Main Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Gary Ross
Hello everybody! This is Mrs. Norman Maine. I know all of my fervent fans out there in the dark are wondering where I have been for the last few years, your lives incomplete without your peek into my glamorous Hollywood life and my occasional musings on the current state of film. It’s a rather complicated story involving Walt Disney, a tour of a cryogenics lab and an unfortunate accident that left me on ice for a few years but I have finally been thawed, completed a rehabilitation stint at the Motion Picture and Television Fund home and have finally returned to my beloved Chateau Maine, my stylish home high in the Hollywood Hills where I found my Normy waiting for me with open arms.
My legs are still a little wobbly so I have had to curtail plans for the major dance come back for several months, but the voice is stronger than ever. I am therefore having my management team explore the world of opera as a way of returning to the stage and my rightful place as America’s sweetheart. It’s supposed to still be under wraps, but I want to keep my readers up to date, so I’ll let you in on a secret. I am this close to signing a contract to appear in Rigoletto with the Pascagoula Light Opera in a few months. I’m not really sure what it’s about but I do recall Beverly Sills doing it on The Muppet Show some years ago so how hard can it be?
Normy and I decided to celebrate my return to hearth and home with an evening in our sumptuous home theater, redecorated in a Medieval Gothic style during my absence. (A copy of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights retracts to reveal the screen and the controls are cleverly hidden in statues of St. Jude and St. Francis of Assissi). I pulled up a hassock while Normy placed something called a Blu-Ray of the film version of The Hunger Games into the machine. Blu-Ray seems to be short for ‘get the suckers to redo their movie collection yet again’ but does offer improved picture and sound quality on today’s new higher definition machines.
The Hunger Games is based on the first book of a young adult trilogy by author Suzanne Collins that was apparently all the rage
a few years ago. Like all good dystopian youth novels, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. In this one, the USA has morphed into the country of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses – bread and circuses), a society in which a small number of elite in a distant capital control politics and wealth and keep the ordinary people in the outlying districts on the ragged edge of starvation. The capital, taking a page out of ancient myth and the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, demands that each district send a tribute of a young man and woman every year to take part in an elaborate gladiatorial competition, the Hunger Games of the title. These young people are shut up in a virtual reality arena until only one emerges alive and the victor.
The film tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a plucky young woman from District 12, the poorest and most backward part of Panem. In director Gary Ross’s vision, District 12 is straight out of Walker Evans’ Appalachia photographs, only with more saturated colors. Even in the capital, despite higher levels of technology and jumbotron video screens everywhere, we’re still in the 1930s as everyone dresses and acts like refugees from the Emerald City as dramatized in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, only in magenta, saffron, and peacock blue. I assume that other districts are based on Beau Geste with everyone in French Foreign Legion get up, or Anything Goes! with a lot of tap dancing angels.
When Katniss’ younger sister Primrose is chosen as tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the games and goes off with her mentor and previous champion, the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a ditzy capital representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). They prepare her to fight in the arena alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son who is sensitive, blond, and likes to decorate cakes. Despite this, he has carried an unrequited love for Katniss since grade school. Will Katniss survive the arena? The presence of two additional novels and three more planned films should answer that question.
I wanted to like the film, especially as Jennifer Lawrence gives a bang up performance as Katniss and some of the supporting players are none too shabby either. Unfortunately, their work is undermined by bad directorial choices across the board. Whenever we switch to Katniss’ point of view, writer/director Gary Ross films everything with herky-jerky handheld camera work which induces motion sickness and makes it impossible to follow the action. I think he’s trying to recreate how Katniss experiences the world with the added benefit of being able to disguise the onscreen violence of teenagers stabbing, skewering and bashing each other to death, but all he does it distance the viewer from the moment and sever any emotional connection as you reach for an air sick bag. He also has no sense of scope or visual sweep. The parade of the tributes where the young people are carried by horse drawn chariots through cheering throngs emerges as a bit of an afterthought with few shots showing the grandeur that is implied. The film is long, but as he tries to squeeze in every major event from the book, everything feels forced and rushed and there are few quiet moments in which the viewer can recollect and process, trivializing the impact of the games on the combatants and on the society.
Josh Hutcherson makes the most of his underwritten role as Peeta, bringing a soulful quality to what amounts to a glorified plot device. Standouts in the supporting cast include Elizabeth Banks as the silly Effie as we can start to see her quietly question the way things are and a lovely underplayed turn by Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Kat’s stylist who turns her from backwoods girl to beauty queen. Donald Sutherland is appropriately evil as the ruthless president who runs the society and Stanley Tucci has great fun as a toothy blue haired talk show host. Wes Bentley, as the game designer, is unfortunately undone by terrible facial hair.
If you want to be conversant with the youth of today, you will need to watch this, but I wish the producers had given them a somewhat better product.
images courtesy of Lionsgate
To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, please see our Movie Rewind introduction. To read her earlier published reviews, check out her website at mnmmoviereviews.blogspot.com.
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.