of revolution, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013) isn't fun or romantic or at all pleasant, but after a grueling angry week of work (or school) it's certainly cathartic. Snide observers might dismiss Katniss' (Jennifer Lawrence) as just another morose girl who likes hunky boys to fight over her, and who prefers the company of guys which paraphrase the Lady Eve's ideal husband as a man who'll be shorter than her, "so he can look up to me, so I can be his ideal" - but we barely explore that by-now dulled triangle (except as an oblique analogy to Hollywood's lavender marriages) instead Katniss frets over little Josh Hutcherson like a neurotic hen; he's coddled and protected like the uncooked egg the health teacher makes you carry around for a week, you know, so you don't want the responsibility of a real baby. Instead the film nails down the nerve-shredding implications of the 24/7 media coverage: celebrity hinges on survival and failure to smile with casual joie de vivre when cameras are present, and convincingly be in love with some designated shorty ensures your family is killed and your village fire-bombed.

The concept is ingenious, because HUNGER GAMES is a cottage industry at its own throat, equating its dystopia with the ceaseless flash of paparazzi, make-up chairs, TV promo circuits, award shows, and red carpet press sound byte droppings that is the grueling regimen of our modern starlets. I can only think of three other films to explore this troubling element of pop culture in any relevant way: THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY (1969)- here), 1990's A HANDMAID'S TALE, and BATTLE ROYALE (2000).


Perhaps to metatextualize these implications, Jennifer Lawrence spends most of the movie caked in enough bronzer to weigh down three Cleopatras on a death march backwards through the uncanny valley. Her glum face beneath this load would be too much to bear without some of her old spark, so thank god Jena Malone shows up, the Night Bitch if you will, from one of the other districts. Malone looks great in her black and silver uniform, or naked in an elevator, or spattered in blood, stealing her scenes while JL's Katniss mopes eternal.

All the old cast is back as well, including Donald Sutherland as the evil emperor whose refusal to grasp even the most basic tenets of social psychology makes his tenure as leader the most unrealistic thing about the film, since he genuinely believes he can quell a revolution by publicly executing and flogging anyone who makes a Girl Scout sign. A man whose reign hinges on TV propaganda should know enough to mass produce that verboten mockingjay as keychains, T-shirts and bumper stickers, and have his Stanley Tucci greet the TV audience with it (in short, comrade, to employ recuperation), the way MTV has done to every underground music movement since its inception. Draconian brutality never works in quelling revolution --it all but ensures it. You can't put out a spark by setting it on fire. And so Sutherland's preference for bloodthirsty draconian brutality is off-kilter, as if he's trying to throw us off the scent of the film's own ingenious use of recuperation by showing his own obliviousness towards such a practice, for I have no doubt those 'mockingjay' pendants are on sale just a few stores down from the multiplex at Forever 21, but if the evil emperor endorses them to help pacify the gum-chewing masses, real-time sales might drop. They mustn't get wise, these kids. A happy consumer is an unconscious consumer, even if what's being consumed is the notion of the waking the fuck up.


Other signifiers are probably not going to be sold at the multiplex, such as the garish fashions worn by the hoi poloi, thank god. With their frills and pouffiness drawing obvious parallels to both the Reagan 80s and the French Revolution, the series offers enough hammering on the dividing wall between the champagne and canap├ęs of the sophistos up top and the peasants starving and flogged below to make even D.W. Griffith's ORPHANS OF THE STORM seems subtle. That said, there are moments when Elizabeth Banks as the agent-PR maven looks mad hot in her gold and this go-round she gets a few scenes to act other than as a shrill mouthpiece for plot exposition.


Then there's a rare treat lacking in the other films discussed here: a genuine drunk hip older dude, one of the few 'understandable' adult characters in this or any of the series currently marketing themselves to teens: Woody Harrelson. Advising Katniss how to blend in, make friends, and learn to think outside her box, he also eats when food is offered and gamely drinks this wretched dystopia out of focus, freeing himself for better things than validating Katniss' useless sulking and refusing all offered goodies. Another priceless factor is the bizarro twist of having to imagine spending all your time with the dude you don't like yet must pretend to love, and he's shorter than you, and his being so sweet and staid and supportive only makes it worse. That tweens are swooning for him only shows there's still hope for short, staid guys and hope is a dangerous thing. 


(check out this great paranoid rant about the Girl Scout / Katniss salute on the Dismantle the Beam Project!)


ENDER'S GAME (2013) is far removed from the love nonsense, but there's a lot of care and time spent getting the glistening eyes of the space bug exactly right. And Asa Butterfield as Ender is a kind of fourteen year-old Hannibal Lector recruited by Harrison Ford via the old LAST STARFIGHTER tactics and put in charge of a drone armada to fight a bunch of STARSHIP TROOPER-esque space locusts.

I hated LAST STARFIGHTER and its bland 'every lad' though I didn't mind the hunky ciphers in STARSHIP because we were supposed to think of them as caricatures, not as 'normal suburban teens' as imagined by guys who haven't seen a normal suburban kid in 30 years. But Ender is different. He can defend himself and underneath his nervous ecotmorphology and liberal guilt lurks the heart of a carnivorous killer. His nebulous doubts about the rightness of his mission are played up but we never really get the full HEARTS AND MINDS story before the reverse of the climactic battle of BREAKING DAWN smashes through our screens and from there they start setting up the hoped-for sequels. The film's structure ingeniously keeps the space war stuff on the screens within the screens (knowing we've seen it all before) and secondary to the Enterprise-ish minutiae of commanding a row of similarly young and gifted kids sitting at drone computer screens. And hey, it's what the military is doing right now with drone programs! THE LAST STARFIGHTER really is coming true!

Real life drone pilots at their gaming consoles
The last thing any kid wants is to see an 'average' kid like themselves
in a sci fi movie. We go to sci fi to get AWAY from that shit.
As in CATCHING FIRE, ENDER wants you to want the sequels, to get the DVD, see it again on the IMAX, in 3-D, commit to it, for it only earned, so far, a paltry sixty million, little more than half its budget. I wish my interest in seeing sequels to under-performers like JOHN CARTER and THE GOLDEN COMPASS could bring them forth through sheer will, but then again I don't have either on DVD. I know I should buy them, like an indirect post-production Kickstarter, but it's a lot of emotional baggage to deal with, a lot of responsibility befriending the nerd no one else likes. You can never shake them off once you do.

I feel like I should defend JOHN CARTER in particular because I read all the original Warlord of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs novels as a kid, as well as Burroughs' Tarzan and Carson of Venus books, Robert E. Howard's Conan, Moorcock's Elrik; and Fritz Lieber's Fafhr and the Gray Mouser. 

from 1946! I got it for cover price
at the Lansdale PA Bookswap!
The best part about all of them? No fucking kids! No 'average teen' hero for us to 'identify' with. No 'Boy' in the Tarzans ('Boy' ruined the later movies), no boys at all. In those books we were still allowed to identify with the badass adults, the ones who could kill the oppressors of their conscience without PC moral hand-wringing. We need those adult heroes back! Imagine STAR WARS if Han Solo never showed up, replaced instead by a 12 year-old boy with really normal hair and a nagging mom?! Horrible... yet there it is...

And so it is that we must fight Morris Chestnut's call to safety and fight with all our strengths against unimaginative dogmatic Hollywood's glorification of 'being a kid.' Already they have gone back and digitally removed all the cigarettes, replaced the guns with flashlights, removed the nudity and much of the cursing from our cinema heritage. They will not stop until everyone wears helmets even to bed. Stop them before they jab their safety-first overhead florescent lights even into the darkest recesses of our most secret-sacred heart. I say roast Morris on the open fire of aimless youth rebellion! Richie in OVER THE EDGE, thou shalt not have died in vain!

If only you had a cool keychain I could buy to prove my fealty.

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