By Dirk Sonniksen | March 23, 2012
Director: Gary Ross
Writer(s): Gary Ross (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (screenplay), Billy Ray (screenplay), Based on the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley
From the dystopian hellscape of District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) passes her dreary days shooting furry creatures with her bow and arrow, and hanging with her guy friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the hunkiest hunk-o-oppressed man in the district. Katniss and Gale love traipsing through the forest together, and there’s enough sexual tension between the two to boil a pot of squirrel stew. But that hook up will have to wait as the day of the “reaping” comes; the wondrous occasion where a young man and woman are picked to be thrown into the wilderness with other young men and women – to kill each other – for the pleasure of rich people. Sound familiar?
On the day of the reaping, Katniss and her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), make the journey to the town square, both a bit on edge about this whole tribute thing. As it goes, Prim draws the short straw (Oh come on, I’m not giving anything away; you’ve read the book six times, and you have the audio version in both cars!). But wait, it’s not over, as Katniss will make a fateful decision that could alter the future of this land of hapless folks suckling at the teat of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless…president, bent on keeping the people down. Oh yeah, Peeta (from Boston?), played by Josh Hutcherson, gets chosen as the male tribute. There, now that’s all cleared up.
From that point on, The Hunger Games is a rip-roaring ride of young people doing what young people do best — plotting the demise of their fellow young people. Except for Katniss of course, because she has a heart, and she’s also the star of the film. Katniss must decide how to play The Hunger Games for survival’s sake, and be the last tribute out…actually the only tribute out. What’s a girl under this much pressure, all alone (sort of), in the forest, to do? You’ll have to go see The Hunger Games.
Director Gary Ross (the Seabiscuit Gary Ross…) made quite the smart casting decision when choosing Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. Besides giving teenage males everywhere a new poster to hang on their ceiling (and moms more sheets to wash), Ross also managed to save this series from a fate (crashing and burning) that seems to plague this genre (or sub-genre; whatever) by ultimately casting an actress — who can act. I’m guessing that if Ross happened to have seen Winter’s Bone before auditioning Lawrence, he was probably already half-way there when she walked in. Her character Ree in Winter’s Bone is the more countrified, morose, living-in-amphetamine-squalor doppelgänger of Katniss. If one were to noodle on that for a while, Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect choice, and bless her heart, she really did do quite a bit to carry this film.
Apart from Lawrence winning my heart, who came in second? Stanley Tucci, as Caesar Flickerman. Stanley’s hair color frightened me at first, and the entire sports commentator-for-murderous-games vibe seemed like it was destined to fail onscreen, but Tucci pulled it off with a character that seems genuinely enamored with his guests, but at the same time, you can’t really tell if he’s being sincere or not. That for me, was the genius of Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman—that and his enormous white smile.
Other notable cast members included Donald Sutherland as President Snow. Sutherland does an admirable job playing an old, mean guy, but I must say, every time I heard his voice, I just wanted to go car shopping. But behind every president is a freakishly evil underling, in this case, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and his equally evil metrosexual beard played by Salvador Dali’s sinister twin. Bentley pulls this off by looking like he’s on speed through the entire film, a surprisingly great character attribute for an evil underling. A fist bump also goes out to, yes, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. Kravitz was dead-on, taking a straight-forward approach as Ms. Everdeen’s stylist and confidant. What makes this boy happy is that Cinna could have easily been a gay stereotype, and considering the way Hollywood likes to recycle stereotypes, it’s surprising it didn’t happen. We’ll give Ross the nod for that decision—and Kravitz. Oh, and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket; I commend her acting, and her patience for wearing uncomfortable costumes.
Regarding aesthetics, first impressions are important, and I got a very Fahrenheit 451esque (1966) feeling, especially with the police uniforms. The camera work of District 12 in the beginning of the film also had a grainy kind of ‘60s thing going on that wasn’t at all unpleasing (see the reaping scene). I suppose I could get nasty here and say the overly-futuristic spacecrafts went against that first impression, but I can’t. Overall, Ross did a stellar job of mixing the necessary old school look of a dystopian society (you really have to have it), and the modern effects that audiences have come to expect from a film like The Hunger Games. The meat of the movie was done in the forested areas where the tributes would battle, and a lot of the cinematography here was very quick, especially with the more violent scenes, an approach I appreciated as the majority of the individuals seeing this film will be fairly young. Oh yeah, Hollywood seems to take this for granted as well.
I was somewhat terrified to see The Hunger Games, due mainly to the expectations of so many for this to be a great film, and the realization that this movie could be really horrible if not handled properly. To set the story straight, I’m not on the Suzanne Collins fan club mailing list, nor do I consider myself a Hunger Games geek (I did read the first book). I also believe that this film will get praised by many, and bashed quite readily by others (and may the bashers run quickly from the teenage mobs of the world). Did the film have some spotty moments? Indeed, and most of it dealt with issues that at first seem like poor acting, but honestly end up being funky editing. This kind of movie is not easy to make, and while it could have been better…it could have been much worse. Come on, it’s not an art house film, and Deborah Winger doesn’t die at the end, so what? It’s good fun, and Jennifer Lawrence ran with it. Good for you sweetheart – you’ve now bested the “other” Jennifer in Hollywood as the most searched on google…as well you should.