Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tandem Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Jo: In another case of "Reading is hard, guys...", Chandler has again opted out of reading a mega-bestselling young adult series. I, on the other hand, have added the mockingjay to the list of literary tattoos I plan on getting one day.

(For the curious, also on the list are the Deathly Hallows symbol, an "umbrella tree" from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and two stars- the one on the right a little fancier, it being the "second star to the right." If you don't get the reference you don't deserve to know.)

Yes, I'm a Hunger Games fan. And for the first time in a long time-- come to think of it, maybe ever-- I wasn't disappointed by a book-to-movie adaptation. Which isn't to say there weren't things I didn't like about it, but overall I did enjoy it. Chandler not so much.

Chandler: I’m never on the up and up when it comes to books turned movies. I knew nothing about Harry Potter until the third book was out. It took me a while before I discovered that Twilight was both a book and movie series. Naturally, I was surprised when I learned that the hype surrounding The Hunger Games was because it was a wildly popular book series. From now on, I’m just going to assume that every movie that comes out is a book adaptation so I seem “hip” and “with it”.

If you read my Harry Potter review (This-Post-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named), then you’ll know that, because I didn’t read the book, my review of the movie will be based solely on the quality of the movie rather than what I should know from the book. You didn’t know that? Well, you should have read my Harry Potter review.

I had the plot of The Hunger Games explained to me as “a bunch of kids go to a secluded area and fight each other to the death,” I was overwhelmingly unimpressed. This was the exact plot of the novel/manga/movie Battle Royale, the novel having been released in 2000. And Battle Royale isn’t some obscure story only popular in Japan; Battle Royale has a pretty strong following in the States and I’m surprised very few people have made the connection. Essentially, to me, The Hunger Games was the plot of Battle Royale with a bit of Twilight sprinkled in to appeal to adolescent girls between the ages of 12 and 18. I’ll admit that I had no intention of seeing this movie, but I was relieved when I found out that it wasn’t exactly what I had imagined. Still, however, the movie was certainly not for me.

The Hunger Games shares the same problem with the Godzilla movies. Stay with me here. The problem being that the main draw of the movie is right in the movie’s title so viewers aren’t so much as watching the movie as they are just waiting for this titular event to occur. The difference between the two movies (other than the obvious) is at least in the Godzilla movies, Godzilla makes a brief appearance early on in the movie to whet the audience’s appetite for what’s to come later. The Hunger Games was just one long, drawn out build up to the actual Games that, after a certain point, I didn’t even care what the characters were doing or saying, I just wanted them to start killing each other. I think having the movie in media res format-- that is, start the movie with the Hunger Games already in progress, then go back and show the events leading up to that point-- would have been a more engaging and exciting way of telling the story.

I understand that there is a certain amount of backstory and character development that must be done before we get to the action. However, in The Hunger Games, the backstory and character development becomes so heavy handed that it skews the pacing of the entire movie (i.e. it slows down a lot). I could peg each character’s defining trait as soon as they came onscreen (that’s good) but there were so many superfluous scenes devoted to further expound these already established traits that it became almost insulting to the viewer (that’s bad).

Amongst these scenes were two flashbacks that show up and then are never explained. The first shows Katniss watching Peeta throw burnt bread to some pigs in the rain, then more burnt bread to Katniss, and is beaten by his mother for doing so. This particular flashback appears almost every time Katniss and Peeta are together, but its significance is never made clear, only revealing that they have some shared history. The other, trippy flashback comes out of nowhere late in the film and, much like the first flashback, alludes to very little. Because of the dreamlike way it’s shot and the fact that only appears once so late in the film, this flashback is jarring and left me confused. However, because it revealed so little, I didn’t even give it a second thought.

Jo: I really didn't like how much I have had to explain to Chandler since we saw it because, like he always says, a movie should be a stand-alone unit and you shouldn't have had to read the books to understand. So there's a few things I'm kind bothered they left out, like the significance of the Mockingjay pin, the severity of Peeta's (Josh Hutcherson) illness in the cave, how important the loaf of bread that Peeta gave Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was, and the importance of food in general because all of those things are referenced and are important to the plot. And those are only a few of the things Chandler asked me, we couldn't remember them all.

The two most egregious misses, I thought, were the pin and the significance of food. The food especially, in the book, is used to constantly illustrate how desperate the outer districts are and how decadent the Capitol and wealthy districts are, and how it's such a great incentive to win for the outer district tributes because a win promises extra food for their district for the following year. And I was seriously looking forward to seeing Katniss really tear into a meal-- probably the best meal of her very hungry life-- and offending Capitol appointed tribute escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).

And don't hate me for saying this but I do wish Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth (Gale) and had been just a shade thinner. NOT as an aesthetic thing, but as a starving-to-death thing-- like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. In the beginning of the book, before Gale breaks out the roll he got, their breakfast was going to be sharing a lump of cheese.

Chandler: With so much build leading up to the Hunger Games, the Games itself was a bit of a let down. Out of 24 competitors, we don’t even see half of them. The characters in the Friday the 13th movies survive longer than majority of the kids in the Hunger Games. Plus, we actually get to see them die. I was expecting an all out battle royale, what I got was a lot of bloodless violence and off screen deaths. On top of that, these off screen deaths made it hard to keep track of how many tributes were still alive. I did, however, like the fact that when the characters had a chance to kill, they took it. Except for one instance that irked me where a girl from one district (Clove, Isabelle Fuhrman) literally had a knife to Katniss’s throat, then decided to describe how she was going to make her suffer before killing her. Katniss, being the main character that she is, is saved last minute by one of the only black people in the movie. Now, if everyone was only trying to kill Katniss, the pre-murder taunting would have made sense. However, in a situation where everyone is equally trying to kill everyone, the gloating would have to take a back seat to neck slicing.

("Frozone: So now I'm in deep trouble. I mean, one more jolt of this death ray and I'm an epitaph. Somehow I manage to find cover and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Mr. Incredible: [laughing] He starts monologuing.
Frozone: He starts monologuing! He starts, like, this prepared speech about how *feeble* I am compared to him, how *inevitable* my defeat is, how *the world* *will soon* *be his*, yadda yadda yadda.
Mr. Incredible: Yammering.
Frozone: Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won't shut up!"

-The Incredibles)

Jo: The film also glossed over the characters' personal relationships, with the exception of Katniss and her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Through The Hunger Games, the novel, the driving force is the relationship between Peeta and Katniss and their fight for not just survival, but mutual survival. With the truncated relationships it was hard to see why Katniss would risk her life for Peeta (who didn't seem nearly as close to death as he probably should have), and why Katniss reacted so strongly to Rue's (Amandla Stenberg) death. Which isn't to say that the movie blew Rue's death, it didn't, I tried to wipe away my tears sneakily so Chandler wouldn't notice. (Turns out he did. I wish he wouldn't stare at me so much...)

Katniss and Cinna's relationship was barely there as well. When Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) says he likes Katniss there was really no reason for him to do so, they'd barely spoken. If they had showed them interacting more during Katniss' preparations it would have made more sense why she would be comforted by his presence at the tribute interview.

I'm hoping that the lack of attention paid to the relationships is going to be remedied in the next three movies-- which would make sense, I suppose, as they need to come up with 3 more movies worth of material.

Chandler: Another bit that threw me for a loop was when the Game’s overseers all of a sudden spawned gorilla/bat-faced dog monsters out of nowhere. I could accept the fact that they controlled the world the Games took place in. They established that early on when they started a forest fire, forcing Katniss to fight rather than hiding in the tree tops. What I couldn’t accept were gorilla/bat-faced dog monsters literally appearing from God-knows-where actively trying to kill Katniss and Peeta. That took what I thought were fixed rules and completely changed them. If they could spawn gorilla/bat-faced dog monsters anywhere on the playing field, the possibilities of what else they could make appear would be endless.

Jo: Visually, Panem looked exactly like I thought it would. The dreariness of The Seam, the opulence of the Capitol, I thought it was perfect. The arena I imagined was open-air, but I can see why they would go with a Truman Show-type set-up, so no biggie. The costuming was pitch-perfect from the Depression era styling of the Reaping to the tribute interview flame dress to the frilly, innocent, poofy, yellow dress at the victor's interview.
I do take issue with Peeta's casting, though. Josh Hutcherson has very little charm (Julianne Moore's hair had more charm and brought on more emotion than he ever did in The Kids Are Alright), which is only made more obvious by his subscription to the Kristen Stewart school of acting: open mouthed and staring blankly. Feel the anguish.

Chandler:What sets The Hunger Games apart from most teen dramas (notably Twilight) is that it has a strong, independent female lead that isn’t shoehorned into a trivial love story. She does get thrown together with Peeta, but only to boost her likability with her sponsors, thereby increasing her chance of survival. This might have been the only aspect of the movie that I thought was really well done.

The Hunger Games fell flat with me. It wasn’t outright a bad movie, just not for me. It was one long build up that culminated to absolutely nothing. It seemed like they focused so much on the lead up to the Games that the ending just seems tacked on. On top of that, it gave no indication that the story will be continuing. I wasn’t aware that The Hunger Games was a trilogy until after the credits had rolled which is ironic, with so many movies nowadays ending with a sequel hook. Now I’m torn: the OCD part of me wants to see the next two movies out of necessity for completion, but the movie snob in me is telling me to stay away. I guess I’ll just have someone tell me what happens.

Jo: That's what he thinks. He's coming with me whether he likes it or not.

For me, the movie had all of the excitement of the book. While watching I couldn't help but think "It's almost perfect." Maybe that's because I got the references-- I was watching it more as a companion to the novel. I felt the tension boiling just below the surface for the people of Panem, and the oblivious decadence of the Capitol. I can't wait to see the next movies when that precarious situation explodes, but I worry that the un-initiated will feel the way Chandler does because the filmmakers decided to cut important story elements and extend or add unnecessary scenes to take up time.

Overall, though, I really did enjoy it. I literally laughed and cried.

Jo: 3.5 arrows out of 5
Chandler is too stubborn to give a rating. His argument is "I don't even like Ebert. Plus, I said the movie wasn't bad, just not for me." I propose you leave a note in the comments about how awesome ratings are and how Chandler should do them.

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