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.
With sparse emotion and very slowly evolving detail writer/director Philippe Claudel’s mood drama reveals long-held secrets and passions simmering under the radar. It’s a family story sparked by the return of a woman Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) to her small town after spending 15 years in prison for an unspeakable crime that is not clearly identified. The film opens with a close-up on her face the shell of a burnt-out soul clearly still in a prison within herself. She goes to live with her estranged younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) who takes her into the home she shares with her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) his father and their two young girls. Initially there is distrust and distance. particularly from Juliette’s parents who disowned her and brought up Lea as if she had no sister. Slowly Juliette attempts to find her way back and is helped by the curiosity of two men: Faure (Frederic Pierrot) a local cop and Michel (Laurent Grevill) who are intrigued by her seemingly mysterious air. Her innate loneliness and bitterness begins to thaw as revelations about her past and family dynamic float to the surface allowing pieces of this intricate puzzle to come together.
Kristin Scott Thomas’ moving and luminous performance has a raw power that is almost indescribable. This transcends acting; it’s life lived. Allowing the camera to linger on her face no makeup in sight is something few actresses would be comfortable with. Scott Thomas seems to have traveled deep into the soul of this lost woman searching for the humanity and sign of life that is hidden from view and never threatening to surface. Although she’s English the star flawlessly plays the role entirely in French but it’s real power is not in the language but in its austere subtlety. There isn’t a false moment and when the time comes for some key revelations her emotional connection with the audience is palpable earning our sympathy unlike any piece of acting seen on screen in years. Reserve her seat now for the Academy Awards. Almost equaling Scott Thomas is Zylberstein as the younger sister reaching out now to make inroads toward a new beginning with the sibling who was taken away from her. Scenes between the two are utterly convincing for their complete lack of pretense. The physical and mental prison that has separated them quietly opens its doors in measured silences. Other actors have their moments especially Grevill who beautifully lets his own curiosity about Juliette define their emerging relationship. Hazanavicius perfectly represents the aloof attitude of many in the small town and his reluctance to let her babysit the kids is telling. Philippe Claudel is a best selling novelist taking his first turn behind the camera. Appropriately his debut film feels like it flows from the pages of one of his books shot in the melancholy rhythms of a novel rather than cinema. His choice to shoot so much in close up is a blessing letting us peer behind sad sunken eyes into the deflated spirit of this drifting human being. What gives his film such immaculate power and grace though is the deliberate sense of mystery he creates never revealing anything about Juliette’s past transgressions until he has to and keeping us on edge throughout as the story builds suspense and secrets come to light. Above all in this tale of two sisters Claudel is celebrating the strength and perseverance of women and their ability to be reborn. Indeed I've Loved You So Long is a small intimate story of forgiveness rebirth and renewal. It’s demanding but ultimately rewarding.