Monday, March 26, 2012

'Hunger Games' is more than just a phenomenon

For months movie fans have been hearing about the coming phenomenon of "The Hunger Games." Like another well known literature franchise, it has a rabidly loyal fanbase, had stacked the film with attractive young actors, and was based around an independent heroine and a dramatic romance.

However, unlike those other movies, "The Hunger Games" is a fascinating story filled with interesting characters who are heroes without trying hard or shouting it from the mountaintops.

It is the story of a future America called Panem, where children between the ages of 12-18 are sent to the Capitol as tribute to compete in The Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen volunteers to save her sister and Peeta Mallark is chosen from District 12, which is a poor coal mining village.

From the first moments the film encompasses viewers in the tension of the world these children live in, where any one of them could be sent off to die. In fact Katniss' best friend Gale seems resigned to his fate as his name is in the bowl 42 times so the odds are against him.

This instantaneous connection with the characters is one of the biggest draws of the movie. Even with its unique plot and characters, at its core "Hunger Games" is basically a hero's origin story starring Katniss.

Once the story moves to the Capitol, viewers are introduced to the support cast that must play along with the games or find themselves on the outside looking in.

Woody Harrelson is funny and heartbreakingly honest as Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta's mentor and the last winner from District 12.

Wes Bentley is a more cruel, yet still somehow realistic Nigel Lythgoe/Mark Burnett clone as Seneca Crane, the gamesmaker.

Lenny Kravitz is impossibly attractive and touchingly earnest as Katniss' stylist and only true friend Cinna.

Donald Sutherland is appropriately mustache twirling as President Snow, but he seems like less of threat here than he will be in the future.

However, as usual the real revelation is Stanley Tucci as host of the games Caesar Flickerman. He's part Ryan Seacrest, part Bob Costas and part P.T. Barnum; yet all these pieces come together to create an over the top portrayal that steals every scene he's in.

If the film receives any awards attention it will be in supporting categories for Tucci and Harrelson.

Like any good origin story it is the journey to becoming the hero that really counts and that is seen most in the arena. Jennifer Lawrence is captivating as Katniss, but more importantly she's real.

She's not perfect, she's not the smartest and she's not always right, but at the end of the day she's authentic and that makes her likable. This also make her relationship with Peeta more interesting, as these are mythical supernatural beings in an unreal world falling in love. These are real people in a life or death situation who must depend on and trust each other for survival.

While the movie left out Katniss' indifference about her feelings for Peeta, Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson still communicated the unrequited and somewhat one-sided nature of their romance.

With the film's record-breaking $155 million opening weekend a lot will be made of new star Lawrence, but the revelatory performance really comes from Hutcherson as Peeta.

Peeta is the smartest player in the game, as he figures out early on that he must win the crowd to compensate for any physical weaknesses. He is also certain of his imminent death, but just wants to assure that he remains true to his self.

While Katniss is obviously the hero, Peeta is the audience's window into this strange world.

"The Hunger Games" will be the center of a lot of attention for a while and the "Twilight" comparisons will no doubt be unstoppable, but it's important to note that despite all the hoopla and noise, at its core "The Hunger Games" is a solidly made film with impeccable pacing, fantastic performances and fascinating storytelling.

These qualities make it more than just a phenomenon.

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