June 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

According to author Suzanne Collins, the concept that would later become "The Hunger Games" was born while she was swapping channels on TV, and happened to watch the contrast between reality shows and the Iraq war. With those images in mind, Collins took the myth of Theseus as basis and developed a novel of romance and science fiction about a futuristic society where television and death are heavily linked. Published in 2008, "The Hunger Games" appeared in a time in which young adult literature was at its best moment in terms of sales and popularity: Stephanie Meyer was at the top with her "Twilight" and there was a healthy audience for the genre that welcomed Collins' books with arms wide open. Naturally, talks about a film adaptation soon began, and just as the "Twilight" film series was about to end, director Gary Ross would start the series of films based on "The Hunger Games".

"The Hunger Games" takes place in the futuristic nation of Panem, which is made up by 12 Districts governed by a Capitol. After the rebellion and eventual destruction of a thirteenth district, the Capitol established the Hunger Games, a televised event in which two youngsters of each district, a male and a female, are selected in an annual lottery as "tributes", to fight against each other in a combat to death, until only one of them remains as victor. The story begins in the impoverished District 12, where young Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is chosen as female tribute for the celebration of the 74th Hunger Games. Knowing that young Prim wouldn't be able to survive in the games, her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) decides to trade places with her and voluntarily participate in the Hunger Games. This will be the first act of rebellion in Katniss' fight against the Capitol.

Adapted to the screen by author Suzanne Collins herself collaborating with scriptwriter Billy Ray and director Gary Ross, "The Hunger Games" is relatively faithful to its source novel, narrating Katniss' progress through the Hunger Games, as well as the relationship that's formed between Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson). Like the novel, the screenplay is focused totally on Katniss' character, and through her eyes it takes us inside this society in which entertainment controls the masses. However, another inheritance from the novel is that there is a greater weight placed on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta and the conflict this causes with Katniss' feelings for her best friend Gale, who remained in District 12. The plot unfolds smoothly, though often the many details that were cut while adapting the book are missed, as several aspects of the story are explored in a quite shallow way.

Director Gary Ross employs a series of different visual styles to narrate his movie, supporting himself in the effective work of cinematography done by Tom Stern. To do this, Stern gives a washed out look inspired by the Great Depression for the humble District 12, and contrasts it with the colorful kitsch world of the Capitol. However, with the idea of replicating the look of reality TV, Ross and Stern abuses a bit of "shaky cam", which becomes a tad annoying. The production design by Philip Messina is quite interesting as, with a certain degree of minimalism in its construction, it achieves a futuristic style that generates the appropriate atmosphere without taking precedence over the story, which is where director Gary Ross's vision is chiefly focused. This focus on the human side of the plot follows the novel's style, where Katniss' feelings are what matters the most over any aspect of social criticism that the premise may have.

Carrying the weight of the film is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, whom manages to transmit effectively the inner strength that her character has. Lawrence gives Katniss a restrained intensity, quite appropriated for a character as independent as hers. In fact, perhaps the only problem in Lawrence's performance as Katniss is the fact that she just doesn't look physically as someone who has lived in hunger (in fact, the hunger element is downplayed as a whole). The same thing happens to Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta Mellark. However, in contrast this is only the lesser of Hutcherson's problems, as his acting is considerably inferior to Lawrence's, lacking the naturalness and screen presence that his counterpart has, ending up looking wooden and stiff in his acting. The rest of the cast does have interesting moments, though in general, it's brief the screen time they could use, as the film is entirely focused on Katniss and Peeta.

This is perhaps the greatest problem in "The Hunger Games" as a science fiction film, because by centering exclusively on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, it leaves aside no only the supporting characters, but also any kind of exploration of the world that Collins has created in her story. In fact, the explanation of "The Hunger Games"' premise is reduced to a narrated explanation at the beginning, which isn't quite clear in its explanation about the Capitol or the 12 Districts. In general, any attempt to let us inside the workings of Panem's society ends up being too shallow, avoiding the chance of taking the plot to any kind of social commentary. This is particularly notorious in the fact that the great dramatic implication of the premise, having teenagers killing each others for a prize, isn't really tacked at all, and it would seem that none of those youngsters truly cares about being forced to kill each other.

Certainly, none of this prevents "The Hunger Games" from being entertaining, and in general, director Gary Ross makes an appropriate job in his film adaptation. However, there's still an odd feeling about the film, as if something was missing, as if it was incomplete in some way. By focusing exclusively on Katniss' feelings, the great potential of the film's premise has been sadly left aside, and the result is that rather than being a science fiction film with touches of romance, "The Hunger Games" is a teenage romance film with some deaths and brief touches of science fiction.


June 23, 2012

Trespass (2011)

American filmmaker Joel Schumacher's career is certainly one full of contrasts: after starting with a meteoric rise to fame with the making of two defining classics of 1980s pop culture ("St. Elmo's Fire" and "The Lost Boys" of course), Schumacher would cement a reputation as an effective artisan with a series of thrillers of acceptable quality, but unfortunately, he would end up crashing disastrously with a great classic of infamy: "Batman & Robin", film that put an end to the first saga of the Dark Knight and that irremediably became a liability for the rest of his career. From this point onwards, Schumacher's career has been uneven, as even when there has been an occasional hit ("Phone Booth"), the great majority of the results have not been truly favorable. "Trespass", thriller released in 2011 that starred Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, became sadly another example of this.

"Trespass" is the story of the Miller family, which is made of the skillful diamond trader Kyle (Nicolas Cage), his wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and their teenage daughter Avery (Liana Liberato). The Millers live in a modern and luxury mansion in the middle of the woods, and while they do have a privileged life, they aren't a quite functional family, as Sarah suffers from boredom as she feels abandoned by her husband, who seems to reject her, hiding himself under his absorbing job. At the same time, Avery is a rebel and stubborn teenager, whom escapes from home in order to go to a party one night. When Kyle is about to leave for business, a gang of criminals break into his house disguised as cops, and quickly subjugates the Millers with the intention of stealing diamonds. Lead by Elias (Ben Mendelsohn), the criminals torture the couple, but Kyle decides to use his skill to negotiate with them. Things get complicated when Sarah recognizes one of the criminals.

With the theme of criminals breaking and torturing a family, the screenplay by débutant Karl Gajdusek can't help to bring comparisons to horror films like "The Last House on the Left" or "Funny Games", however, Gajdusek doesn't follow that route and instead, what he explores in "Trespass" isn't horror, but suspense, building up a thriller where the question is if Karl will be able to use his skills to negotiate their escape. The premise isn't really bad, but unfortunately Gajdusek makes an awful job at developing int, falling in innumerable clichés, incoherences and ridiculous situations, as the characters seem to forget common sense in order to move on with the plot. Of course, there are interesting points, such as the Sarah's conflicts with her marriage that may or may not have ended with an extramarital affair. But Gujdasek is unable to tie up his ideas and the story looks more like a badly done farce than the thriller it aimed to be.

Joel Schumacher's direction doesn't really help to improve the disastrous screenplay that he has to work with. In fact, the polished work that Schumacher does (taking advantage of a great work of cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak) rather than hide the flaws in the screenplay it actually enhances them. Schumacher's style, so visually colorful, pristine clear and clean, ends up being perhaps too polished for the kind of gritty story that "Trespass" is. Too stylish perhaps. And while Schumacher does know how to handle suspense (as proved in "Phone Booth"), this time it seems as if, bored by his own story, Schumacher just had left the boat adrift. The result: a carelessly conceived rhythm, a complete lack of suspense, and a series of sequences where common sense is gone. Of course, certainly it's in Gajdusek's screenplay where most of "Trespass"' problems have its roots, but Schumacher's work is still pretty poor.

About the cast, it's a bit extraordinary to see two Academy Awards winners, Kidman and Cage, trying to survive unscarred in such a disastrous movie. And while it wouldn't be the first time that Cage is involved in a debacle, at least in previous occasions he had delivered performances with a certain commitment, with genuine interest in what he was doing. Not in "Trespass", where he limits himself to deliver an overacted version of his classic desperate persona. The beautiful Nicole Kidman looks lost in the middle of the chaos, with a performance that seems uninterested in what's going one, and that's based mainly in overacted screams and intense staring. The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to awfully terrible, with a wasted Ben Mendelsohn trying to make the most of his poorly written character, while Cam Gigandet and Jordana Spiro deliver the worst acting in the movie.

While the bad acting and the poor work of the director are already two highly negative elements, the real problem in "Trespass" is without a doubt the badly developed screenplay by Karl Gujdusek. Full of unnecessary plot twists and completely lacking verisimilitude, Gajdusek's "Trespass" is an example that even in fiction coherence is needed in the construction of the characters. Leaving aside the apparent elitism of his character design, the really problematic is the fact that his characters act in such an incompetent way as the story unfolds. Gajdusek doesn't shy away from sacrificing common sense in order to keep his story going, opting to use improbable situations instead of building any personality or motivation for his character's actions. In the end, the characters are mere walking clichés, empty stereotypes that seem more appropriate for a parody of the genre than for a real thriller.

As mentioned before, Schumacher doesn't do much to save the movie from disaster, and the result is a poorly done film that lacks any interest besides the morbidity of watching two Academy awards winners involved in a bad B-movie. Of course, there are some good things, such as the great cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak and the whole production design done by Nathan Amondson; but nevertheless, these elements aren't enough to give life to a movie that simply lacks spark. Joel Schumacher does know how to make a movie, his narrative is effective and the work is polished; however, "Trespass" seems like one of those times in which the director just lost interest in the project. A disaster. A beautifully looking disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in May the 18th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.