Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games and Objectivity: A Review/ Philosophical Treatise



So I saw The Hunger Games last night, and I thought it was really, very good.

I guess I should start out by saying that even though I had read the first book, it didn't really capture my imagination in any sort of profound way, and therefore didn't inspire me to read the next too—but at the same time, I could be objective enough to see why it appealed to others, and I certainly didn't automatically condemn it as being “bad” simply because I didn't like it.

So I went in the movie with no real expectations whatsoever, and I was pleasantly surprised, always a good feeling in a theater. I got home, prowled around a couple of places, and was shocked to see a critical divide!

Well, okay, basically I checked Moviebob's review on Escapist Magazine (he didn't like it, BTW), the comments on his review, Rotten Tomatoes, and the new Entertainment Weekly that came in yesterday. The latter two are in accord about the quality of the movie. The first two...not so much. 

I was in shock!

How could people think this movie's bad? How could people really come out of the theater with a sense of mediocrity? And that, in the end, led to another question, one I think people have been trying to solve since Cain knifed Abel in the back with a sharpened piece of shale: can we not agree on anything?

Now I'm mostly talking about art here when I say this, so conversations about the political structure of China, the “White Man's Burden” and the U.S. Policy of foreign intervention aren’t really the focus of this post. But attitudes towards all those things as well can be traced to a fundamental shift in methodology of thought the world over; for our purposes, however, I'm going to hammer down on a form of Literary Criticism called “Deconstructionism.”

At its core, Deconstructionism is a pattern of critique thought up by French philosopher and literarian Jacques Derrida and his other French ilk that basically reinvented the very way texts are studied in anything around the college level. The movement was a reaction to the structuralism mode of thought that human thoughts and feelings and actions could be understood by a means of structural linguistics independent of other forms of reality...the most infamous pedagogy birthed from this probably being the “binary oppositions,” words that are spoken with venom in any University English class nowadays. Of the myriad binary oppositions the two most well acknowledged are the dichotomies between masculine/feminine and the domestic/other. Derrida and others in this new French movement turned these concepts on their heads, arguing that since meaning in language is being endlessly deferred and therefore endlessly interpretable, language can be used to undermine these oppositions. (Note: it may come as no shock to you that this movement found its genesis in the late sixties and earlier seventies, for some very, very odd reason coinciding with the second wave feminist movement and the disillusion held toward the classical familiar and societal structures that had dominated the West, specifically the United States, since after WWII. --E)

I think the two discerning people reading this have figured out what the deal is.

See, the rise of Deconstructionism had far-reaching effects, beyond the confines of the literary milieu for which it had been created. Now everything that appeared noble could be undermined into something sinister, and everything that appeared evil could be found to have some merit. Anybody who watches or reads the news has an idea of what I'm talking about. From politics to movies to books and philosophy, the figment of Deconstructionism has ingrained itself to the very core.


Now I want to be clear: THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. Really. It makes us more thoughtful, more understanding, more careful of what we say. For example, the biggest domestic/other binary opposition we would have to day is undoubtedly that of Domestic/Terrorist, or by extension, Domestic/Muslim. Now in the early 1900's, undoubtedly the 9/11 attacks would have instantly painted all Muslims as domestic enemies and evil caricatures, no if, ands, buts, or complaints about it. And while there are still shades of that in 2012, a lot of it has at least been tempered or combated with a wide swath of people arguing for the Muslim people and, most saliently, pointing out some of the hypocritical atrocities the United States has committed, for example...which is deconstructionist undermining at its finest. It also has allowed for the legitimization of such things as horror movies, B-movie schlock, and pulp fiction (Pulp Fiction the Tarantino movie is one of the best examples of deconstructionist methodology you could watch. Actually, all of Tarantino's movies are the best examples of deconstructionist methodology that you could watch...--E).

So Deconstructionism and its aftershocks have done a lot of good for the world. By tearing down the walls between binary oppositions, by provoking new thought, by not letting us believe that we ever have figured something out completely, and by creating a paradigm where everyone can have a valid interpretation, and therefore everybody can have a voice.

But the problem with Deconstructionism is that everybody has a voice.

This is not to say that people shouldn't speak their minds or give their opinions on things. But this is to say that the intricate workings of human nature make it so that these people speaking their minds and giving their opinions are sometimes (read: often) misinformed, ignorant, and, most importantly, not self-aware.

The biggest issue is the self-awareness, because while being misinformed and ignorant aren't very good things, the worst is not knowing you are ignorant and misinformed. The problem with everyone having a voice is that it's created a system where pretty much everyone thinks they are the center of the universe, and that their unilateral opinions on a work are the objective truth without any room for argument.

This is...a bit of a problem.

Because of it and the aforementioned lack of self-awareness, not to mention the fact that any idiot can get online and babble about anything they want from Toe cramps to deconstructionism...ahem...

It means that anybody can put out these objective but unsupported statements while remaining blissfully unaware that their opinion is their opinion, and has nothing to do with objectivity in art.

“BUT WAIT!” cried the internet. “CAN THERE BE OBJECTIVITY IN ART?!?!?”

That's the thing: I don't really know. Art is such a personal thing, so reliant on the individual affect it has on viewers, that I don't know if there can really be true objectivity in art.

But that doesn't mean I'm not going to try.

Because I think that having some form of objectivity in art is important, at the very least because it helps us identify, you know, what's actually good and what actually sucks. What deserves to last and what is dependent on fleeting feelings superficial excitement (looking at you, Transformers). And at the very very least, I think it's the only fair to these hardworking artists, actors, directors, cinematographers, authors, editors, makeup...ers, and so on, who are not setting out to make a bad film and really don't deserve to be scorned and derided by a bunch of lackwits on the internet, especially when they have put out a quality film.

“BUT WAIT!” cried the internet once more. “WHO ARE YOU TO SAY A FILM IS QUALITY OR NOT?!?!?”

I'm nobody, really. And that's why objectivity is so difficult. Here's a guy who's not intimately involved with the movie business in any capacity other than a fan of art and a college graduate in the field of pretentious douchebaggery literature and literary criticism, portending to be able to review a work of film objectively without bias or personal opinion creeping in—which is exactly what millions of bloggers everyday proclaim they are doing.

So as I write this review, please know that it's almost as much a thought experiment than a review, that I'm not denying the personal opinions of anyone who's seen the movie, and that I'm probably possibly flat out wrong about some things.

I am, however, curious about objectivity in art, whether it’s possible, or whether it’s forever doomed to be judged on the whims of the populace. Does majority rule, or personal opinion rule, no matter how well-intentioned or informed? Or is there a way that we can look deep inside ourselves, know ourselves, and one day, come to state, that “Although I did not personally like The Hunger Games, I must admit that it is a quality-made film” ? Maybe, maybe not.


First of all, the jargon: if we are going to make an objective review, the two words that cannot be used are “good” and “bad.” This is because good and bad are value judgments based entirely in the realm of personal opinion. Plus, they’re very vague, and yet, at the same time, very absolute. This is great for debate and discussion. Not so great for objectivity. So the word use must be changed. For this review, then, I am going to coin the phrase “objective quality.”

Is this phrase perfect? Odds are, no. But at the very least it’s more forgiving than a dichotomy of “good” and “bad.” There’s more of an implied “scale” involved, if you will. Something can be of low quality, middling quality, high quality, and everything in between. Plus, “quality” can be hammered down a bit better than “goodness” can. We all know when something is of high quality and low quality—hopefully, in this way, it can be applied to certain facets of artistic endeavor.

The second step in setting up our objective review is establishing what exactly quality means, which is its own challenge. Like I said, we all understand on some basic level which things are of High quality, middle, and low. The difference being that it hasn't been applied to art in such a fashion in a good long while (Note: it's basically what the New Critics and Structuralists were going for—unfortunately, they were going about it the wrong way. But that's another post. --E).

See, since art is amorphous and endlessly interpretable, deciding what makes an artistic work of high quality or low is much more complex than, say, deciding what furniture is of high quality or low. There's no true physicality to it—it's all very ethereal and intellectual and so much of it depends on a reaction of an individual viewer or the zeitgeist of a community. There are, however, certain things that we intrinsically understand “make-up” a movie, or a book, or a video game. That is, there are facets of a film that make it a film—without these facets, the work wouldn't be a film at all. It is these facets that will stand in for our physicality and immediateness of experience by which we induce what level of quality an object is.

To use film as the primary example, one facet of filmmaking that is intrinsic for something to be a film and not, say, a play is, of course, the camera. So it would follow that for a film to be of high quality, the camera work would have to be of high quality (usually, but we'll get to that in a minute). Meaning we have to first understand what defines camera work of high quality, low quality, and all the rest in between—and to do that (My God, this is like a recursive nightmare) we have to get a baseline grasp of what the purpose of camera work is. What is it there for? What is it meant to do?

Well, for starters and at its most basic, the camera is there to let the audience see what is happening and understand it. That sounds very obvious and simplistic, but consider how many movies we’ve seen over the past few years in which you cannot tell what’s going on in an action scene because certain directors think shaking the camera makes something “cool” and “chaotic.” So at its most basic function, the camera should let the audience understand what’s occurring on screen. Now this is not very authorial or stylistic, so camera work like this would not be considered of high objective quality. But neither would it be of low. It’s the bare minimum someone can do with the camera and still have the camera work be of average quality. Ideally, for the camera work to be of high objective quality, it would be able the let the audience see and understand what’s happening on screen while taking advantage of the camera’s ability to put the audience in a certain mode of though, or capture a visual that makes a lasting impact.

So, we have our jargon and our definitions of quality down. Now we have to establish some criteria. What exactly makes a good movie? The answer (like everything else in this post, it seems) is quite complicated, but to boil it down to its essence, for our purposes, we have to understand what a movie is, and how it works. A movie is a visual medium that tells a story, with the added caveat that it can use, cut, twist and pummel its visuals in any way it likes. This is what separates movies from a play: there is camera work, and a limit to what can be seen that is very freeing. Not to mention vagaries of sound, the ability to traverse the globe in seconds, the ability to invoke emotional passion through an added music score, etc.

So for a movie to have high objective quality, it has to have objective quality in the very things that make it a movie.

Let’s go back to the camera. Camera work is basically what makes a movie a movie. Otherwise, it's a play with really intricate sets and an invisible orchestra. Therefore, for a movie to be of high objective quality, the direction of the camera work--its cinematography and editing—must be of high objective quality.

A movie relies on performances, just like a play. It is through the performances that we come to care about the characters presented, and therefore the story being told. Therefore, for a movie to be of high objective quality its acting has to be of high objective quality.

A movie relies on dialogue and action, just like all forms of narrative art. It relies on telling a story that captures the viewer and makes them desire to see it through to the end. Therefore, for a movie to be of high objective quality its writing must be of high objective quality.

All forms of narrative art depend on a willing suspension of disbelief, a balance that is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. The more wild and fantastic the movie, the harder that balance is to create. But at the same time, the more grounded the movie, the easier it is for suspension of disbelief to collapse. Since movies have the added burden of being seen, a movie's suspension of disbelief can be snapped from something as paltry as a setting being off or an effect looking fake. Therefore, a movie can only be of high objective quality if its visual effects (including makeup, sets, and CGI) are of high objective quality.

One of a movie’s greatest strengths is its ability to play with sound. Sounds are so very important in a movie, that some of them have gone down in history just as greatly as acting performances or direction. The strum of a lightsaber, the roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the sweeping, effortless orchestra of the Lord of the Rings score. Sound in film can emblazon the audience with an understanding of the film that action and direction alone sometimes cannot. It also serves the purpose of enhancing that all-too-important willing suspension of disbelief: we can partly buy a T. Rex in a theme park because it looks like a T. Rex, but we also buy it because it sounds like a T. Rex, right down to the ominous thump its heavy feet make on the ground. Therefore, a movie can only be of high objective quality if its sound design (sound and score) are of high objective quality.


But, says the discerning reader. What about tone poems? What about movies made in 1960 with terrible visual effects? What about Michael Bay, who has awesome visual effects but whose movies are usually the worst sorts of excess and incomprehensibility? What about the Tree of Life, which is so dense it might as well be a brick?

A review in this form will inevitably lead to the kinds of questions above: if one of the criteria is not up to snuff, does that automatically make the whole movie lack high objective quality?

It’s a conundrum that it took me a while to work out; and truth be told, I’m still not sure if I actually have, or if it can be figured out. We’re toeing the line here as it is, trying to push some kind of objectivity into inherently subjective mediums. The answer I have come up with, however, is one of purpose. I’ve written in other posts before about how all art, especially all narrative art, has a theme. I’ll expand upon that a bit more and put forth the notion that all narrative art has a purpose. A goal that it sets out to accomplish. This isn’t to say that filmmakers and writers have a specific frame of mind of what a movie should accomplish (nor should they), but I will posit that the most well-rounded filmmakers and writers do have some sort of idea about what their work is aiming for, and what it’s aiming to do. To use Steven Spielberg as an example, the purpose behind Raiders of the Lost Ark and, say, Schindler’s List is monumentally different. Both films have a decidedly Spielbergian influence, yet Spielberg is wise enough to understand the appeal of each of these very different films. Raiders of the Lost Ark is about adventure, excitement, danger—it’s about action, cheering for the good guys, rooting against the bad guys. It’s about sitting on the edge of your seat and wondering how Indy is going to get out of this trap. It’s fun, okay? It’s fun. Schindler’s List on the other hand is about heavy emotional impact. It’s about letting us get a glimpse of both humanities greatest pitfalls and its greatest feats of courage. It’s about human connection. It’s about history, and madness, and doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming adversity. It’s about culture; it’s about keeping a connection to an especially sordid moment in human history. Both have Nazis in them, but seeing a deuce and a half explode courtesy of a fifty caliber gun nest and some lighted gasoline would have been out of place and gauche in Schindler’s List: it would not have fit the purpose of the movie.

I said all that to make this point: a movie can “fudge” a bit in some of these criteria and still be of objective quality as long as it fits the purpose of the movie. For example, Indiana Jones is a one-dimensional character, especially in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He barely has an arc…hell, I think you could argue that he has no arc throughout the film. He’s a tough, intelligent cocksure ladies man at the beginning of the film, and he’s a tough, intelligent, cocksure, ladies man at the end. There’s no real “lesson” learned, no event that changes his mindset or thought process; so just under the “writing” portion, it would appear that the writers have failed to make Indiana Jones a three-dimensional character, and therefore it would severely hurt the objective quality of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

However: when you parse out the purpose and the intent behind Raiders of the Lost Ark, and how well it was able to accomplish that purpose, by using the other established criteria, it becomes apparent that in this instance it’s okay that the main character isn’t a fully fleshed out human being. The purpose of Raiders is not to give us a character study. Raiders’ purpose is about excitement, adventure, and living vicariously through this untouchable, debonair badass hero who is so self-assured he has no need of an arc or other dimensions beyond his adventurous, persevering ways.

Now this focus on purpose sounds well and good for movies which are generally well-liked anyway—it may, however, fall apart in movies that are so critically divided and esoteric that it’s hard to state its objective quality no matter what its purpose. I’m thinking of films like Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life. Now, I wish to go ahead and state that I have not seen the film and am going basically off reviews and comments on message boards and from the people who worked on it, but basically half the people on the planet think it’s one of the most beautiful films they’ve ever seen and the other half think it’s a bloated, pretentious mess. Who’s right? Where does the objective quality come in? It’s hard to say (especially after having not seen the film), but just by what I’ve read, heard and seen discussed, the purpose of The Tree of Life is to tell a story of human life/existence in a visually expressive and visually unique way. So if I were judging this objectively, I would probably give it high marks, objectively, for direction: beautiful cinematography, lighting, settings, etc, but low marks for writing, because it’s attempting to tell a story but does a fairly bloated and dense job of doing so.


I promise the actual review is near, I promise! But I did want to say one more thing about giving “grades” to art forms, be it film, video games, books, or what have you.

I’m torn, honestly. I think a grade can be useful provided that it has enough range to describe significant differences in quality while not having too much that there’s no discernible difference between grades (what, exactly, is the difference between an 8.8 and an 8.9?).  I also don’t think grades are a good tool for summing up entire movies—like Yahtzee says, movies and video games and all art, really, are too complicated to mark down as a “3 out of 4” or what have you. It puts you in a position like Roger Ebert’s in: where a mediocre move gets two and a half stars out of four but a really good movie gets three and a half—only one star more? WTF?

If grades are going to be used, I would say that they should be used in the grading and summarization of different facets of the movie/book/video game, not the work as a whole. And if there’s not enough space to do that in a 500 word newspaper article, maybe it would be better if there was no grade at all.

For my purposes, I won’t give an overall grade to the final film, but I will give grades to individual portions, just for a sense of the objective quality of each component of the film.


I know, I know. All four of you reading this have probably been going crazy, on the edge of your seat, waiting for this moment. Well, no one can ever say I’m not a benevolent Pretentious Douchebag. That being said, I think it prudent to put up one final disclaimer, so everyone will be sure to know where I’m coming from:

This review is an experiment, more scientific than artistic. I’m merely trying to see if it is even possible to judge a film on objective worth. I’m not trying to say your opinion is wrong, or that I am right. In fact, odds are I’m wrong about a lot of things. I’m not in the film industry, I’ve never been behind a camera, and I’ve rarely been in front of one, and certainly not in the arena of an 80 million dollar project. But if there’s one thing the internet has done, it’s let everyone have a voice, for better or for worse.

This is not a statement on how “good” the film is. Goodness is a subjective quality up for endless debate—which is what we have in the world of film criticism anyway. And that is great. It’s fantastic. It’s what art is designed for: debate, culture, where we stand as human beings and why we individually think the way we do.

No, this is not a statement about goodness.

It’s a statement about quality.

Does this work succeed as a film? Where does it excel, where does it fall flat? Should film students look to it as an example of a good production? Does it do what it intends to do? Should the filmmakers feel proud of it, no matter what the critical/popular consensus is? That’s what this review is designed to be.

Will it be successful? Hell, I don’t know. But I will try to be as objective as possible, taking my own personal biases out of it. So join me, won’t you?

This is my (objective?) review of The Hunger Games.

Direction: (e.g. Cinematography, lighting, editing, shot selection)

Gary Ross is the director of The Hunger Games, and his work in the film is up-and-down. Beautiful shots are juxtaposed next to gratuitous close ups and rather excessive shaky cam...and that’s not even getting into the action scenes. The first third of the movie falls most prey to this, as the camera continues to wobble for no real reason that I can parse out. Same thing with the close ups: there’s bordering-on too many of them in this first third, and again, for no discernible reason. I’m sure Mr. Ross has them, but I’m not sure they came across, whatever they were. The word to use here is “extraneous,” I think. The shaky-cam in these still scenes could be completely excised and there would be no difference in tone.

The second time I saw the movie (with my sister Little E), she commented that she “liked” shaky cam. Now of course, that’s a personal opinion, and doesn’t really have a place in what I’m trying to accomplish in this review—but I bring it up because I think it’s a good way to define what extraneous really means—I have no doubt she liked the shaky cam…but if Gary Ross came out with a “Special Edition” (God help us) of The Hunger Games and removed the shaky cam from the scenes in District 12, would she really notice? Would she care? I honestly don’t believe so. Good direction takes into account the purpose of its shots. Is it to create specific feeling, a sense of suffocation or isolation? To get a grasp of the enormity of the set or the closeness of the characters? To put the audience in a tension of fear or amazement?

While I don’t doubt Mr. Ross had these considerations, again, it must be stated that the shaky cam in these quiet scenes in District 12 has no reason that I can see, and wouldn’t be missed otherwise.

Mr. Ross also goes shaky-cam crazy in the action scenes. And I’m lumping the editing in here two, because it’s part and parcel of the whole gig. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Specifically, the riot scene in district eleven is a well-done scene involved a jerking camera and quick-cutting edits—but it works mainly because the audience doesn’t need to know what’s going on other than CRAZY CHAOS! In certain action scenes, however, the same attempt is made for the CRAZY CHAOS!—and while the CRAZY CHAOS comes across, it does so to the detriment of coherence. In these scenes I’m talking about—i.e. the first bloodbath when the games start and the knife fight between Katniss and Clove (girl from District 2)—there’s barely any understanding about what’s going after what, who’s dying, how they’re dying. A specific example from the latter fight: Katniss shoots and arrow and misses. Then she cocks another arrow and—and it looks like she gets it off at point blank range? But apparently she didn’t because Clove seems fine? But then…where did that arrow go? Just little things like that.

Likewise, in the immediate bloodbath at the beginning of the games, we know there are a lot of people dying…problem is we don’t know who, how, or why, and we basically only find out in more still establishing shots after the fight is done (and in the nightly “Tribute” to the tributes where the dead flash on the arena “ceiling.”) While the camera work probably does succeed in getting across the insanity of the moment, it comes at a cost of confusion, and ultimately, detachment. So much is happening so fast between the cuts, angles, and jerks that the audience doesn’t really feel the violence. They’re involved, and yet distant, which is entirely the opposite effect of what’s intended by this particular camera maneuver.

Shaky cam is hard to do at the best of times. The master of it is probably Paul Greengrass in the Bourne films. But if you watch carefully, all the Bourne films have still images of setting juxtaposed to the shakier ones. It flows really well and it doesn’t sacrificial the chaos and immediacy that the shaky cam is meant to get across. But at the same time, it keeps the audience aware of exactly what’s happening beyond a general “Oh, they’re killing each other, I think.” (1)

Otherwise, Mr. Ross’ direction is very competent. Lots of slow, held shots that really let us feel the character’s emotions; or the expanse of the Capitol, or the elegant luxury to which the tributes from District 12 come and the bemusement they feel. Ross really has a good instinct on when to linger and when to movie on—the climactic scene on top of the cornucopia comes to mind. After a mediocre steady-cammed quick-edited fight, the film settles down for a more psychological battle between Cato and Katniss, with the former holding Peeta as a hostage/slash threat. The shooting in this scene is very well done, knowing when to close in, when to pull back…I especially love how Ross films Peeta’s “hint” to Katniss that she should shoot Cato’s hand. Ross handles it by not handling it at all, just having Josh Hutcherson do the motion in the same medium shoot that’s been established before—making the hint look just like it was: a small motion that’s nigh unnoticeable to anyone who’s not really paying attention (i.e. Cato). Or, for a quieter, more personal example, the entire scene from when Katniss enters the “Ready Room” with Cinna to when the games begin is gorgeously shot—just little moments, like when Cinna surreptitiously attaches Katniss’ Mockingjay pin, follow by a close, tilted angle of Cinna silently putting his finger to his lips…

Likewise, the editing outside of the actions scenes is professional and unnoticeable—and when it comes to editing 99% of that time that’s a good thing. I do think some little moments could have been trimmed for the sake of running time—there are bits of lingering that serve no real point and make the movie drag a bit, but they’re few and far between.

Overall, Ross direction is unassuming and efficient, well-done save for the actions scenes and that odd wobbling camera/close-up overuse in the first part of the movie. It’s not going to win any awards for Best Director, but it does its job.

Direction: C+


The screenplay goes on for a bit too long…yet at the same time I’m not sure there was any scene that could or should have been cut, just moments (see editing comment a couple paragraphs up).

Despite the running time, the writing does an excellent job. The movie is well structured, if a little oddly paced. It establishes the different settings and cultures very well: it’s always tough to create an entire new world with entire new rules and have it all come across to the audience, and that manner I think they pretty well succeeded. Not entirely…there’s some question as to the nature of this arena that they are fighting it an enclosed area? Is it a boundary in the natural setting? If it’s the latter, why can they create, like, monsters from the literal ground? But there’s nothing really confusing in the whole thing…stakes are clear, the purpose of the games is clear…if a little questionable...and the differences between the destitute areas like Districts 11 and 12, and the decadent opulence of the Capitol is very well portrayed, especially in the form of slimy PR man Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

And speaking of Mr. Flickerman, he and fellow anchor Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) are involved in a sort of play-by-play show where portions of the games are explained to the audience in the theater at home in the capitol. While this is a bit of a cheap, easy way to get pertinent information across, it’s acceptable because it makes sense in the context of the movie and does explain important information that might have confused the audience (in the theater) otherwise.

As far as dialogue is concerned, for the most part it’s very solid. There are some cringe-inducing moments in there (specifically, not to keep harping on the knife-fight scene with Clove, but there’s a point where Clove has Katniss pinned and with a knife at her throat, and proceeds to taunt her in the most strained, clichéd, and laughable way possible…seriously, the dialogue in this “tense” scene is truly bad—if Clove had cackled she could have come across as the Wicked Witches young niece), not to mention that the romance between Katniss and Peeta and the ensuing dialogue delves into “forced” at times (Note: And spoiler for those that haven’t read the books: This apparent “forcedness” could be due to the question of whether or not the feelings between Peeta and Katniss are real or being done for the benefit of the audience in Panem. The main problem here is the screenplay only does an okay job of sort of—implying that this is the case, and I’m not sure audiences unfamiliar with the books would catch on to it. –E). And really, I know they are kids, but the dialogue shared between the alliance when they spot Katniss and chase her through the woods and up the trees is almost juvenile…again, I know the point is that they’re basically children, but a little more menace would by nice from these characters that we’re supposed to think are intimidating.

Finally, there’s the very pretty blatant deus ex machina that comes in the form of the “medicine” that heals Peeta grievous sword wound to a mere scratch in, like, a night. I can’t remember if the scene is in the book or not, but in the movie it comes across as an easy cop-out. We know the Capitol is a technological wonderland, but it hasn’t really been established in the movie that they have magic potions that basically sew up huge gashes in peoples’ legs…and even if they had established it, it would be pretty hard to take. Basically the miracle cream is a device so that Peeta can walk again without Jennifer Lawrence having to literally lug him around and getting them both killed.

There’s also the question of Haymitch, who goes from drunken cynic into steadfast believer in, like, 10 minutes (part of the aforementioned pacing issue I mentioned, as well as the length of the screenplay). I let it go mainly because you get the feeling he’s the way his is because of a personal belief that the tributes from 12 have no real chance of winning the games—and the fact that Katniss blew everybody away with the arrow-through-the-apple bit. Not to mention that having Haymitch getting a long, protracted arc is something that works in a book with unlimited space; but in a movie that’s already near two and a half hours, it can’t be bogged down in the personal arcs of every character, even one as important as Haymitch.

But these are really just chinks in the crust of a very solid core; overall the filmmakers did a good job writing convincing dialogue and explaining a wealth of information in a short amount of time…er, relatively speaking. The characters are well written and therefore likeable, the movie’s actions make sense, the pacing flows coherently, there’s very few plot holes…all in all, a tightly written and well-done screenplay.

Writing: B+

Visual Effects: (Setting, CGI, Makeup, Sets, etc.)

I’ll go ahead and say right off that for the most part, the visuals in the movie are pretty uninspiring, with rare exceptions. The makeup and wardrobe departments, for instance, really put the characters in realistic attire…with threadbare, practical clothing for the outlying districts and fantastic displays of outré fashion in the capitol. It may have just been me, but it seemed like Jennifer Lawrence—and all of District 12, for that matter, had little to no makeup on during the beginning and throughout the games, which, if true, is pretty gutsy. I think there’s a prevailing sense in Hollywood to “Pretty up” a female lead/heroine even if it makes no sense. Beauty is never tarnished, and all that. So the sensible approach to the makeup in the film is really quite well done. Katniss is prettied up when she needs to be prettied up and plain-faced when there’s no point in having makeup.

The setting and sets are pretty generic—District 12 is in the Appalachians, so there’s much mountains and wooded geography. The games, as well, are in a wooded environment, and it’s fine. Nothing terrible, nothing inspiring. It functions. The Capitol is much of the same. There are moments of wealth and opulence displayed, as in the apartment the kids are given to stay in, that really work well and bespeak to the cultural and economic differences between the Capitol and the rest of Panem. The sweeping vistas of the Capitol’s grandeur are probably its biggest weakness. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, other than basic ordinariness (Note: Redundant? Must remember to investigate further. Also, is ordinariness a word? –E), but the film’s CGI really does it a disservice.

The CGI is probably, in all honesty, one of the biggest weaknesses in the movie. It’s just. Not. Very. Good. Oh, it’s not offensive or anything, but the rendering is probably on par with that of, say, the Twilight saga of movies—in fact, when we see the CGI dog-beast things for the first time I was very much reminded of New Moon…er, not to say that I’ve seen New Moon. Because I haven’t.

Visual Effects: C

Sound Design:

Great job by the sound team, especially with using musical cues to set the tone of the scenes; I’m thinking specifically of the initial “bloodbath” that occurs when the game starts. Katniss leaves Cinna after their last hug in the ready room. She enters the tube that will take her up to the arena level. The tube vacuum-seals shut with a mincing hiss—great sound—then the music and sound period simply cut off, highlighting the new, cruel world Katniss is about to enter, as well as the look of profound terror on Katniss’ face. From there, the music stays off as the “countdown begins,” sounded by a thumping, menacing drum. Once it hits zero, the buzzer rings, and the sound lowers to nothing once more, as a haunting, screeching musical track takes over while the tributes murder each other around the cornucopia. Really, the music in this scene highlights the brutality and insanity of the situation much better than the shaking camera does.

I really appreciated the care the design team took with using a movie’s singular ability of manipulating sound to their advantage; the soundtrack is full of haunting acapellas and tones of a few notes that stick in your head. One of my favorite sounds in the movie, in fact, is the four notes using to call the mockingjays—it’s just a sort of ethereal little melody, very well done—on the same token, the birds returning the answer feel much more realistic than the entire CGI-fest of the capital.

It’s just little things that set the tone and mood. The beeping of the care packages, the cessation of sound when Rue Katniss realizes Rue is hit with a spear…like editing, sound is in a peculiarly unfair situation in which most of its work is going to be noticed only when it’s terrible, even though sound design is essential in creating the shape, tone, flow, and emotional impact of a movie. I’m not saying The Hunger Games sound design is going to go down in history or anything, but it is quality work.

Sound Design: B+


And here lies, I think, The Hunger Games’ biggest strength. The acting in this film is nothing short of spectacular, from one –line extras all the way up to the main characters, everyone is really putting forth their all here.

Jennifer Lawrence is truly a star being born. I had heard rumblings about her since I saw her during the 2011 Oscars for her performance in Winter’s Bone. Then she popped up again in the excellent X-Men: First Class (Note: Also, she was a lead on the Bill Engvall Show. WTF? –E). But I think this is the movie that will rocket her to true stardom. Everdeen’s performance is simply inspiring, effortlessly shifting between abject terror, stony determination, solemn contemplation, despondency, despair, happiness and love with the ease of a driver shifting gears. I’ve already mentioned about the scene when she enters the tube that takes her up to the arena. The look on her face is so visceral, so gut-wrenchingly real, that it literally has to be seen on the big screen. The woman is a revelation, I tell you, and her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

But that’s not to take away from the other actors. Josh Hutcherson really surprised me with his performance as Peeta. Not that I didn’t think he could pull it off, but the role could have became a very rote, one-off forgettable character, but Hutcherson injects it with human empathy and compassion. You really feel what he feels when he exposits on how he’s not going to win the games and no one expects him to; or his feelings toward Katniss; or the false bravado that he puts on for the crowds in order to win their support.

Woody Harrelson is his usual reliable self as Haymitch, the tributes’ mentor, injecting the role with equal parts cynicism towards the whole process, and belief that maybe this year’s kids can pull it off. Elizabeth Banks plays the vain and shallow yet not unsympathetic Effie very well, and Stanley Tucci is perfectly unctuous as Master of Ceremonies Caesar Flickerman. Someone who really surprised me was Donald Sutherland in the role of President Snow. Not that I didn’t think Sutherland was a good actor, but it surprised me a bit just how perfect he was for it, menacing in a very subtle way, playing the part of the benevolent leader with grace—but you can just feel the hatred and disdain for the outer districts lurking underneath, and his latent rage at Katniss and Peeta “showing up” the Capitol.

I mentioned up near the top that the “purpose” of the movie can help shadow some of its perceived flaws. And I think, in this case, the acting really buoys the production. It masks the CGI woes and the minor problems with the screenplay and the slightly-too-long running time. Every one of them is giving it their all, and that really shines through. If there’s one facet of the film that elevates it, it’s this one. The actors in this film but on a school of how to inject heart and pathos into what could have been merely one-note characters.

Acting: A


Although The Hunger Games does have some flaws—specifically, minor issues with pacing, and major issues with camera work and use of CGI, its pros far outweigh its cons. Elevated beyond its bounds by strong performances and a haunting soundtrack, the movie is certainly worth the money to see. Check it out just for Jennifer Lawrence’s performance alone. This film desired to tell an action-packed but character-driven narrative about a girl thrust into a deadly situation, and in that aspect, it succeeds admirably. Its PG-13 rating hamstrings it, but it also allows a much younger audience to view it and witness a good, strong female heroine. Definitely recommend to people who like to see good acting and character driven narrative.


So the odds are very good that no one’s reading this anyway, but if anyone is, feel free to comment on this review. Does it work, does it fail? Does it actually accomplish what it sets out to accomplish? It would be interesting to see if it is even possible to be objective when doing anything. There’s a very good chance that I merely wrote a regular, subjective review here, and if I did, well, it pretty much answers the question.

I guess the point of the whole review is not what I think about The Hunger Games, or even how well my review did in being objective. It’s more trying to see if it’s possible to have a level of self-awareness where we understand a personal opinion doesn’t impact objective quality.

There’s a scene in Dead Poet’s Society where a Robin William’s character has a student read a selection from the Intro to a book of poetry, wherein the author of the intro tries to measure poetry on a scale of Importance and Style, or something like that. Williams’ character basically calls this a load of crap. I agree, and I don’t want this article to be misconstrued as a means to limit art or limit the emotional reaction to it, or imply that some movies are better due to subject matter, length, actors, what have you. But at the same time, I do wish there was a paradigm where at least we could pull back and see the movie beyond the lens of our personal selves, with our prejudices and biases and likes and dislikes. I think it might lead to more enjoyment of films, and books, and TV shows, and all the rest. And you know what? We might just learn a little something about ourselves in the process.

Until next time,

Mr. E.

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