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 complete list of 44th Annual Grammy Award winners, announced Wednesday night:
Record of the Year: Walk On, U2
Rap Album: Stankonia, OutKast
Song of the Year: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Album of the Year: O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Various Artists
Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal: "Elevation," U2
New Artist: Alicia Keys
Country Collaboration with Vocals: "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright (The Soggy Bottom Boys), from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Female Pop Vocal Performance: "I'm Like a Bird," Nelly Furtado
R&B Album: Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys
Rock Song: "Drops of Jupiter," Charlie Colin, Rob Hotchkiss, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford and Scott Underwood (Train)
Pop Collaboration with Vocals: "Lady Marmalade," Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink
Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal: "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," U2
Rock Album: "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2
Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," James Taylor
Pop Instrumental Performance: "Reptile," Eric Clapton
Dance Recording: "All For You," Janet Jackson
Pop Instrumental Album: No Substitutions--Live in Osaka, Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather
Pop Vocal Album: Lovers Rock, Sade
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Songs I Heard, Harry Connick Jr.
Female Rock Vocal Performance: "Get Right With God," Lucinda Williams
Male Rock Vocal Performance: "Dig In," Lenny Kravitz
Hard Rock Vocal: "Crawling," Linkin Park
Metal Performance: "Schism," Tool
Rock Instrumental Performance: "Dirty Mind," Jeff Beck
Alternative Music Album: Parachutes, Coldplay
Female R&B Vocal Performance: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys
Male R&B Vocal Performance: "U Remind Me," Usher
R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "Survivor," Destiny's Child
R&B Song: "Fallin'," Alicia Keys (Alicia Keys)
Traditional R&B Album: "At Last," Gladys Knight
Rap Solo Performance: "Get Ur Freak On," Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Rap Performance by a Duo or Group: "Ms. Jackson," OutKast
Rap/Sung Collaboration: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," Eve Featuring Gwen Stefani
Female Country Vocal Performance: "Shine," Dolly Parton
Male Country Vocal Performance: "O Death," Ralph Stanley, from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "The Lucky One," Alison Krauss + Union Station
Country Instrumental Performance: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Earl Scruggs, Glen Duncan, Randy Scruggs, Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Gary Scruggs, Albert Lee, Paul Shaffer, Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell
Country Song: "The Lucky One," Robert Lee Castleman (Alison Krauss + Union Station)
Country Album: Timeless--Hank Williams Tribute, Various Artists
Bluegrass Album: New Favorite, Alison Krauss + Union Station
Contemporary Jazz Album: M2, Marcus Miller
Jazz Vocal Album: The Calling, Dianne Reeves
Jazz Instrumental Solo: "Chan's Song," Michael Brecker
Jazz Instrumental Album: This Is What I Do, Sonny Rollins
Large Jazz Ensemble Album: Homage To Count Basie, Bob Mintzer Big Band
Latin Jazz Album: Nocturne, Charlie Haden
Rock Gospel Album: Solo, DC Talk
Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album: CeCe Winans, CeCe Winans
Southern, Country or Bluegrass Album: Bill & Gloria Gaither Present A Billy Graham Music Homecoming, Bill and Gloria Gaither and The Homecoming Friends
Traditional Soul Gospel Album: Spirit of the Century, The Blind Boys of Alabama
Contemporary Soul Gospel Album: The Experience, Yolanda Adams
Gospel Choir or Chorus Album: Love Is Live!, LFT Church Choir, Hezekiah Walker, choir director
Latin Pop Album: La Musica De Baldemar Huerta, Freddy Fender
Latin Rock/Alternative Album: Embrace the Chaos, Ozomatli
Traditional Tropical Latin Album: Dejame Entrar, Carlos Vives
Salsa Album: Encore, Robert Blades
Merengue Album: Yo Por Ti, Olga Tanon
Mexican/Mexican-American Album: En Vivo ... El Hombre y Su Musica, Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte
Tejano Album: Nadie Como Tu, Solido
Traditional Blues Album: Do You Get the Blues?, Jimmie Vaughan
Contemporary Blues Album: Nothing Personal, Delbert McClinton
Traditional Folk Album: Down From the Mountain, Various Artists
Contemporary Folk Album: Love and Theft, Bob Dylan
Native American Music Album: Bless the People--Harmonized Peyote Songs, Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike
Reggae Album: Halfway Tree, Damian Marley
World Music Album: Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000, Ravi Shankar
Polka Album: Gone Polka, Jimmy Sturr
Musical Album for Children: Elmo and the Orchestra, Sesame Street Characters
Spoken Word Album for Children: Mama Don't Allow, Tom Chapin
Spoken Word Album: Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones
Spoken Comedy Album: Napalm and Silly Putty, George Carlin
Musical Show Album: The Producers, Original Broadway Cast with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, lyricist and composer Mel Brooks
Compilation Soundtrack Album For a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Various Artists
Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or other Visual Media: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composer Tan Dun
Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media: "Boss of Me," (They Might Be Giants from Malcolm in the Middle), songwriters They Might Be Giants
Instrumental Composition: "Cast Away (End Credits)," Alan Silvestri (Alan Silvestri)
Instrumental Arrangement: "Claude Debussy 'Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum' from Children's Corner," Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer (Bela Fleck with Joshua Bell and Gary Hoffmann)
Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s): "Drops of Jupiter," Paul Buckmaster (Train)
Recording Package: "Amnesiac (Special Limited Edition)" (Radiohead)
Boxed Recording Package: "Brain in a Box--The Science Fiction Collection," (Various Artists)
Album Notes: (tie) Richard Pryor ... And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992), (Richard Pryor); Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000 The Journey Of Chris Strachwitz, (Various Artists)
Historical Album: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, (Billie Holiday)
Engineered Album, Non-Classical: The Look of Love, (Diana Krall)
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical: T Bone Burnett
Remixed of the Year, Non-Classical: Deep Dish, "Thank You (Deep Dish Vocal Remix)" (Dido)
Engineered Album, Classical: Bernstein (Arr. Brohn & Corigliano): West Side Story Suite (Lonely Town; Make Our Garden Grow, Etc.) (Joshua Bell)
Producer Of The Year, Classical: Manfred Eicher
Classical Album: Berlioz: Les Troyens, James Mallinson, producer
Orchestral Performance: "Boulez Conducts Varese (Ameriques; Arcana; Deserts; Ionisation)," Pierre Boulez (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Opera Recording: "Berlioz: Les Troyens," Sir Colin Davis; Michelle De Young, Ben Heppner, Petra Lang, Peter Mattei, Stephen Milling, Sara Mingardo, Kenneth Tarver; James Mallinson, producer (Various Artists; London Sym. Orch.)
Choral Performance Award: "Bach: St. Matthew Passion," Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Arnold Schoenberg Chamber Orch. and Wiener Sangerknaben; Concentus Musicus Wien)
Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance: "Strauss Wind Concertos (Horn Concerto; Oboe Concerto, etc.)," Dale Clevenger, horn; Larry Combs, clarinet; Alex Klein, oboe; David McGill, bassoon; Daniel Barenboim, piano/conductor (Chicago Sym. Orch.)
Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra): "Britten Cello Suites (1-3)," Truls Mork, cello
Chamber Music Performance: "Haydn: The Complete String Quartets," The Angeles String Quartet
Small Ensemble Performance (with or without Conductor): "After Mozart (Raskatov, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Etc.)," Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer, violin
Classical Vocal Performance: "Dreams & Fables--Gluck Italian Arias (Tremo Fra' Dubbi Miei; Di Questa Cetra in Seno, etc.)," Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo soprano
Classical Contemporary Composition: "Rouse: Concert De Gaudi for Guitar and Orch.," Christopher Rouse, composer
Classical Crossover Album: Perpetual Motion (Scarlatti, Bach, Debussy, Chopin, etc.) Bela Fleck, banjo (Joshua Bell, violin; Evelyn Glennie, marimba; Gary Hoffman, cello; Edgar Meyer, bass and piano; Chris Thile, mandolin; John Williams, guitar)
Short Form Music Video: "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim featuring Bootsy Collins
Long Form Music Video: "Recording the Producers--A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks," Mel Brooks (with Various Artists including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick)
New Age Album: A Day Without Rain, Enya