Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games - Movie Review (updated!!)

The Hunger Games
rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens
Moral Rating:  

After an enormous buildup of hype and marketing, Gary Ross' big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins' novel "The Hunger Games" is finally in theaters. Starring Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class), and Josh Hutcherson (Journey 2, The Kids Are Alright), The Hunger Games certainly delivers in both emotional impact and intense action.

Set in a futuristic totalitarian country called "Panem", The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a free spirited girl from District 12 who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the 74th annual Hunger Games, a brutal competition to the death instated by the Capitol to keep each district in line. As Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta (Hutcherson) struggle to survive the bloody arena, her acts of courage and selflessness begin to create hope for an oppressed people. (This is all I'm giving you as far as plot is concerned due to the absolute wealth of summaries online right now) As far as stories go, Collins' story is nothing particularly revolutionary, but the emotional impact of the characters and their situations is far reaching. Both on the page AND on screen, Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly sympathetic heroine. Her actions are inspiring and by the time we reach the arena (over an hour into the film) we are anxious for her survival, emotionally tied to her struggles, and fully engrossed in her story. 

The characters indeed are what drives The Hunger Games and in my opinion a major part of what makes the story work. In such a brutal setting we must have something hopeful to hold onto. Both Lawrence as Katniss and Hutcherson as Peeta shine in their respective roles. Their relationship is heartfelt and sincere and both young actors bring life to their roles onscreen. While some of the other casting choices were curious, they surprisingly work when everything comes together. Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Donald Sutherland as President Snow and Woody Harrelson as the drunkard Haymitch are all examples of this. Perhaps the most surprising though was an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. I found myself chuckling more than once at her quirks and banter with the other characters.

There is a lot that I like about The Hunger Games. The cinematography was great. The music was awesome. The score by James Newton Howard was superb. The sound editing, direction, art direction etc... it all lent itself to creating a fresh new environment on screen. HOWEVER, there is one glaring issue with The Hunger Games that i want to discuss for a moment. That would be the incredibly disturbing violent content.

As I am sure you know, the titular Hunger Games are a brutal arena-style fight to the death featuring children. Each district has to submit a boy and a girl from ages 12-18 to compete, or risk the Capitol's wrath on their District. While this plot point makes for dramatic plot progression and emotional investment, it also adds a sick and twisted element to the story. Even though Katniss stepped in for her sister Primrose, there are still several other Tributes that end up in the arena whom we watch die.

I would like to point out that the violence in the film has been tamed MUCH more from that featured in Collins novel. The book was very graphic and descriptive to show the horrific nature of the games, and it was abundantly clear the stance that Collins took on such things. Unfortunately, in a phenomenon like "The Hunger Games" the majority of the audience is tween and teen, obviously requiring a PG-13 rating at the most severe. Where as the books would linger on some of the killings to emphasize the horror, the film never focuses completely on the violence, instead giving us action packed glimpses and quick blood splatters. The characters we are allowed to spend time with are given emotional death scenes, but there are many Tributes that fall in the bloodbath at the beginning of the games without so much as an afterthought.

My thought is this... would "The Hunger Games" have been the same phenomenon if the plot had been void of brutality involving children? Part of me wants to believe that it could have, yet violence is what sells in America. The softening of the violence certainly makes it more acceptable on screen, yet in a sense that is what is creating the problem. I read several reports of foreign film ratings boards requiring re-cuts from director Gary Ross before the film would be allowed to be shown in theaters. Most foreign countries view violence as an incredibly harsh thing to show on screen and generally reflect that in their film rating standards while America tends to push the envelope in terms of harshness. Ironically, I found the handling of such heavy material in "The Hunger Games" to be very tasteful by American standards. The question is this - By making violence more "palatable" are we instead desensitizing our youth? One might argue that by presenting violence in its true light we might be more sensitive to brutality in pop culture.

I just wonder why stories like "The Hunger Games" have become such a huge craze among young readers and audiences. I simply want us to just think a bit about WHY we are attracted to stories like "The Hunger Games." Have we become so calloused that we as viewers are becoming like the Capitol spectators within the story? Or do we recognize the gravity of the situation and become emotionally tied to someone like Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire?

Food for thought...

I eagerly await the next entry in Ross' film series and recommend "The Hunger Games" with reservations.
The REAL Bowman
(revised 3/26/12)

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter - Movie Review

John Carter
rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)

Moral Rating: 

In the world of science fiction there is rarely such thing as an original idea. Even Avatar, Star Wars and Star Trek are heavily influenced by pop sci-fi culture from decades before their conception. This is why films such as Christopher Nolan's Inception are so highly regarded in cinema, because it is truly something that has never been seen before. So what exactly were James Cameron, George Lucas and their contemporaries drawing from in the creation of their elaborate universes set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"? The answer for many of these directors is Edgar Rice Burrough's "Barsoom" series of pulp science-fiction novels. While these may seem rather cheesy to us today, these novels have helped to shape the imagination of many a film pioneer.

Disney's "John Carter" is based off of the first book in Burrough's series, "A Princess of Mars" (which incidentally was written exactly 100 years ago in 1912). The story begins with Civil War veteran John Carter as he hunts for a hidden cave of gold in the Arizona mountains. During a run in with Apache Indians he is accidentally transported to Mars, or "Barsoom" as the natives call it, when he comes across mysterious otherworldly technology in this cave. While on Barsoom he is captured by the indigenous alien species called Tharks and due to the gravitational difference, discovers his incredible advantage in running, jumping and overall strength- quickly gaining respect from their leader Tars Tarkas. When the Tharks capture the rogue princess Dejah Thoris during a battle, Carter becomes sucked into the conflict between Dejah's city of Helium and the ravaging machine city of Zodanga, led by the powerful Tardos Mos, who intends to marry Dejah and take over all of Barsoom. The only hope for Barsoom lies in the aid of John Carter, who joins with the princess's cause and unifies the Tharks and Helium to stand against the forces of Zodanga.

As confusing as this story might seem, it is actually surprisingly easy to follow on screen thanks to director Andrew Stanton's impeccable directing. He balances story and character development very well, telling the audience no more than we need to know at a given time, and allowing us to learn the characters and situations as we go. The plot of "John Carter" is indeed a beast to handle! While the story itself isn't anything new, it always adds an added dimension when you have names of people and places that tend to bleed together in their ridiculousness. Despite chuckle-worthy names, the actors behind these characters deserve recognition. Taylor Kitsch (from Friday Night Lights fame) does a fine job as titular John Carter, and Lynn Collins, while a bit forced at times, is a likable Princess Dejah. The role I thought really stood out was Willem Dafoe as Thark leader Tars Tarkas. It truly takes good acting to bring an animated character to life, and I found myself laughing out loud at things Tarkas said, and actually ENJOYING the presence of an animated character in a live action film for once. (*cough* unlike Jar Jar Binks *cough*)

The animation is one aspect of John Carter that lacked a bit. While locations and machines were incredible (Zodanga seemed like something out of a Miyazaki movie) the character animation was a bit, shall we say, cartoony? Granted, much of this work came from Pixar. HOWEVER, as I pointed out above, this really didn't matter as much due to the solid acting jobs of Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton. If character graphics detracted at all from my enjoyment of the film, then the action sequences more than made up for it. Scenes like the arena battle with a white ape and a speeder chase through the city of Zodanga especially stand out. I didn't see the film in 3D but I imagine that these scenes would have been enhanced by added depth.

The reason that I didn't give John Carter a 5 out of 5 stars rating is due to a weak script. I felt that Stanton and the actors were especially up to the task at hand, and indeed the film was a blast to watch, BUT the script felt stale and old-fashioned most of the time. Dialogue was a bit forced, wording was very "1912" and in the end unrelatable to a contemporary audience. This is the issue that many people have with "John Carter" as a movie anyway. How can you take such a dated story and make it a hit with a contemporary audence? On one hand you want to stay true to the story, but on the other hand let the dialogue flow like it would in a more modern setting.

Other highlights: Michael Giacchino's score shines in this film, as it did in "The Incredibles" and "UP". The  comedic presence of the dog-like creature called Woola certainly stole the show in many scenes. I laughed out loud at the hilarious and cute animal that takes a liking to John Carter when he is in the Thark camp.

In conclusion, "John Carter" is a fun blockbuster action flick. While not perfect, it is a wonderfully executed adaptation of a dated sci-fi novel. Even though the film faltered at the box office, I am crossing my fingers for a sequel or two from Andrew Stanton.
Let's help Disney out with this one! Go see "John Carter"!

Signing out, The REAL Bowman