Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) Review

Adapting a book into a film is probably one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in Hollywood, because no matter what you do and no matter how faithful you try to make it, there will always be something that pisses the book's fanbase off, especially with a book as popular as The Hunger Games. That being said, there is a lot about The Hunger Games that would be extremely difficult to convert to the screen (such as some of the gorier demises and some of the intricacies of the characters and their interpersonal relationships, as well as some minute details that were quite frankly necessary to cut out). Plus, the filmmakers had the difficulty of turning decidedly R-rated source material into a PG-13 film, so as to play to their target audience. 

Before I say anything, I will say that those who haven't read the source novel by Suzanne Collins (who also co-authored the screenplay) as well as the other two books in the series should read them immediately. Together, they make up what is likely the finest young-adult book series ever written. They shouldn't be too hard to find right now, the bookstores are teeming with them. But this isn't a review saying what I like about the books, it's about the film and as adaptations go, The Hunger Games is one of the better ones I have recently seen and it is sure to be a highlight in the films of the year and a highlight in my favourite films of 2012. 

The film captures the essence of Suzanne Collins' books perfectly, though there are some things that get lost in translation, some of the intricacies of the book that would be near-impossible to convert perfectly to film. Sadly, the film suffers for it, but I can't deny (nobody can, really) that The Hunger Games is a solidly made film and the first good blockbuster of the year. The film has a great story (naturally, considering the story of the books) and said story is backed up by excellent acting, superb direction from Gary Ross (the director of Pleasantville, one of the most underrated films of all time, doing his first film since Seabiscuit), and magnificent visuals. This is the Hunger Games film I wanted to see, and it lived up to the hype in every way, flaws and all.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
For those of you who don't know, The Hunger Games takes place in the futuristic/post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, which consists of the Capitol and twelve outlying districts (each specializing in a certain trade, like masonry, coal mining, technology, etc.). Seventy-five years prior to the events of the film, the districts unsuccessfully rebelled against the Capitol and as punishment, the Hunger Games were created. The Games are essentially an annual televised fight to the death between 24 teenagers (2 from each district, one female, one male) selected from a random lottery, with a lone victor. The victor receives fame, fortune, and food for their district (which would be a blessing for those in the poorer districts, who almost never win) and the other 23 are...well, dead.

The story proper is about Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) a seventeen-year old living in District 12, who has been forced to support her family (by hunting and selling/trading her game in the black market) since her father's death in a mine explosion. The film starts on Reaping Day, and this also happens to be the first year that Katniss's little sister Prim (Willow Shields) has her name entered in the lottery. Naturally, through the cruel nature of a random lottery, Prim's name gets picked and desperate to preserve her sister's safety (seeing as Prim likely would not make it far in the Games), Katniss volunteers in her place. 

An absolutely perfect scene. The camerawork, the set design, the lack of music, the atmosphere,  Elizabeth Banks bouncing around with an inappropriate amount of joy, all of it was just perfect.
She and Peeta Mellark, the male tribute (played by Josh Hutcherson) are transported to the Capitol by train and it is there where they go through the established motions of being a tribute. They are trained in survival, monitored by the gamemakers (lead by Wes Bentley and his awesome beard) groomed and dressed up by their own personal stylists, paraded around (in an initial tribute parade, one of the best scenes in the film) and are generally in the public eye all the time. Each tribute also has a mentor, a previous victor from their district (in this case Woody Harrelson), who is meant to help them through the whole pre-game process and arrange for wealthy Capitol folk to sponsor them when they are actually in the arena. Once in the arena, Katniss must fight to survive when the odds are clearly not in her favour.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, the male tribute from District 12 and one of the lower rungs on the forming love triangle. Which, according to some fans, is all he is. Which is why I dislike the fandom.
The buildup to the games is what separates the first book from the other two, in that it shows these kids having to learn to become celebrities, because tributes are the rough equivalent of celebrities in this world (which connects to the reality-television parallels of the book). In this universe, making an impression with the audience could mean the difference between living and dying. This is one of many struggles that Katniss goes through, as she is rather stoic and surly, and stoicism doesn't go well with the audiences, so naturally, they struggle in finding an angle to present her with. The Games play out like a sporting event, which is one of the sad parts of the Games. The people of the Capitol (and the districts) are supposed to treat their children killing eachother like a festivity to be enjoyed annually, and the people of the Capitol have become so naive that they actually do treat it like a sports event, much like some of us would watch basketball or football. Hell, much like most of us would watch reality television.

This element of the book, to me, is played out much better in the film, because you get to see the Games from a more global perspective in the film. The novel is a character study set entirely to the point of view of Katniss, and her point of view is still present in the film, but the film has scenes without her, like the many scenes in the gamemaker's room, the intermittent commentaries from Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones (handled exactly like a sports commentary), and there are also some incidents where you view some of the things from the book from a different perspective (one which I won't spoil). Some may say that the scenes felt a bit tacked on to add running time, but I disagree, especially since it added to the characterization of several characters that don't do that much in the book.

The very character who represents just how unfair the idea of the Hunger Games really is, and the film's most wasted commodity. Amandla Stenberg as Rue.

However, despite the strength of the source material, the film's real strength, when you pick it apart, is the series of fine performances from one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. First of all, the film would not be as great as it is without the phenomenal leading performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, which is potentially worthy of another Oscar nomination. Lawrence embodies the character perfectly, easily one of the most coveted roles since Lisbeth Salander and Scarlett O'Hara. Knowing the book well, I'm glad they cast older as opposed to younger (I know a lot of younger actresses tried out for the role, like Chloe Moretz and Hailee Steinfeld). Moretz would be too young, and Steinfeld would have been too steely. Lawrence captured just the right amounts of stoicism and vulnerability, and words cannot describe how perfectly she captured the character. She and this franchise will go far. 

The girl on fire who set the world on fire. Also with Stanley Tucci, who plays one of the most awesome characters. 
The book has a large cast of characters, and they are transferred brilliantly to film through a series of great performances. Some may complain about them being underdeveloped, but with a cast this huge, we can't take the time to sit down and talk to each of them or else the film would be four hours long. Anyway, the film features a large cast of A-listers, and they all give fantastic performances. Some of the notable ones include Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as love interests Peeta and Gale. Though Gale doesn't get much screentime, I was thoroughly impressed with Hemsworth's performance and I hope he can prove himself to be more than Thor's brother and more than a pretty face. I was also thoroughly impressed by Hutcherson, who gave, in my opinion, the best performance of his career.

Outside the main three, there are a series of fine supporting performances from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks (though she is practically unrecognizable), Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, and Wes Bentley in a standout performance as Seneca Crane, the head gamemaker. In fact, Bentley delivered one of my favourite performances in the film, which I talk about in detail in the following paragraphs. They all embody their characters perfectly, though in my first viewing, I felt like Harrelson played Haymitch a bit too drunkly. However, that changed upon my second viewing, so I suppose you could say that his performance grew on me. 

One of the best. Needless to say, I can't wait until he gets developed in the later films

The film also has a fantastic young supporting cast (the tributes, namely) of mostly unknown actors. Willow Shields does a decently good job as Prim, though her job is mostly to cry and act scared (reasonably so, she's a child who is picked for the Games her first year). The featured tributes (from District 1, 2, and 11 mostly) all give great performances, the strongest performers probably being Alexander Ludwig as Cato (whom I also talk about in detail) and Amandla Stenberg as Rue, who doesn't get nearly enough screentime but gives a great performance nonetheless (and a powerful added scene near the middle of the film kind of makes up for that). However, each of the named tributes gets their moment in the sun, and they each take advantage of it, namely Isabelle Fuhrman and Dayo Okeniyi, who together make one of the most memorable scenes from the film. The only weaker links are the tributes from District 1 (played by Jack Quaid and Leven Rambin), who seem to exist only to give menacing glares and to die. That may be a spoiler, but given the nature of the games, I can say it without a warning. Needless to say, the cast was filled up with a series of wonderful and spirited performances from performers of all ages, and that is certainly needed in a film like this.

All of the tributes. The named ones are the first four, the third from the left in the second row, and the last four.


One of those characters improved upon in the film is Seneca Crane, the head gamemaker (or as some of you may know from the promos, the guy with the ornately awesome beard). He isn't even addressed by name in the book, and not much effort is made to give him any sort of sympathy. In fact, he isn't featured outside of one scene (the scene where Katniss shoots the arrow into the apple) As far as the readers know, he's just as bad as President Snow (Donald Sutherland), devising ways to kill kids for the entertainment of the public. The film makes him a bit more sympathetic by making him more like the other citizens of the Capitol. Namely, more naive with regards to the nature of the outerlying districts and genuinely not understanding the consequences of having two winners. This makes his death seem somehow more powerful, and makes me enjoy the wonderful performance of Wes Bentley all the more. Here's hoping he can pull a Robert Downey Jr. The other character I thought they did better in the film was Cato, a Career tribute from District 2 and arguably the villain of the book, played by Alexander Ludwig. 

Excuse me, but gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. And with one of the coolest beards ever.

In the book, Cato doesn't have much character outside of being a complete psychopath/Career Tribue (in both the book and the film, the two go pretty much hand in hand). For the first part of the film, he's pretty much the same, but it's just towards the end of the film, when he is confronted by Katniss, Peeta, and the wolves. He knows he's (*SPOILER*)done for (*SPOILER*) and at the last minute, he turns against the audience and calls them out on the whole concept of the Games. It's here where we learn a bit more about him. He is a career tribute, meaning that he was taught to kill from a very young age, which is likely all he knew how to do, and all anyone ever cared about him doing. His motives were that of a person deprived of attention all his life, possibly abused and/or neglected. It would have been nicer had they spread it out over the course of the film, but hey, you can't have it all, and it is nice that he got some character development, even if it's on the fly. As well, we get a pretty damn great performance out of it.

The film seemed to be a lot nicer to him for some reason, despite him being the villain of the book (if there was one besides the Capitol). 


The film features fantastic visuals as well, with surprisingly minimal special effects outside of the Capitol. The art direction is fantastic on all counts, portraying everything from the bleakness of District 12 to the beauty and menace of the Capitol to the arena itself. A few of my personal favourites in terms of quality of design were the training centre and the District 12 penthouse apartment. Every bit of it looked gorgeous though. Above that, the film features incredible costuming, especially with regards to people from the Capitol, who are all supposed to look ridiculous to the other districts because they dress so outlandishly. A great example of this is Effie. At the reaping, she looks utterly ridiculous, but when she's in the Capitol, she looks just like the rest of them. This also takes into account the hair and makeup design, which were also excellent, and these are the things that I'm sure the film will be getting attention for come Oscar time.

One of my very favourite scenes

I suppose now would be a better time than ever to talk about one of the most maligned aspects of this film. Namely, the shaky camera. All I have to say is that you people are making it out to be worse than it is. The shaky camera is definitely there, but it's not that bad. In fact, there were some scenes that were helped by the shaky camera. For instance, the reaping was one of them. It added on to an already tense scene and increased the unease that went with what is such a solemn occasion. It also worked at the Cornucopia scene, and it helped the filmmakers hang on to their PG-13 rating, because the blood is still there but it is very obscure. But the way people go on about it you'd think that the cinematographer didn't know how to keep a camera still. The only time it bothered me was when Katniss was in the woods, but that was the only time.

All in all, the film has its flaws, like the fact that I felt some things moved a bit too fast (even for a two-and-a-half hour film). I also wish that they would have spent more time with the buildup to the games. But those are just my personal preferences, and in an otherwise fine film, they don't mean much. Do some things get lost in translation? Absolutely. Is it somewhat hampered by its PG-13 rating? Eh...kind of. Regardless, The Hunger Games is a well-made movie that deserves all the praise it has been getting and that deserves all the money that it has made. It rises on the strength of its source material, but it also features a series of fine performances from a great cast, strong direction from Gary Ross (who is sadly not returning) and stunning visuals. It may not appeal to everyone's tastes, and if you have moral qualms with the premise, it's probably best to avoid it. However, if you don't have a problem with kids killing eachother and want to see the first solidly-made blockbuster of 2012, I give this my solid recommendation.

All I have to say is, if they mess up the sequel (which is my personal favourite of the books), I will be mad.


Catching Fire Book Cover
Francis Lawrence, you'd better not disappoint me. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Just an essay I wrote for history class.....

Hollywood 2: Death Of The Studio And Rise Of The Filmmaker

Rachel Hillis

January 17, 2012

The history of American film can be divided into several eras. There was the silent age of the 1920’s, the dawn of sound in the ’30s, and the overarching studio system of the 40’s, 50’s, and to some extent, 60’s. The studio system was the reigning power over the film industry during these years, and under the studios (such as MGM, RKO Pictures, Paramount, and Warner Bros.[1]), many classic films were made. Such classics would include 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, numerous Disney animated features (though in distribution only), and 1956’s The Ten Commandments. The sixties started to slip away from the studio system, which would fall entirely by the 70’s, with the abolition of the Hays Code in the middle of the decade[2], which allowed for more daring films to come out, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and shaped what would be the cinematic atmosphere of the 1970’s.  The 1970’s were an undeniably important decade for American society. The years brought about great social change with the Vietnam War, the hippie movement and the growing popularity of rock music. The ‘70s also brought about great change in the world of cinema. Innovations were made, directors emerged, and a whole slew of classic films were made. The 70’s allowed several directors to rise in popularity, brought two of the greatest blockbusters and sequels of all time, and brought about the end of the production code and beginning of the MPAA rating system (also used to this day). It is for these reasons that the 1970’s were arguably the best years for film in terms of sheer quality, and arguably the most influential, leading the film industry into the trends of the future. 

The first reason why the 1970’s was the most important decade for film was because of the slew of new directors that entered the circulation of Hollywood. These directors were dubbed the “New Hollywood Generation”. They rose in the 70’s as the old Hollywood professionals and studio moguls died out.[3] were allowed more creative control over their works, which would end up producing some of the most popular and well-liked films of all time (such as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, George Lucas’ Star Wars, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall). In fact, the notable directors to come out of that age, which would include Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, George Lucas and Woody Allen amongst others, have 38 Oscar nominations (with 5 wins)[4][5][6][7][8][9] and 39 Golden Globe nominations (with 12 wins) between them in the categories of Best Picture and Best Director alone.  Part of this is due to the popular concept known as the auteur theory. The auteur theory presents the idea that a film represents a director’s vision[10] gained popularity in the 1970’s, allowing directors to make more creative and financial decisions with regards to their films. Many more films about the current events in politics (ex. All The President’s Men, Apocalypse Now) were made during this era, each having something to say about its subject matter. This trend would continue on into the 1980’s with films like Platoon. A notable example would be Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which was filmed in an actual war zone as opposed to a studio lot and drew much controversy over its long and troubled production, which included tales of drug addiction, the recall of borrowed Filipino military equipment, and star Martin Sheen’s heart attack[11]. The film would not have been made in the old studio system, as it would have been too expensive and too controversial, but it went on to gain eight Academy Award nominations and gain a reputation as one of the greatest films of all time. The 1970’s also brought some of the best-reviewed films of all time, such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Alien, and Taxi Driver (averaging 100%[12], 99%[13], 96%[14], and 100%[15] on Rotten Tomatoes respectively). Some of the best critical scores of all time are only a few of the major accomplishments achieved by the directors of this era. But unfortunately, this era came to an end with the disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, touted as one of the biggest flops of all time. However, alongside the serious and groundbreaking dramas, the 70’s brought some of the best in terms of genre films, such as 1978’s Superman (which started the still-present tradition of bringing comic book superheroes to the big screen, the still highest-grossing musical of all time Grease (which brought musicals back in the public conscience after the disaster of Hello Dolly!, to be resurrected fully in the early 2000’s with films like Moulin Rouge and Chicago), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which remains as the film with the longest theatrical release, running consistently in theatres with midnight showings and developing a large cult following), and John Carpenter’s Halloween, which is still lauded as one of the greatest horror films of all time with a  93% average on Rotten Tomatoes[16] .

Another reason that the 70’s (especially the late 70’s) was the most important decade for film was the advent of the blockbuster and the sequel. The advent of sequels and the blockbuster is arguably the most important thing to come out of the 1970’s, as it helped Hollywood regain its financial footing and spawned some of Hollywood’s most memorable film franchises, as well as popularized several techniques still used to this day.  The age of the blockbuster was also important as it stretched into the present day. The two films that started the blockbuster chain of the mid-70’s and beyond are Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’ Star Wars. To this day, the directors’ names are associated with blockbusters and it started with these two films, and to a lesser extent, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jaws is inarguably the first official blockbuster, and it temporarily became the highest grossing film of all time (until Star Wars would step in two years later). Jaws popularized the concept of the summer blockbuster, a concept that is still used to this day, and Star Wars followed this concept as well, remaining the highest grossing film of all time for five years until E.T. came out in 1982. Both films (as well as the later release of Die Hard specifically pertaining to the action movie genre) also popularized the “high-concept” movie, where the plot of a film can be pitched to a studio in a simple sentence, such as “Jaws with an X”, “Die Hard on an X”, or simply “X meets Y”.[17]  Jaws and Star Wars were two of the greatest commercial successes of all time, and before they came out, studios would only invest in a handful of bankrolled films, hoping that one or two would fare well[18]. Afterwards, the economic crisis that Hollywood was facing (with the rise of films airing on television and the home video craze) was over, and they focused on action-oriented summer blockbusters or “event films” to market towards youth.[19] Both of those films were followed by sequels, another popular concept that arose out of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Jaws spawned three sequels and Star Wars spawned two (1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plus a prequel trilogy in the 2000’s), and though the Jaws sequels were released to critical and commercial failure, the Star Wars sequels were phenomenally successful. Out of the popularity of Star Wars came the search for another franchise for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and one was found in the Indiana Jones franchise, which started with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and (presumably) ended with 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull[20]. All four films were commercial successes, furthering Lucas and Spielberg’s popularity and catapulting star Harrison Ford (also famed for the Star Wars franchise) into superstardom.[21]  The idea of making sequels to a popular film is one that is still used to this day, as is the idea of tentpole films (making a film hoping that it will spawn a franchise). Several popular films of the 70’s received this treatment: Superman spawned three sequels (plus a 2006 re-boot), Die Hard spawned three sequels, Rocky spawned five, and the aforementioned Alien and Halloween spawned three and seven respectively.

Furthermore, the last reason that the 1970’s were influential for film was that the decade brought about the end of the production code, also known as the Hays Code[22], which was used since the invention of sound in the 1920’s, and the dawn of the MPAA ratings system. The end of the production code, which passed a series of moral rules on films released from the 1920’s until the 1970’s, allowed directors in the 70’s to portray more controversial material in film. Instead of being approved by the code for release, directors were instead free to put whatever they chose to in a film and submit it for a rating. This allowed for more portrayal of outwardly immoral characters, violence, sexual content, profanity, nudity, and blurred lines between good and evil in film.[23] In the age of the production code, there were no letter ratings, and films were made to appeal to all audiences even if they were targeted to adults. Vague quotas for said categories were used to give letter ratings (G, PG, R, and NC-17 with the additions of PG-13 and 14A to address confusion and controversy) which would inform a potential viewer with what to expect from the film.[24] This ratings system is still used to this day. The year 1971 brought many controversial films that would not have been approved for filming by the production code. These films would include William Friedkin’s The French Connection (which won 5 Academy Awards), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (which was nominated for 4 Academy Awards), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.  The films all sparked controversy at time of their release with regards to violence, disturbing content, explicit sexual content, and themes that would be considered taboo at the time of their release.[25] All of these films received R ratings at the time of their release, and they grew to become some of the most popular films of their decade and most well-known cult classics of all time. Controversy was also found over the disturbing imagery in 1973’s The Exorcist, the sexual themes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the graphic violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre[26], and the violent themes on display in the aforementioned four films that came out in 1971. In the age of the Hays Code, these films could easily be turned down for distribution and even if they managed to slip through, they would likely be pulled due to public outcry. However, with the MPAA ratings system and the appropriate R-ratings, the films can be watched and enjoyed in the public conscience.

In short, the slew of acclaimed dramas that came with the dawn of the auteur, the invention of many new blockbusters and sequels, and the creation of the MPAA ratings system were the main things to come out of the 70’s. It is for these reasons, as well as the home video craze[27], the introduction of films airing on television[28], and the introduction and refinement of several genres such as horror, musical, and science fiction (as well as the inception of the superhero film genre) that the 1970’s were the most important and influential years for films. The directors of this era have also inspired several young filmmakers to this day, such as David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Neill Blomkamp, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith, amongst many others. These directors would go on to bring more classic films whether through Hollywood or through their own independent production companies and continue to spread their second-hand magic throughout Hollywood. The 1970s introduced several revolutionary concepts as well, each used in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s afterwards, and if those years had not happened, the world of Hollywood would be vastly different. Although things seem to be regressing in recent years with rising ticket prices and lackluster summer/winter seasons (mostly in 2010)[29], hopefully Hollywood can get back on its feet and start supplying viewers with better films and solid entertainment in the future.  

[1] N.a. “Studio System”  n.p. n.d.
[2] N.a. “1960’s in film”  n.p. n.d.
[3] Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1970’s”.  n.p. n.d. web.
[4] n.a. “Steven Spielberg”  n.p. n.d.
[5] n.a. “Martin Scorsese Filmography” /  n.p. n.d.
[6] n.a. “Francis Ford Coppola”   n.p. n.d.
[7] n.a. “Roman Polanski”  n.p. n.d.
[8] n.a. “George Lucas”  n.p. n.d.
[9] n.a. “List of awards and nominations received by Woody Allen”   n.p. n.d.
[10] "auteur theory." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2012
[11] Schneider, Steven “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” pg. 652-653. Barron’s Educational Series. 2011. Print.
[12] N.a. “The Godfather” n.p. n.d.
[13] n.a. “Apocalypse Now” n.p. n.d.
[14] n.a. “Alien” n.p. n.d.
[15] n.a. “Taxi Driver”  n.p. n.d.
[17] Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1980’s” n.p. n.d.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1970’s”  n.p. n.d.
[20] Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1980’s”  n.p. n.d.
[21] ibid
[22] N.a. “The Production Code of 1930”.  n.p. n.d.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[26] Dirks, Tim. “Most Controversial Films of All Time”.  n.p. n.d.
[27] Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1970’s”.  n.p. n.d.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 2010’s.  n.p. n.d.