The Hunger Games

This box office jaggernaut from another world has dulled Bella Swan’s newfound fangs, effectively pulverizing teenage angst and sketchy expectations to deliver a stateside phenomenon that can already be touted as 2012’s greatest success story at the movies.  Young teenage Katniss Everdeen’s fight to death has resonated with audiences in such a way that approaching the film with a critical eye at this point in the game feels a bit futile.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular novel (the first in a trilogy), The Hunger Games catches us up in a nation known as Panem, a dystopian future arisen after the fall of commonplace civilization.  Human communities have been divided up into 12 districts that supply varying necessities for enduring survival.  Young Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled teenage archer, looks after her distant mother and helpless little sister, Prim by hunting for game (illegally) in the woods with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Gale and Katniss, unknowing lovebirds, ponder the idea of a life outside of a government oppressed society, but their conversation becomes interrupted as the community must gather for the annual reaping where two children (one boy, one girl) between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to compete in a nationally televised fight to the death.  The kids’ names are thrown into a large bowl where they are drawn by a froofy hostess looking like the perfect companion to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.  The hostess is Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) representing Panem authority for District 12.

Despite Katniss’ attempts to assuage her little sister’s fears of being selected for the games, silence rips through the crowd as Prim Everdeen’s name is drawn.  Katniss lunges forward to volunteer in her horrified sister’s place.  A second name, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is chosen for the boys.  Katniss and Peeta have a shared past and rooted memories of their last interaction.  This adds to the drama of the two characters training together as partnered combatants that will eventually be forced to kill each other in a hostile arena.

A former Hunger Games champion, the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is tasked with training the District 12 contenders.  In his limited instruction, he encourages his duo to earn the admiration of the crowd as well as wealthy sponsors that will provide assistance via gifts in the actual games.  The training and lavish experience of the capitol comprise the film’s first half leading up to Peeta and Katniss being set loose on the battlefield.

Little information is given about the status of Panem, the history of the games, and the outlook of future society.  For non-readers of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, the audience gets dropped into the world of Katniss Everdeen without any background knowledge to go on.  In some ways I appreciated this approach, and in other ways I didn’t.  The Hunger Games was always going to be a difficult novel to adapt since most of the story is comprised of Katniss’ internal thought.  That simply can’t translate well onscreen, but considering the obstacle, Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) has delivered a satisfactory young-adult thriller hinging on Jennifer Lawrence’s commanding portrayal of Katniss.

It would almost be impossible to expect an excessively grim take on the story since the novel caters to a younger crowd and a rating of PG-13 was inevitable.  That, of course, holds the film adaptation back from illuminating the horror of the plot, as well as the violence which comes along with it.  Instead the film sidesteps graphic depictions of children murdering children, dulling the violence down, and steering us into Katniss’ human journey to protect her family.

Generally speaking the film is actually rather alluring and suspenseful despite the fact that this material has been played out before.  Battle Royale, The Running Man, and even Gladiator have all focused on government-sanctioned battles to the death for populous entertainment.  Hunger Games never sets its sights too high as far as examining a culture that adopts such moral imbalance as to let the government oppress such horrors on children.  You won’t believe a word or image of this science-fiction world that Collins has assembled, but you will believe in Katniss’ struggle to survive it.  The allegory here is that we already live in a mass media culture consumed by reality television giving us open doors to human misery.  The madness will likely stop short of killing for ratings and circus costumes as ‘common’ wardrobe.  At least I can only hope so.

But I must go back to Jennifer Lawrence who delivers remarkably in the lead role.  Of course all of the hoopla has been made about what a talent she is after her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and her blockbuster status as the new Mystique from X-Men: First Class.  Strong female heroines come along once in a blue moon, especially in franchise form.  Lawrence brings Collins’ character to beaming light.  She’s stubborn, determined, strong, and completely family-centered.  The proposed love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale takes a backseat to the mission at hand—survive the games, protect your family.  In fact, the movie pays little attention to all the lovey-dovey hokum to the point where even I could have used a little bit more to make that aspect of the story a tad more impacting.  Don’t expect any of the romantic fireworks or steam found in the novel.  Little of it is present here.

That doesn’t lessen this solid adaptation which Collins had a hand in supervising.  The DNA of the novel is very present here.  With impressive talent both behind the camera and in front of it, The Hunger Games is a very entertaining and very human blockbuster franchise in the making that delivers for fans and casual viewers alike. I won’t argue that Ross’s film is particularly great entertainment, but neither was the book.  In meddling with such a violent subject, the story dulls a sharpened blade, but nevertheless lends itself well to some great human drama and noteworthy suspense.  Ignore the questionable CGI dog monsters that get zapped into the arena (that fail to work in both the film and the book), and you should become thoroughly engrossed by The Hunger Games.



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X-Men: First Class

I am officially declaring it now – the summer movie season is upon us. Yes, some may say it kicked off during May with such big-name flicks as Thor or the ever floptacular Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but honestly, X-men: First Class truly starts off what one hopes will be a continuing trend of renewal and redemption for several major series.

I was a fan of the original X-men trilogy, although X3 seemed to wilt a little without the Singer touch. But Singer returns with a writing credit and a little production input, to bring us a revitalization to the X-men franchise. Singer gave appropriate nods to his original X-men series (including two cameos, one of which is worth the ticket purchase alone – no spoilers though) to keep them valid and intertwined with the new film, but left room to explore brand new territory. By setting the film against the Cuban missile crisis, it gives the film a unique real-world connection while adding that science fiction, super-powered flair we all love in a good superhero movie. In addition to the real-world environment, we get a much deeper understanding of who these characters are beyond their powers. We see what drives them, what their flaws are, why they made the choices of which we saw the results in the previous three films. It is a well-rounded story with a lot of heart and a heck of a lot of action.

Little known X-men History: Charles and Erik loved playing hide and seek. Given that Charles was a mind-reader, Erik always lost.

(For those familiar with the series, you may skip this paragraph.) For those who may not be familiar with the concept, First Class focuses on the initial formation of the X-men, a group of people with genetic mutations which manifest themselves in the form of super-human abilities. The film is a prequel of sorts to the X-men trilogy which was released in the 2000s. It focuses on the two key players in the battle for human/mutant coexistence – Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Professor X and Magneto. Charles has the ability to read and control minds, Erik the ability to control magnetism.  Focusing on their backgrounds we see glimpses of Erik’s childhood as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, contrasted with Charles’ wealthy upbringing in America. Charles focuses his energies on studying genetics and mutations, Erik is hellbent on revenge. Eventually their paths come together, and under the supervision of the government, they locate and recruit a group of young mutants with diverse powers in order to form a team to defeat Sebastian Shaw, a man who is manipulating the U.S. and Russian governments in an effort to start WWIII for his own diabolical purposes.

Now that everyone is caught up to speed on the premise, how does the film stack up?

Sylar developed the super-human ability to jump over sharks on water skis after telekinetically lobotimizing the Fonz.

In a way, I feel like this is exactly what I needed after enduring Heroes for four uneventful seasons. I will sidestep briefly to explain my disappointment with Heroes. This show started with an interesting premise – regular people who develop super-human abilities. The problem is, barring a few brief episodes in chapter 1 and a sort of side plot in season 3, these people spent most of their time avoiding using their powers. While everyone at home is on the edge of their seats waiting to catch a few minutes worth of super-powered effects buried amongst tangled and unnecessarily elaborate plot arcs in each 45-minute episode, you could practically hear the producers saying “Oh no, effects like that will be too expensive to produce. Avoid them at all cost!” They also got tangled up in attempting to rework their concept to address what they viewed as “fan feedback”, and ultimately ended up ruining all the things which gave the show substance. Heroes effectively “jumped the shark” shortly into season 2 and never really recovered.

Now, back to X-men.

Although we see a somewhat reluctance in some of the mutants to use their abilities, ultimately we see an embracing of their purpose. In addition, we get a chance to see not only practical applications of their abilities, but also what happens when these powers are unleashed. There are several awe-inspiring scenes with Erik as a child, one of which is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the concentration camp scene from the original film. This film did for X-men what Star Wars: The Force Unleashed did for the Force of the Star Wars universe – showed what real people would do if they had these abilities in these situations, and they definitely wouldn’t hold back.

"Hi, I'm Magneto. I'm a fictional character. Move on with your life and enjoy the movie."

The biggest critiques coming toward this film have to do with the consistency of the storyline with that of the comic history.  There are a few necessary deviations in age of characters or background stories in order to make a more concise story arc. The fan boys will be up in arms that every minute detail isn’t as it was in the original material. But the fact of the matter is this, just as with any lengthy series derived from a written text – Harry Potter (7 books), The Chronicles of Narnia (7 books), Lord of the Rings (technically 6 books) – some details must be skimmed, omitted, or adjusted in order to fit them into a 2-3 hour timeslot. Let’s face it the X-men story spans hundreds of comics over decades of writing, there’s no way you’re going to get every detail into a film. So if you’re going looking for 100% accuracy, prepare to nitpick your way out of enjoying the film.

My Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon: I was an extra in Election with Matthew Broderick --> who was in The Producers with Nathan Lane --> who was in The Birdcage with Robin Williams --> who was in Bicentennial Man with Oliver Platt --> who was in X-men: First Class with Kevin Bacon. Booya.

The actors, did an excellent job embodying their respective parts. McAvoy and Fassbender, lend their interpretation on the characters artfully personified by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and provide a fantastic bridge between the two portrayals. Jennifer Lawrence, recently nominated for an Oscar for her role in Winter’s Bone, gives a notable performance as Mystique, adding some much welcome character development behind the eye-candy that was Rebecca Romaine in the original films. And of course, this film adds a link in everyone’s “6-Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, who gave a delightful performance as the villain.

Overall, this film was an absolutely enjoyable experience at the movies, and I sincerely look forward to the inevitable sequel that will most likely ensue. I’ve heard it described as X-men meets one of the old-school James Bond films, and I can agree with that assessment. The key is – this film is a good movie that just happens to be about super heroes, which isn’t always the case with Marvel and DCs cinematic outings. It’s definitely worth the time and money to soak in the scale on the big screen.

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