Trampling The Hunger Games Underfoot

I finally saw The Hunger Games.  I feel duped.

All the political controversy, hype (bolstered by some opinions I trust), and box office success–along with one of the better trailers for a mainstream movie this year–led me to believe that the blockbuster film adaptation would be worth the time.

Hell, I was looking forward to it.

The previews focused, to my pleasant surprise, on story elements rather than special effects and explosions.  Little did I know, those same story elements would play out in the movie without any further development than the trailer.  The characters are all contrived and manifest as either generic or ridiculous with nothing in-between.  The world lacks detail and credulity.  The dangers feel manufactured.  Nothing is genuine.  It’s a representational telling of an unoriginal idea.

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Based on  Suzanne Collins’ ‘tweener novel of the same name, The Hunger Games explores a dystopian future in the fictional nation of Panem whose rich and powerful leadership caste requires that the poor, starving masses submit 2 children from each of the 12 districts  to compete in a fight to the death.  Only 1 child can emerge victorious.  The winner is bestowed with riches and notoriety.  It is the only upward mobility available to the lower classes.

There is nothing in The Hunger Games that we haven’t seen or read in Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, the Mad Max series, The Truman Show, Gladiator, The Most Dangerous Game, or a dozen other books, t.v. shows, and movies–or that Kinji Fukusaku’s  Battle Royale didn’t do better in every conceivable way.

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Still, I don’t actually fault Hunger Games for its lack of originality; the idea has been explored so often because it’s a good one.  It has inherent themes of self-reliance, hope, perseverance, and self-sacrifice.  The Hunger Games is simply one of the more unremarkable examinations of the concept.

The film assumes that the audience will accept its premise…even though the premise is outlandish.  Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to buy in, but I  still needed at least some effort toward the suspension of my disbelief.  Call me nit-picky, but I have to be convinced that a society would revel in the murder of children.    Moreover, I have to be convinced that parents would allow this to happen.  Every parent I know would have to be stone dead before their child could be subjected to such a ghastly fate.  In the movie, the only parental outburst occurs after a father’s 12-year old daughter is killed.  It’s just not believable.

The “bad” kids.

Additionally, this is supposedly the 74th hunger games, yet there seems to be no active  cultural impact.  No one is secretly training their kids or openly embracing the games as the only viable way to escape poverty.  The rich celebrate it; the poor bear it stoically.  In fact, the “bad kids” are the ones honestly trying to win the games rather than just running and hiding.  The nihilism that would inevitably firestorm out of such oppressive circumstances is ignored–apparently in the interest of convenience.  I mean, you don’t have to show kids killing themselves or going postal on the rich (that would obviously be far too compelling), but at least show how these potential dangers are quelled.  Conversely, a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome is not implausible either.  Honestly, I’d have accepted anything demonstrating that someone wondered what a world like this might actually be like.

We are also introduced to a Twilight-style love triangle that will indefensibly be explored in the upcoming sequels.  It makes me angry just thinking about it.

Jennifer Lawrence’s potential is lost playing the vapid Katniss Everdeen.

As for the cast, Jennifer Lawrence is given just enough material to mold a type, but clearly not enough to craft a 3-dimensional character out of our heroine, Katniss Everdeen.  However, Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree Dolly–who comes from almost identical circumstances as Katniss–in the indie noir film Winter’s Bone proves the actress is fully capable both nuance and gravitas.  So I will give her the benefit of the doubt that neither the script nor the book gave her what she needed to breathe life into Katniss.  The character is dull and incomplete.  She inexplicably sees the world from today’s perspective, with today’s values of life and death.  Her only redeeming quality is that she volunteered to go  to the games in her sister’s stead.  It’s surely no small sacrifice, but that only makes her nominally more sympathetic than the other children being forced to murder each other on t.v.

Elizabeth Banks (left) as Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson (Center) as Haymitch Abernathy along with Lenny Kravitz as Cinna.

Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks (both actors I find to be consistently good, even when their projects aren’t) play patently absurd characters that undermine the gravity of the story while simultaneously providing no levity to it.

Donald Sutherland as Coriolanus Snow

Donald Sutherland, who is always either heavy-handed or brilliant, here finds himself in the former playing laughably asinine Panem president Coriolanus Snow, who gilds his  trees while pontificating villainously about oppression via “a little hope.” Pure and utter tripe.  He’d be satire if he wasn’t such a joke.  Why not have him twirling his mustache and laughing maniacally?  That would have been equally devastating to my evening’s enjoyment.

Stanley Tucci actually managed to not piss me off despite his character’s valiant and constant efforts.  Tucci is known for his ability to grace a featured role and he works his mojo to the hilt here only to draw even–at best–with his wholly unlikeable Caesar Flickerman.

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“I don’t know where I got the idea. I just felt like doing something different.” Adam Levine, 2014.

Wes Bentley, who has struggled to find challenging roles since American Beauty, neither is given nor offers anything whatsoever as Seneca Crane…except maybe to provide Adam Levine with grooming ideas for the next Maroon 5 outing.

I forgot Lenny Kravitz was in the movie until I saw his name on Wikipedia just now.  He wears gold eyeliner in the film and gives out multiple hugs.

My biggest disappointment with this hot mess was that it was helmed/enabled by Gary Ross, writer and director of such dramedy classics as Big, Dave, Pleasantville, and Seabiscuit (he jokes that his entire career can be summed up in four words).  Ross is one of my personal favorites.  It’s doubly odd because where The Hunger Games is weakest is where Gary Ross is typically strongest.  Of course, in those other films he’s resurrecting the spirit of Americana rather than trying to create a dystopian mood.  I guess I just assumed that sci-fi world-building was within his wheelhouse.  The Hunger Games is yet another reminder of what happens when we do that.

Adam Levine to Seneca Crane in 1 easy step.

‘The Amazing Spider-man’ is not ‘Spider-man’ it’s just Spider-man

I don’t know why anyone would read  a review for a Spider-man movie unless the first words were “Free money” or something.  You’re gonna go see it no matter what anyone says.

Alright.  Alright.  I’ll give it a try.

All signs point unsurprisingly to another hit for the Spidey franchise.

The special effects are fantastic.  It might be the best-looking movie I’ve seen this year and absolutely embarrasses the rubber-looking play-dough CGI of the Sam Raimi directed Spider-man movies.  The Amazing Spider-man has…well…amazing cinematography, POV shots of Spider-man swinging through the city, jumping off of buildings and so on.  There’s a lot of action and it’s all fun to look at.

Peter Parker demonstrates his new-found spider-skills on a subway rapscallion.

Fortunately, that’s all it takes for a hit movie these days.

However, for the more discerning viewer there’s the story…

Helmed by (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb, The Amazing Spider-man is a relaunch of a movie franchise that is literally only 10 years old.  Despite that, they felt the need to “revamp” Spider-man’s origin. But don’t be fooled, it’s like 85% the same story–from the 2002 Spider-man.  2002.

Photo: Haha!
A buddy of mine posted this on his facebook page. No comment. It’s just funny.

And that’s the main problem I had with this movie.  It’s so approximate to the Sam Raimi Spider-man films that I can’t help but compare.

It’s kind of like ABC deciding they didn’t like the way Lost turned out and relaunching the show a year after it ended–with the exact same premise, most of the same characters, and many of the same events, just told a little differently (in some cases simply filmed a little differently). How could you not compare the two?

Amazing rehashes the story of pasty nerd and teenage photography enthusiast Peter Parker who is hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl.  The girl, however, is only peripherally aware of his existence.  Parker is at some point bitten by a nuclear spider whence he acquires superhuman powers and proportionate swagger, a superhuman villain emerges, and yadda, yadda, yadda.

Actor portrayal of The Real Ken Jones @ The Amazing Spider-man

To tell the truth, I was bored during the first hour or so.  In fact, I almost fell asleep, not because the movie was horrible, but because I was basically re-watching the first hour of  Spider-man from 2002…only not as good marginally different.

I think the movie would have been better served to drop the origin story altogether.  We know who Spider-man is and how he got his powers.  Why force the audience to go through all that again?  I felt like I was waiting to get to the 2nd half of the movie (the actual new movie).

By the way, most of the revamped stuff  is about Parker’s past.  It’s different I guess, but I just don’t see a net benefit from changing things up.

The film also suffers from the modern movie plague of story via stuff just happening.  Characters go from happy to sad as the plot requires, driven by nothing intrinsic.  There’s no organic development much less collateral development out of causative events.  Again, a lot of stuff just happens to move the plot.

This is not aided by the mixed bag of a cast.

Andrew Garfield (wait, who?!) is serviceable in the titular role.  However, this Peter Parker/Spider-man is inconsistent and the performance suffers for it.  (He goes from awkward introvert–with a noble heart–to valiant hero with one-liners for everyone and no fear of heights, danger, or death…almost instantly. He also seems a little dim on the concept of wearing a mask.)

Andrew Garfield not quite hip to the idea of hiding one’s identity. The key is not having the mask, it’s wearing the mask.
Emma Stone plays Spider-man’s love interest, Gwen Stacy.

We have Emma Stone playing Gwen Stacy (supplanting Mary Jane in name and hair color only).  Emma Stone is good in pretty much everything she does and this case is no exception.  Gwen Stacy is a bit too perfect, but I think that’s from the character being written a little thin. Stacy fits a little too neatly into the story.  There should be more bucking against expectations for such a head strong, independent character.

Dennis Leary is also in the film which you will forget whenever he’s not on-screen.

Flash Thompson, the school bully, is absurdly inconsistent (He hates Parker, they’re buds???) and looks like an ever-so-slightly juiced-up Calvin Klein model. Preposterous.

The Villain–in a pathetic, uninteresting moment.

The antagonist–dubbed The Lizard and portrayed by Rhys Ifans–is hot and cold.  In his monstrous form he is fairly impressive.  The Lizard rarely speaks (when he does speak it’s comical) yet his intelligence, intentions, and actions are easy to understand and follow.  It’s well-executed visual storytelling.  In human form, however, he is unoriginal and painfully dull.

Ben and May Parker are played by Martin Sheen and Sally Field in perhaps the most blatant case of lazy casting in Hollywood history.  The characters are built on the reputations of the actors and do not exist outside of the story.  They are plot devices.  It’s a waste of two very good, if rather miscast, talents.  It’s like Jack Nicholson playing a hotel doorman who tries to convince Shia Labeouf to ask the cute girl at the front desk out on a date.

Ben and May Parker

Maybe I’m just eating a bitter burger exalting 10 year-old movies and 60 year-old actors.  For younger audiences  this may all be new to them.  Old people are old people; you see one, you’ve seen them all.  That seems to be the studio’s position.

And the studio knows what they’ve got: great effects, a pretty cool-looking villain, kids in high school, cute girls, skateboarding, lots of action, and Real 3-D.   If the greatest sins The Amazing Spider-man commits are that none of the characters jump off the screen and the plot is about as predictable as a Rocky sequel, I guess there are worse transgressions.

The audience I saw it with gave The Amazing Spider-man  thunderous applause at the end credits (of course several adults in the audience had to be told by theater staff not to climb around on the rails while waiting for the movie to start, so take from it what you will).

Objectively, The Amazing Spider-man exceeds the average comic book movie.  It just has the strange misfortune of being half-a-remake of a well done movie that came out 10 years ago.

Besides, this is all an exercise in hypotheticals anyway.  Anyone reading a review of The Amazing Spider-man has either seen or will see the movie.  What I say here means nothing…kind of like the plot.

A well-coiffed Peter Parker remains defiant in his refusal to wear a mask to protect his identity.

Trash of the Titans

I have to begin with the admission that I hated Clash of the Titans and should have known better.

Okay, so the title is not witty at all, but to be fair, last night I did lose two hours of my ever-shortening life watching a sneak preview of Wrath of the Titans (ergo, I’m not wasting what little wit I have on them).

To give some context to those of you that don’t know me, I love movie monsters, especially when they get all rascally and go hometown buffet on unsuspecting townsfolk.

So when I say that Wrath of the Titans is chock full of very cool-looking monsters who wreak all kinds of havoc and it still earned a shoulder-shrugging ehhh, you get some idea of just how dreadful this movie actually is.

This is not as cool as it looks.

Now in the interest of not being entirely negative, the character of Perseus has been developed (in the form of a son named Helius) and is given something of an arc. Rosamund Pike tries her best to make something out of nothing playing Andromeda.  You get to see Zeus in action, which is cool.  And you get an actual premise involving the battle between Gods and Titans in which humanity’s survival obligatorily hangs in the balance.

Other than that stuff just sort of happens.  There’s never any real danger or doubt.  (This is epitomized by the film’s labyrinth scene.  It’s visually stunning and introduces a potential movie’s worth of obstacles both internal and external for the characters.  Conceptually, it rivals Clive Barker’s hell from the Hellraiser movies and could have easily trounced it in execution.  Sadly, the filmmakers never establish a rhyme or reason for this labyrinth, nor do they figure out how the characters might escape it.  They just chase them around in it with various dangers both real and imagined and then it ends.  They’re out.  On to the next act.)

Sam Worthington "acting."

Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes regurgitate long-white-bearded, family-friendly versions of Oskar Schindler and Amon Goth.  Bill Nighy breaks his crazy old bird routine out of the crates one more time.

In defiance of the laws of filmmaking, Rosamund Pike tries to portray a character where none was written.

Sadly, the rest of the cast is flat-out boring.  Sam Worthington continues to have half the charisma of a sleepy Mark Wahlberg.  Toby Kebbell was brought in to play the demigod Agenor because, apparently, Russell Brand doesn’t answer his phone.  The character Andromeda is not only empty, she’s pointless.  Her armies look like holdovers from Troy and Alexander–although for the movie’s purposes they don’t need to be anything more.   Any human characters whose names don’t appear in the opening credits are just food for the smasher.

The Titan Kronos, who the filmmakers envision as a lava-flinging, Godzilla/Balrog turns out to be pretty much weak sauce.  (Here’s a hint:  In the Titans universe big means really, really, really, slow.)  Needless to say, the climax is anything but.

Despite busting out his best Michael Jackson move, Kronos is not cool.

But then again, the entire movie is fluff.

So, if you love watching monsters roar and smash even more than I do, Wrath of the Titans might just be your flick.  For everyone else, making sure that last coat of eggshell white you just laid  down on the bathroom wall dries evenly is probably a more useful expenditure of your time.

$500 says all this stuff was finished before the script.