The Hunger Games comes up short, We need to talk about Kevin is a killer

by Mark Burger

Overblown. Overhyped. Underwhelming.

That, in a nutshell, sums up The Hunger Games the eagerly anticipated screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestseller. The built-in audience will likely ensure box-office gold — and very likely a franchise (a trilogy is planned) — but if this heavy-handed, leaden-paced effort is any indication, it doesn’t bode well for the series.

The film’s depiction of the future doesn’t bode well, either.

The majority of the population is dour, depressed and drably clothed. Those who wield power and influence tend to dress like drag queens on acid. It’s overtly symbolic, obviously, but all it really succeeds in doing is making some talented actors look very silly. The meek will undoubtedly inherit this Earth, but until then they’re under the sway of what often resembles a congregation of cross-dressers. For further symbolism — with which the film is top-heavy — those characters with the worst hairdos and toupees tend to be the nastier ones, as it were. Any humor present in the film is strictly unintentional.

The story follows Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Hemsworth, cast as two young contestants in the annual tournament of the title, which involves participants from the world’s “districts.” Trained in survival techniques, they’re let loose to kill each other with abandon — all on live TV. In the end, there can be only one. (Seems I’ve heard that one before….)

Lawrence and Hemsworth, representing District 12, form an alliance and later a none-too-convincing romantic attachment as they battle for survival. Others in the hunt include Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg and Jack Quaid (son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan), but few are long for this world.

Despite some competently handled moments of derring-do, this is one of the slowest-moving action films in recent memory, Running nearly 150 minutes (an unconscionable length) and badly in need of editing, the momentum repeatedly comes to a screeching halt.

Although director Gary Ross has some experience with fantasy (he co-wrote 1988’s Big and wrote and directed 1999’s Pleasantville), his exhibits little aptitude for science-fiction or action, which is problematic in that’s exactly what The Hunger Games calls for. That the film is rated PG-13 — all the better to accommodate the important youth audience — further dilutes what would seemingly be the story’s inherent visceral impact. It’s also never in doubt who’s going to win the games, so little suspense is generated. All the hype in the world can’t obscure all the holes in the plot.

Among the high-profile cast, Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz are pretty good, but the only real standout is Stanley Tucci, as the competition’s glib, slap-happy emcee — both of because of the fabulous blue wig he sports and the unabashed brio with which he tackles his role. Given the amount of scenery he chews, Tucci certainly doesn’t go hungry. Donald Sutherland, as a supremely indifferent president, plays his role with supreme indifference (although it’s nice having him around). He fares better, at least, than Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones and Wes Bentley, who are all dressed up with no place to go.

The Hunger Games is only Ross’ third film as a director and comes almost 10 years after his last one (2003’s Seabiscuit). It’s one of those Hollywood ironies that this, his worst film, will likely be his biggest hit. Reportedly he’s to direct the follow-up (Catching Fire). Improvements are clear: Make it tighter, faster, better.

Opening Friday, We Need to Talk About Kevin is screenwriter/director Lynne Ramsay’s masterful, mind-blowing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel. This is only Ramsay’s third feature film (after 1999’s Ratcatcher and 2002’s Morvern Callar), and it’s her masterpiece.

It’s a film of insidious, irresistible power — the sort of film that gets under your skin and stays there. It’s taut, gripping, and even shocking.

Tilda Swinton is in top form as Eva, the mother whose life becomes every parent’s nightmare. Every since he was born, her son Kevin has been a difficult boy — and he’s only gotten worse as he’s gotten older. Only Eva, however, is aware of his strange behavior. No one else seems to realize just how destructive he is.

As the film unfolds, often in flashbacks, it becomes clear that Kevin has committed some sort of atrocity and that Eva is the only one left to face it and its lingering consequences. More and more the audience comes to realize why Eva behaves the way she does.

Swinton’s shattering performance lends gravity to the proceedings, although Ramsay occasionally and judiciously incorporate some wicked touches of black (even bleak) comedy reminiscent of David Lynch and Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly.

In support, there ‘s exceptional work from John C. Reilly as Eva’s husband Franklin, whose constant, blind defense of their son brings him to grief, and young Ashley Gerasimovich as their daughter Celia, likewise unaware that big brother doesn’t have her best interests at heart. The three faces of Kevin are provided by Rock Duer (as a toddler), Jasper Newell (as a boy) and Ezra Miller (as a teenager), with seamless transition between them.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is strong stuff indeed, and definitely not for genteel viewers, but for those willing to take the plunge into dark and turbulent waters, it’s a powerful, unforgettable experience.

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