In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
A year ago, five unknown guys from Orlando, Fla., went to the Sundance Film Festival with a cheap movie, a neato gimmick and a good publicist.
Today they return to Park City, Utah, as Hollywood players -- the creators of what might become the biggest horror film franchise ever -- and as bona fide filmmakers afforded multimillion-dollar budgets.
Their film cost $10,000 to $100,000, depending on what you read. They sold it for $1 million. It made $140 million in theaters. Maybe you've heard of it: "The Blair Witch Project."
Hands down, the "Haxan Five," as they like to call themselves (Get it? It rhymes with "Jackson Five") are the biggest rags-to-riches story ever to come out of Sundance. Sure, other nickel-and-dime neophytes such as Kevin Smith and Edward Burns have received more critical praise. But none of those guys launched a commercial juggernaut like "Blair Witch," which left most of last year's major studio films in the dust. If not for the festival, the phenomenon may have forever remained a figment of their fertile imaginations.
"Everything hinged on us getting into Sundance," Daniel Myrick, who co-wrote and directed the movie with partner Eduardo Sanchez, told the Dallas Morning News last year. "It's such a validation for our sort of filmmaking. It's like winning the lottery.
"We have these bongos in our office that we beat whenever something good happens. The day we were picked, we partied and beat on those drums all night. Now, we're living the dream, man."
How's tricks nowadays with Myrick, Sanchez and their producers, Gregg Hale, Mike Monello and Robin Cowie? Not bad at all.
This spring, they are set to begin filming their first post-"Witch" feature, a comedy called "Heat of Love" for Artisan. Earlier this month, they signed a big deal with Artisan in which Sanchez and Myrick will executive produce "Blair Witch 2," to be directed by veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger, and they will write and direct a third installment, a "Blair Witch" prequel, set for release in fall 2001. Both the sequel and prequel will be budgeted in the $7 million to $10 million range.
Add to that all their talk show appearances, magazine interviews, the merchandising (including a hugely hyped pre-Halloween home video release, a video game version of the movie, books, etc.), and a TV show in development at Fox, it's been quite a year. Their schedules are so full, they couldn't (or wouldn't) be interviewed for this article (their publicist apologized).
"I think in terms of money, 'Blair Witch' is the most successful movie to come out of Sundance. There's not anything that comes close," says John Anderson, chief film critic for Newsday in New York and author of the book "Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening in at America's Most Important Film Festival" (Spike Publishing).
But now that Sanchez, Myrick, et. al. are players, the player-haters will inevitably come out of the woodwork. It's already started: After receiving a big buzz-bounce out of Sundance last year, "Blair Witch" was greeted with mostly favorable reviews as critics praised it as an anti-film, a horror original. But as the film became a phenomenon, detractors appeared, saying, "it's not scary," "it's cheap-looking" or "stop shaking the camera already, you're giving me a migraine."
"The reaction was kind of funny," Anderson says. "Almost as soon as it started making money, people turned on it. There's always this perverse critical reaction when something becomes too popular, but you have to admit it had one of the great marketing plans, both by the filmmakers and by Artisan."
That marketing plan began back in 1997, when Sanchez and Myrick succeeded in getting snippets from "Blair Witch," then a work-in-progress, onto indie film guru John Pierson's cable TV show "Split Screen." From the beginning, the project was presented as if it were a true-to-life documentary, and the filmmakers neither confirmed nor denied its authenticity. To maintain a veil of mystery, they made sure the film's three actors, who portray the film crew lost in a haunted Maryland woods, didn't speak to the media until after the film was released theatrically in July.
The actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, who lent their real names to their characters, have also fared well in the wake of the film's box-office bonanza. All three were complete unknowns beforehand -- they didn't even have SAG cards -- but they spent last summer making promo appearances on Jay Leno, the MTV Movie Awards and other gigs. Now they all live in Los Angeles and have agents.
Leonard has enjoyed the most immediate big-time success, recently landing a part in "Navy Divers," a mainstream Hollywood flick with Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. He also worked on a low-budget film, "City of Bars," which was shot last year in San Francisco. Not bad for a guy whose resume previously boasted of a few films most have never heard of and stage work at the Seattle Fringe Festival.
Donahue, whose credits included stage work in New York, is now auditioning for films and spends time camping in the California mountains, an interest she developed while working on "Blair Witch." And Williams is also passing out headshots in Hollywood, having moved to the area last year after getting married. He also has diffused a longstanding rumor that he once played minor league baseball in the Yankees farm system.
What's next? Many filmmakers who hit pay dirt the first time out suffer a sophomore jinx, and the industry will surely be watching to see if the Haxan guys sink or swim with their new comedy. Will it be funny? Will it be in focus? Will there be lots of rocks and twigs?
The Haxan guys are being familiarly coy about "Heat of Love," which they have described as "'It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World' meets Ruth Buzzi and Erik Estrada."
"Whatever they do next, they're going to have to try extra hard to get over the hump," Anderson adds. "A lot of people feel like they were snookered by 'Blair Witch' because they [Sanchez and Myrick] were so cagey about the origins of the footage.
"Mainstream narrative filmmaking is a whole new ball game for them. There's no reason to think that they'll be better at it than anybody else. They caught lightning in a bottle the first time out."
If director Deepa Mehta is down in the dumps these days, who can blame her? Not only have protesters shut down production of her new movie, "Water," on location in India -- they've threatened to kill and burn her in effigy.
George Lucas to the rescue.
In today's Daily Variety, the "Star Wars" creator springs for a full-page ad in the trade newspaper, declaring: "Our heart is with Deepa Mehta ... in her current struggles to film 'Water.' Keep fighting, Deepa!"
The note was signed by Lucas, partner Rick McCallum "and all your friends at Lucasfilm Ltd."
So what's the Lucas-Mehta connection? Mehta directed one episode of the Lucasfilm-produced "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" TV series in the early 1990s, as well as a segment of the 1996 TV-movie "Young Indiana Jones and Travels With Father."
Lucas and McCallum "like her and fully support" Mehta, a Lucasfilm rep told Hollywood.com today.
Last week, 20,000 Hindu protesters destroyed sets for Mehta's movie in Varanasi, India, causing an estimated $700,000 damage. Although Mehta's production has been approved by the appropriate government officials, police have done little to stop the vandalism and Mehta has been meeting with government representatives in hopes of restoring the peace.
Before production on the film could get under way, the demonstrators -- who are aligned with the Hindu nationalist government -- stormed the set to protest purported distortions of old-school Indian values in the movie. Then, they occupied the sets, refusing to leave.
"Water" is the third film of a planned trilogy, telling the story of a 1930s love affair between an upper-class widow and a lower-class man. It's a story that some Indians apparently find offensive. Mehta's first two movies in the trilogy, "Fire" and "Earth," also dealt with social taboos such as lesbianism and religious persecution. "Fire" caused riots in India when it was released.
Last week, Mehta, a native of India who has lived in Canada since the 1970s, told the Toronto Star that she might quit making movies in India.
"It's getting too hard. I'm not the most popular person in India," she said.
Of course, there are those encouraging words from George Lucas: "Keep fighting, Deepa!"
Then again, the protesters probably don't read Daily Variety.
KA-CHING! Sundance entry "Love and Sex," starring "Swingers" alum Jon Favreau, has been picked up by Lions Gate Films, today's Variety reports. It's the company's third Sundance purchase, after the doc "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and the audience award winner, "Two Family House."
LIFE'S A 'BLAIR WITCH': They say that people forget their friends when they become rich and famous. Sam Barber was so upset that his "Blair Witch Project" colleagues forgot him -- or so he says -- that he filed a lawsuit claiming he was robbed of executive producer credit on the film. This week, a judge ruled that Barber's suit, which alleges that the filmmakers and Artisan Entertainment violated federal unfair competition laws, should proceed in court.
Barber has sued Artisan and "Blair Witch" creators Daniel Myrick and Gregg Hale, claiming that the movie was originally developed in 1996 at Barber's production company in Orlando, Florida. Barber claims he invested thousands into the picture, prepared the treatment and investor package and shot a theatrical trailer. He says the parties agreed they would all be partners, but Myrick and Hale later froze him out when they sold the movie to Artisan.
The lawsuit was filed before the film was released last summer and went on to make $140 million at the box office. It's one of two "Blair Witch" battles currently being fought in court: On Monday, Artisan filed suit against the UA Theaters chain, claiming it has failed to pay $3 million in "Blair Witch" licensing fees.
FILM FEST: If you're in Los Angeles this week, check out the 8th Annual Pan African Film & Art Festival, running today through Feb. 21 at the Magic Johnson Theatres and the adjacent Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. For movie schedule and more info: (818) 890-2428.