In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The Rise and Fall of Will Ferrell
This week sees the release of the latest Will Ferrell film, The Other Guys. Telling you this film is a comedy is akin to making the Earth-shattering announcement that the theater in which you see it will be serving popcorn. Ferrell has made an indelible mark on comedy and become, like it or not, the face of the genre for an entire generation. I will in no way pretend that his work hasn’t elicited more than a few laughs from me and I do sincerely think the guy is a comic genius. That being said, I don’t think I’m alone in noticing a marked decline in the quality of his work as of late. In an effort to understand this slump, I think it’s important to examine his body of work as a whole.
Will Ferrell, like many comedic movie stars, cut his teeth on Saturday Night Live. He entered the cast during the twilight of the era of Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley. To adopt comic book parlance, I consider this the silver age of SNL. I am sure more than a few producers were concerned about the longevity of the show, even in its 21st season, upon losing that lineup. But along came the likes of Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, and a bizarre giant by the name of Will Ferrell. A new dynasty was born.
When Hollywood could no longer ignore Ferrell’s talent, his early movie career exemplified the proverbial mixed bag. It began as a memorable cameo in a Mike Myers' passion project: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. As if to solidify the existence of the curse of SNL properties adapted to film, Ferrell followed his excellent turn in Austin Powers with bombs A Night at the Roxbury and Superstar. But amidst the abysmal SNL adaptations, he also delivered much smarter comedy gold in Dick.
While I happen to enjoy Zoolander, and more specifically, Ferrell’s performance as Mugatu, the film that really propelled his career was undoubtedly Old School. That was the film that showed just enough of his range to convince people that this wasn’t just an SNL funnyman, but a potential movie star as well. He then displayed even more range and heart with John Favreau’s Elf, which has become one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time. If Ferrell had people convinced he could be a comedy frontman with Old School, it was Anchorman that made Hollywood realize just what kind of major player he could be.
As much as I love Anchorman, and believe it to be a superb comedy, this success was a mixed blessing for Ferrell and the source of his current stagnation. I’m sure some of you are questioning my mental faculties right now, and I don’t blame you, but Anchorman truly created a monster. As heartily as we all laughed at the blundering, misogynistic buffoon that was Ron Burgundy, we didn’t realize Ferrell would play this same character for the next four years. This developmentally arrested man-boy would rear his head in Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro, and Step Brothers.
It’s one thing to create an incredibly unique character and play the part to perfection once, but it’s quite another to beat a dead horse until one becomes a parody of oneself. In the midst of all this, Ferrell did attempt to flex his comedic and thespian muscles with films like Melinda and Melinda, Winter Passing, and Stranger Than Fiction. All great performances, all largely unheralded at the box office. I believe the lack of commercial success for his more artistic endeavors is what drove Ferrell time and time again back to this tired but tried-and-true formula. I also believe this is exactly why he’s struggled of late trying to break away from that archetype. Ferrell’s only vehicle since the last gasp of the dying man-boy persona (in Step Brothers) was the unfortunate Land of the Lost, which failed to deliver, to put it lightly.
It’s interesting to me, and really telling when you think about it, that since Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell’s best work has been in cameos and internet memes. His series of web shorts featuring a precocious little costar were hysterical, my favorite being “The Landlord,” and his stint on Eastbound and Down was fantastic. Hopefully, the very fragile and meek police officer in The Other Guys will be the role that snaps his losing streak and definitively breaks him free of Ron Burgundy.
The phrase “from the author of The Notebook” often provokes instant visceral reactions from those familiar with the famously sappy 2004 romantic drama with positive and negative responses strongly divided along gender and marital status lines. It’s one of four films based on the work of Nicholas Sparks the John Grisham of romance novelists; the other three are 1999's Message in a Bottle 2002's A Walk to Remember and 2008's Nights in Rodanthe. The fifth Sparks-inspired romantic epic opening in theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day is called Dear John but it’s so gloomy so punishing so unrewarding it might as well be retitled Dear Job.
Not that director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) doesn’t do his best to mitigate the melancholy infusing Dear John with all the ingredients one expects from a Sparks adaptation: a pair of appealing young stars (Mamma Mia’s Amanda Seyfried and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s Channing Tatum) a charming camera-friendly southern locale (Charleston South Carolina -- America’s most polite city 11 years running!) a palette dominated by amber and khaki hues a handful of wistful flashbacks and a breezy anodyne soundtrack. But beneath the film’s gooey romantic sheen lies an inordinately dreary story that repeatedly declares "No love won’t find a way actually.”
When he isn’t risking his life for a largely ambivalent country U.S. Army Special Forces operative John Tyree (Tatum) assumes the equally thankless task of looking after his Asperger’s-afflicted father (Richard Jenkins) who seems incapable of expressing anything other than a sort of pained reticence. One day happiness arrives in the perky sun-drenched form of Savannah a well-bred college student with whom he immediately embarks on a passionate affair an affair which only strengthens while John is deployed abroad thanks to their daily ritual of writing cloyingly affectionate letters to each other.
But trouble soon arises for John and Savannah when they allow a man to come between them: Osama bin Laden whose 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center has the secondary effect of initiating the demise of their seemingly indestructible relationship. After John leaves to fight in Afghanistan Savannah falls prey to the apparently irresistable charms of Tim (Henry Thomas) a meek cancer-stricken single father of an autistic boy and soon marries him. (Evidently stealing another guy’s girl is perfectly allowable if you suffer from a terminal disease. Men be warned: If your girlfriend starts hanging out at chemotherapy clinics watch out.) Looks like the terrorists won after all.
(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Dear John then pulls a pretty damn audacious narrative bait-and-switch attempting to convince us that the film’s central love story isn’t really that of John and Savannah who are never to reunite again but rather that of John and his dad. Really? I didn’t notice Richard Jenkins on any of the promo posters for the film. For some reason the filmmakers felt this image wouldn’t be as appealing on a one-sheet:
Amazingly the father-son storyline proves even more depressing than the previous one. And while brave John endures the painful proceedings with the patience of Job audiences may not be so accommodating.