Chief Justice Michael Stailey offers himself up in tribute to develop the next begin cinematic franchise.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
From the Treaty of 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, then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death, until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forever more, this pageant shall be known as The Hunger Games.
Facts of the Case
From the aftermath of an apocalyptic civil war arose the country of Panem, which consists of The Capitol and 13 surrounding districts. Sadly, the inequity of wealth in this new land led to an uprising in which the districts lashed out at The Capitol. The rebellion was squashed, but to prevent any future insurgencies, the government instituted an annual competition in which children from each district slaughter each other on live television, as a reminder they will always be second class citizens subjected to the whims of the elite, but awarded just enough hope that they may someday rise above their oppression. In this particular year, the 12th District lottery chooses young Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) who is selflessly saved by her sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class), when she offers herself as tribute. Unlike other districts, there has never been a "volunteer" from District 12, which creates quite a stir throughout the country. While Katniss' iconic presence at the games overshadows her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), together with stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, Precious) and mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), the pair attempt to garner enough sponsor support to level the playing field with the wealthier and more determined competitors, thus giving them at least a fighting chance to survive. But it may all be in vein, as The Hunger Games can have only one victor.
I went into The Hunger Games knowing only that Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy had developed a cult following that rivaled both the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises. I knew nothing of characters or plot, subtext or allegory, and the only films of writer/director Gary Ross I was familiar were Big and Pleasantville. So you can imagine my surprise when, at one hour in the film, we get to experience the wholesale slaughter of innocent children. Look, I love my cinematic dystopian death and destruction as much as the next guy, but there's something about that experience that didn't sit well with me. Needless to say, I wasn't looking forward to revisiting the film or writing this review. Then I watched the accompanying two-hour documentary and my entire perspective changed.
Rarely do you find a filmmaker who invests every fiber of their being in a project, especially these days. Most of today's A-list directors have their own production companies and are juggling the development of 10 or 12 projects while penciling time to direct one. Most also have trusted creative teams they take from film to film, delegating a large portion of the development process to their expertise. They've learned from experience that crafting big budget blockbusters are an exhausting endeavor and the key to maintaining your sanity is to focus only on what's most important, trusting others to do much of the heavy lifting. Gary Ross hadn't yet learned those lessons, before committing to this project. In fact, because of his meticulous 24/7 involvement with The Hunger Games over a period of two years, he chose to opt out of Lionsgate's original plan to have him direct all three films. It's just too much to ask of an artist who does his best work when intimately involved with every facet of the process.
What you see on the screen in The Hunger Games is every ounce of Gary Ross' vision. The finished product is seamless. No stone was left unturned. No shot, edit, or effect overlooked because of time, budget, or ambivalence. Everyone involved, from Suzanne Collins to the lowliest production assistant is acknowledged for their contributions and collaborations. Ross is the furthest thing from an egomaniacal dictator. He thrives on brainstorming, pushback, and creative/collaborative problem solving. But in the end the final call is his, and everyone who works for him respects that.
I explain all this only to say that The Hunger Games is something far greater than a successful adaptation of a best-selling Young Adult novel; it's a monumental achievement in filmmaking. Not from a James Cameron-esque technical perspective or a Stanley Kubrick subtextual exploration, but of a man who took a property rapidly entrenching itself in the cultural zeitgeist and creating a film that proves itself more faithful to its source material and more powerful in delivery of its message than it had any right to. I can't think of any other director working today who would have been foolish enough to undertake this task and succeed in doing so on the level Gary Ross achieved. Francis Lawrence and Simon Beaufoy face an insurmountable challenge in getting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to match its effectiveness.
Then again, Ross didn't get here on his own. Writer Billy Ray (Flightplan) reworked Suzanne Collins' original screenplay and laid a solid foundation upon which to build. Production designer Philip Messina (Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven franchise) worked with Ross to craft a thoroughly researched and impeccably detailed canvas upon which these characters would play. Cinematographer Tom Stern (Clint Eastwood's go-to director of photography) brings his unparalleled talents to bear on some spectacular practical locations. Second unit director and stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski and his 87Eleven team conceived and executed one of the most visceral PG-13 tales ever put to film. Composer James Newton Howard infuses every frame with a touching often guttural score. While editors Juliette Welfling and Stephen Mirrione were on set every step of the way, giving the film a cinéma vérité style that often goes unappreciated but informs the story in a way Collins' first person narrative never could.
But let's not overlook what really makes the film sing, and that's its cast. Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress by delivering roles so unlike what she's shown us before. Possessing the chameleon-like qualities of Gary Oldman, Lawrence loses herself in the ever-swirling mass of emotions that personifies Katniss, grounding the performance in a way most of the other actresses considered for this part would never have been able to achieve. You don't need ham-fisted dialogue to see the wealth of conflicting thoughts racing behind those eyes. More importantly, she raises the game of co-star Josh Hutcherson, who catapults his already rising star to an entirely new level. While Stanley Tucci (TV commentator Caesar Flickerman), Wes Bentley (Games Keeper Seneca Crane), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), and Lenny Kravitz are all great in their respective roles, Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket) and Woody Harrelson steal focus with every opportunity. Two of the tribute kids accomplish the same feat. Xander Ludwig mans up from his turn in Race to Witch Mountain to become Cato, the certified sociopathic badass from District 2. But my favorite character in the film has to be District 11's Rue, as portrayed by the oh so young but unbelievably authentic Amandla Stenberg (Colombiana). They are the yin and yang of this upside down world, the primal brute predator and compassionate cunning prey, giving Katniss/Lawrence so much to play off you can't help but be mesmerized. On the other hand, the remaining tributes are each given brief character moments to play in training, during their pre-game interviews with Caesar, or on the field of battle before being mercilessly removed from combat. Some you'll connect with, most you will not; a necessary evil of moving from book to film.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition, Lionsgate's transfer is near flawless. The color correction messes with some of the finer detail, but only the most persnickity critics will find fault with the visuals offered up here. Just know that Ross and Stern employ the handheld shaky cam to great effect, so those with motion sickness take your Dramamine before the second half of the film kicks in. The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track rivals the most impressive audio tracks ever to hit Blu-ray. This immersive mix drops us into the center of the action and refuses to let go. Do not hesitate to get the best surround system money can buy and crank that sucker up to 11. You will not be disappointed. And for those with sensitive neighbors, critical spouses, or young children, there's a new option in town…a Dolby 2.0 Stereo track optimized for "late night viewing." In essence, it keeps the dialogue tight and tones down the ambience.
Which brings us to the Bonus Material…
* The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games (122 min)—This 8-part documentary is one of the most thorough chronicles of a filmmaking process since Peter Jackson's King Kong and the early days of Pixar. Like Hearts of Darkness, it will inform your opinion of the film in ways you'll never expect. If Oscars were awarded to supplements, this would be up for Best Picture.
* A Conversation with Elvis Mitchell and Gary Ross (15 min)—Basically a video capture of the NPR film critic's radio interview with Ross, complete with film clips to support their discussion. Meh. I'm not big Elvis fan, but there is some interesting discussion here.
* Letters from the Rose Garden (9 min)—Soon after being cast, Donald Sutherland wrote Gary Ross a letter sharing his passion for the project, detailing his take on President Snow, and offering up some potential ideas to explore. The ever-collaborative Ross took the suggestions to heart and wrote three new scenes while on a break from shooting in North Carolina (all of the Capitol footage was shot in Los Angeles much later in the production schedule). Sutherland provides voice over for the letter in a very slick little featurette.
* Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon (14 min)—What amounts to leftover material from the documentary repackaged as a separate featurette. Not a lot of new information here, aside from the fact that the reclusive Collins is nowhere to be found in any of these features.
* Controlling the Games (6 min)—A brief look at the biggest section of green screen work done on the film and how even the most minute action was scripted and rehearsed prior to filming.
* Preparing for the Games: A Director's Process (3 min)—A brief clip excised from the larger documentary showing a script to screen comparison for a specific scene.
* Propaganda Film (2 min)—The unedited version of the Capitol's message that plays before the crowd attending the District 12 reaping.
* Marketing Gallery—Three trailers, a production photo gallery, and a poster art gallery.
* UltraViolet Digital Copy—Have you registered all your recent purchases with UltraViolet? Yeah, me neither.
This is not the review I intended to write. In fact, looking back through it now, I'm not exactly sure who or what possessed my brain while crafting it. Nevertheless, color me a believer. Gary Ross ushers us into a world more profound than Suzanne Collins herself could have ever envisioned, proving once again the immense power of visual storytelling when used for artistic good instead of cash-grabbing evil. See The Hunger Games, watch the documentary, and then see the movie again. You can't help but be impressed.
Nowhere close to Guilty.
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