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.

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