Hoberman: Not Seeing “The Hunger Games” Isn’t the End of the World

Hoberman: Not Seeing “The Hunger Games” Isn’t the End of the World
Shanyn Leigh and Willem Dafoe in "4:44 Last Day on Earth"
(© 2011 - IFC Films)

… or maybe it is. There are three excellent movies opening in New York and Los Angeles this weekend and one of them, Abel Ferrara’s “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” is about that very thing.

At once intensely local (set mainly in an old-school A.I.R. loft overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge) and wildly dispersed (the place is filled with TVs and computer screens), “4:44” allows a Lower Manhattan boho couple (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) to ponder the ultimate question: How do you pass the time knowing that you, and everyone else on the planet, is doomed to die … today. Call it a thought experiment.

“The end will be sudden and global,” New York 1 announces. It’s the ozone layer stupid and, with the artist who created the original “Bad Lieutenant” and more recently, the anti-“Passion of the Christ,” “Mary,” thinking about the unthinkable, the tone is existential verging on Theater of the Absurd: Like, we had sex twice, so now what? Make our goodbye calls? Order out Chinese? Curse the landlord for raising the rent? “Howzat 2 1/2 percent feel now?” Dafoe screams into the void. As Theodor Adorno wrote, “the only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Leigh, an artist and a Buddhist, decides to finish her painting. Dafoe, a recovering addict, is a lot jumpier, particularly after he goes out on the roof and sees a neighbor hurtling down towards Delancey Street.

The loft, occupied by artist Spencer Sweeney (who also supplied Leigh’s paintings), is, Ferrara told me, the star of the movie but, appearing in his third Ferrara film, Dafoe is in virtually every shot. He solos, plays a number of intimate duos with Leigh, and at one point gets involved in a three-way shouting match with her and the Skyped image of his malevolently cackling ex-wife. “You gonna be angry — still? Now?” Dafoe shouts at his ex as Leigh wails, “How could you!” and rushes to Skype her mother (Anita Pallenberg, no less) for advice. It’s enough to send an angelheaded hipster wandering up Ludlow Street looking for an angry fix …

Even more confined to a single space, Gareth Huw Evans’s “The Raid: Redemption” is a high-concept, non-stop action flick in the mode of John Carpenter’s B-movie classic “Assault on Precinct 13” — not to mention a kickbox extravaganza that had the audience in the screening room in which I saw it cheering in disbelief. To see it is to imagine Quentin Tarantino screaming encouragement. Having successfully stormed a rundown, high-rise gangster stronghold in a Jakarta slum, an Indonesian SWAT team comes under attack from all directions: “Fifteen stories of death!!” The movie is bloody, violent, thrilling, and near pornographic in its stabbing, slashing, impaling, bludgeoning, and percussive stomping. Grisly, yes, but there’s a definite formal logic to the mayhem: The early battles are waged with battlefield-caliber assault weapons, switch to close-quarter machete duels, and wind up with one of the most intense instances of hand-to-hand (or foot to head) combat that has ever scorched the screen. Not for every taste obviously, but as the latest in Asian killing machine pyrotechnics, “The Raid” (which, in addition to New York and LA, opens this weekend in Chicago, DC, and San Francisco) seems certain to inspire a Hollywood remake. What will be difficult will be casting the roles filled by Indonesian Judo champion Joe Taslim and fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian.

On a superficially (but not really) calmer note, we have the emotional tumult of “The Deep Blue Sea,” adapted by British master filmmaker Terence Davies from Terence Rattigan’s dated, if beautifully titled, adultery drama. The movie is set in 1950 and opens with a sensationally orchestrated suicide attempt in a drab London apartment. Having left her stodgy old husband for a younger man, hitherto proper Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) swallows a bottle of pills and turns on the gas.

The movie’s first ten minutes are sensational, but then … the play. (Turns out that Hester’s feckless lover has forgotten her birthday.) When it comes to Rattigan’s dialogue, less is definitely more. Although somewhat trimmed, the big dramatic scenes between Hester and her husband and her lover remain cringe-worthy. Still, Davies’ artistry never flags. The sound design, heavy on Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, is impeccable; the lighting is exquisite; the compositions noteworthy. If the melodrama verges on the ridiculous, Weisz, who is seldom off screen, does not. Davies is an appreciative director of actresses. Hester’s fragility and isolation are the most powerful aspects of the movie, as is her character’s struggle with authority. Her father was a vicar; her husband is a titled magistrate. She feels too deeply and has difficulty connecting. Those familiar with Davies’s earlier evocations of post-World War II British life (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”) will know everything they need to about his protagonist’s psychology watching her failure to fully participate in spontaneous pub sing-alongs of sentimental pop songs.

Reverie is Davies’s essential mode and “The Deep Blue Sea” oscillates between the rhapsodic and the maudlin — it isn’t entirely successful but it’s never less than engrossing. My colleague Graham Fuller has an excellent interview with Davies that can be read here.  

Previously: Trailer: Abel Ferrara’s World’s-End Drama “4:44 Last Day on Earth”

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