Friday, March 30, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES: Are The Odds In Its Favor?


- After seeing THE HUNGER GAMES, it's not hard to see why it's a cultural phenomenon. The character of Katniss Everdeen is exactly the antidote to an overload of young adult fiction female characters who - like Twilight's Bella - are too passive, to whiny, and decidedly *not* kickass. With Katniss, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and here we have a teen female protagonist who's smart, in-control, brave, independent, proactive, and most definitely badass. And if the Hunger Games movie succeeds in one area, it's in translating all that is great about Katniss to the big-screen. As embodied by the great Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is a great new character - instantly iconic, and instantly the kind of girl that legions of fangirls the world over can look up to and root for, in a way that goes beyond merely hoping that she hooks up with one potential love interest over another.

At the same time - and partly because it doesn't wholly center around a love triangle (though there is one) - The Hunger Games is interesting because it's got very female-friendly sensibilities, but a premise that has typically been the domain of male-centric sci-fi and fantasy. It's high-concept stuff: a dystopian future where country is divided into districts, ruled over by a totalitarian regime based in the Capitol. Once a year, the districts must pay tribute to the Capitol by sending one teen representative to fight in The Hunger Games - a survival-of-the-fittest, kill-or-be-killed battle to the death - that's nationally televised watched by all. Suffice it to say, this may be female-centric YA fiction, but on paper, at least, there's plenty of potential coolness to get anyone interested.

And so ... I went into The Hunger Games, not having read the books, actually sort of excited. I thought it was cool that there was this next big thing that everyone was anticipating, and that unlike so many next big things ... this one might actually be good. And, after seeing the film, I do see why the books got so popular, but I also don't feel that the movie stands on its own as a great or even very good film. Like I said, Jennifer Lawrence is great - she's the highlight of the whole movie, and I think she's very quickly become one of the best actresses of her generation. But other than the intensity and nuance that Lawrence brings to the film, there isn't a lot that really pops. For a movie with such a big, dramatic, high-concept sci-fi premise ... the film feels strangely small-scale, and strangely bland.

The biggest issue is similar to the problem I've had with a number of the Harry Potter flicks - it's rushed-adaptation syndrome. Even as someone who hasn't read the books, it's easy to tell while watching The Hunger Games that a lot of the key characters, relationships, and events of the novel are glossed over or given short shrift in the movie. And I wasn't noticing that as a fan of the books who wanted to see all the best parts crammed into the film. I was noticing it as someone who wanted deep and emotionally-resonant characters and character arcs. Most of The Hunger Games' supporting characters seem to flit in and out of the film, and few if any make much of an impression. The best is probably Elizabeth Banks' Effie - the whimsical personality in kabuki-like makeup who oversees the games and grooms the competitors for action. But others - from Woody Harrelson's Haymitch (a former games-winner turned trainer who's become a bit of a drunk) to the spritely young contestant named Rue - have a good scene or two and that's it. They feel underdeveloped as characters, even as you can sense that we're supposed to really care about them. Rue in particular - the movie wants you to love her, and we might have had she been fleshed out more and introduced earlier. But as is, the key plot points revolving around her friendship with Katniss make only a fraction of the impression they should.

The movie features an eclectic cast, to say the least - a strange mix of up-and-comers and veterans. And the casting is, I think, a mixed bag. Lawrence owns the part of Katniss, as I've talked about. But her male costars don't quite have the same presence. It's weird - it's like the studio overcompensated for going out-of-the-box with Lawrence and decided to cast the male leads with super-generic actors straight out of teen central casting. I don't want to be overly harsh - these guys are decent. But they just don't feel like they're in the same league as Lawrence. That goes for Josh Hutcherson, who is something of a charisma vacuum as (the unfortunately named) Peeta. Peeta is supposed to be unnaturally strong, which is weird since Hutcherson isn't a particularly big guy. And he's supposed to have chemistry with Lawrence, so much so that Katniss is supposed to fall for Peeta even though, originally, she's only feigning affection for the sake of the cameras. But there's barely a spark between them, and their pseudo-romance feels about as manufactured as anything in Twilight. Even worse is the other part of the triangle, involving Liam Hemsworth as Gale. Gale is all longing looks and generic flirtation that wouldn't be out of place on most CW shows. And it's the lame romance stuff between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta that squarely keeps The Hunger Games in the same ecosystem as the Twilights of the world. The gritty, serious nature of the story is undermined by the cheesiness of the love triangle.

Meanwhile, some very good actors seem a bit miscast. Donald Sutherland is always great, but he just seems to genial and non-threatening to play the sinister President Snow. It's too bad that Snow doesn't 100% work, because the movie is desperately in need of a great villain. Other than Snow and his machinations, the main antagonist is the utterly-generic Cato, the douchey tributary from District 1 who's the odds-on-favorite to win the games. But Cato, with his spiky blond hair and perpetual sneer, seems like he'd be better suited as an upper-east-sider on Gossip Girl than as the major-league threat in a sci-fi blockbuster. Woody Harrelson also feels a bit out of place as Haymitch. His character seemed like it was meant to be a gruff badass type with a penchant for booze - the kind of role that someone like a Liam Neeson could play in his sleep. It seemed like a role desperate for some gravitas, and that's not really what Woody does. With a long blonde wig, he comes off as sort of goofy.

There are some standouts though. I mentioned Elizabeth Banks as Effie - a great little side character who's visually-striking. Stanley Tucci is also at his over-the-top best as Ceaser Flickerman, a preening talk-show host who serves as the flamboyant MC of the Games. I also liked Amandla Stenberg as Rue - I just wish she had more screentime. All sorts of other interesting actors pop up - from Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, to Deadwood's Paula Malcomson as Katniss' mother. But a lot of these side characters are underserved by the jumpy script.

When the movie does stop to linger and heighten the drama of a particular scene ... well, that's when it's most effective. I loved the scene towards the beginning of the film, for example, where the entirety of District 11 assembles to see who among them will be chosen for The Hunger Games. After an ominous video message from the President, two children - one girl, one boy -between ages 12 and 16 is chosen. As conveyed in the movie, it's an eerie and pulse-pounding scene. If only the entirety of the movie had its sense of scale and drama. The film takes a long time to get to the actual Hunger Games, and so the games don't quite have the epic tone that they should. A lot of the details of the contest are left unexplored, and even key alliances and rivalries among the contestants get glossed over. More importantly, the full gravity and awfulness of the games - the fact that you're literally forced to kill innocents to survive, the fact that you're on your own in the wilderness and forced to fend for yourself ... never quite comes to the forefront. I also felt like the true moral ramifications of having to kill merely for others' entertainment was never explored with as much depth as I wanted. I don't know if it's different in the book, but the film sort of skirts the issue by having almost every one of Katniss' major confrontations end in some sort of contrived manner where she doesn't end up directly killing her rivals. The film does begin the Games with a terrifyingly brutal scene, in which several contestants are struck down while vying for stockpiled supplies and weapons. So early on, a violent and gritty tone is set ... but that level of intensity and brutality isn't quite maintained as events progress. And certainly, Katniss is never truly put in a position where she's forced to confront, head-on, the true, morality-compromising nature of the games. Essentially, after that opening scene of violence, the rest of the Games feel more like paintball and less like competitive assassination.

That said, where the film does do a nice job is in making the Games out to be a hyper-realized version of today's Reality TV culture of vaguely sadistic voyeurism. I mentioned that Stanley Tucci does a great job as the always-grinning, always-peppy talk show host who helps broadcast the games - and it's this aspect of the movie that is most thrilling and smartly satirical. I'll also mention Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the "gamesmaster" who essentially produces the Games - a television producer engineering the challenges, manipulating the artificially-generated landscape, and playing god in so much as he holds the fate of the contestants in his hands. Bentley does a nice job here, and the film wisely gives Seneca a good amount of screentime - playing up the film's function as social-commentary.

Visually, the movie is a mixed bag. I liked a lot of the imagination that clearly went into the futuristic Capitol and its garishly-clad residents. I liked the bleak, dreary scenes in District 11. But when the scene shifts to the Games, things begin to look fairly plain and generic, with the fields and forests looking like they could have been shot in someone's backyard. The movie does a poor job overall of conveying scale and scope, and we never get a clear idea of the size of the Hunger Games competition area and exactly what sort of landscape comprises it. And you have to wonder - if the battle arena is only an illusion and is in fact computer-generated, then why would its designers go for such a plain-looking forest-scape? Director Gary Ross seems most skilled at capturing the film's more intimate, character-based moments. But he only occasionally gives the movie the sort of grandiose, epic feel it needs. And too much of the cinematography - during action scenes and other key moments - feels too static, too straightforward, and not stylized or dazzling enough.

There were and are a lot of things that really intrigue me and appeal to me about The Hunger Games. The movie hints at all sorts of interesting backstories, histories, and characters - but to that end, it felt like sort of a tease. I know, there are still two more novels to be adapted. But when you look at this movie, there's a lot in the setup that's interesting and compelling, but as the story progressed, I kept waiting and waiting for the big moments that would get my blood pumping and give me goosebumps. But I don't know that those moments ever really came, and only Lawrence as Katniss gives the film any real sense of badassery. The film struggled over which of its many subplots and supporting characters to give time to, and you can sense while watching that the plot and tone of the film is being pulled in many different directions. The movie is such a dutiful adaptation in that it covers all the bases of the books, hitting all the beats - but it feels like the uber-cliff's notes version of the story - a hyper-condensed-feeling retellling that touches on all the key plot points, but that has only a fraction of the heart, the emotion, or the drama that you look for in a movie like this.

My Grade: B

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