Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Caught The Hunger Games last night, and though I know it's not horror, just had to post a few thoughts on this world wide phenomenon.

Oh, maybe not world wide, as it appears Wrath of the Titans cleaned up outside of the domestic market. I won't say I'm surprised, because while The Hunger Games is quite good, it's just not that good. The film has some serious flaws and feels about 20-30 minutes too long.

Now, I'm not going to compare the film to Battle Royale, as other sites have made the comparisons. Nor am I getting into the visions of The Running Man that flashed through my head during one of the more listless moments in the film. Come on, an innocent person, thrown into a game to the death, inspires the flames of revolution is an oft told story. This version simply didn't have over the top hunters and the presence of Arnold.

And I'm dispensing with a plot summery, as I suspect anyone reading my blog probably knows it by now. But I will issue a spoiler alert, as I will discuss some things not in the trailer, so be warned. And please, don't tell me about the book, as I haven't read it. I'm just talking about the movie, so any complaints that reference to the book I will have to ignore. I just saw the movie and that's what I'm writing about.

Let's start off with what worked. First off, Jennifer Lawrence was amazing. I don't think the film could be a strong as it was without her. Also, her more seasoned costars (Banks, Sutherland, Tucci) were outstanding as well. Her romantic interests, well, not as good, but they and the rest of the young cast did a fine job.

Second, director Gary Ross did some outstanding work. His use of silence during several scenes was amazing, and he gave Lawrence to opportunity to deliver an emotion gut punch during those scenes. And I really enjoyed how Ross let the action tell the story, rather than relying on worthless exposition to tell the audience what it should know by the character's behavior. And I will be forever grateful for not being exposed to a soundtrack designed to sell CDs/downloads/whatever, rather than tracks suitable for the film.

But the movie was a bit too long, as a few moments could have been trimmed down or excised. For example, unless the subplot about Katniss' father comes back in a later movie, the scenes surrounding his death seemed underdeveloped and more like filler than a driving force in the narrative. Additionally, some of the moments when Katniss and Peeta are exposed to the good life before the game could have been shortened without losing anything but running time.

Had that been the only problem, I might have enjoyed the film more. But the fact that the basic premise made no sense was a big stumbling block to me. Yes, I understand that the Hunger Games was enacted as punishment for the 12 districts revolting against the main government. Still, after 70 something years of feeding their children into a gladiator game, the idea that no one thought about open revolt until now is unrealistic. One would expect some kind of resistance force to form after such a long history of oppression, even if their attempts failed.

Also, the film tries so hard to keep Katniss from becoming a killer that I started to wonder why I should be rooting for her. I know the story had a fine line to walk, as the plot involves kids becoming killers for sport, but it goes to absurd lengths to show that Katniss isn't evil, it dilutes the concept of her as a hero. The most glaring moment (SPOILER ALERT) is at the end of the film, when Cato is about to snap Peeta's neck. Instead of putting an arrow in his face (which would be fine, as Cato is presented as the villain of the Games and he's going to kill Peeta to spite her), she shots him in the hand, allowing Peeta to free himself and push Cato into the pack of mutant dogs below them.

Okay, first off, shooting Cato in the hand would only serve to present him and Peeta as toothpicked sausages to the dogs, as her arrow would pass through Cato's hand, Peeta's neck and into Cato's chest. Second, given the skill Katniss displays with a bow, a simple head shot would have been easy and achieved the same results. By trying to keep Katniss from outright killing someone, the script made her weaker as a hero. Cato not only had to die, he deserved to die and if Katniss isn't willing to step up and take action against the bad guy, I don't give the rebel forces I suspect she will lead in the sequels much of a chance. And, don't get me wrong, I deplore when films let male heroes not kill off the bad guy as well (don't get me started on Road House). When it's obvious the villain needs to die, yet the hero is reluctant to do it just to remind us they are not evil, the screenwriters have let the character down.

And let's talk about Peeta's rock make up. Good stuff, but I want to know how he was able to apply it with no materials and no mirror. Yes, the moment was set up earlier in the film (and the script made it obvious his skills would show up later in the film), but it's doubtful he could have done such work in the woods, without supplies, and while dealing with a massive sword wound, no less.

It's obvious why American audiences are taken with The Hunger Games. It's the us against them film of the decade, the elite verse the working class, the 1% against the 99%, and people really want to see the top tier fall. But despite some shining moments, the glaring plot holes, unexplored subplots and a very weak climax hobbled the film. And while I'm curious to see where the story goes from here, I just hope the filmmakers do right by Katniss in the sequel.

Horror fans need to stop whining and go see The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD

If you can’t tell by the headline, I’m tired of my fellow horror fans bitching about the sorry state of the genre. Over the past decade, boards have been filled with criticisms about the state of horror, most of it directed at the terrible remakes of classic horror films, and the heavy use by studios of the PG-13 rating. And while exceptions exist (the American version of The Ring was pretty damn scary), I agree that most current horror films are timid, rather stupid, and tend to destroy iconic characters in a misguided attempt to modernize genre classics.

Yet, when a film Piranha 3D delivers everything horror fans claim to want, the film tanks. We could debate the reasons why, but it doesn’t matter. As studios and theater owners are looking to make money, both will be reluctant to try another genre film with an R rating if others underperform when PG-13 horror keeps drawing a bigger audience.

So this summer, I suggest horror fans take the opportunity to assure studios and theater owners that R-rated genre films can be profitable. It’s not hard to do. Just get off your couch, go to your local cinema, pay for a ticket, and see both The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD on opening weekend. Yes, both of them. It might be our best chance to get R-rated horror back into theaters.

First, let’s talk about sending a message to the studios. Your PAID admission will cast a vote for future R-rated horror flicks. Hollywood only pays attention to films that make money and as most horror films don’t require a huge budget, a modest audience can generate a healthy profit for the studios. But just watching the film isn’t enough if you don’t pay the studios to see it. Hollywood executives don’t care what you watch from Redbox or other rental outlets, as you are not fattening their wallet. And we all know what they think of illegal downloading.

Of course, once a few films are successful, the market will be flooded with R-rated horror films, resulting in a decrease in quality and a case of bad movie burnout. This will lead to decreasing revenues and prompt studios moving on to the next hot trend. It happened to slasher genre back in the 80s, as it will happen to the current YA craze. But having R-rated horror films premiering on a regular basis will be fun while it lasts, and might produce some new classics for us to savor during the dry years.

But studio owners aren’t the only ones that will pay attention to a surge in the R-rated horror audience. Theater owners continue to suffer terrific losses as attendance continues to drop. And many are wary of studio promises, as the 3D craze has started to wane, leaving theaters shouldering expensive upgrades for decreasing returns. A larger audience for R-rated horror could generate more money for theater owners and lead to an increased willingness to screen more genre fare.

To see how this could work, we need to discuss how a theater makes money during a film’s theatrical run. Ticket revenue is split between the studio and the theater, but like Vegas, always favors the studio. According to a 2002 report by, studios receives 70 to 80% of total admission revenue during the first weeks of a film’s release, though other articles place the figure as high as 90%. That’s why visiting the concession stand feels like highway robbery, as those snacks account for most of a theater’s income.

Theater owners do get a bigger slice of ticket revenues the longer a film stays in the screen, which fuels the desire for blockbuster films. A big opening weekend increases a studio’s odds of recouping the cost of a film, while theater owners benefit from a film that will continue to draw a crowd weeks after the initial release, when their split of ticket revenues increases.

This sliding scale is the reason the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) is rallying against the idea of early VOD and home market release dates. The sooner a family can see a film from their couch, the less likely they are to visit a theater after a film opens. And, as reported during last year’s Cinemacon, tensions are high between NATO and studios concerning this point. Though theater owners have won several skirmishes, the eventual outcome doesn’t look good for their side.

Also, the split is the reason films don’t get the time to build an audience through word of mouth. Theater owners need to keep the audience coming and are thus unwilling to risk screening a movie that underperforms. And I suspect it’s why major blockbusters occupy several screens in a multiplex on opening weekend, as theater owners are trying to ensure long lines at the concession stand, their main source of revenue.

But Cabin and Piranha 3DD might generate more money for theater owners, as their share of opening week ticket revenue might be higher. While the studios control the sliding scale, I suspect theater owners will get more revenue for several reasons.

First, the studios have less invested in a low budget film. To give you some perspective, the combined budgets for Piranha 3DD and Cabin is about one-fifth the estimated budget for The Avengers. And that doesn’t include advertising or other promotional costs, where I suspect both films have been outspent by a large margin. With less money on the line, the studios don’t need a massive opening weekend, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that theaters get a larger cut of the ticket revenue.

Second, no one has expectations to bring in a large audience. Neither film contains actors with box office drawing power or a build in audience. Okay, Piranha 3DD is a sequel, but to an underperforming film that barely made back its budget. And while Cabin has Joss Whedon’s name behind it, no one really knows if his fan base will go see an R-rated horror film. Studios might use a larger share of the revenues as enticement for theater owners to screen the films.

If the studios increase the revenues theaters receive from opening ticket sales, a sizable audience for Cabin and Piranha 3DD could generate more money for theater owners than a massive blockbuster, especially if concession sales are taken into account. With enough such successes, theater owners might be more willing to screen R-rated horror films, which could open up a market for independent horror films as well. As many of these films are made on a small budget, owners could see increased revenues for opening weekend sales and, if the audience continues to be large enough, theaters might open up more screens for these smaller releases.

So get off the couch and cast a vote for R-rated horror films by seeing The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD at the theater this summer. Who knows, you might actually enjoy them. But if you stay at home and wait for the torrent file to show up online, or spend money on a VOD source, I don’t want to hear you gripe about the state of horror ever again.