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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Beldar & kids see "The Hunger Games"

My daughter Molly introduced me to Susanne Collins' trilogy "The Hunger Games" when the novels first came out a few years ago, and I was much taken with them.

There have been many criticisms of the books, and by and large they also apply to the just-released movie version of the first book. The central premise — in which twenty-four teens, drawn by lottery from twelve world districts, compete in a televised deathmatch  — requires a large swallow of "willing suspension of disbelief" to wash it down. Indeed, the rest of the "world creation" is thin and often internally inconsistent. (Small spoilers ahead, click and drag to display text: How could a society with the technology to materialize deadly robotic wolves out of thin air still be dependent on coal mining done by humans in a village that's functionally indistinguishable from Depression-era Appalachia?) As science fiction plots go, "The Hunger Games" trilogy is fairly trite and not very original. No one would mistake it for great literature, and it doesn't aspire to be that.

Jennifer Lawrence as 'Katniss' in 'The Hunger Games'Nevertheless, however improbably, the trilogy succeeds as well-spun and spare-but-compelling story-telling — a page-turner that induces readers to identify with and care about the characters, and that is particularly likely to inspire sentimental tears from anyone who's ever had a sister or daughter. So Molly and I have been eagerly awaiting, and following the advance press accounts regarding, this first episode of the film adaptation. We resolved to see the film during the first weekend of its release, and we were joined today by my son Adam and his roommate Erik, neither of whom had read the books.

Many trilogy fans criticized the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist, "Katniss Everdeen," on grounds that she is too old and too blonde. Her blondeness was easily remedied, of course, and with due respect to purists who'd rather the films exactly track the books, and to the many excellent child actors who've graced other difficult film roles, I frankly can't imagine this movie having been made successfully with an actual thirteen- or fourteen-year-old. And Jennifer Lawrence's performance is stunning; the phrase "vividly understated" sounds contradictory, and I guess it is, but it approximates the tightrope she successfully walks between making Katniss too ordinary to be inspiring and too terrific to be believable. By the end of the film's first major plot development (roughly 10 minutes into the movie), she completely owned the screen and, I suspect, the hearts of everyone (of any sex or age) in the theater. The film is quite long (142 minutes), but Lawrence's performance is so persuasive and so winning that the filmmakers were able to mostly omit many of the cut-away scenes which I had expected to be necessary from reading the books — especially the ones showing Katniss' performance in the Hunger Games as generating strong reactions among not only her hometown friends and family, but among those viewing the spectacle of the Games from her competitors' home districts too.

(Among the trailers shown before our screening was one for the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman"; when Kristen Stewart appeared on-screen, she inspired much muttering, if not quite hissing or cat-calls. And if you're familiar with her lifeless, boring performances in the "Twilight" series of films, you can easily imagine how she, or someone else equally young and hot but talentless, might easily have been cast in — and have thoroughly ruined — "The Hunger Games.")

The only real clunker of a casting decision in "The Hunger Games" was Woody Harrelson as Katniss' mentor, "Haymitch Abernathy." My extreme personal dislike of that actor admittedly taints my reaction to any film he's in. I suppose he wasn't quite as much of a travesty in this film as he was in "Friends With Benefits," which I watched on cable last week; and I haven't yet steeled myself to watch "Game Change," since my dislike of Harrelson is significantly exceeded by my contempt for the real person Harrelson plays in that particular piece of gutless defamation.

But Haymitch is among the most important half-dozen characters in the books, and next only to Katniss, he's absolutely the most interesting, complicated, and challenging character. In this film adaptation of the first book, the character deserves, and gets, a fairly generous allotment of screen time. Yet Harrelson wastes just about all of it. Veteran Donald Sutherland, by way of easy contrast, brings one hundred times the acting talent to a part with a quarter or less of the screen-time that Harrelson had. Indeed, in the film's delicious and wordless final scene, Sutherland does more to provoke your attention for the next film in the trilogy — using merely a slight change in the way he's holding his mouth and a tiny flick of his fingertips — than Harrelson manages with all his carpet-chewing throughout the rest of the movie. True stars like Sutherland, and even new talents like Lawrence, make Harrelson look genuinely simple-minded and completely out of his league in this film — rather like Woody Boyd, the dimwitted bartender in "Cheers" (after which role, Harrelson ought to have simply retired, or perhaps taken up bartending). Indeed, I'd gladly see the second and third films sacrifice continuity in order to replace Harrelson with a real actor who's up the part of Haymitch.

Other supporting actors worth recognition include young Amandla Stenberg as "Rue" and the ever-talented Stanley Tucci as the perfectly named master of ceremonies, "Caesar Flickerman." Molly also particularly liked Lenny Kravitz' performance as "Cinna," but he didn't really leave me with a very strong impression. I do hope they'll give Paula Malcomson, whose performance as "Trixie" in HBO's splendid series "Deadwood" showed considerable acting chops, something more substantive to say and do in the role of "Katniss' mother" in the next two episodes of "The Hunger Games." But her slim role in this film does track Collins' books fairly closely, and the essential element of that character is her emotional vacancy, so it's hard to criticize Malcomson for being very low-key.

Generally speaking, as Adam and Erik confirmed afterwards, the film is quite accessible even to those who haven't read the books, and it hews closely enough that I don't think there's any particular downside to reading the books after seeing the film(s). If you're uninterested in pop culture, you've likely missed the books already and you'll similarly decline the opportunity to see the film versions. But if you can follow at least the first half of the advice Haymitch gives to Katniss' chaperone, Effie Trinket (played by an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) — "Loosen your corset and have a drink!" — you might enjoy this movie a great deal. Molly, Adam, Erik, and I all give it a solid "thumbs up."

Posted by Beldar at 09:38 PM in Books, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Molly made the following comment | Mar 25, 2012 10:27:04 PM | Permalink

I wholeheartedly agree that Donald Sutherland was fantastic, but I'd like to amend the statement that I "also particularly liked Lenny Kravitz' performance"; I didn't find the acting particularly good, but I am a huge fan of the character. In fact, the way the movie portrayed their relationship, it was unclear whether there were romantic feelings there, which there certainly were NOT-- I'm not sure if this was bad writing or bad acting or both.

I would also like to mention that a "friend" of mine on facebook made a status saying that Jennifer Lawrence was "the new Kristen Stewart". Luckily the status was met with several voices to the contrary (mine happened to be one of them). She said that Ms. Lawrence displayed no facial expressions, to which another person replied, "Yes she did, and the difference between her and Kristen Stewart is that Jennifer Lawrence is a good actress." I couldn't help but add, "Also, Katniss isn't emotionless. She's guarded. And Jennifer Lawrence portrayed her very well."
I assume, based on the number of "likes" my comment received, that many people agree with me.

I sincerely hope that your readers follow your advice and go see the movie even if they haven't read the books, since it really is a great experience even with no prior knowledge of the universe or characters.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 26, 2012 1:33:53 AM | Permalink

Thank you for the clarification, Molly, and for your eloquent report on your other internet correspondences. I think you nailed it.

At least a dozen separate scenes from "The Hunger Games" immediately spring to mind in which Ms. Lawrence, as Katniss, displays a convincing range of emotions, despite the fact that she's the product of a conformity-inducing hardship-wracked world that could leech the soul out of the Dalai Lama. It's in character for Katniss to be guarded, and it's the many times that circumstances dictate otherwise — sometimes with horrific force, sometimes because a different life-saving strategy requires her to behave uncharacteristically — which give the movie its competitive and romantic tension. Ms. Lawrence even manages to be convincing while portraying Katniss convincingly feigning intense emotion, a neat trick that Ms. Stewart might find too dizzying to contemplate. Katniss, either in print or as portrayed by Ms. Lawrence in this movie, is personally compelling; in the film adaptation, Ms. Lawrence's performance was the single essential one, and without a strong performance, the movie would be a complete flop.

I don't know about Ms. Stewart when she's off-screen, but her character in the "Twilight" movies seemed to me to be wooden at best, and numbly, uninterestingly sullen as her default value; I could not have cared less whether she was turned into a vampire, eaten by a werewolf, or voted prom queen, and I never saw enough of a spark of acting talent behind that character to incline me to see her by choice in anything else.

As for Cinna, I agree that he was a vivid and memorable character in the books. I know they have to make cuts for the movie adaptations, and they'll have two more sequels to round out some of the characters. But they basically compressed the entire rationale for Cinna's and Katniss' relationship into about two lines of dialog in this first episode of the adaptation; and while they were okay lines, they didn't explain or account for the intensity or, as Molly points out, the exact nature of the resulting bond between the characters.

Finally, Molly's also too diplomatic to mention — but in fairness, I should — that neither she, Adam, nor Erik reacted as I did to the casting of, and performance by, Woody Harrelson. I think Adam and Molly know when I get that "Beldar" look in my eyes and tone in my voice. They may have shared a private "Dad's ranting ... again" eyeroll while I was wiping slobber from my chin. In any event, although (as you can see) they're not shy about developing and voicing ably their own strong opinions, they and Erik were too polite and respectful to contradict me if their views differed on this occasion.

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 26, 2012 4:46:22 AM | Permalink

Editing note: At the risk of making this look like a governmental response to a Freedom of Information Act request, I've tucked away a few more specific details about the movie behind grey text-and-background combinations; click and drag your mouse to highlight, and thus reveal, the hidden text if you're not offended by spoilers. These are pretty minor in my judgment, but views on that could reasonably vary.

(4) dchamil made the following comment | Mar 27, 2012 9:50:03 AM | Permalink

I think the gray text and background feature needs some tweaking. I can't read it with iMac and Safari browser.

(5) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 27, 2012 1:09:41 PM | Permalink

dchamil, I don't know why this wouldn't work in any browser: So far as I know, this is very standard HTML, nothing exotic, and it's a trick I've seen used in dozens of other places that wish to hide spoilers from those who don't want to see them. Perhaps your browser's particular settings, or perhaps Safari's defaults, override the defaults common to IE, Firefox, Chrome (which I do try to support) and the specifications in my blog's stylesheets, which display highlighted text in a color that contrasts nicely with the background color of the highlighted block. You might try highlighting the block, doing a CTRL+C to copy, and then CTRL-V (or the iMac equivalent of those Windows keyboard commands, which I don't pretend to know; I confess to being quite happily Apple-illiterate) to paste the block into, say, a word processor. Worst-case, you could use the "view source" command to pull up the raw HTML and wade through all the distracting codes to the appropriate text strings. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, and Safari may be really neat, but for whatever combination of good and bad reasons, Safari is still too small a market player for me to invest the time to figure this out.

Meanwhile, by email from regular reader and commenter Mike Myers, I'm advised that he continues to get an "'enter a valid e-mail address' rejection" every time he tries to post a comment. My intention is to permit anonymous comments, and according to what TypePad's control panel tells me, my comments section doesn't require a valid email address; anything, including fake (e.g., "nospam@nospam.com") emails, should work. It's been a problem for Mr. Myers before, and I've been unable to diagnose it; nor have TypePad's tech support people, although I should perhaps put them in touch directly with Mr. Myers. If anyone else is having a similar problem, I'd be interested to hear of it. The comment Mr. Myers would have posted here, he writes, is this:

Ms. Lawrence was also very impressive in the movie Winter's Bone. I think she will become an actress who is worth going to see in whatever film roles ultimately come her way.

As for taking a shot at Woody Harrelson — pour it on! He's almost as big an idiot as Sean Penn — and that's saying something.

I haven't seen "Winter's Bone" yet, but I'll probably find time for it soon. In a more commercially successful movie, Ms. Lawrence played a mutant with chameleon-like abilities, "Raven/Mystique," in "X-Men: First Class," during much of which she was so heavily made up as to be thoroughly unrecognizable. It was a medium-sized supporting part in a fairly silly movie, and honestly, my main reaction to her appearance in it was to note that while she's certainly an attractive young woman, especially when not encased in vivid blue scaly make-up, she's not (to my tastes) quite "supermodel hot" like Rebecca Romijn, who'd played that role in the previous X-Men movies. In "The Hunger Games," she looks athletic and wholesome, but much more girl-next-door than supermodel-on-red-carpet, even in the scenes when Katniss is dressed to the nines, so I don't think my favorable reaction to her is primarily testosterone-driven. Her looks remind me somewhat of Houston native Renée Zellweger, who — depending on costuming, make-up, and diet/workout routines — can range from stunningly sexy (e.g., as Roxie Hart in "Chicago") to downright frumpy (e.g., as Bridget Jones in "Bridget Jones' Diary" and its sequel). But of course, Ms. Lawrence is still very young, and youth has its own irrepressible beauty.

(6) Greg Q made the following comment | Mar 28, 2012 6:06:38 PM | Permalink

I think the answer to the coal mining question is that the central government WANTS people in the Districts to be poor and miserable.

(7) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Mar 29, 2012 12:48:45 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: As a data point, I have no trouble reading the hidden comments using Safari.

If you liked the books, try Collins's Gregor books, which to my mind overcome the thin world building and inconsistencies.

This is way late, but Paul Ryan has no stauncher friend than you. I wish him well. I'm not so sure about DRJ's notion of him as Secretary of the Treasury. I would think Director of the Office of Management and Budget would be a very little better for him.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(8) themoviedownloads made the following comment | Apr 3, 2012 5:47:16 AM | Permalink

I would recommend the book first so that the foundation is there about what it is saying about society. And I think parents should read it too - great discussions will result.

(9) nk made the following comment | Apr 4, 2012 8:56:39 PM | Permalink

The books came with my daughter's book order from school -- she is ten in fourth grade. They were not too mature for her, but she got tired of them and switched to the new Percy Jackson novel, The Son of Neptune. My wife read them and raved about them. Both my wife and my daughter saw the movie and they want to see it again.

For people who like post-apocalyptic stories, Roger Zelazny's "Damnation Alley". Great book, horrible movie.

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