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This Ain't Your Grandma's Twilight

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dude, I cannot even being to tell you how relieved I am right now. A little over a month ago, I wrote up a piece detailing my crippling fears that The Hunger Games would squander it's excellent source material in favor of appealing to the twihards. Perfectly legitimate concerns, mind you, as both Twilight and The Hunger Games are geared towards, more or less, the same audience. But where Twilight is boring, overly melodramatic, and soulless, The Hunger Games is tight, intense, and emotional, and it is with great pleasure that I can say that the movie adaptation of it is all those things and more! With unflinching loyalty to the source material, coupled with a practically perfect performance from the lead, The Hunger Games is the first big movie of 2012 that deserves your attention.

This is not a face you wave a flame in front of!

Decades after an catastrophic apocalyptic event tore through America, and a subsequent civil war decided who would rule and who would serve, the country of Panem has risen out of the ashes. Around the affluent and high-tech Capitol lie twelve, poverty stricken districts, inhabited by the descendants of the revolutionaries who rebelled against Capitol 74 years ago. In an effort to quell resistance where it usually starts, in the hearts of the young, the government mandates that, once a year, each district must offer up two tributes, one male, one female, between the ages of 12 and 18, to join with the other tributes in a fight to the death in a televised contest dubbed The Hunger Games.

Enter Katniss Everdeen, a strong willed, hard edged,capable young woman who harbors no love for the Capitol. When her younger sister's name is drawn for the games, she immediately finds herself rushing forward and volunteering to take her place. Along with her district's other tribute, a young man named Peeta Mellark (who may or may not be secretly in love with her), she is whisked away to the Capitol to prepare for the event. With the help of her prep team and her antagonistic attitude, Katniss makes an immediate impression on the viewing public. But when she enters the arena, everything changes, as she is forced to face and commit horrific acts of brutality in order to survive.

Ok, yes! I know! That sounds a lot like Running Man, and a lot like Battle Royale. Who was it who said that there are no original stories anymore? Who cares? I don't, not when this particular version of the story is this good. Though the set up and universe aren't the most unique, they way they are presented most definitely is. Entirely convincing in its portrayal, The Hunger Games is a harrowing, sometimes terrifying look at a bleak future, replete with violence, oppression, and despair. What makes the wheels turn on this story, however, is the character of Katniss. Put simply, she is the anti Bella Swan. Strong and independent, this is a hero that is deep, complex, and worthy of cheers! We see the story unfold through her eyes, and rather than bend to all the awful shit that happens (like a certain vampire lover is known to do), Katniss is the kind to face it down and (I can't believe I'm about to say this) take it like a man! Without her, The Hunger Games would give off no more than dull glow. With her, it shines like a supernova!

Sharp dressed men!

It, of course, doesn't hurt that the most talented young actress working today is playing Katniss, and let me tell you, if this is quality of work that Jennifer Lawrence puts forth in every single "event" movie she headlines, then I sincerely hope she ditches her indie roots and is cast in many, many more! Lawrence is incredible, imbuing Katniss with humanity, guts, and grace. Think of her character in this as Ree Dolly... if Ree Dolly were a badass killing machine when given a bow and arrow. There are stark similarities to both characters, not the least of which is the fact that Lawrence spends the majority of both movies trekking through heavily wooded forests. And believe me, she's just as good here as she was in Winter's Bone. Maybe better, I haven't decided.

Though the rest of the cast is completely overshadowed by the goddess that is Jennifer Lawrence (Do I have a crush? I think I do.), they all leave there mark and create memorable characters. Josh Hutcherson breaks away from his Journey mold and fashions a sympathetic and romantic leading male. I have to congratulate him with how well he plays off Lawrence in this, especially when you take into account how much The Hunger Games messes with how the sexes are portrayed in movies like this. Here, Katniss is the capable hunter, ensuring their survival, and Peeta is the soul that makes sure they don't lose their humanity. It's refreshing change of pace, and Hutcherson does well with it.

Elizabeth Banks is completely unrecognizable as the flamboyant, pink haired Effie, Katniss and Peeta's "manager", so to speak. She offers up most of what can be considered comic relief with some impeccable line delivery. Woody Harrelson is superb as the tribute's perpetually schwasted mentor. A role like that could have been played chiefly for laughs, but Harrelson inserts emotion into it, bringing forth demons from the character's tortured past that wouldn't have been seen otherwise. And Lenny Kravitz is pretty damn good in a small but pivotal role as Cinna, Katniss' stylist, whose inventive and lavish costumes help her gain the approval of the crowd in a big way.

Wes Bentley (remember him?) is effective as Seneca Crane, the lead "Gamemaker", who is getting a little disillusioned by the government rhetoric surrounding the games. Donald Sutherland is deliciously villainous in an expanded role as President Snow, the leader of the totalitarian Capitol. But it's Stanley Tucci who steals the show as Caesar Flickerman, the "Ryan Seacrest" of The Hunger Games. With an incredibly expressive face, he demands your eyes in the few scenes that he's in. He is also the announcer of the games, and provides a lot of helpful exposition.

Everyone is on their A game, but if they were all thrown into the arena, and their only weapons were their acting skills, Jennifer Lawrence would soundly destroy them all.

In my post expressing fears about this film, I made reference to the likelihood that the twisted levels of violence in the book would be toned way down in order to appeal to all the twihards that would flock to this thing. And while it is toned down to a certain extent to achieve a PG-13 rating, it really pushes it! There aren't torrents of blood or guts, but this is still probably one of, if not the most violent "kids" movies ever made! Once the game begins, the tension is kept at a fever pitch, and never lets up. The opening scene, that sees some kids bolting for the trees, other attempting to grab supplies, is a literal bloodbath that elicited more than a few gasps from the audience. And then there's the scene with the tracker jackers, which any fan of the book will tell you is downright sadistic, which is one of the most intense scenes I've seen in a whole hell of a long time.

Special mention must be made of Alexander Ludwig, playing a pitch perfect Cato, the main antagonist in the arena. In the book, he is a twisted, vile piece of work, taking pleasure in the killing like no one can, and mercifully, the filmmakers didn't mess with that at all. There's one scene that really hammers home how much of a monster he is. Katniss has dealt a blow to his group, destroying their supplies. Cato shouts at the kid who was supposed to be standing guard. When he isn't satisfied, he simply breaks the kid's neck. That they kept that scene in there, along with pretty much every other scene of murder, torture, and pain, makes me sooooooo happy.

I'm speechless on account of how ridiculous you look.

Helping the tension stay at such grand heights are some clever camera work and some sublime sound. The film is shot in shaky cam, a la Bourne, and while it isn't as cool as it is in those films, it's still effective. These are kids killing kids. It's not going to be graceful. And though the shaky cam does hinder our viewpoint at times, it's never a major issue. And then the sound in this movie. Holy shit, it is fantastic. When the games being, the score basically shuts off, and the ambient noises from the arena take center stage. It is consistently shocking when the low cannon signaling the death of another tribute booms in the distance. The gushing of blood, the snapping of bones, the screams of the dying; it's all handled so well, and is so intense!

Liberties are taken with the book, to be sure, but they are, for the most part, welcome and do lots to flesh out the world. The characters of Seneca and Snow were barely there in the book, and here they have much more to do, providing insight into how Capitol functions, and showing that even the most devout servant of the regime could start to have doubts. It's really fantastic. And then, in a different scene, it flashes back to another district right after the death of an important character and... well, all I'll tell you is that's it's really powerful! Even Cato's character is given more to do. At the end, he reveals a hidden depth and sadness that wasn't in the books at all. It added another layer to the whole thing, making it that much more harrowing.

Yes, there are some things to nitpick. There's a few flashes to a certain character that are supposed to be dramatic but are actually really hysterical, and the CGI can look a little shoddy at times, but it doesn't really matter. The Hunger Games, for what it is, is brilliant! Director Gary Ross should be commended for making a tween blockbuster that is character driven, emotionally grounded, that also happens to include shocking levels of tension and violence for a PG-13 movie. This is one aimed at the tweens that everyone else can readily enjoy. Oh, Jennifer. You are amazing. Don't ever change and may the odds be ever in your favor! 

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