suzanne collins

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

hgmockingjaypt1_posterThe hiring of director Francis Lawrence was easily and shockingly the best decision made by the studio for last year’s CATCHING FIRE and for MOCKINGJAY PART 1 & 2. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of other qualified directors that could turn in equally impressive films, but sometimes continuously passing the torch can create a disconnect from the direction a series is going. Lawrence, being able to continue momentum from CATCHING FIRE is able to bridge audiences from the final chaos of that film into the far less action packed set-up that is MOCKINGJAY PART 1. I’m normally not a fan of this trend of taking the final book in a series and stretching it to two movies, but in this case Lawrence is able to expand the landscape and let the set pieces have room to breathe. With the games now in the rear view the action this time has more meaning and the film as a whole hits harder than its predecessors- though still at a level of its YA target audience.

If you haven’t seen the previous films I can only speculate why you’d be reading this, but obviously spoilers are ahead for aspects of the previous movies. MOCKINGJAY PART 1 picks up where CATCHING FIRE left off- Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is in what remains of District 13, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being held captive in the Capitol as a rebellion is quickly growing. The leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), along with Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want to use Katniss’ Mockingjay symbol as the spark to ignite a full on rebellion against the Capitol and Katniss as the face of said rebellion. With a series of propaganda broadcasts calling for all districts to join the fight the Capitol deploys a series of broadcasts meant to undermine District 13’s efforts and make Katniss question whether or not what she is doing is really for the good of Panem.  (more…)


Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


I hate sequels. Now, before you start including me in your own elaborate Hunger Game scenario and imagine my ultimate demise let me clarify- I hate good sequels. What an odd complaint to make? Well, you’re right, but the thing is that every now and again a movie comes along and you might enjoy it, but have some lingering doubts about just how much you like it- and then the sequel shows up. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is one of those rare sequels that is so good that it makes me a little embarrassed about how much I loved the first film.

If I had hated THE HUNGER GAMES, then not a one of those two opening statements would matter. The fact of the matter is that I really like Gary Ross’ film, but its flaws became all the more evident with Francis Lawrence’s CATCHING FIRE. I had my doubts after all, Lawrence did ruin a book that I love (I AM LEGEND) with some horribly awkward CGI that couldn’t be saved by Will Smith’s fantastic performance. So I had a thought in the back of my mind that his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games book could cause the franchise to fizzle out. Luckily, that’s not the case as Lawrence’s film shattered every expectation I had, minus one or two slight problems.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series I’m not sure why you’d be reading this, but I’ll be vague about the plot either way. The film follows the continued struggle of Katniss Everdeen against the cruel hand of the Capitol following her victory in the previous year’s Hunger Games.

From the get go Francis Lawrence’s vision of Panem feels so much more realized than in the previous film. The characters feel more fleshed out and the actors playing them all seem more comfortable with their roles. Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic in the first and everyone else wasn’t bad necessarily, but their work in CATCHING FIRE is far better. Even some of the new faces are extremely welcome which includes Finnick as played by Sam Claflin, who in spite of not being aware of anything else he’s done almost perfectly captured Finnick’s cocky but charming persona.

The actors are indeed important, but when comparing it to the first film the atmosphere and tempo of the film are also vital to its success. With all the information that has to be crammed into CATCHING FIRE Francis Lawrence is able to lay out every last detail either visually or through the storytelling and pose a pretty incredible world with strong science fiction footing without making it seem overly cheesy.

From there the thematic elements are all nearly pitch perfect. Leading up to the games there is a tremendous portrayal of the fakeness of celebrities and their role in helping people forget their current situations. More than that though the emotions run higher, the action is more exciting and the story is deeper. Lawrence however is not simply stepping on Ross’ head to get to the top, instead he is just filling in the blanks and building on what Ross started in the first film. Where the first film does a more than adequate job at setting this world up this film brings it to the next level. CATCHING FIRE utilizes some of the values from the first film, but injects them with steroids to transition into a far more expansive world to accommodate the more action heavy aspects of the last book.

The next redeeming factor is that when the action starts, we can actually see what’s going on. Most remember Ross’ incredibly dizzying shaky cam from the first film whenever action was taking place- well that’s all gone here and replaced with clean steady shot sequences. However, there are at least two or three scenes that take place at night that are almost too dark to see everything happening which can be disorienting.

To add on to the gorgeous cinematography, the special effects are just one more aspect that trumps the original film. One of my biggest gripes with the first film was the horrible CGI in the final scenes and the weird dog creatures which were rendered horribly and the scene took place at night which still didn’t manage to hide the crappy effects. Lawrence is responsible for some pretty terrible CGI in previous movies like Constantine, but more so the “vampires” from I AM LEGEND- not the case in CATCHING FIRE. The effects in the arena are spectacular and the setting is absolutely beautiful to look at, but that also goes for the expanded looks we get at Panem throughout too.

To say that THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is better than the first is not giving it enough credit. Aside from some darkly lit action sequences the film is perfectly paced, exciting, emotional and beautiful. Francis Lawrence has upped his game substantially for this blockbuster franchise and I now have nothing but hope for his involvement in the final two movies. The second CATCHING FIRE ends I was immediately pumped to see the next installment which is a testament to the quality because had it been a middling experience I’d have been okay with a bit of a wait until the next film. Jennifer Lawrence shines once again and helps to make THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE one of this years best films that should not be missed.

Rating: A-

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)


Going into the ticket selling juggernaut that is the big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best selling young adult novels my expectations were pretty high. I really loved the books and there are a lot of questions I had in regards to how they were going to translate this material faithfully while being able to appeal to new fans, win over diehard fans and maintain a PG-13 rating. THE HUNGER GAMES is indeed a faithful adaptation and its biggest missteps are the way the action and violence is filmed to come in at a teen friendly rating, moments of the script and aspects of the original story that are oddly absent from the film. It’s still an immensely entertaining flick that’s tense and emotional that falls just short being truly sensational.

There’s a lot of ground to cover as far as plot goes so here we go. War has torn the country into what is now known as Panem which has been divided into 13 districts. The 13th district rebelled against the Capitol which rules Panem and is headed by the slimy President Snow (Donald Sutherland). So every year to punish the districts from ever trying the same thing and to keep them under control the Hunger Games are held. Each district puts forth one girl and one boy, known as tributes, between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in an arena where they are forced to fight to the death until one person stands as winner and wins fame and fortune for their starving family. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young teen that goes to represent District 12 along with the boy tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who has secretly been holding a crush on Katniss for years. Their districts only winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), acts as their trainer while Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is tasked as their fashion coordinator to help them make an impression on sponsors. Sponsors send the tributes helpful tools and gifts in the Hunger Games arena to help them survive and the more popular the tribute the more gifts they receive. In the arena the Capitol has the use of Gamemakers that monitor each tributes location and if the action ever slows down they deploy traps to move the tributes closer together and coax a fight, every action caught by cameras as the Games are televised and each citizen of Panem is required to watch. Katniss has a strong survival instinct and skilled with a bow, but also is not a willing participant in the Games and takes every opportunity she sees to keep the Gamemakers as well as the Captiol on their toes.

That’s the basics of what Gary Ross’ film focuses on. It goes so far as to explain the lethal sting of something like the tracker jacker but one specific character in many of the scenes during the first hour is never even named. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie, who is District 12’s Capitol representative and is the woman who draws the names during the reaping and accompanies Katniss and Peeta everywhere they go before the games begin- had you not read the book or the cast list you would never have a clue who she is or why she’s even there. It’s that mixture of small details that are included but other semi large details that were glossed over that aren’t incredibly annoying but noticeable for fans of the book.

The film moves at a rapid fire pace in regards to the amount of information that gets thrown out in the first hour that I can imagine being a bit overwhelming for audiences unfamiliar with the books. I do feel though that the pace works well for the film considering the run time is just under two and a half hours and unless we are to sit in a theater for four hours cuts from the source material had to be made and the setup pushed across rather quickly to get into the training, interviews and games themselves. Also despite how rushed material feels at times I feel the need to point out that action in movies happens much faster in a movie than in a book because it takes more time to read each word in an action scene than to just see it unfold in real time. Also the book utilizes a lot of internal monologue from Katniss since it’s from her point of view and the film basically puts the audience in a fly on the wall types of situations.

The first hour is all set up for the games- meeting the main characters, the reaping, travel to the Capitol, grooming, parade, interviews and of course training. The second hour is focused on the games with brief shots of citizens watching the televised events, Gamemakers watching each tributes move and shots of President Snow giving orders or explaining his motives for holding the games and having a winner. During these times there are a lot of slower moments that are not all that different from the book, except a lot of the fat is trimmed from the novels and the movies moves quickly from key character moments to action bit way quicker than the books did.

The weakest part for me goes back to when I read the books- the romance. Obviously it’s tailored for a teen audience and it never really worked for me in the books and the same goes for the film. I really like all the characters and Katniss’ indifference toward Peeta but it doesn’t fully translate on screen because once again the book goes in depth to Katniss’ perspective on what she needs to do survive and put on a good show for the sponsors. The dialogue in the books was also pretty corny at times and the script brings some of that over sometimes causing what I felt were unintentional laughs.

The action is also a point of contention- especially when the countdown hits zero to start the games and everyone makes a mad dash for weapons and a massive “bloodbath” takes place eliminating many of the tributes right off the bat. The tension is phenomenal leading up to the countdown and when the weapons start flying the camera goes into convulsions making it hard to decipher exactly what was happening. The choice was obviously to mask the violence and not focus on anything graphic which is understandable but at times the shaky cam can be a bit excessive. The highlights of the games are the curveballs the Gamemakers throw at the tributes to force them together or to speed things along. There’s a scene where Katniss finds herself sprinting through the woods with fire all around her and I found the visuals to be pretty spectacular and very exciting as far as the action goes in that scene. Also another highlight was towards the end that I was dying to see how they translated in the movie that was also tense but it takes place at night and it was tough to really make out everything that was happening.

My complaints for the most part are nothing more than minor grievances I have with choices by the filmmakers- they make the film imperfect but no less enjoyable. Aside from my complaints about the romance nothing else really hurts the movie for me. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic and I couldn’t picture anyone else in that part- she’s a powerful actress that has a wonderfully emptive face that really pushes across her sadness and utter fear in situations and an adorable smile in others. Haymitch is my personal favorite character from the books and Harrelson plays him perfectly I just wish there had been more of him. Banks is very fun as Effie and Stanley Tucci as the charismatic Caesar Flickerman is always a delight when he’s on screen. I even enjoyed Josh Hutcherson as Peeta even though I never cared for him in the books. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) takes a backseat in the first film just as he does in the book once Katniss heads to the Capitol but he was great in the scene where he has to say goodbye to Katniss.

The biggest surprise for me and incredibly effective aspect of the film- the silence. The majority of THE HUNGER GAMES is long stretches where there is no score whatsoever and you just hear the sounds of nature and other ambient noise- or moments where the chaos of a scene is muted and certain sound effects are amplified that certainly make an impression. Throughout the film I was delighted that there were not music swells around every corner telling me when I should feel sad or warning me that something crazy was about to happen. Eventually there are moments where the score kicks in during dramatic moments but a good slice of the film goes without the use of score. What I found effective about the choice to leave out music was how much it highlights the desolate nature of the settings and how hopeless and empty the world of Panem can be. It also helps make a film that’s essentially fantasy feel more realistic and gritty even amongst the glossy world of the Capitol.

The world the film creates is vast and beautiful but at all times I couldn’t help but feel a bit claustrophobic- largely due to the tension created by the score or lack thereof. The moments before Katniss steps into the tube to enter the arena had me on the edge of my seat holding my breath even though I’ve read the books and knew what was essentially getting ready to go down. Even in the woods when you see the map of the arena it looks massive yet the action happens to fast and furious that it never feels as large since there’s never a real long stretch of time where there isn’t a threat lurking around the corner. This is more of a compliment than a complaint because the more closed in I felt with the setting the more tense and on edge I felt.

One other praise I’d like to put forth to the film is that it made me feel more emotional during certain moments that the book fell short of. As much as the first book drew me in, I never had a real emotional reaction until the later books and those moments packed a bigger punch in the film even with the abbreviated involvement of certain characters. I attribute my emotional connection to the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance- although I really enjoyed the brief glimpses of Haymitch watching Katniss struggle in the arena.

Eavesdropping on conversations outside the theater, there was a mixture of people praising how faithful it was and how some people thought the book was way more action packed. I fall in the camp that believe it was extremely faithful to the source and disagree strongly with anyone who says the book had more action. I personally enjoyed the second book the most and this film leads into it about as well as I could have hoped. I refer back to my previous comments that action feels a lot more drawn out when you have to read each word describing the scene and with the movie every detail is right there in front of you which makes the action play out as it would in a natural setting. The film doesn’t linger on details in the action and instead just throws it at you and it keeps you on your feet even if you know what’s going to happen. I feel strongly that almost every action beat is present and accounted for and translated exactly the way it should have in the context of the movie.

Does THE HUNGER GAMES live up to the massive hype leading up to its release? Yes, for the most part it lives up to the quality of the book if not improving it along the way. My opinion comes from the side that doesn’t care for the romance of it all, but the interest in the plot, the futuristic setting and the path the story goes in the subsequent books. The film is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel it succeeds on several levels. The PG-13 rating does handcuff the overall effect at times, but what THE HUNGER GAMES lacks in brutality it makes up for in the emotional depth of its main character and the tension created from the film’s sound design and relentless pace. Fans will have to fill in the blanks as far as some of the small details of the story goes and new fans might find themselves lost every now and then but the film manages to find a balance that makes it accessible to audiences that have read the books or are going in cold. THE HUNGER GAMES has about everything you can ask for- action, drama, comedy, fantasy and even a small amount of horror. There are hiccups that hold the film back from being as unforgettable as it had the potential to be, but the style and performances still manage to create a heart pounding experience that’s fun and exciting to watch.