Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Ghoul Versus The Hunger Games (Part 1)

"May the odds ever be in your favour."

The Hunger Games kind of turned out to be a multimedia juggernaut, didn't it? Beginning as a red hot trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins that are among some of the best sellers of all time, it's gone on to become a movie franchise that has grossed nearly two and a half billion dollars worldwide. Hell, even the soundtracks to the movies have ruled the sales charts. It also helped launch the career of Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere, to the point where she is arguably THE marquee actor in Hollywood today, male or female.

HOWEVER you can pretty much say nearly the exact same things about the Twilight Saga franchise, which was one of the darkest chapters in cinematic history, so the Hunger Games must just be more overly marketed tween garbage... right? Plot twist, no! The books and the movies are, for the most part, critically acclaimed due to how well written and developed they are. The protagonist of the books, Katniss Everdeen, has been hailed as one of the better strong female characters to come out in a long time, a positive role model who doesn't just sit around and pine for some sparkly chested boy to make her happy. She is basically the Anti-Bella, a character that isn't a vile and manipulative harpy that you want to see get eaten by the Loch Ness Monster. That's what Twilight was about, wasn't it?

I would describe myself as a fairly large fan of the franchise. I absolutely LOVE the books, as I found them to be one of the most realistic portrayals of what would actually happen to a character's psyche that went through a crazy ass, world changing series of violent adventures. Hint: it's not positive. We all have our favourite kind of stories, mine is where you can watch the gradual descent of a character into madness, and do those books ever deliver on that. I don't quite have the movies on that same level of quality, as the removal of Katniss' internal monologue and insight instantly hurts everything going on, BUT for Hollywood blockbuster films I do consider them among the best outside of the Daniel Craig James Bond series.

With the third movie of the series, Mockingjay Part 1, due to hit blu-ray this Friday I thought now would be a good of a time as any to finally review the first two chapters. Let's get ready by loading up on a boatload of arrows, learning how to decorate cakes so we can become the masters of disguise (?), and politely ignoring the HORRIFICALLY low budget CGI, because it's time for A Ghoul Versus The Hunger Games!

From the Treaty of the Treason:
In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public “Reaping”.
These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of The Capitol. And then transferred o a public arena where they will Fight to the Death, until a lone victor remains.
Henceforth and forevermore this pageant shall be known as The Hunger Games.

And just in case that opening text crawl wasn't enough to set the scene for you, we join an interview with Seneca Crane being conducted by THE face of the Capitol's media, Caesar Flickerman. Seneca is the Head Gamemaker of the Hunger Games, responsible for the design of the arena and running the how when the tournament is underway. He is played by Wes Bentley, best known as the weirdo from American Beauty who thought a plastic bag was the most beautiful thing in the world. Caesar is played by a borderline unrecognizable Stanley Tucci, rocking some of the most garish assortment of clothes you'll ever see this side of the Fifth Element.  Seneca gives us further insight into the Hunger Games, saying how it's meant to heal the country of Panem and bring all the districts closer together after a failed rebellion took place against the Capitol. 
This is probably a good time as any to address the controversy that engulfed the Hunger Games novel when it first came out, namely that it was a ripoff of the 1999 Japanese novel Battle Royale. Written by Koushun Takami., it also concerns a fascist government placing a group of kids into an arena where they are forced to battle to the death until only a sole survivor stands. The idea behind it is this will keep the general populace fearful of their government and obey it, which is the same concept of the Hunger Games. Collins swears up and down she had never heard of the book while writing her own, having it come to hear attention after she'd finished the first part of her trilogy. And I, for one, believe her. Battle Royale isn't exactly the most mainstream thing in the world, I certainly doubt a person that had made a career at that point of writing books and television shows for children would be all up in the world of hard to find, hyperviolent Japanese novels.

We shift to one of the districts, number 12, where we get to meet the 17 year old star of the series: Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is brought to life by Jennifer Lawrence, whom I said had her career launched into super-stardom by this movie but it was already on a red hot trajectory previous to this. She was only 20 years old when she began filming this, already having an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (for Winter's Bone) under by belt, as well as a starring role in the blockbuster hit X-Men: First Class. She won the role by beating out a Who's Who of today's brightest talent, a list including Emily Browning, Jodelle Ferland, Chloe Grace Moertz, Saoirse Ronan, Kaya Scodelario, and Shailene Woodley.  CRICKEY! If you had Kirsten Stewart in that list, we'd pretty much have EVERY Young Adult movie actress of the past five years represented.

Katniss is attempting to console her younger sister, Primrose “Prim” Everdeen, who has just awoken from a nightmare where she got picked for the Reaping. As Prim is now 12 years old, she is officially eligible to be selected and it's weighing heavily on her mind. Katniss puts bring back to bed and gets ready to head out, getting hissed at by Prim's mangy looking cat Buttercup as she does. Buttercup was also a source of controversy, although this one was among the fans of the books. See, in the books she was yellow, hence her name, but here in the movie she is black and white. It's not like it mattered IN THE SLIGHTEST since this is her only scene and all of the relevance she had in the books was cut, but at least this was an inoffensive complaint unlike ones we'll get later on from a certain segment of the Hunger Games fandom about characters being black.

As Katniss walks through the district, we get to see what life is like there and it SUCKS. They are a dirt poor community of coal miners, located somewhere in the vicinity of the Appalachia Mountains, although this is just hearsay because the series never has presented a definitive map of the districts. Or a time frame for that matter, all we know this takes place in the far future in your standard issue post-apocalyptic hell. Katniss goes to the edge of the district, which is walled off by an electric fence, and sneaks through it to go hunting with her bow and arrow. It is here she meets up with her lifelong friend Gale Hawthorne, whom we might as well just call Sir Hunk 3000. He is played by the ridiculously handsome Liam “Baby Thor” Hemsworth, younger brother to fellow actor Chris.  There is actually a third Hemsworth brother, Luke, but he has yet to have a breakout role here in the States.

They briefly talk about the Reaping that is set to go down today, cut short when a Capitol aircraft flies over their heads. The aircraft is the transportation of representative Effie Trinket, played by an Elizabeth Banks doing her best Lady GaGa impersonation, who does a Walk of Shame as she exits the craft and walks down the Capitol streets. You can tell she really despises this filth bin and longs to be back to her glamorous city. Katniss and Gale continue to talk as we learn their dynamics: Katniss is a bitter realist who has accepted her situation, while Gale is a dreamer who longs for a better life. We also learn the backstory of the Reaping wasn't exactly a priority in the script, as Katniss asks him how many times his name is in the drawing today. He replies 42, quipping the odds aren't going to be in his favour. And that's the scene.

That might have been a TAD confusing if you haven't read the books, which is something I imagine I'll be saying fairly often in these reviews. How can your name be in the drawing more than once? This is because of something called tesserae, which means you can submit additional entries into the drawing for bonus supplies for your family in the form of grain and oil. These extra drawings will replace your family members from having their names placed in, so Gale's 42 is him taking the fall for all the other members of his family. It's a bit clunky to have to explain in the movie, which makes me question why even bother having that line of dialogue at all since this is NEVER brought up again?

This is surprising given that Collins herself wrote the screenplay for the move, although it was a collaborative effort with director Gary Ross and screenwriter Billy Ray. Ross is a director best known for Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, while Billy Ray has co-written hits such as Flightplan and State of Play. He also helped write the HILARIOUSLY bad Bruce Willis film the Color of Night, which will absolutely be gracing the pages of this blog someday. I suppose with three writers passing the script back and forth things like the omission of tesserae are bound to happen, but I've never been a fan of the “you have to know the books to understand this stuff” line of thinking that creeps up in movie adaptions. COUGH COUGH Harry Potter COUGH COUGH.

Katniss goes to the Hob, District 12's so-called black market, for some wheelin' and dealin'. One of the merchants is named Greasy Sae, although she doesn't get named on screen, whom you should all recognize as Sandra Ellis Lafferty from the Prophecy franchise, where she had some classic interactions with Christopher Walken. While riffling through Sae's wares, Katniss finds a golden pin of a bird called the mockingjay and buys it. This is one of the major changes from the book, as there she was given the pin by her friend Madge (oddly enough the name of Lafferty's character in the Prophecy). Madge was cut from the movie entirely, which I understand was to streamline things, but the fact Katniss had friends besides Hunk-A-Tron 3000 makes her MUCH more interesting and unique for these kind of stories.

The next scene furthers the streamlining, as Katniss and Prim get dressed up for the Reaping while their mother watches. In the books there was a huge backstory about how Katniss' father died in a mining accident, which pretty much turned their mother catatonic and forced Katniss to take care of the family. It's obvious from what we've seen so far Katniss is running the show, but with no insight into why this is, her character isn't given much of that sorely needed depth. The entire village marches to the Reaping, the Stormtrooper-esque Peacekeepers of the Capitol watching over them. The scene is wonderfully done, with a very washed out colour palette that mirrors the despair of the district. It uses no score whatsoever either, only the ambient noise of footfalls crunching through the dirt.

Effie plays a brief propaganda film to explain the games some more, and then gets the drawing underway. Banks nails this entire performance, being as happy and bubbly as possible while the captive audience is just staring bloody murder at her. Prim is chosen, slowly walking towards the stage in stunned horror. Katniss begins screaming her name and runs towards her, volunteering to take her place as the district's tribute as well as helping to launch a billion memes. Volunteering as tribute was set up further in the book, where the richer districts actually have people called career tributes that look forward to the games and will gladly step in if a weaker person is chosen. Katniss tells Prim to return to their mother but a hysterical Prim refuses, Gale forced to pick her up and carry her away before the Peacekeepers get involved.

Katniss takes the stage as Effie tells the audience to clap for her, but instead they kiss their hands and hold up three fingers skyward to launch another billion memes. This movie was kind of a big deal, wasn't it? This is a gesture the district does at funerals as a respectful goodbye, although the movie doesn't tell us that. Effie tries to roll past this scene of silent protest by announcing it's time to draw the male tribute, as the camera lovingly settles on Mr. Universe. PLOT TWIST! It's a boy named Peeta Mellark, played by Josh “I Never Take A Break” Hutcherson. A very prolific actor who has been acting most of his young life, the Hunger Games was his FIFTH movie of 2012. Daymn, he must have attended the Eric Roberts School of Workrate!

The ceremony ends, Katniss taken backstage for a brief meeting with Prim and some random lady. Oh, that's her mother, right. The sisters have a heartbreaking goodbye, as I can't say enough good about how realistic they're making this. At only eleven years old at the time of shooting, it is VERY safe to say we can expect great things from Prim's actress, Willow Shields, in the future. Katniss and her mother have a terse few lines, Katniss warning her she can't “tune out” like she did when their dad died. Normally I'd bitch about how the elder Everdeen didn't get a name, but even the BOOKS didn’t' think that was important enough to address. No matter how great it is, this is still a Young Adult novel after all and Parents Are Useless.

Gale enters next for an extremely brief conversation, reinforcing how badass Katniss is and that her hunting skills will be the key to survival. It is downright striking how quality all of this is in relation to similar movies, as Hemsworth infuses all of his words with an understated love for his friend. Like, EVERYONE isn't just trying here, they're DOING it. Despite his carved from marble face being all over the marketing, Gale is barely a part of the franchise and yet Hemsworth is still giving his all here. He is definitely the more talented of his brothers, as Chris puts me to sleep in nearly everything I've seen of his so far.

The two tributes are loaded onto a hovertrain, which is ultra high tech and full of lavish surroundings. They are introduced to their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, PERFECTLY brought to life by the incomparable Woody Harrelson. Haymitch's character is that he's the only District 12 tribute to ever win the games, and has become a raging alcoholic as a result of the horror he witnessed. In the games, past winners serve to mentor the new recruits, so for the past 23 years he's had to watch every pair of teenagers under his wing die. He's a bit bitter as a result, you could say. In the book he was present at the Reaping, drunk as usual, and ended up falling off the stage. This is a change I totally agree with, as such slapstick would have ruined the beautiful dark tone that was going on there.

Peeta, who is all business about learning how to survive in the arena, wants to begin discussing their strategy immediately. Haymitch laughs him off, as you can tell he's basically given up on this whole thing and wants to get drunker. Peeta isn't so easily deterred though, and by the next morning has gotten Haymitch to finally start talking. The key to survival is getting gifts from sponsors, rich people in the Capitol who can send gifts to their favourite tributes. This is going to be a problem for Katniss, who cannot hide her contempt for their extremely fucked up situation. The train arrives at the Capitol to a throng of cheering citizens, Peeta embracing things and hamming it up for them. HE totally gets how things work, something Haymitch is all too quick to point out to Katniss.

After getting cleaned up, Katniss is introduced to Cinna, her personal stylist. Cinna is played by rock and roll icon Lenny Kravitz, something of a fashion icon himself in real life so this was a bout of inspired casting. Not all fans agreed, but we'll be getting to that in a bit. Cinna, unlike everyone else in the Capitol, apologizes to Katniss for her having to be here, showing he's like the one sane person in the entire city. But there's not much he can do about that, so he's going to at least make sure someone as brave as her looks her absolute best. That night there is a parade for the tributes, overseen by the president of Panem, Coriolanus Snow. Cinna has dressed Katniss and Peeta in black bodysuits that emit THE WORST LOOKING CGI FIRE OF ALL TIME, even worse than what we saw in Vampire Academy.

This movie had a budget of 78 million dollars, which sadly isn't a lot anymore, but was actually the most expensive movie Lionsgate had ever produced at the time. You can tell they weren't exactly used to properly allocating a budget like that, as all of the District 12 footage looked perfect whereas everything in the Capitol looks kinda sorta cheap. Despite looking like a terrible video game, Katniss and Peeta stand out far among the other tributes, who are dressed in the typical garb of whatever job their district is known for. Peeta tries to take Katniss' hand, but she jerks it away before he convinces her how much the audience will love it if they hold hands. Peeta knows what the fuck is up.

The next few days are spent in the Capitol's training facility, where Katniss and Peeta slowly begin to bond over the upcoming event. We get to see Peeta is freakishly strong due to the heavy sacks of flour he grew up carrying for his parents' bakery, as well as he's a MASTER OF CAMOUFLAGE due to the fact he's a five star cake decorator. And there we have it, the silliest plot point of the entire franchise. I mean, SURE, talented cake decorators can make cakes look like anything, so there is a level of credibility they could translate their skills over to body paint. That's fine and dandy, but why in the blue hell would District 12 have a NEED for such elaborate cakes? Peeta's family was one of the richer ones, but he just got done saying how his father bought squirrels from Katniss so it's not like they're living it up Capitol style.

This also serves as the introduction of Rue, a very young girl from District 11, which brings us to the next controversy surrounding the film: its casting. Just like Star Wars, there is a portion of the fandom that are imbecilic, frothing at the mouth racists. OH JOY! Some people from the cesspool that is social media lost their collective shit when they learned Rue (and, to a lesser extent, Cinna) were going to be played by... black actors. Dun dun duuuun! GOOD FUCKING GOD, NO! #KeepHungerGamesWhite! How dare Lionsgate make any of the characters with speaking roles black! Have they no sense of decency? I mean Jesus Christ, didn't they read how Rue was described in the book?!

And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she's very like Prim in size and demeanor.

Those fucking Hollywood hacks! They cast a black actor to play a character with... dark brown skin. Huh. That's weird. Dark brown can mean black, can't it? So not only are these “fans” of the book complete and total fucking idiots, they're illiterate too. Who would have ever thought racists might not be the cream of the intellectual crop? I, for one, am FLOORED by this revelation. Floored, I tells ya! George Takei, who is pretty much the God of Awesome, summed it up best in a tweet where he said “Some fans outraged that blacks cast in Hunger Games roles. Teens killing each other in futuristic arenas, and they care about what color?”. Another perfect tweet was from Twitter user disgussions, who said “In all these people's defense, it's easy to miss things when reading through 2 small holes in a white sheet.”. Just think though, we'll get MORE of this lovely slice of ignorant garbage with certain casting choices in the next movie. Yay.

AnyWHO, let's get back to the movie. Gah, I should have stayed on my soapbox longer because we're now at my least favourite scene of the series (so far). Haymitch is giving his students a last second coach before they have to individually audition their best talents for Seneca and the Gamemakers to establish their initial ranking in the arena, where we see he has quit drinking as he stops a waiter from refilling his glass. The insinuation here is Peeta has gotten the alcoholic to reform and stay on task with helping them stay alive, but that is UTTERLY contradictory to Haymitch's character. And it's that easy to quit drinking when you've spent the last two decades living every day in an alcohol induced haze, right? Whatever, it does serve to set up one of my favourite scenes as Katniss enters the room for her audition. The Gamemakers are too busy chowing down as she does her archery, so she retaliates by launching an arrow right into an apple that was in the mouth of a pig on their craft services table. She then does one of the most exaggerated curtseys in history and leaves, thanking them for their consideration. This is where Katniss became one of my favourite characters of all time.

This proves to be the best decision ever, because she gets the highest score out of the field of 24, beating out even the career tributes. Later on all of the contestants are brought to Caesar's show to be interviewed, Katniss living up to her new nickname of “the Girl on Fire” by unveiling another fiery dress. The rest of the interview is rather uneventful, paling in comparison to Peeta, who charms the hell out of everyone with his off the charts levels of charisma. He then drops a bombshell: he's been in love with Katniss since they were kids. She is outraged by this and attacks him backstage, but Haymitch pulls her off and explains how them being marketed as star crossed lovers will get them tons of sponsors. Back at their hotel, she apologizes for her outburst and the two discuss their fears about tomorrow's bloodbath.

Morning comes and they're taken to the facility beneath the arena, where they will be placed into the match via cylindrical elevator tubes. Cinna is the only one allowed to accompany Katniss there, giving her some final words of encouragement before she's launched. She arrives to a clearing in the woods, with all the other contestants on either side of her. In the center of the area is the Cornucopia, a metal structure filled with weapons and supplies, something Haymitch warned her about going towards because everyone else will be trying to do the same thing. A countdown begins at fifty, and when it hits zero all hell breaks loose. And by hell, I mean EXTREME SHAKY CAM. Aww come on Ross, not you too!

Click here for Part 2!