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.
When we left our favorite misanthropic antiheroes Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) in 1994 we had a feeling they’d be disgruntled clerks well into the new millennium. Sure enough our 12-year reunion finds them still slacking off in the same Jersey town--only they’re now “working” at fast-food joint Mooby’s after a fire burnt down the Quick Stop; sidewalk stalkers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (writer/director Kevin Smith) have also been forced to take their acts to Mooby’s. Now in their thirties and miserable as ever Dante and Randal still profanely voice their discontent in front of their easygoing boss lady (Rosario Dawson) virgin coworker (Trevor Fehrman) and unsuspecting patrons but at least one of them is planning to finally grow up: Dante is set to move with his fiancé Becky (played by Smith’s real wife Jennifer Schwalbach) to Florida in hopes of starting a new life much to Randal’s objection.
Clerks II truly has the feel of a reunion: We haven’t seen our good buddies O'Halloran and Anderson in a dozen years and we’re curious what they’ll look like etc. because save for a few minor roles they’ve been M.I.A. ever since! They look older but they still trade vulgarities with the best of ‘em--with Anderson’s Randal typically doling out the insults and O'Halloran’s Dante whining about them--and possess acting chops making it a wonder we haven’t seen the two much since ’94. Mewes’ Jay in the sequel is based at least loosely on the actor’s own off-screen “arc ” which has seen drug addiction and current sobriety. Mewes’ scenes are again the film’s best and while some will complain of not enough screen time that’s actually the best restraint exhibited by Smith. Newcomer Dawson makes for an odd addition to the odd couple but she more than holds her own with their obscene sex ponderings and more importantly plays down her looks enough to pull it off. The first Clerks was considered a seminal offbeat masterpiece and writer/director Smith along with Richard Linklater and others was branded a forefather of ‘90s indie. However since then Smith has failed to produce a single box-office hit and here we find him reverting to his ol’ reliable seemingly a stab at career revival. The film is both hit-and-miss and as a whole hit-or-miss but therein lies the essence of Kevin Smith for which we’ve longed since his heyday. While he clearly makes some concessions for the bigger-budgeted sequel—-Smith occasionally tries to please the crowd the film is in color etc.--his observations on everything from Lord of the Rings geekdom to taboo sex moves are again liberated and anyone with an open if filthy mind will eat it up. And refreshingly Smith seems at peace with the fact that even if this sequel had been flawless it couldn’t have possibly satisfied his original cult fans many of whom are now also in their thirties and will enjoy the odd sweetness of Smith’s take on growing up.