Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games

In Bloodsport Theater, The Odds Are Ever In Her Favor

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games", directed by Gary Ross and based on Suzanne Collins' trilogy of books. 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, March 26
, 2012

The marvelous, richly engaging "The Hunger Games", a big-scale, broad-shouldered extravaganza of color, costume and satire based on the trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins, succeeds mightily as an absorbing and entertaining story of survival, compassion and heroism.  Wonderfully absorbing, "The Hunger Games" is well-executed and gives fine texture and richness to its storytelling.  This film grows in stature, scene by scene, built to entertain and enliven to good effect, with wonderful cinematography and architecture.  "The Hunger Games" opened last Friday in the U.S. and Canada.

Gary Ross directed the adventure about 24 young men and women from 12 districts in Panem, in post-America, who fight to the death in the 74th Annual Hunger Games to see who will be victorious and free from the government's oppression and tyranny.  "May the odds be ever in your favor" is not quite the same as "may the force be with you", but it's close enough to be a subversive shot in the arm for the film's "Tributes" contestants, who have to outwit the government's cruel antics and each other to stay alive.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) rises from modest roots in poverty-stricken District 12 sacrificing herself as a contestant in place of her selected younger sister.  Fearless, confident and with no time to fail, Katniss rises as a favorite to endure these Olympic Games of death.  Her boyfriend (Liam Hemsworth), who has been placed in the hat to be selected some 46 times, hopes she makes it back in one piece.  Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are mentored by a flamboyant former Hunger Games champion Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, in a hilarious campy send-up), a man initially more concerned with finishing his food and drink than doing his job. 

Haymitch has humor, and he, Effie (an unrecognizable and very funny Elizabeth Banks doing a fine drag impression), and wildly indulgent Hunger Games host (Stanley Tucci, great here) are the film's comic relief, with the latter dolled up in costume and make-up for the movie's coliseum-like telethon atmosphere, where a live audience and a nationwide television audience will watch blood sport play out.  The film's theatrical atmosphere is beyond exaggerated, with audience members like overeager piranhas, Mr. Tucci like a more extravagant edition of a "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" game show compere or telethon king Jerry Lewis, and show sidekick Toby Jones an Old English member of parliament.

"The Hunger Games" has epic scope lending sincerity and grandeur to its carnival and circus events.  The ringmaster of this crude, cynical spectacle of sadism and violence (discreetly handled) is President Snow (a slithery Donald Sutherland), the new leader of the former U.S., abetted by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), an apprentice of violence under Snow's tutelage.  They are the coldest part of this film, which captures large swaths and networks of crowds across different classes and motivations, from the impoverished to the blood-lusting audience to the fascist armies that try keeping the Districts of civilians in line.  Panem is a ruthless place in the near-future, where the government has turned its violence onto its own civilians, whom the leaders despise and govern by force.  The young are not the future, and under Snow they are readily disposable.  Change is not an option or buzzword.

Mr. Ross captures a detailed world of eye-popping theater in four distinct movies: the humble roots of Katniss, shot as plainly and bleakly and in as much detail and richness as the second movie, a 21st century burst of a fashionista's dream of costume and fine production design; the third movie is pure action-adventure, survival and suspense, and the last movie is a love story whose lack of strength is held up only by Ms. Lawrence's great work in the film overall.  As Katniss Ms. Lawrence commands the screen playing a towering figure, a heroine embraceable and identifiable, committed to doing her best.  Intelligent and sexy in her calm attitude toward worry and danger Katniss is a bold heroine, perfect for the film and these times.  It's refreshing to see a strong, full-bodied woman of action played and displayed so well on the big screen.

Katniss is not completely without fear however, and her humanity and vulnerability are glimpsed on the field of battle as well as behind the scenes in several moments with Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), a mentor of sorts.  Their few scenes together have a romantic and sexual tension expressed in intimate, floating close-up shots, and Mr. Kravitz in particular exudes undeniable appeal, strength and magnetism.  (Having not read the books it's readily apparent onscreen that Cinna and Katniss may have a more detailed relationship that Ms. Collins' book explores.)  There's an intriguing partnership and good chemistry between the pair, and Ms. Lawrence is at her best in quiet moments here and throughout.  She lets the film and its events come to her, and her Katniss is the best work she's done on the big screen in her embryonic career.  Mr. Kravitz is excellent in a relatively small role as a cool, assured and attractive figure, lending insight at just the right moments without making Cinna a robotic or cardboard adviser. 

By any measure "The Hunger Games" is a triumph.  At two hours and 22 minutes it travels quickly, yet its detail, layering and introduction of relationships and pecking orders of characters, is its best asset.  Sharply written by Mr. Ross, Ms. Collins and Billy Ray, the screenplay draws its multiple stories out enough for the uninitiated to appreciate, without overcomplicating or bogging down the film's rhythm, which is effortlessly fluid.  Transitions between different characters are smooth and keep the narrative moving mostly without undue distraction. 

There's a dynamic quality to both Katniss and more sedentary figures, who are as interesting and fascinating as major players.  Each is given a grand, sometimes thunderous stage to flaunt their attributes and personalities.  The film's men are a mix of powerful, buffoonish, gentle and rash, while its women are compassionate, clever and calculating.  A stand-out in the film is the great young actress Amandla Stenberg as Rue, a competing contestant.  She will have a fine career if she keeps picking the right projects.  Miss Sternberg's talents are bountiful, and in the smallest moments her presence lends effective, precious weight to her character.  She is indelible. 

Even before the film's staggering $155 million opening weekend box-office haul in North America, "The Hunger Games" was already likely to have two subsequent films to accompany it.  I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing what Ms. Collins and Mr. Ross and company do next with this franchise.  No matter what, any betting man or woman watching "The Hunger Games" would say that the odds of further success are undoubtedly ever in their favor.

With: Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Latarsha Rose, Nelson Ascencio, Jack Quaid, Kalia Prescott, Karan Kendrick, Dayo Okeniyi, Brooke Bundy, Leven Rambin.

"The Hunger Games" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens.  The film's running time is two hours and 22 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2012.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW