Review: The Hunger Games

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The Pitch: Forest Teen Hunger Force.

The Review: Young adult fiction is the hot ticket right now. It seems that if you can get to the heart of that market with your subject matter, then nothing is potentially off topic. Wizardry as a metaphor for adolescence? No problem. Star-crossed lovers who might have a problem with sunlight and being just a bit bitey? Ker-ching. Two dozen teens who must fight to the death because, in true Highlander style, there can be only one? Really? Writer of the original novels Suzanne Collins has claimed that the inspiration lies within Greek myth, specifically Theseus, although of course the Minotaur put paid to the Greek kiddies, rather than allowing them to take their issues out on each other. So what kind of role model is twenty four teens and tweens grabbing a weapon and taking pot shots?

The Hunger Games is actually an excellent role model if you consider where viewing habits will go when young adults become actual adults. There is an obvious level of satire on the current obsession with reality television that has obvious echoes of direct precedents such as Battle Royale, but also is only a couple of steps removed from Paul Verhoeven’s back catalogue. There’s also a dystopian future into which we are plunged which will hopefully inspire youngsters to seek out even darker material at some future date, but Hunger Games also works as a feminist ideal without ever really being overtly feminist, but shys away from casting the central teens as brutal killers, rather than desperate survivalists. From start to finish, there are seeds planted that are reminiscent of more adult films, and director Gary Ross does an effective job of weaving them together. Still, this is probably one you’ll not be wanting your own young’uns to emulate too closely on the playground.

This movie, as I alluded to earlier, is also being touted as the next Harry Potter or Twilight, and it’s certainly the equal of the former while probably besting the latter in terms of the cast that’s been assembled. Jennifer Lawrence is older in real life than her literary counterpart, but it’s worth the slight age gap for the quality of performance that she provides, not only showing steely determination and defiance but also allowing her guard to drop and showing real moments of vulnerability and fear. Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson have a long track record of top quality character roles, and if made a short list of potential menacing overlords, then Donald Sutherland would be on it. In an attempt to reflect futuristic fashions, the Capital’s garish colour schemes offset well against the drabness of the districts, but occasionally those artistic choices go a little over the top; Elizabeth Banks ends up wearing more than her fair share of them and it’s credit to her that her performance doesn’t get lost in them. The only slightly weak link is Josh Hutcherson’s slightly anaemic performance, but it doesn’t serve to unbalance the remainder.

Most people in the age range this is targeted won’t remember the delights of Saint and Greavsie, but as Jimmy was so fond of saying, “It’s a game of two halves, Saint.” Strictly speaking, the two halves are actually pre-game and game, and it’s the first half that’s the most effective, with the game itself struggling ever so slightly to throw off the shackles of the 12A rating, some shaky camerawork and some poor effects in the finale. There’s also the occasional pacing issue in this stretch, which is a shame as the first half has a steady build of tension marked out with some dark themes and leavened with the occasional dash of humour. The final score on The Hunger Games is that it’s respectable rather than compelling, but with enough to make it watching for adults of all ages.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s an ideal education for the young adult age range, who can expand into more grown-up themes easily from here, and apart from the occasional bit of dodgy CGI there’s plenty of meat here for the whole family, with both cityscapes and the countryside looking good on the wide screen.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Brighton Rock

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The Pitch: Greene’s Pinkie gets some colour in his cheeks.

The Review: One might be forgiven for thinking, given the alarming regularity with which old classics get remade these days, that there is a shortage of original ideas among film-makers these days. Of course, if approached correctly there’s no reason why a second interpretation or adaptation of a work can’t be as artistically valid as the original, but a second bite at the cherry does make you hope that those involved have something new to bring to the material. The level of challenge does go up significantly when tackling not only a highly regarded piece of fiction, but also one that has already received an adaptation which been favoured and loved for decades. So to take on a second adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is either very brave or quite foolish; as it turns out, it’s probably been a little of both.

The adaptation itself isn’t slavish; the setting has been updated from the Thirties setting of both the novel and original film to a Sixties setting, which allows the various confrontations to be played out against the prominent backdrop of the Mods and Rockers and their various battles. The characters, though, haven’t changed too much, the central story still being that of young gangster Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) and his increasing attempts to improve his own influence and to cover the tracks of his various misdemeanours. His main attempt to cover those tracks is to get close to Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a young waitress who unwittingly ends up with a crucial piece of evidence, and in Pinkie’s attempts to protect himself Rose ends up drawn both increasingly close to him and also deeper and deeper into his plans.

To a certain extent, the success of such an adaptation stands and falls on its casting, when such direct comparisons can be made to the original. This is where the first major problem presents itself, in that Sam Riley is no Richard Attenborough. Not only does Riley not have the youthfully innocent look that Attenborough had in the original, but also crucially fails to exude anything approaching the same air of menace. This is counterbalanced somewhat by the casting of Rose, and the up and coming Andrea Riseborough’s performance. Where Riley is one note and stuffy at times, Riseborough runs through a full range of emotions and manages to make her sympathetic and sycophantic character eminently believable. Elsewhere, it’s a very mixed bag; some of the big names such as John Hurt and Andy Serkis deliver their normal level and could do with more screen time, but Helen Mirren also feels oddly miscast and never quite captures the feeling being aimed for.

So, back to that question of what’s new. The Mods / Rockers setting is new, and indeed the look of the film is one of the best assets of Brighton Rock, the settings capturing the feel of the era, while allowing for variations of mood and making efficient use of both daylight and darkness. But thematically and conceptually, there’s not a great deal of fresh meat here; Rowan Joffe has contributed both script and direction and it’s by far the latter that’s his most useful contribution. The script has an effective, if slightly predictable, ending, but Greene’s original themes of Catholicism and morality are only paid lip service and get somewhat smothered, and the film has to work hard to convey even the simplest of the motivations as the plot develops. While there are some worthy moments, and Riseborough appears to be a star in the making, sadly this Brighton adaptation doesn’t rock as much as it should.

Why see it at the cinema: The Sixties setting is wonderfully evoked and some of the imagery is moodily effective. The most compelling reason by far, though, is Riseborough’s magnetic performance.

The Score: 6/10

Cambridge Film Festival World Premiere Review: Round Ireland With A Fridge

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The Pitch: The movie of the book of the tour of the fridge. (And the man.)

The Review: Tony Hawks. A man with an average TV career, one of a long list of comedians who have eked out a career through TV panel shows along side their work on the comedy circuit, he is no doubt most famous these days for his literary endeavours, the most prominent of which has now received the big screen treatment. It’s a story of a man, a fridge and a pointless goal to circumnavigate a country in each other’s company (although, of course, the fridge doesn’t actually have much say in the matter), and so who better to convey the ennui and frustration that drove him to this endeavour in the first place than… Tony Hawks, of course?

The early stretches of this adaptation capture that frustration very well, although as a consequence the humour arises from that boredom, and so we’re not talking belly laughs, but a more gentle, reflective humour.  The tour itself represents the last two-thirds or so of the movie and establishes a small set of recurring characters who both comment on and encourage Tony’s search for meaning in the wilds of the Irish countryside, including a Dublin radio DJ (Ed Byrne) and his roving reporter (Valerie O’Connor), and the narrative takes a relaxed approach; there is no real sense of peril in terms of whether Tony might not complete his circumference within his allotted thirty days, for example.

It’s directed by TV stalwart Ed Bye, who has made TV shows such as Red Dwarf look cinematic, but bar a few all-too-brief shots of the Irish countryside makes this look resolutely televisual. Tony Hawks plays himself with the enthusiasm of a man who’s been himself for longer than he’d care to have been, and while this works well in the early stretches while we’re in set-up mode, but less so as we get on the road. Valerie O’Conner, meanwhile, has the distinction of being the only person in the whole film who appears to be attempting any acting; everyone else appears to be aiming successfully for a very artificial line reading which marks them out as famous people who are appearing in a film, rather than actual characters.

Yet, despite all this, the movie gathers a fair bit of goodwill as it trundles along, and it’s the strength of the endeavour and the genuineness of the emotion on display that gets you through, and makes this more enjoyable than it really has any right to be. The promotional material states that Brendan Fraser was unsuccessfully sought to portray Tony Hawks, but having Tony play himself adds to the authenticity of the enterprise, although the parting shot does leave you wondering just how much was in Tony’s head and how much is actually real. The sequel is already in the can, apparently, but a series of TV movies might be a better way of rolling these out; that said, if you’re looking for a relaxing and life-affirming hour and a half, then this is a fairly safe bet.

Why see it at the cinema: Those expansive shots of the Irish countryside are great. Shame there weren’t slightly more of them.

The Score: 7/10

Review: The Lovely Bones

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The Pitch: Peter Jackson finds a slightly smaller fantasy book to get his teeth into, this time with darker undertones.

The Review: Sometimes on paper, a director and an adaptation seem a natural fit. Here’s a novel, with fantasy elements but grounded in reality, requiring both a deft touch with actors and material, and also the ability to marshal special effects effectively and blend them into the story. Peter Jackson, anyone? Surely the man who gave us the Lord of the Rings movies and Heavenly Creatures can pull this off?

Sadly, no. There are some incredibly effective passages here, in particular the scenes just before and after the murder, and also scenes heavily spoiled in the trailer where Susie’s sister goes looking for evidence, and Jackson ramps up the tension like a master.

In addition, the acting is first rate all round – some have more to do than others, but those with the big scenes deliver every time. Stanley Tucci is the obvious standout, but Rachel Weisz and Saoirse Ronan also get moments to shine.

But the whole overall is less than the sum of its parts. For the large part, it feels like Suzie has the occasional nightmare while waiting at an amazing amusement part before going on holiday, rather than being stuck in a purgatorial dilemma. Pacing in the middle act also suffers badly, and by the end you’re left feeling largely unsatisfied. A shame.

Why see it at the cinema: The afterlife sequences are undeniably visually impressive, and the tense chase scenes will benefit from the collective experience.

The Score: 6/10