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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Rating: 3.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Captain America

With all of the superheros making it to the big screen these days, there seem to be just as many misses as there are hits. The challenge seems to be translating the fantastical element of the comic universe into real-world existence these characters have to endure in a live-action film — while still appealing to the hardcore fanbase — while reaching out to the casual moviegoer — all without making the film and its characters seem downright ridiculous. Nolan found notable success with Batman, Singer found some luck with the X-men, Favreau did admirably with Iron Man, and Raimi did a decent job with Spider-man (before they decided to scratch the whole thing and do a reboot). Some less successful attempts to bridge the fantasy and reality include Ang Lee’s Hulk (which I didn’t actually mind), Singer’s Superman (which suffered more from a skewed story arc than anything else) and Schumacher’s Batman films (rubber nipples). So where does Captain America fall in all this? Definitely one of the most successful attempts to date.

Captain America continues Marvel’s very successful approach of creating a cohesive cinematic world in which all its characters can live and interact with one another – culminating in the eagerly anticipated Avengers film next May.  With subtle nods to its other characters and intertwining story elements, fans who have seen the other Marvel films will feel like they’re on the inside track (even if you’re not an avid comic reader) and those who are only stopping in for the one film won’t feel left out. It’s like the zen balance of reaching the mass movie-going audience. Ultimately this film succeeds at establishing itself in reality because it succeeds as a period film set in WWII, which brings with it great costumes, sets, and overall ambiance. The film is filled with comedic relief, provides the required amount of action sequences, and most importantly characters with substance so the audience can feel invested. It should also be noted that each of these elements are balanced admirably so that it never feels too heavy-handed in any one area.

Neither Ackles or Krasinski made the cut, although both were considered. Apparently in early scripts Captain hunted demons and worked in a paper factory.

When the first names were tossed around for who would don the red, white, and blue, several well-known actors were suggested. Originally my vote was for Jensen Ackles, known best for his work on the show Supernatural. He had the wit they were looking for, the look, and genuinely I’d be interested in seeing him get some work outside the world of the CW. But sadly, due to scheduling conflicts, he was removed from the running. Meanwhile Marvel went a totally different direction by throwing out their original shortlist, and calling up Chris Evans, who already existed in the Marvel universe as Johnny Storm a.k.a. the Human Torch in Fantastic Four. (Don’t worry, they’re rebooting that too, so this continuity error will be remedied.) I thought Evans was the best part about Fantastic Four (he and Chiklis were perfectly cast in my opinion) but I was wary about him as Captain America. After seeing this film, my worries were put to rest.

The serum added volume to his body AND his hair. P.S. look for me this Halloween in my spot-on pre-serum Steve Rogers costume.

Evans embodies (pun intended?) everything the character needs. He exudes the likable, genuine and witty qualities of a scrawny but big-hearted guy placed in an artificially huge body. Even though his pre-super body is doubled in via CGI, the meshing of the two performances creates a believable character because Evans conveys those qualities so effortlessly. (It should also be noted that the CGI is so well done that it takes a conscious eye to notice the work.) Joss Whedon has some great character mixing to do between the do-good nobility of Steve Rogers with the smarminess of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in The Avengers. Should create quite the… *ahem* stark contrast. (Had to do it.)

Oh no! Megatron got the energon cube!

Other notable performances include Tommy Lee Jones as a military general (some great comedic moments here), Stanley Tucci as the scientist who creates the super-serum, and even Hugo Weaving as the key villain, Red Skull.  I have to admit, ever since The Matrix, Weaving has always carried an Agent Smith vibe into his other work, which made Lord of the Rings a bit weird for me. At least in Transformers he was just a voice actor. But in this role Weaving’s character found a different feel that gave him the villainous quality, without that cool, calculating calm of Smith.

Can you imagine the entire movie with this? If you're still having trouble, go watch the 1990 version. I'll wait here while you do..... See!

One of the greatest things about this film is that it actually single-handedly addresses the whining demands of the hardcore fans with a cold, hard dose of reality. This doesn’t spoil much, but if you really hate all spoilers, hop over this paragraph. For part of the film, the Captain is used for war propaganda, and tours with a USO show in a ridiculous costume that is a direct translation of the old spandex suit of yore. You watch that section and can practically hear the producers saying “See, that’s why you can’t do things exactly as they are in the comics – they don’t translate to real life in a non-humorous manner.” So kudos for the respectful nod and somewhat subtle education by the filmmaker.

The film is not flawless by any means. Although all the elements are balanced throughout the film, it does seem like the action and resolution of the crisis are a bit hasty and lackluster. In terms of the story arc, it’s a very slow build in the initial rising action (not uncommon with an origin story, and necessary for good character development) with sort of a plateau leading up to the climax and not so much a resolution as a quick setup for future Captain films. However, this doesn’t dilute the enjoyment of the film, it merely left me wanting a bit more. At the same time, I’m not sure how much one can watch of a guy running around punching people, dodging bullets/lasers, and occasionally throwing a shield without getting bored. So they at least avoided that pitfall.

Overall I would highly recommend Captain America as part of your summer movie-going experience. I won’t go as far to say it’s the best super hero film ever, but it definitely stands on par with the original Iron Man in terms of action blended with comic-relief. Also be sure to stay until the very end of the credits for a highly worthwhile bonus.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (5 votes cast)

The Lovely Bones

Visual excess abounds for Peter Jackson, whose imagination runs wild with the imagery provided by the text of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel.  Surprisingly, Jackson has less of a human element present in his crack at  ‘The Lovely Bones’ than he did in his spectacularly bloated rendition of ‘King Kong’ four years ago.  With so much lush opportunity to capitalize on an emotional resonance of his earthlings, Jackson instead seems far more eager to establish his flavor for special effects provided by the story’s setting.

Brilliant young actress Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominee for ‘Atonement’) plays Susie Salmon (like the fish), a fourteen year-old suburban middle-schooler, well-behaved, adventurous, with a thrill for photography and a longing for her first kiss with the dreamy English-accented Ray (Reece Ritchie).  Susie narrated the events of the film from beyond the grave, always keeping her audience ahead of the game.  She informs us that she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.  One afternoon on her way home from school, creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) stops her in a field and lures her into an underground ‘playhouse’ he tells her he constructed for the neighborhood children.  Horror follows as Susie never finds her way out, at least not in physical form.  Her spirit goes to the ‘in-between’ where she waits until her murder is solved.  Mark Wahlberg plays her determined father Jack.  Rachel Weisz plays her emotional-wreck mother, Abigail.  And Susan Sarandon plays her hard-drinking, chain-smoking grandmother.

The tagline on the poster stated: “The story of a life and everything that came after.”  While in some ways, that’s true, “The Lovely Bones” seems less interested in the effects of Susie’s death on her family.  I never once felt as though Peter Jackson meant to explore the family’s emotional devastation.  Instead, much of our time is spent through these other-world visualizations with ‘Hitchiker’s Guide to Galaxy’ style imagery that Susie occupies mostly on her own.  Here and there, another younger girl shows up named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who advises Susie to keep moving forward toward Heaven.  Since the audience fully knows of the details concerning the murder of Susie, and her killer’s identity, two hours are spent watching the police and the Salmon family overlook Harvey’s involvement, even though he sits next door.  Frustratingly, Jackson focuses a lot on Susie’s lone explorations, as he cuts and pastes gorgeous desktop wallpapers together to create his lavishly haunting vision of afterlife.  Instead of dealing with the Salmon parents’ emotional devastation, he uses their breakdowns as a backdrop for landmark special effects sequences that play pretty for sure, but they also never allow us access to real people occupying Jackson’s movie.  He spends so much of his efforts creating a surreal visual experience, that his protagonists become one-dimensional and without an inlet for the audience.  Where Jackson could’ve shifted focus and made Jack and Abigail dual lead characters whose relationship slowly faces demise as a result of Jack’s obsession over the murder case, the movie is constantly distracted, where only marginal suspense can be generated.  Since Susie tells us everything we need to know before it occurs, there’s really no surprise left in store.  At the very least, Jackson could have allowed us to get caught up in Jack’s investigation efforts and findings.  Instead, he goes back and forth with sub-characters that only seem to hinder and confuse the storyline, as well as skew the reality of what happens onscreen.

Most of what confuses is a supernatural element that never becomes clear.  There’s a character who seems to have the ability to contact/see the dead walking among the living.  She witnesses Susie’s spirit leaving Earth, and senses her presence later on toward the end of the film.  There are also moments where Susie seems to have access to her father, instances where he tries to reach out and touch her, as Susie watches him in her Purgatory-esque  existence.  She even seems to be able to intervene in terms of her father’s emotion–sort of an E.T. like connection where they can feel each other’s pain.  This idea seems to give way to improper character motivations and realizations.  Eventually Wahlberg’s character suspects Harvey, but for no apparent reason, other than his image in a photograph.  Soon enough, he’s trying to smash in Harvey’s door and declaring him the killer.  Sure, the audience knows he is, but for Jack to have this sudden realization, it really makes little sense.

Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable from his standard supporting affairs in films like ‘Julie & Julia,’ really has all the meat this script has to offer.  Weisz, Wahlberg, and Sarandon literally disappear in this movie and their struggles go overlooked.  Instead, the serial killer of Harvey manages to steal all the thunder.  When Tucci makes his way to the forefront, the movie has an undeniably unsettling quality.  Perhaps that has to do with Jackson’s way of lingering on an up-close shot of Tucci’s mug or him tapping his fingers ever-so eloquently.  Tucci ends up stealing the movie with a haunting performance.  Of course it is easier to steal a movie as a memorable villain, but Tucci never has to compete with anyone onscreen.  His presence dominates any acting on display, whether it be Oscar-nominee Wahlberg, or winners Weisz and Sarandon.  Ronan manages to put on a strong performance, but once she exits Earth, her character loses almost all depth.  That leaves ‘The Lovely Bones’ to rely on Harvey and his potential capture.  Luckily “Bones” has Tucci to the play the character, because he manages to place that weight on your chest early on that the movie never lifts.

Other than impressive special effects sequences and a memorable performance from Stanley Tucci, Director Peter Jackson has a movie that is so obtuse that I don’t even know how to classify it.  If James Cameron is to be chastised for inventing a picture based on his obsessive visual excess, then Jackson should face a similar fate of criticism.  To Cameron’s credit, he never intended on placing his focus on genuine human characters.  Jackson did.  While part of his misfire may have to do with the source material, “The Lovely Bones” nevertheless misses its opportunity to illuminate a family torn apart by murder.  Even though part of me wants to give this a marginal recommendation due to its haunting and unsettling presence, I am slightly forced to move in the other direction.  Jackson has delivered another overlong, bloated movie (that I didn’t love as much as ‘King Kong’) that is a bit anti-climactic and confusing as to what its intentions really are.  I don’t know what to take away from ‘The Lovely Bones.’  There is only little resolve for the family characters, and not much invested in them anyway.  If I was meant to be captivated by Susie’s journey beyond the grave, then I’m left unengaged.  Jackson’s version of Heaven, while a culmination of raw technology efforts, feels desolate and lonely. I can’t say the movie didn’t impact me–it sure startled me, and stirred up emotions, but its protagonists did not, leaving a gaping emptiness all the special effects in the world can’t fill.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (3 votes cast)