Friday, March 23, 2012

For many teenagers, life feels like a matter of life and death. In The Hunger Games, it actually is.

The new release, destined to be a blockbuster from the pre-sold tickets alone, is a beautiful, deeply affecting, and riveting film with a heroine for the ages. Actress Jennifer Lawrence, luminous and compelling as Katniss Everdeen, can express a myriad of emotions on her face without speech.

In a movie world where actors often merely state their emotion and inner thoughts, the screenwriters and director of The Hunger Games trust Lawrence to pull it off with acting. Treading similar territory to her Oscar nominated character in Winter’s Bone, she vacillates between resignation and a melancholy determination that breaks your heart. Having seen her, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the character better. It will no doubt cement Lawrence as one of Hollywood’s biggest and highest paid A-list stars.

The screenplay is co-written by the bestselling author of the book, Suzanne Collins, along with director Gary Ross, (who wrote Bigand wrote and directed Pleasantville). The result, which blends a movie newbies ignorant of the original book trilogy will love, and one that the dedicated fandom will embrace as authentic and uncompromising, is the best argument for keeping an author in the screenwriting loop.

One hopes the success of this movie will convince Hollywood that a story’s integrity is best served with them more often onboard. Clocking in at 142 minutes, it never lags but sweeps you up completely into its action and emotion for more than breathless hours.

For those of you who live under a fandom free rock, the story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in the bleak 12th district of an oppressive post-war US that has become the dictatorship Panem. The 12th, which used to be Appalachia, is the most impoverished of all the districts that support the opulent extravagance of the Capital, and people starve there on a regular basis, so tenaciously determined Katniss has taken to illegally hunting to support her ineffectual mother and fragile 12-year-old sister Prim.

Every year a boy and girl ages 12-18 are selected as Tributes for “The Hunger Games”, a sick mix of TV game show entertainment and state run terror campaign that keeps the districts under strict control. In the games these teens are placed in game-maker controlled arenas for a gruesome fight to the death. After Prim’s name is called as Tribute, Katniss volunteers in her stead. Most winners come from the more affluent 1-4 districts, many of which are trained as killers from birth. Only one person alive has ever won from District 12.

To get back to her beloved sister, and her hunky best friend and hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss has to win the Hunger Games. This means killing the other Tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she has a complicated history. The themes of courage and sacrifice are expressed through both her and Peeta’s actions, and their determination to survive or win or die without compromising their humanity.

And teenagers here think they have it tough…

As any fan of sci-fi or futuristic dystopic fantasies will tell you, this ground has been covered many times before. In film, there’s Battle Royale and Series 7: The Contenders. In books there’s The Running Man and The Long Walk, both of which are written by Stephen King as Richard Bachman.

King said The Hunger Games was “as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves video games in the lobby of the local eightplex.” (Read King’s original book review by clicking here.) If someone like King, who wrote two books covering similar territory, doesn’t find it too derivative, who are we mere mortals (i.e. not gods of horror and suspense fiction) to say it is?

The difference with, and key to the success of The Hunger Games is in the emotional context they put the story into, by following one person’s journey and passion to survive for the sake of her family. There is a love interest of sorts, but one of the most respectable and refreshing aspects of the film is Katniss stays true to and focused on her desire to get back home above all other things. No man, or money, or anything else, will ever trump her family’s love. Take that, Bella!

Woody Harrelson brings unusually meaty complexity to Haymitch, their jaded oft-soused mentor, and the only other District 12-er alive who has won the Hunger Games. He knows how to manipulate and play to win but seems also to grow genuinely attached to a favorable outcome, such as he knows it can be. His excitement about the Games, and life in general, is exhibited by the three fingers of scotch he has to down before his first morning biscuit. It seems like Harrelson hasn’t had a bad turn, or made bad acting choices for some time. Now he can add Haymitch to a growing list of great characters.

Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the Hunger Games stylist, is a surprisingly good and believable mix of compassion and duty. Elizabeth Banks had me guessing who she was for a while, so done up and trussed up was she as Effie Trinket, the clueless human poodle who embodies how vapid and shallow the average Capital dweller can be.

As President Snow, Donald Sutherland shows just the right balance of fatherly kindness and malevolent iron fisted despot to register a 4-alarm creep factor. We get the sense he could gingerly water his roses and shoot a teen between the eyes in the same five minutes.

With the costume and production design, the filmmakers have made strong, memorable choices. The film’s opening scenes in the districts evoke a mash up of Dorothea Lange and Ridley Scott’s 1984 Apple commercial, while the hyper colorized design choices of the Capital speak to the lives of people with too much time on their hands. It’s 5th Element meets Leni Reifenstahl on LSD. In the forested arena, a more naturalistic palette takes over.

The cruelties and violence in the arena are artfully (and sparingly) shown so as to keep the younger audience members from running in terror but the emotions they evoke are genuine and will stay with you. During a particularly sad scene, I kept it together only because the editor of the Washington Post film section was sitting next to me, and I did it by pinching myself to bruising. The critic on the other side of me was through her third Kleenex. Fans who know and cherish this part of the book will appreciate the film makers did right by that scene in the movie.

A quick mention of the soundtrack, which is a partnership between James Newton Howard and T-Bone Burnett. It’s a doozy… Appalachian undertones blending with a mix of symphonic and electronic elements, it adds significantly to the mood of the film. If you love movie music, this one’s a keeper.

As successfully as the film conveys its strong visual footprint, and as well as its star Jennifer Lawrence conveys the central character’s intense emotional struggles, there are a few quibbles that keep this film from perfection.

The occasional use of the handheld documentary style camera work goes past making us a central part of the action or distracting us from more bloodletting. It veers towards nausea-inducing annoyance. All the “shaky, shaky” seems an obvious and uninspired choice.

Both the central male characters pale against Katniss, and while that may be partly because of how compelling Lawrence is to watch, it is also partly a lack of solid character development or ways of building attachment to Peeta, who I’m not completely sold was perfectly cast using Josh Hutcherson. He seems quite a bit younger than Katniss, and not much in command of his power. While fans of the books may know all his back story, there is so little shown of it on film that those new to the story may not find themselves much in his corner.

As to Gale, (Liam Hemsworth), who, praise the Goddess of All Things Hot, will figure more prominently in the next installment, there may not be quite enough interaction early in the film to play up his importance to her while she is in the arena.

The Hunger Games has the great fortune of being both epic and subtle, both exciting and emotional. It never becomes so violently unwatchable that teens can’t see it, but it does speak to the challenge of extremely difficult choices, great sadness, fearlessness in the face of darkness, risking kindness, finding courage, and choosing when all the choices seem impossible.

I don’t remember being a teenager as being that hard. If it makes anyone look at their own teenage experiences with slightly more rose colored glasses in comparison, that’s reason enough for it to deserve to be a blockbuster and become a classic that stands the test of time.