Hunger Games

It’s the biggest movie of the year (so far) so stand back as Josh and Dave spar to the death with their dueling reviews of… THE HUNGER GAMES!

First Up – Josh:

Upon seeing the sweeping good reviews The Hunger Games racked up on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, I assumed we were all in for a hell of a film. More cautious, my girlfriend reminded me that the ecstatic reviews could very well be the product of film critics who were just shocked that Hunger Games isn’t Twilight. Sure enough, upon checking my Facebook feed, I found a number of comments from friends who thought the whole thing was a big-budget letdown. It was a nice reminder that with a project like Hunger Games, what you think about it has a lot to do with where you’re coming from.

That said, I thought the movie was damn near perfect.

Hunger GamesBased on Suzanne Collins’ runaway adolescent lit phenomenon, The Hunger Games tells the story of a dystopian future society, one run by an all-powerful government organization known as The Capitol, which enforces strict laws and dishes out spare food rations to the districts around it. Years before the film begins, the districts tried to revolt against the Capitol; they lost. Now, the Capitol demands one young male and female from each of the twelve districts come to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. It’s both a reminder to the districts of the Capitol’s power and the equivalent of the Superbowl on future TV. Remember this information going into the film – explaining it is one of the few places where the film could use some work.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a member of District 12, the most desolate, impoverished district, and she spends her days breaking outside of the district’s official grounds, hunting deer and fowl in restricted areas. When her younger sister is chosen for the Hunger Games in her first year of eligibility, Katniss volunteers herself in her place. She is swept from her destitute district to the high-tech glory of the Capitol, trained to fight, and exposed to the disturbing, reality-TV backstage world of the Games. It all culminates as she and twenty-three other children are foisted into an elaborate, man-made forest world, given a shit-ton of survival gear and weapons, and told to start killing each other for the glory of the Capitol.

You might assume that a PG-13 version of this story would inherently cuts the balls off of it, but the violence in Hunger Games registers in a way that’s more severe than the majority of R-rated films. Upon reading online of one viewer’s feelings that the film was a “Disney-fied Hunger Games,” I tried to remember the last time I saw a Disney film where one kid beats in another one’s skull with a brick. The Hunger Games deals with this violence in possibly the most logical way for a film of this type – cut away from the beatings, stabbings, and shooting at just the right moments. Let the occasional trail of blood or wounded screams do the work. It may sound like a cop out, but director Gary Ross makes you feel the brutality. If you walk out of Hunger Games feeling that it didn’t go hardcore enough, you may want to ask if you’ve become a bit too desensitized to the sight of kids killing each other yourself.

Of course, the violence in a film like this isn’t the goal in and of itself. Hell, you won’t even get bloodshed until the second hour, and even then, it’s more about moments of white-knuckle tension or horrible despair than gory kicks. The goal of these depictions is to get the audience to think about the world of the film – where televised violence against young people is hugely successful, where a powerful elite controls the impoverished masses, where teenagers are gladly willing to die for a government they don’t understand – and ask exactly how much it looks like our society. Where the film really shines is taking those ideas about wealth, privilege, race, government, violence and society, and reflecting them back to us in ways that are hard to ignore. It’s no coincidence that the film looks a lot like paranoid, 1970’s science fiction cinema (look for visual cues from films like Andromeda Strain and THX-1138 and ideological issues similar to Death Race 2000 and Rollerball.) The image of the absurd, brightly colored wealth on display at The Capitol is nauseating, and the white-suited workers who carry out the President’s biddings should give you at least a chill. On the flipside, the gloom and grayness present in Districts 11 and 12 are a rural depiction of the drab life on view in Children of Men. Don’t be mistaken – Hunger Games is science fiction that knows what it’s doing.

Give props to everyone here that helps sell these images to the audience. It was a buzzed-about moment when the film snagged Oscar-nominated director Gary Ross as opposed to an unproven up-and-comer. Ross doesn’t take the task lightly, investing the film with more subtle shadings of politics and an artier, more abstract aesthetic than one might expect from an adaptation of a teen novel. And the cast are A-listers who are all on their game. Jennifer Lawrence smooths out her badass persona from Winter’s Bone ­– losing the backwoods grit but keeping the toughness – and creates a character that seems genuinely caring and confused, but capable of taking care of herself in a bloody situation. Josh Hutcherson, as the weepy Beta-male Peeta who is also picked to represent Distrct-12, manages to amp up the weakness and vulnerability in his character without making him sickening to be around. Donald Sutherland is quietly intimidating as the Capitol’s President, Lenny Kravtiz is shockingly heartfelt and effete as Katniss and Peeta’s stylist Cinna, and Stanley Tucci is just a goddamn ball to watch. Woody Harrelson, as always, succeeds in being a delightfully weird, drunken version of Woody Harrelson. They all come together to paint a sci-fi world that still feels very real, and very dangerous.

There are bones being picked with the film. Some people are arguing it’s paced too slow (though I would argue that the build-up and introduction to the Capitol is just as intriguing at the Games themselves); some are arguing that the production design is a little flat (though, as with my previous comments, I would argue that the Districts, the Capitol, and the Games all look perfect for what they are – and harken back to classic sci-fi.) Some people are complaining that the filmmakers had the nerve to cast black actors in roles that are never explicitly referenced as “black” in the book, and if that’s you, it’s time to drag your stupid ass out of the 1950’s. None of these things make even a slight dent on my impression of the film, or its stellar use of imagery, sound, pacing, and politics. Hell, nothing about this film is even particularly “young adult”; I’d argue that smart filmgoers of every age should be watching it. Films like Prometheus, Dark Knight Rises, and The Hobbit better bring their A+ game; Hunger Games is the mainstream film to beat in 2012.

Rating: 4.5/5 ★★★★½ 


Next Up – Dave:

I’m going to be up front and say that I don’t entirely disagree with Josh.  The Hunger Games gets a lot of things right – but the things it gets wrong may be hard to overlook for hardcore fans who’ve been looking forward to this movie for a really long time.

Whenever you adapt a movie from a novel, you’re never going to make everyone happy. Fan-geeks are notoriously unforgiving and the fans of Hunger Games are no exception. Movie-worthy books tend to be epic affairs, and cramming those epics into a couple of hours requires some kind of sacrifice. When Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he had no choice but to leave out quite a few bits and pieces – and even then he ended up with nine solid hours of total running time. But Jackson managed to deliver characters with plenty of depth and a rich story that satisfied all but the most diehard “Ringers.”

Hunger GamesIn contrast, it seems that Gary Ross took a different approach with The Hunger Games.  Instead of paring things down, it’s as if he’s ticking off scenes from the book one-by-one from a checklist. He tries to include at least a tiny bit of almost everything and then adds a few extra bits for good measure. Unfortunately his adaptation is still subject to the the laws of space-time, so something has to give. The compromise is character development. The characters feel shallow and their relationships seem rushed – to the point that some scenes become unintentionally funny, which is definitely not what you want from a drama.

A prime example is the relationship between Katniss and Gale. Their rendezvous outside the District 12 fence to hunt, their talks of family and of escaping, and the sideways glances that reveal Gale’s barely hidden affection for Katniss are all compressed into the first few minutes of the movie. Forty minutes later when the shit is hitting the fan, any sense of his romantic feelings toward her is long gone – when he gets angry at seeing Katniss kissing Peeta, it comes totally out of the blue.

Other character development, like the awkward relationship between Peeta and Katniss, the friction between Katniss and Haymich,  the way that Katniss’ relationship with Cinna and his assistants gradually evolves – all those things appear superficial, occasionally to the point of  being comical.

And I don’t think I’m alone in those observations. I saw The Hunger Games on opening night in a sold-out midnight screening, and the audience erupted into jeers so many times, it made me squirm in my seat.

Even though Hunger Games weighs in at 142 minutes, it didn’t feel overlong, at least not to me.  Call me crazy, but I think it could have actually benefited from an extra twenty or thirty minutes. If George Lucas has taught us anything about making epic films, it’s that if you let the relationships between the characters play second fiddle to the action, “then suffer the story, it will.” (That was my lame attempt at Yoda humor.  I’m sorry.)

My only other major gripe with The Hunger Games is the casting.  I know, I know – everybody has bitched about the casting. Let me be clear – I don’t care what color or race the actors are. They could have cast the whole thing with African Americans, Native Americans, or whatever. I also want to be clear that I think Jennifer Lawrence is beautiful and in no way is she even remotely overweight. The people complaining about this stuff are morons.

Hunger GamesThe problem is that the character of Katniss is very well defined, both physically and emotionally.  She is 16 but probably looks even younger because she’s starving. She’s wary of others, and her only purpose is survival – for herself, and her mom and little sister. That’s her sole motive for just about everything she does. She is a small, lithe, stealthy hunter who can run through the woods with the grace of a deer. I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence conveys any of those things. At 22, it’s really hard for her to convincingly pull off the awkward teen innocence of Katniss in the novel.  In the arena, Lawrence kicks ass with the best of ’em, but when we see her running through the woods, small and stealthy are not the words that come to mind.

You can take some liberties with the peripheral characters, but when you have such a strong central figure, the casting needs to be spot-on, especially when there are some really excellent possibilities out there. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) seems like such an obvious choice that I have to think her name must have been mentioned at some point in the casting process.  She’s exactly the right age, she’s small and feisty, and both strong and vulnerable – in a word, she’s perfect.  Another strong (but possibly too obvious) contender was Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass). She possesses all the same qualities as Steinfeld, although after playing a vampire and a superhero, playing a hunter/warrior might have typecast her awfully early in her career.

The fact is, if I had made a Top-10 list of actresses to play Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence would have never even entered my mind.

All this being said, I’ll be the first to admit that my criticisms come from a viewpoint that represents the more geek-y end of the spectrum – the nitpickers, who will see a movie 3 or 4 times, just to find more nits to pick. People who have never read the trilogy, or whose memory of the books has had some time to fade, will probably be the ones who love this movie the most.

Rating: 2.75/5 ★★¾☆☆ 

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