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.
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."
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Paul Ryan: "America Deserves a Better Path"
In my view, the GOP should nominate for President the single currently most consequential Republican leader, the one who's most doing the most, and proving the most effective right now, on the most urgent issues threatening our country — not someone who merely has served in a single state, or whose service was mostly or entirely back in the 1990s. With due respect to Speaker Boehner (who actually I'm pretty sure would agree with me on this), the currently most consequential Republican leader is not him. And again, with due (but sincerely calibrated) respect to them, it's certainly not any of the current candidates.
It's Paul Ryan.
As the tag-line suggests, this video is intended as a preview of what Chairman Ryan plans to do with his House committee, and with this year's revised version of the Path to Prosperity, between now and Election Day. Make no mistake, this is targeted at Barack Obama and his Democratic cohorts.
But I agree with the Weekly Standard's Mark Hemmingway when he titles this "the best political campaign ad of 2012." Hemmingway's wistful subtitle: "Unfortunately, he's not running."
The only thing entirely certain about the GOP convention is that it has to produce a nominee for President and Vice President. In some parallel universe in which candidates could put aside their personal ambition — even the kind of driving, compulsive, relentless personal ambition necessary to campaign for President of the United States — in favor of the good of the Nation (and, therefore, the good of the Grand Old Party), I would hope for a brokered convention at which, on the 10th round of deadlock, some combination of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrinch, and Ron Paul would implore all of their original delegates to cast their next ballot for the chairman of the House Budget Committee. But in this universe, I've still not been persuaded to change my sidebar by anything any of those candidates have done since ... well, since ever.
Ryan, by the way, hasn't endorsed anyone, and has promised not to (he says it would be a conflict with his party fundraising position). Wisconsin is a purplish state that's in play. And his pre-Election Day work for the Budget Committee will necessarily be complete or nearly so by the time of the GOP National Convention in Tampa, after which he's going to be campaigning anyway, if (probably) only (sigh) for his current House seat.