THE HUNGER GAMES: Battle Royale With Cheese

24 03 2012

I’m so sick of people telling me I have to read Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, and no, it’s not because I hang out with a lot of twelve year-olds, though I admittedly do, in a treehouse. Here is a young adult literary franchise that seems to have crossed over and made fans of non-young adults, even very non-young adults. And to hear them give me the hard sell, you’d think the thing were Dianetics or something. (Hail Xenu, BTW.) Ever since this phenomenon began, I’ve consistently said one thing: ‘leave me alone, I’ll see the movie,’ and ever a blogger of my word, opening night I ventured out to see THE HUNGER GAMES directed by Gary Ross. I sat through it beginning to end, didn’t get up to pee or fall asleep, and no, I’m sorry to report, Hunger-heads, this film didn’t inspire me to go back and devour the novels. Though I did come home and drunkenly Wikipedia the synopses of the sequels, which means technically, I can say I’ve read the whole series. So check mate, pre-adolescents.

The first thing to say about Ross’s HUNGER GAMES is, the handheld camera moves and shakes fucking non-stop. The second thing to say is, practically every foot of film is excessively cut, so that the consistency of this adventure is straight mush on an aesthetic level. Apparently this is done to convey some sense of subjective realism, but instead it’s just nausea-inducing. Nothing looks good here. The production design consists of a single idea, borne out to the power of ugly. Ross & Co. create in color a contrast between the rural industrial life of the oppressed, and the literally colorful excess of the elite. Translation: on top of shaking and chopping his film into artless pulp, Ross is also assaulting you with the most garish costumes and sets since LOGAN’S RUN. (This is a film that appears destined to age about as well as that one…)

Stanley Tucci (left), seen here chewing the Tyvek and styrofoam scenery

More than likely though, the limitations here aren’t just Ross’s as a director, but also those of the production budget, which judging by the overhead CG shots of the ‘Panem’ capitol city, was on par with a SyFy Channel original… Not to mention the limitations of an MPAA PG-13 rating that must be upheld over all so that children who read the book can actually see the film. That’s all well and good, and I’m not filled with blood lust or anything, really I’m not. But I would have liked our protagonist Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) to have to reckon with her own violence in the end. In one way or another, every time she kills, it’s always by at least one degree of removal. She kills, but technically, doesn’t, and so goes through the story morally blameless – which is fine for kids, sure, but it may be boring for grown-up’s. And I guess I’m one of those now. (Shit.)

Instead of our heroine confronting her brutality, we get a climactic mea culpa from some other teenager named Cato (Alexander Ludwig,) a villainous twerp who, facing death, starts blabbering like Stallone in the end of FIRST BLOOD. Poor Cato isn’t the only casualty of a choppy, sloppy adaptation. Supporting players Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley all come off as one-dimensional caricatures, some veering into high camp, others not. Yeah yeah, I’m sure they were better in the book, but here they’re under-served. What exactly is Lenny Kravitz’s character Cinna meant to be? The ‘Kindhearted Stylist with No Other Discernible Personality Traits’? How compelling. Ironically, Kravitz, who came to pop prominence because his hair was more interesting than his music, is basically the one actor here without an absolutely ridiculous wig.

Friends, countrymen, I was paid $400,000 for three days of shooting.

Apart from giving short shrift to characters, the screenplay also glosses over seemingly significant story points. Example: Katniss’s home team ally Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is seen at one point early in the games forming an alliance with Cato against Katniss, yet when Peeta and Katniss meet up later, she gladly saves his life and his betrayal is never discussed. Never! At the end, they’re even in love. Seriously. Nonsense. And let’s not even try to parse the conundrum that is the physical universe of the games themselves. How is it that these kids are all battle royale’ing inside a domed forest where giant fireballs and monster (ZOOL) dogs can be digitally manifested and flung at them with the touch of game-master Wes Bentley’s button? Maybe I’m mistaken, but I thought matter can’t be created or destroyed? Or do the rules of Y.A. lit supercede the rules of Newtonian physics? Again, there’s probably a smart explanation of the mechanics behind the games in Suzanne Collins’ book, but I haven’t read the book, so the film failed me as an outsider.

Maybe it’s the rush to market or the schizophrenia inherent in making a children’s movie dark and edgy, but there’s a slipshod approach to THE HUNGER GAMES that runs through its every element: the incomplete scripting, the unappealing design, the one-note performances. Admitting that, it also seems clear that a more elegant handling of this source material by a different director might have made me care. So, pre-teen treehouse pals, I suppose I can see the appeal, but for now I’ll just sit back and watch you all chow down, ‘cause I sure ain’t hungry for more.

I’ll stick with TWILIGHT.

THE HUNGER GAMES

Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Friday March 23, 5:30pm showing

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Warning to the Heartland: Beware THE LOVELY BONES.

16 01 2010

Dear middle America,

As you peruse your local movie listings this Martin Luther King Day weekend, you may find yourself considering Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, which opens in ‘wide release’ (your neck of the woods,) after over a month of ‘limited release’ (elite coastal movie theaters.) Red Staters, we’ve never really seen eye to eye. You probably think I’m a homosexual just for having a blog. But in the spirit of bipartisanship, nah, hell, call it patriotism, I’m warning y’all: Stay away from these LOVELY BONES.

Here, for your entertainment, is an awful mess. It’s the story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan,) a fourteen year-old girl murdered on her way home from school. Following her death, Susie tours “the in-between,” a region neither heaven nor hell (though for me it was decidedly on the ‘hell’ side,) all while trying to communicate with her grieving parents Mark Wahlberg & Rachel Weisz, and help them solve the mystery of her death at the hands of the Salmon’s next-door serial kill-neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci.)

Have we really learned nothing from WHAT DREAMS MAY COME?

Though effectively half his film is devoted to Susie’s experience in the afterlife, (an expansion of the source novel’s narrative framing device,) Jackson establishes no rules or structure for this ‘in-between’ world, choosing instead to present it as a series of computer-generated hyper-pastorals through which Susie meanders… seeing things that really aren’t amazing, and meeting characters such as perky Asian spirit guide “Holly Golightly” (Nikki SooHoo) … who really isn’t interesting.

Some badly needed suspense arrives in the last act, with Susie’s sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) creeping through Harvey’s home in a scene not undone by its implausibility, but by its inconsequence. The evidence Lindsey retrieves has almost zero bearing in the plot. The same lax causality goes for much of THE LOVELY BONES. The efforts of Susie to alert her family to her killer, eventually, go nowhere; Harvey’s final comeuppance has barely anything to do with her plot line. This makes Susie, and her parents, not to mention Michael Imperioli’s pointless police detective, ultimately impotent figures – and given how much screen time is allotted to Harvey and his devilry, it’s hard to have sympathy for protagonists who are so banally bereaved they can’t see a monster in their midst.

Thanks for nothing, Michael Imperioli.

Between the sixteen endings of RETURN OF THE KING, and the 790-minute Empire State Building climax of KING KONG, it’s fair to say that extended death scenes have become Peter Jackson’s forté. I’m a sucker for his KONG – but the scene of Susie Salmon’s abduction and murder is hard to classify as entertainment. And yet THE LOVELY BONES is not a bad film because of objectionable subject matter. It is a bad film because it’s the sum of uniformly bad artistic choices:

The cinematography is a sloppy muddle, with cameras moving when they needn’t and shouldn’t, especially in domestic scenes. Sequences like the killer’s introduction, peering through the windows of a dollhouse, are over-edited, where a simpler, cleaner presentation would do better. The musical score by Brian Eno is off the mark in almost every moment – most criminally, a 70’s fabulous disco in heaven, set not to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, but to classical strings (AS BAD AS IT SOUNDS.) Worse still is Susie Salmon’s ceaseless voice over. The post-mortem narrator’s been done before, but it’s hard to think of a more miscalculated application than this. Though Penn & Teller urge us to politely golf clap whenever the title of a film is worked into its dialogue, when Susie announces, apropos to nothing at film’s end, “these are the lovely bones…” and then attempts to briefly unpack that statement, the only possible response is to groan – not clap.

Rose McIver, who plays Saoirse Ronan’s younger sister but looks seven years older than her – is, in reality, seven years older than Saoirse Ronan. Go figure!

Though Saoirse Ronan and the always-great Tucci both impress, the rest of the cast fails to leave any mark. Their jobs aren’t made any easier by Mister Directorpants, who treats the Salmon clan as if each of them has to have one broad characteristic, like a surly dwarf or hungry Hobbit: Wahlberg’s consumed by rage, Weisz is detached yet also aloof, and Susan Sarandon is the grandmother who’s too fabulous to grieve, or even mention her granddaughter’s murder. She causes hilaaarious havoc around the Salmon home: washing machines overflow, dishes shatter, small fires pop up. In such an aggressively sentimental film, that this MR. MOM-esque montage passes for comic relief shows just how far Jackson has come from his bizarre beginnings.

But then, Peter Jackson hasn’t attempted anything less than Huge in the last ten years of his life. And though it was one of the true cinematic treats of the ’00’s to see a filmmaker with oddball sensibilities and a taste for macabre do Huge right, Jackson’s latest is a smaller, sadder tale, which he insists on Huge-ifying – with sweeping visuals but no eye for detail. He may be attempting a return from Middle, to regular Earth with THE LOVELY BONES, but when it comes to portraying reality, Jackson’s a stranger in a strange land.