Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Gary Ross.  Written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray.  Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Liam Hemsworth, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Jack Quaid. (PG-13, 142 mins)

Suzanne Collins' monster bestselling teen novel has been adapted for the big screen by Collins, SHATTERED GLASS writer/director Billy Ray, and Gary Ross, who also directed.  Ross, with PLEASANTVILLE and SEABISCUIT to his name, seems an odd choice to direct and there are times when a more visually adept, action-oriented filmmaker might've kept the pace from lagging in the middle.  At 142 minutes, THE HUNGER GAMES goes on longer than is necessary for what's essentially the kind of 85-minute B-movie Roger Corman would've had in drive-ins back in 1978.  Indeed, the first hour, with its garish dystopian sets, wardrobes, and hairstyles, occasionally has a campy feel that kept reminding me of certain elements of DEATH RACE 2000 (1975).  Certainly that's an influence, along with elements of  THE RUNNING MAN (1987), the obscure DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987), perhaps even Lucio Fulci's THE NEW GLADIATORS (1983), and, as internet cult movie snobs are quick to point out as frequently and as insufferably as their Twitter account will allow, Kinji Fukasaku's BATTLE ROYALE (2000).

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
A plot recap seems superfluous, since everyone and even my mom knows what this is about by now.  Jennifer Lawrence (WINTER'S BONE) is a very appealing, believable Katniss Everdeen, one of two representatives from the impoverished District 12 of Panem, which holds an annual televised tournament known as the Hunger Games, where 24 children between the ages of 12-18 are chosen by lottery to fight to the death until one remains.  The upper-class Districts 1 & 2 always seem to produce the winners, but with the guidance of mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only previous winner to ever hail from District 12, she and fellow District 12 representative Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) learn how to work the crowd, as it were, and win sponsors that can mean the difference between life or death in the tournament.

Fashion guru Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Hunger Games
mentor/ex-champ Haymitch (Woody Harrelson),
and Distict 12 contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)
The large supporting cast all get moments to shine, particularly Harrelson as the drunken Haymitch, who sobers up and gets down to business when he sees what a contender he has in Katniss.  Stanley Tucci has a blast as smirking Hunger Games TV host Caesar Flickerman (definitely a lot of The Real Don Steele's Junior Bruce character from DEATH RACE 2000 in Flickerman), and Donald Sutherland is appropriately Donald Sutherlandy as the sneering Panem leader President Snow.  Another standout is Amandla Stenberg as Rue, the Games' youngest contestant, who briefly becomes an ally and surrogate little sister to Katniss, who only entered the games as a voluntary replacement for her own 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields).

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket
Regarding the incessant BATTLE ROYALE comparisons, there's definitely some similarities once the contestants are turned loose in battle.  But BATTLE ROYALE was a disturbing film clearly aimed at adults.  Calling THE HUNGER GAMES a watered-down version of BATTLE ROYALE is unfairly dismissive and pedantic.  I can see where this is a--and I hate this term--zeitgeist kind-of film for teenagers today.  It's the same way older folks in 1977 probably found STAR WARS ridiculous and preferred FORBIDDEN PLANET or something.  Or the same way those of us who cut our teeth on the blood-splattered horror and slasher films of the 1980s revered those films while our elders thought they were tacky, offensive trash, preferring the classic horrors of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, or even Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Someone in their late 30s (like me) and beyond bitching about THE HUNGER GAMES is just being an old fart because it's not aimed at us anyway.  I enjoyed a lot of THE HUNGER GAMES, but I had some issues with it that aren't exclusive to just this film.  I'm tired of the video-gamey shaky cam and action scenes that are edited in a way that makes them largely blurry and imcomprehensible.  The cruddy CGI effects often did the film a disservice--the fire looked awful, and the greenscreen work was rudimentary at best (this is where someone with more genre experience than Ross might've handled things differently; it's also worth noting that Steven Soderbergh, of all people, handled some second-unit duties), but these are issues that I and many people of my generation will always have and they aren't going away.  The target audience for THE HUNGER GAMES has no problem with these kinds of visual effects.  Probably the same way we were stunned by the practical FX work of Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin in the 1980s, while our parents and grandparents probably found all of that far too graphic and preferred stuff along the lines of the time-lapse werewolf transformations of Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1940s.  It's clearly become a generational thing.  I've been waiting 15 years for the bad CGI backlash and it's obviously not happening.  I'm accepting it to the degree that every generation is required to hate the stuff that comes after.  It doesn't mean I like crummy CGI or that I'll stop bitching about it whenever I see it in films aimed at me and not at younger, more forgiving audiences who are more accustomed to it.

Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane

Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman

Amandla Stenberg as Rue

Donald Sutherland as President Snow
And to return to another topic, the BATTLE ROYALE people just need to shut up already. There's a lot of bad movies aimed at younger audiences that become huge hits, and teenage audiences could be turning out en masse to something a lot worse. It's not a ripoff of BATTLE ROYALE, and really, BATTLE ROYALE and its sequel ripped off several films themselves. I appreciated all the nods and shout-outs to similar films and I know that they were probably put there intentionally. It's like the adult humor in a Pixar flick. Kids love them just as much without getting those jokes, but they're there for the adults to appreciate as well.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. Agree about CGI -- all CGI, but especially bad CGI. I don't think we'll see its end soon, not with record setting grosses for the picture, the book for which I mostly liked... rather the way you feel about the movie. (Winkless)