Saturday, March 24, 2012

Down and Out in District 12: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, based on the young adult event novel by Suzanne Collins, is a gimmicky story that is, fortunately, less gimmicky as a film.

The film’s strengths are the solid presence of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, an empowering female role model for millions of teenage girls, and a gripping opening sequence: the Reaping, a ceremony in which two “tributes” are randomly picked from 12 districts of downtrodden proletariat to provide fodder for a gladiatorial survival contest that entertains the aristocrats of the totalitarian Capitol.

Here, director Gary Ross employs a jittery camera and harsh lighting to capture the visceral gravity of a ceremony that is essentially ritualistic execution. The seriousness of this situation is also present in scenes set in the aristocratic Capitol, a vast city standing in bold contrast with the poverty of District 12, where the gaudily coiffed and costumed families of the privileged class get gleeful enjoyment out of a ghastly spectacle.

But the Reaping sequence stands out as the film’s most memorable moment. Thoughtful art direction and an excellent musical score provide a strong introduction to this sequence. The twang of guitars accompanying various shots of drab clapboard houses, clothes lines, and an old man nibbling on bones establish a setting as poor and forlorn as regions of Appalachia. In addition, the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and little Willow Shields, as Katniss’s sister, Prim, pack this episode with a poignant punch.

In a star-studded cast, some performers fare better than others. Woody Harrelson is tremendous as Haymitch, Katniss’s drunken mentor. Harrelson plays Haymitch as bitterly cynical when we first meet him, but he soon reveals Haymitch’s developing affection for Katniss and her male partner, Peeta Mellark, and his disgust for the Hunger Games.

As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is blandly wooden and way too buff for someone who is supposed to be starving. (As District 12’s baker boy, I guess he secretly stuffs himself with the cakes he makes for the Capitol though I have no clue why the Capitol would buy cakes made in a grubby coal-mining district a long train ride away.) In the Reaping sequence when his name is selected, his mouth gapes open in shock. Perhaps the gaping mouth is a good reaction to start with, but whenever the camera comes back to him, his face is frozen in the same wide-eyed yawn.

In a cast including Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, and Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci gets a lot of screen time as an unctuous talk-show host. Tucci is irritatingly overdrawn, but I guess that’s the point, as he incorporates all the tones and mannerisms of all the oily talk-show hosts we’d love to strangle to death.

But Lawrence drives the film. She reinstates heart-pounding tension, after the requisite training scenes, to the moments when she is ushered down cold corridors to a barren staging room where she her sympathetic stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), bids her a touching farewell and she is placed in the tube that will raise her to the arena.

At the center of the arena lies the “Cornucopia,” a jarringly odd contraption. Set in the middle of a mowed lawn, it looks like a piece of modernistic art or an over-sized ventilation duct. This element and a rather simplistic made-for-TV approach to some of the action, props, and settings in the arena forest weaken the drama, but we still get enough action, suspense, and surprises to satisfy. The Hunger Games is a very enjoyable film that wisely abbreviates some of the novel’s nonsense, but its latter half is never as strong as the Reaping sequence that starts off the film so promisingly.


Jason Bellamy said...

Well, this one felt exactly like what it is: an adaptation that's slave to its source material (or, more accurately: slave to the expectations of its source material's fans) and the first of a series.

The movie goes all sorts of places and nowhere at all. You can practically hear the pencil marking off boxes on the checklist: bonding of sisters, done! tearful goodbye, done! And so on. There's just absolutely no excuse for this movie to be two hours and 20 minutes long; not that much happens. And you can sense that the movie must be glossing over things, but it seems too timid to ignore them entirely. And thus the film feels like it's rushing through at a snail's pace; contradiction intended.

Lawrence is OK, but she has more awkward moments than great ones. Hutcherson may not do much with his first scene, but he's much more convincing throughout. And, yeah, I think Tucci nails the character -- he's really the only one in the movie with actual personality.

As for Harrelson and Banks ... well, their characters inspire the same reactions of Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies: each of them do something only barely entertaining and all of the book's fans laugh uproariously. (The reader's knowing laugh is just slightly less obnoxious than people on smartphones.)

Then there's the direction, which drove me crazy: pointless shakycam when not even from the perspective of a character (it was almost hard to see that guy eating chicken) and oh so many fucking closeups that this movie never established a convincing "little world" -- because we were almost never allowed to see it.

What's most surprising to me, though, is how little suspense and danger there is in a movie about a bloodsport. (And I guess the way to have lots of violence and maintain a PG-13 rating is to not let us hear the sounds of stabbings and decapitations; interesting.)

From a writing perspective, it's never good when the main character actually needs to tell you that you're at the finale. Because, indeed, otherwise, save for looking at my watch, I wouldn't have seen it coming. And I'll stop here before starting the list of deus ex machinas.

What's interesting is the movie ends by pointing toward the second film but without suggesting at all where this story could possibly go from here -- except to go through all of this again.

How long until The Hunger Games start to feel like Quidditch?

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the rant, Jason. Strangely, the movie is not as faithful to the book as I had expected it would be and it abbreviates a lot of the Games action. Unlike you, I felt it created a "little world" in its opening scenes, but it doesn't stay there long enough. You are totally right, though, in saying this is a movie for the readers.

Steve's Blog said...

Unfortunately I have to concur whole-heartedly with Jason's consensus of this film. I have not looked at my watch more times in a film since Crash. But even worse, while the film never claims to be a work of startling originality, it seemingly challenges the seasoned viewer to yell out the name of the film/book that it so transparently references. The Reaping recalls the exact framing and set design of the ultra-cheap short film adaptation of The Lottery. The televised game is The Running Man, and the whole youth against youth, last young'en standing is Battle Royale. Even the fabricated set and game design is The Truman Show. But the truly sad revelation here is that this film never approaches the tension, wit, or satirical bite of the previously mentioned films.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for reading, Steve.

Oh, indeed, I am well aware of what both the book and the movie borrow from, and I point out the film's weaknesses, but I stand by the moments I found touching and dramatic. Did reading the book add to my involvement? Am I turning into an 8th grader? Not entirely. 8th graders don't choose The Tree of Life and Melancholia as their favorite movies of 2011.

Still, in the future, there should be a law that event books be made as TV mini-series so that they can include every last detail adored by the fans.

Sam Juliano said...

Loved the film, am gathering my thoughts, am fully with the resoundingly favorable critical concencus. This was the breeziest 2 and a half hours I've spent in a theatre in quite some time. I'm expecting the backlash and the sarcasm to come rolling in now that the film received great reviews and is making tons of money.

But square can be beautiful too, and though I am presently unable due to time constraints to mount a more provocative defense be rest assured I am completely with you on the tone and generally positive appreciation of this well-measured piece. It's to be expected that the film can never fully develop the ethical dilemmas that are at the heart of this futuristic yarn, but Gary Ross, who directed the excellent PLEASANTVILLE, has a minimalist style that allows for the dialogue and performances to prevent special effects overkill. The set design is impressive, the performances by Lawrence, Tucci and Harrelson especially are exceptional, the special effects wisely emplyed sparingly, and the chase sequences wholly riveting.

In the end of course, it's the 'Romeo ands Juliet' quotient that brings the film together full circle on an emotional level, and what allows this one to resonate well after you leave teh theatre.

I see where Jason and Steve are coming from, and well understand that this won't work for a good number of people. I didn't read the novel, but was "coached" by a colleague who kept me abreast on the changes.

Hokahey said...

Thanks very much for the comment, Sam. I'm glad you enjoyed this movie. As you suggest, it is not an artistic masterpiece but it is an enjoyable experience in its atmosphere and action. Out of curiosity regarding where this trilogy goes, I am now reading Book Two and I'm happy to report that things get serious very quickly. I liked how The Hunger Games includes some obvious foreshadowing that the people shall rise! I like the scene in which Haymitch looks in disgust at the rich children playing Hunger Games, and their parents cheerfully oblivious to what the Hunger Games mean for the condemned.

FilmDr said...

Good points, Hokahey, but I still wonder about two things:

1) how much subversive potential this franchise could have. As Donald Sutherland points out:

"This film has a chance of being something that can change things. This film, through that character of Katniss Everdeen, could be a catalyst, could be a motivator that makes a generation of young people who have been by and large dormant stand up and take some kind of political action. I wasn't trying to define the political action; I just thought that through this allegory they could become aware of the political structure surrounding them, and the injustice that there is inherent in it."

2) How much does this film cynically cater to our jaded late-American Empire tastes in gladiatorial combat?

Hokahey said...

FilmDr - Thanks for the thoughts. I would say a definite yes to #2. And fans would be disappointed if Book Two didn't include a Hunger Games contest. As for #1, I do know that teenage girls really admire Katniss with a passion that far surpasses how similar fans felt about Bella. Bella is JUST a girl torn between two lovers. Katniss is that but more. She sacrifices for her sister. She watches out for her family. She sees injustice and wants to do something about it. Don't know if this will lead to subversion, but it could lead to young people wanting to make a difference.