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HUNGER GAMES, THE (director/writer: Gary Ross; screenwriters: Billy Ray/novel by Suzanne Collins; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editors: Stephen Mirrione/ Juliette Welfling; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Nina Jacobson/Jon Kilik; Lionsgate; 2012)

“As if it were a survival reality TV show with a real pulse.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the first volume of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young-adult novel trilogy–with film versions of Catching Fire and Mockingjay ready to be filmed in the near future. It tells the dark tale of a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, age 21, played a similar role as an Ozark girl in the Winter’s Bone), who volunteers to take the place of her fragile younger sister (Willow Shields) who is selected by a lottery to be the teenage girl contestant for her District 12 in a country-wide annual fight-to-death event. The selected teens from the country’s 12 districts–one boy and one girl from each district are called Tributes and are engaged in a survival-of-the-fittest battle in the ruins of what was once North America, as they fight in the Capitol of the federated-nation of Panem. It’s a novel type of sadistic punishment and extreme game entertainment for the masses to endure, as it’s an ongoing government tactic to mix fear with hope on the exploited working-class masses through this gladiator game format and as a wicked reminder that a crushed rebellion seventy-four years ago is not forgotten. The wily President Snow (Donald Sutherland) glows every year on Reaping Day, when the teen selections are made, and tells his underlings living as elites in the decadent Capitol that the games are a clever way of reminding the oppressed subjects in the outer districts that “You screwed us, so we’ll screw you.”

Energetically directed by Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”/”Seabiscuit”) as if it were a survival reality TV show with a real pulse, with the kind of mounted action one would expect in a sports movie. It has the kind of romance one would expect in a soap opera, and with a fair amount of suspense one would expect in a thriller. Ross, Collins and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) all contribute to the screenplay, and keep it tight, brisk and easy to follow. The pic offers a troubling fable about a controlled repressed society that has lost track of its human values in order for the power structure to be maintained, which might be perceived as a warning of how dangerous is the loss of freedom–even if such additional high-tech police powers pretend to make society a safer place.

Katniss is a resourceful hunter with a bow and arrow, who goes off to the deadly Games with her counterpart from District 12, the handsome but ill-prepared for combat baker’s son, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). His strength being that he understands how to work the crowd and plan strategies. What the unsophisticated Katniss doesn’t find out until the Games begin, is that Peeta has a secret crush on her ever since childhood. Since only one winner is allowed, tension grows on how the duo will resolve things as their love blossoms. The impoverished coal-mining District 12 is underdog to other more privileged districts, who have trained their entire life for these games.

The spectacular gladiator event is devised for TV by the manipulative Hunger Games chairman Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) is the broadcast’s campy manicured host and jolly interviewer of the Tributes. City-dweller fashion maven Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) dresses up the District 12 underdog duo with fancy crowd-pleasing uniforms that harmlessly burst into flame causing excitement for the viewers. While a former and only victor in the Games from District 12, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), is the jaded heavy drinker who acts as the worldly-wise mentor to both Katniss and Peeta. A perky Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is the gung-ho lottery selector for The Games in District 12 and distinguishes herself by wearing eye-catching ghastly bizarre outfits and chattering in a goofy way.

The Hunger Games drags at times, is not particularly imaginative as much as it’s campy, the romance part seems more perfunctory as touchy-feely love than steamy and any complexities in characters or angry revolutionary messages can’t be drawn out on film like they were supposedly in the book (I’m not one of its 26 million readers, but I’ll take the word of those who stated that was so in the book). But, in its favor, there’s a lively performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who fuels the pic’s energy. And it acceptably serves as entertainment for the masses, as the action scenes are well-choreographed and complement the book’s in tone. In a positive way it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s haunting novel “The Lottery,” and offers another perceptive version of the institutionalized brutality of children manifested in the Japanese film of 2000 called Battle Royale (the author has stated she did not see the film until after writing the book). It makes for populist dystopian SF fare, and serves well as a provocative modern-day blockbuster film on reality TV shows that reflects in a mild subtle way on these diabolical hard times and how gross the public’s entertainment tastes have become.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”