Monday, 24 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2014)

(In case anyone is wondering where the Plebs and Atlantis reviews are: I am planning to catch up on all of them eventually, but it's just not possible to keep up every week with my current workload. So they will appear, sooner or later!).

I'm a huge fan of The Hunger Games, so I headed out to see Mockingjay Part 1 this weekend, and I wasn't disappointed. As usual, I wish the film-makers would take a few more liberties with the books and mix things up a bit. And I'm torn on whether it should have been left at one film. I enjoyed everything here (if 'enjoyed' is the right word) and it was vaguely pulled together by the theme of the media war between Plutarch and Snow with Katniss and Peeta as their weapons. I'm also not against splitting books on principle - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is actually my second favourite of the Potter films (my favourite is Goblet of Fire - exactly no one agrees with me on this) and I think the only one of the Twilight films that really qualifies as a quality movie is Breaking Dawn Part 1, because that stands alone as an effective pregnancy/body horror piece. I'm not entirely convinced Mockingjay benefits from the split other than financially, as I think a bit more adaptation and willingness to cut unnecessary material might have been an improvement, and we would have got complete arcs for the new characters who, apart from Coin, mostly just appear and give the vague impression we might need to know who they are in the next film. But it leaves space for lots of little things from the books, like Prim's cat and Finnick's rope (not commented on, but seen) and I think overall it's a good film.

I was kicking myself early on in the film, as I realised I'd never really given much thought to how much District 13 resembles ancient Sparta. I've always seen it as vaguely Communist, set against the Capitalist Capitol, but when Boggs told Katniss early in this film that 'the war never ended for us' it suddenly hit me that it's not Communist so much as it is Spartan.

Judging by the (not all that reliable) evidence we have, Spartan society around the fifth century BC was focused around transforming its male citizen into the perfect army (to better be able to quell revolts from the enslaved Messenian population). Spartan citizen males ate together in a sort of mess, and the food was not especially delicious (pigs boiled in their own blood seem to have been involved). The inhabitants of District 13 eat small portions of horrible food due to rationing, but the cafeteria or mess-like dining area is similar. Spartan boys were expected to wear one style of tunic all year round so they could cope with heat and cold equally well, a bit like District 13's jumpsuits, and both the dietary and wardrobe restrictions were also aimed at making sure all citizens were equal and no one tried to raise themselves above another.

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, after whom Plutarch Heavensbee is named, the legendary Spartan founder Lycurgus also insisted that the only form of currency to be used was big iron rods, treated with vinegar so the iron couldn't be melted down and re-used. This meant no one tried to get rich, as there was no inherent value in the money and it couldn't be exchanged with other currencies, so Spartan men were focused on improving their military skills and not distracted by trying to earn money. This would seem to fit with the Communist aesthetic and lack of currency in District 13 (I have often wondered why their President is called 'Coin' - this is surely significant, but I confess, it confuses me! Other than to imply that she is hard and cold, perhaps).

I feel like I may have heard a paper on this subject once, but I've forgotten - it certainly came back to me when Boggs explained how District 13 live by referring to the war never ending for them. The entire society is designed to be able to fight a war. Unlike the ancient Spartans, the inhabitants of District 13 don't have hundreds of slaves to do all the farming and production and so on for them, and they train women as well as men to fight, so there are some differences in how they're run, but thinking about it, it's clear that ancient Sparta is more the model for District 13 than Communist countries - though there are a fair few similarities between the two anyway.

Of course, whereas depictions of ancient Sparta tend to involve a lot of very fit men not wearing very much beyond their red cloaks and running around in the warm sunshine of Greece, District 13 is much more drab-looking. Thank goodness, then, for Effie! I was glad to see the writers (one of whom, Danny Strong, was Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I have random residual fondness for him on that basis alone) were willing to make a few changes from the book, and bringing Effie in to District 13 to replace Katniss' former fashion team (minus Cinna, *sob*!) was a great idea, leading to some of the few moments of levity in the entire, grim, relentlessly sad film. (I was going to make a comment about how poor Katniss is basically crying or nearly crying through most of the film, but honestly, that could describe any of the Hunger Games films). The moment between Effie and Haymitch in the briefing was wonderful.

I was glad to see Mockingjay once again expanding the story a bit beyond Katniss' point of view, and the scene with the group of people singing 'The Hanging Tree' was very effective. I suspect being able to include scenes like this is one of the advantages of splitting the film, so it may turn out to have been a good artistic decision as well as sound for obvious financial reasons - and Mockingjay is a book with a clear halfway point and a lot of material, so it stands up to the divide better than The Hobbit being split into three. With any luck, the final installment next year will round out a solid four-part series.

More on The Hunger Games:
The book trilogy (spoilery)
The Hunger Games (spoilery)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (also spoilery)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Supernatural: Fan Fiction

'Fan Fiction' is the 200th episode of Supernatural. Not many shows reach such an impressive number, but those that do include Stargate SG-1 and its fabulous, hilarious, imaginatively named 200th episode '200', so this had a lot to live up to.

Lots of spoilers below.

Supernatural has been doing intensely meta-fictional episodes in several different flavours for years (though ironically 'Meta Fiction' isn't one of them, and nor is 'Slash Fiction') so it's hardly surprising that, like SG-1, the writers went for a meta-fictional plot for the 200th episode. The story is set around a high school play inspired by the novels that tell Dean and Sam's life stories (well established within the series, and involving metaphysics rather than the usual bad adaptation of events, so they're unusually accurate. The episode set around a fan convention for them is one of my favourites). Our heroes turn up to investigate after the drama teacher, threatening to shut the show down because "there's too much drama in the drama department", disappears. It turns out the show is being protected by Calliope, the Greek Muse and goddess of epic poetry.

Supernatural has done Greek gods before and, I have to admit, more effectively. The gods in 'Remember the Titans' are dressed in modern clothing and play roles reasonably close to their mythical characters, though there were some changes to Artemis that bothered me a bit. Calliope, however, is costumed in a really basic sub-Charmed-style Greek-type dress with purple flowers on it and an arm band and bears very little resemblance to anything remotely Greek (not many pictures online yet, just this one from one of the actresses' Twitter accounts). According to Supernatural, Calliope is:

  • Associated with the 'borage' or starflower;
  • Manifests creatures from the stories she's tuned in to;
  • Uses these manifestations to inspire and protect the author until their vision is realised...
  • then she eats the author.

Some of this makes sense. Calliope is, indeed, the Muse of epic poetry so her interest in the show is logical enough - for a musical version of Supernatural, they could also have gone for Melpomene (tragic plays) or Terpsichore (choral song and dance) but I liked Calliope's justification for her interest/defense of the show on the grounds that "It isn't some meandering piece of genre dreck. It's... epic." Besides, there weren't always nine Muses and they didn't always have such clearly differentiated spheres of interest - Calliope was the mother of the famous singer Orpheus and in older art is often shown with a lyre, so it makes sense that she'd like musicals. And while manifesting creatures from stories she's especially interested in has nothing to do with Greek mythology, it's necessary for the plot of the episode to work and for her to present some kind of threat, so that's fine too (plus, scarecrow callback!).

The flower thing is bit stranger. I'm not aware of any connection between Calliope and borage flowers, though of anyone knows of one, let me know. Ovid describes her wearing her hair in an ivy wreath. I suppose the show needed to invent something specific to her that would identify her. In art she's usually depicted with a lyre, tablet and stylus or scroll - none of which would be specific enough - or the head of her son Orpheus, which she recovered after he was torn limb from limb by Bacchants. Not too grim for Supernatural, but harder to place at the scene of every disappearance or use as a decorative motif on her dress, I guess.

The bit that really bothered me, though, was the idea that after the show, she eats the author. What?! I get that she has to threaten Marie's life - again, it's the only way for the story to work - but why eat her? That's just weird. She could just kill her in some unspecified way. If I were choosing punishments for authors from Greek mythology, I'd probably go for blinding them, which is something of a theme - Homer describes a blind poet, which lead the ancients to assume he was blind, Tiresias is blinded, in some versions for revealing secrets, and Oedipus blinds himself when he discovers the truth. I guess in Supernatural that might not work because it would be too associated with the angels burning people's eyes out, but still. Or Calliope could rip people's tongues out once their song is sung, or tear them to pieces like what happened to her son or... really anything other than eating them, which makes no sense. They try to justify it with her line saying she's "consumed many authors, many stories," implying it's something to do with 'consuming' stories as art, but just.... no. Too silly. (I choose to draw the 'too-silly' line in weird places in sci-fi and fantasy, but this is one of them).

Still, the reason the depiction of Calliope is rather surface-level is because she really isn't the point here. Of course, all myths and folktales used in Supernatural are there to further its own story and parallel the show's own characters, but Calliope is a particularly empty plot device - far more so than the interesting exploration of Prometheus and Zeus in 'Remember the Titans' - because as an anniversary episode, this episode has far more important things to do. Calliope is just the necessary MacGuffin to get the boys into the school, and we all know it.

OK, anyone who's reading this blog because you're interested in classics, classical reception, or academic research, you may want to just leave it here because the rest of this post is pure Supernatural fan-girling. There may be squee-ing.

I was really worried this was going to be awful, especially when I found out it was set at an all-girls' school play. Full disclosure: I went to all-girls' schools - two of them, because we moved house when I was 14. At my new school, my friends and I were really into VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic and its sequels - gothic horror/romance novels about teenage incest. Also ballet. A couple of years later, we put on a play we wrote ourselves, in which a couple of us performed famous songs (one of my best friends sang 'I Put a Spell on You' and I think I did 'Close Every Door' from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and in which I played the main character, whose boyfriend was named after a love interest from our favourite TV show at the time. There was also Shakespeare. And 'Do You Love Me?' So there's a possibility I over-identify with Marie (except for the fact I'm a Dean girl, obviously).

Luckily, in the end, I think I loved it. It's hard to compete with 'The Real Ghostbusters' or 'Changing Channels' (or SG-1's '200') but actually, miraculously, I think they pulled it off. They manage to use the all-girls' school setting largely without being creepy about it, which is something I was really worried about. I don't think any of our teachers would ever have referred to us as 'skanks' - I hope not - but the moment in which Dean accidentally called a young girl 'bitch' was actually very funny, and otherwise the guest characters were treated pretty respectfully. This features more female characters - and more women of colour - in one episode than Supernatural has featured in the rest of the show combined. And they all lived! It was an Everybody Lives episode! Has Supernatural even done one of those before? All I can think of is 'The End', in which everyone dies in the future, and, interestingly enough, 'The Monster at the End of This Book'. Both Chuck episodes as well. Hmm.

Obviously, being an anniversary episode, there were nods to the past and in-jokes all over the place, my favourite being the amused-hurt tone in Sam's voice as he wonders why 'Destiel' and not 'Sastiel'. The writers had promised to acknowledge everyone who'd been significant to the show, so while Sam and Dean and their musical counterparts get the most attention, we see plenty of Bobby, John, Castiel and Mary Winchester in singing form as well. At one point Sam remarks on the absence of Chuck in the cast line-up, and the characters he's looking at are:

  • John, Mary, Bobby, Castiel, Dean (definitely identifiable,these have lines and sing - Sam is played by the director by this point and standing in front of them);
  • Jody Mills (a character in a police uniform, and Jody was mentioned earlier so presumably this is her), Crowley, Jo, Ellen, Ash (guesses based on costume, but Ash couldn't be anyone else);
  • And a robot.
  • Plus several stagehands in black.

Notable characters from the first five seasons not featured include Bela, Ruby, Pamela and Anna, which is a bit of a shame, so let's pretend the four stagehands are playing them. The Ghostfacers get a mention as the girls psych themselves up to go on stage, which I loved because I'm a big fan of the Ghostfacers. Mind you, that was also the point I felt the collapse of the fourth wall was starting to threaten my suspension of disbelief, because the Ghostfacers really exist in the world of Supernatural, so wouldn't fans of the books Google them and discover they were real? Best not to think about it too much.

The whole story takes the rather sweet and self-deprecating approach that the first five seasons of the show, supervised by creator Eric Kripke, are 'canon', and all the rest of it since is fan fiction. This fits with the established mythology in which the writer (Chuck) is implied literally to be God, and stopped writing after Kripke's final episode 'Swan Song' (in which Chuck disappeared). Marie's dismissal of all the rest of the show as terrible fan fiction is very funny, and aside from the final Boy Melodrama moment (I prefer the term Misty-Eyed Boy Talk myself) we don't see anything of Act II of the musical, which in Marie's version apparently included robots, tentacles and space. I was glad to hear Kevin (easily my favourite new character from the later seasons, though I like Charlie Bradbury a lot too) get a name-check as Dean fills Marie in on the details of life since 'Swan Song', but overall the focus on the first five seasons, and that fantastic 'Then' title card, was a very sweet move on the writers' part, even if partly determined by Chuck's disappearance.

The most significant 'returning' character, though, was surely the third Winchester brother, Adam. I may have actually gasped when fake-Adam came on stage at the end of the show. It's ages since anyone acknowledged the fact that poor Adam is still trapped in a cage in Hell with Lucifer and Michael, and the fact that the episode makes such a big deal of him showing up and puts his appearance in the final sequence, after Calliope is defeated, makes me wonder if they're planning to go rescue him at last. I've been enjoying the story arc in season 10 more than any of the main arcs for years (well, seasons in my case, I watched them all this summer in one big lump), as the Mark of Cain has been pretty effective, and if the boys decided to go after Adam, that would be even better, and could fix something that's been bothering fans for ages.

Also, wasn't that the same young actress playing Adam as played Castiel? Which makes me wonder - did they just run out of young actresses who could sing and had to double up, or was it deliberate? Is Adam and/or Castiel going to possess the other? (Adam could be a demon by now, or Castiel could get his grace back...). And is that why Bobby appeared as part of the Winchester family group but Castiel didn't? ('Cause that bothered me. I'm obsessed with Castiel, who is the reason I watched the show in the first place. It's still suffering from a dire case of Insufficient Castiel).

This episode did fix one long-standing issue though - the Samulet is finally back! Sort of. This is probably the closest we'll get. It was given to Dean by Marie-playing-Sam (shortly after he called her 'Sammy'), and if it's hanging in the car it can't damage Jensen Ackles' teeth, so this will have to do. That made me very happy. And CHUCK! Squee. When Chuck turns up at the end, Marie questions whether Calliope came for her or for him which... raises some interesting questions. Was Calliope actually coming to do battle with an incarnation of a vaguely Judaeo-Christian God in the form of a scruffy author? Now that would be epic...

In summary: I liked it. The cover of 'Carry On, Wayward Son' - started by the fake Mary Winchester - was surprisingly affecting and the whole episode surprisingly effective for something that could have gone horribly wrong. This can take its place among the great milestone episodes. Also, in an astonishing about-turn for Supernatural, it wasn't unremittingly depressing! We even got to see Sam and Dean drive off into the sunset. Beautiful.

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