Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Zombie Youth: Playground Politics

Novel by H.E. Goodhues
Publisher - Severed Press
Release Date - April 2012
Format - e-Book (Kindle Exclusive)
Price - $4.99

One of the things I love about being a substitute teacher is the people I meet, especially when they share my interests in history, film and writing. Just the other day, a colleague of mine from the English Department in one of these schools informed me that one of her relatives had just completed and published an independent zombie novel as an e-book. Being the glutton for flesh-craving shambling punishment that I am I promptly made the purchase and proceeded to devour this feast within a day. With this tidbit in mind, I would like to thank Theresa Ciccone, the Creative Writing/Film teacher at Monmouth Regional High School for directing me to this work.

Zombie Youth: Playground Politics follows the exploits of Sam Maxwell and his fellow survivors at Montville Regional School Complex as they try to cope with the sudden loss of the world they once knew and deal with a land full of the walking dead and deranged psychos who make the undead look preferable. The story proper opens on a typical day in the lives of our fourteen year old protagonist and his classmates. All Sam wants to do is survive the day, avoid the brutish Chris, and win the affection of new-girl sweetheart Alice. However, all is not well as scores of people around the world start coming down with a mysterious illness that only affects anyone over the age of twenty. However, this age barrier offers no protection for the young when teachers, parents, cops and other adults die only to rise again with an appetite for living flesh.

The school is put under lockdown, which while under some circumstances would provide some protection only serves to give the zombie teachers a veritable buffet to dine upon. In the end, only Sam, his older brother Max, romantic option Alice, and several other students survive the initial outbreak with the help of Hector the zombie-slaying janitor. The only other adults who survive is Ms. Koslov, the "strong-like-bull" Russian gym teacher and Elsie the Haitian lunch lady. Among the teenage survivors is Chris, the jerk with a heart of gold, the cute Amelia, Joey - Sam's best friend and the resident joker of the group, and Ronnie, the tech kid and party alchemist who learned everything from the internet. No, really.

Early on, the plot evokes images of an Americanized telling of the anime/manga of High School of the Dead minus the misogynistic attitudes and panty-shots. While much of the "A" plot revolves around the survivors scavenging for food, supplies, and other basic means to survive against ht living dead, there is surprisingly very little tension between them. This surprised me more than anything, since high school is usually (and somewhat accurately I may add) a hot bed for drama both natural and artificial. Zombie novels and movies in general often tear parties apart both figuratively and literally. Instead, everyone falls into a comfortable role and contributes to the greater good.

With the absence of a social ladder and the zombies chomping at the gate, the petty struggles of mankind take a backseat to basic survival. Instead, what we're left with is a fairly and ironically optimistic view of the future, even with the world being infested with walking dead. All of the adults, including the soldiers who appear later on, seem to echo the sentiment that the kids are the only hope for the continuation of the species. As a certified teacher who has spent the last three years as a substitute teacher, I can appreciate this sentiment completely. It's actually a breath of fresh air that is desperately needed, especially when one considers the fatalistic tone of most zombie novels. Zombie Fallout, for example, makes it very clear that this is the end of the line for humanity and no matter what our "heroes" do, this is mankind's last hurrah. That being said I have not yet read the fourth book in that series so time will most likely tell, but that's the general tone that series in particular has given me. While the message of optimism and faith in the next generation is not as heavy-handed as in say, Next Generation, it's still present for those who look for it.

And boy oh boy do they need that sort of thinking when the "B" plot rolls into town as a snaking trail of fire. What zombie novel would be complete without a band of psychotic looters obsessed with the end of the world? But thankfully where Zombie Fallout had rapists and pedophiles as the mainstay mortal baddies, Zombie Youth sticks to a group that is more terrifying than uncomfortable: a religious organization that views the walking dead as angels of God come to purge the wicked. For those of you who ever dreamed of seeing the Westboro Baptist Church as the villains of a story, you could get no closer to that fantasy than this:

Apparently God hates fags, but loves George A. Romero.

It is here where I become a bit ambivalent to the story. The inclusion of human adversaries was inevitable, and the characters in question are indeed more disturbing and vile than even the zombies, but I cannot help but feel as though they're rather artificial. Perhaps this feeling comes from the fact that prior to the zombies, we as readers are unaware of any religious groups in the town, but then again what teenager is versed in religious politics in their community without being a member of a church or temple group or a regulated after-school religious affiliation? Regardless, the group our heroes meet is disturbing and display that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

What zombie novel would be complete without the walking dead for which the subgenre is named? Indeed, what review would be complete without including a critique on them? Little if anything is known about the cause behind the zombies outside of speculation. The accepted theory is a prion virus that only affects adults, which instantly makes me think this whole thing could just be resolved by contacting the Department of Military Sciences. I'm sure after all the stuff he has been through as of late, Captain Ledger would be more than happy to fight more zombies. The living dead of this setting are much more primal, ranging from the basic shambler to ghoul-like beasts who sprint on all fours, have no eyes, and delight in breaking bones to get at the sweet marrow inside. Another type is presented, but that one is best save for those to discover on their own.

Another interesting point to make is that the story is not broken up into chapters as per the usual design. Rather, the format is one long narrative broken up into segments. This gives the novel a fluid pace that has no definitive pause, giving it a fast-paced feel even when little is going on. Passages of time are glossed over, perhaps to allude to the idea that in the zombie-dominated world time has no meaning. However, this also gives the reader very little room to pause and take a break without interrupting the narrative. It's a bit like playing Mario on Game Boy, where you have to sit there for hours and play through because there's no such thing as a save state.

In the end, Zombie Youth: Playground Poltiics is an engrossing, fast-paced and most importantly enjoyable zombie romp, and a surprising hit from a newcomer. The only drawback for this novel is that it is a Kindle Exclusive as far as I've seen, so your miles may vary on accessibility. However, this is one zombie novel that is fun, exciting, and well worth the price of admission. There will likely be more installments to this work, and I will indeed be reading those as they come out. My compliments and best wishes to the writer.

Heroes: An interesting group of students, faculty, and soldiers - 4/5
Villains: The Westboro Baptist Church loves the undead - 3/5
Setting: A compact environment that has lots of action and detail - 4/5
Plot: A two-part plot focuses on survival at all cost - 4/5
Narrative: The tone is rather positive for the future, but the frights are tense - 5/5
Science/Magic: Prion virus creates multiple breeds of zombies and lots of speculation - 4/5

Score: 4/5 - Well worth the asking price and sure to please any zombie fan.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Hunger Games - Movie Review

When a novel (or in this case, a series of novels) gain enough recognition, fame, and merchandise to warrant a film adaptation, there is always a mixed bag of reactions that go along with it. General audiences will normally turn with a mild passing interested at the idea, and for a time profits for the publisher who owns the rights to the works soars as people buy up copies prior and during the release in order to see what they are going to be watching, if it is worth their time, and just how much is altered between the two. Some people will despise both as wastes of the paper and film, while others will join the growing rapid fan base that will undoubtedly explode as a reaction to the news of a movie adaptation being in the works and released. More still will nod their amusement, take it as a temporary distraction, and leave as soon as the high has run its course.

Fans on the other hand, tend to be a bit more rabid out the gate, and always find themselves rushing to make it to one of two camps before the gates close for good: the "Holy crap this is going to be the greatest day of my life" camp, and the ever-popular "Why are they making this into a movie? OMG Hollywood has destroyed my favorite series and the author who sold their series to a major publisher and achieved success has now sold out by having their story play out to audiences all over the world" camp. This is not to say that everyone feels this way, but the vibes in said fanbase can usually become so strong that people who are even in the moderate camp feel compelled to join one side of the other lest they be stomped on by their louder, more vicious compatriots. In this regard, fanbases are much like political parties, where if you're not considered radical or conservative enough to roll with the big dogs you may as not even come out onto the porch.

With this in mind I would like to approach the subject material of my first film review: The Hunger Games - a movie based off the premiere novel and series of the same name written by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is Scholastic's latest young adult franchise in their long line of successful series. Whereas Twilight, their last major mini-empire, polarized fans of literature, vampires, werewolves, and decency in general with a chasm that could threaten to make the Grand Canyon look like a minor indent, The Hunger Games has provided series that is a bit more crowd-pleasing. Some people laud it as the next great series and how it seems to exude an aura of intelligence, passion and realistic commentary on war, propaganda and gender roles, while others shrug it off as at least being better than Twilight in that there's an actual plot and three-act structure that can be followed with ease. Although in my brother's case he closed his interest promptly after the Games proper started, and yet he only closed the books once he started the second. As for me, my own personal opinion in this series is going to have to wait for my complete breakdown of the three books in question.

Released in March 23rd of 2012 by Lionsgate, The Hunger Games movie follows, much as the books, the story of Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl who lives in the coal-mining community known as District 12. On the day the movie starts, Katniss, her friend Gale, and every other person in District 12 under the age of eighteen is preparing for an event called "The Reaping", which you will be excused if you imagine the children waiting in line for harvesting while awaiting the imminent coming of Commander Shepard.

But he's too busy punching reporters and determining which crew member to sleep with this game.

Despite her assurances that she would never be picked, Katniss's baby sister Prim falls prey to plot contrivance and is selected as the girl tribute for the Hunger Games; a grisly sport where teenagers from each of the twelve districts that surround the capital city are rounded up and made to fight to the death for entertainment and to remind the people who is in charge. Katniss takes this news as well as can be expected, but decides to remind the audience that she is the protagonist for a reason and offers herself as tribute instead. And thus Katniss becomes the female tribute for District 12 and the centerpiece of the story.

As the story centers around Katniss, now would be the time to discuss her as a character from the point of view of a film. Jennifer Lawrence plays our protagonist, and seems to fit in rather well for the role. In the novel, Katniss is portrayed as a strong, independent and aloof character who is headstrong only to the point of being reluctant, although in the end she will clearly do what needs to be done in order to survive. In this regard, Jennifer Lawrence performs and admirable job and somehow manages to give this aloof character a sense of softness and humanity that is missing within the book. Some people have complained that the actress looks too well-fed to play an effective Katniss and state that she looks too pale when compared to the "olive" skin mentioned in the novels. At this point I would like to argue that yes, District 12 is a place where people are always on the cusp of starvation, but Katniss has spent the last few years of her life putting meat on the table by hunting, which would ensure that she and her family would be healthy and living just above the bare status quo. As for her skin, I would like to argue that this is a moot point, as while Jennifer Lawrence may not have the most "appropriate" color, she still fit the role well and carried herself as many people, myself included, viewed Katniss to act.

Another point, which I hoped to avoid for later but I know now must be addressed before I go any further, is the argument revolving around the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue. This has become one of the most shameful and despicable things that I have seen in recent years, and would like to make a point of it here before going further. In keeping with the theme of "skin color accuracy", Rue is mentioned in the novels to have dark skin. And yet after the casting was made and the movie came out, people from all over the internet cried foul over the choice to cast an African American girl for this part, citing that they always pictured her pale and with blonde hair. To top it off, these "fans" have taken this outcry one step too far in that they have launched forum discussions and tweet campaigns against this. I will not mention half of the things I dug up while doing research for this review, but needless to say, these were things that I wish did not need to be brought up. Better people than I have commented on this sickening display of racism that is best left in the days when segregation was law, and I will not pander to these people by continuing. I just wanted to make note of it because I knew someone would say I left it out of my discussion.

As for the actress in question, Amandla Stenberg does a fine job with her small but poignant role. She is cute, heartwarming, and does indeed help fulfill the role of the tragic innocent who represents all of the other innocents tragically lost in this heinous game and all the ones like it.

The rest of the cast does a fairly decent job and are well-suited for their roles. Although I never expected him as a part of the cast, Woody Harrelson does a fair job of playing Haymitch, though at any moment during the advice scene I was expecting him to tell Katniss to nut-up or shut-up. Liam Hemsworth and Joshua Hutcherson play respectable versions of Gale and Peeta respectively, and in Joshua Hutcherson's case he most definitely managed to steal the show from Jennifer Lawrence whenever he appeared on screen. This isn't because Jennifer Lawrence is a weak or unremarkable actress, but that's just how the characters are portrayed; while Katniss burns with a vicious survival instinct kept in check by a cold exterior, Peeta is warm, charismatic, and downright pleasant in his own right. Perhaps the real treat in the casting though, is the subtle wicked performance of Donald Sutherland as President Snow. His scenes are short, concise, and he is always so soft-spoken that you almost forget how ruthless this character is. It was a genuine surprise to see him portrayed in this movie as much as he was, considering President Snow gets less scene-time in the books than Rue, but it all helped to establish his character for later.

I would be remiss to not mention the performance of Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, if only because I know a friend would surely beat me within an inch of my life for not saying anything. In truth I did enjoy his short but endearing portrayal of someone who clearly hated to think he was dressing a child up for slaughter, but by dammit he was going to make her go out in style if she died. My only other surprise with the casting of Paula Malcomson as Katniss and Prim's mother. This is most likely because my brain instantly switches to Deadwood whenever Paula or another cast member of that show appears within my field of vision. At least in the semi-western setting of District 12 there were no saloons for her to work out of.

Even Swearengen is having trouble wrapping his mind around this one.

Speaking of District 12, the set design for the movie is very well-done with respect that it distinguishes the world that Katniss knows to the world of the Capital. Whereas the color scheme and setting for District 12 is as drab and muted as one can expect an old-timey mining community to be, the city strikes an odd balance of old and austere with new and flamboyant. There are very few exterior shots of the Capital, and those that we do see lend itself to some blatant Roman architecture and motifs that may as well say "Why yes, we are in fact ripping off the Roman gladiator games! Isn't that obvious?!" considering they feature arches and red banners emblazoned with golden eagles. Most of the Capital locations are interiors and are designed to look quite modern. What is truly jarring yet faithful to the books is how strange and alien the people look with their multicolored dyed skin, wild flamboyant hair styles, and just bizarre fashion sense. It's almost as if someone took an episode of Doug and smashed it into a volume of I, Claudius.

When the games finally do begin, as the old Roman adage goes (although I doubt the Romans ever said that), the camera becomes a jarring documentary-style affair in what I imagine was an attempt to make it look as violent as possible without showing actual violence. Whenever someone is hacked with a bladed weapon, the camera shakes frantically in an attempt to cut away from the violence while providing an impact. All this does is give the audience whiplash. It also fails to serve as a buffer from the violence when we later get to see kids dead and covered with gore.

One thing I did like about the games scenes was the inclusion of the war room where the Game Masters command everything that happens. Here we get to see exactly how much control they have and helps provide the audience with an idea of just how helpless the contestants are in this game. It is a bit strange to wait for the hour mark before our villains arrive, but they were still enjoyable nonetheless.

If there is one thing I could say against the movie, it would be that the film is very much for fans of the novels, or at least for people interested in reading them. I went to see the movie with two of my best friends, and I was the only one who read the books prior to going. Many events and exposition was glanced over or given in such short detail that they missed much of the background to the world, which I provided them with later on. The thing is that many of these little pieces could have been added as a sentence of exposition dialogue.

For my final thoughts; The Hunger Games is a faithful and relatively enjoyable adaptation to the book series. There's a deep-seated commentary about perception, propaganda, entertainment and control that will touch with people who are looking for it, but for most fans it will be a fun ride that pleases more often than disappoints. I personally enjoyed the movie, as did my friends from what they told me.

Final Score: 4/5

While not the best movie adaptation I have ever seen, it clearly has a lot of heart. This is a movie that is very much for the fans, but there is enough to entertain a mainstay audience. I would recommend reading at least the first book before seeing the movie, if only to get a better grasp of some of the things they gloss over, such as Katniss's father and the whole concept behind the Huger Games.