Horrors of Innocence and Experience

A young girl in ill fitting red heels discovers that the past has a price...

A young girl in ill-fitting red heels discovers that the past has a price…

It seems cheap to say in a review of a horror film, but it’s the truth—there are no monsters. What we call monsters are abstracts of fear and uncertainty, given a form closer to our own to give us a fighting chance against our inner demons. Truly monstrous things HAVE no physical form, yet we sense the presence of them in our world acutely, which is why they can hold such sway over our lives. Monsters are like the concept of evil, a signpost we can point to in reference even when we are unable to define what exactly the thing is.

A Shape can be many things, and stand for a number of fears, but it's most affecting quality is it's physical nature in our own world...

A Shape can be many things, and stand for a number of fears, but it’s most affecting quality is it’s physical nature in our own world…

In John Carpenter’s Halloween, both Evil and the concept of the monster were embodied in the hulking figure of Michael Myers, “The Shape” who looked human but had no humanity in him. The Shape could not be killed, only survived, which Jamie Lee Curtis did by protecting her young charge and by showing resourcefulness that would mark her as the preeminent model for the female survivor in horror films. But what happens when a new young woman is faced with another horror that is not an unknowable “evil,” but an all too familiar one? What happens when the monster ceases to be in the abstract because of what it represents to the person stalked by it?

Jay is a young girl with a dream of being an adult, but that dream is about to become her nightmare.

Jay is a young girl with a dream of being an adult, but that dream is about to become her nightmare.

This young woman is Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a resident of a middle class suburbia in some unidentified era who lives like many young teens on the cusp of adulthood do; seemingly floating without care in her own bubble of familiarity like she does in the swimming pool that sits in her dilapidated yard. Her sister Kelly and her friends Paul and Yara are likewise disaffected teens who gather at her place to play old maid and watch black and white monster movies, while their parents remain absent from the movie frame.

Jay's sister and best friends live simple lives, until something begins following her.

Jay’s sister and best friends live simple lives, until something begins following her.

But an intrusive element is poised to spoil their ennui, and it begins with Jay’s courtship of a handsome older guy. As is ritual for 19-year-old girls, the temptation to raise oneself to “maturity” is powerful, and during one of their dates Jay decides to venture out of the Garden of Eden in hopes of discovering what being an adult feels like. What she finds however is all too familiar for many young girls, a snake in men’s clothing, albeit one with a far more disturbing agenda.

Jay is deceived by the guy she thought she could trust, and finds he has dark plans for her.

Jay is deceived by the guy she thought she could trust, and finds he has dark plans for her.

Her partner is infected with something like a virus, but worse, which he passes on the horrifying knowledge through their union. “It” is a relentless pursuer, a doppelganger only she can see, capable of looking like anyone. It cannot be stopped or reasoned with, and while it will follow her at a walking pace, it will catch up to her eventually and exact a gruesome price. The only way to survive is to pass it on to another person through a sexual tryst, but if that person is killed by “It,” it will resume its pursuit of last survivor.

Ind the days following, Jay tries to put her life back together, but is haunted by something she feels is watching her.

In the days following, Jay tries to put her life back together, but is haunted by something she feels is watching her.

From here on the movie becomes a deadly waiting game, knowing that no matter where she goes, Jay will have to always be looking over her back and fearing everyone who approaches her. She is not safe, even with her friends staying the night “It” finds a way through her defenses. It is bound to her, unless she sleeps with someone else and bestows the same fate on them, and even then she’ll have to watch for signs in case the chain is broken and it comes to haunt her again. Hers’ is a fate sealed not in blood, but in the broken trust that her partner took when they came together. And now the trauma will follow her for the rest of her life.

The film's opening scene depicts this mercilessly, as another young girl appears scared of something we can't see...

The film’s opening scene depicts this mercilessly, as another young girl appears scared of something we can’t see…

You could barely think of a more appropriate metaphor for sexual trauma, and though it could be dismissed as a supernatural STD warning, the circumstances and the way “It” appears naked in several forms that tie closely to abuse. Horror is of course meant to get under our skin, but this is a different kind of unease, more real than not knowing if a masked killer is hiding in your closet. Jay is being forced to relive the fear that comes specifically from the incident that passed on this curse, and the only avenue open for her to escape involves spreading that fear to others in a hope that she can put it behind her. The trauma of “It” is not just a horror story, it’s a real story many survivors face every day.

For Jay, her pool represents a womb-like state of calm and harkens back to her childhood.

For Jay, her pool represents a womb-like state of calm and harkens back to her childhood.

And the movie respects this in it’s mundane picture of life, far from the bright stereotypes of most horror films. Ultra naturalistic scenery of a silent Detroit has never invoked the phrase “teenage wasteland” as much as it does here, forming a symbolic rift between the boring yet safe suburban households and the dismal reality that may await Jay and her friends just past the 8 mile. The film uses these silent scenes as visual shorthand for Jay navigating her own future, exploring the houses and looking for the deceitful man who has passed on this specter of suffering to her. There’s an unasked question to her search though: if she does find him, and knowing that he’s also a victim, how can he help her overcome anything?

As unnerving as her trauma is, Jay still seeks to assert some kind of order in her life.

As unnerving as her trauma is, Jay still seeks to assert some kind of order in her life.

There’s a clear contrast between these scenes and the ones where “It” threatens to catch up to Jay, and the vibe it creates is truly harrowing. Much like a panic attack, “It” invades these serene moments of her life, turning the score of the film into a cacophonous siren that just like the thing itself cannot be escaped. The reverberating synth chimes and dulcet tones are reminiscent of earlier horror films like Phantasm, which evoked a dreamy atmosphere one minute and set your hair on end the next. Composer Rich Vreeland AKA “Disasterpeace” has cut his teeth by making classic video game music, and it pays off with one of the most memorable horror movie soundtracks in recent memory.

The mixture of classic horror and poignant metaphor is one of the films greatest strengths.

The mixture of classic horror and poignant metaphor is one of the films greatest strengths.

Maika Monroe is a newbie to the horror genre, though her previous work in The Guest sets a high precedent for what her future may hold as a new lady of horror. Playing a survivor does not require bombastic touches, or great anger or fear towards the world, what it requires is that we see the weight that she’s been forced to carry, and as Jay, her face displays a haunting and devastating look of resignation that is painful in its realism. When “It” nears her though, she reacts with a kind of terror that is all the more affecting because we understand its roots. Jay is a girl forced to grow up by what she’s experienced, and the toll it’s taking on her life is apparent every second she’s onscreen.

We'd live forever on the cusp of adulthood if we could, always with that beauty within reach...

We’d live forever on the cusp of adulthood if we could, always with that beauty within reach…

The film rides all these rails, coming of age drama, sexual metaphor, and classic horror movie tropes, and does it in a way that is truly unique. It adroitly paints a picture of teenage adolescence that would resemble many people’s memories, and then slowly it transforms it into a nightmare horror world where you are never truly safe. The saying “Loss of innocence” is often invoked to suggest something’s been taken from you, but as Jay listens to a passage read to her by one of her friends from Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” her face suggests she grasps a deeper meaning. Adulthood is not the inverse of innocence, it is the acceptance of things we cannot change and which will not be put away like we can put away our childish hopes and dreams.

We all wish to return to that time of "innocence," where we felt the world was open with possibilities and nothing was there to stop us...

We all wish to return to that time of “innocence,” where we felt the world was open with possibilities and nothing was there to stop us…

For Jay, and those like her who have inherited or passed on this reminder of trauma and inevitability, this is now how they must live. Monsters aren’t real, but one thing about them is true, they are immortal as the memories and experiences we collect throughout our lives. And like many horror movies, it is our fate to fight our inner battles against them again and again in a never-ending war just to get through the day. But the greatest struggle is knowing, and accepting like Jay does, that sometimes living means surviving the loss, not of innocence, but of the way we saw the world and person we were before.

The fact that the movie contains almost no adults aside from "It" sends a message of aloneness, but the fact that her friends still stick by her, even when they can't help, is perhaps proof of how we survive our transference into the adult world...

The fact that the movie contains almost no adults aside from “It” sends a message of desertion, but the fact that her friends still stick by her, even when they can’t help, is perhaps proof of how we survive our transference into the adult world…

Secret Agent…Man?

Harry Hart shows that men can be just as fastidious as women when it comes to their shoes.

Harry Hart shows that men can be just as fastidious as women when it comes to their shoes.

What exactly is it that makes the attraction to the spy genre such very male fantasy? Is it because the progenitor of the films, he who will not be James’d, made being a secret agent about more than saving the world, but saving the world and reaping all the benefits that it’s viewers feel are due a man in his stead? Impeccable suits and style, women who seem to have been designed (they were) to be the most exotic form of companionship imaginable, quippy one liners, and above all else, that insufferable attitude of laissez smugness that you can only adopt when you’re the good guy about to say the world from some kind of death ray? Plus alcohol of course.

Bladed legs excepting, this poster is pretty much Secret Agent films in a nutshell

Bladed legs excepting, this poster is pretty much Secret Agent films in a nutshell

Well it seems we have our answer, because Kingsmen: The Secret Service aims to distil this formula to it’s most concentrated, all while being aware that the entire concept of world-destroying doomsday devices and feline stroking megalomaniacs is something you just can’t take seriously. So it summons up a secret organization of old British men that wear their tailored tuxes like suits of armor and speak in empty platitudes about what being a gentleman means, and who prize poise and dashing over remembering to check for hidden bad guys before taking a scotch break.

"That scotch is to DIE for..."

“This scotch is to DIE for…”

You see, Kingsmen says it’s about both mocking and celebrating these things, but the phrase “self-aware” never really comes to mind throughout. To wit, it’s central male characters are STILL obsessed over a manly view of gallantry and “what it means to be a KingsMAN” despite how the superficial nature of it all is bloody obvious and all its women are either relegated to background, made victims of, or trotted out as a self ironic “reward” for saving the world. What has changed exactly?

Meets the new snobs. Slightly more self-aware than the old British aristocracy.

Meets the new snobs. Slightly more self-aware than the old British aristocracy.

Well, there actually IS a new direction, as the James Bond in training this time is a young “bruv” from the lower class whose hastily relayed backstory suggests he’d have been some kind of polymath if only his mother hadn’t shacked up with an abusive husband. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egarton) is wasting his potential, says a man in a resplendent suit that immediately marks a class difference between them. That man is Harry “Galahad” Hart, (Colin Firth) and he is the epitome of British manners and propriety, and without a note of irony to be found in his performance.

Poise, bravado, and propriety, all in one image.

Poise, bravado, and masculinity, all in one image.

Harry you see was saved by Eggsy’s father, and wants to repay his debt in the most Knightly way possible; by enrolling him in a top secret society where Britain’s elite are gathered to become modern day Arthurian Knights, complete with outdated chivalry. Call it Nepotism or call it fate, but Eggsy is soon butting heads with the rich boys who seem to represent the Kingsmen’s ideals in appearance if not manners. He meets a couple of rich girls too including Roxy (Sophie Cookson) who manages to stick up for him without being labeled his “girlfriend” by the snobs for once. From there the movie shifts back and fourth between Eggsy’s ludicrous training, covering everything from dog walking to a bond villain style trap, and Harry as he pursues a recently kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill, apparently for nostalgia reasons) and learns of, what else? a diabolical plot being hatched by a billionaire with a lisp (Samuel L. Jackson) and a deadly henchwoman (Sofia Boutella) who may not be able sneak around but makes up for it with swords in place of legs.

Eggsy and Roxy watch footage prepared by Merlin (Mark Strong) that will prepare them for their mission.

Eggsy and Roxy watch footage prepared by Merlin (Mark Strong) that will prepare them for their mission.

Kingsmen is based on a graphic novel by infamously anarchic comic book writer Mark Millar, who enjoys upending genre expectations without warning as well as indictments of the male wish fulfillment. Director Matthew Vaughn previously worked on similar material with his other comic book Kick-Ass, which combined over the top violence with a tone that hinged on self-awareness but was still ultimately about human characters. Where Kingsmen differs is that it’s human characters never seem to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the organization, and while they talk about what it means to be a Kingsman, it’s undermined by the fact that they take it so seriously without really establishing the purpose apart from mimicking the Bond film’s raison d’etre.

Colin Firth is James Bond, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and John Steed all in one nicely coiffed package.

Colin Firth is James Bond, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and John Steed all in one nicely coiffed package.

And it is an unmistakably MANLY de’etre; from Harry coaching Eggsy the proper name for dress shoes without patterns on the toes, to wearing a Kingsman tailored suit, and how to order a proper martini. As the one female applicant, Roxy is essentially trying to enter the “Boy’s club” by showing she can be just as tough, cold, and cool under pressure as any of the guys, qualities that are shown to be only beneficial in the context of being a Kingsman. But while this makes for some harrowing training scenarios (one involving a classic Bond death trap of a room filling with water is both perfectly calculated to show Eggsy’s sideways thinking, and yet suggests an emphasis on “Teamwork” that really doesn’t fit with everything we see about the Kingsmen’s mission tactics) it’s hard to shake the feeling that the entire Kingsmen organization is just an empty suit filled with old fashioned ethics that don’t really mean anything.

Picture: White men saving the world. Not pictured, the group of different colored men and women who actually make up the world...

Pictured: White men saving the world. Not pictured, the group of different colored men and women who actually make up the world…

To it’s credit, the film seems to suggest that yes, a secret organization founded by old money and largely ruled by British men IS kind of archaic and needs to get with the modern world, but it does so only obliquely with Michael Caine’s “M” figure of sorts. But when they’re matched against the likes of Richmond Valentine (Sam Jaskson) billionaire philanthropist and global warming opponent, they can’t help but look like the good guys, classism and sexism be damned. When the world is in peril, and an American is poised to wipe out half the human race because it’s for “the greater good,” count on British nobility and manners to save us all is the unfortunate take away.

In a much talked about single take scene, Harry goes full nutter on a roomful of WBC analogues. Too bad mind control doesn't take away PTSD...

In a much talked about single take scene, Harry goes full nutter on a roomful of WBC analogues. Too bad mind control doesn’t take away PTSD…

It’s a shame really, because everyone really does bring their A game to making the characters feel as human as characters in a comic book world can. As Eggsy, Taron Egarton develops from a punk in baggy jeans who talks like an episode of Skins to a suave and capable young man. He puts determination and grit into the character, but maintains his punk sense of humor that makes him more relatable than the snobby upper class men. What the movie does less well is illustrate how this change is a way for him to regain control in his lower class life, including his stepfather being abusive to his mother. Harry says he “sees potential” in Eggsy, and given what he later accomplishes we can plainly see he’s correct, but it’s impossible to get around the fact that he’s learning all these strange skills that are only connected to essentially looking good and feeling confidant.

The man you could aspire to be, give or take a secret organization, harrowing danger, and possible alcoholism.

The man you could aspire to be, give or take a secret organization, harrowing danger, and possible alcoholism.

Colin Firth on the other hand embodies all these “gentlemanly” qualities to a T however, and plays Harry without irony or self-deprecation to great effect. As Harry Hart (Codename: Galahad) he is an expression of men’s deepest desire to be in control of our image and feelings. He is efficient in combat, eloquent in his words, and charming without seeming to put any effort into it. While he lacks scene-stealing prowess, he’s the sort of character you will watch doing anything simply because you know he’ll do it RIGHT. Unfortunately, apart from the opening sequence this largely makes him a static character whose presence is a influence on Eggsy more than his actual words.

Colin Firth is a bit TOO calm in the eye of the storm that Valentine unleashes...

Colin Firth is a bit TOO calm in the eye of the storm that Valentine unleashes…

Perhaps most aptly, his best scenes are when he’s playing the Bond-type role with Samuel L. Jackson fitting the eccentric villain character like a glove. Just like Bond, Harry is always more compelling when being challenged by someone who looks like they could actually get the drop on him, and Valentine’s ability to catch Harry off guard while he’s out shopping or confuse him by serving whoppers and fries at a fancy dinner are two of the bright spots in an otherwise rote dance of antagonists.

The facade of geniality between the hero and the villain is a staple of the secret agent films, and Valentine pulls it off like a pro.

The facade of geniality between the hero and the villain is a staple of the secret agent films, and Valentine pulls it off like a pro.

During one of these meetings, Valentine discusses with Harry how the Bond films were only as good as the villain in them, and meta commentary aside Sam Jackson makes a hell of a compelling bad guy. Dressing like a hip hop Steve Jobs and hilariously distrustful of his own doomsday devices, Valentine also makes a convincing argument as to WHY he arrived at the decision that 90% of the planet needs to be eliminated for save the rest of us. Coupled with a bilious distaste for blood and a snapback hat that no one comments on, Valentine is a lot of eccentricities that nonetheless work because of how Sam Jackson sells the fact that he’s not just trying to kill a bunch of people because he CAN or because it’s FUN, but because he’s in a position to maybe change the world and so he’s going to take it.

Level of fucks given: 0.00000

Level of fucks given: 0.00000

Behind every great man is a more interesting and less appreciated woman though, and even though he’s the man with his hand on the fingerprint linked detonator (Which turns out to burn quite a bit) it’s his bodyguard-cum tech supervisor Gazelle who steals the show. Played with decisive calm and prodigious athleticism by Algerian-French actress Sofia Boutella, she’s as deadly as Go Go Yubari on ice skates, only without the demented mental health associations.

Gazelle unveils a doomsday device to Valentine, who acts like a kid in a candy store.

Gazelle unveils a doomsday device to Valentine, who acts like a kid in a candy store.

Gazelle in the comics was a humdrum black man who existed just to poke fun at the overpowered henchmen that villains always seem to employ, but Boutella turns her role as henchwoman into the most watchable character, almost a Loki to Harry’s Thor. She does this simply by being the most deadly character in the film, even outclassing the Kingsmen for brutal efficiency. Each step she makes on her spring-loaded gladiuses is a reminder of how ready she is to slice any obstacles into mincemeat, and all without having to smile or show a little leg. When women see the film, they won’t be talking about how they want to be a secret agent, they’ll be talking about how they want to grow up and be the villain, because while Roxy is saving the world, Gazelle looks like she’s having a blast.

Roxy and Eggsy match wits while trying to court a confused girl. All in a days wish fulfillment for a wannabe Bond...

Roxy and Eggsy match wits while trying to court a confused girl. All in a days wish fulfillment for a wannabe Bond…

But what OF Roxy? And what of her contrast with Eggsy; The two superspy sides of the same coin. Why does one get to infiltrate the doomsday fortress and one is left behind to bring down the arbitrary obstacles that impedes the former? Roxy shows her moxie early on by not caving to classist judgements of the other candidates, and proves her mettle when she’s just as seductive as Eggsy while trying to entrap a target, only faltering where heights are concerned like most normal people would.

In order to prove she's a KingsMAN, Roxy has to overcome her fear of hesitation. With a little help from Eggsy.

In order to prove she’s a KingsMAN, Roxy has to overcome her fear of hesitation. With a little help from Eggsy.

She proves she’s tough and classy enough to enter the Kingsmen, yet in the end she’s neither love interest, nor action girl, nor secondary protagonist. She’s like a genderflipped version of Eggsy, and yet he’s still the one who the story decides needs to go all Rambo in order to demonstrate how much of a badass guy he is. While Eggsy has a moral conundrum over the nature of the Kingsman, Roxy goes along with them and is rewarded for her resolve by being made a top agent, yet he’s the one framed in the right. If the Kingsmen’s standards are anything to go by, it seems that even when women make it into the boys club, the guys still get preferential treatment.

Swedish Princess Tilde is known in the film for two things: one, calling Valentine crazy and refusing to go along with his genocide...

Swedish Princess Tilde is known in the film for two things: one, calling Valentine crazy and refusing to go along with his genocide unlike the prime minister…

Once you see the link between the secret agent and an idealization of masculinity it’s hard not to be skeptical of any film trying to play homage to it, even if it suggests the idea itself is old fashioned. The problem with having your cake and eating it too is that It’s not really cake, it’s a trope that your viewers may or may not accept depending on whether they feel included or not.When Kingsmen includes a long segway where an imprisoned Swedish princess (Hanna Alstrom) offers something more than a kiss after Eggsy asks what she’ll give him if he lets her out of her cell and saves the world. It’s basically a classier version of the frat boy pinching the girl’s butt as they walk upstairs to the bedroom. It’s only funny because it’s unexpected, and it’s really only unexpected because a guy suggesting he deserves sex for ANYTHING is supposed to be a self evidently douchey move.

and two: the world's most out-of-the-blue sex joke. Guess which ones she' being remembered for?

…and two: the world’s most out-of-the-blue anal sex joke. Guess which ones she’s being remembered for?

But Eggsy is different! The movie seems to say. Sure he’ll accept a crass form of “thank you for saving me” from a girl who’s desperate to get out of her cell, but he’ll also come back to his mom and take out his abusive stepfather because she’s too scared he’ll be beat him up to stand up for herself. He’ll be the good guy who ALSO gets to feed his ego because that’s just “fair” in the eyes of all the young guys watching. And isn’t that really what we all want? To indulge in our little fantasies without anyone telling us they exclude others or just serve to boost our egos? But while being a secret agent may be a fantasy, the reality is that fantasies are had by men AND women. And the problem is that, despite how “gentlemanly” it would be, ladies come second in Kingsmen’s world.

Anyone who prefers to not see this need only check the we presence for wonderful comments like this...

Anyone who prefers to not see retro sexism is alive and well need only check the film’s web presence for wonderful comments like this…

Through Alien Eyes

Scarlet Johansson is more than human, but less then she appears.

Scarlet Johansson is more than human, but only under the skin…

The difference between a film that makes me frustrated and a film that makes me think is often simply whether it feels by the end as if something has been left out, or if that thing feels like was in it the whole time and you just need to go back and examine it more carefully (Donnie Darko belongs to the latter, The Fountain is in the former). Under The Skin is a film that would regularly be frustrating owing to how many of the events that occur are not explained by the end, but the moment a pinhole of blinding light on the screen resolves into an unnerving eyeball the film announces itself as less of one person’s story, and more of one person’s experience. Where Under The Skin differs is that it doesn’t just deal in symbolism and allegory, but comes through meaning naturally as we are made to identify with another who shares our form, but not our humanity, at least at first.

Though Isserly appears in control, when she veers off task she finds herself in a literal dark forest.

Scarlet Johansson walks among us. But what walks among the walls of her thoughts…

Based on a novel by Michel Faber, Under The Skin is not so much the story of, but the experience of a unearthly woman (Scarlet Johansson) as she drives around the Scottish countryside, picking up strangers and engaging them in conversations that often end in offers to come back to her place. What happens back in her place is not what you you’d expect, but it creates a haunting and foreboding picture of her mission that permeates the rest of the film with a tangible sense of the otherworldly rather then relying on some convoluted backstory to anchor us to the mission.

How long can we look at the face we wear before we begin to believe it is truly ours?

How long can we look at the face we wear before we begin to believe it is truly ours?

She is the ultimate outsider, a being who looks human with her red lipstick and fur coat, but views the society she passes through with a strange uncomprehending eye. This woman (Known as “Isserly” in the novel) is a watcher whose purpose remains enigmatic, yet what is clear is that being among “us” is causing a barely imperceptible change in her demeanor. Though she’s introduced practicing her enunciation, she appears adept at interacting with her targets, as well as having knowledge of many of the human customs, which makes her status as an outsider less about how she acts and more about how she DOESN’T act.

The most most obvious symbol of her growing consciousness is the warm color of the shirt she wears later on.

The most most obvious symbol of her growing consciousness is the warm color of the shirt she wears later on.

What makes her performance unique is how good Scarlet Johansson is at portraying emotion in a way that feels so alien, and how she gradually expresses a growing bewilderment with this. Her character is subtle, and so she makes each glance around and each step she takes into one of importance, all while showing discomfort and discovery as she immerses herself in a world she feels like a tourist in. As she observes human behavior, some of it appears to be irrational, but as the audience we understand the emotions implicitly, and yet Isserly’s inability to grasp it both gives us an idea of what perhaps makes us human, and subtly gives us an idea of why this very thing is unexplainable even to ourselves. Is human a thing we do? Or something we feel? Isserly can do many of the same things that humans do, but she it’s clear that she does not feel human. So what is she, “under the skin” so to speak?

Like her actress, Isserly begins by taking on the role of another

Like her actress, Isserly begins by taking on the role of another

This sense of looking at ourselves from an outsider perspective is helped by a series of eerie compositions by Mica Levi that saturate the film’s atmosphere with a truly unnerving sense of the the uncanny. A frenzy of frantic strings accompanies the titles like Vertigo fed through a deep space subwoofer, and a seductive melody involving a violin plays out whenever Isserly enters into her strange black canvas that men walk into like the deep end of a pool and do not emerge from. All of it contributes to the sense that she is a creature wholly unlike any on this earth, and by allowing us into her view of the world we form an unlikely connection with a being that we would regularly have no way of empathizing with.

Isserly's men do not live long, but before they die they witness something unearthly...

Isserly’s men do not live long, but before they die they witness something unearthly, and horrifying…

The incidents that occur during the film range from mundane to meaningful, but none of them feel artificial in the same way most symbolism tends to come across. The theme they share is an immersion into a situation where human emotion is at its peak, and how the more she finds herself in these circumstances the more unsure she becomes about who she is. One particular scene has her stalking a man until he enters a club, only (in a bit of silent comedy) to be swept in by a gaggle of woman who seem to instantly accept her as one of their own, adding to her confusion about whether she is supposed to identify as human or not.

Isserly is waylaid by the most dangerous of all predators, the club girl.

Isserly is waylaid by the most dangerous of all predators, the club girl.

At one point the paradox becomes too much for her and she retreats to the Scottish countryside where she encounters a new feeling, attraction. Given how her previous actions have been so focused on luring men via her form and seductive manner, it’s highly significant that her attempts to understand the feeling are the inverse of how she began the film. Though Scarlet Johansson is definitely beguiling, her charms are subdued so that she’s less like a femme fatale and more of a lure on the end of a hook, but what happens when that lure begins to have feelings?

Scarlet Johansson in deep hues of feeling.

Scarlet Johansson in deep hues of feeling.

In the end, Under The Skin is a strange and unique film that defies genres and expectations, and in doing so asks some truly personal questions through the experience of its central actress. It does not answer these, but it also does not pretend that they have definitive answers either, and this willingness to honestly explore them without ending with a Hollywood style epiphany lends the film a more meditative quality that stays with the viewer even after Isserly has come to the end of her journey. If our humanity is more then just the skin we wear, then could some other creature that looked nothing like us, but felt like us, identify as human? And how can we know for sure, when that skin we see in the mirror is so connected to our idea of who we are, and the fear of “The Other” looms large? An existential crisis is one thing, but a crisis of biological and alien existence? Now that’s something that will get under your skin.

His Ghost, Her Machine.

Johnny Depp's TED talk leaves a little to be desired...

Johnny Depp’s TED talk leaves a little to be desired…

Where exactly do we draw the line between high and low culture? This question is one that has become increasingly relevant in the Internet age thanks to the collective group-think of things like twitter or facebook becoming legitimate measuring devices for the movie and television industry. This need to rank the quality of their products has always felt natural, a kind of reflection on art and our desire to achieve a lasting impact with it, but a cynical sort of detachment has gradually developed that creates a superficial barrier in our minds between what is thought of as “entertaining,” versus what will stick with us as the pinnacle of visual art.

But we also recognize that there is an overlap between “High Art, Low Art,” and this is the territory of films that straddle the line between entertaining us and genuinely making us pause and consider their ideas in a wider scheme of things. This was the difference between Total Recall the Schwarzenegger version, and glitzy Minority Report cum Blade Runner derivative that slunk away into obscurity the second it was kicked out of theaters.

All the details are there, but it's still a work in progress.

All the details are there, but it’s still a work in progress.

If there was a line charting this, then Transcendence would fall somewhere between “The Purge” and “Dredd,” more idea driven then the former, but not utilizing those ideas as much as the latter. It would exist in a place where the narrative really belongs to the action thrillers where helicopters explode and people talk in matters of urgency rather then actual speech, but the characters and the soul of the movie is more akin to the introspective character driven drama that populates most indie science fiction flicks.

Unfortunately, Post-singular Will has all the warmth of a

Unfortunately, Post-singular Will has all the warmth of a sponge.

For all the “science gone amok” trappings it appears to have, Transcendence is a surprisingly subdued film that begins with a water droplet, reminding us of the natural world and the beauty we often lose when we turn to technology and it’s advances as ends in themselves. Our central character (Though not our protagonist per se) Will Caster, seems to share this view, opting to create a “Dead Zone” for him and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) so that they can get away from the electronic signals that otherwise absorb both of their lives as scientists.

Morgan Freeman has become the go-to actor for playing smart characters who have to impress upon others the gravity of the situation.

Morgan Freeman has become the go-to actor for playing smart characters who have to impress upon others the gravity of the situation.

A highly ranked cast of actors compliments their lives, starting with Will’s slightly less technologically optimistic friends Max (Paul Bettany), and an aged professor named Joeseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) Both are there for them after an anti-technology group led by a mysterious woman named Bree Evans (Kate Mara) conducts a coordinated attack on several high ranking professors, seemingly of belief that the creation of a self-aware artificial intelligence is not only hubris, but dangerous due to its inability to grasp human concepts of ethics or morality. The attack fatally injures Will, and he’s forced to face the reality that his dream of humanity achieving Transcendence is fated to die with his degenerating body.

But like Mary Shelly envisioned death giving birth to a new form of life, Evelyn realizes that she can at least try to give her dying husband a new one by transforming his biological information into digital information, and in doing so create the fabled “Ghost in the machine.” But can a machine translate a soul? How much of her husband will be translated? And if a human is able to transcend the body and become pure intelligence, what purposes will they chose to serve?

Next-generation Ipad app?

Next-generation Ipad app?

These speculative questions are the subject of both real and science fictional research, and perhaps predictably Transcendence engages with them on a level that most likely won’t satisfy either crowd. Whether Will is an accurate portrayal of what the first transcendent being might be and do isn’t really as important as how the rest of the characters react to his existence. The interesting thing about the film is how it gives both sides of the argument pretty decent reasons to believe he’s a destined for destruction, or the trans-revolution, but it’s actually hard to tell which way Will itself is leaning.

Does this look like the face of a someone who is the next step in human evolution?

Does this look like the face of a someone who is the next step in human evolution?

Because Evelyn sticks by his side, believing her husband has truly achieved transcendence, she views him as an unequivocal good, developing technology with life improving applications and is unable to understand the suspicion that Max and the anti-tech groups harbor. It’s a prime example of how splitting a narrative can create ambiguity between its character rather then painting one as right and the other as misguided. Will claims that “They won’t understand me,” and it’s true, because all those who are not privy to Evelyn’s firsthand knowledge see an alien intelligence, instead of a human who has taken on a non-human form.

Will's transformation into SIRI is shocking to his close friends.

Will’s transformation into SIRI is shocking to his close friends.

This gets at perhaps the greatest tension that pervades the film, that even though scientists talk of The Singularity and life without bodies as something we should embrace as the natural progress of advancing technology, when faced with the actual prospect of a consciousness that is more than human, we can’t help but fear it because of what it represents to us. All natural life is thought to comes about not from human intervention, but through whatever force existed before us that led to our creation, yet here is a contradiction; a consciousness, thought to exist only in biology, but manifesting in a man-made device that is still fundamentally separate from the human body. How exactly are we supposed to react when man becomes his own God?

Evelyn Caster is every bit as brilliant as Will, but suffers because only she can recognize his "Ghost in the machine"

Evelyn Caster is every bit as brilliant as Will, but suffers because only she can recognize his “Ghost in the machine”

In Transcendence’s case, we see this dilemma in Evelyn Caster, and to the film’s credit it makes it more then just a love story with her playing the wife blinded by her emotions to the truth. Evelyn sticks with Will, but slowly comes to realize that a face on a screen, even one that can recall where they first met for a date, is not a true relationship. Unlike Scarlet Johansson in last year’s “Her,” Will needs to be more then just a companion to talk to, but a human being Evelyn can feel a bond with. In one scene he attempts to comfort her after scanning her vitals and deducing that she’s upset, only for her to react in horror when she realizes that the what had until now been a sacred place of privacy is now open to a being that is motivated by logic, rather then feeling.

Cillian Murphy could be playing a Digital Freddie Kruger, but instead he's stuck as some forgettable FBI guy.

Cillian Murphy could be playing a Digital Freddie Kruger, but instead he’s stuck as some forgettable FBI guy a la’ Michael C. Hall in “Paycheck”.

Give the military some credit too, because for once they don’t react to something strange and potentially dangerous by nuking the damn thing. Led by Agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy, essentially just filling the place of the standard FBI guy, albeit with a impeccable American accent) they chose to listen to Joseph and Max and bring in breech-loading cannons that lack electronic components. Though it’s hard to see the military as a credible threat to Will’s advancing techno-omniscient powers, it makes for a surprisingly old-fashioned showdown.

Will and Max (Paul Bettany) may appear to hold opposite beliefs, but both hope for a brighter future.

Will and Max (Paul Bettany) may appear to hold opposite beliefs, but both hope for a brighter future.

As Will, and later the transcendent intelligence that takes his form, Johnny Depp plays him as low key and without the scene-stealing you might expect for a scientist whose ambition is essentially to become a God. Scruffy, but deeply driven and sharing a tenderness with his wife that underlines their relationship rather then stressing it, JD’s primary strength in the role is playing Will in several stages. At first we have only scrambled voice catches which sound eerie and inhuman, but he eventually assembles a face like a motion-captured video game character, until he finally achieves the unnerving image of a person who looks like they’ve learned how to smile from observing people in pictures, but has no real understanding of what it represents.

The digital resurrection of what may or may not be Will is one of the film's high points.

The digital resurrection of what may or may not be Will is one of the film’s high points.

As his wife and witness to his transformation, Rebecca Hall’s role is the archetypal “what if?” scenario, and she’s good enough in displaying her mounting unease that you can forgive the character for being a little one-dimensional. Hall may look like Amy Acker, but her gaze is more intent and less wide-eyed even in the face of the miraculous discovery she and Max make. Her belief that Will has survived, that the person he was is the same consciousness that now exists beyond physical reality, is either touching or grating depending on whether you believe her performance or just the idea of the thing. Evelyn plays the believer till the very end, and that’s great for Will, but maybe not so great for her.

Mara as Hacker chic.

Mara as Hacker chic.

The last actress of note is the Kate Mara and there’s something clever in how the film sets up Evelyn’s opposite as another woman, though one with less to lose then her. Though the Bechdel test isn’t passed, Bree Evans is a decent female character who isn’t sexualized or made a love interest, and is quite capable of leading her anti-technology group RIFT to locate Evelyn and Will. Having been witness to a previous attempt by her former professor to transcend consciousness with a non-human subject, she convinces Max that the other possibility of uploading a person’s soul is more akin to the legendary short story “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.”

Bree knows the easiest place to pick up AI researchers is in a bar, after a couple Long Island Iced Teas.

Bree knows the easiest place to pick up AI researchers is in a bar, after a couple Long Island Iced Teas…

Sadly, her place in the movie is largely as a distant threat, and we’re prevented from getting any greater insight into her personality outside of Kate Mara’s white-blonde hair and black hat hacker jeans. It just goes to show that you’ve got to do more then just write diverse parts for women, you need to transcend the past and write parts and women who do more then just what the story tells them to do.

What is the cost of technology, and what is the cost of technology on the human soul?

What is the cost of technology, and what is the cost of technology on the human soul?

But at the end of the day, all you can really do is try to take your idea as far as your ambition will let you, and for Transcendence this means a future that may not be philosophically challenging or scientifically revelatory, but affirming that when we do achieve something similar, we may have a better idea of how to react to the uncertainty and fear that surrounds it. Time will tell if the theory of The Singularity and Transcendence will resemble anything like it was depicted here, but as a film that’s more idea then effects driven, and more skeptical of man’s desire to push the boundaries of what makes us human then remind us that we are human only to the extent that our ideas are humane. Everything else is just data.

A Winter Princesses’ Tale

Elsa and Anna share a warm bond, despite the former's chilly powers.

Elsa and Anna share a warm bond, despite the former’s chilly powers.

Disney has long been maligned as merely making “kids movies,” characterized by their fairytale logic as well as presenting an unrealistic picture of the world meant to provide children with entertainment rather then making them think. This attitude is rather unfair when examined, since most of the themes of past Disney films are just as present in live action films, and it’s only the absence of talking snowman and spontaneous musical interludes that differentiate them. Disney works in allegory, and any lover of literature will readily defend this approach to material.

Frozen is one of the Disney films for the new era of children who have already seen these aforementioned tropes enough times for the nostalgia to wear thin, and who are looking for a message more insightful then just “true love can transform a beast into a man.” It is also the first Disney film to feature two female leads who are sisters, making it one of the more feminist films the company has produced.

Elsa is a nICE girl who discovers her powers are both a blessing, and a curse.

Elsa is a nICE girl who discovers her powers are both a blessing, and a curse.

It is a subtle film, so subtle in fact that the lack of grandiose set pieces and clear villain marks it as almost the polar opposite of previous works like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. It is instead part of their new every oeuvre, just updated from the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ice Queen” from which it takes inspiration from.

The setting is the slightly Norwegian looking kingdom of Arendelle, surrounded by snowy mountains but nondescript enough to pass for any fairytale setting. A snow dragon could just as easily fly into town and demand the hand of the princess as a wicked stepmother could plot to usurp the kind through a magical flute or some other mcguffin.

What happens in Frozen however is far simpler, the oldest daughter of the king and queen named Elsa (Idina Menzal), is gifted (or cursed) with the power of Glaciokinesis (Control over ice) which provides initial fun for her and her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) in the form of conjuring snowmen, but turns tragic when she loses control and accidentally inflicts a near mortal wound on her sister.

Anna and Elsa meet the Duke (Alan Tudyk) of the suspiciously sinister sounding "Weasleton"

Anna and Elsa meet the Duke (Alan Tudyk) of the suspiciously sinister sounding “Weasleton”

Though her sister survives through intervention on their parent’s part, her memory is wiped and from then on Elsa isolates herself for fear of losing control and hurting her sister, while Anna cannot understand why she has suddenly drawn away from her. After the traditionally Disney deaths of the meddlesome parents (Seriously, these films sure like to break families up considering how much they contain messages about the importance of said family) the two sisters grow apart for ten years until Elsa’s christening as the Queen forces them both into the world.

While Anna is ecstatic at the thought of going into the outside world, as well as meeting her “one true love,” Elsa struggles with the fear of losing control of her icy powers. When the fait accompli event happens and Ana meets the neighboring kingdom’s prince Hans, she thinks it’s love at first sight, and they ask for her sister’s blessing. Unable to take the stress of repressing her emotions as well as her sister’s painful frustration with her, Elsa finally reveals her powers, scaring the citizens of the city, and retreating to a palace of her own icy making; inadvertently plunging Arendelle into an early winter.

    It's love at first sight for Anna and Hans, which in a Disney movie usual means an upbeat montage is soon to follow...

It’s love at first sight for Anna and Hans, which in a Disney movie usual means an upbeat montage is soon to follow…

From then on Ana makes it her goal to bring back her sister and thaw the kingdom, though she remains naïve about the exact way to accomplish this. She is joined by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a wry but good hearted ice merchant, as well as his reindeer Sven, and later, an oddball talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) who harbors dreams of sun on his face and wants to “Do what snow does in the sun.” A paradoxical dream to be sure.

The conflict of Frozen is thus not about defeating a villain, saving the princess, or recovering some magical tableau, but about whether Anna will be able to reach her sister, and whether Elsa will find a way to control her powers and stop pushing her away. As an allegory for family relationships this is a powerfully realized one, particularly with the double language concerning a “frozen” heart and the way Elsa’s attitude appears so cold on the surface, while the audience senses her desire to be warm.

What's a Queen without her castle?

What’s a Queen without her castle?

The film is equally adapt at deconstructing fairytale conventions while remaining true to the light hearted tone of the movie, such as the idea of love at first sight, any problem being able to be overcome by working together, and the need for romance to be the primary motivator behind the female characters. Passing the Bechdel test is just one of the things the film does by the nature of it’s narrative alone, it also refrains from judging Ana for her belief in “love at first sight,” and goes to great lengths to show Elsa as not an evil snow queen, but a girl blessed with tremendous power who is struggling to understand it.

Whether Elsa's powers are a symbol for puberty, homosexuality, or mental illness, Frozen celebrates the ability to "Let it go" and be free to express ourselves without reserve.

Whether Elsa’s powers are a symbol for puberty, homosexuality, or mental illness, Frozen celebrates the ability to “Let it go” and be free to express ourselves without reserve.

Indeed, although it’s clear that Elsa’s powers are a danger to those around her, her most powerful character moment occurs after she has fled the castle and feels the warmth of freedom for the first time in her life. In a sequence that is just as important emotionally as it is visually, Elsa transforms herself from a repressed girl with hair pinned back and drab attire, to a fully fledged Snow Queen whose voice rises to a fever pitch as she sings “Let it go/let it go/can’t hold it back in anymore/turn away and slam the door” It is the first time we truly understand how much she has been hiding herself from the world. It is glorious and uplifting in a way that we haven’t seen Disney do in some time, and will certainly be up for an Oscar as this years best original song.

FROZEN

Kristoff AKA the Abominable Snowman isn’t taken with Anna as Hans was, but a journey together can change a lot.

Of the supporting players, Kristoff is likeable and kind without stretching into pushover territory, and early on serves as a kind of audience surrogate for the questions that Anna seems to be ignoring. One of his more amusing quirks comes when he stages conversations with his reindeer, almost certainly a parody of the traditionally “talking animal” schtick of past films. It’s both hilarious and meta, and actually works with his character being a bit of a mountain man, albeit one who has adjusted well enough so he’s not viewed as an outsider.

Olaf is ecstatic about telling his new friends about his passion for all things HOT.

Olaf is ecstatic about telling his new friends about his passion for all things HOT.

Meanwhile, Josh Gad as Olaf the snowman is a hidden gem of the film, as he provides just the right amount of enthusiasm to lift the characters up, instead of simply being cute and cracking jokes. Providing some of the best physical comedy, he nonetheless identifies with Anna’s desire to connect with her sister, as well as her feelings towards Hans. He’s a hopeless romantic made endearing by his lack of sense about basic natural laws concerning thermodynamics.

Visually the film is superb, with snow and ice used to wonderful effect, and Elsa’s prism-like ice castle a standout. From the opening shots of twirling snowflakes (A special program was created to make them all unique) and the introduction to the kingdom via ice harvesting, the film has the mark of classic Disney. While the songs from Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) may feel like icing on the cake rather then generation-defining melodies, they also nicely express the characters feelings.

Elsa-Frozen

In the typical Disney film, Elsa would turn evil with power and become the antagonist. Frozen subverts this, to both its success and detriment.

In truth, if Frozen has one weak point it is in its haste to deconstruct some of the fairy tale tropes from previous animated films it sometimes forgets that its central character dynamic is the most compelling aspect of the film. Though every plot point has meaning to the characters, by making Anna and Elsa’s conflict very much felt rather then experienced it avoids pitting the two girls directly against each other the way traditional conflicts take place. In doing so it avoids demonizing either for their actions, but also ends up robbing the films 3rd act of stakes and while we are happy at the genre-defying resolution, it feels—if not too easy—like it would mean even more if the audience had better experienced the conflict between the two sisters instead of just the internal one.

Pictured: Tangible conflict of character.

Pictured: Tangible conflict of character.

But that resolution really is in some ways more important, because it represents a more meaningful take on fairy tales without having to completely reinvent the genre. Disney has been a significant part in shaping the ideas of children concerning what makes a hero, what makes a villain, and what exactly constitutes “true love,” and while we enjoy these tales, we also recognize that they come from a different time and mind. It is only when a movie like Frozen makes the relationship between two sisters the driving force of the movie that we see how this aspect of relationships has gone unnoticed, and after witnessing the Anna and Elsas’ emotional bond, it’s hard not to wonder why we dismiss princesses when Frozen reminds how they are always more then just pink gowns and tiaras. There’s also a woman—or a little girl—under it all.

Two By Two, Hearts of Blue

Adele (Adele Exarchapolous) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) weave a warm love story.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchapolous) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) weave a warm love story.

Stanley Kubrick was said to be interested in directing a pornographic film during his latter film days, with the implication being that a man with vision like him could somehow elevate what was thought of as a dirty medium into something transcendent. An attempt to perhaps normalize sexuality in our pervasively puritanical society, but it also says something about what place sex has in a visual art like film. Sex is for the viewers, not for the characters.

This leads to a paradox; nothing is more natural or representative of human existence then sex, and yet within Hollywood it is both vilified as a corrupting force, and celebrated in excess that strips all meaning or human connection from it. In a way, sex in movies is not obscene in itself, but it’s the way the act is repeatedly referenced and then hid with quick cutaways or made to cater to the male sexual desire that make it taboo. When filmmakers frame this aspect of sex as “the forbidden act,” then viewers make a clear distinction in their minds about what they should and should not find normal about it.

No qualms

Adèle and Emma have no qualms about the openness they feel for one another.

Blue is the Warmest Color is unique in it’s approach to both love and sex, and though this uniqueness can seem merely the product of a culture gap (The film is from French director Abdellatif Kechiche) it is still a remarkable feat to put these images onto film in such a strikingly straightforward fashion. Pun intended. Blue is a coming of age story of sorts, but it is not anchored by the events that occur during that story, but to the feelings and emotional progression its central character undergoes. Loosely adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, it is the story of 15 year old Adèle, played with touching grace and desire by Adèle Exarchopolous, and her relationship, both emotional and sexual, with a blue haired artist named Emma.

Emma helps initiate Adele into the LGBTQ community.

Emma helps initiate Adèle into the LGBTQ community.

As the same named character, Adèle Exarchopolous conveys emotional uncertainty and compelling curiosity with subtle expressions that are far more evocative of youth then any amount of makeup (Neither actress was allowed to wear any) or needless dialogue would. At times she disguises her beauty by pulling her hair into a pineapple top that sends ribbons of brown hair cascading over her face, but this gesture feels more like an actual teenage girl still trying to discover who she is rather then a traditional Hollywood toning down of natural beauty. When she smiles she resembles a more coquettish Lena Dunham, and when she kisses Emma, her face lights up in a way that expresses unbridled passion that is identifiable to anyone who has experienced something they call love.

On the outside, Adele fits in, but she still finds herself missing something...Blue.

Adèle fits in at school, but privately feels she is missing something…Blue.

As her co-star and lover, Lea Seydoux perfectly embodies the more self-assured lesbian whose refusal to be anything other then what she feels gives her an indomitable spirit and sense of belonging in this world. Her hair the color of soft flower petals that have matured over many years, she is at once nothing alike Adèle, and yet her blue eyes reflect the same curiosity and love as Adèle’s. She introduces her to the overwhelming tide of sexual exuberance in a way that is stunning to watch, yet does not convey the possessive lust that would mark her as a philanderer. Emma is not a Don Juan; she is a teacher who takes pupils as much to teach them what she knows as to learn from them in turn.

The blue in Emma's hair is a mark of her youth and passion...

The blue in Emma’s hair is a mark of her youth and passion…

This bond is challenged in subtle ways, such as when Emma hosts a garden party for a group of high-class friends and Adèle finds herself alone and talking to people about her sexuality in such a frank way it unnerves her. Blue is refreshingly devoid of the standard punishing beats of the gay love story (A significant change from Julie Maroh’s novel), and apart from one scene of painful homophobia, the movie treats Adèle and Emma’s romance as no different from a heterosexual couple. Whether this, or the actresses not being gay in real life detracts from the message is up to the viewer, but it is notable how the story’s lack of these points allows the characters to define themselves by more then their sexuality, thus coming across as three-dimensional people instead of stereotypes.

All passion must eventually fade and be replaced by hard reality.

But all passion eventually fades through the songs of age and experience.

Another way Blue breaks the mold of standard love fare is its utilization of close ups to establish a feeling of intimacy with Adèle. Mirroring how the love scenes are shot, the camera is almost always front and center on Adèle, capturing each smile or flash of insecurity so that the audience knows exactly what she is feeling in each and every moment. In this way her experience and feelings are inescapable, which contributes to the feeling that her emotional beats are more important then the story ones.

The movie is intimate not because Adele and Emma make love, but because it lets us understand the true weight behind that love.

The movie is intimate not because Adèle and Emma make love, but because it lets us understand the true weight behind that love.

It is this inescapable quality that makes Blue is the Warmest Color feel so real and personal. As audience members we are used to seeing people fall in love, but rarely do we get a sense for how deep that love is beyond the way events in the story seek to test it, bending it backwards and forward as we “oh!” and “ah!” and hope that the person’s strength is enough to survive it and lead to a happily ever after. This is what will always be artificial about love stories, because they are composed of intimate feelings that simply cannot be truly felt by another, only evoked through inadequate words.

It is fitting therefore that a film that chooses to be so open in it’s depiction of the carnal act would likewise be so honest in it’s depiction of Adèle and Emma’s feeling for one another. Like the sex in the film, love is naked and honest without compromise, and so it cannot exist simply because we are told it does, but because we feel the connection as well as the devastation that comes from such a close bond with the characters. Anyone who has experienced true affection will know how it does not seek to please itself and itself only as is the case in pornography, and so even though the images of lovemaking are striking, by the end of the film it is the love between the two women that comes across as far more graphic and memorable.

Child of The Revolution

Katniss and Peeta return home, but find the Capital is always lurking over their shoulder…

Katniss and Peeta return home, but find the Capital is always lurking over their shoulder…

“Heroes are made, not born,” or so the saying goes, but what does it actually mean to be a hero, or a heroine for that matter? Is it defined by what you do, or is it merely what people think you’ve done? Or maybe even what you stand for? For the protagonists of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), all three are equally dangerous in the eyes of their tyrannical capital of Panem, because the truth doesn’t matter, only the games do.

The games are, of course, the titular Hunger Games, whose participation is a death sentence disguised as a great honor, designed to quell the hope of an uprising in the 12 districts that make up this melding of dystopian/social allegory. Catching Fire picks up right after the two champions have returned home, alive, but scarred by their experience in the 74th Hunger Games and dealing with the aftermath of the Romeo and Juliet-esque masquerade they adopted in order to turn the citizens of the capital to their side. When news comes that a special “Quarter Quell” is being held that will recall winners from past tournaments, Katniss and Peeta are forced to face even deadlier games where the Capital has the perfect chance to get rid of both of them.

Even though they just escaped death, Katniss and Peeta’s victory lap is unexpectedly cut short.

Even though they just escaped death, Katniss and Peeta’s victory lap is unexpectedly cut short.

Whereas The Hunger Games primarily scrutinized celebrity worship as a kind of dark mirror to our own world, Catching Fire illustrates how Katniss and Peeta’s survival has given the people hope and is rapidly breeding a revolution that she’s terrified of being a part of. She is placed in a position of equally great influence and great vulnerability by events that have been no fault of her own, and during the course of the movie she struggles to keep the ones she loves safe while still practicing her own method of resistance.

Katniss doesn’t get to spend much time with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and when she does his talk of resistance seems foolhardly and dangerous in her eyes.

Katniss doesn’t get to spend much time with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and when she does his talk of resistance seems foolhardly and dangerous in her eyes.

As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence displays the same vulnerability and determination that first caught the public eye in the similarly dystopic Winter’s Bone. As a heroine she is inspiring in her courage, resourcefulness, and resilience, and yet it is Lawrence’s ability to keep her emotions grounded so that she always feels like an ordinary girl first and a “hero” second. In another movie this could feel like a secret identity, but in Catching Fire the lines between Katniss “the girl on fire” and Katniss the girl determined to survive start to blur the more she see’s the futileness of pretending she is only the latter.

 

Like Katniss, Peeta has difficulty feeling at home among the Capital citizens, and it’s not just their tendency to dress like experimental fashion models.

Like Katniss, Peeta has difficulty feeling at home among the Capital citizens, and it’s not just their tendency to dress like experimental fashion models.

The film’s narrative sticks to Katniss for the majority of the running time, but does a good job of updating viewers on the various other enemies and allies she has begun to accumulate. Josh Hutchinson as her fellow tribute and unforgivably noble “nice guy” is great at helping her deal with the mounting burden she’s faced with, and yet he does not lose faith that they will find a way to survive the whirling dervish of traps designed for them in the new jungle of an arena they are dropped into.

"You are a strangely dislikable person."

“You are a strangely dislikable person.”

The rest of their team includes the always-welcome Woody Harrelson as the boozy, disgruntled, and frequent scene-stealer Haymitch Abernathy. In a more traditional dystopia he would be spotted behind the scenes, meeting with anonymous figures in bars to manage the growing stardom of his reluctant resistance symbol, probably with an ass-kicking ex-girlfriend backing him up when his penchant for alcohol and one-liners lands him in the midst of a decidedly R-rated dustup. As he exists in Catching Fire, Haymitch is merely a mentor—maybe even a father figure—who balances Katniss’ desire to be a kid with the sobering reminder that in a the world of The Hunger Games, kids are the last one’s excluded from the horrors of death.

Cinna watches from the gallery seats, knowing he can only provide Katniss with moral and aesthetic support.

Cinna watches from the gallery seats, knowing he can only provide Katniss with moral and aesthetic support.

Returning as Katniss’ resident soulful muse and stylist is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, whose gold makeup may appear to mark him as just another one of the Capitals happily clueless one percenters, only for it to become clear that his exuberant getup is really a method of blending in while he hides his disgust and horror at a society that thinks nothing of partying while the lower districts team with death squads.

Where there was once a woman with bugglegum hair and a smile for miles, now there is yet another victim of the Capital’s inhuman practices.

Where there was once a woman with bubblegum hair and a smile for miles, now there is yet another victim of the Capital’s inhuman practices.

Elizabeth Banks lends an extra female presence as the bubbly-but-slightly-starting-to-curdle hostess Effie Trinket. Where she was previous all too excited to beckon Katniss and Peeta to their crowd-pleasing deaths, growing unease is written over every bit of eyeshadow. If Effie were in Nazi Germany, she would be the female officer who tallies the death toll after seeing the ragged faces of the men and women behind the fences, and finds that she can no longer keep her job and her humanity separate.

Caesar Flickerman’s unflappable persona isn’t that far removed from the more manic talk show hosts…

Caesar Flickerman’s unflappable persona isn’t that far removed from the more manic talk show hosts…

On the other side of the proverbial commentators box is TMZ host expy Caesar Flickermen (Stanley Tucci) whose laugh gets louder and creepier every interview, and whose mouth looks seconds away from unhinging like a snake and devouring his guest. He’s flanked by savy new Hunger Games director Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, basically reprising his villainous Mission Impossible 3 role) and Donald Sutherland dripping menace (and a little blood) as the cold and threatening president Coriolanus Snow.

Finnick is surprisingly vulnerable once the games begin and Katniss and him find themselves on equal footing.

Finnick is surprisingly vulnerable once the games begin and Katniss and him find themselves on equal footing.

Katniss and Peeta meet new Hunger Games players in the forms of the puckish Finnick Odair (Sam Caflin) who wields a trident with polished finesse and whose handsome frame belies a casual air of nonchalance. With cheekbones that could sink the Bismark, and a smile that could easily conceal traitorous fangs behind it, Caflin is the second show stealer as he keeps Finnick both sly and mysterious, all the while nursing a darkened soul that begs for future revelations about his past.

Mirroring Katniss’ one-woman survival story is former tribute Johanna Mason (Jena Malone, fire in her former hair now simmering in heart), an unrestrained and dark-eyed axe carrier who looks like Aubrey Plaza if she’d been stuck on the Island from Lord of the Flies. Lacking inhibitions about things such as clothes and personal space, she is a new sight for Katniss and keeps her own agenda secret while not disguising her hatred for the Capital.

Before civilization collapses.

Before civilization collapses.

After the kids start running around with a pig’s head on a stake…

After the kids start running around with a pig’s head on a stake…

But the question remains; is the story of Katniss Everdeen of the classic hero driven to rebel, or is it something more? As the architects of the revolution paint slogans and form an angry mob in front of the disbelieving watch of President Snow, it’s hard not to feel that though the story began with the games, it’s the children raised to go to the slaughter that are the true focus. When oppression reigns, resistance forms as a basic tenant of human behavior, and all it takes is Katniss making an indomitable enemy like the Capital bleed to turn that resistance into action.

Katniss Skywalker, or Luke Everdeen?

Katniss Skywalker, or Luke Everdeen?

Either way, both share a love of staring out into the distance and imagining what their future holds.

Either way, both share a love of staring out into the distance and imagining what their future holds.

Taken this way, Katniss’ transformation is not from a wet-behind-the-ears farm boy into a Jedi master, but an ordinary girl, endowed with human strength and frailties, who learns to see herself as more then simply a hero or a heroine of the people. She is not the originator of the revolution, but a conduit of a legacy that has existed since the dawn of time. It has flowed through countless individuals, and will continue to flow wherever there are people whose bodies are beaten down, but whose hearts stay strong.

Katniss readies the first shot that will ignite the war.

Katniss readies the first shot that may ignite a war.

Catching Fire’s title is enormously apt, as it brings to mind the way a fire spreads from a single flame into a towering inferno that can engulf the entire area, but is also apt for how Katniss’ determination gradually shifts from simply surviving the games, to changing the world that has created them. If The Hunger Games has an overarching theme, it’s how the right person at under the right circumstances can start something much bigger then themselves; but that person may not always be able to know the part they are to play until they let their arrow fly…