For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Hunger Games


The Suzanne Collins’ novel, on which this passable if unspectacular action-adventure-coming-of-age-romance is based, was like a re-interpretation of Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man as fascist allegory and teen-romance-novel amalgam.  The protagonist is a piss-and-vinegar huntress named Katniss who gets selected as a Tribute to fight to the death with 24 other teenagers in a publicly broadcast bout, put on by the totalitarian leaders of a dystopian future.    

The author was supposedly inspired to write The Hunger Games by channel surfing between violent news stories and numbing Reality TV.  But Collins is hardly the incisive satirist necessary to puncture the dark heart of America’s desensitized lust for violence and slave-like reliance on media and technology.  Her books, while thankfully effective at snapping some of the Twilight crowd out their Edward Cullen love-trances, were excitingly well-paced without being particular vivid or intelligent.     

Collins lack of expressive imagery left more than enough room for this hotly anticipated movie adaptation to shade in many of the imaginative blank spots.  If only director Gary Ross had been able to reinvent some of the kaleidoscopic visual splendor of his last film, Pleasantville, he might have made some something iconic and resplendent.  Unfortunately, this time Ross only paints with easy allusions: the heroine’s impoverished mining District (there are 12 in Collins’ universe) is heavy on Dust Bowl and Ozarks hillbilly images, but light on artistry and humanity.   

At one point, all the kids in The Reaping, a lottery to decide which unlucky lad and lass must represent their District in the titular games, are herded into a high-walled concentration camp of monochrome grey, strewn with barbed wire fences and peopled by dispassionate armed guards, manufacturing a grade-school Holocaust evocation.  From there, the gutsy, older-than-her-years sixteen-year-old pragmatist—played by the rock solid and reactive Jennifer Lawrence—is dragged off to the Capital. The film’s landscape transforms into a Vegas by way of Oz by way of Cirque Du Soleil metropolis, where Katniss and her fellow gladiator, a nervous baker’s son named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), get introduced to Woody Harrelson’s drunken mentor and Elizabeth Banks’ District rep, a haute couture pixie clown. 

The games themselves make up most of the film’s 2 and ½ hour runtime.  In a woodsy coliseum that looks a little too commonplace—like the forest behind Ross’s house, maybe—the kids fight off starvation, thirst, exposure, hallucinogenic hornets nests, and, most dangerously, each other (they wield knives, spears, bows or any number of serrated weaponry) in an effort to be the last one standing.  All the while, Caesar, a celebrity talk show host played by Stanley Tucci with a spray-on tan and a hive of blue hair, commentates on the barbaric proceedings with more detachment than an ESPN commentator.            

The juxtaposition of the everyday with the fantastic and the horrific is ripe for potential revelations.  When it’s all said and done, though, the premise is conceptually rich while the movie itself is not.  It would take a director like Paul Verhoeven, whose acidic lampoonery of the media and whose use of revealingly fetishistic ultra-violence were on full display in RoboCop and Starship Troopers, to actualize in full Collins’ half-baked themes on Reality TV as a vehicle for voyeurs to indulge their most perverse inclinations, in this case, assuaging a bloodlust through the brutality of on-screen violent spectacle.  

Ross, though, is anything but a provocative filmmaker.  He’s a sentimentalist who, too often in The Hunger Games, succumbs to his worst impulse, relating the story’s sadder moments with melodramatic musical cues and hokey photography of light pouring through treetops.  With too many plot points to check off, he can’t explore his characters on any rewardingly thorough level.  Collins’ unorthodox setup requires a superfluous amount of expositional dialogue, sacrificing the more character-driven variety that would give the likes of the guarded Katniss and the romantic Peeta greater emotional depth.      

Like the novel, the movie is brisk and, impressively, it covers a lot of ground.  I can’t say I enjoyed Ross’ frenetic photography during the fight scenes.  (When you can tell a director’s going for Paul Greengrass’ chaotic stylistics and all you’re seeing is shaky frames, there’s a problem.)  And despite it all, the novel’s massive fandom will enjoy watching The Hunger Games come to the screen in this serviceable adaptation that sticks rather faithfully to Collins’ prose and sets up nicely for the next installment.  If given the choice between Twilight’s risible monster-mash-love-triangle and The Hunger Games strong-willed saga of survival, I’ll take the latter every time.  While both turn their children into murderous monsters, only The Games, in its Shirley-Jackson-goes-Sweet-Valley-High kind of way, recognizes that, just by tuning in, we’re complicit in the carnage.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Lucky One


Film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels are like the female equivalent to the testosterone-fueled carnage of the Transformers movies and their many clones.  There’s a core group of young men that go to theaters solely to gorge on numbing special effects junk food—along the lines of Michael Bay’s deliriously pointless, noisily mechanized and blindingly fiery spectacles—and drool ferverishly at the Maxim centerfold eye-candy of Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington Whitely.  Their wives or girlfriends, on the other hand, get their kicks from the three-hankie melodrama of Sparks’ mawkishly mishandled and jejune tearjerkers that, transplanted to the screen, are little more than sappy cardboard romances spiced up with their own brand of pinup-boy eye-candy, provided by teenybopper favorites like Channing Tatum and Liam Hemsworth. 

In The Lucky One, former Disney Channel heartthrob Zach Efron tries to navigate the tricky leap into serious actor territory, but really just joins the former ranks of chiseled meathead lover-boys. As another syrupy Sparks adaptation, the movie’s look is as kitsch-painterly—with images of billowy red mists, sunsets over sparkly water bodies, and glorious rays peaking through Southern-sumptuous vegetation—as its story is bird-brained and bloodless.  But The Lucky One, at the very least, has a premise worth jumping off from, even if its subsequent plot progression is more of a descent than ascent in quality.   

Efron plays Logan, a Marine in Iraq who ventures away from his unit only momentarily to pick up a wallet-sized picture of an anonymous lovely blond lying amid the rubble of Baghdad.   A mortar lands on the exact spot he previously stood, sending dumpsters full of dirt and a number of his fellow Jarheads sky-high.  Logan is eventually discharged and sent home to Colorado, but he holds onto the picture, which he considers his good luck charm.  With no real plan and a touch of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Logan decides to walk from Colorado to Louisiana in order to find this random beauty and thank her for saving his life. 

Having once espoused his admiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s smooth transition from fan-girl poster-child to Oscar favorite, Efron is clearly on the hunt for juicy dramatic parts that will help stake his claim as an actor of substance.  More or less, he’s found one in Logan, a haunted but gentle warrior struggling with survivor’s guilt and a crippling lack of purpose.  Beefed up and ruggedly unkempt, Efron plays him strong and silent, but where’s the heartbreak below the stony visage?  He’s more of a hunky mannequin than a human being, and Efron, relying more on his hypnotic blue peepers than on protean emotional expressions, misses a chance to give the film’s central dreamboat a candidly colorful puissance.

After a little light investigating, Logan tracks the girl to a kennel out in the Bayou.  Deciding to keep his ulterior motive a secret, supposedly because it’s too hard for him to talk about, Logan gets a job there, cleaning up after the mangy mutts.  His luminescent guardian angel, Beth, played by Taylor Schilling with a more variant spectrum of sneers and lustful glances, turns out to be the owner.  At first, she treats Logan’s “drifter” with cold reticence, but then warms to him after seeing how good he looks while lifting heavy bags of dog food in a tight shirt.  Logan’s motives are never entirely clear, but we can assume the attraction is mutual.  The necessary hurdle blocking their serendipitous path to love is Beth’s jealous ex-husband, Keith, the local sheriff, a villain so clich├ęd and boorish he’s practically a cartoon. 

The best character in the movie is Beth’s grandmother, Ellie, who’s played by Blythe Danner as a slightly amused box of wisdom.  Overall, though, the movie languorously moves through its highly robotic motions, groping desperately for any shred of drama or romance.  Working from a lackluster adaptation, director Scott Hicks can’t really rely on his young actors—especially Efron—to transcend the material, so there’s very little revelatory dialogue to be found, even of the sappiest variety.  Hicks, instead, tries to tell the story the characters can’t through florid and autumnal pictorials of Schilling splashing in creeks or Efron walking soldierly along Southern dirt roads, all tuned to the romantic keys of inoffensive pop love-anthems.  Mostly, The Lucky One is a series of lethargic musical montages and truncated dialogue scenes strung together by the dental floss of passionless romance and a dishonest portrait of returning veterans.  Even for cinematic junk food, this is pretty indigestible.