David Rothenberg on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Fortune in My EyesRubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1967 and spent almost two decades in jail before being exonerated, died on Sunday in Toronto. He was 76.

David Rothenberg writes about meeting Carter at Rahway State Prison in his book, Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion, published by Applause Books.

Here is an excerpt.

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My visits to the Rahway penitentiary, beginning with my appearances on the inmate radio program, evolved. The prison officials had placed a moratorium on the number of visits afforded me, so—using their prison-acquired inmate wiles—several of the men created a class, which enabled me to return weekly as a teacher. Most of the guys in the class were doing heavy time. Several had been released from Trenton State Prison’s death row after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional…I would arrive on Saturday morning and read the class a page-one story from the morning edition of the New York Times. I would then ask for the students’ reactions to the article. At first the men balked, suggesting that this was not a class. As the teacher, they argued, I should give them my interpretation of the story. I insisted that their opinion of the news event was as valid as mine.

Tommy [Trantino] then challenged me: “Why are you the teacher?”

My answer satisfied them: “I’m the teacher because I’m getting you to think about what is happening in the world, and your personal assessment of a story demands that you think.” In fact, that was my goal. Most of the guys admitted that they were school dropouts and had hated and been intimidated by the classroom and the teachers, who tortured and embarrassed them. If I could create a classroom environment that was nurturing, they might be motivated to take advantage of some of the more traditional and formal classes being offered in the institution, and even aspire to a GED or a college course that might be available. If my class accomplished anything, it was that a few of the men, on their own, did go on to explore other educational opportunities. A few even contacted me upon their release from prison.

There was an intense man, Rubin, always sitting in the front row. Cocoa-skinned, bald, and with glasses, he listened intently but rarely spoke. In the many classes I have taught, I have always looked for that eager face, someone who is soaking up everything even if they are not asking questions. Rubin was particularly responsive when guests would join me. Judge Bruce Wright visited several times—canceling his treasured Saturday morning tennis games to travel with me to Rahway—and fascinated the students with his candor about the courts and racism in our society.

One day after class, Rubin asked if I could call his agent. “Rubin, why do you have an agent?” That seemed an appropriate question to pose to a man situated in a prison. “Of course I will call your agent, but what kind of an agent is this?”

He told me he was writing a book, and I figured, why not? Everyone in here has a story to tell. I asked him to write down her name, address, and phone number, and by the way, “Rubin, what is your full name?”

He said, “Rubin Carter.”

I looked at him for a long minute and asked, “Are you the Rubin Carter called Hurricane?”

“That’s me.”

I never asked last names in the class, nor did I take attendance. It was all voluntary. I had had no idea that the attentive young man in front of me was a former boxing champion.

In 1999, when the movie The Hurricane was released, with Denzel Washington giving a deeply moving and memorable performance in the title role, I had heard that Rubin was going to be in New York City for some promotional interviews for the film. He had long since been cleared and released after several courtroom dramas. I called the film’s publicity department and introduced myself as a host of a weekly radio program on WBAI in Manhattan. I requested an interview with Carter. “Of course,” the condescending and impatient publicist said, “everyone does. We have him scheduled with PBS, GMA”—and some other initials were thrown in.

I listened respectfully and said, “Rubin and I go way back. Why not just ask him and let him make the decision?” The impatient rep conceded to my logic.

Ten minutes later the call came: “Rubin is anxious to appear on your radio program.”

He arrived at the studio on Saturday morning looking like a million dollars, in a nifty suit with a professorial look. I told him that I appreciated his joining me, and he said, “David, you were there when no one else was. We can’t forget where we came from. By the way, you were taller then.”

“No, Rubin, I was standing up and you were sitting down. Now it’s the reverse.”

He was living in Canada, working with the Innocence Project and delivering inspiring lectures. He and Tommy Trantino had bonded in Rahway, and theirs was a dramatic demonstration that black and white guys could work together to give inmates a united voice. Because both men were charismatic and had respect from other prisoners, they were able to create some alterations in the traditional apartheid of the joint they were in.

Both Rubin and Tommy rejoined the human race in spite of prison’s attempt to dehumanize them.



Nicholas Nigro on his Spirituality series








Nicholas Nigro, author of The Spirituality of Bono, The Spirituality of Carlos Santana, and The Spirituality of Richar Gere has kindly given us a short piece he has written on his new series:

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The Backbeat Spirituality Series


Inaugurating the Backbeat Spirituality Series are three celebrities from decidedly different backgrounds: Carlos Santana, Richard Gere, and Paul David Hewson, better known as Bono. With each man approaching matters worldly and otherworldly from his own unique perspective, it’s the ideal mix of personalities to kick off these compendiums of inspirational quotations.

“Spirituality to me is like water,” Carlos Santana opines. “Religions are like Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, wine, beer, or whatever. But spirituality is what’s going to save you in the battle.” Singer, guitarist extraordinaire, and unrepentant hippie, Carlos is wont to retreat to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood every now and then to reminisce about the high-minded social activism of the 1960s, which remains so dear to his heart.
“The universe is—simply that,” actor, activist, and devout Buddhist Richard Gere muses. “It’s our job to make it meaningful.” Always and every day, Richard endeavors to do just that as he tirelessly crusades for human rights and kibitzes with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, when time and circumstances allow.
“We’ve got to follow through on our ideals,” Bono preaches. “Or we betray something at the heart of who we are.” The singer, songwriter, and humanitarian is most definitely a power-of-example in this regard as he indefatigably travels the world on behalf of the poor and the suffering in faraway places. Bono is a steadfast voice for the voiceless, and a very vociferous one at that.
The individual titles in the Spirituality Series furnish readers with a thorough compilation of quotations—on a broad spectrum of life questions—from the mouths of their fascinating subjects: Carlos Santana, Richard Gere, and Bono. Gleaned from interviews, speeches, and myriad media appearances, their reflections and observations on so many things—from spirituality to humanitarianism to the artist’s life—are in these books. Their contemplative takes on the meaning of life—and making the most of it—are simultaneously interesting, insightful, and food for thought.
While Carlos Santana, Richard Gere, and Bono have distinct worldviews—from having ventured down varied life paths—they have an awful lot in common, too, including a penchant for speaking their minds come what may.

The Spirituality of Carlos Santana (9781480355453)
The Spirituality of Bono (9781480355460)
The Spirituality of Richard Gere (9781480355477)
April 8, 2014
4 1/2″ x 6″
104 pages


Nicholas Nigro_Au_PhotoNicholas Nigro is a freelance writer and the author of multiple books in a variety of fields. From spirituality to science and medicine, popular culture to pets and animals, his publishing credits span a wide gamut of topics and appeal to an eclectic swath of readers. He lives in New York City.


Star Trek FAQTomorrow, William Shatner will turn 83, and to celebrate, we’d like to dip into Mark Clark’s indispensable guide to all matters pertaining to the first voyages of the Starship Enterprise, Star Trek FAQ (Unofficial and Authorized).  In this excerpt, Clark writes about the circuitous route Gene Roddenberry took to settling on Shatner as his captain.

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While Roddenberry struggled to develop a teleplay that would meet NBC’s demands, Star Trek was dealt another serious blow: Jeffrey Hunter wanted out. Hunter, who had starred in the [the first pilot] “The Cage” as Captain Christopher Pike, was under contract to appear in the series if the original pilot sold but not to appear in the unforeseen second pilot. The actor was unhappy with “The Cage” and ambivalent about moving out of feature films and into a full-time job on television. The show’s leadership had no recourse than to let him go, leaving Star Trek without a star. Selecting Hunter had been a long and arduous process. Among the forty names submitted for the role by one casting consultant were Hunter, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, George Segal, Jack Lord, and William Shatner. The list was eventually whittled down to a group of five that included James Coburn in addition to Hunter. NBC asked Roddenberry to consider Patrick McGoohan and Mel Ferrer, but neither were serious candidates. Now, with Hunter out of the picture, Roddenberry, Desilu production chief Herb Solow, and casting director Joe D’Agosta went back to the forty-name original list and reconsidered their options.

            The team settled on Jack Lord as their top choice. Lord (the stage name of John Joseph Patrick Ryan) had appeared in more than a dozen films and guest starred on scores of television series but, in 1965, was best recognized for his turn as CIA agent Felix Leiter in the first James Bond Film, Dr. No (1962). Roddenberry offered the captaincy of the Starship Enterprise to Lord but balked when the actor asked to produce as well as star and demanded an astronomical 50 percent profit participation in the program. Roddenberry moved on, and so did Lord. In 1968, the actor agreed to star in Hawaii Five-O, which ran for 12 seasons and 279 episodes (200 more than Trek). For appearing as Detective Steve McGarrett—whose signature catchphrase “Book ’em, Danno” quickly entered the popular vernacular—Lord received one-third profit participation. When series creator Leonard Freeman died in 1974, Lord took over as executive producer and gained complete creative control over the series.

            After scratching Lord’s name off his list, Roddenberry turned to a Canadian actor with a resume not dissimilar to Lord’s—William Shatner. Shatner was stinging from the mid-season cancellation of his first television series, the courtroom drama For the People. Despite the failure of that program, Shatner remained recognizable to TV viewers as a frequent guest star on other shows—by 1965, he had racked up appearances on 45 television series, some on multiple occasions, not counting appearances on stage and in feature films. Casting director D’Agosta told Roddenberry biographer David Alexander that in 1965 Shatner “had the same thrust going for him that Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen did.” Clearly, Shatner would be the show’s star (or so he thought), and his agent negotiated a star’s contract. Shatner received $5,000 per week plus 20 percent of that salary for the first five reruns of each episode, as well as 20 percent profit participation. He was an inspired choice to play Trek’s new starship captain. His zesty, upbeat approach to the role helped supply the energy boost NBC felt the program needed.



Dramatic CircumstancesWilliam Wesbrooks studied psychology, theatre, and music in preparation for his theatrical career, which, in its 40 years, has encompassed performing, directing, playwriting, and teaching.  In his new book, Dramatic Circumstances, Wesbrooks shows how actors can “live inside” the stories they tell in a way that brings them to life for them and their audience.

 In a recent article in The Atlantic, titled “How Actors Create Emotions: A Problematic Psychology,” Judith Ohikuare writes that “fully inhabiting the mind, mannerisms, and reality of a fictional character can be as alienating as it is rewarding.”Here, Wesbrooks looks at where acting intersects with brain science and psychology.

 The acting process presented in Dramatic Circumstances can have a significant impact on the way singers and actors tell their stories, and I think that brain science offers intriguing insights into why that process works.

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            Brain science is an ever-growing field of study that endeavors to address any number of mental, emotional, and physical issues that trouble many people, and I realize that applying that science to the study of acting may appear somewhat frivolous. However, in the best of worlds actors tell stories about what it is to be human, and I believe that we are all better off because these stories get told. It only follows that these stories have greater impact when they are told truthfully, in a manner that really looks inside human behavior and the human condition.

            Years ago I was told that the subconscious mind has no sense of humor. This struck me then as an extremely useful idea when applied to the art and craft of acting, and it has proved invaluable in the development of the dramatic circumstance process. The ideas we plant in our subconscious mind are, as far as that particular part of our mind is concerned, true.

            In a New Yorker article (“Head Case: Can Psychiatry Be a Science?” March 10, 2010) Dr. Louis Menand wrote, “The brains of people who are suffering from mild depression look the same on a scan as the brains of people whose football team has just lost the Super Bowl. They even look the same as the brains of people who have been asked to think sad thoughts [italics mine].”

            I believe that an actor’s subconscious mind evokes responses and inspires action in circumstances that are entirely imaginary because key components of the actor’s brain do not realize that those circumstances are, in fact, imaginary.While it is certainly not necessary for actors to understand brain function in order to live truthfully “inside the stories we tell”, I find it a compelling way to think about acting. 

            It is certainly something worth exploring.

Stephen King Films FAQ

Stephen King Films FAQScott Von Doviak’s Stephen King Films FAQ, the latest in the series from Applause Books is now available, with all that’s left to know about the king of horror on flim.  While his book looks back the four decades during which Stephen King has made his mark at the movies, Von Doviak is also looking forward.  Here are his thoughts on what this year may hold for Stephen King film fans.

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Two things we know to be true: Stephen King is one of America’s most prolific authors, and Hollywood is always hungry for material. So it’s not surprising that the Stephen King movie has become a genre unto itself, spanning nearly four decades since the 1976 release of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. This year is shaping up to be one of the most King-heavy in some time, so here’s a brief look at what 2014 has in store.

– Mercy is based on the 1984 short story “Gramma,” which was previously adapted by Harlan Ellison for an episode of The New Twilight Zone in 1986. This feature-length version is directed by Peter Cornwell (The Haunting in Connecticut) and stars The Walking Dead’s Chandler Riggs and Super 8’s Joel Courtney as two boys who discover their ailing grandmother is not what she seems.

– On a similar note, A Good Marriage is a novella from the 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars about a woman who discovers her longtime husband is a serial killer. The adaptation directed by Peter Askin (Company Man) stars Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia and boasts a screenplay by King himself.

Cell is now shooting and may make it into theaters by year’s end. The big-screen version of King’s tale about a cell phone virus that turns people into zombies stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, who previously co-starred in the King-based thriller 1408. Tod Williams (Paranormal Activity 2) directs.

– The first season of Under the Dome on CBS was so successful from a ratings standpoint that what was once intended as a limited series has been extended indefinitely. What began as a promising series quickly deteriorated, however, and the first-season finale was a nonsensical mess. There’s reason to hope the show will get back on track, as King is aboard to write the first episode of the second season, due this summer.

In addition to the above, there are always King projects in various states of pre-production, notably Tom Holland’s The 10 O’Clock People, which may finally go before the cameras this year. One film fans shouldn’t hold their breath for is the long-awaited big-screen version of The Stand, which has churned through a number of potential directors over the years. The latest word is that Josh Boone, writer/director of Stuck in Love (a movie in which Stephen King made a cameo appearance) is on board, but the actual end of the world may come before this post-apocalyptic vision reaches theaters.

Listen: Dale Sherman on Pop Culture Tonight

Dale Sherman, author of Armageddon Films FAQ, joined Patrick Phillips on “Pop Culture Tonight” recently to talk about zombies, contagions, aliens, and the end of the world as we know it!


00333849smallerMankind has been predicting its own demise through various methods, from fables and religious scriptures to hard-core scientific studies since the dawn of time. And if there is one thing Hollywood knows how to exploit, it is the fears of Things to Come. Movies about the end of the world have been around since the early days of cinema, and Armageddon Film FAQ is a look into the various methods we have destroyed ourselves over the years: zombies, mad computers, uptight aliens, plunging objects from space, crazed animals, Satan, God, Contagions, the ever-popular atomic bomb, sometimes even a combination of these in the same movie!

Armageddon Films FAQ goes from the silent days of filmmaking to the most recent (literally) earth-shattering epics, from cinema to television and even the novels, from comedies to dramas, from supernatural to scientific. It also explores other aspects of the genre, such as iconic but unfilmable apocalyptic novels, postnuclear car-racing flicks, domestic dramas disguised as end-of-the-world actioners, and more – from the most depressing to the happiest Armageddons ever!

Oscar Night: The Day After

ImageNow that all the statuettes have been handed out, and the 2014 Oscar telecast has concluded, Applause Books would like to pay tribute to George Kennedy, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 1967 for his portrayal of Dragline in “Cool Hand Luke.”

Kennedy writes about that role and the rest of his remarkable life and career in Trust Me, published in 2011 by Applause Books.

Follow this link, to see the book trailer and hear an extended interview with Kennedy on “Off the Meter” with Jimmy Failla.

The Beatles’ 50th Anniversary

On February 9th, 1964, The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and changed the landscape of the music world in America forever. In keeping with the spirit of things, here are some funny moments from  A Hard Day’s Night, the immensely influential 1964 black-and-white comedy film starring (who else) The Beatles. The script of A Hard Day’s Night is included in Film Scripts Fourpart of the Applause Books Film Scripts Series.


Film Scripts Four

The Film Scripts Series is a new printing of some of the greatest screenplays ever written. Each of the four volumes in the series – edited by George P. Garrett, O. B. Hardison, Jr., and Jane R. Gelfman – contains three classic shooting scripts written by some of the finest writers to ever work in Hollywood. Every volume also features a highly informative introduction, a glossary of technical terms, an extensive bibliography, and the credits for each film. These enduring screenplays will be of great interest to the general film buff, the aspiring screenwriter, and the professional filmmaker. Of particular value to the screenwriter and filmmaker is the fact that all scripts are printed in standard screenplay format.

Film Scripts Four features:

A Hard Day’s Night (1964, United Artists): Script by Alun Owen; Directed by Richard Lester; Starring the Beatles; Academy Award nominations for best screenplay and best score (George Martin).

The Best Man (1964, United Artists): Script by Gore Vidal; Directed by Franklin Schaffner; Starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy, Edie Adams, Shelley Berman, Ann Sothern, Gene Raymond, and Mahalia Jackson; Academy Award nomination for Lee Tracy.

Darling (1965, Embassy): Script by Frederic Raphael; Directed by John Schlesinger; Starring Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, and Laurence Harvey; Academy Awards for Julie Christie and best screenplay; Academy Award nominations for best picture and best director.

Spirituality and the Collection

For today’s blog post, enjoy an excerpt from the Introduction of  Scenes and Monologues of Spiritual Experience from the Best Contemporary Playsby Roger Ellis.

As the title of the book indicates, this anthology is governed by the theme of “spiritual experience.” I use this term broadly to include not only spiritual issues that directly affect established religions, but also those issues that have been traditionally viewed through the lens of organized religion but that now, in our secular age, force individuals to grapple with problems without the support of religious teaching. For example, churchmen of every sect have long busied themselves with problems of clerical celibacy, conflicting belief systems, or killing others in a “just war.” On the other hand, many today prefer to regard issues such as substance abuse, suicide, capital punishment, or abortion simply as matters of social justice and human rights. Thus, our modern age is no longer bound by sectarian interpretations of God and the supernatural; instead, we confront a spiritual landscape populated by voices proclaiming the values of Judaism, Christianity, reincarnation, Buddhism, zombies, jihad, astrology, ghostbusting, tribal beliefs, and many other “spiritual perspectives” that are widely reflected in the playhouse.

I’ve tried to represent as many of these perspectives as possible in this limited collection while still remaining faithful to the major artistic criteria mentioned above; I believe readers will be pleasantly surprised by the wide range of philosophical and theatrical excitement they encounter in a body of plays dealing with “spiritual experience.” Angels in America, for example, certainly expresses a rather novel interpretation of how “angels” busy themselves in contemporary American society; the same might be said of José Rivera’s Marisol, where the angel character seems more like a military recruiting officer preparing for Armageddon than a traditional ambassador of heaven. Yet, both plays pose disturbing philosophical questions as well as exciting theatrical challenges to audiences and theater practitioners alike.

This is not to say that contemporary playwrights are pushing organized religion to the back burner by focusing attention on humanitarian solutions to social problems, or by debunking Christianity, Mormonism, and other faiths. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of contemporary inspirational or devotional religious plays attracting large audiences to our playhouses. Think, for example, of the many productions and Broadway successes that plays such as Godspell, Doubt, Agnes of God, or Mass Appeal have achieved over the years. In fact, there are several monologues and scenes in this collection dealing with Joan of Arc, whose life has inspired modern audiences for generations.

It is noteworthy that before now, no anthology has gathered this kind of dramatic material into a single collection. It may surprise some readers to consider that so many contemporary plays deal with aspects of religious faith. The fact remains, however, that a concern for religion and the supernatural – and a focus on moral and spiritual problems – has permeated Western dramatic writing for at least the past century. Plays inspired in whole or in part by the life of the spirit continue to fascinate playwrights and challenge our most talented theater artists even today.

Scenes and Monologues of Spiritual Experience from the Best Contemporary Plays

In this anthology, theater expert Roger Ellis culls together dramatic scenes and monologues that all deal with spiritual experience. From various religious and non-religious perspectives, the book explores various aspects of spirituality – religious faith, martyrdom, death and afterlife, fate and destiny, mercy, and romantic love. The material comes from contemporary plays by some of the most gifted playwrights – Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, John Patrick Shanley, John Pielmeier, Tammy Ryan, Elie, Wiesel, Karen Sunde, and others. Perfect for high-school through college-age students, as well as for actors and general readers, this volume contains nearly 100 scenes, ranging from comic to serious, grouped in five categories: “Scenes for a Man and a Woman,” “Scenes for Two Women,” “Scenes for Two Men,” “Monologues for Women,” and “Monologues for Men.” In addition to the monologues, Ellis includes notes on staging to help actors and directors bring these scenes to life. Some of the plays sourced for this anthology include The CrucibleDoubtIn the Shape of a Woman,Agnes of GodEpic ProportionsOur Lady of 121st StreetAngels in America, and Affection in Time.

Catching Fire Review

Guest Blogger: Dale Sherman, author of Armageddon Films FAQreviews Catching Fire, the second installment in the hugely popular Hunger Games series.

Catching Fire and the Reluctant Hero: a Review of the Movie

By Dale Sherman

 In my new book, Armageddon Films FAQ (Applause Books; available in bookstores and through online outlets), there is a chapter about dystopian societies in movies and audiences’ assumption that they have to be either pre or postapocalyptic.  For example, the 1975 film Rollerball starring  James Caan deals with a dysfunctional future where societal order is centered around corporate-sponsored deadly games that pacify the public and keeps them in their place until one lone player begins a revolution by defying the game.  (Why, yes, fans of The Hunger Games will believe I’m trying to set up a “Battle Royale gotcha” here, but that’s not my intent.  And if you’re not sure what I mean by that – read onward.)  Yet, although there are signs of a crumbling society in Rollerball, there is no clear indication that an apocalyptic event created this world; in fact, it appears that corporate and political factors came into play instead.  Yes, it is a dystopian society, but one cannot look at it and say that an “End of the World” event leads to or created from the events seen in the movie.

Naturally, one of the movies discussed in that chapter is the 2012 adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games.  In that case, there is some basis of a nuclear event, and while that past event does not conclusively make the film a postapocalyptic one, subsequent events lean the series more towards fulfilling the requirements.  Certainly more so than its oft-comparison, Battle Royale – a Japanese novel (1999) and film (2000) dealing with a group of school children being sent to a remote island to kill each over by a government.  With the topic of The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale discussed in more details within Armageddon Films FAQ, I’ll only state here that kneejerk reactions of Battle Royale fans to treat The Hunger Games as second-rate ripoff has made Hunger Games fans a tad touchy about criticism over time.  In my views, as much as I love Battle Royale and admire its exceptional dreamlike quality, I believe The Hunger Games series pays off in greater dividends as to character development and resolution.  Even so, the arguments continue.  Add in that fans of the series (like those for Harry Potter and Twilight) are dedicated, as well as it starring a popular young actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who is considered an icon in my home state of Kentucky, and you can see why I feel the need to walk on eggshells a bit when talking about the films.  No point in making enemies of strangers.

Even so, when my publisher suggested I review the second film in the series, Catching Fire, I was a bit hesitant, for I came out of the theater after the first film feeling disappointment.  It is not so much that I had a problem with the concept of the film (there have been far too many movies and books with the same theme over the years, after all), but rather the execution.  As much promise as there was in producing the film based on the popular book series, there seems something slapdash about the first movie, as if not enough care was involved.  Namely, heavy-handed visual shorthands done in the sense of both costumes and set designs distracted from my enjoyment of the first film.  We see a futuristic society full of several poverty-level “districts” that produce material for the Capitol, which is full of rich, spoiled people.  No harm in that – it’s a classic dystopian setup for science fiction (and a classic cliché of SF television shows, such as Star Trek (“The Cloud Miners”) and even Gallifrey on Doctor Who was hinted at being setup in such a fashion, and those were the “good guys”).  Yet, instead of finding an intriguing way to show a futuristic form of poverty, we get clichés of the Great Depression and images straight out of Coal Miner’s Daughter with Lawrence as a bow-hunting version of Loretta Lynn.  Meanwhile, those who live in the Capitol are merely 18th Century French Aristocrats by way of Ziggy Stardust and Space: 1999.  There’s no sense of a real world, merely pieces of these other words thrown together in order to evoke emotions geared from earlier films and television shows.  In doing so, the images are too thick; too brash; with a general feeling of someone hitting over the head with a message instead of wanting to articulate a truly unique vision of the future.  Thus, such a great opportunity missed. The topper for me occurred in the scene where the heroine, Katniss, was preparing in the locker-room to be sent up the tube for the game.  The room is spacious, with plenty of lockers for other contestants, but there is only one player.  The scene is about her last-minute preparations and concerns before the game starts, but instead all I could think about was the need for this very large room for one player.  Did the games used to have forty members on each team?  Is other training done there and that’s why they need so much space?  Thus, instead of concentrating on the emotion of the scene, the set-design instead makes us focus on just how really, really big it is and hurts the impact of the scene.  Nor was it the only scene like it that, in trying to place viewers inside this world, merely took them out.  Who can guess how many times we saw the gamemaker and drifted off to wondering about how he shaves every morning with that goofy beard of his?

Perhaps it was deemed as unnecessary to give the film more of a sense of wonder, as the plot of the first film is more about the emotional value of the fantasy being presented than any realistic concerns about how such a world developed in the first place.  After all, we’re told that all these districts manufacture goods for the millions that live in the Capitol, but each district appears to have roughly 200-300 people each (and evidently all the fuel needed by the Capitol can be performed by a couple of dozen miners with pickaxes).  The most important event of the year that involves the sacrificing of children and only a handful of people can bother to show up?  Or watch on the giant bigscreens?  Surely that can’t be all the people if the game is played up as being something “everyone” is watching.

Even characters in the film run into these clichés, in particular the other tributes, who are nothing more than cyphers with the exception of Rue – the young girl Katniss befriends in the game.  There is nothing to say about the others beyond them being ready to harm our heroes, other than their predestination to make longwinded speeches about murder at inappropriate times.  The only revelation given them comes in the last few minutes of the competition, with the sole survivor outside of the District 12 pair realizing that his entire life of training has amounted to nothing because the Capitol is ready to let the pair in a sense “cheat” in order to win.  For a brief moment – not even a minute – the film plays with becoming a teenage version of Network, with a tribute terminated because he’s “bad television.”  Alas, even for just thirty seconds, his story ends up sounding much more interesting than that of Katniss and Peeta.

The only true success of the first film was the casting.  Jennifer Lawrence turned out to be a perfect choice for the part of Katniss, although she has had little to do beyond appearing shocked and angry at various intervals (this should change in the final two films in the four-part series and a point I’ll get back to in a moment).  Josh Hutcherson, playing Peeta, impressed me with a role that seems simple but is much more complex – he is a character that the audience needs to feel uncertain about for a number of reasons and yet still must be likable.  The rest of the cast also throw themselves into their roles at 100%. Elizabeth Banks sinks so into her role as the vapid Effie, that I never even thought of where I had seen her before until I started this review and was surprised she had been in so many other things I have seen (not to mention that she manages to play the role in such a way that the character ends up being likable, even if she is creepy on the outside).  Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson may be playing to a stereotype he has played in other films, there’s no mistaking that he’s good in that type of role.  Even so, there is the solid casting of Donald Sutherland, who is then given little to do in the first movie.  Thus, even with that casting, there is still a sense that things did not add up to the sum of the parts.

With such thoughts, I went to see Catching Fire not expecting that the movie was going to produce anything startling new for me.  Certainly the plot of the second film had been done before, as the concept of the heroes from the first book / film having to rehash their previous adventure on a bigger scale in the sequel is standard fare.  (To give credit, Battle Royale cut to the chase in its first film by having previous winners who the government had become fed up with forced to “play again” in much the same as Peeta and Katniss do in Catching Fire.)  Catching Fire tries to at first misdirect that goal at first by showing the “victory tour” the two winners go on after the games, only to find that they cannot keep their true anger over the games and what they see on the tour from emerging in their appearances.  It’s an attempt to give the proceedings some gravity – this pair is stuck for life as figureheads for the government or else face causing problems for themselves, their families and even the public at large.  Yet, by doing so, the film stumbles out of the gate, as it is a long opening segment of the film that drags in the wake of audiences’ anticipation of the action they paid their $8.50 to see.  Of course, in having to format an immensely popular book series for the screen, one can forgive the filmmakers for feeling the need to satisfy fans expecting such scenes from the books, but a tighter script could have invested the same emotional impact and made the film a faster, smoother ride.

As one can guess, the growing tension between the Capitol and the Districts due to Katniss’ victory in the games leads to new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), proposing a new twist to the game.  Katniss and Peeta will fight in the 75th anniversary edition of the game, along with previous winners.  Thus, the pair along with 22 others arrive at a new location for a new game where they have to fight each other along with computer-generated “natural” events that are designed to wipe out the tributes as time goes by as well.  Katniss then discovers that not everyone is what they appear to be, both inside and outside of the game, while working with a handful of other tributes to find a way to avoid dying.

The setup is a bit clumsy – way too many of the tributes are ready to work together when one would think survival would be the key.  Yet, the ending of the film and the plot of the subsequent final book in the series (and eventual two-part movie yet to come) makes clear that there’s more going on here than random chance.  Thus, the focus is not really about a time of “Most Dangerous Game” man vs. man nature, but rather man vs. society or even more so man vs. machine, what with the computer generated creates and weather conditions that are booby-traps for the tributes.  Fortunately, unlike the CGI dogs of the first film (which looks rather silly, to be honest), the animals and such seen in the second film work better.  (Although it does bring up one big question for the series – if those in control can conjure up deadly menaces at every turn, why bother having the tributes kill each other?  Wouldn’t it show more the hopelessness of the situation if every tribute was faced with the same hardships and had to fight the Capitol at a game they cannot win – it only stops when there’s a sole survivor, after all?  We’re supposed to be on the side of paranoia here, however, so the audience is obviously not supposed to think of such things during the course of the movie.)

Even so, the early slow pacing of the film and the subsequent quickness of everyone teaming together are two of the rare places where the second film in the series misfires.  Otherwise, the film is more interesting, with a crisper script and dialogue, than in the first film.  For example, It seems to me that someone realized they had Donald Sutherland in their movie and decided to write dialogue that simply oozes out of the actor in quiet menace that simply wasn’t there in the first film.  One particular character (who I won’t name so as to not spoil it) also is written in such a way that there’s no neon signs pointing to the character to say “Look out!  They are not what they appear to be!”  Points should also be given for allowing Peeta to stand more on his own two feet with ideas of his own, instead of the simple fall-guy of the first film.  (Not to mention that I’m always happy when a filmmaker gives Amanda Plummer another chance to show how good she is in the minor role of another tribute in the game.)

Of course, the film is really centered on Katniss and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of this character, and she is just as good as in the first film, although I feel both films so far limit the actress inside of the role.  Katniss does things that progress the plot – no doubt about that – but most of the actions that affect the outcome are outside of her scope of influence in both films, and it is only in rash last-minute decisions that she triumphs.  Thus, Lawrence spends a lot of time having to stare off, looking at things she can’t control, and being misdirected, rather than showing the inner-workings of Katniss.

However, what looks like a weakness to the character is one that does hit rather hard with the ending of the second film with one of the better cliffhangers for such a series since The Empire Strikes Back.  In making that comparison, it springs to mind that there’s more to contrast between the two with their individual studies of an hero destine for greatness.  Both series deal with a character that discovers that they are a focal point to larger rebellions, but there’s a significant difference between the two.  In the case of Luke Skywalker in Empire, he attempts to break out of what is expected of him and through mishaps realizes that he is part of a greater story and must heed the role he is set out to be.  On the other hand, Katniss thinks of herself as being independent, only to discover at the end of Catching Fire that she is merely a tool for those with a bigger agenda.  At the end of Empire, Luke accepts his fate, is at peace, and ready to be part of what has been preordained for him; at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss finally realizes that she has been a pawn to everyone – even those who she thought were friends – and is ready to leap out of her skin.  And it is in those last seconds of the movie that we get the turn of the character’s arch – Katniss is finally starting to wise up and now will become even more of a wild-card in the conclusion of the series.

With Catching Fire’s ending, the series has redeemed itself a bit in my eyes from being what was essentially a timewaster after the first film to one that has me intrigues to see what they do in the final story.  It is definitely a case of that rare creature, the sequel that is better than the original, and certainly one that those like me who were disappointed with the first film should think about giving a chance.

Armageddon Films FAQ

Mankind has been predicting its own demise through various methods, from fables and religious scriptures to hard-core scientific studies since the dawn of time. And if there is one thing Hollywood knows how to exploit, it is the fears of Things to Come. Movies about the end of the world have been around since the early days of cinema, and Armageddon Film FAQ is a look into the various methods we have destroyed ourselves over the years: zombies, mad computers, uptight aliens, plunging objects from space, crazed animals, Satan, God, Contagions, the ever-popular atomic bomb, sometimes even a combination of these in the same movie!

Armageddon Films FAQ goes from the silent days of filmmaking to the most recent (literally) earth-shattering epics, from cinema to television and even the novels, from comedies to dramas, from supernatural to scientific. It also explores other aspects of the genre, such as iconic but unfilmable apocalyptic novels, postnuclear car-racing flicks, domestic dramas disguised as end-of-the-world actioners, and more – from the most depressing to the happiest Armageddons ever!