The Running Sham: Trailering 'The Hunger Games'

Having a lot of potential is one thing. The Hunger Games has more than high hopes to overcome if it wants to be more than a well-made memory of the books.

It's purported to be the next Twilight, a young adult literary sensation making the leap to the large screen. Some are even hinting at Harry Potter like crossover appeal with Stephen King actually singing the praises of the series. Still, if fans know to be wary of anything, it's the concept that Hollywood will actually treat their favorite book or fictional series with any artistic or aesthetic respect. Leave it to Lionsgate to give it a try with Suzanne Collins' beloved Hunger Games. Currently ramping up the hype machine for a March 2012 release, the latest in prerelease promotion saw a trailer rolled out last week... and the snickers of sour disappointment already beginning.

There is no denying that Gary Ross can handle this material. His skill as both a writer (Big, Dave) and director (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) argues for his handle of scope and concept. True, he is not the scribe here. That is being left up to Ms. Collins herself, and with her tenure in kid's TV (Clarissa Explains It All, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo) she seems perfect to realize her own ambitions. The casting also boasts a cross section of cultural knowns, including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and perhaps most importantly, Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) as the main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.

So everything is in place for a big fat hit - right? Interesting actors... quality behind the lens... fabulously popular piece of should all fall into place with perfect commercial credentials... correct? Well, if the trailer is any indication of its potential, The Hunger Games is going to have some issues that may be impossible to overcome. Aside from the production design, which appears to be borrowed from a dainty draft of Darren Lynn Bousman's Repo: The Genetic Opera and a Postman-meets post-apocalyptic claptrap feel in the third act, the narrative itself appears lifted from a lengthy collection of previously produced items. In fact, Collins was criticized by many for allegedly borrowing her ideas from Koushun Takami's brilliant Battle Royale (an accusation she's vehemently denied).

Looking over the plot points, we have a sectioned off society (list any previous sci-fi effort, from Rollerball to Woody Allen's Sleeper) that requires its children to be sacrificed in the name of the communal great good (ala Shirley Jackson's The Lottery). The concept of choice - a survivalist contest known as The Hunger Games (though it could easily be called The Long Walk, The Running Man, or... Battle Royale). There, a kill or be killed mentality applies, though readers of the book know that The Capital, a dystopian entity which controls this future world, can provide gifts and favors from sponsors, as well as manipulating the results to win favorable audience ratings (just like the Death Race update, or any number of reality as TV types).

Now granted, there is nothing wrong with a familiar concept handled well. Indeed, Mr. King (whose done at least two of these kinds of efforts under the pseudonym 'Richard Bachman') seems to particularly like Ms. Collins' take. But awareness also breeds disdain, too much recognition guaranteeing that at least some in the audience will be aggravated, not awe struck. Like Stephanie Meyers, a mediocre horror romance scribe who prayed no one had read (or even heard of) Anne Rice before she decided to turn vampires into tortured souls for spinsters and soccer moms everywhere, Collins clearly believes she is setting up a whole new generation who haven't see The Most Dangerous Game or Logan's Run and won't recognize it in her merchandised mishmash.

Now, no one is accusing Ms. Collins of being completely devoid of originality (well, except for a certain Japanese author) and she clearly has struck a chord with young readers everywhere. While not quite in the league of someone like J. K. Rowling, The Hunger Games books, as well as the author's first series, The Underland Chronicles, have made her a bit for a medium celebrity. Movies, on the other hand, have to walk a more perilous path. A novel can sink into the mire of one's mental theater without ever hitting a recognizable risk. Our brains just work that way. Once you have to visualize things in actuality, the concept of familiarity becomes a cinematic shortcut - thus breeding contempt.

From the moment a clownish Ms. Banks does her dopey diva bit, a sense of desperation fills the trailer's air. Just like turning neckbiters into sparkly Romeos or reducing werewolves to ab-scratching boy toys, The Hunger Games trailer turns evil both actual and implied into a carnival and endurance into an extension of the early X-Men franchise (just check out the wardrobe the participants are forced to wear). Instead of using vision to invent a post-America world where class and corruption leave visible scars, and one-upmanship has been redefined as philosophical sacrifice, the initial look of this freakshow future shock is decidedly anticlimactic. It's a combination of camp and theme park impressions.

As the viewer counts off the copies one by one, as they think back to when they first encountered a cinematic social structure where the powerful plague the destitute in order to torment them for their own amusement, a basic sci-fi truism slaps us square in the face - we've seen this all before. The Hunger Games can't claim ownership to the ideas it is borrowing from, but at the very least, it could be a bit more reverent when it tries to re-imagine them. Sure, we've yet to see the completed work, and some of the highlights hinted at in the preview can be successfully expanded into something audiences of every inkling can get behind. But it may never be able to overcome the stink of sameness.

There is always the fear, however, that Ross and Company will simply sit down with the tome and illustrate it, page by page, scene by scene, in order to keep the faithful happy. When the Twilight saga attempted it, the result became some of the most profitable bad movies ever made. Having a lot of potential is one thing. The Hunger Games has more than prospective to overcome if it hopes to be more than a well-made memory of the books. So far, the first glimpse fails such a litmus test.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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