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The Hunger Games

The future, as imagined by Suzanne Collins and realized by director Gary Ross is a certainly a strange place.  For the likes of Katniss Evergreen (Jennifer Lawarence) it's a rather forbidding world.  The plucky Lawrence plays the heroine Katniss Evergreen.  It is apparently a necessary condition of any dystopian future, as is the case in The Hunger Games nation of Panem, that characters must trudge about with ridiculous nomenclature.  As if they didn't already have enough working against them.  Nary a Katy nor a Jenny to be found in this world, which exists some 75 years after a rebellion was squelched by those who rule in the Capitol.  The decadent, well-to-do Capitol is apparently somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, while Katniss resides in District 12, one of a dozen areas controlled by the mountainside metropolis.  The hand-to-mouth inhabitants of District 12 labor mainly in coal mines, when there are jobs to be had.  Despite the presumed fast forward into the future, Katniss’ district has the look of a throwback Appalachia given a pastoral gloss and excised of evidence of inbreeding.

In danger of being typecast a hunter/gatherer, Ms. Lawrence once again finds herself shooting at squirrels and larger game to keep her family in food.  As the scene is set early in The Hunger Games, the parallels to Winter’s Bone are striking.  In both films, the young actress has found herself  tending to younger siblings in the absence of a father figure and despite an ineffectual mother.  Each film involves a quest of sorts.  Each takes place in an enclosed pocket of rural America, Winter’s Bone being set in a meth-seared area of the present day Ozarks.

Unfortunately, The Hunger Games is ill-served by any such comparison to Debra Granik's 2010 feature.  The Hunger Games  is chock full of names and references to classical mythology and ancient history.  Panem itself is a reference to the Roman phrase panem et circenses, or bread and games/circus, a means by which to keep a populace happy and diverted.  Unfortunately, in its clumsy attempts at allegory and satire, in its ultimate slide into melodrama (leaving one ample opportunity to dash to the snack bar to get some Junior Mints to go with this particular circus), Hunger Games doesn’t’ begin to possess the stature to support all of these references, so gratuitously applied.  It’s like some kid running around in the uniform of an adult war hero.  Granik’s Winter’s Bone, on the other hand, is both more subtle in its overlay of myth – Ree Dolly being something of a backwoods Antigone - and actually has the power and credibility to carry off the oblique reference to ancient tragedy. 

What both The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone have in common in the best of ways is Jennifer Lawrence.  Ms. Lawarence apparently had something of a tomboy’s existence growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, which has lent some naturalism to her outdoor exploits in both films.  Whether it’s experience that she’s calling upon or demonstrating some of the training that went into her Hunger Games role, she’s a compelling heroine, as real in her expressions of emotion as she is evincing the strength and determination with which she goes about the completion of her extreme work at hand.  Both Katniss Evergreen and Ree Dolly are beset by moments of adult weariness and child-like fear.  Lawrence’s changeable face on which baby fat is still evident from certain perspectives, registers the changes and contradictions as if she’s living them. 

Katniss finds herself a contestant in the Hunger Games because her younger sister, Primrose, was selected to be her region’s female contestant.  Each year, one boy and girl are selected to represent their district at the Hunger Games, a televised, fight to the death, reality show to end all reality shows, held in the Capitol.  This to atone for the uprising many decades before.  The selected children are called Tributes and the unfortunate lottery at which the names are drawn is called the Reaping.  I think there’s supposed to be a chilling irony to this verbiage. 

We see the young people of Region 12 gather for the Reaping, dressed in their best clothing, such as it is.   What it is not is colorful.  The boys and girls are a sea of variations on white and grey, a few garments in diffident shades of blue the only exception.  Katniss is one such exception, a lovely young woman in a simple, blue dress.  When Primrose is selected, she volunteers to take her younger sister's place.

Um...I don't know what to say and this weird lady is scaring me.  Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
It is with the selection lottery that the contradictory weirdness of nation of Panem is first glimpsed.  The mistress of ceremonies at the Reaping is something, presumably a woman, called Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).  Effie looks a refugee from a Tim Burton set, speaking in a faux English accent and presenting herself, in heavily powdered face and puffy frock, like some Kabuki Victorian.  Or perhaps it's Steampunk; I don't presume to know.  Ms. Trinket utters to the grim assemblage words that we had earlier heard Katniss speak sarcastically to her close friend and hunting partner, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), a male friend, "May the odds be ever in your favor."  It's a dire catchphrase of the ruling government.  Of course, the odds are strongly against any of the tributes.

The presence of the Ms. Trinket is an indication of the the film's severe juxtaposition of Capitol and the outlying districts.  Lest we suffer any confusion on this point, everything has been color-coded for our better understanding if not retinal damage.  Just as precious human resources flow to the Capitol in the form of the young tributes, so flows wealth and color, where it finds extreme and gaudy expression.  At certain turns, in the opulence of table and drink, the anachronistic extremes of dress and coiffure, the hauteur of the residents of the Capitol, it's like some strange vision of the France of Louis Quatorze.  Mind you, a vision shot in black and white and tinted very, very badly.  The purport, obviously, is decadence, obliviousness.  Like so many elements in this film version of The Hunger Games, the implication is hammered home.

After playing mother to both her young sister and mother ("Don't cry" she implores her mother, lest the ground beneath Primrose's feet be made even more unsteady), Katniss is put on a sleek, ultra-modern train with District 12's male tribute, Peeta Mellark, chaperoned by Effie Trinket and whisked off toward the Capitol.  And really, what says evil, over-arching government more than an insistence no efficient, high-speed rail service?  

Who wants another teal cocktail?  Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence in  The Hunger Games.
Also aboard train with the buffet that won't quit is the mentor to the soon-to-be combatants, Haymitch Abernathy, he the only surviving winner of the Hunger Games from District 12.  As the figure of Haymitch was about to appear in the train car, I thought (unaware of the actor assuming the role), "Woody Harrelson."   Sure enough, Woody it is, beneath a wig of silky blonde hair.  It's casting that makes almost too much sense.  During his initial meeting with Katniss and Peeta, Harrelson as the bibulous Haymitch, Harrelson seems to be channeling Brando from Apocalypse Now, with roving eyes and slightly cartoonish enunciation.  He also really seems to enjoy having hair again.  But Mr. Harrelson does settle into the role, demonstrating the residual humanity in Haymitch behind the cynical, boozy facade, a man, after all, whose young charges are usually sent to their death.  If Harrelson isn't the best fit in the role, it could have been worse.  Apparently, John C. Reilly was considered for the role of Haymitch, as he apparently must for every English-language film produced on planet Earth in the early 21st century.      
Awaiting the ill-fated tributes in the Capitol is the aforementioned dacadence, expressed, beyond mountains of food and rivers of drink, in color and fashion run amok.  The government is headed president by Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).  Really, it's a wonder that some enterprising geek hasn't started a Hunger Games name generator website.  One gets the feeling that Ms. Collins used one.  While I lack such a device, or Ms. Collins prodigious imagination, I'd still like to catch the spirit of The Hunger Games phenomenon.  That being the case, I shall be known henceforth as....Malvolio Sourpussian....or Prometheus Grouchybottom.   Perhaps Gaius Satiricus? Yeah, I'll go with that last one.

Decked out like an 18th-century lounge lizard, Stanley Tucci plays Caesar Flickerman, the media face of the Hunger Games broadcasts from the Capitol.  And a busy, mugging face it is.  Clearly, Tucci is having a grand time playing the unctuous television presenter (as appears the case with Ms. Banks as Effie Trinket) who both hosts the parade of contestants as well as a perverse chat show on which he interviews the contestants before the game and the lucky few who survive.  Tucci was either directed to play Flickerman very broadly, or was simply shrewd enough to realize that anything subtle would be lost amid the loud trappings.  For the parade, sort of Panem's Next Top Human Sacrifice, Monsieur Flickerman is joined by Cladius Templesmith (a peruked Toby Jones).  

Among the broad targets fired and and largely missed is the reality television element of The Hunger Games.  There's a far more trenchant critique in just a few minutes of the last episode of Ricky Gervais' Extras - the downward trajectory of his character having landed him on a Big-Brother-type reality show - than in the entirety of The Hunger Games.  Perhaps there is more nuance in Ms. Collins' books, more insight ; I can't say.  But to find any measure of allegory in this Hunger Games - whether political, social, feminist, whatever else - is to come by it rather cheaply.    

And you thought the soul patch and hipster beard were scary.  Wes Bently as Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games.

About an hour into the film's 142 minute running time, the actual game begins.  And here, it would seem is a chance for the film to find itself.  In more able hands than those of director Gary Ross, that might have been the case.  The camerawork throughout the game is often juddering and restless.  I would tend to attribute this more to director Ross than his cinematographer Tom Stern, who has done far better work elsewhere (including several Clint Eastwood films).  During the first moments of the contest, the shifting and shaking of perspective actually suits, even enhances the action, as all of the young contestants must grab what gear and weapons they can before running for cover.  Katniss nearly gets herself killed in this first dizzy rush, not following the Haymitch's advice to literally head for the hills.  She's lucky enough to escape unscathed, but we see a field littered with the bodies of several less fortunate.     
Whatever momentum is built, whatever suspense that is created with the very tense nature of the contest in which the young people are pitted one against another (and such horribly rich potential for political and social allegory it is) is ultimately lost in a barrage of poorly-imagined CGI and a story that takes seemingly every easy out imaginable. 

The film's plot trades in the violence of the unfortunate tributes having to kill one another, but doesn't really deal with all the unpleasant realities.  We certainly see Katniss experiencing the very logical extremes of emotion that such an ordeal might produce.  Ms. Lawrence, for her part, brings a deep  reserve of feeling to bear.  More is the pity, because the story dehumanizes many of the other competitors in the game for the sake of keeping Katniss clearly, simply sympathetic.  Of course, the game and preparations would drive some of the competitors to extremes of behavior.  None-the- less, Katniss is called upon to make no difficult choices in the few tributes we see her dispatch.  It's not a another young woman who comes after her at one point, but a frenzied killing machine.  She does away with another female competitor by aid of a dropped nest of "tracker jackers."  The jackers are genetically engineered wasps whose sting kills or at least causes hallucinations.  Katniss suffers the latter fate, yet another opportunity for director Ross to set the frame shuddering in a not terribly original simulation of the mentally and visually compromised state.

There has apparently been some controversy among devotees of the books in the casting of several African American actors in certain of the roles.  Whether that reaction constitutes racist backlash or simply concern for fidelity to  Ms. Collins' books, the books do apparently mention some characters having darker skin than others.  The diversity in the film is a positive enough thing on its surface.  But it adds a feel good element of racial harmony that the story doesn't really deserve.  Katniss is first helped by, even saved by the diminutive Rue (Amandla Stenberg).  The two eventually team up for a time.  Subsequently, a fierce competitor by the name of Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) saves Katniss, making it known that it is but a one time gesture for the kindness shown to Rue, his fellow Tribute from District 11.  The difficulty of a confrontation between Kitniss and Thresh, with unpleasant racial overtones, is avoided in the film when the latter is conveniently killed out of sight, the telltale firing of a cannon signalling his death.

Similar, almost random twists occur with regard to Katniss and her fellow tribute from District 12, Peeta.  They're cast and marketed as "star-crossed lovers."  Katniss and Peeta look out for one another, but, of course, there can be only one survivor of The Hunger Games.  If it's to be someone from the District 12, the smart money is certainly on Katniss, usually deadly with the bow.  It's an appraisal with which Peeta agrees.  So, what's going to happen?  An exception, and easy out, of course.  The government announces that there will be an exception and there can be two winners, for the first time in 74 Hunger Games.  But then they rescind the exception.  Oh no!  But fear not, because at the last minute the exception is restored.  Thank goodness!  Sequel!

All of the lazy storytelling and lost opportunities for allegory aside, The Hunger Games fails on the most simple level:  it's a second-rate action film.  It's hard to feel for Katniss, suffering from a burned leg, because the fireball created for her by Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), is so patently fake.  The same is true for the huge dogs which chase the lovers and the clearly not very nice Cato.  Not only do the mutant hounds fail to resemble anything remotely real, there is virtually no suspense in the scene's culmination, which finds Peeta and Cato fighting atop an aircraft while the dogs growl just beneath.  

It doesn't have to be this way.  There is the example of Children of Men, a film about a dystopian future in which special effects are powerfully and almost seamlessly utilized.  And if you want to watch Jennifer Lawrence play a strong protagonist in a forbidding world, then by all means seek out Winter's Bone.       

The Hunger Games is just that.  It's far more the games, the circenses than the satire thereof it might aspire to be.  Not that there's anything so inherently wrong with that.  We all go to the movies for some degree of escape, after all.  But perhaps we should at least demand a better circus than this.        

Great news!  There's a sale at dystopian future IKEA!
A post script:  Since beginning this review I have discovered that there are name generator sites for The Hunger Games.  There almost had to be.  I stand corrected and remain your humble servant....



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