Currently Reading: The Hunger Games

“The Hunger Games” is a 2008 young adult novel by Suzanne Collins (it is the first of three books in a series by the same author). My S.O. is currently writing a young adult novel, and, as a result, she ends up reading other things that have been published for young adult readers (most of which, according to Annie, is wretched stuff). She recommended I read ‘The Hunger Games,’ and, since she knows my taste fairly well, I finally got around to starting it a day ago.

I didn’t like the highly regarded “Ender’s Game” enough to finish it, and, in most cases, I’ll pass on literature written specifically for young adults. Although I am only about half way through “The Hunger Games” and am glad I picked it up. Collins is an excellent writer; her prose is spare without being bland and her characters are interesting. Since the book is for young adults, the main character is a fifteen year old girl named Katniss.

‘The Hunger Games’ takes place in a dystopian future where the inhabitants of the outlying towns (known as “districts”) work in near wage-slavery in order to support the lavish life of the privileged in the Capitol. Every year the Capitol hosts an event called “The Hunger Games.” A boy and a girl are selected at random from each district and fight to the death in a setting known as ‘The Arena.’ The last survivor’s district is given extra food and privileges for the coming year, so there is great pressure for the children selected to succeed.

The entire contest is televised. Participants are released into the ‘arena’ and expected to compete and win by any means necessary. Supplies like food, tools, medieval era weapons like spears, swords, bows and arrows, etc., are available if the participants are lucky enough to reach them first. Players are allowed to form alliances if they wish in order to ‘gang up’ on other players, but, eventually, they will need to turn on each other since the games end when only one survives. In addition, according to their popularity with the television viewers and the bribes provided by ‘sponsors,’ different participants may be occasionally given helpful items like a loaf of bread or some medicine, so smart players attempt to appear interesting or appealing to the viewers.

Katniss ends up being one of the ‘tributes’ to participate in “The Hunger Games.” Before his death, her father taught her how to hunt in the woods, fish, forage for nuts and berries, set snares for rabbits, etc. While the other players compete against one another for food supplied by the game masters, Katniss feeds herself with her hunting and foraging skills.

I’m only about 1/2 way through, but have enjoyed the book immensely so far despite the fact that it is written for a younger reader. Although the book is not as emotionally brutal as 1984, I think the book is not written ‘down’ for a younger audience. Her prose is solid; we learn a lot about Katniss‘ world and her opinions in passing and in context rather than having it laboriously explained. The book explores themes of Independence and personal responsibility but (as I am about 1/2 way through) is not too heavy handed in trying to get young readers to think about these topics.

I have been avoiding reading the Wikipedia entry on the book before I finish it. Suzanne Collins claims she was inspired to write “The Hunger Games” while channel surfing between news from the Iraq war and reality television shows. The idea of ‘fight to the death’ gladitorial games in a distant future isn’t original, but I think the book is good enough that I don’t care that I have seen these themes before.

Definite recommendation.

RIP Peter Falk

Just read this morning that Peter Falk AKA Columbo has died.

Watching ‘Columbo‘ on TV was a part of my growing up; his TV ‘cases’ always seemed to be the same… some over privileged twit commits a murder with a perfect alibi… Lieutenant Columbo comes in to ask a few questions and blunders around, seemingly impressed by the twit’s power and prestige. The twit patronizes the unkempt detective (who seems straight out of Brooklyn) and grows impatient at the seemingly inane questions, and, just before leaving, Columbo catches the murderer in a web of lies and forces a confession.

After all the gritty and dramatic cop shows over the decades that followed, this would probably seem like pretty tame stuff, but I remember loving it as a kid, mostly because Falk’s Columbo was so likable and charismatic and his opponents always underestimated him. If I remember right, Columbo wasn’t one of those detective shows that kept the identity of the murderer a secret; you saw who committed the murder right at the start. The ‘reveal’ was not finding out ‘whodunnit‘ but what tiny and overlooked detail would bring the murderer to justice.

Prey (2010)

Three generations of the Lefevre family go into the woods; only one Lefevre comes back out!

(At right: Grandpa says, “Look at the size of that porker!” Later, Grandpa becomes a boar snack…)

I normally like French horror films, but 2010’s ‘Prey’ (original title ‘Proie’) was less than satisfying simply because it stuck too closely to ‘there is a big critter out there and the hunters have become the hunted!’ without transcending any of these standard tropes. Since Prey was Antoine Blossier’s first film, perhaps his producers did not let him take a lot of chances; I’ll be interested to see what this director does next because I think the film was very competently made. Most of my complaints are that the story ‘played it safe’ and we pretty much knew what was going to happen early on in the film.

The Lefevre family owns an old farm that has been in the family for generations and a brand new chemical fertilizer business. Deer are found mutilated on the property, and a wild boar of enormous size is suspected. Accompanied by their daughter’s fiance (who is a doctor), the Lefevre men set off to hunt down the wild pig. Did I mention there is a lot of tension in the family? Apparently the older generation dislike the newfangled fertilizer business and the grown son who started the fertilizer business thinks his father and brother don’t appreciate his hard work and all of the money he has made for them. The doctor fiance resents the fact that his future father-in-law doesn’t want his daughter, a chemist, to leave the fertilizer business to get married. Despite the fact that his daughter is pregnant, he tells the fiance that “there will always be time for children later.” Clearly, dad is a douche (even Uncle and Grandpa think so).

There is a file of secret reports of some kind that fertilizer father and chemist daughter keep passing back and forth and the doctor future son-in-law notices chemical burns on the skin of the grandfather, plus there are frequent closeups of the chemical handling pumps and manufacturing plant, implying that all is not on the up-and-up in the Lefevre fertilizer business but douche-bag fertilizer father insists that his daughter keep it a secret.

The men head off into the woods to hunt the boar… but, in a series of events that a blind man could have seen coming a mile off we discover that the boars are mutated and evil and agressive due to some chemical shit that the douchebag son has contaminated the lake with in his desire to ‘remain competative’ in the fertilizer business. The hunters become the hunted and half of the movie takes place in the woods at night.

We never really get a good look at the giant wild pigs that are killing off the Lefevres and I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. One of my favorite horror films, Alien, almost never showed us the monsters, so the few times we did see it, it had a lot more impact… and I think Prey was opperating under the same principle… but the glimpses of boar’s heads, noses and tusks that we get just don’t look that convincing or scary. The only scene that made me sad is when the uncle’s dog gets killed by one of the mutant pigs but when ‘Dutch’ the dog was introduced at the start of the film, we pretty much knew it was just a matter of time.

Black Death (2010) Movie Review

Black Death (2010) is a “historical” thriller set in Medieval England (14th century?) during the worst years of the black plague.

The Premise: A young monk named Osmund has fallen in love with a woman named Avril. A hard hearted and dogmatic knight named Ulrich (played by Sean Bean) arrives at the monastery and demands a guide to a remote village which is supposed to be mysteriously free of the plague. Heresey and witchcraft is suspected. Ulrich’s job is to investigate and execute any “necromancers” using any means he deems necessary. Since the swamp is in the same direction as the place where Osmund’s girlfriend is to be found, Osmund believes this is a sign from God that he ought to leave the monastery and go to be with her; he agrees to guide Ulrich and his mercenaries (complete with a wagon load of torture devices) to the swamp.

Eventually they arrive at the remote village where everything is not what it seems and horrible events unfold. Spoiler: Oswald is reunited with his love, but the reunion is not a happy one. The movie starts off bleak and ends bleaker.

The film is of modest budget (by current Hollywood standards) but the film makers do a lot with what they have. It looks like most or all of the film was shot on locations in Germany using period structures instead of building sets (and, other than one scene in which I noticed a decidedly non-period glass window in the background, this gives the film a gritty feel you probably couldn’t get from picture perfect sets). The color is intentionally desaturated and the air filled with smoke and haze while wretched looking peasants and hard looking mercenaries slop through the mud. There are no big-budget special effects and the fight scenes in the film are brutal rather than heroic. The music is spare and the dialogue terse.

The film is a thriller and seeks to set up the viewer’s expectations only to knock them down. At first the viewer thinks that Ulrich and his inquisitors must be the villains, but by the end you are not so sure. It might be ‘Name of the Rose’ meets ‘Apocalypse Now’ with a cupful of ‘The Stepford Wives’ in terms of story. Well worth a watch.

Obligatory Dungeon Crawl Classics post

OK, if you didn’t download Goodman Game’s “Dungeon Crawl Classics Beta Rules” yet, then shame on you. Someone told me it was free only today (June 8, 2011), but it does not say anything about that on the Goodman site so who knows.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll give you 2 reasons why this book rocks so hard:

1) Peter
2) Mullen

This guy’s work just blows me away… he has taken the ‘old school’ look and done something very dynamic and whimsical with it. But there is a lot of great artwork in the book — including Jeff Jeff Easley, Jason Edwards, Tom Galambos, Friedrich Haas, Jim Holloway, Doug Kovacs, Diesel Laforce, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Jesse Mohn, Erol Otus, Jim Roslof, Chad Sergesketter, Chuck Whelon, and Mike Wilson (shameless self promotion: and even some by me)! It occured to me as I ‘flipped’ through the PDF earlier that the Roslof work may well be Jim’s last since he died so recently… R.I.P., Jim, you will be missed.

Anyway, here is one of the Mullen pics:

Positive Press from the Blog-o-sphere on Exquisite Corpses

OK, so I’m officially a shameless self promoter. Jonathan Bingham wrote a very positive review of my lulu monster-book, Exquisite Corpses, over at his blog, Ostensible Cat! Despite being allergic to cats, I like the Ostensible variety of felines.

If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, scoot on over to Lulu and get out your credit card and order one for the bathroom, one for the game room and one for the bookshelf! Lulu will print up a fresh one and ship it to you ASAP! Link to Lulu here!

Irreversible (Movie)

Irreversible (2002), by Gaspar Noe, has been on my ‘need to watch’ list for a long time and I finally got around to seeing it last week. Fair warning: if you don’t speak French, you will have to read subtitles… and some have found it to be an excessively brutal and disturbing film.

I don’t really know how to describe the film, other than to say that it presents the narritive of a woman being raped and brutally assaulted and then her boyfriend and a former lover attempt to take revenge on her rapist, but the entire story is told in chunks that are ordered backwards… so first we see the two main characters (Marcus and Pierre) being taken out of a gay S&M nightclub with the uncompromising name of ‘Rectum’ by the police — Marcus is on a stretcher and Pierre is in handcuffs. The next scene ‘chunk’ shows what happened right before that: Marcus and Pierre are searching the nightclub for a man known as ‘le Tenia.’ They find the man they think is ‘le Tenia’ and a fight ensues… Marcus gets his arm broken in the fight and Pierre beats the presumed ‘le Tenia’ to death with a fire extinguisher. Bit by bit, the film maker presents the story in chunks, each ‘chunk’ coming in reverse chronological order, so we see Pierre and Marcus discover that Alex has been raped as she is carried away by ambulance workers on a stretcher, we see the rape, we see the events at the party they attended that led up to Alex wanting to leave early, etc.

Not only is the film in reverse chronological order, but the scenes themselves are all composed of a single ‘take’ where the camera roves around at random at the beginning, then gradually settles on the main characters. The scene where Alex gets raped and then beaten into unconsciousness in a pedestrian underpass by ‘le Tenia’ is about 10 or 12 minutes long and appears to have been filmed with a single camera that just moves to follow the events (I subsequently discovered that many scenes were digitally ‘stitched’ together to make them appear as one long scene, but, if so, the effect is seamless). At the start of each scene the camera is moving around as if simply spinning freely through the air, showing the ceiling, the floor, the room, etc., in a manner that almost makes the viewer nauseous — I thought the director ‘overdid’ that particular effect, although with each scene the ‘free camera’ effect got less and less wild and shorter and shorter, so I suppose Noe was intending to show us how events had ‘spun further and further’ out of control as they progressed.

The film has been criticized for being excessively violent and disturbing, especially for the graphic rape scene and the scene where Pierre bashes in the head of the man he (wrongly assumes) assaulted the woman, Alex. Graphic sex and violence in films, however, are not deal breakers for me and while I feel it innappropriate to say that I ‘enjoyed’ the film (‘enjoy’ does not seem to be the right word), I found it very effective and would reccomend the film. I found the film making interesting enough, and the little details of the character’s lives compelling enough that I want to eventually watch it again. Not one for ‘family viewing,’ however.

Aside from what I thought were the excessively long ‘wandering eye’ camera shots, my only other complaint was that in one portion, a scene where ‘le Tenia’ held Alex down on the floor of the pedestrian underpass while beating her face with his fists didn’t quite look real to me. ‘Le Tenia’ appeared to be striking the air right next to the actresses’ face and the sounds of the impact were unconvincing… as if they were dubbed in. Obviously I don’t expect the actress to really be beaten into a coma in order to make the film convincing, but given how ‘hyper real’ everything else in the film appeared, a small detail like this really stood out as a flaw. Perhaps the beating didn’t work for me because I wasn’t prepared to accept the scene as ‘real.’ I don’t know.

I’m going to have to beg the question whether or not the violence in the film is ‘gratuitous’ or not, simply because I don’t know that I accept the majority’s definition of ‘gratuitous sex and violence.’ In the case of Irreversible, however, I think the director made a conscious decision to make certain scenes as explicit and disturbing as possible. Since the violence comes early in the film, and afterwards we only see what leads up to it, the film is much more about observing the events in these people’s lives that led up to this horrible series of encounters.

Descent 2 review

I didn’t see the original ‘Descent,’ but bouts of insomnia coupled with a Netflix membership that allows me to watch some of the netflix catalog online results in a situation where I end up seeing some films that I might otherwise have never rented. Descent 2 is (obviously) a sequel to the 2005 Descent movie and apparently takes place shortly after the events of the first film.

Descent 2 is a good (but not a great) horror film, but if you are a ‘Dungeoncrawl’ enthusiast, you might want to rent it just to see some of the rather effective claustrophobic underground scenes where something is stalking a group of humans who have set out to rescue another group of spelunkers who have gotten lost in a maze of underground caves.

The film begins with a bloodied woman named Sarah wandering into a wilderness road somewhere in the rural US (perhaps in Appalachia?) and nearly being hit by a passing truck. After law enforcement is informed, it is determined that this woman (who is in a state of shock) is the member of a group of spelunkers who entered a cave several miles away(thus, she is a survivor of the events of the first Descent movie). Another team has been searching the cave system with some urgency; time is running out for the missing cavers. Not all of the blood on Sarah’s clothes is her own; the sheriff suspects she may have attacked her partners. An abandoned mine is known to be in the area in which Sarah was found; the rescue team speculates that if Sarah got out through the mine, perhaps they can find her companions by entering the cave system through the mine. A local whose grandfather worked in the mine tells them that the old miners spoke of having found a link to a series of seemingly endless caverns in the course of their diggings and a group of miners entered the caves to explore but were never heard from again. The sheriff, his deputy, an expert caver and his two assistants all enter the mine. Although Sarah claims to be unable to remember anything, the Sheriff insists on taking her along, perhaps because he thinks she will be able to help them retrace her steps to her lost comrades.

Of course, it all goes screwy. After finding a video camera lost by the first expedition, they review the tape and see the first group being attacked by something or someone in the caves. Things go from bad to worse; Sarah panics and runs off, the group gets split up and soon the would-be rescuers are in need of rescuing themselves.

The caving scenes are quite effective at portraying the claustrophobia and confusion of getting lost in a cave where unknown enemies may be lurking, making this good inspirational material for the dungeoneering crowd. The characters are not particularly memorable or well developed, but they seldom are in horror so that should come as no big surprise. The film ends, like most horror movies, somewhat ambiguously; thus the producers have the possibility of a ‘Descent 3‘ on the table.

I was entertained enough that I will probably hunt down the original Descent movie for watching, although I suspect it would probably be more fun to watch them in order.

The Crazies (2010)

Long time readers of this blog may remember that I previously wrote about George Romero’s 1973 film, “The Crazies.” Romero’s original film was a movie I liked, but I had to admit that it was pretty flawed. I usually have a knee-jerk reaction against remakes, but the 2010 remake of “The Crazies,” by director Breck Eisner is, I think, better than the original.

The basic plot remains the same. The inhabitants of a small, friendly and close knit town in Iowa start going crazy and killing each other. It is eventually revealed that a chemical weapon, code-named “Trixie,” has found it’s way into the water supply. We see the story unfold through the eyes of a leading male, his pregnant wife and his best buddy. The US military arrives and tries to “contain the situation,” but the military’s solution is ultimately ineffective and the situation spirals out of control.

Eisner’s version improves on Romero’s film because Eisner shows us rather than telling us. Romero’s film had a lot of situations in which people like military officers and scientists would talk to each other and thus reveal what was going on. There were also three or four simultaneous story threads and the film switched back and forth between all of them. Eisner spends 99% of his time with the small town’s Sheriff, David Dutten, and we find out things as he finds them out, leading to a lot more suspense and the feeling of a mystery being slowly revealed. The Romero version of “The Crazies” centered around a pair of fire fighters and a nurse; the new version has substituted the sheriff and his deputy for the fire fighters and the town’s doctor, Judy (who is the sheriff’s spouse and pregnant with their first child). Eisner does away with all of the military officers and scientists that populated Romero’s film; the military enters the film early but remains as a group of soldiers in camouflage and gas masks throughout the story. Rather than telling us through lengthy conversations that the “Trixie” chemical/drug got into the town water supply from a crashed military plane, the director shows us by having a rash of people acting erratically infect the town, then a trio of duck hunters find the corpse of a pilot in the swamp, then the sheriff and his deputy find the ruined plane, and then finally the sheriff puts it all together when he figures out that the people who started to get sick first live closest to the water tower, thus they probably drank the contaminated water first.

I can more easily forgive Romero’s lower production values and am not sure that Eisner needed to resort to make-up effects to let us know who was “crazy” and who wasn’t (Romero didn’t use make-up on his “crazies,” he just had them act crazy, which I think might have made the film even creepier — as it is, the ‘crazies’ in Eisner’s version look all wrinkled and bloody-eyed, like zombies). But Eisner’s version really pared down the story to the essential elements. In addition, Eisner’s bigger 2010 budget allowed him to get better acting talent than Romero was able to afford for his 1973 version.

Frontiers (Movie: 2007)

Frontiers is a 2007 French horror movie directed by someone named Xavier Gens and starring a bunch of people we don’t know in the US because the only French actor Americans have heard of is Gerard Depardieu and he is not in this. I heard someone call it “The French Deliverance” — but its not at all like Deliverance. There are no hillbillies who rape canoeists, but there are neo-nazi cannibals. There is no river but there are some creepy mines, a pig farm, a shoot out with automatic weapons and a weird hotel. There is a lot of blood and corpses and other stuff. At one point one of the evil people turns on a table saw… and as soon as the saw blade starts to spin you just know someone is going to get ripped apart on it… and in this way the director does not disappoint. In fact, you get to see people get shot, stabbed, broiled, beaten, etc., throughout the film. If you like violent slasher films with high production values, this is the film for you (providing you speak French or can read subtitles). It is like Deliverance in one respect: at the end of the film, everyone is either emotionally destroyed or dead.

The movie starts with some disillusioned young men (and one woman) who have taken advantage of the confusion from a riot in Paris to pull some sort of heist — what sort of heist is not explained, but they have a bag full of money. The cops are after them so they decide to get out of Paris while they can and end up at a Hotel which is obviously not listed in the Michelin guide. Here, after a strange sexual encounter the creepy occupants of the hotel and our erstwhile heroes come into extremely bloody conflict — the gore in this film goes from wince-worthy guy getting shot in the hand to ridiculous who-turned-on-the-firehose jets of blood. There were a few horrific scenes that really had me wincing (including one where a poor guy is suspended upside-down by means of hooks right through his feet — ouch! — and a really mean old nazi does something particularly horrible with a pair of pincers).

I think the movie is not particularly well known in the US, I guess because a) most people in the US who are willing to see a movie in which meat hooks and table saws figure prominently don’t want to have to read subtitles to find out what is happening, and, b) the film got an NC-17 rating which is apparently the kiss of death for theater distribution.

Not for the squeamish or faint of heart… but I’d recommend it.