‘Hunger Games’ film saga begins
Owls Head — The Hunger Games (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 142 min.). This is a successful adaptation -- but not an unqualified one -- of the first book in Suzanne Collins dystopian trilogy of books. If you have not read the book, you will be entertained, but if you have read the book you will be filling in quite a number of blanks as you watch. There also is the fact that the book is more violent than the film’s PG-13 presentation of the story.
For those unfamiliar with the books and the film, they are set in a future North America -- now called Panem --nearly 75 years after 13 districts rebelled against the Capitol. Once the rebellion was quelled, and the 13th district reportedly destroyed, the government imposed the Hunger Games, a reaping of one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 in each of the 12 districts. (Think Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and, yes, much of the basic set-up is similar to the Japanese book and film, “Battle Royale”) These tributes are then trained and placed in an arena, where they battle to the death until only one winner survives. Our heroes come from District 12, a mining district that recalls Appalachia. Katniss Everdeen, 16, sneaks outside the fence and hunts in the forbidden woods to supplement the meager resources her mother and sister have. Katniss is well-played by relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence. Often on her excursions into the woods, Katniss is joined by fellow teen Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who suggests of reaping day that they just take off together in the woods. While the two friends have not yet reached the romantic stage, it is clear that is where they would have been headed. However, Katniss’ 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields), in her first time eligible for the reaping, has her name pulled. In horror, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The other tribute from the district is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson in a role that takes some warming up to), a baker’s son who once helped out a starving Katniss, and apparently had a secret crush on her thereafter.
Director/co-writer Gary Ross condenses a bit too much at times; the unfamiliar viewer will have to work hard to make some connections. He also likes a lot of hand-held, shaky camerawork. Sections of action are presented with the sound dropped out and only music. He also films some of the combat sequences so close that it is hard to keep track of who is who. By necessity of the film’s rating, the second half of the film is diminished somewhat. Especially missing is a better feeling of who the other competitors are. Also, to replace Katniss’ first-person narrative in the book, a large control room is introduced, where we can see the controllers introduce fire and even manufactured beasts into the arena on command. One good part in the second half is the depiction of the riot in District 11, after its female tribute is killed and then “buried” by her new friend Katniss. Also good is the sequence with the tracker jackers or genetically-engineered wasps.
Rounding out the cast are Donald Sutherland as President Snow, a good-but-underused Lenny Kravitz as designer Cinna, Woody Harrelson as the mostly-drunk Haymitch Abernathy (he is District 12’s lone winner of the games), Stanley Tucci as slightly obnoxious games TV host Caesar Flicker man (as in Stephen King’s “The Running Man,” the competition to the death is televised) and Elizabeth Banks as District 12 escort Effie Trinket.
The DVD extras are superb. There is an eight-part, feature-length (124 min.) making-of documentary that covers adapting the novel to pre-production to shooting to marketing. Featurettes cover author Collins (14:05), an interview with Sutherland about the script (9:08), a look at the games command center (5:50), Elvis Mitchell interviewing Ross about his adaptation and filming (14:31), Ross discussing moving from the script to shooting the film (3 min.) and the complete President Snow propaganda film shown during the reaping (1:34). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 87 min.). On the other hand, I have never read “The Lorax,” although the green hands illustration looks familiar. Thus, I had no idea what the cotton-candy-looking Truffula trees were, or for that matter what a thneed was. I read that those who have read the 1971 book find the film wanting, but with no background to draw on, I found it to be a pretty good family film, even if it is a bit too frenetic at times. Certainly, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s forward-thinking warning about preserving the ecosphere comes through.
We are introduced to the town of Thneedville as the townspeople sing a song. The most unusual thing about the town is that it has no trees; in part because Mr. O’Hare (voice of Rob Riggle) does not want trees producing free air, as he has made his fortune selling bottled air. The other reason, we soon learn. Next, we meet Ted (voiced by Zac Efron). He is a 12-year-old who is smitten by his neighbor Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) and, when he learns she would marry the man who could bring her a live tree, he resolves to do so and is pointed in the right direction by his Grammy Norma (voiced by Betty White). Ted sneaks out of town on his bike to find The Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) and ask him about a tree seed. Most of the film thereafter is given to The Once-ler’s tale of how he came across the magical forest of Truffula trees, created the first thneed from their leaves and then hired his relatives, who proceeded to cut all the trees down. Along the way we meet many wonderful animal characters, including the bear-like Bar-bo-loots, the most prominent of which are big Lou and Pipsqueak. Ted is finally given a seed, which leads to a chase finale with Mr. O’Hare and his goons. The Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) is the guardian of the forest. The film was created by Illumination Entertainment, which also brought us “Despicable Me.”
Of the songs, I enjoyed The Once-ler’s “How Bad Can I Be” (a bit of rock, sung by Helms) and the closing “Let It Grow” (sung by Ester Dan). There are extras, but nothing major, other than the audio commentary by director Chris Renaud and co-director Kyle Balda and three shorts that could have been scenes in the film but were left out. The funniest is “Wagon Ho!,” which has Lou and Pipsqueak off on a wild ride with a runaway wagon. “Forces of Nature” has The Lorax trying to scare The Once-ler away, while “Serenade” is a Bar-bo-loot music fest. The three shorts and their making-of only add up to 11:57. There is one short deleted scene and the ability to watch the film with O’Hare commercial interruptions (that grows tired fast). Expedition of Truffula Valley has some neat stuff in it -- character bios and mini-features, like Mark O’Hare demonstrating how to draw a Bar-bo-loot, but it is very cumbersome to navigate through. A Seuss to screen featurette is informative --like how the fur was tested -- but far too short at 4:27. Finally, there are three kids’ games and a sing-along for “Let It Grow.” Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Grimm: Season One (Universal, 5 Blu-ray discs, NR, 15 hours 51 min.). I really wanted to like this show, and some parts of it I do, but so much of it lacks sense. David Giuntoli plays Portland, Oregon homicide detective Nick Burkhardt, who learns he has a secret heritage from his dying Aunt Marie (Kate Burton). He is a Grimm, like her, part of a family that hunts down and kills hidden monsters among us. They are the Wesen, who were presented in slightly changed form in the 1812 tales of the Brothers Grimm. What doesn’t make sense is that the Grimms apparently are so bad at culling the bad Wesen (yes, there are good ones, such as reformed Blutbad Monroe (played by Silas Weir Mitchell; think wolf creature of Big Bad Wolf). And with so many Wesen congregated in and around Portland, no one notices the strangeness of the deaths? (“Supernatural,“ which similarly deals with monsters, takes care of that by having the Winchester brothers travel all across the country.) It is clever that the Grimms are reapers of the Wesen, giving new meaning to the phrase “grim reaper.” Another problem is a general lack of chemistry among the actors. Bitsie Tulloch plays Nick’s girlfriend Juliette Silverton, who Aunt Marie told him to dump, while Russell Hornsby plays his partner Hank Griffin. Neither can know what he does, even though Juliette sees the trailer full of exotic weapons that Aunt Marie has left Nick. Also in the cast are Reggie Lee as Sgt. Wu and Sasha Roiz as Capt. Sean Renard, who is secretly a Wesen, yet Nick cannot pick up on that.
The specials effects are mostly facial morphing, which works, and creature suits. Season two already has begun (kind of bizarre in of itself). The first two episodes of season one involve attempts to kill of Aunt Marie, as well as a Blutbad that kills girls wearing red and two young home invaders that stumble upon a pack of bears. Later on, he deals with a troubled teen, a hypnotic killer, an underground fight club, a Hexenbiest witch and others. The show was shot digitally and looks crisp; the sound also is good. The foldout casing has a helpful Wesen dictionary, but the discs have to be slid in and out of pockets. The Blu-ray version has an exclusive interactive guide and two collectible trading cards, while the Blu-ray and standard DVDs both have inconsequential deleted scenes, a gag reel, an introduction to the show (11 min.), audition tapes and a look at the making of the monsters (7 min.). Grade: season and extras 2.25 stars
Glee: The Complete Third Season (Fox, 4 Blu-ray discs, NR, 960 min.). Well, plot wise this season was almost universally attacked, but the music remained good and the show was always watchable. The one plot thread carried through was to have six seniors graduate, and it made for a very tearful final episode (and even tearful 15:19 look at Saying Goodbye in the extras). Some of the graduates we will be following in the next phase of their lives.
The two winners and two runners-up of season one of “The Glee Project” were introduced. Damian McGinty arrived in episode four as the stereotypical Irish exchange student, even to wearing green, an Irish hat, being called a leprechaun by Brittany (Heather Morris) and having to sing Kermit the Frog’s “Hard Being Green.” Truth be told, the writers did not do much with his character all season, whether he could act or not, and he has not been asked back. The other winner, Sam Larsen, came on in the second half of the season as a Christian, but his Joe Hart developed a sweet crush on Quinn (Dianna Agron), who thankfully is recovering from her automobile accident (don’t text and drive kids; just one of the too obvious After School Special moments this season). Lindsay Pearce appeared in two episodes, doing her best Patti Lupone and “Evita” moment. Alex Newell was very effective as his cross-dressing Unique character, who really nailed two performances at the Nationals.
The show follows the members of the McKinley High (Lima, Ohio) glee club, the New Directions, as they deal with young love, bullying, identity crises, competition and jealousy. Teacher/choir director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) more than ever seems to live through the lives of his students, inviting them to his wedding OCD-afflicted guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays). Cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), a loveable sharp-tongued foil has a rival in the new swim coach (NeNe Leakes as Roz Washington). Football coach Shannon Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) is given a rotten storyline in that her self-esteem issues fall away when a guy falls for her, and then he turns out to be abusive. Another new student is the ridiculously wealthy Sugar Motta (Vanessa Lengies), who can’t sing a note on key, but becomes the trophy in a battle between McGinty’s Rory and Kevin McHale’s Artie. Quarterback Finn Hudson (Corey Monteith) feels directionless, while his girlfriend Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) has her heart set on attending NYADA — the fictional New York Academy of Dramatic Arts _ but she blows her audition in front of the school‘s judge (guest star Whoopi Goldberg), while Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) excels in his audition. Finn actually proposes to Rachel, who accepts, although things keep getting in the way of the nuptials. Santana (Naya Rivera) comes out as a lesbian and ditzy girlfriend Brittany runs for class president against Rachel and Kurt. "Trouty-mouth" Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet) is shown as a male-stripper in a flashback, but is brought back to school, and the swim team. His romance with diva Mercedes (Amber Riley) is put on hold, because she has gotten another boyfriend. Quinn adopts a new bad-girl image and tries to talk Puck (Mark Salling) into kidnapping her baby. The boy romance between Kurt and Blaine (Darren Criss) intensifies as he becomes a student at McKinley, and the pair put on a black-and-white Christmas special (very old-fashioned) for the local cable station. We also get to meet Blaine’s hunky older brother (a wonderfully funny guest appearance by Matt Bomer). Other guest stars include Ricky Martin, Jeff Goldblum and Gloria Esteban. One of the best shows has Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) hit her head and see everybody playing different roles (there is a 5:41 behind-the-scenes look among the extras). Theme episodes were dedicated to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and “Saturday Night Fever,” with the latter two coming close after Houston and Robin Gibb’s deaths.
The Blu-rays look fine -- “Glee” is still shot on film -- and the sound is astounding, especially during the music numbers (and there is hardly a clunker among them). Extras include a jukebox on each disc so you can go directly to the songs; a look at the six new characters (13:20), including interviews with each; the aforementioned Saying Goodbye (most of the cast did not know how the final scene would play out in advance); six minutes of Sue Sylvester answering viewer’s question; two deleted scenes (one from the Christmas special) and an extended version of the awkward dinner with Emma’s parents; a “Glee” donation effort; and a compilation of Sue’s put-downs. Grade: season and extras 3.25 stars