Monday, March 26, 2012

REVIEW: The Hunger Games

Yes, it delivers. No, it's not one of the best movies of the year. In fact, considering some of the talent involved, it's disturbingly lacking. Nevertheless, a franchise has kicked off in high style, thanks to a girl called Katniss. Jennifer when the cameras aren't rolling.

As is always the case when a novel becomes a movie, I did not read the book first. I don't feel I can give the movie a fair judgment if my mind is constantly saying "Hey wait ..." By the same token, however, that gives me a newbie perspective that's helpful when considering a film adaptation. If I can feel like I'm not missing anything, the filmmakers have done their jobs. If you have to say "You'll understand it better if you read the book," then the film has failed on some level (cough Watchmen cough)

For the most part, I got through the exposition of The Hunger Games fine, but a few of the plot points were rather murky.  I was a little unclear, for instance on exactly why the whole affair is called The Hunger Games based on what the movie told me - I had to pick it up by inference.

Also problematic is the fact that there's a lot of action in the movie. Director Gary Ross is not skilled in this arena, and it shows. He does well with clever concepts (Pleasantville) or old-fashioned entertainment, (Seabiscuit) but action is not his forte. The action becomes hard to follow sometimes because the editing is choppy and the camera is too close to the players. One scene involving a swarm of wasps works very well; I only wish the rest of the action had been that effective.

What truly puts the movie over, then, is the cast. Some roles are more thoroughly written than others, but the actors all do fine work. Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland are reliable as ever, and it's nice to see Wes Bentley (American Beauty) making a comeback as the rather sinister Seneca Crane. The undervalued Elizabeth Banks is terrific as Effie Trinket, and Woody Harrelson is ideally cast as the drunken but charismatic mentor Haymitch,  Josh Hutcherson has long been one of those sturdy kid performers in movies like Bridge to Terabithia and The Kids are All Right, but here he truly shows he has leading man chops.

Outshining everyone, however, in front of and behind the camera is the luminous Jennifer Lawrence, who owns the part of Katniss from the very first scene. She's proven she has award-worthy chops (Winter's Bone) that she can handle big-budget action fare (X-Men First Class), and she elevates otherwise weak material (The Beaver). In The Hunger Games, she combines all three talents, navigating a huge production, giving it a strong emotional center and overcoming the weaknesses of the script. People who complained about her casting must be enjoying the taste of words right now.

Am I in love with the franchise? No. Am I eager to see more? Yes, especially with Lawrence on board. Here's hoping Catching Fire will be even better.


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