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Counterpoint Review: 'The Hunger Games' Is A Tired, Overlong Blockbuster Lacking Flair & Imagination

by Gabe Toro
March 20, 2012 9:03 AM
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With "The Hunger Games" arriving in theaters this weekend and expected to blow up the box office, early reviews have been very positive and anticipation has been running high. Our own review called it "an engaging, thoughtful, populist piece of entertainment that transcends gender, genre or source material." But not everyone in The Playlist camp felt the same. Here's a counterpoint review of the film, that offers up a wholly different assessment of the upcoming franchise starter.

The word “tribute” carries several loaded meanings. In “The Hunger Games,” it is that age-old plot device, the blood sacrifice. In the future nation of Panem, it is the government’s way of fooling the populace into love and respect for those in power. According to this film’s offscreen history, citizens rebelled, and societies crumbled as a result, leaving those in power to pick up the pieces and re-write the laws that govern us. To battle against what we can only surmise was a perversion of democracy has led to a future of sacrifice, under the guise of “tribute.”

Civilizations are back to simpler, more primitive times. The T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack and the natty-but-neat wardrobe suggest a Civil War atmosphere (the closing credits music, appropriately, comes from a band called The Civil Wars). It’s there where we meet our action hero, our tribute. The blond teenager Katniss Everdeen has already taken charge of her fatherless household, usurping her ineffectual mother, who stays home and cooks while Katniss hunts bounty for sale. Katniss’ little sister Primrose does not question what seems to be The New Normal as far as gender roles.

Into town comes the Hunger Games committee. Led by “Velvet Goldmine” outtake Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), they come to each of the nation’s Districts to recruit a young male and female for a competition that will pit them against each other to the death, the winner sharing the spoils with their region. Volunteering to keep her sister away from the games, Katniss ends up representing District 12 with unassuming local boy Peeta, whisked away to the big city where poverty is just a plot point on the presumably globally-televised Hunger Games.

As we soon learn, the Hunger Games have been going on for seventy-three years now, each year yielding a new people’s champion from each District. Katniss and Peeta, however, hang their heads. The smallish Peeta feels like the competition is merely a shortcut to the abattoir, while Katniss is mostly concerned with her sister and mother left at home without a provider. At no point is this position a likely fit for strong shouldered Gale, Katniss’ weepy-eyed boyfriend back home. Again, The New Normal.

Katniss’ reluctance to be the poster child for the Hunger Games at first seems like a genuine show of individuality. Why should she be dragged away from her family to become a performing monkey on television? It makes less sense that after years of everyone watching the Hunger Games, it's Katniss that would seem like an anomaly to Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy. As played by a salty Woody Harrelson, Abernathy is on hand as a former Hunger Games victor, though the event appears to have turned him into an alcoholic. A very high-functioning alcoholic who gives Katniss and Peeta a host of superficial tips and pep talks, by the way. If the Hunger Games are the equivalent to “American Idol,” then Abernathy might as well be a faded Kelly Clarkson.

After a publicity dog-and-pony show, Katniss and Peeta are thrust into the game, shoved out in the middle of nowhere with twenty-two other youths. Oddly enough, the movie runs at a punishing length, but the first half feels very much like a movie on its own, as Katniss learns how to work the futuristic p.r. machine. She softens and learns to love herself, and more importantly to be herself, safe in the knowledge that others will like her for who she is. Given the nature of blockbuster filmmaking, as soon as she’s forced to take action, all this character growth is deemed superfluous, and flies out the window.

Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss through an artificial tan, is pretty like a lump of coal. She’s got rigid, fascinating features, and there’s a shine that sometimes bursts through the cracks. But once you realize how to pierce that hard shell, that's the point you'll know where all this is going. Her Katniss is all steely-eyed resolve, which limits her facial expression when she’s forced to silently go on the run from her fellow competitors. As the other District representatives carve through each other with machetes, she hides in the trees, waiting for the right moment to strike. The fact that she can turn to murder as quickly as the other kids doesn’t seem to trouble the other contestants, though it does apparently tickle the event organizers (including an origami-faced Wes Bentley, who like the other adults is campy and reduced to reaction shots).

What’s interesting is this film’s philosophical angle. The morality of killing is shushed away like it’s not a concern for anyone, young or old. But what bothers Peeta, in a quiet scene, is the fact that he wants to stay true to himself, and not surrender his personality to appease the organization. Katniss, the film’s moral compass, lays it down a bit harsher, almost condescendingly so, when she cites her hardscrabble family back home, saying she can’t afford to think about individuality when she’s there to benefit those she’s left behind.

Meant to be selfless (as it no doubt is in the book), it’s a little more pointed in the film. All we’ve seen at home are a bunch of robe-clutching central casting lookalikes, none with any interests beyond hunting and killing for food, and speaking in quiet, earnest tones. But once the characters reach the city, it’s like a “Buckaroo Banzai” convention, where people have senses of humor, loud dress conventions, and outsized personalities, at least amongst the people we meet. In other words, yes, “The Hunger Games” is absent-mindedly fascist at worst. At best, it’s a portrait of two disparate worlds, none of them realized with any real flair or imagination.

Director Gary Ross, who earlier couldn’t find a cliché he couldn’t dumb down in “Seabiscuit,” seems less enamored with the getting-to-know-ya pitter patter, fast forwarding through most of the film’s laborious set-up. The first twenty minutes, mostly told through handheld shaky cam, capture crowds as unthinking line-ups in concise order and tight, well-mannered behavior, in a pristine, almost sterile environment not unlike early sci-fi films like Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451.” But that inspired dystopian nightmare is interrupted by oddly-placed big city gee-whillikers moments, followed by the monotony of the non-stop action. Using the same patch of land repeatedly, Ross’ dull visuals and turgid pacing run their course five minutes into the film’s second half, as Katniss seems to run in circles to avoid her attackers. Close-quarters combat is also a headache-inducing eyesore, a clutter of arms and limbs flying at each other, as if Ross is desperate to avoid revealing any bloodshed in his troubling kid-on-kid milieu. Ross apparently took no notes from his second-unit director regarding hand-to-hand combat, which is a pity, since said filmmaker was just coming off directing “Haywire." His name is Steven Soderbergh.

Ross also doesn’t seem to mind the marginalization of minorities in this curious future world. Much has been made of the controversy surrounding the lilywhite Lawrence as a character descried as “olive-skinned.” What’s curious is that her little sister and mother have perfectly light, unblemished white tones. Later on, there are three roles for black people (and none for Asian or Hispanic, curiously), and one is there to give Katniss an ongoing confidence boost, the other two to save her life. All have no motivation, goals, or inner lives, fueled by their desire to give a hand to this random white girl. Two of them die for it. If you think this is a spoiler, you’re a lot more optimistic about the presence of a non-star minority in a blockbuster film.

What’s disappointing is that, without knowledge of the books, it would be easy to find out that this was an adaptation. The film’s first half takes a hurried approach to introducing a flotilla of colorful supporting characters, all of whom are reduced to spending the second half of the movie watching a screen. All this clutter keeps us from truly knowing our lead character, particularly when she gets involved in a confused love triangle involving a curious beta-male angle. It would be an intriguing story point to expand upon, had the third act not devolved into a CGI monstrosity, turning “The Hunger Games” into any number of bland, poorly-shot YA films in recent years. It’s not much of a tribute. [D+]

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More: Hunger Games, Review, Jennifer Lawrence

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  • | April 15, 2012 7:17 AMReply

    Good points but next time I would spend more time being critical than reciting the plot...

  • soros | April 8, 2012 5:30 AMReply

    I was a bit disappointed by the film simply because it is so cliched. As for professional criticism, why not relate it to Orwell, Huxley, Zamyatin, all of whom established the dystopian genre. If this is meant as a satire of current society, let us know how. Or is it just more mindless entertainment?

  • Ryan | March 26, 2012 1:03 PMReply

    Do you people only read criticism to validate your own opinions?

  • soros | April 8, 2012 5:31 AM

    No Buddy. I read it to see what real critics have to say. There aren't many who can relate films to the broader culture, are there?

  • JessL | March 23, 2012 7:49 PMReply

    This is the snottiest review I've read so far. You focus on topics of minorities and skin color and write things like "Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss through an artificial tan, is pretty like a lump of coal". Where exactly is this coming from? I sincerely hope you haven't read the books, its the only reason I could think of for you to have written this kind of review.

  • Lover of the Book | March 23, 2012 12:12 PMReply

    I felt extremely let down by this movie. After so much passion and dedication to the book and so much anticipation for the movie, there was much to be disappointed by: the characterization of Peeta as weak and uncharming completely defies his presentation in the book; Katniss, too, lost spunkiness and a delightfully spirited quality that pervades the book. The interviews with Caesar Flickerman were dreadful--no charm or captivation. Why did the screen writers not rely on Suzanne Collins' conversations in the book? instead creating entirely new dialogue that altered the essence of who the characters are? The clumsy handling of what felt like an assured book-to- movie success is distressing. Two thumbs down.

  • Seán | March 21, 2012 6:44 PMReply

    Cant seem to think why the colour of the characters skin is mentioned at all in your review. From reading between the lines of your review I have a feeling you are a black person who is racist and bitter about this movie. I respect critics opinions but not when they have no relevance to the movie.

  • Jake | March 21, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    Wow I was looking for coherent thought in all of this but could not find any. First off blonde? She is a brunette in the film. Second someone that is described as olive skinned is usually of Caucasian decent. Yes there are people that are described as olive skinned in other regions of the Mediterranean but most people think of the Spanish, Italian, and Greeks.

  • Anthony Lattanzio | March 21, 2012 4:27 PMReply

    If you can't handle spelling the word "blonde" right, you shouldn't be writing movie reviews. Your grammar is a disaster. I can't believe you are in employed. I'm not just "being a hater" either. I haven't read the book and probably won't see the movie.

  • Thisafaux | March 24, 2012 8:32 PM

    Both "blond" and "blonde" are acceptable spellings.

  • Anthony Lattanzio | March 21, 2012 4:28 PM

    Naturally, I would spell something wrong when criticizing someone elses grammar lol.

    That should read, "I can't believe you are EMPLOYED."

  • Jason | March 21, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    I just watched the trailer. The premise sounds stupid, and if I were to see this movie I don't know that I can get past the stupid premise. I don't know if that makes me a bad person or if I just don't "get it", but it seems really stupid.

  • Charley | March 23, 2012 5:35 PM

    There are two ways to spell blonde/blond. Read a dictionary before making asinine comments.

  • Darren | March 21, 2012 1:06 PMReply

    Is this where I find all the cool guys that hate things because they're popular?

  • Jesse | March 21, 2012 9:30 AMReply

    The reviewer may have made several mistakes about the film and stupidly mentioned race, but I agree with all other points on the film. Wooden acting, poorly scripted and shot terribly.

  • Brandon | March 21, 2012 7:56 AMReply

    Throwing the racial complaints in there, which really have absolutely no relevance to the series what-so-ever, makes you extremely transparent. The movie may well be terrible, but that really doesn't change the fact that you have no business reviewing movies when you can't keep your articles professional without coloring your review with your own personal vendettas.

  • mAX | March 21, 2012 12:23 PM

    Its what Gabe does best. And this is why he's not a PROFESSIONAL critic.

  • nick | March 21, 2012 3:30 AMReply

    The only redeeming feature of this review was that it was so egregiously badly written that it was funny... Did you even WATCH the film??

  • Shar | March 21, 2012 2:51 AMReply

    This review is bullshit, someone's intent on being the cool kid that hates what everyone else likes. And she's not blonde, you massive fool.

  • Darren | March 21, 2012 1:04 PM

    I think you hit the nail on the head! While others are reading Shakespeare, he's the guy reading Dostoevsky telling them that Shakespeare wasn't really the guy who wrote those plays. I imagine he's a Ron Paul kind of guy. Someone who thinks they know more than you.

  • Kevin | March 21, 2012 1:34 AMReply

    This review is garbage. Sounds like some hipster's bitching instead of a professional review.

  • josh | March 21, 2012 1:31 AMReply

    Racist? Did you completely ignore how most of the tributes are also Asian, Hispanic, and White? this review is shit.

  • coulet | March 21, 2012 1:06 AMReply

    not that this review matters because his idiotic racial views and lack of facts overlook the true reasons why he disliked this movie. however no one will even take this seriously since he sounds like a 13 year old girl when he responds to the criticism. what a sad character.

  • 907nk | March 21, 2012 1:04 AMReply

    hahaha. sad he doesn't like the movie due to it being "racist".

  • Charley | March 20, 2012 3:37 PMReply

    I agree with this review wholeheartedly.

  • Oogle monster | March 20, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    Gabe Toro eats babies, hates sunshine, and votes Republican.

  • Gabe Toro | March 20, 2012 5:19 PM

    How incredibly offensive. I would never vote Republican.

  • Bad Taste | March 20, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    Gabe Toror A.K.A "I Have really bad taste in movies and i dont know what the fuck am i doing here at theplaylist"

  • Actually | March 21, 2012 12:53 AM

    He does not belong as a writer for any website, not because of his tastes but more about his lack of professionalism and maturity. He can bitch all he wants in some private blog (with any many inaccurate remarks to his heart's content), and have all the negative opinion as he wants about a movie, but if I read a review at a website like this, I don't want someone who responds like a 12 year old.

  • a | March 20, 2012 3:32 PM

    god forbid someone dislike a big-budget tentpole adaptation of a young-adult novel.

  • Ian | March 20, 2012 11:52 AMReply

    Great review. I saw a pre screening and thought the same.

  • Uh... | March 20, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    "The blond teenager Katniss Everdeen"

    Wow, I really want to like this review -- I wasn't a fan of the movie either -- but the hilarious mistakes and sludgy summarizing are killing me.

  • DL | March 21, 2012 12:26 AM

    You expect people to actually take you seriously when you can't even write correct statements about the movie, and then proceed to respond like you're a 16 year old child?

  • HK | March 21, 2012 12:20 AM

    Wow. Your manners are terribly unprofessional.
    And why are you trying so hard to shoe-horn in a racist angle here? I'm an Asian, and white-washing drives me nuts, but this film is hardly offensive enough to get all riled up about. But, like the person above said, things are taken out of context or false because you don't care in the first place.

    Some negative reviews I have read gave valid reasons, but I just see spite and malice here. I give this review a D. I will wait for a real counterpoint from this site.

  • To Gabe: | March 20, 2012 11:58 PM

    How professional, Gabe. Really nice and that shows me the kind of person you are. Good going.
    Oh, and the film is getting universally praised by critics. Trying to be original, huh? Jerk.

  • Gabe Toro | March 20, 2012 11:43 AM

    Sorry, that should have read, "the multicolored-haired teenager Katniss Everdeen because who cares about her hair as this has nothing to do with the content of the movie and I don't remember anyway because it doesn't matter so who gives a shit."

  • Stephanie | March 20, 2012 11:08 AMReply

    This review makes absolutely no sense. I loved the way everything was transfer on to the screen! Its a story of a rebellion coming into action. I'm sorry this story isn't a sappy love story.

  • Jake | March 20, 2012 10:48 AMReply

    Why do some people always need to force the question of race into everything...

  • Benjamin | March 20, 2012 10:08 AMReply

    Gabe Toro: Taking White Hollywood Down One Blockbuster at a Time

  • Christopher Bell | March 20, 2012 1:34 PM


  • Benjamin | March 20, 2012 11:03 AM

    Cute?! Did you watch my show with blinders on?

  • Christopher Bell | March 20, 2012 10:52 AM

    Benjamin: Former Cute Younger Sibling Replaced By Chrissy in "Growing Pains"

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