635 – The Hunger Games (***1/2)


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I was very impressed with The Hunger Games. Sure, you have to suspend a little bit of logic, and the great old tradition of a dystopian future is revived, but overall it’s an excellent film with terrific camerawork and editing and a knockout performance by the soon-to-be-a-huge-star Jennifer Lawrence.

So there was this big war, and the world was divided into 12 districts, and as a reminder of its vicious past the Capitol decreed that each district send two children, ages 12-18, to participate in a fight to the death. Somehow this is to remind them of not only their past but humility and the fact that they’re likely to die young. But it seems like a post-apocalyptic society with a blend of technology and rustic charm, so who knows. Anyway, 24 kids, chosen randomly at ceremonies called Reapings, and it’s all a Big Deal. They’ve been doing it for almost three-quarters of a century.

District 12 is a hardscrabble, coal-mining community whose mine blew up. So people are pretty destitute. They (barely) live off the land. When the Reaping comes, Primrose Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are chosen. Poor Prim’s just a little girl, so her older sister Katniss (Lawrence) volunteers in her place. This has apparently never happened before, which seems implausible, but you can go with it.

The two Tributes are then taken to the capitol city, where they are judged and evaluated in order to gain sponsors; sponsors can help you when you’re in the middle of the forest. Preparing Katniss and Peeta for the Games is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who’s actually won the games and can offer advice, and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) whose job it is to make the two Tributes look good when being presented in the parade and the talk show and so on and so on. And then the games begin.

Imagine you’re in the middle of a field within a semicircle containing 23 other young people. Some of them are athletic. Some are tiny and may never have left the house. Some have been preparing their entire lives. There is a cache of weaponry and food near the semicircle. Your mission is to survive longer than everyone else. You’re under a lot of stress already, and now it really sinks in – you will certainly have to kill one or more of those you see, kids with whom you have no quarrel. Kill or be killed, as they say.

The entire Games takes place in a huge climate-controlled dome. In fact, everything can be created/controlled, including fire and animals. As in the TV series Survivor, some of the kids form alliances, led by alpha males. Katniss isn’t that kind of creature. She doesn’t even want to be there. Who does? The ones who have been training all their lives, of course.

The cinematography is riveting. It’s sometimes tough to get a read on a situation when all you see are people running through the woods, close up. Not here. The director of photography, Tom Stern, does a miraculous job of keeping us in the story, involved with the main characters, without losing the edge of heart-racing action.

I thought Lawrence was amazing in her gritty performance in Winter’s Bone. This cements, in my mind, her standing as a tremendous talent. She is perfect for this role; her Katniss is tenacious, willful, and both terrified and determined. She’s a skilled archer (has to be back home in order to find any food) but lacks a certain, shall we say, charm. Although she’s not unattractive, she never smiles, seems resentful, and as a result is tough to get along with. Before the games, anyway. Through the tutelage of Cinna and Abernathy, she’s able to show enough grace and poise to win some people over.

It’s a knockout performance. Sure, you’re supposed to be rooting for her anyway, even though she isn’t the underdog in the fight. She’s the one with the compelling backstory – young sister and distant mother at home, father killed in mine accident. She has a lot to fight for. Lawrence can evoke respect and fear just by her expressive eyes. And, of course, the role itself is physically very demanding, and she’s well up to the task. But Lawrence’s great skill here is in engaging the audience to the point where even if they believe she will win, they desperately want to know how she’ll accomplish it. Will she kill? Will she not kill someone? (Remember, only one can survive.)

I like it when movies that seem to have a certain predictability about them – a predetermined finale, for example – throw in a twist that makes perfect sense but still isn’t really foreseeable. As long as a seismic character change doesn’t occur (such as a “good” person very suddenly becoming “bad” to further the plot), this is a welcome change – and it’s tough to do. Big praise to The Hunger Games for throwing in twists that weren’t laughable and to leaving the ending a little open ended in some regards. Not all loose ends are tied up. They often aren’t in real life, either.

So, as long as you don’t closely question the movie’s overall premise, you’ll be very pleased with this film. It’s well acted all around, immaculately shot and edited, and has intense, action scenes that will leave you as exhausted as the participants.

The Hunger Games: ***1/2

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One thought on “635 – The Hunger Games (***1/2)”

  1. I was one of those people who didn’t buy into the premise and it did undermine the entire movie for me.

    I went to see this over Snow White and the Huntsman because Hunger Games was getting such good reviews, made a ton of money, and was selling books like short stacks at the IHOP. I figured it would be a sure thing.

    The first strike came with the camera work in the opening scenes. That jerky Handy-cam filming style went on far too long at the beginning and was used in too many pivotal scenes and was making me physically nauseous. At one point, I even yelled out, “Stop moving the freaking camera!” It was incredibly frustrating… especially during the climactic scene at the end, where they used the same technique and I had a hard time figuring out what was going on. That scene reminded me of watching Transformers, where all you see is a mishmash on the screen and you’re supposed to figure out what it is you’re looking at.

    The second strike came with the premise, which I knew going in, that all the districts had to send two kids to fight to the death and the lead actress was going to volunteer to take her sister’s place. What I didn’t realize is that NOBODY in the film would stand up to challenge the outrageous injustice of that arrangement. The parents in the film just let their kids be led off to the slaughter. Granted… they couldn’t do much about it, in this case. But what bothered me is that none of them even tried. I was waiting for the moment when someone would take a stand or at least address this with a passionate speech, but that moment never came.

    The third strike was that annoying woman with the colored wigs, who looked like something right out of a Tim Burton movie. I just can’t stand Tim Burton, so it hurt this movie that it reminded me of him.

    But I didn’t throw in the towel. I was still prepared to like it, but the strikes kept coming fast. Donald Sutherland’s performance was totally uninspired and some of his dialogue was downright insipid. The TV show scenes were also very tiresome, with the exception of the entrance made by the Tributes. The fact that nobody seemed to take their plight seriously was also very frustrating. Woody Harrelson gave a good performance, but his character was responsible for helping them survive this death duel, and even he didn’t seem to take it seriously at first.

    The relationship between Katniss and Peeta also seemed somewhat groundless and forced to me. I thought it would have been more realistic if it was revealed that they faked liking each other to improve their chances. And, as someone who didn’t read the books and didn’t know what to expect, I found the first 40 minutes of the movie too be surprisingly dull. Some scenes dragged on far too long, like one where Katniss starts losing consciousness after getting stung by a bug. I found myself thinking, “Okay. She’s hallucinating now. I get it. Can we move things along now?” But they threw a flashback into the middle of the hallucination that was meant to establish a previous connection with Katniss and Peeta, but it just served to make the scene seem that much longer than it needed to be.

    The ending was also clearly a setup for the sequel, but, because of that, it felt like too much of the recompense due to the main villains of the film was left for some later story.

    Overall, the movie did have moments, several good ones. But not enough, in my mind, to justify why this movie has become so popular. One of the best scenes was when one of the Tributes was killed and the people in that Tribute’s home district began to revolt. I thought the movie was going to take a very thrilling turn at that moment, but the revolt never really materialized into a central plot device of the film.

    The saving grace was that many of the Tributes were played by good actors who created likable characters. You did feel for them and wanted them to find a way out of their situation. But because they never received any justice for all of their pain and suffering, I wound up leaving the theater feeling totally unsatisfied.

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