Review: The Hunger Games

So, I saw The Hunger Games. I saw it last week actually, but a vocal-immobilizing head cold has curtailed all extracurricular activities and I’m just now getting around to writing about it. Having sat on it for a week, my opinion of the film hasn’t improved. Having found the film to be relatively unengaging and somewhat annoying, I’m probably in the minority here, though I wouldn’t know, since I don’t care enough to read any more reviews of the film.

If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what The Hunger Games is, it’s only the most hotly anticipated literary adaptation to film since the final Harry Potter book. In a dystopian world, teenagers are forced to battle to the death in a televised tournament designed to squelch rebellion among the twelve districts, subservient to the central capital of Panem. Katniss is the bow-and-arrow wielding heroine around which the three Hunger Games books revolve; this is the first of the series.

Having read (and enjoyed) all three books, I was looking forward to the film. While I know a number of people (young and old) who’ve read the books, I found few outside of the books’ fan base who had any interest in watching a film with such a grim premise. I myself was curious to see how the film would handle the violence, which is so central to the story. I was looking forward to seeing the games, Panem, and the now familiar characters brought to life.

Alas, I have to say, I was mostly underwhelmed by director Gary Ross‘ interpretation of Suzanne Collins story. Sure, I was entertained while watching it, but as the film progressed I found myself missing the emotional impact I’d felt when reading the book. The dramatic high-points seemed glossed over. I felt increasingly disconnected from the story in a way I never was while reading the book, turning pages as fast as I could.

Granted, I realize that a book is a book and a movie can never perfectly replicate the reading experience. I’m fine with creators remastering source material to fashion something new, a fresh and original way to experience the story. But I just found the whole thing to be a big blur of wonky camera work and fight scenes, reducing it to a formula action film with half the heart and soul of the original story.

Part of the problem (for me) was the camera work, herky-jerky and spliced-and-diced to the extreme. I understand that the director wanted to convey the panic and pandemonium of the games (and I suspect avoid showing some of the more graphic violence on screen), but there could have been other ways to accomplish this without disconnecting viewers from the narrative (and in some cases make it difficult to follow what’s really going on). I’d heard complaints about the motion-sickness-inducing camerawork before I went, and I knew I was in agreement when the wavering camera shots began right from the start, in the opening scene of Katniss walking through her village. Really? She’s just walking through the village! One of the strengths of Collins’ story is the creativity she employed in creating this whole new world, the environment, characters, and the game itself. The crazy camera work and quick-fire editing prevents us from losing ourselves completely in the world of The Hunger Games. We’re continually jerked awake by mind-numbing visuals.

I wasn’t crazy about the acting either, though I thought Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks brought to life the more extreme characters of Panem. Jennifer Lawrence looked the part, but I thought she was fairly uninspired as Katniss. (When so much of a book contains the thoughts of the main character, I realize this is challenging to get on screen, but her character on film seemed far less complex than she did on paper.) I thought Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch was far too sympathetic and Lenny Kravitz was just downright boring as Cinna.

The final test: a week after seeing the film, it’s had no lasting effect on me, where the book had me thinking about it for weeks afterward.


Quick Review: Red (2010)

There’s plenty of exploding things and gunfire to keep you awake and it’s fun to see the cast of veteran actors (I won’t call them senior citizens) as leads in this all-out action spy romp. Bruce Willis is at his bad-ass best as a retired CIA operative who proves he hasn’t lost his touch when team-after-team of geared-up government hit squads are dispatched to take him out. He gets the band back together (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren) and they take it on the road, trading bullets with bad guys while they rush to discover who’s trying to eliminate them and why.

Willis is perfect in this role (which, at this point, he could do in sleep) and Malkovich has the most to do as a character dealing with the lasting effects of years of mind control experiments. While it was fun to see Mirren drop her Martha Stewart retirement veneer to pick up an automatic weapon, I thought her part a bit weak. And thankfully, Mary-Louise Parker, as the love interest unwittingly dragged on the adventure, wasn’t nearly as annoying as I often find her to be.

Block Cinema

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Friday, 25 February

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I hadn’t been to a movie at the Block Gallery (on Northwestern’s campus) in years and then I ended up going twice in one weekend. First, I saw Wild River (1960), a movie set in Tennessee in the 1930s, when the Tennesse Valley Authority was evicting folks off their land to build a damn and flood the area in an effort to tame the river and avoid seasonal deadly flooding. It’s directed by Elia Kazan and stars Montgomery Clift as the TVA agent sent from Washington D.C. to get the final holdouts, a stubborn old woman and her family, to move off their land before the damn goes live.

This movie reminded me of Bad Day at Black Rock–a stranger rolls into town, a fish out of water who’s viewed with suspicion and hostility by the natives and must negotiate his way through unfamiliar (and sometimes life-threatening) territory. In Wild River, Montgomery Clift becomes personally involved with a local woman who just happens to be the old woman’s widowed granddaughter (wonderfully played by Lee Remick.) Spencer Tracy in Bad Day was never so lucky.

Wild River was shot in widescreen on location in Appalachia so it looks great and feels very authentic. The story is a bit odd at times, especially during a scene when an angry mob descends on the granddaughter’s house to harass Clift, but that might be a product of the film’s time and place. Overall, it was an interesting and absorbing tale, with great acting, especially by Jo Van Fleet as the wise and tenacious matriarch.

The next day, I was back to see Becky Sharp (1935), an adaptation of Thackery’s Vanity Fair starring Miriam Hopkins. This was just a lot of fun, with Hopkins perfect in the role of the flirtatious Becky, an orphan in Napolianic England who uses every one and every situation to advance her social standing. The costumes are eye-popping in the three-strip Technicolor of this restored print.

At the Movies

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Alert the media, I saw a movie today.

In the movie theater.

On the big screen!

I know, crazy. I caught a matinee of The King's Speech, which I very much enjoyed despite the jarring use of Beethoven and Mozart pieces during the climactic scene. (As King George is rallying the country to fight the Nazis, it seemed very odd to use German composers to fill the emotional soundtrack.)

Colin Firth is amazing, no surprise there. The Academy loves actors who portray characters with physical or emotional disabilities, so he's a shoe-in for the best actor award.

I could get used to this movies in the theater thing. So, what should I see next?

Recommended: I, Fatty

Jerry Stahl (2004)

You don’t have to be a fan of silent movies to appreciate this first-person account of the rise and fall of Fatty Arbuckle, one of Hollywood’s first super-stars. It’s hard to imagine now just how popular Fatty was in his day; unfortunately, most of his silent comedies are lost or forgotten, buried under the scandal that ended his career and ruined the man.

Fatty’s story is effectively told in retrospect, from the highs of performing in early motion pictures to the crashing end ushered in with a drunken party, a dead actress, and the resulting scandal when the screen star was charged with her rape and murder. He was later acquitted, but the damage was done, tarnishing Fatty’s star forever as well as Hollywood’s public image. Stahl’s book is as an entertaining behind-the-scenes glimpse into early movie making, vividly evoking what it must have been like when everything was new and they were making all the rules.

More Movie Wrap Up

Recovery gives you a lot of time to watch movies. I’m still catching up from last time.

It’s Complicated (2009)  This has little to recommend it other than it’s fun to see three performers I enjoy, working together in one film. Single lady Meryl Streep has an affair with her married ex (Alec Baldwin) while being romanced by her architect (a sadly underused Steve Martin.) Predictable hilarity ensues. There are worse ways to spend a few hours.

Drumline (2002)  I was never in marching band and I hate extended drum solos, but I love heart-pounding percussion and there’s lots of it in this film. The plot is light: a hot-shot drummer has his comeuppance when he joins a college’s prestigious marching band, learning a few life lessons along the way to the big national competition. I enjoyed this twist on the old-style Hollywood musical. Performances were strong, especially Orlando Jones as the band director, and the musical sequences, especially the battle of the drums segments, were fun to watch.

Persepolis (2007)  I wanted to like this more than I did. Based on the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis translates the author’s coming of age story in Iran during the revolution to the big screen. The most captivating thing about this movie is the visual style, which very much calls to mind the black and white films of German Expressionism. The story, on the other hand, didn’t carry as much impact here as it did for me on the printed page. Still, it’s worth seeing for an affecting glimpse of life in Iran during wartime.

Rescue Dawn (2006)  Others might have a problem with Christian Bale, but not me. Putting him in a movie directed by Werner Herzog makes for a must-see film in my opinion. Here, Herzog creates a narrative version of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about Dieter Dengler, the only man to successfully escape from a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. Beautifully shot in the jungle and aided by a great performance by the always watchable Steve Zahn, this is a first-rate prison drama.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)  This wasn’t nearly the train wreck I thought it was going to be. A visual feast, even on the small screen, with winning performances all around, save Anne Hathaway, here more annoying than usual as the White Queen. Helena Bonham Carter looked and sounded spot-on as the Red Queen and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter (predictably bizarre) was suitably mad and mesmerizing. My only quibble was his silly Beetlejuice-like dance that was completely out of sync with the rest of the fantasy. I was thoroughly entertained.

Movie Wrap Up: Continuing the Catch Up

Up in the Air (2009) This was a colossal disappointment. George Clooney stars as a consultant who flies around the country as a corporate hired gun, firing people by day and living out of his suitcase in a hotel by night. His badge of honor is a humongous frequent flier lifetime scorecard. Living without roots or personal attachments of any kind is just fine by him. Everything changes when his company goes high-tech, essentially eliminating his free-wheeling life on the road just about the time he begins to form a relationship with a woman who shares his love for mass amounts of corporate travel.

This movie was a real downer and unnecessarily so. I liked the business side of the story, which remains very relevant. Turning the tables on the corporate executioner is an interesting idea, especially when he's paired with the young associate who's formulated the new virtual firing practices. Unfortunately, the personal side of the story abruptly veers off the path of a modern day Frank Capra film and into an ending that feels like an unsatisfying betrayal.

Wall-E (2008) I loved this movie, and what a surprise it was. For some reason, I had the impression Wall-E was going to be bleak and tinged with sadness. Not so! It's a wonderful little story filled with hope, humor, romance and gorgeous visuals. After the human race has trashed Earth and left it to rot, a lone robot named Wall-E patrols the wasteland looking for treasures. His only company is a pet cockroach, naturally. When a probe visits Earth to sample the conditions, Wall-E falls in love and inadvertently sets in motion events that will change the course of human history. I won't say anything more, since the surprises in store, and the clever details along the way, are half the fun.

Spider-Man 3 (2007) What a waste of time and money. The story added absolutely nothing to the franchise and the action sequences were extremely been-there-done-that. Every single character, including Tobey Maguire's web-slinging hero/photographer alter-ego, was an exercise in exasperating annoyance.

The Blind Side (2009) I knew nothing about this story going into it and was curious to see what kind of performance garnered Sandra Bullock an Academy Award. Neither one disappointed. This was a fine, if forgettable, film about pro football player Michael Oher, an underprivileged African American teenager who found himself under the protective wing of a privileged white woman and her family in an affluent Tennessee suburb. With a firm but caring hand, Bullock's character fights in Michael's corner, helping him on the football field and off to give him the opportunity to better himself all the way to a star spot on a coveted college team. Bullock gives an uncharacteristic and convincing performance, putting a lid on her usual bubbly personality. The inspirational ending is achieved without resorting to generic Hollywood sports movie cliches or a soundtrack that telegraphs every emotion you're supposed to be feeling.

I've Loved You For So Long (2009) Elements of this story don't hold up to scrutiny after the fact, but that in no way detracts from Kristen Scott Thomas' enthralling performance as a woman reconnecting with her family and the outside world after spending an extended period of time in jail for murder.

Movie Wrap Up: More Catch Up

Away We Go (2009) John Krasinkski and Maya Rudolph are great together as an expectant couple traveling the country to find the perfect place to start their family. These two have a genuine warmth and chemistry that roots the film, surrounded by a solid supporting cast of characters, including Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Catherine O’Hara and Maggie Gyllenhaal. A sweet, wonderful film.

Whip It (2009) Fun, light, not quite run of the mill, entertainment. Ellen Page stars as a Bliss Cavendar, a teenager forced into the pageant circuit by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) when by chance she discovers her true passion, roller derby. Sneaking off to try out and then practice with the team (Drew Barrymore, Kristin Wiig), this misfit comes into her own as a star player. Even if you know where it’s going, the ride is fun, humorous, with exciting action shots on the derby rink and the perfect bad girl nemesis in Juliet Lewis as Iron Maven. It’s also nice to see Alia Shawkat (from Arrested Development) in a featured role as Bliss’ best friend.

The Young Victoria (2009) Emily Blunt is very fine in the title role, portraying the young Queen Victoria. It’s a beautiful production with gorgeous sets and costumes but nothing about this film really grabbed me. Pretty as a Masterpiece Theatre episode but without a tremendous amount of depth. For drama based on the life of Victoria, I much prefer Mrs. Brown, with knock-out performances by Judi Dench and Billy Connolly and a narrative of greater emotional depth.

Julie and Julia (2009) I really didn’t care for this film. Actually, that’s not true. I did enjoy the half of the film that focused on Julia Child. No surprise that Meryl Streep was fantastic as the culinary queen and it’s too bad director/writer Nora Ephron didn’t just stick with Julia as her subject. Instead, Julia’s struggle to master French cooking and bring it to the masses is interspersed with the harried life of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a woman who challenged herself to cook every recipe in Child’s masterwork in a year and blogged about along the way. As portrayed here, Julie is an annoying whiner and I couldn’t stand spending any time in her kitchen. This character actually caused me to dislike Amy Adams, something I wouldn’t have thought possible before sitting through this film.

Dan in Real Life (2007) This movie had its heart in the right place but it repeatedly kept missing the mark. More of an Indie drama than a romantic comedy, Steve Carell gives a strong performance as a self-help columnist whose personal life could use a little self help of its own. A widower raising three teenage daughters, he has the happy fortune of meeting his soul mate (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore during a visit to the family home in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, he soon learns this mystery woman is his brother’s new girlfriend. The remainder of the movie is spent throwing these two together and keeping them apart during a long weekend with the entire family staying under one roof. Too many times, the story resorts to cliché Hollywood moments that come off as ridiculous and out of character with the rest of the film. Too bad.

Movie Wrap Up: Up, Nim’s Island & Pirate Radio

There is nothing like a little major surgery to jump start your movie viewing.

Last year was downright pathetic, especially for someone who lived and breathed movies for decades. Concentrating on other projects (namely photography and writing) definitely took a toll on my movie watching. This year is a different story; in the past two months, I've watched more movies than I had all last year, and before my screening of Toy Story 3, the last movie I'd seen in the theater was the Hurt Locker last summer. (Just one of two theatrical flicks in all of 2009. Long gone are the days when I'd sit through back-to-back screenings at the Film Center.)

I had a lot of catching up to do when I pre-loaded my Netflix queue for recovery mode. Time to begin wrapping up the highlights (and lowlights) from my past two months. I paid the additional monthly fee to switch my Netflix account temporarily over to Blu-ray, so you'll see a list heavy in A-list Hollywood flicks. Once I've exhausted those available in the higher definition format, I'll switch the account back and settle in for my usual fare of classics and TV shows.

Up (2009)

Easily my favorite film of recent memory. Outside of the fact that Ed Asner voiced the main character and it was a Pixar production about an old man who uses thousands of helium balloons to float his house up and away, I knew very little about Up going in, so there were many surprises in store. A wonderful film, from start to finish. Gorgeous to look at, fantastic characters that develop over the course of the story, and a gem of an adventure with a big heart. What's more, it's very funny.

As usual in a Pixar film, they get the details right, which are as much fun to catch as the bigger picture itself. To quote from my own Tweet, the first five minutes of Up is a master class of visual story telling. Highly recommended, even if you think you don't like "family films."

Nim's Island (2008)

If you don't like family films, it's probably because you've seen too many irritating films like this one. Nim (Abigail Breslin) and her idiot of a scientist father live alone on a remote South Seas island (which somehow has internet). When dad is lost at sea, Nim seeks help from Alex Rover, the hero of an Indiana Jones-style book series. Instead, she gets the hero's author, an agoraphobic writer (Jodie Foster) who eats nothing but canned soup and buys hand sanitizer by the caseload. Foster provides the "comedy," throwing up multiple times and gamely pratfalling, dunking, and hysterically traveling from cab to prop plane to helicopter to paddle boat.

The script is silly and dumbed-down, filled with scenes of characters reading their email out loud and talking to themselves as a way to convey information and make sure the audience understands what's going on. ("I'm in the middle of nowhere," one character says, in case we couldn't tell from the expanse of water, as far as the eye can see. "I've got to get back to Nim." Ugh.) And don't get me started on the anthropomorphizing of Nim's animal sidekicks. She talks to a seal, lizard and pelican as if they understand English and they do her bidding, helping to rid the island of the boorish Australian tourists threatening to invade.

Gerard Butler is mediocre; playing the dual role of dad and Alex Rover action man, he has trouble keeping his accent straight. Breslin is okay and Foster does her best considering what she has to work with. I keep waiting for her to show up in a great role. It's been quite a while.

Pirate Radio (2009)

I was so ready to love this movie about a rogue British radio station illegally broadcasting rock-and-roll from a ship in 1966. It's filled with favorite actors (Bill Nighy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost, Rhys Darby) and the premise is promising, not to mention the 60s rock soundtrack, but it just never came together as the mood-lifting good time I was hoping for. Though never boring, it's a little too fragmented and episodic to add up to a winning whole.

Quick Flick Round Up

It’s been forever since I posted any movie reviews. Here’s a quick recap of the pathetically small number of films (and TV series) I’ve watched throughout the past few months.

Yes, it’s true, I finally got around to seeing The Lives of Others (2008). I refused to roll into the new year with that disc still in my “at home” Netflix queue, so one day shy of 2010, I watched it and returned it with just four days to spare before the one year anniversary of Netflix originally shipping it to me.

Set in 1980s East Berlin, this is the story of a surveillance officer, Gerd Wiesler, who gets caught up in the lives of his most recent target, a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend. When it becomes apparent that his superior officer is hoping to take down the author as a way to get the girl, Wiesler becomes sympathetic to his subjects just as the author begins to really give the government something to worry about. As Wiesler tries to subvert the surveillance from within, he puts in motion a tragic game. The acting is great and the atmosphere strikes just the right note of oppression and coercion with a faint glimmer of hope that propels you through this bleak drama.

The Fall (2006) is drop-dead gorgeous, filled with so many stunning visuals I gave up on the story and just enjoyed the view. I read afterward, that this is a vanity project for the director, who goes by the single name Tarsem, and do I ever believe it. Supposedly, he used no computer generated special effects. That just adds to the wonder.

Lee Pace (of Pushing Daisies) plays a suicidal stuntman recovering in a 19-teens L.A. hospital who entertains a little girl with a fantastic story about five heroes on a quest. Fantasy and reality meld as he tells the story and she interjects and the stuntman’s darker side begins to reveal. The story eventually became tedious but the film’s visuals never allowed me to get completely bored. Vivid color, amazing locations around the globe, and fantastic costumes worthy of any grand opera. And The Fall has one of the most gorgeously photographed and compelling opening credit sequences (set to a segment of Beethoven’s Symphony #7) I can ever recall seeing. Unfortunately, as a whole, the rest of the movie fails to live up to the first three minutes.

Even in the silliest of stories, silent screen icon Mary Pickford is a compelling force. In this 1922 version of Tess of the Storm Country, she remakes one of her earlier films (a testament to her Hollywood star power) resuming one of her favorite characters, Tess Skinner, an urchin who lives in a fishing tenement village at the base of a wealthy man’s property. When the rich man tries to evict the squatters, he sets in motion a complicated tale that intertwines his own family members’ fates with those of the fisher folk. Though 30-playing-17, Pickford is terrific, the sets and cinematography are gorgeous in sepia (especially the exteriors) and elements of the story are surprisingly shocking for the day. The Christian overtones get a bit heavy-handed.