Thursday, March 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

"It's the same story every year. He tells of the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a country that was once called North America. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us new laws to guarantee peace and, as a yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.”

If you’ve read the YA novel The Hunger Games you’re probably pretty worried right about now with hours to go before the midnight screening you bought tickets for two weeks ago (though maybe less so if you've read any reviews). You might be thinking, can Jennifer Lawrence pull this out, are they going to get Panem “right,” and why is Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) head so large? He has a really big head; I never noticed it in The Kids Are All Right, but it’s HUGE. You also might be thinking that you’re a little old for midnight screenings (and you totally are, most likely). Anyway, I’d like to take a moment to alleviate your well-justified fears. The Hunger Games is as layered, heartbreaking and expectation-fulfilling as we’ve all been hoping. It's clearly more than another money-making franchise, in a many scenes it's transcendent. No, I’m totally serious. THG was directed by the same dude who wrote Big and directed Pleasantville and the way he balances unimaginable human suffering and moments of beauty shows a deep respect for the characters and the film’s younger audience.  There is a real tenderness to this film amidst all the slayings and human rights violations. Ross still allows Katniss time to appreciate a butterfly in a rare moment of respite in the arena and Lawrence has the chops make it authentic and not schmaltzy. THG series’ author Suzanne Collins co-adapted the screenplay with Ross and Billy Ray (State of Play, Shattered Glass) in such a way as to both honor and expand Collins’ world while giving us just what we’ve been waiting for – a Katniss we can get behind, a Katniss that will spark a revolution.

“Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch - this is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.”

Skip this paragraph if you’ve read the books….
THG is set in a dystopian future where the ruling city selects a boy and girl (ages 12-18) from the twelve districts that make up a post-war North America to fight to the death on a sort of super twisted Truman Show each year. Hunter and family provider, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight in the 74th annual games when her little sister Prim is called up at this year’s Reaping. Katniss and her fellow tribute, Peeta, the town baker’s son, are whisked into the arms of Effie Trinket, district 12 representative and taken to the Capital for a make-over and combat/survival/interview training before being thrust into the battle arena, a huge expanse of wilderness filled with deadly traps and animals controlled by the game keeper, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) under the rule of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Mentored by district 12’s only past winner of the games, town drunk Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and styled by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss finds herself in a PR battle as she struggles to get through pregame interviews and then again in the arena where she struggles to: remain morally intact, grab ratings/sponsors, pull off a love story, and survive.

It's not just a movie about kids killing kids, it's also about watching TV!

From the propaganda video that is played at the start of the Reaping to Sutherland’s quietly frightening portrayal of President Snow – it’s about to get seriously 1984 up in this jawn. THG is an allegory for a possible future, but also touches upon atrocities in our very real past. When the children of district 12 silently march, wearing their best, but still dingy, shirts and dresses, into the Reaping area surrounded by armed guards separated from their parents, it clearly recalls black and white images of death marches and camps from a not-so-forgotten time. Just the first of many "This is a kids' movie?" moments.

The sci-fi elements in this world are not gratuitous, but tools of convenience: food still looks like food, a train is still a train but medicine and skin-dying is ridiculously advanced. The Capitol is a little too Coruscant-y for my taste, but games announcer  Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his plastic teeth succinctly captures the spirit of excess and lunacy of the entire spectacle.  The grand outdoor plazas of the Capitol center around giant TV screens and are filled 24/7 with pink haired, green-skinned idiots indulging, mindlessly binging on the suffering of others like it was just another episode of Survivor (which is ridiculous this cycle, by the way).

If Lucas taught us one thing, it's never trust a white uniform.

THG’s hand-held camera makes us a part of the violence and not just another spectator in some over-CGI’d unoriginal adaptation. We can't look away, but action often happens in a blurry frenzy, reflecting the human eye's incapacity to see details when the shit is really hitting the fan. Clocking in at 2 ½ hours, THG spends almost as much time out of the arena as it does in it. This means two things, 1) we’re given ample time to see the characters develop and 2) this film doesn’t turn into a boring action movie. And thank the Maker for that.  The killing in THG is handled artfully – while the violence is brutal and affecting without being too graphic, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, the scenes with Rue (you know the ones I’m taking about) are just plain beautiful.

THG makes Twilight look like, well, just what Twilight is – tween prattle with no real guts to really say anything. Given source material that warrants a deep read and is NOT solely structured around a teen romance, THG is an exceptional adaptation and better yet, a good film. Though it must be said that viewers who have not read the books will be confused by one moment near the end, but if you ask about it in the bathroom afterward, someone like me will set you straight. The casting is remarkable as well. Lawrence is at home once again in the woods, caring for others (see Winter’s Bone), which is welcome because her turn at a super hero was underwhelming (see X-Men: First Class, or don't, it’s not great).  Katniss of the novel is supposed to be underfed and sinewy, but it’s refreshing to see a young actress on screen that looks like a real person and not a collection of bones and muscle. America does not need another underfed actress kicking ass. Kravitz is the other nice surprise, giving us subdued interpretation of Katniss’ fabulous stylist, Cinna.  And this subtlety shows up in almost every element of the film – CGI shots are brief, landscapes are few, and never does the camera linger very long on spectacle, instead it chooses to focus on the human faces that make up the story.  And Lawrence’s face could tell the whole tale. Can’t wait for her to catch fire in 2013.

1 comment:

Darby Photos said...

you actually make me want to see this. No one else has been able to do that.