Hell's Belles

Tracking the teen heroines of the new dystopian thrillers

(Photo courtesy of Scholastic)
L ike the flu virus, the genre of dystopic novels for young adults has many strains. The one featuring a teenage girl battling for her life got a massive boost in the fall of 2008, when the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Collins’s franchise has more than 23.5 million books in print and a movie adaptation due out next week, while new entries in the genre keep pouring forth, eagerly welcomed by fans and Hollywood. Why have readers been so drawn to catastrophic futures when the present seems troubled enough? Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker , critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to...

A Nightstick Turned into a Song

Two new books and a documentary cue up the soundtrack of the black-power movement.

(Courtesy of Louverture Films)
I n January, President Barack Obama made his singing debut on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During a campaign fundraising speech, he leaned into the microphone, gently slid his State of the Union baritone up to a whispery falsetto, and nailed the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together,” the Al Green soul classic that has melted hearts and warmed sheets since its release in 1971. “I-I-I-I, I’m so in love with you,” Obama cooed. The video of his impromptu performance has logged more than four million views, and the song has become an unofficial re-election theme. Obama’s rendition is available as a ringtone; inevitably, Green showed up to sing it at an event in February. Yet the power of the clipped cover version was its resurrection of the ghosts of Obamas past. The serenade was a reminder not just of the subtle swagger that found Obama brushing the dirt off his shoulders à la Jay-Z back in 2008 but also of a tradition of civil rights–era black culture and politics that Obama...

McCain's Oops Moment

Nothing quite so aptly conveys the charade of practiced authenticity in our national politics as the four-star hotel room on a long-slog campaign run—a mess of tasseled drapes, ample sofas, and crisp white sheets all straining in hollow imitation of home. In what is one of the many huddles in hotel rooms such as this in HBO’s Game Change , which premiers this Saturday, March 10 on HBO, an (initially) pants-less John McCain, played by Ed Harris, talks with his senior campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and campaign manager Rick Davis (the whiny-voiced Peter MacNicol of Ally McBeal fame) about the possibility of bringing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin onto the GOP ticket. To allay his candidate’s fears that the choice might be “too outside the box,” Schmidt lays out his reasoning, and coincidentally, the theme of the film: Sir, we live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. How else do you think a man who has absolutely no major life accomplishments is beating...

This Is Not a Movie Review

Iranian director Jafar Panahi's latest film revels in the irony of making a film about being forbidden to make a film.

Director Jafar Panahi appears on screen for almost the entire duration of his latest film—making breakfast, getting bad news from his lawyer, staging an impromptu read-through of a script the Iranian government has forbidden him to shoot. Panahi is not directing, though—at least he’s not supposed to be. As his cameraman and collaborator reminds him, even yelling “cut” would be considered an offense. The resulting footage is just as ontologically coy. The feature, which makes its U.S. debut this week, is titled This Is Not a Film . Like the René Magritte painting it calls upon , Panahi and collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s “effort,” as it’s billed, draws attention to the slippery line between artifice and actuality. In this way, Panahi keeps true to his usual M.O.—the hall-of-mirrors style for which he and his mentor, the great Abbas Kiarostami ( Certified Copy , Ten , Taste of Cherry ), are renowned. What’s real, what’s not, what’s staged, and what’s spontaneous is never quite clear...

A Taste for Mediocrity

Why does Hollywood give us bad movies? Because we love them.

(AP Photo/Joel Ryan)
Slumped in your chair as life's meaninglessness washed over you like lava made of Brad Pitt's bubble gum, you may have zoned out for the most tattletale bit of Sunday night's Oscars telecast. (If you just skipped the whole shebang, well—more power to you, Secretary Clinton. Good luck with the Syria thing.) After Octavia Spencer collected her Best Supporting Actress statue for playing a grumpy maid in The Help —proves how far we've come since Hattie McDaniel's win for Gone With the Wind now doesn't it?—host Billy Crystal introduced a skit mocking the dim-witted ways a bumpkin focus group might have reacted to a test screening of The Wizard of Oz , from mistaking the Munchkins for children to urging the hapless studio rep (Bob Balaban) to ditch "Over the Rainbow." Ho ho ho. The point, you see, was that the moviegoing public is a bunch of cretins. Not the studios, who of course invented test screenings in the first place. In other words, don't blame Hollywood if movies are bad. They're...

The Prospect Goes to the Oscars

Here are our reviews of some of this year's big hits so you can catch up before Sunday's show. 

Have you made your Oscar picks for this Sunday's Academy Awards broadcast yet? No fear, we've collected all our reviews of this year's nominated films so you can cram before the big show, and pass off Tom Carson's less-than-effusive thoughts on Midnight in Paris as your own (if you so choose). Don't forget to check in next week for our special Oscars-themed Vox and Friends podcast! Woody Allen's Excellent Adventure By Tom Carson Midnight in Paris is nothing more than a dilettante's guide to the City of Lights . In the running for: Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay Woody Allen's Excellent Adventure The Help's Same Old Story By Zerlina Maxwell The film boasts Oscar-worthy performances but spotlights black exploitation in Hollywood. In the running for: Best Picture; Best Actress; Best Supporting Actress The Help's Same Old Story From London, With Angst By Jake Blumgart Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the last days of Britain as a superpower. In the running for: Best Actor...

The Lorax, Soon to Infect Theaters With Insidious Propaganda

I have a friend, a strong environmentalist and all-around lefty of the kind your average conservative talk show host would just love to punch in the face, who has a Lorax tattooed on his shoulder. He got it 10 or 15 years ago, and his ink of Dr. Seuss' exasperated little dude who tries in vain to protect the Truffula trees never fails to win admiration from any and all who see it. But now Hollywood has come along, and using its impeccable logic— Kids love Dr. Seuss; kids love movies; ergo, kids will love Dr. Seuss movies! —has finally gotten around to making a full-length version of The Lorax . There's a mixed record on Dr. Seuss movies ( Horton Hears a Who , not bad; The Cat In the Hat , a soul-sucking crime against nature), but particularly with The Lorax , a rather bleak morality tale with only a couple of characters, they'd have to cram in a whole bunch of humans and events that Dr. Seuss never dreamed of to get it to 90 action-packed minutes. And did they ever; Grist 's David...

A Homeric D'oh

The Simpsons celebrates a television milestone but where has all the edge gone?

Watching The Simpson s now is like watching the movie version of the Broadway show based on John Waters’ classic Hairspray . The form is the same, but the spirit just isn’t there. When the 500th episode of the show aired Sunday night, I couldn’t be bothered to care. The main problem is that the show jumped the shark more than a decade ago and, while it still manages to pop off plenty of laugh lines, it lacks the satirical heart that made it truly groundbreaking when it made its debut 23 years ago. The Simpsons first aired when I was in the seventh grade, and like much of the country, I fell in love with the characters and embraced it with the same enthusiasm that I had shown for other, more wholesome programs like The Cosby Show . Certainly, The Simpsons felt rougher around the edges, darker, and definitely more controversial than previous sitcoms. Homer frequently leapt on Bart and choked him in rage. Marge was stupid, and Lisa misunderstood. Still, the show adhered to the sitcom...

The Help's Same Old Story

The film boasts Oscar-worthy performances but spotlights black exploitation in Hollywood.

(AP Photo/Dale Robinette)
Much has been written about The Help ’s whitewashing of American history in the Jim Crow South. The film’s revisionist plot follows the efforts of an altruistic white savior, played by Emma Stone, as she writes a book about the daily lives of maids in 1963 Mississippi. Certain realities of the time, including the death of prominent civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, are brushed aside, glossed over, or completely misinterpreted. Tulane political-science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry has called the movie “ahistorical” and “deeply troubling.” With the Academy Awards two weeks away and The Help, which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, poised to win big, what does the film’s success say about Hollywood’s unwillingness to properly tell black stories? James McBride, who co-wrote the upcoming film Red Hook Summer with Spike Lee, recently penned an open letter to Hollywood in which he noted the irony of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer receiving acting...

Will the Real Citizens United Please Stand Up?

(Photo: Patrick Caldwell)
CPAC, DC—The Citizens United case is back in the news this week with the Obama campaign's announcement that they would coordinate to help raise funds with the super PAC Priorities USA. As the presidential campaign ramps up, it's easy to forget what the actual Citizens United organization is: a mini-film studio with a conservative bent. The group is all over CPAC this week, airing their films in the CPAC Theatre, hosting a blogger briefing Wednesday, and sponsoring a panel Thursday morning titled "Advancing the Pro-Life Movement through Media.” And of course, they also have a booth selling DVDs of their various films in the CPAC vendor basement. (The American Prospect/Patrick Caldwell) Citizens United displays its greatest hits. I caught up with the group to see which films had sold the most copies in the conservative crowd. " The Gift of Life is always very popular," the young woman selling DVDs told me, mentioning their film featuring Mike Huckabee relaying various inspirational...

The Libertarian Romantic Thriller

(Photo: Patrick Caldwell)
REPUBLICAN CENTRAL, DC—Every Republican presidential nominee is speaking in CPAC's main ballroom today except Rep. Ron Paul. He sent his son, Sen. Rand Paul, in his stead last night and the libertarian's message is being spread—if not always explicitly—down in the CPAC dungeon of booths. (The American Prospect/Patrick Caldwell) Filmmakers have been marketing "Silver Circle" to comic book fans and conservatives. Set in 2019 during the aftermath of an economic collapse, the animated film "Silver Circle" is a "fun thriller romance," according to producer/director Pasha Roberts. I walked up to this booth expecting the typical Paul friendly organization arguing against fiat money, but was instead treated to behind the scenes clips of actors on a green screen stage edited with shots of the completed footage, fully animated in a manner evoking the rotoscoped effect of "Waking Life" but far more halting and amateurish in appearance. "Silver Circle" follows the soon-to-be true story of anti-...

Woody Allen's Excellent Adventure

Midnight in Paris is nothing more than a dilettante's guide to the City of Lights.

AP Images
U p for four Academy Awards on February 26 and Woody Allen's biggest box-office hit ever, Midnight in Paris seems likely to overtake even 1977's Annie Hall as the man's most beloved movie. And I wish I could belove it myself, honest I do. In this case, it's no fun to disparage the core audience's genuine pleasure. It's not as if a marketing juggernaut turned the thing into a must-see. Nobody expected Allen's latest to do much business until old-fashioned word of mouth brought his longtime fans out of the woodwork while earning him more than a few new ones. Since I live for chances to fake being an endearing sort of fellow, it's just my lousy luck that I couldn't help abominating Midnight in Paris pretty much from lights down to closing credits. Presumably, you all know the premise by now. On vacation in the City of Light with his snot of a fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and his gargoyle-Republican future in-laws, discontented screenwriter Owen Wilson finds a portal in time that lets him zip...

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The Oscars recognize women in non-traditional roles, but leave actors of color behind.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
With all the election-season ugliness, the announcement of the nominations for the 84th Oscars provide a welcome relief—at least until they remind us that Hollywood is largely in the business of telling the stories of straight white men. This year, we have some bad news and some good news when it comes to the acting categories for the Oscars. The good news is that, unlike in years past, the nominating committee didn’t have to scrounge to find ten great performances from actresses—a process that in the past often resulted in the embarrassing problem of having unknown names in the actress categories that leave viewers asking, “Who? In what?” Women are beginning to be recognized for playing more well-rounded characters with their own identity, such as heads of government or hacker-warriors, instead of the role of “Mom” or “Girlfriend.” Melissa McCarthy’s nomination for “Bridesmaids” even suggests that women might be sloughing off the requirement that they be conventionally attractive to...

The Yahoos Are Winning

A longtime movie critic's departure from the Village Voice signals a changing cultural tide.

Two unrelated but oddly congruent events riled up the movie blogosphere at the turn of the year. One was the inclusion of Forrest Gump— the 1994 Best Picture winner about a Candide-like naïf (Tom Hanks) stumbling through the 20th century from Kennedy's New Frontier to Reagan's morning in America—in the National Film Registry's annual choice of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" worth preservation by the Library of Congress. The other was the Village Voice 's January 4 firing of senior film critic J. Hoberman after 24 years in the top slot and a decade more than that of contributing to the paper. Besides the timing, one link between the two was how many of the same people were dismayed about both. In other words, a certain sensibility felt under threat, while—in Hoberman's case, anyhow—a brasher one shaped largely by backlash against the first was making merry. And neither kerfuffle was apolitical. To be sure, some earnest cinephiles objected to Gump 's...

It All Falls Apart

In the beautiful A Separation, even the family is no refuge from society.

Berthold Stadler/dapd
W ho are you to judge? Another’s life, the beliefs and attachments, rational and otherwise, that make up another’s choices—how can anyone evaluate such things? Yet the arguing Iranian couple in A Separation demand judgment. They face the camera in the opening scene, a comely woman with dyed-red hair under her veil, and her bearded, exasperated husband. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are presenting their case for divorce to an unseen magistrate and in turn, to us. She seeks a better life for their daughter abroad; he refuses to leave behind his home and his elderly father, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. The judge denies them a divorce, declaring, “My finding is that your problem is a small problem.” They are stuck with each other and with us. These are the seemingly low stakes of Asghar Farhadi’s latest, which has the unlikely distinction of being an Iranian film with Oscar buzz. (Iran hasn’t had a nomination since Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was up for...