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.
Doug Henning, the perpetually upbeat, curly haired, mustachioed magician who made illusion a multimedia affair (on the road, on stage, on television) in the 1970s and 1980s, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 52.
Henning had suffered from liver cancer for five months.
Henning revived the popularity of magic through the rock musical "The Magic Show" in the 1970s, which ran on Broadway for more than four years. He returned to the stage for "Merlin" and "Doug Henning's World of Magic" in the 1980s. Henning is survived by his wife, Debbie.
The hip-hop world, meanwhile, is mourning the loss of Big Punisher (a.k.a. Christopher Rios) who died Monday in New York at age 28. The 698-pound Puerto Rican-born rapper, whose double-platinum album "Capital Punishment" spawned the hit single "Still Not a Player" in 1998, was thought to have suffered a heart attack. A Westchester County, N.Y., medical examiner, said that while Rios had an enlarged heart and other health problems, the cause of death would not be determined until autopsy tests were complete. Rios is survived by wife Liza and three young children.
In other obituary notices: "Lonesome" Dave Peverett, lead singer of the British blues-rock quartet Foghat, died Monday at age 56 of complications from liver cancer; and Hercules, the grizzly bear who starred in Disney films, commercials and once wrestled with Roger Moore in the James Bond film "Octopussy." Hercules passed away Monday at age 25.
LEAPIN' LIZARDS: OK, warning to potential "Magnolia" moviegoers: If you don't want to read about a key plot point, THEN SKIP THE REST OF THIS ITEM.
Anyway ... those frogs that rain down on "Magnolia" at the end of the film? Well, they're widely assumed to be a biblical reference to the book of Exodus. But director Paul Thomas Anderson says the inspiration came from writer Charles Fort first, God second.
Fort was known for compiling clippings about strange, unexplained phenomena, and Anderson used his story about three men being hanged named Green, Berry and Hill in a town called Green Berry Hill to open the film. He also found the frog-shower tidbit from Fort's various accounts.
"He thought it shouldn't be explained or that there was a far better explanation. He believed in a place called Megonia, a mythical place above the firmament where stuff would go up to and hang out before dropping back down to Earth. 'Magnolia' is a little tribute to that," the 30-year-old director says in Daily Variety. "And it sounds funny, but he believed that you can judge a society by the health of its frogs. That doesn't seem too crazy to me because our frogs are getting all deformed and dying."
EXPECTING: "Spin City's" Michael Boatman, who plays Carter, the deadpan-funny gay special assistant on minority affairs, is about to be a father again, according to People magazine. Boatman, 35, and wife Myra are expecting their second child, due in July. The baby will join sister Jordan, 3 ... ...
"Baywatch's" Brooke Burns, 21, is expecting her first child with husband Julian McMahon of NBC's "Profiler." The two were married Dec. 22.
IN COURT: Looks like "Veronica's Closet" co-star Wallace Langham will have to face hate-crime charges after all. A Los Angeles judge refused Monday to drop the case, in which Langham was accused of beating a gay tabloid reporter during a supermarket altercation. Despite a civil settlement between the actor and the journalist, the judge says the case must go forward because it was "a fairly brutal attack" and because Langham, 34, allegedly used slurs against the victim. ...
... Rapper-entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs pleaded not guilty Monday to charges he was in possession of two illegal guns after a Manhattan nightclub shooting Dec. 27 that injured three people. Combs was indicted Jan. 13 with criminal possession of a weapon. Combs and girlfriend Jennifer Lopez were taken into custody after they allegedly fled the scene of the shooting in the rapper's sport utility vehicle, but Lopez was released without charges after questioning ...
... And we're happy to report that John Tesh has won back his name. Celebsites.com has agreed to return the cybername Johntesh.com to the ex-"Entertainment Tonight" host after the TV personality-musician filed suit in federal court.
LAUDED: The Publicist Guild of America has announced its nominations for the Maxwell Weinberg Publicists Showmanship Awards, honoring PR types.
In the film categories, the nominees are the publicists for "American Beauty," "The Matrix," "Stuart Little," The Talented Mr. Ripley and "Toy Story 2"; the television nominees are "Annie," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Judging Amy," "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "The West Wing.". The awards will be handed out March 22 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. ...
... Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's Domestic Film Group and senior VP of Fox Filmed Entertainment, will receive the Sherrill Corwin Humanitarian Award at ShoWest for his involvement with numerous charities. The National Association of Theater Owners will give Sherak the honor, which has not been awarded since 1994, during its convention March 6-9 in Las Vegas.
QUICK TAKES: Two-time Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman will pull the early-morning shift to help announce the nominations for the 72nd Annual Academy Awards bright and early Feb. 15. He'll be joined by Academy President Robert Rehme. ...
... Jude Law ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") has joined the presenting team for Oscar night March 26 at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. ...
... Elizabeth Taylor is scheduled to hold an online chat session on AOL Live from 9-9:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday as a kickoff to Valentine's Day. Ironically, Dame Liz will be advising men on romantic gifts and other gestures. Tip No. 1: If your lady can't remember if your present was better than that of hubby No. 4 or No. 7, it's a very bad sign.