The Hunger Games – His and Hers Film Review

Kate on The Hunger Games:

Katniss Everdeen. Long brown hair, an olive complexion and used to struggling to stay alive.  She’s also the heroine of teen book and now film sensation The Hunger Games.  She’s able to transfer her skills at hunting, which she uses every day to provide for her one-parent family, into self-defence and killing when absolutely necessary in order to try to survive the Hunger Games, a 70-year old tradition in Panem, the post-apocalyptic remains of America.

Opening the film with hand-held, washed out shots set the scene perfectly; it was a bit too shaky for me personally, I was starting to feel a bit seasick, but it certainly created a sense of poverty and desperation that was necessary to allow us to understand a world in which the Hunger Games could be in any way acceptable.  I was reminded of some of the more desperate scenes from Cold Mountain, which is surprisingly appropriate as District 12, Katniss’ home, nestles among the Appalachian Mountains.  I would have liked to spend a little more time here with Katniss’ family and friends, especially Gale, in order to fully appreciate the sacrifice she made by volunteering to be a Tribute.

In Panem, the Hunger Games is an annual ritual, with echoes of films like Rollerball and Battle Royale, as well as stories as old as Theseus and the Minotaur.  Two Tributes, aged between 12 and 18, are taken for each of the twelve Districts to take part in the Game, a brutal event and reality TV show in which the participants fight until only one remains, to be hailed as the Champion and feted throughout the country such as it is.  

The Games preparations take place in the Capitol, which I’ve heard someone liken to a vision from a Vivian Westwood collection.  This setting contrasted dramatically with District 12, in every way imaginable – the costumes, architecture, interiors, colours all seemed luxurious and flamboyant. Katniss’ stylist Cinna seems the only one not affected, wearing simple black with a touch of gold eyeliner.  In the book, sitting down to a meal with her, he comments, “We must seem despicable to you.”  This was left unsaid on screen but was clearly communicated by the actions of Katniss, Peeta and their mentor Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson.  Despite its mythical origins, this is also a very modern story, with AA strong message about using technology and media, rather than allowing ourselves to be used by it.  Katniss and Peeta aim to outsmart the TV executives by playing the Game too well, rather than allowing themselves to be pawns in a vicious game where suffering becomes entertainment.

In keeping with the brutality of the Games, the film is also brutal despite its 12A rating. There’s little blood or gore but the threat feels imminent as soon as the Game begins.  I recently rewatched Battle Royale; that film is an 18, with vivid, graphic bloody violence, but I was able to detach myself far more easily, as the action was over-the-top, almost cartoonish.  In this film, because the violence was implied rather than overt, the atmosphere was more tense and sinister, with a couple of very emotional scenes and real jump moments too. I’d definitely recommend the film for teens and older, who know what they’re getting themselves into, perhaps having already read the books, but I think that anyone younger might find the film upsetting, even if they were accompanied by a parent.  I certainly enjoyed the film, finding it really exciting, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Rob on The Hunger Games: 

It’s been described as the latest teen sensation with copies of the book flying off the  shelves and following in the footsteps of Twilight, my expectations were not high. Instead I was pleasantly surprised, leaving the cinema having seen an intelligent and at times shocking film that everyone should seek out.

Jennifer Lawrence was incredible as Katniss. I found her believable, strong and with a moral core that plays against much of the death and mayhem around her. As a female role model it would be hard to look elsewhere as she fights as intensely as the men around her whilst retaining dignity and courage.

Visually it is impressive, with the camera moving and sticking with Katniss throughout. Almost all is shot from her perspective, beginning in District 12 but as we move from its grey, washed out scenery to the gaudy nature of the Capitol, I found this move rather jarring. It shows the tasteless decadence that society reaches and the violent depths it needs to plumb to entertain themselves. While I understood the decisions being made, and the contrast that was required, it did seem as if we had stumbled into a Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet video. Vivid colours and tasteless clothes are everywhere and we become as dazzled and overwhelmed as our heroine.

Characters that we come to like do die and knowing that only one can survive the Games leads to a sense of doom and dread that runs throughout the film. Much has been made of the violence and in particular how cuts were required to make it a 12A in the UK. Most of the violence is implied with little to no blood shown which in some respects, ups the intensity. You are left to imagine your own images of brutality.

I found The Hunger Games a thrilling, exciting and thoroughly engaging film that asks real questions of society and the media. I’m looking forward to Catching Fire already.

World Book Night 2012 – what did you give?

April 23rd is no longer just St George’s Day or the anniversary of the birth and death of Shakespeare; for the last two years, it’s also been World Book Night, where a million books of all genres have been given away free to members of the public around the UK, and elsewhere.

This year, the shortlist was a little longer than in 2011, with twenty-five titles for givers and receivers to choose from. I was lucky enough to have a box full of The Player of Games by Iain M Banks to distribute, AWW originator Rob gave Misery by Stephen King, and on a very rainy evening, we took our novels to The Big BookBang at Slack Space, a not-for-profit arts space in Colchester.  We had the privilege of advocating and reading passages from our books, along with eight or nine other givers.  This was interspersed with an introduction to Book Crossing, plus local poets Fred Slattern and Mark Brayley, some stand-up comedy and even a local author.

Rob was first up to introduce his book. I was the last to advocate their book in person.  The event was really well attended, with over a hundred people braving the dreadful weather to leave with a couple of lovely new free books, as well as some pre-loved copies from the Book Crossing tables at the back of the hall.

The full list of books runs like this:

Which would you have chosen to give away?  Which have you read, and which are still on your list?  Was something missing?
Some of my very favourites are there – Pride and Prejudice, Good Omens and The Time Traveller’s Wife. I would have loved to get a copy of Let the Right One In, as I loved the film.  I’m really looking forward to reading Notes From A Small Island, as Bill Bryson became the Chancellor of Durham University at least in part due to his description of the city’s beauty in this travelogue of Britain.  I would have liked to see a poetry collection on the list somewhere (I gave The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy last year, she’s my idol).
Let us know what you think – what would you like to see there next year?  I’d recommend signing up as a giver, especially if you’ve got a great event in your local area where you can share your books.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Tim Clare – How to be a Leader

Do you ever wish you could command a crowd of strangers? Feel like you’re not being recognised for the intellectual or political genius you are? Perhaps you’re a secret super-villain? In which case, could I recommend to you an excellent hour spent in the company of poet and story-teller Tim Clare?

Tim visited Colchester Arts Centre touring his show How to be a Leader, which starts in almost total darkness as he tells us about an experiment carried out to see how strangers would behave without light in a room together for 60 minutes – by 45 minutes, most were engaging in ‘intimate activity’… Now, the lights did come back on but Tim’s delivery, a mixture of earnest enthusiasm, humour and irony, set the tone for the show. 

The select gathering in the room, sitting relaxed around small tables, laughed more and more uproariously as Tim guided us through his rules for becoming a great leader, based on such diverse ideas as the hardcore attitude of a South Korean premier, an “awesome origin story” TM involving a violent encounter at a Bristol open mic poetry night and how to create the basics of a welfare state using only snacks.  

Tim was confident without arrogance, effortlessly drawing us in as he told anecdotes full of drama and analysed leadership techniques particularly quirky and extreme. His command of language and rhetoric was clear, especially when discussing rule 3 (the open mic night) and then when emailing the “spell lady”, from whom he hoped to gain magical powers to enthrall man-(and woman)kind. This was, I think, my favourite part of the show, as Tim’s evil intentions were gradually revealed, to little or no reaction from the spell lady in question. 

After a finale in which Tim fulfilled an ambition by rapping about various female leaders, having acknowledged the gender bias of the rest of the show, came the prize-giving: a Kinder Egg for the most sycophantic audience member.  My heart leapt as Tim stepped into the audience, brandishing the chocolatey treat, but to my great disappointment, it went to the man at the next table.  To be fair, he did laugh extremely loudly.  I’ll have to content myself with being a member of the dissatisfied middle class after all.

Kate Neilan

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Aardman Animations has long been admired in my family, ever since the advent of Wallace and Gromit, in A Grand Day Out (1989).  Although the short film does now look dated, it still bursts with humour, fun and irony as we see the naive inventor set off to the moon with his trusty hound, to alleviate a cheese shortage back on Earth.  The pair’s next outing, in The Wrong Trousers, which drew on the best features of British domestic horror, ensured their success.  It had a more developed script, much more sophisticated animation set pieces – the model railway chase is a fantastic action sequence – and set the tone for big screen hits such as Chicken Run and Curse of the Wererabbit.

Pirates! goes back to this tradition of real stop-motion animation; you can’t quite see the thumb prints but it’s infinitely preferably to the bizarre smoothness of Flushed Away.  Based on a book by Gideon Defoe, it is full of jokes about the cliches of the pirate story, historical references, anachronisms, and a pinch of steam punk too.  The pirates in the crew are never given personal names, only known as Pirate Captain, Number Two (*snigger* – an echo of Captain Pugwash there?), Albino Pirate and so on.  However, the Pirate Captain’s nemesis is given a name – Black Bellamy – and the Captain’s main aim for the film is to prevent Black Bellamy winning Pirate of the Year yet again.

This is a task that the Pirate Captain has been unsuccessful with thus far, despite his excellent hat, luxurious beard and unusual parrot, Polly.  Except that Polly is not all that she seems. After a number of failed plundering attempts, Pirate Captain is almost ready to hang up his cutlass when a ship hoves into sight.  In one last try to steal some booty, they board the ship, only to discover Charles Darwin heading back from a scientific expedition.  Furious that there’s no gold on board, Darwin is almost made to walk the plank and only saved when he recognises that Polly is in fact a Dodo, the only remaining member of her species, and so incredibly valuable, to science at least.  Darwin persuades Pirate Captain to enter Polly in the Scientist of the Year awards at the Royal Society in London; hilarious japes ensue, including a number of encounters with a rather terrifying Queen Victoria. 

The film is very entertaining viewing; the scale of the escapades builds satisfying over the course of the narrative, the plot is pleasingly outlandish and fantastical, and the script is very witty.  I do think that perhaps, similarly to The Muppets earlier this year, this is a film much more for adults than for children; there were a number of jokes and film references that would have gone way over the head of a ten year old, and even most teenagers. That being said, there were also jokes broad and visual enough to keep a five year old happy.  On the Aardman scale of merit, I’d put it between Chicken Run and Wererabbit – very funny at times but also sophisticated, just not quite reaching the dizzying heights of a Wallace and Gromit quite yet.

Kate Neilan

Review: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

Camilla Lackberg has been heralded as the queen of Scandinavian crime fiction. Her seven novels featuring Erica Falck and Patrik Hedstrom have all been bestsellers around Europe; the front cover of the editions I’ve read proclaimed “7 MILLION BOOKS SOLD”.

The Preacher is the second book in this series. Twenty years ago, two young women disappeared while on holiday in the peaceful resort of Fjallbacka, the setting of the series. Now, their remains have been discovered in a local beauty spot, along with those of a new victim, sending the town into shock.

Patrik Hedstrom, local police detective, takes charge of the investigation, which tears him away from his heavily pregnant partner, writer Erica. As the identities of the victims are revealed, the investigation revolves around the Hult family, a strange clan already at war internally over old feuds and split into two branches, one respectable and one constantly in trouble with the law. Lackberg brings these characters to life in glorious technicolour. I’m not always a huge fan of the Swedish-to-English translation by Steven T Murray but the occasionally clunky word choice didn’t hamper my immersion in this rural seaside community.

Unlike Mankell’s Wallander series, Lackberg’s Hedstrom novels always keep the villain’s identity a mystery. I really engaged as I investigated alongside Patrik and his colleagues, weighing up each new piece of evidence as it was revealed. In this instance, I guessed the murderer but then changed my mind at the last minute – the twists and turns are really gripping and will certainly hold any reader’s attention.

The Guardian quote splashed across the front of the book reads “Expert at mixing scenes of domestic cosiness with blood-curdling horror”; I wouldn’t necessarily say the horror in The Preacher is blood-curdling but it’s very sinister and insidious. You feel as if any number of characters could be guilty of, or complicit in, a foul crime, involving prolonged torture and abuse. There is certainly a sense of threat pervading what should be cosy, homely scenes.

In her previous book, The Ice Princess, the contrast between crime and cosiness is more pronounced – we experience it as a dichotomy as Lackberg presents us first with a murder, then with the growing romance between Erica and Patrik. In The Preacher, however, Erica and Patrik seem to have little in the way of domestic bliss – Erica is fed up of pregnancy, especially in the heat of high summer, she has been advised by her doctor to stop working and she is then plagued by a series of bizarrely inconsiderate house guests. Her troubled sister, Anna, also puts in an appearance, just to add to her woes. I was really puzzled by this marginalisation of the main character of the previous book. Despite Patrik being the police detective, it’s actually Erica who does a lot of the legwork and puts together the pieces to solve the murder of her friend Alex, the eponymous The Ice Princess. As a result, I found that book a more enjoyable read over all. The Preacher, while a great thriller, definitely loses out in the comparison.

Despite this, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Preacher, or its predecessor, to those who enjoy crime thrillers with a little more depth.

Kate Neilan

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s nest.

The Millenium Trilogy draws to a close with The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.

Salander is plotting her revenge – against the man who tried to kill her, and against the government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. But it is not going to be a straightforward campaign. After taking a bullet to the head, Salander is under close supervision in Intensive Care, and is set to face trial for three murders and one attempted murder on her eventual release. With the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his researchers at Millennium magazine, Salander must not only prove her innocence, but identify and denounce the corrupt politicians that have allowed the vulnerable to become victims of abuse and violence. Once a victim herself, Salander is now ready to fight back.
Following on directly from the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander is in hospital and Mikael Blomvist is still investigating the conspiracy surrounding Soviet defector Zalachenko. Salander is recovering from a bullet wound in the head, but has inadvertendly triggered a chain of events within the most secretive of government agencies. They are determined to cover their tracks at all costs and having already had her declared mentally ill and sentenced her to an instituion, they want her to go back there for good. 
As with the previous books, it takes some time for the plot to get one. It is very much a continuation of the second book rather than stand alone novel and so it is vital to read the other two books to understand the story and characters. It does improves on the second book though in that Salander is present throughout, even though she starts off severly injured and incapacitated in hospital. Without her we are left with an interesting but somewhat dry investigation into the Swedish secret service. Soon though the book picks up, with the courtroom scenes being particularly compelling.
It is remamrkable that the pace and momentum are kept up over what are considerably long and complex plots. Plotlines interweave with one another but it remains clear and concise. Once again it was only the Swedish names that remain a potential stumbling point. The lengthy trial scenes are perhaps Larsson at his most grandstanding, where the Swedish judical system is examined and taken apart, and the authors own views come on a little too strong. This final book could have done with a bit more editing as at times there are few lapses and certain sections could have been tightened up, yet it still remains a thrill as the book draws to its conclusion. Not everything is tied up neatly at the end, with the whereabouts of one character still not resolved…
For me, the first book remains the best, with the second the weakest of the three. It remains to be a crying shame that the author died without knowing his success and overall the Milleniunm series has been a triumph.  As it is though, it remains a thrilling and fitting conclusion to a remarkable series of books featuring one of the most interesting and complex heroines in recent crime fiction history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire.

The Millenium trilogy continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and as with the first book, the novel takes a while to get going as Larsson puts all the pieces in place. Once they are though, the book moves at a frantic pace. Set some time after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, we see the fallout of the Wennerstrom affair as Blomvist and Salander revel in their glory. Yet two shocking murders take place and Salander is the suspect….

Lisbeth Salander is a wanted woman. Two Millennium journalists about to expose the truth about sex trafficking in Sweden are murdered, and Salander’s prints are on the weapon. Her history of unpredictable and vengeful behaviour makes her an official danger to society – but no-one can find her. Mikael Blomkvist, editor-in-chief of Millennium, does not believe the police. Using all his magazine staff and resources to prove Salander’s innocence, Blomkvist also uncovers her terrible past, spent in criminally corrupt institutions. Yet Salander is more avenging angel than helpless victim. She may be an expert at staying out of sight – but she has ways of tracking down her most elusive enemies.

It begins with an extensive look at Salander as she travels the globe, examining her past, and why she is who she is today. Then the book shifts to its focus to Sweden and events there. Lisbeth becomes a fugitive, hidden away from the investigation as she refuses to be victimised by her ordeal. She becomes determined to find out the identity of the killer and turns the table on them, going on the attack to deal with the situation as her distrust of the police and the law forces her to act on her own. As the investigation continues, events from Salander’s past are gradually revealed, leading to shocking and stunning climax. We are left on a cliffhanger, with little actually resolved as it leads on to the third and final instalment.

As before, women remain a theme as it examines how the state cares for the mentally ill or those that are being abused. Also through Salander, Larsson crusades against the media, as she is exploited and defamed as she remains in hiding. As it delves into Salander’s past, we are exposed to an intricate conspiracy that touches at everything in Swedish life. He asks that if we cannot trust our own governments then who can we trust?As with the previous book, there are flaws in the novel. The villians are rather caricatured, with Niedermann, the blond ‘hulk’ suffering particularly from this as he resembles a James Bond bad guy. There are sections where Salander is not present and the book focusses on the manahunt for her, and while it was enjoyable, you are left waiting for her return. It’s about here that the trilogy itself shifts the focus onto to Salander and while I can’t help thinking that while Larsson would have preferred us to treat Blomvist as the main protagonist, it is Salander’s books from now on.

With an ever expanding plot, The Girl Who Played With Fire lacks the taut plot and the unravelling of the first book. The long section where Salander is in hiding means that the book’s most interesting character is missing, but it remains a thrilling and entertaining read from start to finish.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Part One of the Milleniun trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, introduces us to journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker and social outcast Lisbeth Salander. It’s an intelligent thriller with a conscience, with a complicated plots that demands concentration to match.

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder – and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet’s disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

The novel is split between the shady secrets of the wealthy Vanger family and the murky dealings of a famous businessman. One flaw that many have commented on is that the central drive of the book does take a little while to get going. The first 50 pages or so are Larsson giving us the background to the Wennerstrom affair and while it may seem irelevant at first, by the conclusion it all comes together. Some may find like I did that it was difficult to get in to initialy, with a variety of unusual Swedish names to keep track of, but its not long until the pace picks up.
The story begins by focusing on Blomkvist, a journalist just as Larsson was, but once Salander arrives the focus of the novel shifts. She’s one of the most interesting heroines of late, lacking in people skills but making up for it with her fierce intelligent. She operates on the edge of society, preferring to be on the fringes, where she feels more comfortable and accepted.  While she may seem to be single-minded and at time vicious, Salander is also incorruptible with a strong moral code. She is the most ‘good’ of all the ‘good guys’ in the book.
Despite this, it can be a brutal book, as it examines sex and violence, particularly towards women. Some may feel that it even oversteps the mark, but here Larsson is creating a dark story which reflects something of the darker side of life in Sweden. There has been arguements of late regarding Larsson’s attitudes towards women and the interpretation of feminism within the novel but it’s a difficult one to judge. If Larsson was with us today, he would no doubt be able to defend the accusations made towards the trilogy.
Larsson may also need to defend his writing style, as at times it falters where Larsson adds in a few too many details to the story. I don’t think we really need to know the exact type of laptop a character is using, or the precise food they eat for breakfast. In the case of the laptop, we are also lectured on the merits of certain models but it also instantly dates the novel. Perhaps it was the case of the translation but at times it does become a little too ‘clunky’ for my liking. Larsson is a little blunt in expressing his opinions and his politcal views are hardly disguised at all. It also comes close to stretching credibility, as Blomkvist certainly manages to jump into bed with a number of women. Perhaps a little bit of wishing thinking on the author’s part?
Despite its flaws, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was one of those rare books which I read it ferociously and then when I stopped, it was all I could actually think about. The way the plots intertwine, along with the interesting characters somehow grabbed and then dominated my attention throughout. Quite simply, I adored it and would recommend this intelligent, thought-provoking and adult thriller to anyone.