Directed by Gary Ross
Distributed by Lionsgate Films
On March 23rd Lionsgate is poised to blow a certain pop culture juggernaut of a franchise about sparkly vampires away with The Hunger Games, the feverishly anticipated feature film adaptation of the first in Suzanne Collins’ teen-book trilogy centered around a strong-willed teenager named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who must fight to the death against 23 other teens in order to survive.
Set in a post-apocalyptic United States (now called Panem) where the problems of maintaining civil order and keeping the masses entertained by the boob tube all boil down to the same solution: The Hunger Games, a yearly contest where two dozen randomly selected 12- to-18-year-old Tributes are picked during the ‘Reaping’ of all 12 Districts outside of the Capitol.
The Hunger Games starts off quietly enough, but director Gary Ross packs in a gut-wrench moment right off the bat to engage viewers into this cruel world of the film’s heroine when 16-year-old Katniss’ 12-year-old sister, Prim (Willow Shield), is plucked from the unlucky fish bowl for the 74th Games. A shell-shocked Katniss volunteers to take her place, and she’s soon off to the Capitol with one of her flamboyant handlers, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and her fellow Tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who also happens to harbor a longtime crush on Katniss.
It’s a starkly bold opener that acts as a complete juxtaposition to the world Katniss is about to be thrown into, and Ross makes the transition seamlessly; once arriving in the Capitol, the sometimes socially awkward Katniss must embrace this odd and weirdly colorful world that wants to make a celebrity out of her before watching her die, but as she keeps resisting this new world, she soon realizes that if she wants to survive, she must play along with the lunacy that is The Hunger Games.
In the lead up to its release, The Hunger Games has been compared to Twilight, the Harry Potter franchise and even Battle Royale, which is understandable since it’s human nature to compare something new to something old in order to drive home a point; however, it’s unfair to attach all that baggage so early to the film since it absolutely has its own merits to stand by, and frankly, associating it with something like Twilight is a detriment to the work of the entire cast and crew.
For those of you who may be looking at The Hunger Games as the next huge action series, don’t get ahead of yourself just yet; while the film is thoroughly enjoyable and immensely exciting, that’s not what is driving Ross’ vision here. The story deals with themes of self-sacrifice, mortality and rebellion, making The Hunger Games more thought-provoking than jaw-dropping really. Sure, there are great moments of violence and shock, but that’s not what keeps you glued to your seat at the end of the day- it’s the vision and the story, and for both Ross absolutely nails it here.
Ross approaches his action sequences and the narrative scenes in between with a realistic and grounded approach, making The Hunger Games feel like more of a drama than something super-stylized like The Running Man, which allows audiences to be continually immersed in this bleak future.
Performance-wise everyone in this eclectic hodge-podge of a cast delivers solid performances. The brunt of the heavy lifting on The Hunger Games falls squarely on Lawrence’s shoulders, and simply put, she’s brilliant, and fans of the book series should no doubt be pleased with her performance as Katniss. Hutcherson (who seems to be popping up everywhere these days and for good reason) is an interesting character that, honestly, isn’t all that likable at all. But by the third act Hutcherson gets you to come around to his side, making Peeta one of the more interesting and compelling characters to follow.
But even the youngest actors, the aforementioned Shields and Amandla Stenberg, who plays the lovable Rue, could easily have been the weak links given their relative inexperience in comparison to their co-stars like Banks, Woody Harrelson or Donald Sutherland; but both are terrific. It’s also nice to see Wes Bentley involved since the poor guy hasn’t been given a decent role in almost 12 years now, and Lenny Kravitz (not exactly someone I look forward to in movies) reels in all the flashiness of his own persona and makes Cinna a warm and likable character in a world that is anything but.
And while it was incredibly easy to get swept up in the world of The Hunger Games, that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t suffer from a few problems- first and foremost being visual effects work that still feels unfinished (hopefully for the sequel they can nip that problem straightaway) and an oddly paced last 20 minutes that feels a bit underwhelming and rushed.
There is also a romantic subplot going on within The Hunger Games that felt a little odd to me (as someone who hasn’t read the books, I really have no frame of reference)- we get a sense from early on that Katniss and close confidante Gale (Liam Hemsworth) truly share a special bond, but once Katniss catches wind that Peeta has been harboring a long-standing crush on her, she begins to act wildly against the character established earlier on. At first she’s violent and enraged at him, and despite the fact that she isn’t wholly sure she can trust Peeta during the Games themselves (there’s a spoiler moment I wouldn’t dare reveal for those who haven’t read the books), she suddenly gets all warm and fuzzy for him.
Sure, I get that she’s a teenage girl and that teenage girls never act rationally, but still… there’s a weird sort of awkwardness between Katniss and Peeta in the film’s final act which left me feeling a little cold at the end and almost negated all her character worked so hard for throughout the rest of the film.
But with all that being said, who really cares? It’s like nitpicking at your Christmas presents, and what’s the fun of that? With a compelling story that actually has something to say for itself (a welcome change in the world of blockbuster filmmaking) and an entire cast delivering engaging and star-making performances (in Lawrence’s case) that sell everything perfectly, The Hunger Games looks poised to usher in a brand new hit franchise and deserves all the credit it gets for its confrontational subject matter and dystopian sensibilities, all masterfully helmed by Ross.
While the gorehounds out there might lament over how minimally the blood and violence play out, for teen/young adult audiences films don’t get much darker or more intelligent than The Hunger Games. Don’t let all the Twilight comparisons fool you- THIS is the way to make engaging youth-oriented stories for audiences of all ages (much like Chronicle did just a few weeks back).
4 out of 5
Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product
Starring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols
Directed by Sam Patton
I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.
The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.
So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”
As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.
Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
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