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Sex, Leins & Videotape #133. Tom Leins reviews The Hunger Games, The Aggression Scale and Let The Bullets Fly.

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Blood and guts are the order of the day in this week’s DVD round-up from Tom Leins.

Based on Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult novel of the same name, The Hunger Games – The Unseen Version (Lionsgate) is a post-apocalyptic thriller in which youngsters are plucked from obscurity to participate in a deadly game-show for the titillation of the country’s wealthy elite.

The events depicted take place in Panem, which was established in North America following the destruction of the continent’s civilization by an unspecified apocalyptic event. Panem consists of the wealthy Capitol and twelve surrounding, poorer districts, all of which are united under the Capitol’s control. One male and one female from each of the districts are forced to participate in an annual competition called The Hunger Games, which is broadcast live throughout the country. During ‘the Reaping’ in District 12 (formerly Appalachia), a twelve year-old named Primrose Everdeen is randomly selected to take part in the contest, prompting her feisty 16-year-old sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class) to volunteer in her place. Joined by District 12’s male ‘tribute’ Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia), Katniss travels to the Capitol to train for the Games under the reluctant mentorship of jaded, drunken former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, Rampart), before being plunged into a brutal game of life and death.

From the outset The Hunger Games does well to evoke Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role in 2010’s mesmerising indie thriller Winter’s Bone, and the two stories have clear parallels. In that movie Lawrence starred as Ree Dolly, a teenage girl who is forced to head into the Ozarks backwoods to track down her crystal-meth-dealing absentee father, after he leaves the family home in lieu of his bail bond. Although director Gary Ross pays lip service to the earlier movie with an early scene in which Katniss catches and kills wildlife to feed her destitute family, Lawrence’s magnetic, head-strong performance is the most vivid reminder of her star-making stint in Winter’s Bone. The fact that she has made the leap from the indie circuit to the mainstream so effortlessly is another big plus, and despite its confident franchise-ready swagger, The Hunger Games never feels like a shamelessly commercial Twilight-esque cash-in.

Despite its potentially off-putting teen sci-fi roots, older viewers should not be dissuaded from buying into The Hunger Games’ compelling mythology. The idea of a Battle Royale for the X-Factor generation is undoubtedly a queasy proposition, but with this vivid, memorable thriller director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has arguably crafted one of the best mainstream movies of 2012.

Released on bail after being charged with murder, ruthless crime boss Reg Bellavance (Ray Wise, Reaper) is planning on avoiding a life behind bars by leaving the country with his young son. However, first he needs to lay his hands on the missing stash of cash that he once put aside to fund his departure. So begins The Aggression Scale (Anchor Bay)…

Bellavance places the task of finding the money in the hands of world-weary hitman Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook, The Kill Point) and his accomplices, instructing them to hunt down and kill anybody who might have been involved in the money’s disappearance. Their indiscriminate trail of mayhem eventually leads them to the new home of Bill and Maggie Rutledge and their kids, Lauren and Owen. Little does Lloyd realise, however, young Owen is a seriously emotionally disturbed individual, with a secret history of violent behaviour that fills a huge cardboard box worth of case files. Suffice to say, what should be an easy task for four experienced hitmen soon turns into a gruesome waking nightmare.

Although the cast is headed by ex-Twin Peaks stars Ray Wise (who played Leland Palmer) and Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs), young Ryan Hartwig (The Thompsons), who plays Owen, is the undoubted star of the show, and delivers a genuinely unsettling portrayal of an unhinged youngster who is pushed way past breaking point. Surreally (but accurately) pitched as ‘Home Alone-meets-Rambo’, The Aggression Scale is a short, sharp shocker that often recalls 2010’s effective remake of 1978 video-nasty I Spit On Your Grave in terms of tone and content. Hotly-tipped director Steven C. Miller injects this grimy little thriller with regular doses of blood-spattered carnage, and his stylised direction raises this low-budget film above similar material. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in terms of memorable moments, and B-movie fans are advised to take a closer look.

Set in 1920s China, Let The Bullets Fly (Metrodome) tells the story of notorious bandit ‘Pocky’ Zhang Mazi (Jiang Weng), who attempts to pass himself off as the new governor of dusty outpost Goose Town, only to find himself at odds with fearsome local mobster Master Huang (Chow Yun Fat, Hardboiled), who lives in a fortified citadel, and objects to sharing the town’s potential spoils with the charismatic newcomer. With neither man willing to back down, a series of complex and increasingly deadly mind-games ensues, and Goose Town braces itself for bullet-strewn carnage.

In China, this colourful action-comedy became the highest-grossing domestic film of all time (before being dislodged by sexy fantasy tale Painted Skin: The Resurrection earlier this year), speaking volumes about its quirky appeal. However, while it is undeniably entertaining, and chock-full of memorable set-pieces, its attempt at presenting a layered storyline often means that Let The Bullets Fly lapses into incoherence. Writer/director/leading man Jiang Weng reportedly went through 30 drafts of the script before declaring himself satisfied, and inevitably, the film feels dangerously over-written at times, cramming in enough ideas to fill several movies. With a tighter control over his material Jiang could have delivered a movie with genuine crossover appeal, but Let The Bullets Fly misses the target as often as it strikes pay-dirt, giving the whole enterprise a whiff of missed opportunity. Approach with caution.