Saturday, March 24, 2012

HYPE, HOLLYWOOD & THE HUNGER GAMES

 “The Hunger Games” finally opened this weekend and it almost felt anti-climatic. Not only because the movie is pretty awful but because I feel like I’ve lived with it now for months. And God knows we all have. Between the excessive coverage of it in the entertainment world ever since the announcement of Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as the lead to the saturation, dare I say, bombardment, of souvenir books everywhere months before it came out, “The Hunger Games” has been nothing if not overexposed.
Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games"
Now, any phenomenon that gets people into the movie theaters is in most ways a very good thing. But knowing that the audience is so built in here, and that this was going to be a phenom, couldn’t Hollywood have made a better film? “The Hunger Games” is so uneven in tone, so poorly paced and so badly shot it is absolutely shocking. In the rush to get this film out and capitalize on the books' popularity, the filmmakers glossed over a lot of story, shortchanged the narrative, and spent more time on silly costuming than developing character.


Right off the bat, the filmmakers demonstrate a slipshod attitude by lazily tossing out about seven title cards explaining the back story, which is never a good sign when a movie makes you read exposition rather than view it. Those title cards tell us that certain factions of the populace are living in poverty due to some war and they’re being punished for their betrayal in this new country called Panem. I haven’t read the book but I know all that must have gotten a lot more explanation than the few sentences deemed worthy enough for the film. And the movie never explains much more after that about this new world order or the war that devastated it. It's more obsessed with the overstylized art direction, garish costuming, a few scattered expensive CGI shots, and the strange eye make-up worn by every cast member from Lawrence to Lenny Kravitz. I wanted to know more about the districts and why they have been sending in their victim/guinea pigs each year to appear in this garish reality show called "The Hunger Games” that all factions are obsessed with. These games are so popular amongst the new nation, it's lasted 75 years. Death and destruction as the new Olympics, go figure. But the lack of logic, back-story or explanation of any of this seems to have slipped the minds of director Gary Ross and his fellow screenwriters Billy Ray and adapting author Suzanne Collins. Why worry about things making sense for an audience when there are a costume designer's wet dreams and an art director's futuristic matte paintings to "ooh" and 'ahh" over? 
Elizabeth Banks in "The Hunger Games"
But my feeling of confusion and that the filmmakers didn't have their priorities straight for the audience stayed with me throughout this entire film. I kept having questions like how is this nation run and why is one show the only thing on TV? Why would the teen participants make any alliance if it is a 'last man standing' kind of competition? And wouldn’t a smart player kill his alliance members while they slept? Other questions plagued me. Why do the rules keep changing during the game? Why do the poor people look like refugees from “The Grapes of Wrath” yet they all manage to have big screen TV’s? Are they state sanctioned, like some sort of entertainment welfare? And why are some of the characters so cartoony like those of Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks while others are more modestly portrayed? Kravitz and Donald Sutherland give subtle performances compared to the wild flailing of Tucci and Banks. Are the richies supposed to be that insane? Then there's Jennifer Lawrence who plays it all so straight you’d think she’s playing Ophelia in “Hamlet.” Luckily the Bard's ingenue never had to utter such idiotic lines like, “Take care of them, Gale! Don’t let them starve!”
Stanley Tucci in "The Hunger Games"
Of course this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s pulp fiction. But even on that level, the filmmakers fumble. The tone is all over the place rather than being sharp and deft and consistent. One minute it's maudlin, the next it's practically Willy Wonka, still the next it’s trying to be an indictment of reality TV series like “Survivor” and “The Bachelor.” They can't even get the actions scenes right, and they're over half the movie. The fight scenes are impossible to follow as they are nothing but a blur, as if the film had to be shot so quickly to be released in time for all the kids on spring break that there wasn’t time to hire a decent fight choreographer! I have not seen a picture shot so frantically and sloppily in some time, and that’s saying a lot considering the overly caffeinated camerawork and editing already on display in this year’s “Project X” and “Chronicle.”


Then, there is the love triangle between Katniss (Lawrence) and her two suitors – the aforementioned Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who has precious little to do here except register as a younger version of his brother Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, quite good in “The Kids Are Alright” two years ago). The boys here seem like just two more hunks, nothing else. They're consistent with the way all young male leads seem to be cast in these things, for their brawn and magazine cover potential, rather than for true screen presence or acting ability. 
Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson in "The Hunger Games"
Despite the many, many flaws, there are a few moments in this movie that do work well. When Katniss gets stuck up a tree and decides to cut loose a limb attached to a gigantic hornet’s nest so it will drop on her competitors, the tension created there is utterly palpable. Woody Harrelson gives a nuanced and likable performance, despite being stuck in a bad wig and goofy clothes. And Lawrence is a real star, her face saying more than most dialogue. (Especially given the turds she has to utter here.) 


But despite these attributes, and a nice vindicating of the 1% holding down the 99% in today's economic world, this film seems mostly content to be slick, vacuous and shrill. Its parody has precious little bite. And I don’t know what it thinks about its main characters except that the world seems to continue to make teens moody and sullen, like they're all descendants of the likes of so serious Edward Cullen of the trite “Twilight” world. Hell, my generation had moody teens too, but at least they showed up in complex films like “Risky Business” and the John Hughes oeuvre. Don’t today’s filmmakers and teen audiences want a little more than just Calvin Klein ad posturing? Have any of them ever seen “The Graduate”?


But then this movie, and most of Hollywood these days, isn’t interested in making lasting classics. They’re primarily interested in making franchises, films that audiences, particularly teens, will come and see again and again and again, sequel after sequel.The studio spent more time on the PR and franchise implications than ensuring a great film, one that had clarity and integrity, was delivered. And yet despite such low aim, of course they’ve succeeded spectacularly on the box office front. Despite the wretched shortcomings, the audiences are lining up to see this drivel and the opening day sales already netted a nifty 20 million. 
Woody Harrelson in "The Hunger Games"
I'm hopeful that the makers of "The Hunger Games" get more serious for subsequent outings and try harder. It took the Harry Potter series two films to find its groove, so there is hope here. But I worry because formula and money seem to be the main drivers these days. The worth and legacy of any movie should be in and of itself. Not its box office. And certainly not the proliferation of souvenir books available at every CVS counter in America.  

4 comments:

  1. Dear Twin Features, and Becci, thanks for your comments. I changed a few pictures and then lost your posts. So sorry about that! If you want, you can repost them as they were very valuable comments and I'd like them to be shared with everyone who stops by here. Thanks for following, and sorry that there was a technical SNAFU that lost them. Please comment anytime!

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  2. This is what Twin Features, one of my followers had to say:


    I agree whole heartedly with your post Jeff. I have been trying to work over the frustration I had with this film. It was god awful. Luckily for me, you wrote a brilliant piece and I don't have to spend any more time with this trite. No matter how much ridiculous eyeliner or dirt you put on these characters they are boring and stock. Everyone could've died and I really wouldn't care. Having only seen the film it had exact opposite effect. I never want to read these books. I can't even begin to guess how they will make more or, why this film is getting such high praise on sites like rotten tomatoes. Is this just something we do now? Reward everyone like an overly P.C. Elemetary school?

    For some reason, when I changed out a few pictures, Twin Features' commentary was scuttled. (Sorry about that Twin Features.) I have restored it. Even though it plays under my name.)

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  3. And this is what BECCI said:

    Wow. Maybe I'll read the book and skip the movie. I was hoping it might be a good IMAX experience. Any suggestions for that?

    (Again, it got lost when I changed out some pictures.)

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  4. That movie sucked. Any time there is narration or titles in a movie it's a bad sign-and lazy filmaking. It could have been the milk duds but I too felt like barfing with that jumpy camera work. The characters had no depth, the plot was predictable and I'll never have my 2 1/2 hours back again. It was funny though-those CGI bears or wolves or whatever at the end just to make sure the audience would think there was an actual plot twist.
    How does this shit get made?

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