A Look Back: The Hunger Games

If you were an American high school student, you were probably exposed to at least one classic of dystopian lit, such as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” or George Orwell’s famous duo “Animal Farm,” and “1984.” If you were like me, your first reaction might have been something along the lines of, “Gee, this is kinda grim. Why does the future have to be such an unmitigated bummer? What about the flying cars? What about hoverboards?” Of course, the last two questions were not considered relevant to the discussion. But there’s no denying that literature set in the future skews toward the deeply depressing. In “Brave New World,” humans are divided into castes – bred from the start for a certain path in life, and in “1984” all genuine joy has been leached from the propaganda-driven everyday existence of the protagonist. While there is sex in the various futures, it is largely mindless, illegalish or both, which may be why old-fashioned dystopian novels fall short in ways the new ones do not.

Why? Mainly, because the new dystopian novel crop rarely forget a certain key element guaranteed to appeal to their teen readers. Which is, of course, a really awesome love triangle. When authors, such as Suzanne Collins, boldly stepped into the breach to correct this with what became a best-seller, “The Hunger Games,” another element was born – mainly that books were more appealing if they came in threes. Thus followed many young adult trilogies about dystopia, some more successful than others.

The Hunger Games,” is set in a world where everything is divided into 12 districts (though there’s forbidden hints of a 13th), the rich have all the power, and parents have a tendency to give their kids names based on flowers, pastoral elements or famous Romans depending on their income. Our heroine is called Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her younger sister (Willow Shields), Willow’s grouchy cat, and widowed mother in a coal-mining district in poverty. (The mom is so much of a cipher, she doesn’t even get a first name.) Their income is illegally supplemented by Jennifer hunting in the nearby woods, a skill that alas, will shortly come in handy when she and her sister enter the mandatory lottery for the annual Hunger Game contestants (who are all eighteen and under). You see, every year, each district is required to send a boy and a girl contestant to compete in the nationally televised Games, in which all are forced to fight to the death – only one “lucky” winner can emerge. Rich districts consider this an honor and train the kids to be potential winners, though this is technically illegal. But the poorer ones don’t have that luxury.

Anyway, after Willow is chosen (at age 12), Katniss volunteers in her place, and leaves her fellow hunky hunting partner (Liam Hemsworth) behind to head off to the Capitol with a fellow contestant (Josh Hutcherson) who is also hunky and who has always harbored a secret crush on her. Their guides are a former District winner (Woody Harrelson) who is an alcoholic and Elizabeth Banks, the hostess for their event who is so perky you want to slap her. When they reach the Capitol, they are forced to participate in parades and TV interviews and makeovers so that they can win the hearts of the rich viewers and get little bonuses during the actual Games. So Jennifer reluctantly plays along that she has a raging crush on Josh.

Of course, this is yet another movie/novel that breaks its ironclad rules, so both Jennifer and Josh can live. Along the way, though, innocents are sacrificed, and the duo help ignite a revolution in the poorer districts. This will all be resolved in Book Three. The trilogy has to sacrifice certain elements on the big screen to streamline things, but the filmmakers get another cat by the second installment so it matches the book one, plus they get sufficiently good-looking leads for both Jennifer’s love interests, thus showing that they truly know the way to their audience’s hearts.






A Look Back: Silver Linings Playbook

After his last two movies – “Hit and Run,” and “The Words,” didn’t shine at the box office,  Bradley Cooper probably had his fingers crossed that “Silver Linings Playbook,” which came out later in that year, would prove true the adage that the third time is the charm. Indeed it was. “Silver Linings Playbook” is based on a book (which I haven’t read), but when it arrived on the big screen, it proved to be a mashup of several movie genres. In fact at times, it appeared to have Multiple Personality Disorder (fitting because the protagonist – Bradley – suffers from mental illness), veering from the “Troubled Young Man Gets Therapeutic Guidance,” to “Troubled Young Man Returns Home to Wacky Ethnic Clan,” to “Troubled Young Man Meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Enters the Big Dance Contest Which is Inconveniently Held At the Same Time as Another Major Event in the Movie.” But, it has a lot of big stars and relies on tried-and-true (even if threadbare) scenarios, and so mostly works

The beginning of the movie strongly resembles “Garden Space,” as both protagonists (Bradley here, and Zach Braff in “GS”) return home as the prodigal son, who will shortly go off his meds (against advice) and remain off. But while Braff just had your stereotypical Distant Dad, Bradley has two concerned parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), plus a brother (Shea Wigham). He also has a therapist (Anupam Kher) who wastes no time employing devious “therapeutic” techniques such as playing the same music that Bradley heard when he caught his wife (Brea Bee) with another guy, thus engaging in behavior that led to Brea getting a restraining order. (With shrinks like that, who needs enemies?) To round out the picture, Bradley has a loyal friend (Chris Tucker) who will later teach him the rhythm he needs to compete seriously in aforementioned dance contest, and the aforementioned MPDG (Jennifer Lawrence) who any sane viewer can see isn’t suitable, which makes the two, in movie terms, destined to be together.

Bradley and Jennifer spend most of the movie sparring and then making up, while Robert and his bookie friend make a complex bet which somehow entails Bradley getting a certain score in the dance contest. Of course, there are complications on the way to the competition, which involve Robert doing something even more devious than Anupam to ensure his son arrives there. (Spoiler: Pretending Brea will be there.) Surprisingly, it all works out in the end, and “Silver Linings Playbook,” deserves credit for (spoiler) not having the pair win the contest. But the viewer may be forgiven for wondering if the “cures” for Bradley’s ailments are not ultimately going to make him worse.








Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” opens with a close up of Jennifer Lawrence’s badly bruised throat which, as fans know, is due to her fellow Games competitor/love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to kill her because he’s been brainwashed/tortured by President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) minions after being captured in Part I. At first, she can barely croak out her name, but in the next scene, she’s able to argue with the Resistance’s leader (Julianne Moore) about Capitol defeating tactics and how the revolution of the ragtag army gathered in the District 13 bunker where she is should be spun (since it’s televised). This is typical of the movie’s approach to injuries: they look severe but don’t appear to leave much lasting damage. Jennifer herself gets burned, beaten, shot at, attacked by slime goblins, and pursued by waves of primordial slime, but in general, her hair stays clean and her complexion remains flawless. Still that doesn’t matter much because her character, Katniss Everdeen, is truly a kick-ass heroine.

All the gang who survived the first three movies are back, including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the younger crew of Willow Shields, Jena Malone, Liam Hemsworth (as rival love interest, Gale) and Sam Claflin, among others. Stanley Tucci also appears briefly as a former Hunger Games TV host, who has been appropriated by Donald’s allies and now regards Jennifer as a traitor. By now, Jennifer is having moral qualms about the nature of waging war, although as she points out, the pre-war world, in which teens competed to the death for the amusement of spectators, wasn’t ruled by sanity either.  Although Julianne wants her to stay out of harm’s way and be a safely intact symbol (the Mockingjay of the title), Jennifer eventually decides to get back into the thick of battle – and ultimately kill Donald who she sees as the cause of it all.  With his grandfatherly mien and fondness for white roses (which symbolize a heart without love), Donald is still hunkered down in his Capitol mansion, still making cryptic remarks, playing down his fading health, and eagerly watching to see what move Jennifer makes next.  Again as fans already know, Julianne’s character has mixed motives, which are going to cause personal heartbreak for Jennifer, even as she moves toward achieving their goal of a democratic Panem.

The script follows the book’s plot closely and is popular enough that it doesn’t need too many more explanatory details. In the end, Jennifer is at peace, as is Panem, although as a character points out, they’re in that brief period post-war where everyone is still making good decisions and homo sapiens’ gift for self-destruction isn’t as powerful.  Perhaps, he speculates, post-death, that they will learn from their past, or otherwise be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. The cast unsurprisingly does a great job all around, making you hope that these characters will choose the former. In an early “Mockingjay” scene, Woody recommends that Jennifer consider experimenting with warmth and sensitivity when she makes a speech. This the movie makers have done, as well, making this a standout end to a great series.