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January 31, 2012

Casting The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The movie adaptation of The Hunger Games is coming out in a couple of months, and since I just recently finished reading the book, I've joined the swarms of 14 year-old girls who are braiding back their hair and perfecting their rabbit-skinning skills in anxious anticipation. I'm just starting to understand how important these books have become to young fans of dystopian fiction, so I can imagine how big a deal it was when the role of Katniss Everdeen was cast.

The first time I heard about the books was when Jennifer Lawrence was cast back in March. After reading the book, I feel like I can work backwards and envision director Gary Ross looking around for young actresses that could bring a combination of toughness and teenage vulnerability to the role.

Cue Winter's Bone. Lawrence's character in that movie, Ree, is so similar to Katniss I almost feel like Debra Granik should get some sort of retroactive casting agent fee. After all, Granik is a small independent filmmaker who spends years raising money between movies. She cast Jennifer Lawrence in a difficult role where she lives in a poor, rural, dangerous environment, she's lost her father, her mother is distant and useless, she's responsible for the care and feeding of her younger siblings, and knows how to shoot and skin squirrels to make really gross-looking stew. She can get the crap beaten out of her and keep on going. She's a gutsy-yet-terrified survivor in pretty much exactly the same way Katniss is. Gary Ross says putting her in The Hunger Games was "the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life."

(By the way, Gary Ross may not be the most exciting director (Seabiscuit) but he wrote and directed Pleasantville, which was OK, and he wrote Big, one of the better 80's hits and, I would argue, the best work Tom Hanks has ever done.)

I think Lawrence is perfect, but there was some outrage when the casting decision was announced, partially because of Katniss's indeterminate race in the book. The character has straight black hair and "olive skin", and many readers assumed she was probably racially mixed. But the casting call requested only white actresses, and the selection of blonde, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence was regarded as white-washing by some readers eager to see a non-white ass-kicking heroine. In stills from the movie, she's dyed her hair brown, but she's definitely a big ol' white girl.

The male leads also show how their characters were translated for the movie: Gale is played by Liam "Thor's little brother" Hemsworth, and he's hot and hunky. Peeta is played by the kid who played Laser in The Kids Are Alright. I worry that they'll make the character too sensitive and wimpy and lovelorn--the unrequited teenage romance isn't the greatest part of the book, in my opinion. But I guess protracted love triangles are the name of the game for young adult fantasy series, so I'll just have to cover my eyes for the mushy stuff, i.e. any time Katniss has to suspend her survivalist awesomeness to pretend to like Peeta.

Here's the trailer. I'm very excited to see Woody Harrelson as the hero-turned-drunk, staggering around boozily and slurring "sweetheart" to the girls.

Here's the cover of this year's Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, with a re-blonded Jennifer Lawrence front and center.

January 25, 2012

Haywire! (Which deserves an exclamation point)

Gina Carano and Ewan McGregor in Haywire

Haywire is not a complicated movie, and it would be silly for me to try to fabricate a complex analysis of a movie whose primary pleasure is watching Gina Carano beat the daylights out of her co-stars. Hopefully others will share their reactions to the movie and thoughts about how it fits into Soderbergh's large and ever-growing assembly of genre movies.

First: it's a genre movie. There are aspects of the plot that don't 100% hang together (like, what exactly is the business of Mr. Studer, the evil French-Irish businessman who will kill people to protect his industry? Does it matter? Of course not!) and the part of the plot that does matter can easily be described in one sentence. Some critics saw this as a sign of the movie's flimsiness; I see it as a sign that we should look elsewhere for the thing that makes the movie good.

Which is this: watching Gina Carano and her incredible athleticism and physical confidence on screen. The fight scenes are great, of course (especially the brutal hotel room sequence with Michael Fassbender that's in the trailer--they really look like they're laying into each other) but my favorite scene might have been Gina Carano evading the people chasing her around Dublin. She nimbly hauls herself up drain pipes and ledges and leaps across rooftops with amazing muscular grace. Watching Gina Carano solve physical problems within a Steven Soderbergh movie means that there's just enough narrative and stylistic substance to make Haywire a fun movie, but it might not be categorically better than watching her destroy her opponent in an MMA cage.

One of my favorite lines in the movie involves two men plotting to kill Gina Carano. The intended assassin expresses some hesitation, saying "I've never done a woman before." "You shouldn't think of her as a woman," replies the other man. "That would be a mistake." Maybe it doesn't say very good things about the variety of roles for women that it's still such a pleasurable novelty to see a physically powerful woman utterly dominate her male co-stars in an action movie. But, hey, it is. I'll take it.

As for the formal stuff, I liked the out of order scenes and some of the non-linear stuff that Soderbergh is so good at. I wish some of the fight scenes had been just a little better lit (especially the scene at Gina Carano's dad's house) and I could have done with even longer shots and fewer cuts, to really let the audience watch the fights. But I was grateful to see as much as we did in the action sequences, without all that Greengrass-style shaky cam and edits that are so fast they seem intentionally disorienting.

David Holmes' soundtrack was super cool in a very Out of Sight/The Limey kind of way.

Other reactions?

January 24, 2012

Eye candy and Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey, Mary and Sybil

When Downton Abbey debuted on Masterpiece Theatre last winter, a lot of people who might not usually get excited about British costume dramas watched it and decided it was actually a great show, both a window into a lost era of privileged landed gentry (or unabashed "love letter to the class system") and a briskly paced soap opera with scheming machinations, intrigue, romance, and occasional spicy scandal of the Edwardian British variety. It was a nice surprise.

It also felt more like a mini-series than a regular TV series with multiple seasons. At the end of the final episode last year, some viewers (including me) were stunned to find the show wasn't over: World War I was beginning, none of the plot lines were wrapped up, and we were now going to have to wait a year for season 2.

It seems like the show's creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, was almost as surprised as the rest of us, because he hasn't come up with much in the way of new conflicts or character developments: we're halfway through season 2, and we're still watching all the same story lines from season 1. Brief scenes in the trenches in France are cool, but they feel tacked on and unnecessary to the central story.

Whole episodes go by where hardly anything progresses. Mary and Matthew still have their largely-repressed affection for each other, O'Brien and Thomas still smoke conspiratorially and hate Mr. Bates for reasons that no longer make sense, Bates and Anna still want to be together but can't, Sybil is still exploring the exciting new frontier of working, and Mr. Carson still can't get enough screen time to deliver his magnificently dry rejoinders. The tension created when Matthew was briefly missing in action was resolved too quickly by an ickily maudlin "surprise" entrance during a soldier singalong. It's getting tedious, I'm a little disappointed.

But if season 2 hasn't been as good, viewers don't seem to care: the world has erupted in adoration for Downton Abbey. Pop culture websites are expressing their love for the show, often with attitudes like, "It's so weird that we're wild about these stuffy rich British people!", an attitude that seems to be shared by every other pop culture site.

As far as I can tell, the only major development in the main characters' lives (apart from the war) is that Edith, the ugly bitchy middle sister, had a thrilling near-fling with a crusty old farmer she aids with her new driving skills. This prompted my favorite post on Downton Abbeyoncé, a name so ingenious I feel like the show was created just to inspire it:

One thing about this season has been really outstanding: the clothes. Every scene that involves the Crawley sisters getting dressed for dinner is total fashion eye candy: gorgeous draping silk and gauzy beaded necklines--the costume budget must be formidable. The designers that dress Mary have really outdone themselves for the past couple of episodes, she looks absolutely incredible in every scene. My straight male viewing partner let out an audible sigh of amazement at a shot of Mary and Sybil talking before dinner and their awesome clothes (see photo above).

You can watch episodes online at the PBS site. Maybe one of these days something will happen plot-wise, other than the Dowager Countess shooting withering glares and grousing hilariously about people with titles less impressive than "Dowager Countess".

January 19, 2012

Is this a Mad Men ad?

On a phone booth on West 44th St:

Men Men ad 2012

Cool. March 25.

January 18, 2012

Gina Carano and Haywire

Gina Carano

Steven Soderbergh's newest movie (his 25th!) Haywire comes out this week, and one early review from Hollywood Reporter has a lot of enthusiasm for Gina Carano and the ass-kicking she delivers to pretty much the entire cast. Carano is a top mixed martial arts star who Soderbergh caught on TV by chance one day--she's an experienced performer, but this is her first time doing conventional movie acting. I'm not expecting a nuanced story or anything like realism, but the fight scenes are going to be freakin' amazing. From the review:

Soderbergh shoots her half-a-dozen or so fight scenes without doubles or cheat editing, emphasizing his star's abilities to the extent that the semblance and extremity of the combat's reality becomes the film's entire raison d'etre.

As solid as all the male actors are, in the end the show belongs to Soderbergh, who took a risk with a largely untested leading lady, and Carano, whose shoulders, and everything else, prove plenty strong enough to carry the film. The director shrewdly determined what she could and perhaps couldn't do, and she delivers with a turn that makes other actresses who have attempted such roles, no matter how toned and buff they became, look like pretenders.

Soderbergh also cast performers who weren't conventional actors in The Girlfriend Experience, which was a pretty good movie, but I was left cold by Sasha Grey's flat, slack-jawed performance. Since Soderbergh gives Gina Carano something to do in Haywire, and seems to rely on her ability to throw a punch and not on her emotional expressiveness, I'm expecting better things. Plus, I'm delighted to see a female action movie star with arms that actually look like they could pound someone. As evidenced by her excellent photo shoot in this month's GQ (which praises her "debutante prettiness and skull-crushing thighs"):

Gina Carano in GQ

There's a great in-depth interview with Soderbergh at The AV Club about how he found and cast Carano, how he conceptualized the script, and why he doesn't use a handheld camera for fight scenes when his actors actually know how to fight (yay.)

A few excerpts that make me really excited for this movie:

I basically said, "Look, it's kind of a female version of The Limey. I want it to be nonlinear, and it's a revenge movie. I want her to beat her way through the cast." And [screenwriter Lem Dobbs] said, "Got it."

It took Gina a while to learn how to pull her punches. She hit a couple of the coordinators by accident. But she got there. That was a tricky scene for her, since we were able to give Michael Fassbender a little bit of padding, because she's really strong. She hits really hard. But she didn't get any padding, because she's in a cocktail dress. She had to keep telling him, "You can hit me harder than that. It's not going to look good if you don't."

I just find it annoying that in these [fight] sequences, traditionally, there's music trying to pump you up. I don't like that, personally, as an audience member. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn't. I just thought, "No, it's great. We have the waves, we have the sound of their feet on the sand, and the sound of her punching him in the face."

Soderbergh's got three more movies in the pipeline, but still claims he's quitting after that. Hmph.

Teens, old married couples, and sharing passwords

Happy password-sharing teenage girl

There's a front-page story in today's Times about teenagers who demonstrate their love for each other by sharing their email and Facebook passwords, such as the smiling Alexandra Radford, above. Alexandra and her high school boyfriend changed their email passwords to "ILoveKevin" and "ILoveAly" while they were dating, but she admits, “We did it so I could check his messages because I didn't trust him, which is not healthy.” No kidding.

The readers' comments offer a lot of predictable finger-wagging about how naive and silly it is to give your 17 year-old boyfriend free access to your email and the difficulty kids these days seem to have grasping any sense of privacy or boundaries. One comment points out the clever way a young person might share their passwords with their friends and still maintain privacy: have multiple email accounts.

This sensible advice reminded me of my parents, and their one email account which they share. I suspect I'm not alone in this. Even though they could create as many free email accounts as they want, and though they regularly use their shared account to communicate secret birthday present ideas for each other and things that the other one isn't supposed to read, my parents seem to feel that having one shared email address is like having one bank account--it's just what you do when you're married. My brother gently pointed out during a weirdly pretend-private email conversation about Christmas present planning: having separate email accounts doesn't mean you love each other any less.

The high school kids in the Times article are essentially demonstrating the same boundary-free devotion to each other as a couple that's been married for 43 years, which suggests a worrisome misjudgement of the stability and trustworthiness of teenage relationships. But it's interesting to me that no one I know in my generation would share their main email account with a boyfriend, or give their girlfriend their email password. Optimistically, that might be because we might find more meaningful ways to express closeness and trust, or more cynically, maybe we're jaded enough to know password sharing is a guaranteed relationship catastrophe.

Teenagers and our parents: sharing the struggle to understand how email works.

January 13, 2012

Totally Unacceptable Ricky Gervais, back again

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

Even if you couldn't care less about movie awards shows, there are two good reasons to watch the Golden Globes on Sunday night: to listen to celebrities try to pronounce "Hazanavicius", and to see Ricky Gervais find new and interesting ways to insult the very people who came to be celebrated. Last year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association said his offensive references were "totally unacceptable", but hey, the ratings were pretty good, so get ready for jokes about Glenn Close in drag and anal rape.

Here are the nominations. There's some pretty good material for Gervais to work with in this list. Two movies with nominations in Comedy categories make jokes about cancer (50/50) and racism (The Guard), so we're off to a promising start.

The Times has a good feature on Gervais in this weekend's magazine, which suggests that Hollywood's relationship with him has reached a comfortable equilibrium. "He has become the entertainment industry's favorite irreverent person, because he manages to be irreverent in such a deeply reverent way." I hope he'll take this accusation of "reverence" as a challenge to come up with some really unsettling, perverse stuff Sunday night.

Gervais has a new show called "Life's Too Short" (coming to HBO next month) about the career of a little person actor. The Times piece references a wonderful scene with Liam Neeson, who appears in one episode as himself, interested in starting a career in sketch comedy. I love this clip:

[thanks, sbk!]

January 9, 2012

Tweens and Axe: Girls edition

Axe Anarchy

I'm fascinated by the boundless popularity of Axe body spray, sold by Unilever and the subject of years of goofy fantasy ads featuring lust-crazed women driven to the point of sexual combustion when they get a whiff of Axe. The two secrets about Axe body spray that are in no way detectable by the ad campaigns are: 1) it's just cheap perfume that retails for $5.49 at CVS, and 2) its most dedicated users seem to be middle school boys.

Though its customers might be 12 year-olds who don't have a remote, or legal, hope of bagging any of the hot women in the ads, Axe understands its appeal is aspirational. In an article in the Times from a couple of years ago about Axe's youthful devotees, the company wisely claims its target market is 18-24 year old men, because "nothing would make an older teenager run from a product faster than for its manufacturers to acknowledge that it's a must-have among the sixth-grade set."

Today's news is that Axe is developing a body spray FOR WOMEN. Their latest product, "Anarchy", will be marketed with different versions for men and women. A short ad is online, featuring a male shoplifter being chased by a female cop. Both of them gradually disrobe as they tear through the streets, until they stop, face each other, recognize their mutual hotness, and embrace in an explosion of panting, sexy Axeness. The actors are adults in their 20's; the intended audience is, I guess, tweens. More unisex ads, like the still shot above, are coming soon.

An advertising creative director says the new Axe for girls is about gender equality: "Before, an Axe commercial was always about a guy spraying himself and a girl being attracted, and Axe giving him an edge in the mating game, whereas now women also have something to spray on themselves, and consequently there's more of an equilibrium between the sexes."

And that's exactly why Axe for women is going to go nowhere, according to David Vinjamuri, author of Accidental Branding and marketing professor at NYU. For Axe to stay successful, it has to remember who its customers are. "If you’re a teenaged boy and you looked at the advertising, you saw the girl that you want and the guy that you are. When you start talking to someone who's not your core audience, you lose credibility with your core audience. The moment you start talking to girls, you lose credibility with teenage boys."

He's saying that boys want Axe because Axe is for them, and not for girls. The narrative is this: boys get their moms to buy them some Axe, they envelope bodies in an irresistibly sexy fog of body spray, they go to school, the girls in Language Arts go crazy for them. If this equation suddenly included regular girls wanting to be sexy, using Axe, and boys then becoming helpless with unbridled desire, then boys will, I suppose, sense Unilever's corporate mission drift, become sullen and withdrawn, and go back to playing Call of Duty.

Another reason Axe might not catch on with girls is that evidence suggests they think it's gross. As 14 year-old Allison Testamark told the Washington Post, "Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," she said, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

Girls might just have to let the boys keep their Axe and be content with all the gender-specific products out there created just for them, such as Walmart's line of makeup for 8 to 12-year olds or KMart's "I ♥ Rich Boys" girls' thong.

January 5, 2012

Myanmar gets its own manufactured girl group

Me N Ma Girls and The Runaways

If one requirement of a country's membership in modern, industrial society is its construction of a pop group whose youthful members were recruited and assembled by a group of producers and financiers, then welcome to the club, Myanmar! Cherie Currie and Baby Spice will show you around.

The Times has a feature on synthetic pop girl-group Me N Ma Girls (get it?), made up of five young women who were identified through a series of ads looking for girls with "energy and magnetic attraction," according to their manager Nicole May, an Australian dancer and graphic designer.

They seem to be the country's very first girl group, and though they haven't had real financial success yet, they have big dreams:

"I want this band to be famous and globally recognized. I want this band to hit Hollywood!" said Su Pyae Mhu Eain, a band member who studied zoology, specifically fish and shrimp, for her bachelor's degree. Her stage name is Cha Cha.

Cha Cha isn't the only member of Me N Ma Girls with an education to fall back on in case Hollywood doesn't work out. All five members have gone to college, with degrees in chemistry, math, Russian, and computer science. They might have easier post-pop careers than The Runaways (above), who were recruited by manager Kim Fowley before they'd had a chance to graduate from high school (and were, incidentally, huge in Asia.)

You can listen to their songs on Soundcloud, which are blandly produced, but offer the chance to hear young women rapping in Burmese, something you don't hear everyday. Like a lot of pop groups from non-Anglophone countries, they also sing in English, including lines from one of their catchiest songs, "Festival": "Hey you! Are you happy? You want some?" Here's the video, featuring the girls ecstatically partying down at an outdoor festival and lounging around a swimming pool while wearing the kind of long, demure sundresses that I think you'd only see in a girl-group video produced within an oppressive military regime.

January 3, 2012

Top movies of 2011

A Separation

There were loads of good movies this year, and many of my favorite ones come from new sources--there are a lot of exciting directors and actors I'll be paying more attention to after what they did this year. Also, Steven Spielberg.

Here are my favorite movies of the year, then a bunch more that I liked a lot.

A Separation
It's no longer original or cool to say this is your favorite movie of the year, but what can you do when it's this undeniably great? An Iranian movie about two families whose lives intersect badly, it looks at things like justice, class, pride, and the law as the tangled, personal, universal messes they are. I saw it as a feminist story, about how the systematic oppression of women in Iran leads to all kinds of problems for families trying to get by and live happily, but part of why this movie is so good is that other viewers probably don't see it that way at all, but love it as much as I do.

This movie also made me eternally grateful that I don't practice family law.

The Tree of Life
My other favorite. The Tree of Life is the most ambitious movie of the year, with childhood and family as the lens through which all the biggest questions about life, the universe, and everything are viewed. It's not a straight narrative, and it makes sense emotionally more than rationally. There are extended sequences of children running through wild grass; there are nostalgic sun-dappled backyards; there are visions of the cosmos and galactic birth; there is spiritual redemption; there are dinosaurs. I ate it up. Terrence Malick, as he often does, got the best performance yet out of an otherwise non-amazing actor, Brad Pitt.

A melodrama set at the end of the world that embraces hopelessness and depression as rational responses to living on a doomed planet. There's no patience for romance and sentimentality, but plenty of time for Wagner and Renaissance paintings and classically-framed slow-motion sequences, which are finely dissected by Manohla Dargis. When Lars Von Trier decides to raise his production standards, he makes some really beautiful, strange, dark images.

The Artist
The best kind of movie-watching experience is transcendent and exhilarating, and The Artist gives us that in a package most of us probably aren't used to getting. This simple, black and white, silent movie uses its genre limitations with more creativity than the most expensively-produced, FX-heavy movies do. It's not a cutesy gimmick, it's the real thing.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Most seductively terrifying view of a cult leader who simultaneously boosts your sense of self-worth and annihilates any concept of you existing as an independent human being. But in a different way, normal life outside the cult is pretty messed up, too. By the end of this movie, my sense of reality had become as paranoid and confused as the main character's. A great psychological thriller that really stayed with me.

Stylistically bizarre and completely unpredictable, this movie felt like it was made by somebody who had either never seen a movie before, or had done nothing in their entire life but watch action-romance movies of the mid-80's. Between the Tiger Woods hot dog-throwing incident and the funny spoof trailer "Drive-Thru", this movie seems to have taken on a fittingly crazy life of its own.

Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga as a woman in a Christian congregation/commune who starts to get the sense that the brand of patriarchal spirituality and self-denial she's bought into is a load of hooey. The movie doesn't follow predictable lines of feminist awakening we've seen before, but even though her story is quietly introspective, watching Farmiga's expressive face while she's thinking is absolutely riveting. I hope she can stop taking cardboard action movie roles and direct more great stuff like this.

Other movies I liked:

Weekend, about a one night stand that turns out to mean a lot more than the characters think it will. It quietly questions and subverts the usual start-of-the-affair story, and considers the different ways people are closeted and out. Sweet and sad.

13 Assassins is the most fun medieval Japanese badass movie I've ever seen. I got to really know and care about these characters in a way that's rare for this genre. Plus: flaming boars.

Young Adult takes a long, hard, clear-eyed look at maturity, self-actualization, and American small-town values, then insults everyone, does 37 shots of whiskey, and passes out face down with its high heels still on.

Take Shelter is another movie about paranoia and the end of the world, with one of my favorite performances of the year by Michael Shannon. There's one pivotal scene in a tornado shelter that rang false to me, otherwise it's a compelling, tense story about going nuts in a dangerous world.

A Dangerous Method isn't my favorite Cronenberg movie, but the scenes between Freud and Jung are subtly hilarious and great.

Attack the Block and Bridesmaids took genres we've all seen loads of times (alien invasion, vulgar buddy comedy) and injected tough London project kids and Melissa McCarthy to excellent effect.

Incendies and Meek's Cutoff look at the horrors of life during wartime and on the pioneer trail--I liked them, but don't want to watch either one again.

A few notable trends of the year: Incredible child actors. The kids in The Tree of Life and A Separation in particular gave some of the best performances I've seen all year. I don't know how directors started directing kids so well in recent years, but they're doing something right.

John C. Reilly. This year, he's done Cedar Rapids, Terri, Carnage, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. He's done a lot of great stuff over his career, but this year is really a standout.

The demise of writer/director David Gordon Green. He used to do good indie dramas, then Pineapple Express was a little ehh, then he comes out with two of the most awful comedies of the year, Your Highness and The Sitter. Big disappointment.

Speaking of comedies, it hasn't been a great year for anything funny. The funniest movies I watched this year were probably The Trip, even though some of the funniest parts from the TV series were edited out, and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, which included a wonderful 3D bouncing spooge scene. Our Idiot Brother was OK. Overall, not a great comedy year.

Movies I haven't seen yet: War Horse (Spielberg tear-jerker?), The Skin I Live In (creepy skin horror?!), and unfortunately, a lot of the documentaries that sound good: The Interrupters, Tabloid, Into the Abyss, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

What did you like? What good ones did I miss?

Here's 2010's list.

About January 2012

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in January 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2011 is the previous archive.

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