The Hunger Games

Hunger Games 01The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was already a huge success when producers began bidding on the film rights.  Clamor for the movie was both strong and at the same time a bit dubious.  It is a great story, but would some director muck it up by “making it his own” or changing things so dramatically that the original work lost its integrity?  Unfortunately, this has happened so many times that films of beloved novels must be met with some skepticism.

Hunger Games 02Fortunately, for this project, producers Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik were already fans of the novel and they protected this film by making good, strong, and remarkable choices right from the beginning.  Veteran screenwriter Billy Ray was hired to do the first rendering and he produced a good script.  Next, they hired the amazing writer and director Gary Ross (“Big,” “Pleasantville,” “Dave,” and “Seabiscuit,” among others) to shepherd the production.  Ross brought his considerable writing skills to Ray’s script and began making it even better.  The author of the novel, Suzanne Collins, was brought into the process and joined Ross for several weeks working out many of the details of the transition from page to screen.  This respect for the original vision is almost unheard of in Hollywood, but the filmmakers were also fortunate in that Collins had written a very cinematic novel and she was open to making some changes to make it a good adaptation for the screen.

The following plot synopsis reveals information about the ending, so beware.

The Hunger Games deals with a future America in which 12 Districts exist under the brutal control of the Capitol, which is located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  While those in the Districts work hard to provide for the Capitol, they do not enjoy its debauched luxury.  In fact, most of the Districts are on less than subsistence footing, with starvation and poverty the norm.  Nearly 75 years previous to the start of the story, a revolution occurred that the Capitol had to put down with force.  An original 13th District was utterly destroyed in that bloody fight and the Capitol created the Hunger Games as a way to remind their tributary Districts where the power lay.  Every year, a boy and girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly selected to represent their District in a fight to the death with representatives of all of the other Districts in a unique arena created for the occasion by a Game Master.

Hunger Games 03Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an 18 year old girl from District 12, hunts illegally in the woods with bow and arrows just beyond the tatters of a fence designed to restrict movement.  Her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), joins her on the morning of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games and after hunting, they go to trade their game.  Katniss finds a pin in the form of a circle with a Mockingjay inside.  These birds, hybrids between mockingbirds and jays, imitate sounds in the wild.  Her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has just turned 12, worries that she may be selected, but Katniss reassures her.  At the Reaping, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a powdered and wigged representative of the Capitol, pulls Prim’s name for the girl to represent District 12.  Katniss steps up and volunteers to go in her place and for that she honored by the others with a three fingered salute unique to their District.  The boy selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  On the train to the Capitol, they meet the only winner from District 12 in the entire history of the games, a drunk named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is supposed to be their mentor.  Initially, his only advice to them is to get ready to die, but on further probing he also tells them that they need to be likable so they can get sponsors.  He has already decided that Katniss will fail being likable.

Hunger Games 04At the Capitol, they are assigned a stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and they are introduced to the citizens and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in a parade of chariots.  Cinna has designed special costumes for them that leave a trail of fire as they blaze up a gigantic arena for the presentation.  Katniss gets her nickname “The Girl on Fire” from the Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  They begin their physical training and meet the other participants.  Districts 1 and 2 are more affluent than the others and spend a great deal of time and effort training their young so they are more equipped to win the games.  Their representatives are Marvel (Jack Quaid), Glimmer (Leven Rambin), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman).  The strongest is Cato.  During their final demonstration before they are given grades, Katniss misses her target and finds herself ignored by the Game Master, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and sponsors.  To get their attention, she fires an arrow into their midst, neatly skewering an apple from a roast pigs mouth and pinning it to the wall.  She receives an 11, the highest grade of all of the contestants.

Hunger Games 07During their final television interview with Caesar before the games begin, Katniss demonstrates fire again by swirling her red dress, designed by Cinna, the hem of which crackles with flames.  Peeta, that last to be interviewed, reveals that he has always had a crush on Katniss and Caesar renames them “the star-crossed lovers from District 12.”  Angry at Peeta for blindsiding her, Katniss confronts him, but Haymitch, who has now taken an interest in them tells her that it will probably be good for them in terms of sponsors and that she should act the part.  As she prepares to go to battle, Cinna pins the Mockingjay onto her shirt.

The Games take place in a woodland as each Tribute enters on a small, round elevator facing a Cornucopia of weapons and survival gear.  When the countdown reaches zero most of them run for the Cornucopia and a bloodbath ensues.  While Peeta turns and runs directly into the woods, Katniss grabs a backpack before she takes off.  Twelve of the tributes are killed in the initial fight and a small band of Tributes join together, led by Cato and the other Tributes from Districts 1 and 2.  Surprisingly, Peeta joins with them in hunting Katniss.  She wanders far enough away from the main site that the Game Master creates a fire to push her back toward the others and she injures her leg.  Scrambling to the river, she is discovered by the pack and chased into a tree.  On Peeta’s recommendation, they decide to wait her out.  Haymitch arranges for a sponsor to send her an ointment that she applies to her wound and when she awakes, it is completely healed.  In a neighboring tree, the very young female representative of District 11, Rue (Amandla Stenberg) points out a nest of tracker-jackers, which Caesar explains to the audience are genetically engineered wasps whose sting causes hallucinations and sometimes death.  Katniss climbs up to the branch and saws it off, but she gets stung in the process.  The nest lands in the midst of the sleeping tributes and the aroused tracker-jackers begin stinging at random, killing Glimmer in the process.  Hallucinating, Katniss grabs the bow and quiver of arrows from Glimmer’s body and runs blindly into the forest, eventually passing out.

Hunger Games 06When she awakes, her stings have been neutralized by medicinal leaves put there by Rue.  The two become friends and form their own alliance.  They plan to destroy the weapons that have been gathered together by the career Tributes.  While Rue sets fires to distract the others, Katniss shoots an arrow into a sack of apples that spill over the gathered weapons and trigger mines that have been implanted around it.  Katniss runs to find Rue, but finds her caught in a net.  After cutting her out, they are interrupted by Marvel, who throws a spear, killing Rue.  Katniss shoots him with an arrow, then arranges a bower of flowers around the body of Rue, weeping as she mourns the girl’s death.  Before leaving Rue’s body, Katniss finds the camera broadcasting her image and she raises a three-finger salute to Rue’s memory.

That action incites the residents of District 11 to riot, which the storm troopers from the Capitol quickly stop.  Seneca Crane considers killing Katniss for the action, but Haymitch speaks on her behalf, convincing Crane that they should capitalize on the crowd’s desire for hope by altering the rules of the game to allow two winners, but only if they come from the same District.  That will allow people to root for “the star-crossed lovers.”  The rioting, however, catches the eye of President Snow, who calls in Crane to advise him to control the situation.

An announcement is made to the Tributes letting them know about the rule change, so Katniss goes looking for Peeta.  She finds him seriously injured, hiding by the river.  They find a cave and she kisses him for the first time, on the cheek.  When they get a package from Haymitch, she expects to find more ointment, but only gets a cup of hot soup, with the message, “You call that a kiss?”  Another announcement is made that there will be gifts from the Capitol for those who need help the next morning at the Cornucopia.  Peeta begs Katniss not go and she gives him a real kiss.  Watching at home, Gale, who is now working in the mines, reacts jealously.  The next morning, when she runs to grab the ointment for Peeta, she is caught and pinned down by Clove.  Before killing Katniss, Clove boasts about killing Rue, but she is overheard by the other representative from District 11, Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) who then kills her in retaliation and lets Katniss go.

As they hunt for food, Katniss finds Peeta picking deadly Nightlock berries that kill instantly and they discover the dead body of Foxface (Jacqueline Emerson), one of the last surviving tributes, who died from eating Nightlock.  They decide to bring berries along with them in case Cato is hungry.  To create a finale to the Games, Crane has his people create large, vicious dogs.  Katniss and Peeta listen as Thresh is attacked and killed, leaving only three survivors: them and Cato.  The dogs chase Katniss and Peeta to the Cornucopia.  Climbing on top, they encounter Cato as the dogs snarl below them.  Holding Peeta by knifepoint, Cato threatens to kill him.  Katniss gets off one arrow that hits Cato in the hand, then Peeta pushes him off the Cornucopia where he is attacked by the dogs.  Hearing Cato beg for mercy, Katniss puts an arrow into him, ending his misery.

Crane turns on the lights in the arena, then makes an announcement that the previous rule change has been rescinded.  Peeta volunteers to let Katniss kill him, but she insists that the eat the berries together, leaving the Capitol without a winner.  Before they can go through with their plan, Crane relents and they are declared mutual winners.

President Snow takes his revenge against Crane by forcing him to suicide by Nightlock berries.  Haymitch warns Katniss that she has shown up Snow and that she needs to watch her back.

The second great decision, beyond hiring Ross to direct, was his decision to cast brilliant young actress Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss.  The entire movie revolves around her and Lawrence’s performance carries it in every way.  She has a strength of personality far beyond her ephemeral beauty and incredible voice and is Katniss in ever way.  All of the young people cast around her perform extremely well and work together with a kind of chemistry that elevates the entire endeavor.  In addition, Ross’s decision to cast well-known, award winning actors in the mature supporting roles, such as Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland, was absolutely perfect.  Banks is magnificent as Effie.

The production design, by Philip Messina is amazing, especially the architecture of the Capitol, using broad, open spaces, that smooth limestone feel to the buildings, almost as if we were in a throwback Nazi Germany, rather than years into the future.  The relationship of the playing field of the Games to the Game Room itself with its gigantic computer simulation, a half dome on a large round table, is extremely impressive and utterly believable.

Hunger Games 05Costumes by Judianna Makovsky range from the throwback, monochrome dresses worn by the women in District 12 to the beautifully understated and functional to battle gear of the Tributes in the arena to the absolutely outrageous outfits worn in the decadent Capitol.  They display and wide range of skills are brought to bear on this challenging project.  In addition, the make-up on the Capitol citizens, also byMakovsky, really adds a dimension to their flamboyant and debauched lifestyle.

Most of the cinematography, by Tom Stern, is done in a cinema verité, giving it a very kinetic feel.  Just as Katniss always seems to be running, so does the camera, jumping from intimate close-ups to quick pans to fast tracking shots.  Like everything else about the production, this was designed from the beginning by Gary Ross, who planned and storyboarded each and every shot in his shooting script.

The music, by James Newton Howard is very good.  Except for the martial sounds of the Capitol, it is fairly austere, never forcing itself on the action or calling attention to itself.  However, the short fanfare played when a Tribute dies, is extremely memorable.  The sound, created by Christopher Assells is truly amazing–and again, Gary Ross played a big role in the design–especially the use of silence during the initial bloodbath in the arena, the quick rush of sound out of silence, the cross-fading during the hallucinations, the gasping and breathing, the sharp sounds of battle.  It adds an element that really brings the action to life and at times even comments on it.

The editing, by Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione, and Juliette Welfling, under the supervision of Ross, really knits the movie together in very special ways.

The DVD also has two marvelous special features, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon” and “The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games.”  The first one isn’t very long, but it looks at the adaptation process, using interviews with the publisher, the producers, teachers, and teen readers to show how special the book is.

“The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games” is a feature-length documentary that examines every facet of making the film, from the adaptation process to the finished print, featuring extensive interviews with the director, the producer, the cast, and the technicians.  Most of the time I don’t really find “making of” documentaries to be very enlightening, but this one, because of the length, the depth, the access to all of the movie makers, is truly remarkable and so entertaining in itself that it makes a great evening’s entertainment.

When Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik, and Gary Ross first got to work on this project, I don’t think any fan of the book would have believed that a film could do such a fine novel justice, let alone actually improve on it in creating a new work of art, but these three, along with their cast and technical collaborators have succeeded.  Gary Ross deserves most of the credit for his work on the script and his powerful vision as a director, but truly this group works in harmony.

And the vision is so strong that it makes The Hunger Games a film that can be enjoyed over and over again, and probably makes it an instant classic.


Hunger GamesRead my review of the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins!

Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

Il Postino (The Postman)

Il Postino Poster

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.

~ Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

On a small, nearly isolated Italian island, a fisherman, Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), lives with his father. A rather simple-minded young man, Mario hates being out on boats all day and complains of the moisture, so his father tells him to get a job. One night, at the movies, he sees a newsreel covering the arrival of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) to Italy.  A communist, Neruda has been exiled by political opponents and has come to live on Mario’s little island.

Mario sees a sign on the door of the post office advertising for a postman with a bicycle to deliver mail. The next morning Mario applies and finds out that it is a part time job to deliver Neruda’s mail.  As he does his job, he begins a dialogue with the poet.  At first, he is looking for an autograph, so he can show he is a friend of great Neruda and get girls, but as he reads the poetry, he discovers that it appeals to him in some way that he can’t explain.  The poetry stirs in him both a desire for love and a desire to fight for the cause of the oppressed.  Wanting to write his own poetry, he asks Pablo how to go about it and that leads to an explanation of metaphors.

When Mario falls in love with Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the local inn owner, he begs Pablo to help him win her by writing some poetry for him, but the poet refuses, instead giving Mario a beautiful book of paper to begin writing his own poetry. He brings Mario to the inn and signs the book in front of Beatrice.  Using Pablo’s poetry, Mario begins to woo her with great success, so much so that Beatrice’s aunt becomes upset, complaining about the evil metaphors in the poetry.

Massimo Troisi was a beloved Italian actor long before Il Postino, mostly for his wonderful comedic roles.  When he found the book Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta, he bound himself to the project, committing to not only star in the film, but to help write the screenplay, along with director Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, and Giacomo Scarpelli, even though he was having serious heart problems.  He put off surgery in order to the film and dies shortly after it was completed.

The film is beautifully photographed, full of light and color, with the sea surrounding the island always prominent. There is a great deal of Neruda’s poetry included in the movie and it certainly enhances the beauty.  The film’s Academy Award winning score, composed by Luis Enríquez Bacalov, is beautiful and gives the film a heightened sense of the love not only between Mario and Beatrice, but the brotherly love between Mario and Pablo.

Besides the win for film score, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screeplay Adaptation. The soundtrack features many well known actors reading Neruda’s poetry to the film score.  Some of the readers include Julia Roberts, who backed the project, Glenn Close, Ethan Hawke, Andy Garcia, Madonna, and Wesley Snipes, among others.

This is an excellent film. It is beautiful, full of poetry, music, and love.  In Italian, with subtitles in English, it runs an hour and forty-eight minutes.