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Column Fri Mar 23 2012
The Hunger Games
Much as I did with the Harry Potter films, when I first heard they were making Suzanne Collins' hugely successful trilogy of books into a series of movies, I opted to go into each of them without having read the novels. I'm a firm believer that, although having read The Hunger Games might have provided me with insight into characters and situations, a film should stand on its own regardless of the source material. I didn't want to get lost or frustrated tracking what minor characters or subplots got dropped or altered in the transition from book to screen, and I just wanted to enjoy or loathe the movies as stand-alone entities.
What struck me almost immediately about director Gary Ross' (who adapted the book with Collins and Billy Ray) telling of this story is how wonderfully subversive and angry the story is under the surface. This isn't a story about kids killing kids; that's just something that happens in the much larger tale of class war, about the rich thinking they're doing a favor for the poor by taking their children at random and having them executed by other children rather than doing it themselves, about a world on the brink of another rebellion much like the one that set these terrible games in motion nearly 75 years earlier. And although I haven't got a clue how the next two books progress this story, I see young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as someone with the potential to lead the next civil war in the nation of Panem between a government lost in its own opulence and 12 districts of citizens tired of sacrificing for nothing more than the privilege of doing so again and again. Or I could be talking shit. Who cares, The Hunger Games is a really great movie.
What I immediately noticed about Ross' approach to the material is that he never seems to rush through any part of this story if it hurts character development. At nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, The Hunger Games has plenty of room to breathe and gives us enough time to get to know the many players. We see the backwoods district where Katniss lives with her younger sister and mother. She's a strong young woman who refuses to do anything that might put her name in the lottery to be selected for the games, in which a male and female teenager from each district are selected to survive and fight each other until there is only one winner. Katniss is already a gifted archer, so she has something of an advantage. But she is from a poor district and stand little chance against other district players who have been training since birth for these games.
When her sister is selected for the games, Katniss volunteers in take her place and she joins a baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as the representatives from their district. Simply based on the trailers for the film, I was convinced I was going to get extremely irritated by the grossly painted and costumed Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, an actress I truly love). But to my surprise, Banks plays her perfectly as a kewpie doll in slightly tattered party dresses, who is keenly aware that players from her district almost never win. The made-up face is a mask in more ways than one, but when she sees that Katniss is a contender, she lights up inside to match her outside.
I was impressed with the way Lawrence plays Katniss. She's a blue-collar girl who is both disgusted and tempted by the treasures that are thrown at her (clothes, food, attention) once she becomes a tribute, and she's rather stand-offish with Peeta even thought they share a background, since she knows she may soon have to kill him. Along their journey, Katniss and Peeta meet a prior Hunger Games winner, Haymitch, played with drunken perfection by Woody Harrelson in a ridiculous blonde surfer dude wig, and Cinna, a stylist played with a nice understated charm by Lenny Kravitz, charged with making the two likable for the millions who will be watching the games on television. In slightly smaller doses, we get Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the host and commentator of the games; his sidekick Claudius (Toby Jones); game master Seneca (Wes Bentley); and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who seems dead set against anyone from a lesser district winning his games.
To give you a sense of Ross' sense of deliberate pacing, the games themselves don't really kick in until about the one-hour mark, and that feels entirely appropriate. I enjoyed watching the landscape of District 12 and the nation unveil itself slowly. I liked seeing the friendship between Katniss and her lifelong best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who is barely in this movie, but I'm guessing will factor in to a greater extent in future movies) take shape. And it's actually kind of cool to watch the pre-game build up, which includes as much pomp and circumstance as it does actual training. The "hero" and "villain" lines are drawn perhaps a little too distinctly, especially amongst the players (those District 1 and 2 kids are real bastards), but even those lines are blurred occasionally as the kids realize that they are being used as fear-mongering pawns for the amusement of the leaders.
At the center of it all is Lawrence (Winter's Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver), who continues to impress me as an actor, injects so much intelligence and internal conflict into her performance that it's impossible not to come out of watching The Hunger Games like we know what drives Katniss. And Ross (the gifted director of Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) does a tremendous job with his unenviable task of building this universe, some elements of which could have come across as everything from cruel to silly. His handling of the material is mature, and he doesn't allow the story to lean too heavily on the potential for a love triangle involving Katniss, Peeta and Gale. He knows this is a movie about a class war, action, and characters motivated by something more than just pure fear of dying.
When the film was done playing, I was left with a deeply satisfying feeling that so few examples of pop culture staples (or soon-to-be staples) like The Hunger Games ever leave me with. More importantly, I never once felt like Ross and company were talking down to me. This may be a film featuring young adults, but I never once got a sense that the filmmakers were aiming this work primarily at teens. This is a grown-ass story about kids that have been forced to get old too fast. There are a couple of scenes in which we simply watch Katniss sobbing in almost total silence. Those are the scenes I'll remember just as much as her dropping an entire hive of genetically modified killer wasps on those who would kill her. I'm excited that Ross is continuing as director of the series, and I can't wait to see what happens to these characters and in these films from this point forward. Consider me a Hunger Games (movie) enthusiast.
To read my exclusive interview with The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson, go to Ain't It Cool News.
The Raid: Redemption
Oh, hells yes. At this point, even I'm sick of hearing how awesome The Raid is. But the sad truth is, The Raid is a straight shot to the nutsack that hurts so good that the only way to make it feel better is to ask for someone to hit you one more time even harder. And the guy you want to do the cockpunching is one Iko Uwais, the Indonesian actor and fight choreographer destined to become one of the biggest action stars on the planet. And god bless writer-director Gareth Huw Evans for discovering the guy and devising such a fucking relentless movie around him.
There's not much to say about the The Raid: Redemption (fine, I'll play along with the new title) except that it's about a special forces team (of which Uwais is a rookie member) who must storm a 15-story apartment complex populated almost entirely by people who want to kill them. On the top floor of the building is Tama (Ray Sahetaphy), a crime boss who announces to those in the building that he will give lifelong protection to anyone delivering the head of a police officer to him. What's so damn magnificent about the film is that the entire damn movie is one long action sequence. Sure, there is the occasional breather, but this movie is one long raid. Once the cops enter the building in the first few minutes, the action never leaves the apartment building. The film is a bloody circus of body parts, unspeakable stunts, and a style of fighting (called Pencak Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial art) that I simply have never seen before. It's both economical in its movements, while being wholly adaptable to each fighting situation; sometimes it's about clean motion, while other times, it's wild and animalistic. And you will leave the theater trying to beat your friends to death copying it.
I never saw Evans' previous film Merantau (also starring Uwais), but that will be quickly rectified. You won't be able to help but watch The Raid: Redemption without a feeling that you are seeing something utterly unique. And that's because you'll be watching the birth of so much raw talent (both from the director and the star), and you'll want to consume the afterbirth just to taste the greatness of its badassery. How do you review an action film that delivers on every promise that all other actions films in the last 5-10 years have failed to provide? Consider this review the equivalent of me grabbing you by your shirt collar, shaking the shit out of you, and screaming in your face as my spittle splashes you as I tell you to run immediately to see The Raid: Redemption, even if the closest theater is hundreds of miles away. As people who care deeply about great cinema and innovative filmmaking, you have no choice. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.