“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

The year 2008 saw the publication of a best-selling novel for young adults called “The Hunger Games”.  Written by Suzanne Collins, the novel’s success led to the publication of two sequels and a Hollywood adaptation of the first film some three or four years later.

Directed by Gary Ross and adapted by him, Collins and Billy Ray; “THE HUNGER GAMES” is about a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen, who lives in  a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, which consists of a wealthy city called the Capitol that  is surrounded by 12 less affluent districts. As punishment for a past rebellion against the government, the Capitol created the Hunger Games – a televised annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts are selected in a lottery as “tributes”.  They are required to fight to the death in a wilderness arena until there is one remaining victor. When the name of Katniss’ sister, Primrose, is called as the female tribute for their district, the 16 year-old volunteers to take Primrose’s place in order to save the latter from participating in the 74th Hunger Games.  Katniss is joined by her district’s male tribute, the son of a baker named Peeta Mellark.  They travel to the Capitol to train for the Hunger Games, under the guidance of former victor Haymitch Abernathy.

When the media blitz for “THE HUNGER GAMES” had first began, I dismissed it.  Especially since all I  heard were comparisons to the HARRY POTTER franchise.  The comparisons merely led me to roll my eyes in contempt.  Not even the publicity blitz surrounding Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy could generate my interest.  However, by the time “THE HUNGER GAMES” was a week or two away from its theater release, I suddenly became interested.  My interest was ignited by the fact that over a month had passed since I last saw a decent new movie during the early spring of 2012.  I went to see the movie at my local movie theater and left feeling more than satisfied.

I might as well admit it.  I was very impressed by “THE HUNGER GAMES”.  I was more than impressed.  Director Gary Ross did a superb job in bringing Suzanne Collins’ novel to life on the movie screen.  More importantly, the movie’s dark portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future not only impressed me, but frightened me a little.  Considering the present economic state of the world, it was pretty easy to image such a future for this country.  “THE HUNGER GAMES” was not the first science-fiction movie with a setting featuring a wide disparity between the haves and have-nots.  Last fall saw the release of a movie called  “IN TIME”.  Whereas that movie suffered from a plot that went nowhere in its last act, “THE HUNGER GAME” ended on a more satisfying note – aside from the last minute or two.  There were two main aspects of “THE HUNGER GAME” that made this movie so terrifying to me.  One, the participants of this deadly game were children between the ages of 12 and 18, not adults.  And more importantly, the actual games, which unfolded through two-thirds of the movie, came damn close to be a young adult remake of the chilling 1972 movie, “DELIVERANCE”.  Watching a group of adolescents and pre-adolescents being forced to ruthlessly kill each other pretty much made my skin crawl.  Kudos to Suzanne Collins for creating a very effective tale and the same to Ross for translating it so well to the screen.

I was not surprised to learn that the exteriors for “THE HUNGER GAMES” were filmed in North Carolina.  The movie’s opening sequence, along with the setting for the actual games did look as they had been filmed somewhere in that state.  However, I was surprised to learn that the entire movie was filmed there.  Apparently, Lionsgate took advantage of an $8 million tax break from North Carolina in order for the movie’s principal photography to take place there.  Most of the outdoor scenes – the arena and the District 12 outskirts – were filmed at the DuPont State Forest.  And cinematographer Tom Stern did an excellent job in doing justice to the location’s natural beauty.  But he, along with Ross, did an even better job in transforming the cities of Shelby and Charlotte.  They were aided by production designer Phil Messina, whose designs for the Capitol were inspired by 1939 New York’s World Fair, along with Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow.  Messina’s designs gave the Capitol an extravagant and decadent feel, in sharp contrast to the rural poverty of District 12.  I was also impressed by Judianna Makovsky’s colorful costume designs, along with the outrageous hairstyles and make up – especially for the characters in the Capitol.

But the movie’s plot, production designs, cinematography and other aspects of “THE HUNGER GAMES” would not have worked without Gary Ross’ direction and the outstanding cast led by Jennifer Lawrence.  I have only seen Lawrence in one previous movie – last year’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” – and I was impressed by her performance.  But she was even more impressive as this movie’s leading character, Katniss Everdeen.  Many have not only gushed over Lawrence’s portrayal of the 16 year-old Katniss, but they have also labeled her as a new breed of female action heroes and a feminist icon that has not been seen  on television or in the movies for years.  I do not know if I agree with the latter assessment, but I cannot deny that Lawrence did a superb job in portraying an adolescent girl who is not only strong-willed and intelligent, but also very complex.  Another performance that took me by surprise came from  Josh Hutcherson, who portrayed Katniss’ fellow combatant from District 12, Peeta Mellark.  Hutcherson’s Peeta has such a mild-mannered persona, I had assumed that the character would not last very long in the competition . . . or would at least proved to be a weak character that would eventually turn on Katniss.  Color me surprised.  But Hutcherson’s performance seemed so subtle and skillful that I was surprised to discover that his character had really grown on me by the end of the movie.

“THE HUNGER GAMES” was also lucky to possess solid performances from the supporting cast.  Liam Hemsworth – brother of Chris – gave a nice performance as Katniss’ childhood friend, Gale Hawthorne.  Fortunately for Hemsworth, he will be given the opportunity to strut his stuff, when his role becomes bigger in the upcoming sequels.  Woody Harrelson already managed to show what a first-rate actor he could be in his superb performance as the complex and alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 winner of the Hunger Games, who is assigned to act as mentor for Katniss and Peeta.  There was a good deal of controversy surrounding the casting of Amandla Stenberg as the Games’ youngest participant, Rue.  Certain fans took issue with her racial background.  Pity.  Because I was very impressed by her subtle, yet charming peformance as Katniss’ competitor and ultimate friend.  Elizabeth Banks gave a rather funny performance as Katniss and Peeta’s uptight chaparone, Effie Trinket.  Singer Lenny Kravitz (and father of Lawrence’s “X-MEN” co-star and friend, Zoë Kravitz) was surprisingly first-rate as Katniss and Peeta’s stylist, Cinna.  It has been a while since I have seen Wes Bentley in a movie.  And it was heartening to see that he had not lost his touch in his ability to portray very complex characters.  He certainly gave a superb and complex performance as the 74th Hunger Games’ Head Gamekeeper, Seneca Crane.  Donald Sutherland was also superb as President Coriolanus Snow, the introverted, yet ruthless leader of the Capitol and all of Panem.  The movie also boasted fine performances from Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Dayo Okeniyi, Isabelle Fuhrman and Alexander Ludwig.

What else can I say about “THE HUNGER GAMES”?  It is one of the top-grossing movies in recent years or perhaps even of all time.  Whether it deserves this honor or not, I cannot deny that it turned out to be a surprisingly well made movie, thanks to Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, the movie’s production team and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.  I had felt some anxiety when I first heard that Ross has not signed up to do the movie’s sequel, “CATCHING FIRE”.  Pity.  Fortunately, his successor ended up being an equally good director.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“HORRIBLE BOSSES” (2011) Review

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“HORRIBLE BOSSES” (2011) Review

The summer of 2011 provided moviegoers with a slew of what I would call raunchy black comedies. May saw the release of “BRIDESMAIDS” and “THE HANGOVER, PART II”. “BAD TEACHER” premiered in late June of that year. And early July 2011 saw the release of the most successful of the bunch, “HORRIBLE BOSSES”.

Directed by Seth Gordon, “HORRIBLE BOSSES” starred Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. The trio co-starred as three best friends who decide to murder their respective overbearing, abusive bosses (portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell) who they believe are standing in the way of their happiness. Nick (Bateman) works at a financial firm for emotionally-abusive Dave Harken (Spacey), who dangles the possibility of a promotion to Nick, only to award it to himself. Dale (Day) endures sexual harassment from his boss, Dr. Julia Harris (Aniston), who threatens to falsely tell Dale’s fiancee that he had sex with her unless he actually has sex with her. And Kurt (Sudeikis) actually enjoys his job under his boss Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland). But after Jack dies from a heart attack, the company is taken over by Jack’s cocaine-addicted, amoral son Bobby (Farrell). One night at a bar, Kurt jokingly suggests that their lives would be happier if their bosses were no longer around. After a brief hesitation, the trio agree to the idea. In search of a hit-man, the friends travel to a bar and meet Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), an ex-con who agrees to be their “murder consultant”. Jones suggests that Dale, Kurt and Nick kill each other’s bosses to hide their motive while making the deaths look like an accident.

I really did not know how I would accept “HORRIBLE BOSSES”. Being a fan of the 2009 movie, “THE HANGOVER”, I had found myself slightly disappointed by its first sequel, “THE HANGOVER, PART II”.  To be honest, I did not really anticipate “HORRIBLE BOSSES”. But since I was in the mood to watch a new movie, I went ahead and saw it anyway. And I enjoyed it . . . very much.

Screenwriters Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein did a great job in finalizing a script that took several years to finalize. Superficially, the idea of three amateurs committing murder without attracting the attention of the police seems rather ridiculous. Two of the characters, Nick and Dale, certainly viewed the idea with amusement or disbelief. But further transgressions by their respective bosses finally pushed them to the idea with hilarious results. One of the funniest aspects of “HORRIBLE BOSSES” was the problem that the three friends endured to find a professional hit man to do the job. Their search led to a hilarious meeting at a motel with a man who does “wet work” (Ioan Gruffudd) – namely pissing on his clients. The three friends’ second search for a hit man leads them to a local bar, where Kurt manages to insult an African-American bartender in an effort to be “politically correct”. Their trip to the bar also leads them to “Motherfucker” Jones, an ex-convict who claims to be a hit man. As it turns out, Jones went to prison for video piracy and merely conned the three friends for money. But after agreeing to be their “murder consultant”, his advice for them to kill each other’s boss led to some hilarious scenes, including one that featured Dale’s encounter with the psychotic Dave Harken, when the latter nearly died from accidentally consuming some peanuts.

“HORRIBLE BOSSES” benefited from some funny performances by the supporting cast. Well, most of the supporting cast was funny. Only Donald Sutherland, who portrayed Kurt’s amiable boss, was never given a chance to display his talent for comedy. Thankfully, the likes of Ioan Gruffudd, Julie Bowen, P.J. Byrne and Bob Newhart received the chance to tickle the audiences’ funny bones. The three actors hired to portray the “horrible bosses” proved to be horrifying in a hilarious way. If I have to be honest, Dave Harken was not the first aggressive psycho he has portrayed in a comedy. His performances in “SWIMMING WITH SHARKS” and “THE MEN WHO STARED AT GOATS” come to mind. Despite his past experiences with such characters, Spacey still managed to make it all look fresh in his portrayal of Nick’s manipulative and aggressively controlling boss. Jennifer Aniston’s performance as Dr. Julia Harris was a revelation. Mind you, her Rachel Green character on the television series, “FRIENDS” was very complex. But I have never seen her portray such a scummy character before . . . and with such comedic skills. Colin Farrell’s appearance in the movie was not as long as Spacey and Aniston’s, but it was just as funny. In fact, I would cite Farrell’s performance as coke-addicted and self-delusional Bobby Pellitt as the funniest of the three performances. His rants against the employees he wanted fired struck me as one of the funniest scenes in the movie. And finally, it was good to see Jamie Foxx in a comedy again. Actually, he had a supporting role in the 2010 movie, “DUE DATE” and he was funny. But his role in that movie seemed mildly amusing in compare to his hilarious portrayal of “Motherfucker” Jones, the criminal wannabe, who seemed more adept at video pirating and posing than being a hardened criminal.

But the craziness of “HORRIBLE BOSSES” could have easily fallen apart without Seth Gordon’s direction and especially the performances of the three leads – Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. As funny as the movie was, it was bizarre enough to fall apart at the slightest misstep. One, the trio made a solid and charismatic comedy team. I would go as far to add that they could easily rival the comedic team from the “HANGOVER” movies. Jason Bateman is deliciously sardonic and witty as the ass-kissing Nick Hendricks, who spent most of his professional career toadying to guys like Dave Harken. I have never been aware of Jason Sudeikis before this movie. I am aware that he had co-starred with Aniston in the 2010 comedy, “THE BOUNTY HUNTER”, but I do not even remember him. He was certainly memorable as the trio’s verbose lady’s man, who first talked his two friends into committing murder. But the funniest performance came from Charlie Day, who portrayed the slightly nervous and “hopelessly romantic” Dale Arbus. It is quite apparent that most of the other characters – including his two buddies – have no real respect for him. Nick and Kurt did not take his complaints of sexual harassment by his boss seriously. One, I suspect they find it hard to believe that any female would find him attractive and two, society views the idea of a man complaining of sexual harassment by a woman seems ludicrous. But it was the hilarious and socially awkward Dale who found an effective way of dealing with the sexually aggressive Julia without any problems, whatsoever.

There have been some complaints about “HORRIBLE BOSSES”. Some critics have complained that the movie was racially or gender-wise offensive. Others have complained that it was silly. I agree that “HORRIBLE BOSSES” was silly . . . but in a positive way. Besides, most comedies of this manner tend to be rather silly. But thanks to a wacky script and a first-rate cast, the silliness in “HORRIBLE BOSSES” made it the most enjoyable comedy I have seen in quite a while. I really look forward to its DVD release.