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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Youth, violence, tyranny, fear: finding resistance


Gerald Schmitz

We live in fearful times and, although a movie called Joy arrives Christmas Day, there are precious few tidings of comfort and joy on theatre screens this Advent season. I don’t take seriously sappy “holiday” movies like Love the Coopers released in November along with the Santa Claus parades and ubiquitous jingles urging us to buy more stuff. For the kids, the Disney Pixar animated feature The Good Dinosaur may be a minor diversion. Fans of the Rocky franchise may be tempted to get back into the boxing ring with Creed, receiving respectful reviews on the strength of its director Ryan Coogler and lead actor Michael B. Jordan who teamed up in the 2013 Sundance top prize winner Fruitvale Station.

Generally it’s a rather grim violent world on screen as we await the biggest blockbuster of all — a new Star Wars epic set to splash across over 10,000 screens Dec. 18 — and the yearend spate of weighty dramas and Oscar-qualifying prestige pictures (e.g. In the Heart of the Sea, Carol, The Danish Girl, the aforementioned Joy, Macbeth, The Revenant, arguably The Hateful Eight). That’s not counting the horror genre (Crimson Peak, another “Paranormal” travesty, Victor Frankenstein). There’s been a lot to leave one with a shudder.

Hardest to ignore is the movie that most exemplifies the popular current trend of adapting young-adult fiction in which the young are the protagonists in dystopian nightmarish visions of societies based on violence, fear and oppression. The concluding episode of The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay Part 2 was released last month along with bombastic theatrical trailers for The 5th Wave (January) and The Divergent Series: Alegiant (March). In September there was Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.

Frankly these movies depicting evil afflictions to come almost pale in comparison to the real-life horrors currently being perpetrated and disseminated to a global audience. Many of the victims of Syria’s civil war are children. Equally appalling is the indoctrination of children and the young by fanatical jihadist organizations — poisoning their minds with hate, training them to kill, sometimes as suicide bombers. In contrast to ISIS propaganda videos, at least the ultimate Hunger Games is just a movie.

Whether Mockingjay Part 2 is worth seeing is debatable but I’ll give it a maybe, mostly because of a twist in the conclusion that offers a way out of the cycle of violence.

A twilight of chaos has descended on “Panem” ruled over by the tyrannical evil President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), determined to use his “peacekeeper” army and high-tech defences of explosive “pods” to protect the privileged caste of “the Capitol” from the outlying districts, some devastated by civil violence as loyalists battle insurgents. Recalling previous episodes, the figurehead of the rebellion is the ultimate survivor of Panem’s deadly teenage games, the “mockingjay” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an inspirational heroine with more lives than a cat, and lethal with her ever-present bow and arrows.

As the movie opens Katniss is broken up over Snow’s evil deeds that include brainwashing her fellow games survivor, and love interest, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). He’s been rescued from captivity but turned into a hostile threat unless somehow deprogramd. He’s also got competition from Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’ childhood fellow hunter who still carries a torch for her. Katniss and company are young warriors in the vanguard of the rebellion being led by the icy Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), now being advised by Snow’s turncoat former chief gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee. (He’s played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman who appears in key moments excepting a last crucial one that had not been filmed when he died in February 2014. Instead games veteran Hamish reads his final words from a letter.)

Coin and cohorts are preparing to launch an assault on the Capitol in the name of freedom for the oppressed. But Coin orders Katniss to stay back from the frontline, arguing that she will be most useful as a propaganda symbol for the revolution, not as a fighter. You might suspect there’s more to it than that. In any event, no way is Katniss going to stand down. Her mission is personal. She wants to be the one to confront and kill President Snow.

The capture of the Capitol proceeds in drawn-out agonizing and ultra-violent stages in which some of the valiant perish, including some close to Katniss. (Some of the scenes made me think of images from the Syrian civil war: bombed-out streets; the flight of displaced people, many women and children, toward a savage fate.) Cutting to the chase, once the takeover is complete, with Snow completely isolated and alone, Coin promptly installs herself as the new president. It’s a brave new era but, as they say, to the victor go the spoils.

Coin has a proposal that reminded me of the refrain in The Who’s song Won’t Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Katniss agrees to it, provided she’s given the honour of dispatching Snow to the netherworld. Everything comes down to one arrow. You just knew it would be up to Katniss whether there’s hope for Peeta and for peace in Panem.

If teenage fantasies aren’t your thing, wait for Jennifer Lawrence’s very adult star turn as Joy in Joy. Fellow Oscar winner Julianne Moore also delivers much more substantial roles in the moving true story Freeheld and the dramatic comedy Maggie’s Plan, both of which premiered at the Toronto film festival.

There is, however, one underlying theme of the Hunger Games saga that resonates beyond its young-adult demographic and world of make believe — namely that of resistance to the corruption of power and the manipulation of the masses through fear. Sometimes it takes individual acts of resistance to challenge a climate of fear.

That was famously the case in Hollywood’s own dream factory during the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the late 1940s and 1950s targeting a “black list” of show business figures accused of being “Communist” subversives. The investigations by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee swept up many liberal Democrats. There were also those who did have an association with the Communist Party, a legal organization, and who vigorously defended both workers’ rights (including those of striking film crews) and their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association. One of the most prominent on the list was the novelist and legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who was a party member from 1943-48.

Director Jay Roach’s Trumbo, based on Bruce Cook’s biography, recalls both the man and the era with great panache and a pointed dig at the politics of fear. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) delivers an amazing performance as Trumbo, capturing his voice, manners and outsized character that at times exasperated family and friends as well as enemies. Trumbo was a prolific genius at the typewriter, sometimes while propped up in a bathtub fuelled by cigarettes, booze and Benzedrine. Fittingly the movie brims with terrific dialogue and wit.

Trumbo was Hollywood’s highest paid writer on contract to MGM when compelled to appear before the House committee in 1947. When he and others refused to testify or admit to any wrongdoing they were cited for contempt of Congress. Eventually, when a Supreme Court appeal was lost, the “Hollywood Ten” (nine of whom were writers) had to serve a degrading one-year prison sentence. Contracts were cancelled, people were fired, families suffered. Suspicion also fell on leading actors like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), a close Trumbo friend and supporter until later, under duress and desperate to save his career, he would name names and claim to have been duped. That betrayal was more painful to Trumbo than the hostility of right wing super-patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott), cowed studio bosses, and the relentless vitriol against “dangerous radicals” of Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren at her viperish best).

Trumbo found ingenious ways to get around the blacklist, enlisting family members (Diane Lane plays his wife Cleo and Elle Fanning his spunky eldest daughter Niki), in making deals to put others’ names on his scripts, and slumming for the unabashed B-movie factory of Frank King (a scene-stealing John Goodman). Trumbo was a sustaining force among blacklisted writers, represented by the cancer-ridden composite character Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.).

While blacklisted, two of Trumbo’s scripts won Oscars under another’s name and a pseudonym — the first in 1954 for Roman Holiday and the second in 1957 for The Brave One (a beautiful story of a Mexican boy and his bull that was shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel last month). As this became known and famous actors and directors approached Trumbo openly — Kirk Douglas for Kubrick’s Spartacus and Otto Preminger for Exodus — the blacklist was effectively broken.

Not only does Trumbo the movie have a fine cast and script, it does an excellent job of evoking the period, expertly blending in telling archival footage with recreated scenes. (Don’t miss the 1970 clip of Trumbo’s reflections during the closing credits.) The result is both highly entertaining and timely.

“In our political environment these days, the use of fear and outrage and victimization is very common,” says director Roach. “I feel it’s just as much a film about today as it is about what is was back then.”