The Hunger Games, the teen-lit smash by author Suzanne Collins that seems to be the better-written answer to Twilight, now has a slick and somewhat sanitized film version -- one that has been drawing a lot of comparisons to the Japanese cult classic, Battle Royale.
Eat This. Suzanne Collins' wildly popular teen-novel The Hunger Games gets the Silver Screen A-treatment.
It's a pretty knee-jerk parallel really (one that I was guilty of) in that the two films only really share the idea of teenagers dropped into an arena-like killing field to murder each other until only one is left alive. They also share a similar justification for the seemingly unthinkable, both plots being borne of a governmental crack-down on rebellions against the system.
But the similarities more or less end there, since the competition in Battle Royale, somewhat nonsensically, is supposed to be a secret. The Hunger Games are meant for the enjoyment of the rich and, ultimately, the pacification of the poor and hungry masses of Panem's -- formerly America -- 12 Districts. As Stephen King somewhat wryly noted in his positive review of the book, in addition to Battle Royale, more apt comparisons for The Hunger Games can be found in the plots of The Running Man and The Long Walk, "those latter two by some guy named Bachman."
It's in that literary pantheon that we meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), resident of District 12, a poor mining territory that is receiving a visit from the Peacekeepers -- essentially Stormtroopers -- who are there to oversee The Reaping, a sort of lottery that selects one boy and one girl for the nationally televised, Hunger Games.
When Katniss's sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is tapped for the death match, Katniss offers herself as a volunteer in her stead and is ultimately paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son who's held a long-harbored crush on the bow-hunting survivalist (and really cute), Katniss. They both are whisked away on a lavish super train to The Capitol, the center of Panem's kleptocratic dictatorship and home of the Games.
En route, they get to indulge in the riches of the government (led by Donald Sutherland as President, Cornelius Snow), with gourmet food and plush accommodations. They also enjoy the mentorship of former Games winner, Haymitch Abernathy ('sup Woody Harrelson?), a drunken burnout who quickly warms to Katniss and Peeta despite all his lottery-winner cynicism. He informs them that the Games are as much a popularity contest as they are about Darwinian survival -- a fact that becomes all the more apparent after the opening ceremonies, which find the contestants being interviewed by television personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, brilliantly chewing through his scenes like they're a bag of Twizzlers) before a live audience of One Percenter douchebags who want nothing more than to be titillated by the anticipated bloodletting.
After training sessions that recall Orsen Scott Card's Ender's Game, the children are set loose on each other in a sprawling, camera-festooned forest so that the two audiences -- one rich and looking for thrills, the other poor and coerced into submission -- are pacified by the Grand Guignol spectacle of it all.
Comparison's to other similarly themed stories aside, the more of Twilight's audience that The Hunger Games can eat up the better. Katniss is a far healthier female role model than the empty-headed Bella Swan. Though there is the added similarity of two love interests, Peeta and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), their development is far less twee and retrograde. The themes of The Hunger Games are deeper than Stephanie Meyer's slowly-paced, shallow yet heavy-handed tomes. But the thing that really sets The Hunger Games apart from Twilight is naivety. Collins is channeling themes and subjects -- dystopian caste systems, oligarchic tyranny and the American love of violence -- that, however borrowed, actually matter.
Writer Suzanne Collins adapts her source with director Gary Ross (whose debut Pleasantville is a signifier of how he approaches this material). Together they capture shades of the deeper subtexts of the book and craft what is ultimately a good sci-fi film with some brains. Ross tries too hard visually, with some gratuitous quick cutting that seems to want to belie some of the silly -- and relatively cheap -- design and FX work (looking at you "mutts") not to mention a need to neuter some of the violence into a PG-13 rating.
But the script, and its source, is strong enough to overcome the smallish and thinly executed scope of the film, building its characters and world just compellingly enough to get a novice to care.
The lead performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson are fine. They share a genuine chemistry and are the only characters in the Games that wind up standing out. Characters like Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the helpful Newt of the story, are only memorable because they make us feel really bad when they die. Others, like Alexander Ludwig's Cato, a returning champ who gets off on winning, are underutilized. You get the sense that these orbiting scions got lost in translation as much as the finer details of the world.
Obviously, Tucci and Harrelson are a blast and make the most of it. Other neat stunt casting includes Toby Jones as Tucci's co-host, Claudius Templesmith and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, a "sponsor" of Katniss and Peeta. Wes Bentley's intricately bearded Seneca Crane, the meddling game master who is more than willing to bend with the rules, is also amusing and oddly perfect.
Not having read the book, I was informed by my wife -- who burned through it in mere hours before seeing the film -- of the kid-gloves results. It's called The Hunger Games for a reason, and most of the cast are too well-fed and perfect where they should be feral. Lawrence, a fine actress, does not look 16 years-old. Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy was a more self-involved, cripplingly alcoholic asshole before he acquiesces to sympathy.
Comparisons and quibbles aside, what's amazing -- or maybe just depressingly inevitable -- about The Hunger Games is that thirteen years after Columbine, and a decade of war, a story about state-sanctioned murder amongst teenagers would be published by Scholastic and open to record-setting box office. Art truly imitates life.
Mumblecore: it's a genre partially defined by Jay and Mark Duplass -- be they writing and directing films like Baghead, or in the case of Mark's more high-profile face, acting in likeminded filmmakers projects, notably Noah Baumbach's Greenberg and Lynn Shelton's quirky, straight-buddies-make-a-gay-porn comedy, Humpday. There's a certain emo vibe to these films that is at once acutely entertaining while achieving annoying levels of hipster self-awareness.
From the Basement. The Duplas Bros. write and direct Jeff, Who Lives At Home, an indie, dramedy tale of life and growth.
Which makes Jeff, Who Lives at Home a somewhat familiar tale -- one that fortunately exhibits growth on the part of the Bros. Duplass. With Jeff, they create a film that is comparable to the work of their peers Baumbach and Wes Anderson -- which is a good thing if you are into Seinfeldian plotting and well-written characters. Their sense of indie dramedy retains a stylistic signature that assures they'll never make, or care to make, a box office blockbuster.
Jeff (a diffident Jason Segel) is an introspective, man-child ensconced in his mother's basement-womb where he pulls bong hits and obsesses about the interconnectedness of life due to his obsession with the Mel Gibson film, Signs.
His brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is a selfish prick of a salesman, whose wife, Linda (Judy Greer), is at wits end after Pat's mid-life crisis dictates he buy a Porsche that they cannot afford. The deluded Pat cannot see that their childless and increasingly sex-free marriage is pushing Linda into the arms of a co-worker, Steve (Steve Zissis), who is pretty much only less of an asshole by default.
Their mother, Sharon (the perfect Susan Sarandon), frustrated by a widows life and the inability of her deadbeat, youngest son to fix a broken closet door, calls on her eldest to set Jeff straight -- giving rise to what makes Jeff, Who Lives at Home such a funny and genuine treat.
Written and directed by the Duplass Bros., the narrative of their (easily) best film exhibits pleasing warmth as both brothers -- Jeff and Pat, that is -- learn utterly different lessons from their naivety and self-involvement. Jeff, obsessed with the seeming minutia of coincidence, frustrates Pat, who sees his marriage as proof of superiority. But as he follows along with Jeff's stream of consciousness world-view, Pat discovers that perhaps his brother isn't so crazy after all (after a string of coincidences engenders Pat's gradual epiphany as to what a feckless, asshole he really is).
Above the nicely organic story, Jeff, Who Lives at Home turns completely on its superlative performances. Segel is exceptionally likeable (and if you've ever read his Tweets or consider the fact he made a Muppet movie just because he loves them, it becomes apparent that this role is not a stretch) while Ed Helms is revelatory as Pat. Sure, he has the most defined arc, but Helms makes the character his own with what is probably a nomination worthy performance. Susan Sarandon is great as their put upon mother, whose possible inter-office romance gives her so many opportunities to shine. Rea Dawn Chong turns up as Sharon's best (and only?) friend in a welcome bit of casting.
Tied together nicely by a journeyman visual sense, quirky humor and a cool soundtrack including Beck and The Spin Doctors (kidding -- only one of them is actually cool), Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a pleasurable fable about growth. Not just for its characters but, also, their makers.
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