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 Independent Spirit Awards kicked off the night with prizes going out to James Franco and Penelope Cruz for their supporting roles in Milk and Vicky Cristina Barcelona respectively.
Click Here: Watch Spirit Awards Live & Uncut
The night ended with The Wrestler and Mickey Rourke taking took top honors for best film and lead actor. Melissa Leo, who some may have seen as the under dog, rounded out the night winning best female lead for her performance in Frozen River.
The complete list of nominations & winners:
Rachel Getting Married
Wendy and Lucy
The Wrestler -- WINNER!
Ramin Bahrani, Chop Shop
Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married
Lance Hammer, Ballast
Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor -- WINNER!
Best First Feature
Medicine for Melancholy
Sangre de Mi Sangre
Synecdoche, New York -- WINNER!
John Cassavetes Award
In Search of a Midnight Kiss -- WINNER!
Prince of Broadway
Turn the River
Best First Screenplay
Dustin Lance Black, Milk -- WINNER!
Lance Hammer, Ballast
Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Jonathan Levine, The Wackness
Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Woody Allen, Vicky Christina Barcelona -- WINNER!
Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden, Sugar
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York
Howard A. Rodman, Savage Grace
Christopher Zalla, Sangre de Mi Sangre
Best Female Lead
Summer Bishil, Towelhead
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Melissa Leo, Frozen River -- WINNER!
Tarra Riggs, Ballast
Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy
Best Male Lead
Javier Bardem, Vicky Christina Barcelona
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Sean Penn, Milk
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler -- WINNER!
Best Supporting Female
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona -- WINNER!
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Rosie Perez, The Take
Misty Upham, Frozen River
Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married
Best Supporting Male
James Franco, Milk -- WINNER!
Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker
Charlie McDermott, Frozen River
JimMyron Ross, Ballast
Haaz Sleiman, The Visitor
Maryse Alberti, The Wrestler -- WINNER!
Lol Crowley, Ballast
James Laxton, Medicine for Melancholy
Harris Savides, Milk
Michael Simmonds, Chop Shop
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World
Man on Wire -- WINNER!
The Order of Myths
Up the Yangtze
Best Foreign Film
The Class (France) -- WINNER!
Secret of the Grain (France)
Silent Light (Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany)
Robert Altman Award: (Given to one film's director, casting director and ensemble cast)
Synecdoche, New York
Director: Charlie Kaufman Casting Director: Jeanne McCarthy
Ensemble Cast: Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams
Someone to Watch Award
Barry Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy
Nina Paley, Sita Sings the Blues
Lynn Shelton, My Effortless Brilliance -- WINNER!
Truer Than Fiction Award
Margaret Brown, The Order of Myths -- The WINNER!
Sacha Gervasi, Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Darius Marder, Loot
Lars Knudsen and Joy Van Hoy, Tireless Mountain and I'll Come Running
Jason Orans, Goodbye Solo and Year of the Fish
Heather Rae, Frozen River and Ibid -- WINNER!
MORE NEWS: Is It Puppy Love for 'Slumdog' Stars?
Four tweener boys—Maps (Daniel Radcliffe) Misty (Lee Cormie) Spit (James Fraser) and Spark (Christian Byers)--have grown up together in a dusty Catholic orphanage deep in Australia’s outback during the 1970’s. The boys are fast friends partly because they are the home’s December Boys the only four born in that month. As the film begins all four are once again passed over by an adoptive couple--and disappointed once again in their collective dream of leaving the place and becoming part of a real family. But fate steps in as the foursome gets the life-altering chance to go for Christmas vacation to visit an elderly couple that lives by a gorgeous cove on the sea. As their holiday progresses the boys begin to compete for the affections of another family living in the magical cove a couple contemplating adopting a child. By the time the holiday is over all four have had an unforgettable life experience that will shape the rest of their days. Daniel Radcliffe branches out from his iconic role as Harry Potter with this terrific performance as Maps the eldest of the four orphan boys. As a slightly hardened teen who secretly longs for love and stability this character is very different from Harry (despite the orphan thread that links the two together) and Radcliffe inhabits him completely. The other three boys also give natural believable performances especially Lee Cormie who is the film’s narrator and central character. His portrayal of that bespectacled artistic smaller-than-the-others Misty is nuanced and brave quite the accomplishment for a kid who has only just turned fifteen. The rest of the gifted cast--including iconic Aussie actor Jack Thompson of classics like Breaker Morant and The Man from Snowy River--all add to the overall quality of this well- acted telling of an emotional but never sappy story of adolescent longing and coming of age. Australian Rod Hardy spent more than 20 years in Hollywood directing mostly episodic television with a few made-for-TV movies (Buffalo Girls) and feature films (Robinson Crusoe with Pierce Brosnan). With December Boys Hardy headed back home to use all that experience to make a film that speaks to the emotions of childhood which resonates into adult experience. Using the incredible landscapes of Oz as a key element of the story Hardy creates a visual cornucopia that parallels the emotional journey the four orphans take through the course of the film. His adept handling of many of the most universal life passages--first kiss loss of parents love/hate of siblings dealing with the death of a loved one--bring a strong realism to the story adapted from a novel by Michael Noonan. Yet there’s a hint of magical realism to the tale too as well as a strong religious undertone. All meld into a cinematic experience that will engage you and stay with you long after the credits roll.