DOUBLE FEATURE: "The Raven" dir. James McTiegue (2012) + "The Hunger Games" dir. Gary Ross (2012)

I was a kid when I last saw Roger Corman's The Raven with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, but I have fond memories of it from back in the days when my only home viewing access was the CED disc player (remember, with the pull-out tray, and the needle-based play that often created the visual equivalent of a record skipping?).  With that dreadful, utterly obsolete technology of the 1980's in mind, I think I would find that version of a Corman classic preferable to ever seeing James McTiegue's The Raven again, which will surely be arriving soon in pristine Blu-ray format, along with (I'm guessing) 3 alternate endings attached, just to put an extra fine point on its true nature as one of the most passionless and disappointing pieces of corporate product to come down the pipe in a while.

Vincent Price
John Cusack
Both Corman and McTiegue's films are experiments in adaptation that begin with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but end up in very different places.  Maybe Corman's notoriously cheap methods with American Independent Pictures (AIP) simply match the literary aspirations of Poe (notoriously cheap himself) better than any over-funded Hollywood project ever could.  Corman made his Poe movies with both a playful love of the literature and an unyielding desire to make movies outside of the system, whereas the recent Raven is so glaringly the product of a system where the studios, as Corman put it, "have been taken over...very heavily by non-film makers."  As it is, McTiegue's film plays like a "fantasy" episode of CSI: Miami or Law and Order (Gothic Murder Unit!), which is fitting since one of the film's scribes, Ben Livingston, has written episodes for both.  The other writer, Hannah Shakespeare, last wrote for The Playboy Club, a quickly cancelled network attempt to cash in on the popularity of Mad Men.  The script for The Raven was apparently in production limbo for quite a while, with rumored star attachments like Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Renner, and eventually landed in the hands of McTiegue, who is probably most known for having worked on the Matrix films, and made his directorial debut with the Wachowski Borther's V for Vendetta.  Now that McTiegue has made The Raven, there will be no doubt about the disconnect between the anarchist spirit of V for Vendetta ever translating into the creative choices of the man behind the camera, especially since The Raven comes off as so utterly unable to doing anything risky with the narrative or visual design that it almost comes off as a pastiche...but, a pastiche of other mediocre or lousy films, rather than great ones (I'm thinking something like a mixture of the worst episodes of CSI, the Hughes' Brothers' From Hell, and the Saw franchise).

David Caruso
Johnny Depp
The Raven attempts to present a few versions of Poe to us, the first of which is the expected Drunken Poe who is a bit of an egoist, raising hell in a Baltimore saloon in the late 1840's.  Later, we are introduced to the Courting Poe, as a way to drum up a bit of empathy for the character and set up the damsel in distress to come, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), daughter of Captain Hamilton (Brendon Gleeson), who is of course wary of Poe's advances.  Next, we are introduced to Detective Poe, called in to assist Detective Fields (Luke Evans, who I was under the impression was Dominic West from The Wire until recently, but instead turns out to be the forgettable lead of two similarly forgettable recent releases, The Clash of the Titans and The Immortals) who is following a string of murders that suspiciously follow the pattern of Poe's macabre tales.  Although The Raven is a film that deserves to be spoiled, I won't even get involved with how the plot plays out, as the set-up should give you an idea of the amount of genuine surprise that is ultimately in store. Although the scenes between Cusack and Sam Hazeldine late in the film hint at the interesting question of the relationship between the fiction and the reality of crime, the film at that point has presented itself as such a lazy exercise of a "Whodunnit," nearly derailed by a ludicrous scene where Poe and the police force hunt for his abducted future bride in the sewer tunnels ("Emily!"), that it's difficult to care about anything that the film might ultimately have to offer beyond its thin plot.  Even later in the film, after the killer has been revealed, there is a moment that suggests a potentially clever structural element, as we return to the film's opening scene of Poe slowly dying on a park bench.  In this moment, it seems that the literally poisoned Poe may be melding with the actuality of Poe's death, possibly situating what came before as his final fictive fantasy.  Unfortunately, this brief glimmer of hope that the fresh air of ambiguity might blow through this dank picture is suffocated by a particularly yawn-worthy "surprise" ending.

John Cusack and Sam Hazaldine in The Raven
It's hard to blame Cusack's abilities for what is so rotten about The Raven, seeing as it's a film where the casting choices seem entirely arbitrary, and the hope that different choices would make it better is slight, at best.  The Raven is an awful film if it stars Robert Downey Jr., Joaquin Pheonix, or Nicholas Cage, and it's achingly apparent those who produced it were attentive to little else beyond its nature as a star vehicle. The fault is primarily in the script, and this fact is regretfully written on the countenance of nearly every performer.  It's not that Cusack or Gleeson don't pull off a charming moment or two, it's just that we have rarely seen them so uninspired by the material at hand.  I took few notes while watching The Raven, but looking at them now I find one that seems to simply say it all, in retrospect: "Passion?!"  And that's just it:  Cusack cannot seem to create any passionate engagement with such a flimsy version of Poe, one that is separated into three different parts in the name of the screenwriters following through with a premise that they should have abandoned in their undergrad writing programs.  In contrast, see Cusack's scenes with Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line (1998), which are evidence enough that Cusack is as good a serious actor as you can find when something is asked of him.  Unfortunately, for all the actors involved, as well as the audiences who will expect that the combination of Cusack playing Poe can't be that bad, The Raven fails to ask so little that it hardly seems to matter.

Edgar Allan Poe 
"But it gets kids to read!"  This will most definitely be one of the first arguments in defense of a picture like The Raven, which is somewhat awkwardly positioned as a rather gratuitous, R-rated film that has a plot built for sub-PG-13 minds.  Of course, in the worldview of The Raven I'm just another fat bellied critic, not unlike the one who gets gruesomely sliced in half ala The Pit and the Pendulum in the film for simply being a critic, and whose profession is commented on after his death as being "the easy stuff" (along with "poetry").  In this move, a film that is supposedly born of a love for Poe's poems and stories defines itself as having a particularly immature relationship to the literature at hand, only interested in a shallow, pop-reference level of engagement, not unlike John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998).  Likewise, I'm thinking many of those teachers and parents who defend and support the market of mega-lit-to-movie franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games most likely sever their interest when it comes to reading criticism.  In this sense, the "promotion of literacy" argument may not reach as far as it proclaims, and becomes a sort of hideout for kids and adults from a mature reading of anything, whether it be literature or film.  Not only is the critic-as-victim a tired plot device, but it's irresponsible in what it offers to the larger understanding of the value of criticism.  What is reflected in our culture when so many have been trained to see the act of critically reading something as a nusaince, an attack on their sense of self even, or something that intrudes rather than enhances our understanding of the complex art around us?  In this way, The Raven makes me long for the mature depth of ideas found in a film like Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007).  In that film (as in a number of Pixar films that manage to be rife with good questions and rarely pander to their audience), the revelation of the critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) is the denouement of the film, eloquently articulating the value of the critic in the act of "the discovery and defense of the new."  Ultimately, it's not so much the gratuitous nature of The Raven that I find so offensive as it is the utter lack of anything new.

Anton Ego - Ratatouille
But, if a movie gets a kid to read a book...ok.  I guess we can't expect that parents and teachers can inspire children to read.  Seriously, the onset of the Internet age has altered all of our literate capacities, for better and for worse, and those of us who have lived through that shift can surely attest to that.  But, at the same time, our ability to "read" shouldn't be defined solely by the ability to sit down and finish a thick novel, especially if ones yearly reading amounts to a stack of thick books designed for children.  What it means to be "literate" is not only commonly misunderstood, but continually evolving.  For instance, the glaring omission of "literacy" in relation to the movies is a major issue, as the Cinema increasingly becomes a place serving only the needs of "entertainment" as opposed to the more "intellectual" fulfillment that Reading (with a capital "R"!) provides; for that audience, the movies are not a place where one should have to "read" anything, but, rather, a place where they are "read to."  Also, it seems only certain types of literature are allowed to exist in the film market, and in film form, and anything that doesn't play by those rules is almost immediately considered not worth the time of a paying audience.  If a film wants to act as a painting, an essay, or a piece of criticism (god forbid), most react as if it's an affront to all that is sacred about their relationship to watching movies, while remaining eager to spend as much time as needed with just about anything, as long as it doesn't ask them to think.  Also, when it comes to literature that tends to cross over from page to screen, particularly in the world of Young Adult or Children's Lit adaptations, there seem to be some important differences between the products, as the potential for any meaningful engagement seems to get reduced by the stifling concerns of marketing, which can alternately take the form of neutering a film through censorship or infusing it with gratuitous elements.  As for Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, I am assured by readers I trust that the books are far richer than what we get in Gary Ross's first film installment.  For all the hype, I sure hope so.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
Markedly more watchable than The Raven, though not entirely successful as a stand-alone film, The Hunger Games begs the question of why we might even need Dystopian fiction for young adults, much less films that truncate that fiction, and then have to "behave" by the rules of the MPAA.  The Hunger Games is obviously engaged with the modern world in a way that is both poignant and potentially subversive, but there's no denying that it is preceded by a lot of fiction that handles the same themes much better, which is hopefully still the destination of any gateway Collins or the film might open.  As for films, Daniel Minihan's regretfully overlooked 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders strikes a much more affecting chord in how it presents the idea of reality television crossing that line of cultural desensitization, particularly in how closely it places that "reality" to our own. The Hunger Games is distant in contrast, a fantasy of a world estranged, just enough, from our own.  In this way, The Hunger Games allows its target audience to engage in the same activity that it critiques as a cause of it's own rather horrific world view.  What strikes me as particularly absurd and ineffective about the film is the way in which it so obviously relies on the appeal of getting to "The Hunger Games" within the film, only to pull back so drastically from the depiction of the violence once it gets there.  Of course, at that point, the film has similarly pulled back from the violence of poverty in its depiction of our hero Katniss Everdine's post-apocalyptic, rural home, Sector 12 (played by North Carolina).  Jennifer Lawrence, coming off of a noteworthy performance in the over-rated hillbilly noir Winter's Bone (which seemed to only engage and convince critics who didn't grow up anywhere near rural poverty) enters The Hunger Games as if she walked off the airbrushed pages of People Magazine, stylishly clad in a vintage-looking leather jacket.  And, oh yeah, a little hungry.  (In fact, to further make the point of how entwined The Hunger Games is with its own themes of obsession and oppression, read People magazine's report here about an increase in tourism to the actual sight of Katniss's poverty row house).

I'll admit that I was rapt with The Hunger Games at the point of finally reaching the game itself.  In the moment when the contestants are raised into the sacrificial, televised space of competition, I was as thirsty as the rest of the audience to be entertained by this spectacle, the potential for the interplay of suspense and surprise reeling in my brain.  I was tired of watching Lenny Kravitz act, and I was feeling the blood lust.

Unfortunately, what I got were some of the most unexciting and inept action sequences in recent memory.  What should be articulate, exciting, and risky scenes of violence (Call in Gareth Evans, maybe?) are reduced to shaky cameras and scant splatters of blood; the cinematic equivalent of a lamely written passage of YA fiction.  These passages of the film brought to mind Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), a film relevant to the discussion in that it employs similarly intolerable camera techniques, and is perhaps even less self-reflexive about the nature of both the audience portrayed within the film, as well as the audience paying to see it (and, the second reference in this piece so far to a horrendously undeserving Best Picture Oscar Winner, which I hope isn't an omen of what's in store for The Hunger Games).  Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (2000) often comes up in this discussion as well, and though it may have come a bit closer to fully embracing the depiction of the violence, it is ultimately as ineffective as The Hunger Games in what it offers up in the final consideration.

Battle Royale
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that the violence, and the violence of hunger, in The Hunger Games is essential to its goals as a piece of fiction and social commentary, and therefore not gratuitous in the slightest, as it seems to be labeled in the endless mainstream media debates over the content of the film.  The typically reactionary discourse over the "brutality" of The Hunger Games misses the point, and in doing so underestimates the critical psyche of the youth culture, and, worst of all, fails to challenge it.  As an adaptation, The Hunger Games is not served well by being forced into a two-hours-plus feature film (not unlike I noted in my piece on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and unfortunately seems to deserve a more extended, serious meditation on its themes.  But, I guess that would be a more difficult project to use as a way to sell magazines and fast food.  Too bad, since the younger audience for the film, as well as some of the adults, desperately need to be connected to the violence of the world through works like The Hunger Games, not shielded from it.    


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