Thursday, April 12, 2012

Feeding the Public Hunger...

     Franchises built upon popular books aimed at children and/or young adults have become HUGE business in Hollywood over the last decade.  Now that the two biggest success stories of this type have ended or are ending shortly, how do you top what has come before?  Let's see...What if you had a story ten times darker than most of the Potter series?  What if it also had ten million times the subtext of Twilight?  Sounds good so far, right?  Now, what if it had a talented and accomplished cast of adults, led by one of Hollywood's most talented young actresses who's already got one Best Actress Oscar nom under her belt?  What would you have then?  Well...then you'd have The Hunger Games.  Lucky you.
     If you don't already know, this film tells the story of a future in which two youths from each district within a country that is just barely not America are sent each year to a televised survivalist battle to the death in the wilderness.  Like the story of Theseus from Greek mythology, except that the children are killed not by a minotaur, but each other with the sacrifice being given to the public's need for entertainment and drama.
      Director/writer Gary Ross came back from an extended hiatus as a filmmaker for this one.  He had not actually directed a film since the somewhat sappy Seabisquit back in 2003, but this film seems more like his earlier (in my opinion, far superior) work Pleasantville from 1998.  He does excellent work here with a difficult challenge.  Although the script suffers from the same ailment as the Potter movies:  rabid fans who expect EVERYTHING to be covered lead to screenplays that feel slightly rushed and skimmy, Ross (along with co-writers Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray) does a very good job of covering a lot between the lines.  I had not read the books but had no trouble following the storyline even if it was at times obvious how many pages of novel were being compacted into how few minutes.
     If I have one real complaint (let's just get it out of the way, I have LOTS of nice things to say), it is with the art directions and costume design.  I understand that District 12, where the story starts off, is supposed to be the poorest part of the Hunger Games world and that they probably have to make their own clothes from whatever materials they can find, but why are the only dress patterns that they can find leftover samples from the set of Little House on the Prairie?  I know fashion is cyclical, but I had trouble buying it.  Then, when you see the elite members of society in the capital city, they look like all the extras from Rocky Horror Picture Show on their way to the easter parade.  It was a little too campy for the horrifying story that was unfolding.  Perhaps the contrasting tonal elements were puposefull in some way that escaped me, but it was a little like John Waters' production team putting together a remake of Psycho.
     Fortunately, the strength of the story and performances were able to overcome this handicap most of the time and draw me back in.  The preparations for the games were full of intrigue and apt insight into mass psychology.  The games themselves were horrific, suspensefull, and (except for one tumble down a hill that had me muttering "" under my breath) completely captivating.
      One thing that really sets this film above similar franchises is the strength of the cast, especially Jennifer Lawrence as Catness.  In my opinion, Miss Lawrence is quickly proving herself to be a very capable artist, but Hunger Games is going to make her a star as well.  Every facial shift or change in vocal tone in her performances is so well chosen, yet so natural.  She possesses a quiet strength that most women twice her age have not mastered, and watching her on screen is like getting an eery glimpse of a singularly old soul.  In her hands, we see Catness learn and develop in a way that the script doesn't have the luxury of time to address on its own.  If you have not seen this young actress in Winter's Bone, go do it.  It will give you an even greater appreciation for her performance in this film to see what sort of dramatic range this girl has.
     The supporting cast is also very good.  Josh Hutcherson definately shows that his performance in The Kids Are All Right was not a fluke and his adult acting career should be one to watch.  Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson also turn in great performances, but it is Elizabeth Banks who is the stand out amongst the adult cast.  She alone is able to wear her hideously gaudy clothes more than they wear her.
     The most interesting thing about this film, though, is what it says in allegory about our modern society.  I must apologize to my viewing companion at this film for partially plagiarizing his commentary but the competition of the Hunger Games is like Real World/Road Rules Challenge Extreme.  It is reality TV to the nth iteration and not that far fetched considering modern trends in entertainment.  It comes complete with falsified true life drama and romance, quasi-celebrity status for the competitors, and the promise that even the most common man can become captivating when gifted with pageantry, an audience and adversity.  The major difference between Greek and Roman theater was that the Romans relied more on special effects and spectacle than storyline and character.   Today's 3D blockbusters compare similarly to the film noire classics of old.  Entertainment in Rome eventually progressed to gladiatorial combat and feeding Christians to lions, not so different from the world of The Hunger Games.
      Class conflict is also explored in this movie.  Donald Sutherland's character gives a speech about underdogs that seems frighteningly like the disdain that the wealthy in our society seem to feel towards the ninety-nine percent on the other side of the rapidly widening prosperity gap.  The masses, meanwhile, seem constantly on the verge of outrage, but are beaten down by adversity and a propaganda filled media that uses fear to keep them towing the company line.  Ironically, it is this same adversity that has made Catness into the strong, resilient young woman who is able to rise above it all.
      All in all, The Hunger Games is not a masterpiece, but it is a very respectable effort that is both entertaining and thought provoking.  If the film has peaked your interest, I feel it would be worth giving a look.  4 out of 5*

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