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.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
After a long struggle to complete the editing on Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmuller's 1974 film starring wife Madonna, Guy Ritchie is going back to doing what he does best--the gangster flick. Between warding off rumors of Swept Away being threatened with straight-to-video purgatory and helming his crusader epic The Siege of Malta, the director has managed to squeeze a new film into his schedule. According to Productionweekly.com, Ritchie and producer Matthew Vaughn have signed on to take JJ Connolly's novel Layer Cake to the big screen. The story is about a young man's attempt to disengage himself from London's gangster underworld, but a last job threatens to spoil his plans. The book is riddled with the same type of rhyming slang used in Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, so expect plenty of subtitles. Swept Away is scheduled for release Oct. 11.
His own record label, a clothing line, two restaurants. If you thought Sean "P. Diddy" Combs had it all, think again. According to The Associated Press, the hip-hop entrepreneur has expanded into the polling business with his own market research company. Blue Mindset, a division of Combs' company Blue Flame Marketing and Advertising, will release a national survey each week on a different topic. Combs' enterprises do an estimated $300 million in annual business.
Steve-O, a regular on MTV's Jackass, turned himself in to police after returning to Louisiana, where he faced charges of obscenity and of staging a stunt that injured a teenager in a nightclub, the AP reports. Steve-O, whose real name is Stephen Glover, allegedly exposed himself on a stage in Houma, La., last month and took part in a stunt in which a bouncer slammed a 19-year-old on his head, knocking him unconscious. Glover, 28, was booked on counts of obscenity and accessory to second-degree battery, but was later released on bail.
MDP Worldwide has greenlighted 26-year-old filmmaker Greg Marcks' 11:14, a story of seemingly unrelated incidents recounted in reverse chronology, all converging in a car accident that occurs at that time, Variety reports. The ensemble cast boasts Hilary Swank, Colin Hanks and Rachael Leigh Cook, with Patrick Swayze and Barbara Hershey in final negotiations to star. Swank was so impressed by the script that she agreed to serve as an executive producer on the project.
Former James Bond star Timothy Dalton has signed on to play Brendan Fraser's father in Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Variety reports. The film, which blends live action with animation, also stars Jenna Elfman and Heather Locklear.
USA Cable Entertainment is developing a remake of the 1976 series The Bionic Woman. In the original series--a spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man--Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) gets bionically reconstructed after a near-fatal skydiving accident, leaving her with superhuman powers. Sommers, you may recall, was the one-time fiancée of Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors). No word on whether the series will include her bionic German shepherd, Max.
Friends star Lisa Kudrow said in an interview for the season premiere of Oxygen's Conversations From The Edge with Carrie Fisher that she did not know if the upcoming ninth season would actually be the final season of the show. "You look around and you see that a lot of reasons shows finish is [that] the ratings are really bad. We were No. 1 for the first time ever in our eighth season."
Fans of the late legend Elvis Presley gathered Thursday to pay tribute on the 25th anniversary of his death, with thousands lighting candles in the nightlong procession past his grave, Reuters reports. The street in front of Presley's Graceland mansion was closed to traffic, with an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 fans assembled. Presley, who died Aug. 15, 1977 at the age of 42, is buried next to the mansion's swimming pool, along with his parents and paternal grandmother.