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Book Reviews

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Opposable Thumbs

by Matt Singer, 2023

There is not much that I do not know about Gene Siskel (1946-1999) and Roger Ebert (1942-2013). To me, they were the apex predators of film criticism; and during my adolescence, I would lay at the foot of my grandmother’s bed and eagerly watch both of them verbally duke it out, sparring like Ali and Frazier without the gloves and the muscle mass. For thirty minutes, they would bicker like an elderly married couple and regularly talk over each other, constantly disagree, and then let their enthralled audience know if they gave the films they were reviewing a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The format of their show was simple and effective: two men, sitting across from each other, and talking. But, what made them compelling to me was not so much their oftentimes bitter banter about the cinema but more so their ability to speak about all sorts of movies with intelligence and passion. They loved the movies just as much as I did, and they ultimately became an influence in my life and my career as a writer and a teacher; and it is Matt Singer’s newest book, Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, that proves I was not the only person enamored by their spirited dynamic.

Singer starts his work by speaking about how these two men got their start: Siskel was a writer with the Chicago Tribune and Ebert was a writer with the Chicago Sun-Times. Both of them started out as staff writers but worked their way up to becoming full-time film critics. Ebert was first and Siskel was second but was hired because Ebert was becoming more well-respected, which ended up being lucrative for the newspaper (Ebert would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism). In essence, their relationship started as contentious and both of them, being the fierce competitors that they were, frequently attempted to one up each other when they had the opportunity. This led to a heated rivalry that was both antagonistic and, surprisingly enough, marketable. Producers involved in programming for the local Chicago public television station, WTTW, came up with a unique idea for a show where Siskel and Ebert would just talk about movies. Opening Soon was the first iteration of Siskel and Ebert’s show and it was a complete disaster in that the two of them were hardly photogenic and they had no sense of how to be in front of a camera; however, Thea Flaum, their producer, still saw something worth continuing and thus the age of televised film criticism began.

Siskel and Ebert were together for just about twenty-five years and their relationship started out with a great deal of anger, frustration, and an incessant need for one-upmanship. Although their vitriol on camera seemed staged, it was not. They fought and argued and tried to get more screen time than the other, so much so their producers were led to near insanity. And yet they stayed together and, with time, grew to respect and appreciate and, on some level, love one another as both colleagues and friends. There were multiple iterations of the show picked up by several distributors throughout the years but, no matter what happened, they stayed together not just out of necessity but because of a genuine caring that both of them had for one another. They would work together until Gene Siskel’s untimely death in 1999 at the age of 53. Ebert would later have a lucrative career on his own and, to his credit, he attempted to keep the format alive but he himself would get cancer, which became so serious he lost his voice and a good portion of his jaw. Until his death in 2013, Ebert would stay in the public eye by writing books, working as an online critic, and going on talk shows to speak about his health struggles. He was also the subject of an extraordinary documentary, Life Itself, which showed the world how strong-willed and strong-headed he could be while also being completely devoted to his wife, Chaz, who has kept him (and on some level Siskel) alive on such venues as YouTube.

Opposable Thumbs surely is about the love of movies but it also is successful in that it accurately speaks about how ego sometimes gets in the way of a good thing. These two men, filled with convictions, opinions, and piss and vinegar may have started as enemies but with time, patience, and

routine grew to become an unstoppable team devoted to making sure that all of us spent our hard-earned money on good films rather than dreck. Singer does an excellent job in providing a thorough history of both Siskel and Ebert, while at the same time recognizing the distinct personalities of each and how the individually changed the face of both movies and criticism for generations to come.

-Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr., 2023

Movie Reviews

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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Snow lands on top.

Four pivotal words distinguish yet another of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian masterpieces; it has finally made it to the big screen—the prequel offspring of The Hunger Games trilogy. President Snow’s story of youth and insatiability takes center stage in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Divided into three main overtures (with a brief prelude to set the stage for a war-wounded world), the film is a true testament to the potential of adaptation. Thank you, Francis Lawrence, for bringing Collins’ vision to life once again.

The film’s main events pick up at the start of the 10th annual Hunger Games, following the Dark Days of war. This year will be different from the past nine; this time, the bright graduating students of the Capitol are acting as the Games’ first-ever mentors. The goal for Panem: to turn the Games into a spectacle. The goal for Coriolanus Snow: to win the Plinth Prize and restore his family’s financial security. Although the Snows have maintained appearances well, it is quickly made apparent that they are nearly destitute. Snow finds himself mentoring the District 12 female tribute by the name of Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray is a performer at heart, a member of the gypsy-like Covey band in her district (although self-identified as drifters), and a willing participant in her mentor’s craftsmanship of her public persona…after a little persuasion on his part, that is. Motivations aside, the two must navigate the Games together—only to find that most dangers exist outside the fellow tributes. I am stopping my summary there, as this is a part of my spoiler-free sections.

Packed with a talented cast ensemble, Songbirds and Snakes was set to be a memorable premiere. Strong performances reigned all around, but perhaps the most powerful ones belong to Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow, Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird, Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth, and Viola Davis as Dr. Gaul.

It is now that I will offer a spoiler warning. If you have not yet seen the film and have never read the book, you may wish to skip to the end! I will label the ending to the spoiler zone.

Rachel Zegler’s performance in the film succeeds in giving Lucy Gray a new kind of vibrancy. From her expressive singing style (a pained kind of swan song with every lyric) to her bold dialogue with Snow, she is a heroine worthy of the vivid dresses she wears. In fact, I would argue that she gains more autonomy in the film as opposed to its textual counterpart, in which a lot of who she is and how her mind works remains a mystery. Of course, adapting a book like this one that is rife with subtlety must sacrifice some mysteries for the sake of not confusing the viewers, especially when the pacing of events is as fast as the Hunger Games entails. In this new cinematic view of Lucy Gray, we gain more insights into her active participation in the Games, later leading to a more distinct image of her as a victor.

Dr. Gaul is no exception to the vibrancy of film portrayal. The extensive costumery and makeup alone create a kind of serpentine chaos in her appearance—you never know when Dr. Gaul might strike. Davis expertly taps into the eerie nature of Dr. Gaul in both her line delivery and mannerisms. Her first appearance in the classroom above the students/mentors is striking in her horror film-esque stillness at the start and her riddle-patterned speech. It is here that I would like to note an interesting observation: the singular blue eye of Dr. Gaul is quite the color match to Coriolanus’ piercing blue eyes. Perhaps such a decision was meant to point to the villainy and chaos lurking beneath the surface for Coriolanus? Or maybe it is simply a hint of his future internship with Gaul, working with her directly as the game maker? All the same, it provokes an interesting take on the phrase, “Eyes are the windows to the soul.”

In juxtaposition to Gaul’s Capitol identity is the conflicted role of Sejanus Plinth. A martyr-in-training, Sejanus counteracts the influence of a character like Gaul upon Snow’s morality. Sejanus is a vocal dissenter of the Games and their cruelty, having grown up in District 2 himself. He has a distinct obsession with doing the right thing, usually in a radical way—similar in fact, to Gale Hawthorne’s kind of radicalism in thoughts and actions. His eventual demise is a fitting end to the powerlessness that comes with living in the Districts. Snow’s reaction to the results of his betrayal is one of his most memorable performances throughout the film—a slow transition from stoic apathy to a guilt-ridden breakdown. Although this was an excellent portrayal of Snow, I cannot help but wonder if they should have better incorporated the rationalization of his inner monologue from the book, in which he asks himself, “What choice did you have?” (Collins 472) This line is an apt example of the “good guy” complex, with its seemingly pure intentions that often conceal a subtle manipulation of the truth.

Tom Blyth’s performance as Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow is an excellent portrayal of the enigma that the character is. Where the book seeks to convey a kind of unfolding of his true nature, the film seems to convey the actual shaping of it in real time. His intentionality, like Lucy Gray’s, is more apparent in the film than in the novel (likely as an aid to those who have not read the book, who may have trouble tracking the faster events). He does not make a split-second decision to tamper with Gaul’s snakes in the film, but rather seeks them out and creates a prolonged plan to do so. Additionally, Coriolanus finds a way to aid Lucy Gray in attacking the other tributes, which is an entirely new side to his investment in the Games. Snow truly does live up to Lucy Gray’s labeling of him as a “rebel.” Similar to the novel, it can be difficult to determine exactly when Snow’s loyalties shift. Perhaps it’s when he uses the jabberjay against Sejanus.

I think perhaps the real shift occurs when he’s in the Hob during his time as a peacekeeper and finds himself drifting away from the song Lucy Gray wrote for him, eventually leading to the climactic flipping of the switch in his altercation with Billy Taupe, Mayfair, and the others. The moment when the switch flips for Coriolanus is convincing, but I find it interesting that up until that moment he seems to be far more empathy-inducing than sociopathic, the sociopathy being an impression of him that I found to be more notable in the book. Of course, I am still unsure whether to diagnose him as a sociopath or a good old-fashioned narcissist. Maybe Lawrence has determined it for me, and I should embrace the clear narcissism of Coriolanus’ motivations and quick changes in perspective. No matter the consensus, it is easy for me to say that Blyth crafted an excellent portrayal of a despicable character reaching the limits of his redeemable character, and facing the inner conflict that comes with that point in time. From his minute expressions to his clever manipulations, Blyth shows us the snake disguised as a flower.

Before I conclude my spoiler-filled review, I want to discuss two pivotal scenes: the moment Lucy Gray saves him after the arena bombings and his final attempts to kill her. How ironic that flames nearly burn him up and that his love—or rather, object of obsession—seems to disappear into the trees, amid the symphony of mockingjay song. What a chilling prelude to his end at the hands of the “girl on fire” and her rebel title of  “the mockingjay.” It is this selection of parallels in particular that evokes my only true critique of the film adaptation: they should never have cut out Lucy Gray’s line that “The show’s not over until the mockingjay sings.”

End of Spoiler Warning

Let’s talk about the general symbolism of the film! Symbols are everywhere you look, even in the title. Lucy Gray in her colorful array of showmanship presents a visual of plumage, which matches her appreciation for birds and ironically fits her inclinations towards snakes as well. The vitality that Lucy Gray represents crafts an image of Spring, whereas Snow himself symbolizes the gradual frost of winter’s approach. In fact, that approach seems to reach an interesting turning point when we hear the line, “Do you hear that? It's the sound of Snow falling.” While it is acceptable that Lucy Gray and Coriolanus pose as two opposing seasons, might it be a stretch to suggest they represent two halves to the identity of Katniss Everdeen? Maybe it is, but I’m going to throw that suggestion out there all the same.

Before going into watching the film, I want to point out a few things. First, Coriolanus’ name. His first name alone means “victorious” and fascinatingly enough, Coriolanus is the title of a Shakespeare play. In the play, which is based on historical events, Roman general Coriolanus makes his name defeating an enemy army and defending Rome, then later faces banishment and a tragic end due to his own actions. Second, I want to point out the symbol of his grandmother’s roses. The scent of roses is known to conceal other things in both The Hunger Games Trilogy and this latest addition to the franchise, although it is only explicitly mentioned in the books. How interesting then, that some scenes throughout the film contain roses while for others they are nowhere in sight. Additionally, the colors of the roses he is either wearing or gifting vary in color, ranging from white to red to yellow…

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a unique addition to Collins’ franchise not only because of its different characters and place in time but also because of its notable musical elements. Zegler gives an exemplary musical performance as Lucy Gray, creating a soundtrack that is beautiful and haunting in its lyrics. Her rendition of “The Hanging Tree” sheds new light on its impact upon President Snow during Katniss’ age of revolution. What that must have done to Snow hearing the music reborn after so many years, with its clear connection to his own life and the things he witnessed alongside Lucy Gray. The soundtrack of the film complements its cinematography very well, effectively returning to the coloring and sounds of the original franchise. Details such as the stark peacekeeper uniforms and the colors of the Capitol flag present an effective contrast to the persistent grime on the tribute’s faces and the dimmer, more faded coloring of most of the urban environments. A colorful character like Lucy Gray truly stands out in her environment of a post-war Capitol just beginning to lean into its fascination with luxury and whimsy.

There are some notable differences between the novel and the film, mainly in its pacing. Events leading up to the Games are condensed and sped up a great deal, and the sequence of what happens to certain characters and tributes is altered for the sake of cinematic intensity and easy transitions. Personally, I have no objections to the alterations that were made for the sake of time and clarity. I do think Clemensia should have been given greater complexity and screen time to mirror her role in the book, but I understand the need to avoid drawing the audience’s attention away from its leading actors.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes asks its characters and viewers alike “Why the Hunger Games?” Why should a punishment be made into a spectacle? Why has the Capitol deemed it a punishment deserved by the Districts? And how in the world did we reach a place in which the arena’s ironic repetition of “Enjoy the show!” has actually come to fruition? Coriolanus and Lucy Gray’s story of mentorship and conflicted morals presents a fascinating, and wholly entertaining, dissection of the Hobbes and Rousseau debate come to life: is man naturally good or naturally evil?

The longest film yet in the franchise, beating Catching Fire by a sliver of twelve minutes, Songbirds and Snakes is worth every minute. I highly recommend this film, both for the avid THG fan seeking greater depth to the lore and for the film buff seeking an intense and entertaining showcase. This film has revived the ominous magic of immersing oneself in a dystopian world that mirrors elements of our own reality. It is not lacking in some self-indulgent fun though. Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman echoes the laughter-inducing nature of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, creating a kind of dark humor element to the Games that provides levity to its dystopian intensity. Embracing my full bias, I am rating this film 5/5 stars. You can be sure I will be seeing this again. For those of you that have not yet purchased your tickets…

Enjoy the show.

-Schuyler Becker 

CSU Stanislaus 

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Gran Turismo

Gran Turismo, one of the most thrilling films of the year, is based on a true story about a sim racer who receives a one-in-a-million opportunity to attend Gran Truismo academy and potentially become a professional race car driver. Gran Turismo is set to deliver an exhilarating experience that will captivate both gaming enthusiasts and film lovers. Being a lifelong Gran Turismo fan, I could not have been more excited to witness the transformation of this beloved game into a captivating cinematic experience. This film was released on August 25, 2023 and was directed by Neill Blomkamp, and produced by Columbia Pictures, PlayStation Productions, and 2.0 Entertainment.

 

Behold this cinematic masterpiece that unfolds the captivating story of a true legend, none other than the influential Jann Mardenborough, a young man whose achievements will leave you in awe. In his formative years, an unstoppable passion for cars and the exhilarating world of racing took root within him. From the very first Gran Turismo video game, he set out on a captivating journey, devotedly engaging in its virtual realm ever since. Gran Turismo is a game that transcends the realm of mere average racing experiences. It is regarded as the epitome of legitimacy, a perfect example of a true driving simulator. The game masterfully captures the essence of each car’s unique dynamics and the exhilarating sensation of being behind the wheel. The level of precision in the game is truly remarkable, allowing expert Gran Turismo players to discern the subtle differences between each car within the game. Due to Mardenborough’s exceptional lap times within the game, he was selected as a participant in the highly competitive GT Academy, which could make or break his lifelong dreams of becoming a professional racer driver.

 

Archie Madekwe portrays the main role, Jann. Orlando Bloom plays Danny Moore, a Nissan marketing executive. Matty Davis, another GT Academy driver and Jann's adversary, is played by Darren Barnet. David Harbour stars as Jack Salter, a former racer who trains Jann at GT Academy. Jann's father, Steve Mardenborough, is played by Djimon Hounsou. Jann's mother, Lesley Mardenborough, is played by Geri Halliwell. Kazunori Yamauchi, the inventor of the Gran Turismo video game, is played by Takehiro Hira. Audrey, Jann's crush, is played by Maeve Courtier-Lilley. Coby Mardenborough, Jann's brother, is played by Daniel Puig. Josha Stradowski plays Nicholas Capa, a cunning and malicious driver; Jann's competition. 

 

Jacques Jouffret serves as the cinematographer for the film, with Sony investing $60 million in its production. Gran Turismo has achieved an impressive milestone, generating $100 million in box office revenue worldwide. It is worth noting the incredible soundtrack in this film. The song "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath effectively puts viewers in the emotions experienced by the characters. Kenny G's saxophone skills have the power to deeply move audiences, allowing them to experience a range of feelings even through a screen. It is noteworthy to account that the real Jann Mardenborough actually plays his own stunt double in the film!

 

The movie wraps up by showcasing the real Jann Mardenborough and provides insights into his remarkable journey. I am absolutely pleased to give this movie a perfect rating of 10/10. It was truly an exceptional film, undoubtedly the best I have seen this year. In fact, I found it so intriguing that I have watched it twice following my initial viewing. I have eagerly shared it with friends and family, and they have collectively acknowledged that this captivating and compelling narrative is one that deserves to be experienced by all.

- Martina Bekasha 

CSU Stanislaus

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