Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games Proves To Be A Solid Meal

Saw The Hunger Games last night, and as a fan of the Suzanne Collins trilogy of books, I was pretty impressed with what director Gary Ross and his crew turned out.

Before getting into the film, it’s worth making a few comments on The Hunger Games and Twilight. Many people I know seem to be under the impression this as a Twilight-like franchise. It’s hard to blame them – the marketing machine has set it up as such, and I would say, financially, this was a wise decision (as evidenced by the historic opening weekend). However, while both were originally young adult novels and are defined by an extreme popularity with girls, it’s a shortsighted comparison. The Twilight series (the films at least – I haven’t read the books) is a piss-poor and drawn-out love story featuring a shimmering mopey vampire, a self-righteous possessive werewolf, and a manic-depressive teenage girl who can only be defined by her relationship with men. Meanwhile, The Hunger Games is an intriguing dystopian nightmare that examines the pitfalls of government control and the importance of personal identity and features a compelling central heroine (Katniss Everdeen) that is far more closely aligned with Ellen Ripley than Bella Swan. They may be targeting the same audience, but these franchises are operating on completely different levels.

The Hunger Games is a futuristic tale set in Panem, the nation that arose following the destruction of civilization. It was originally made up of 13 districts, each one of which operated a different industry necessary for survival (i.e. farming, coal mining, etc.), and was lorded over by the oppressive Capitol. Due to the harsh conditions, the districts banded together to attempt a rebellion, but they were beaten down (with the 13th district getting completely obliterated). As punishment, the Capitol started a yearly gladiatorial event in which two “tributes” (a boy and girl aged 12-18) from each remaining district are chosen via a lottery system to compete in a 24-person battle-to-the-death known as the Hunger Games. The event is televised 1) for the amusement of the citizens of the Capitol and 2) as a reminder to the districts about who is boss.

There’s a lot to love here. For starters, the casting is excellent. After getting an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone two years ago, Jennifer Lawrence has been approaching stardom. Last year, she continued her upward trend, featuring prominently in an indie darling (Like Crazy)and a blockbuster (X-Men: First Class). Here, she takes full advantage of the opportunity to emerge as a full-fledged star, easily carrying a huge tentpole film, while communicating the complexity of Katniss Everdeen. She captures all the key traits – resourcefulness, cunning, resentfulness, compassion, rebelliousness – with very little dialogue.

Meanwhile, Josh Hutcherson captures both the private sensitivity and public magnetism of fellow District 12 tribute Peeta, while the rest of the cast – particularly Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, and Lenny Kravitz (Yes, that Lenny Kravitz. I know, weird, right?) – fill in the margins nicely.

I was impressed with the script’s simplistic approach. That said, it was a gutsy decision not to go with an internal monologue for Katniss. So much of the book is her internal reactions, and while I do think it was the right call to avoid narration – it probably would’ve come across heavy-handed – it does result in some confusion. While they may lose some impact, most things (i.e. the significance of the three-finger salute) play fine. And the script does a great job of explaining many of the necessities in clever cinematic ways (i.e. showing Haymitch working sponsors, Gale watching the games, and the commentators giving their input).

Still, some things seem very unclear. For instance, while the book makes it obvious that Katniss believes her and Peeta are faking their love story throughout the competition, the film seems to imply she is, without a doubt, falling for him. As a result, it plays as a dumb love story with cheesy lines. It’s supposed to play that way for the audience within the film watching the event live on TV, but really shouldn’t play that way for us in the movie theater.

With that in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to list some thoughts on a few other changes made in the transition from book to film:
  • The biggest difference was in the extended look at The Capital. Seneca (Bentley) was almost a nonfactor in the book, but here he’s the fourth or fifth lead. I thought that played well, and it was a very nice touch to have the berries sitting there like that in his last scene. I also appreciated that this film set up the trilogy’s big bad (Sutherland’s President Snow) far more than the first book did.
  • Odd that they had Peeta talk about showers in his interview and not the soup he loved so much. Both anecdotes would still allow him to be funny, and mentioning the soup there would make the scene with the soup in the cave play better.
  • The Rue stuff was handled really well, but I was surprised they didn’t have a brief flashback/audio clip to Peeta’s comments about not wanting to be changed before Katniss made the gravesite. It would’ve made far clearer to the audience that Katniss was intentionally acting rebellious with that gesture and wasn’t just grieving a friend.
  • Having said that, the flash to the insurrection in District 11 (something that we only find out about in the second book and that does not happen immediately following Rue’s death) was a nice add that made clear how the action was perceived in the districts. This was strengthened by Snow’s comments to Seneca about the usefulness of hope, provided it is controlled.
  • Peeta doesn’t lose his leg here. This makes a lot of sense and will probably save some time in the second film, but I was sad to see this aspect go.
Before closing, I need to mention that I wasn’t a fan of the decision to go all shaky cam. I get the point – it creates a disorienting vibe while simultaneously allowing for some judicious edits to keep things PG-13 – but the practice of it was annoying, specifically in the opening act. There also were some terrible effects shots, most glaringly the chariot presentation scene in The Capitol, which looked like a Playstation 2 cut scene in long shots. I also think there are limitations to what can be done here – certain developments and intricacies need to be cut when trying to keep a movie under 2.5 hours (i.e. development for tributes not named Katniss, Peta and Rue). Still, The Hunger Games is a solid double that, with the exposition largely dispatched with, paves the way for an even better second outing. B

Friday, March 23, 2012

21 Jump Street Offers Fresh Take On Old Material

It’s hard to watch the theatrical reimagining of 21 Jump Street and not think of the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson led Starkly and Hutch. Both films take properties long past their sell by date and attempt to cash in on any remaining name recognition by taking what was once a fairly dramatic cop show and reimagining it as a tongue-in-cheek, mismatched buddy comedy. For each film, plot is beside the point. Instead, they rely upon the crackerjack chemistry of their leads, goofy fringe characters, and weird humor (oddly, both feature a drug-induced tripping balls sequence).
Despite the similarities, 21 Jump Street has been greeted with a far warmer reception. It just took a major haul in its first weekend ($36.3 million) and, with excellent scores from critics and audiences alike, it should have decent legs (a sequel is already in the works). Starsky and Hutch wasn’t a shabby performer in 2004 ($88 million domestic, $170 million worldwide), and it’s actually a solid comedy, but it didn’t inspire sequel/franchise talk and is generally viewed as a minor thing.
The central reason, I believe, is in the approach. There’s a lot of subversive talent on the log sheet for Starsky and Hutch – director Todd Phillips and stars Stiller, Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell – and yet it’s mostly conventional and downright reverential to the source material (same era, same characters, same car, hell, even the same stylistic cues). Meanwhile, 21 Jump Street takes the premise (cops go undercover in high school) of its predecessor and little else, infusing it with the self-aware irreverence of a Wright/Pegg genre send-up (Sean of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and the self-reflection and character beats of an Apatow joint (Superbad, Knocked Up).
This film really isn’t parodying the original Jump Street so much as it’s riffing on genre conventions and remakes. The major comic set piece is a car chase sequence that parodies the tendency for things to blow up during movie car chases, and when Nick Offerman’s deputy character tells Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s rookie cops that they are being reassigned to Jump Street, he calls it an undercover program that has been revived due to “lack of imagination.”
Adding to the comedy is the fact that, as silly the whole thing gets, the emotional stuff plays. The central relationship is believable and sincerely underlined, and the film has some well-done, under-the-surface thematics concerning friendship and the generational divide. Even the amusingly dark cameo appearance that sees former Jump Street stars Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise get murdered is used to further along the central bromance (awesome note: Depp indicated he’d only do a cameo if his character was given this type of closure. RIP Tommy Hanson).
I think critics and audiences are also doing cartwheels over this thing due to the central pairing. Although Stiller and Wilson have a strong chemistry in Starsky and Hutch, that film has them milking a familiar dynamic, one they’ve done far more successfully and inventively in other films. This film offers audiences something fresh, especially in the way it provides a whole new showcase for Tatum, who all but walks away with the movie.
There’s something undeniably exciting about watching an actor kill a role the way Tatum does here, especially when it totally deviates from expectation. Tatum has a reputation as a bad actor, and although it’s not entirely earned (he’s pretty decent in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Stop-Loss), movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra and Dear John don’t help his case. He’s always displayed a decent screen presence and a certain vulnerability, and both are put to great use here. I’ve been pulling for the guy for a long while, especially because he seems so determined to work with good directors like Michael Mann and Stephen Soderbergh. With the one two punch of The Vow and 21 Jump Street, he’s well positioned right now, and with two interesting-looking Soderbergh movies on the way, I’m digging the direction he’s headed in.
Hill is also quite good in his first post-weight loss role. After getting an Oscar nomination for his subtle Moneyball performance, he makes strides in refining his comic persona here to the point that he capably carries a sweet romantic subplot with costar Brie Larson. I’m still not sure if he can carry a movie on his own (The Sitter bombed last year), but the fact that he can work so well off of so many varying personalities (Michael Cera, Seth Rogen, Russell Brand, Brad Pitt, and Tatum) is impressive.
The rest of the cast acquits themselves nicely, with Larson and Dave Franco (brother of James) providing a good amount of pathos in roles that would normally be pure cookie cutter (Franco’s wounded line reading of “But you bought me taco bell” is still cracking me up). Taking a different approach are Ellie Kemper, Ice Cube and Rob Riggle, all of whom play their characters as broadly as possible. While I wasn’t crazy about Kemper or Cube (more so the nature of the characters really), Riggle killed me (it helps that he’s the focal point of two of the movies funniest sight gags).