The Strange Entertainment of The Hunger Games: a Recommendation from Steve

The Hunger Games is an entertaining movie. Strangely, though, the premise of the movie forces the viewer to ask whether that is a good thing. Should we feel entertained by a movie in which the major plot point is kids killing kids? I know, I know, The Hunger Games is not about kids killing kids. And, no, I have not read the books yet, although I plan to soon because I did find the movie intriguing enough to pique my interest in the trilogy. I do understand that  the story is about the dangers of totalitarian power and, in conjunction with that, the dangers of media used to manipulative the masses, in this case reality television taken to a gruesome extreme. However, no matter what Suzanne Collins’ (she wrote the books and co-wrote the script) story may ultimately be about, there is no avoiding the fact that kids killing kids takes center stage. This is not a movie for younger children. There is a good reason why it is rated PG-13. However, for older children, it provides a good opportunity for parents to engage in conversation with their children about the darker aspects of human nature and the sinful ways in which we treat one another.

Collins and the other creative forces behind the movie, including director Gary Ross, had a tricky task before them. Even with that central theme, they had to ensure that the movie was rated PG-13 rather than R because a large portion of the intended audience are “young adults.” They achieved that by keeping the blood and gore to a minimum, but in so doing they muted the horrific nature of the deaths of the young participants in the Hunger Game. This also muted the social critique of the story. Indeed, the social commentary is also kept to a minimum. One could argue that the writers did this out of respect for the intelligence for their audience. There is some truth to this point of view. The movie does get its point across without hitting us over the head with it, but I still think that this lack of urgency is what keeps the movie from being a great movie rather than just a good one. Given the plot, you would think the movie would be filled with tension, but the inevitability of the ending deflated the intensity. Another drawback in that regard is that we never really get to know the characters, even the main ones. This also mutes the emotional impact of the deaths of the children.

Despite those drawbacks (and a few other issues with the story), I did enjoy the movie. Much of the credit for that goes to Jennifer Lawrence. She shows here that her strong performance in Winter’s Bone was no fluke. Her ability to express deep emotion through facial expression is essential to her role as Katniss. I just wish the writers had given her a bit more to work with. I guess I’ll have to read the books to get to know Katniss better. I’m of mixed feelings regarding Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. At times he seemed a bit flat, but there was a subtlety to his character that he handled well. I’m a big Woody Harrelson fan and I enjoyed him as Haymitch.

Two final things before I wrap this up. I was surprised that the Games were so manipulated by those running them. This was so unfair, yet it made perfect sense. What didn’t make sense was the dogs. What was the deal with that? A movie needs to make internal sense and sci-fi gives one a lot of leeway, but I thought the dogs just didn’t work. There was a realism to what was happening in the Game, despite the manipulation, but what were the dogs? Virtual reality? No, they were certainly real, but even in that sc-fi world there is no good explanation for their appearance in the Game. I can live with the dogs, but I would rather have lived without much of the camera work. Especially in the beginning of the film, Ross chose the herky jerky approach of a handheld camera. I recently praised the use of that technique in Melancholia, where it created intimacy and intensity. It didn’t work that way here. It was simply distracting and annoying. At least it wasn’t also in 3D! Even with those complaints, I still recommend the movie. It was a (strangely) entertaining movie that is hopefully the beginning of a trilogy that will get stronger as it goes along.

Steve’s Summer Movie Wrap-up

Summer is over, at least unofficially, and so ends a rather uninspiring season at the theater. Earlier in the summer, my blog partner, Bill, wrote a column called “Bill’s Summer Movies…So far…” I was tempted to entitle this column “Summer Movies…So What!” There are a couple of keepers in the bunch, but overall I was unimpressed, which, explains at least in part why I’m just now getting around to writing about them. I’ll cover them in the order that they landed on my rankings, which I posted earlier. I’m including a couple of Spring releases that I haven’t blogged on yet, one that I saw then and one that I didn’t see until it was released on DVD.

Here we go…

Super 8 – I am not a huge Spielberg fan, but this Spielberg-produced movie, which is in so many ways an homage to his work, caught my fancy, so much so that it currently stands at No. 3 in my 2011 rankings. In addition to being an homage to Spielberg, this film is also an homage to childhood, the ’70’s, monster/sci-fi movies, and film-making itself. It is said that J.J. Abrams fell in love with movies at an early age and borrowed his father’s Super 8 camera to make his own movies. For the most part he does a good job here capturing the delight of kids stretching their artistic wings. Without a doubt, the movie is at its best when it focuses on the kids. While the acting of the adults in the film often seemed clichéd and perfunctory, I was impressed by the youthful actors, especially Elle Fanning. It is worth seeing the film just for her performance. The guys convince her character, Alice, to join them in making a zombie move. Alice is nervous because she’s never done any acting. This sets up a scene that Elle totally nails. Alice and one of the boys rehearse some dialogue and Alice’s performance is so powerful that the guys’ jaws drop, as did mine. She then follows that up with a self-effacing, “Was that o.k.?” Elle pulls off the difficult trick of seeming quite natural in her role as Alice, while at the same time kicking it up a notch when Alice is “acting” in the boys’ film. One of the boys (I forget which one) pulls off the opposite feat, seeming natural in his role, but then being quite wooden when his character is “acting.” Not as impressive as Elle, but quite good nonetheless. As good as the kids were, this movie falls far short of classic status. As already mentioned, the adults don’t come across well. The more the plot involves them, the sillier it becomes. The revelation that the military mistreated the alien is a bit obvious in its stab at our societies difficulty with outsiders (for more on that issue, see The X-Men). Which brings us to the problem of the alien itself. After all the alien movies these past few years, it is hard to present an alien that is very shocking (see Cowboys & Aliens). In this case, I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to feel about the interplanetary visitor. Were we to have empathy because he was abused? Did that really excuse the fact that he was quite nasty? And why was he capturing people, to eat them? Much of the plot dealing with the alien didn’t make much sense. I think they shouldn’t have even shown the alien, just left it a mystery, and kept more of the focus on the kids. Be that as it may, this was still the best movie that I had the opportunity to see this summer.

Source Code – I somehow missed this when it was in the theaters, but I saw it this summer on DVD. This is quite the concoction: a sci-fi/mystery/action/thriller/love story. As rare as that complicated combination of elements may seem at first glance, this movie actually finds itself in company with this year’s Adjustment Bureau and last year’s Inception. Of those, I like Adjustment Bureau the most. While Inception is a dazzling achievement, I think that Source Code is a whole lot more fun and, as such, provides a better viewing experience. Yes, the premise is a bit ridiculous, the ability to send someone into the last eight minutes of another person’s memories to try to solve a crime and prevent another terrorist attack. The movie struggles to maintain its own twisted logic, but that really doesn’t matter. Despite all the other adjectives, at heart this is a love story (as were Bureau and Inception) and in its own strange way it worked for me. This has been called a sci-fi Groundhog Day and that comparison is certainly appropriate. While this film lacks the whimsy of Groundhog Day, it does find some clever ways to work with the tricky scenario of repeating the same eight minutes over and over again. Though he is no Bill Murray, I was surprised by the effectiveness of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance here. While hardly Oscar-worthy, he does a nice job of moving from confused to reckless to in control of the situation. Most importantly, since this is a love story, he presents his character in such a way that you can feel him falling in love and understand why Michelle Monaghan’s character would fall for him. There were huge holes in the plot, but I really enjoyed watching this and isn’t that really the bottom line when it comes to movies.

Cowboys & Aliens – Yep, this movie was a mess. I had high hopes for it, which certainly were not met, but I still enjoyed this more than most people seemed to. As with Super 8, one of the big problems was the aliens. When they appeared, it felt too much like been there, seen that. The one big change was that the aliens’ chests opened to reveal a set of arms. Really? And the aliens were here to look for gold. Really? Well, I guess everyone was searching for gold in the Old West! And the aliens captured people to study our weaknesses. Really? Shoot us and we die. How much studying does that require? To transition to the Cowboys in the title, there was also a problem with how the humans reacted to the aliens. Sure, they saw them as a dangerous foe, but they still seemed to take the appearance of the aliens too much in stride. These were aliens, in spaceships shooting laser beams, in 1873! Despite all those shortcomings, the human side of the story still drew me in. Sure it was filled with clichés, but I thought they were kind of fun in this context. Harrison Ford has indicated that he simply mailed his performance in, but I liked him as the grumpy cattle baron. Paul Dano was a hoot as his son. He sure knows how to play an obnoxious jerk. Unfortunately, after the aliens nabbed him, we didn’t see much more of him. It was Daniel Craig, though, who saved the movie for me. I loved his stoic looks as he tried to figure out who the heck he was and why he had this metal thing on his arm. Because I so enjoyed him here, I finally got around to watching Casino Royale last night. I now look forward to seeing more of his work. There is definitely something about those eyes! Finally, this movie had some of the clearest spiritual themes of the big summer movies. The name of the town was Absolution! Maybe some of it was a bit over the top, but the idea that God is not concerned with what we did, but with what we do, is an interesting notion to ponder.

X-Men: First Class – This movie was most definitely not on my must-see list for the summer. As I mentioned in my review of Thor, I’ve grown a bit tired of superhero movies. Also, as superhero movies go, I could hardly be called a big fan of the X-Men series. I’m pretty sure I saw the first one on tv at some point, but that’s about it. Even though this one had received fairly good reviews, I was quite satisfied to let it leave town without seeing it, just like Pirates 4 before it. But my son convinced me to go to this and I’m glad he did. This movie restored my faith in superhero movies, at least for the time being. I found the story and characters to be more engaging than in most superhero movies. The notion of human mutation makes enough sense, but my one complaint in regard to the X-Men is that the particular mutations that they present strike me as ludicrous. That being said, and whereas all superheros are misfits in their own way, the X-Men series seems to tackle the issue of prejudice against outsiders in a deeper way. There certainly seem to be undertones of the gay/lesbian experience here. For instance, when the Beast reveals something about himself the others didn’t know, someone says, “You never told us.” The Beast responds, “You never asked.” Hmm, don’t ask, don’t tell? Overall, the performances were solid. Jennifer Lawrence, who was so spectacular in Winter’s Bone, could have been put to better use here, but that’s the problem with large ensemble casts. (I don’t know how they are going to give everyone enough screen time in The Avengers!) My only real complaint was Kevin Bacon. I usually like him, and I thought he was good here in his opening scene, but after that his performance reminded me too much of his role as Chip Diller in Animal House!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – I’ve mentioned plot holes and ridiculous notions in many of these reviews, but in this movie stupidity rose to its highest level for the summer. I thought the script was atrocious. Of course, James Franco did warn us. He said the intelligent stuff was cut to focus more on the apes. Given his acting here, that was an intelligent move. He was definitely out-acted by a bunch of CGI simians! (Overall, the CGI stuff was pretty impressive.) Seeing Franco in this reaffirmed for me how great a director Danny Boyle is. How did he coax such a fine performance out of Franco in 127 Hours? But, again, when all is said and done, this movie, despite being incredibly stupid, was actually quite fun to watch. So what if I laughed for all the wrong reasons, at least I laughed (which is more than I can say for the next movie in this list).

Harry Potter 7.2 – Let me start by clearly stating that I am not a big fan of the Harry Potter movies. If I’m going to watch a movie featuring a Potter, I’ll take It’s a Wonderful Life any day. I would probably say that this was the best of the eight films, but that is faint praise. At least I stayed awake through all of this one. I can’t quite put my finger on why this series never cast a spell on me. It seems like something I should really like. Part of the problem stems from the early films where it felt like no one was quite concerned enough about Valdemort. Here was this great force of evil and everyone seemed to go on with life as if nothing was particularly wrong. Finally, in these last two installments they seemed to take the threat seriously, but by then they had already lost me. Whatever.

Captain America – Along with Thor, Captain America was my favorite superhero in my younger years. Now, in the same year they both make their way to the big screen and, unfortunately, I found both movies to be deeply disappointing. Roger Ebert gave Captain America fairly high marks because he thought it had a better story than most superhero movies. I disagree. I give best superhero screenplay of the summer to X-Men without a question. I thought the story here was hackneyed. Weakling becomes hero…whoop-di-do. Guy and gal fight at first, then fall in love. Sure didn’t see that coming. Frankly, I was bored. This movie added to its sins by wasting the talents of Hugo Weaving. Then there was the look of the film, which I really didn’t like. I assume they chose the muted colors to give it a retro feel since it was set in the 1940s. At times it looked almost black and white, a problem that was exacerbated by those darn 3D glasses which make everything appear darker. Dull story, dull colors, nuff said.

The Music Never Stopped – I actually saw this one in an art house theater when I was in St. Louis in April. I should have gone to Win Win  or Certified Copy. I wanted to love this movie. I didn’t. I should have cried a bucket of tears. I didn’t even weep. Although this had received mixed reviews, I thought it would be perfect for me. A movie about a father/son relationship and the power of music to connect us to our memories and bring healing, starring J.K. Simmons, how could it miss? It did. Lou Taylor Pucci, as the son, was bland. I didn’t like Simmons as the rock and roll hating father early in the film. I guess you weren’t supposed to like him. But then, his shift to caring, compassionate father was too quick, too easy. There were a few good scenes, especially the one where Gabriel, the son, first hears the Beatles and shows a spark of recognition and life, but they were few and far between. Most of it felt forced and phoney, including the climatic trip to the Grateful Dead concert. If you love music or the Grateful Dead in particular, you should still probably see this. Or maybe you shouldn’t.

Ranking the 2010 Best Picture Nominees by Steve

As the 2010 Oscars ride off into the sunset (thanks for nothing, James Franco!), I’ll bid them adieu by posting my rankings of the Best Picture nominees.  I still haven’t seen 127 Hours yet, so I’ll update the post when I do.  It’s available on Netflix at the end of the month, so I’ll see it then.  I sure hope that Franco is better in the movie than he was on the aforementioned Oscars.

Drum roll, please…

1. Black Swan – This movie drew me in like no other this year.  I’ll write a reflection soon on why I found it to be such a fulfilling movie experience.

2. Social Network – Among other things, Jesse Eisenberg was incredible!

3. True Grit – Blows the original away.  I love the Coen brothers!  A reflection on their movies soon, also.

4. The King’s Speech – I wanted to dislike it, but I couldn’t.  I cried…a lot.  Another coming attraction: a reflection on why I like to cry at the movies.

5. Winter’s Bone – Among other things, Jennifer Lawrence was incredible!

6. The Kids Are Alright – It was certainly more than alright.  I laughed, I cried.

7. The Fighter – Great performances by the leads, but the bizarre sisters nearly ruined it for me.

8. Inception – A reflection coming on why this was the most disappointing movie of the year.

9. Toy Story 3 – With our son going off to college, it certainly hit home and there was much that I liked, such as the prison camp movie references.  Yet much of it was simply fluff and some of it was interminable.  I couldn’t wait for the extended escape sequence to be over.  Alright, I’ll confess, I was hoping they would all burn up in the incinerator so we could be done with it!

So there you have it.  Now on to the magical movie moments of 2011.