The Hunger Games

I haven’t read any of The Hunger Games trilogy that has been gripping ‘readers’ across the world recently – mostly because it looks a bit too much like teen-lit for my liking – but I didn’t object to seeing the film adaptation on an Easter Monday when the only thing to do outside was to be subjected to gale force winds and torrential rain. The cinema? I’m in.

For what I’m told is quite a small novel, the film was a bit of a stretch, clocking in at 142 minutes, but I wasn’t at all bored. The Hunger Games involves two of my favourite things – a post-apocalyptic society, and reality TV. It certainly is a rare occasion when you can enjoy both in one place. The first half is spent setting up the world of Panem, and the tradition of the Hunger Games – enough to keep you engaged and interested before the games themselves begin and occupy the second half. Panem was formed from the ruins of North America after some unknown disaster, and divided into 12 districts. As a punishment for a district rebellion against the Capitol, there are annual Hunger Games, in which a male and female teenager from each district is selected to take part in a televised fight to the death, in which only one person can emerge triumphant. I found myself watching the tribal politics and survival tactics with the same kind of ‘Yeah I could do that if I had to’ mentality, with which I also watched Home Alone as a child – although in this instance, I really don’t think I’d be quite as successful.

We go through the games on the side of the hopefuls from District 12 – conveniently wrapped up in a love story which begins as a TV plot, and later becomes something a bit more real; verging on ‘star-crossed lovers’ territory. It’s love that’s actually so strong, it threatens to bring down the entire establishment. When the two threaten to eat poison fruit in the arena to commit suicide, I did see construed reflections of Adam and Eve in Eden. If it was meant to be that deep…

The Hunger Games ties in a lot of great parts from other sci-fi films – from the other worldly jungle of Avatar, to the brutal competition of the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Similar to Harry Potter, the author has here created a world that can be drawn upon extensively throughout future books and films (kudos on the cash in) – it’s certainly a place you’ll be interested to see more of. However, the absence of mythical creatures, or anything too ‘space age’ does make it that bit closer to home. You can see its realistic potential a bit more because there’s no magic involved, and despite the drastically different social situation – everything still looks fairly normal.

That said, I do reject the conclusions of some reviewers who over-state the lessons our society has to learn from this film. True, it shows the lengths we’ll go to for reality entertainment, and the facade it becomes – but the kind of show depicted in The Hunger Games isn’t exactly an inevitable result of our declining morals. It could only come as the result of some major new world order, with wacky totalitarianism at the apex of it all. If we ever get to that point, having a macabre tournament as our prime TV entertainment will be the least of our worries.

The Hunger Games is in cinemas everywhere now.


North Sea Texas

Last Sunday I had the honour of attending the UK premiere of the Belgian film North Sea Texas – directed by Bavo Defurne, and selected as the closing film at the 2012 BFI Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. It’s a beautiful tale of teenager Pim, whose youthful affair with his neighbour Gino becomes a painful unrequited love as the pair grow up.

The setting is a rural Belgian town in the 1970s, which is so far removed from the real world, that there’s a distinct sense that Pim’s love for Gino really is all he has to bother him….but for any young gay teenager who’s ever fallen in love with a handsome straight boy, that is fairly often the case. His neglectful mother and her escapades offer a comic subplot to the narrative, and if you want to dig deep there is a lot to be said for absent fathers in the two families involved. The most poignant moment comes when Gino’s mother joins the hands of the two boys on her deathbed – signalling her silent understanding that they should be together.

A special mention must go to Anton Merton’s cinematography which makes colour into one of the film’s main characters. From vibrant yellow clothing to the perfectly captured textures of the rural landscapes, this is a story with a backdrop as beautiful as its main narrative.

The evening ended in a Q&A session with director Bavo Defurne (who looked wonderful in a white Tom Ford suit), who was thrilled to have this – his first feature film – gain such a positive reception, after years of making shorts (some of which you can preview on his Vimeo page). He’s got an undeniable style of his own, and North Sea Texas shows an incredible capacity to lay an emotional journey so bare and so honest, that even amidst such an obscure setting, most of the audience could relate their own experience to that undergone by Pim.

North Sea Texas is released in UK cinemas on April 6.

Madonna – MDNA

Madonna may be the Queen of Pop, but she’s also the Queen of Publicity. She’s an incredible PR woman – personally responsible for making herself the most famous woman in the world a whole fifteen years before the advent of the Internet. And she hasn’t lost that touch. As the release of her 12th studio album MDNA (2012) advanced, she secured the high profile half-time show at the U.S. Superbowl, and enlisted a host of modern stars to complement her (Nicki Minaj, M.I.A, LMFAO, Cee Lo Green). A Madonna album is never going to flop – not by regular standards anyway – but Madonna still goes to all lengths to make sure it’s a hit. Even MDNA’s suggestive title was most likely designed to cause discussion.

When you’re a Madonna mega fan (like I am), you wait with baited breath; because even though an album arrives with more hype than the baby Jesus, you fear the material might not be up to scratch. Could this be the one where she finally lets the crown slip? It appears MDNA will pass the test this time, but only just…

The album gets off to a great start with ‘Girl Gone Wild’ – Benny Benassi’s production is irresistible, and Madonna’s own brand of pop is at its best. It’s got memorable riffs, it’s fun, and it’s as big as a rave in an oversized forest. Along with tracks like ‘Addicted’, she has definitely got some stomping club tracks here, which are really brilliant. ‘Gang Bang’ goes strangely experimental – and to give Madge some credit, it’s very much like something edgy that Lady Gaga might crack out, to general applause. She’s desperate for a Tarantino directed video for this track – which seems logical considering the theme – but it’s something he’ll probably turn down.

It’s hard to pin down what MDNA is doing musically. The album’s first hit ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ is a different calibre to most of the other tracks, but it’s groovy guitars do indicate the only musical theme that runs through the rest of the record. There’s a lot of Confessions era Madonna – even nods to Music (2000) and American Life (2003). Her good old lyrics about sinning and repenting run right the way back to the early 1980s, and are so tried and tested, I don’t even register them anymore. I will give her kudos for writing frankly about her divorce from Guy Ritchie (I Fucked Up; Love Spent; Best Friend), but MDNA is not the product of a woman freed from the shackles of a negative marriage. It’s trying to be somewhere between her profound record Like A Prayer (1989) – dealing with her divorce from Sean Penn; and her middle aged renaissance that was Confessions On A Dance Floor (2005); though if anything, it’s usually their lesser tracks that it resembles. Madonna hasn’t really found a new direction – she’s dusting off some old ones, and not always her best.

For me, the main highlight of this album is ‘Masterpiece’ – the song she wrote for her film W.E. which won her the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The arrangement is beautiful, the lyrics are perfectly crafted, and at the end of the day I can’t resist a good old extended metaphor. Vocally, Madonna is sure of herself, and it’s the kind of mid tempo guitar ballad that has always stood out in her albums of recent years (‘Nothing Fails’, ‘Miles Away’). It’s one of the few tracks I’ve returned to again and again, and in a nudge towards her continued relevance, it’s a song that could easily slot into the Lana Del Rey album.

I think MDNA’s biggest crime is that it’s nondescript. It doesn’t pack a punch either positive or negative. At least with previously dodgy albums like Erotica (1992) and American Life (2003), Madonna had a strong conviction about what she was doing, and they became cult favourites in the absence of a major commercial response. But MDNA is in a band of its own – and people will neither rave about it, discuss it for its controversy, nor wonder if it’s so bad that it might actually be really profound. It’s in the middle. It’s bland. And for Madonna, that’s not a good place to be.

No one is going to dethrone Madonna over this album, but it won’t feature on the radar of her career when it comes to a retrospective. Sadly, I do have a ranked tier for my Madonna albums, and I’m not quite sure exactly where I’m putting this one yet (perhaps that’s for a whole other blog post), but I can confirm I’ll be putting it below American Life. Enough said.

Madonna is taking the MDNA Tour around the world this summer.