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.
Rango may be the latest entry in an exceedingly long line of animated flicks featuring anthropomorphized animals but it’s anything but ordinary. The long-gestating brainchild of Gore Verbinski director of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and the first animated feature from Industrial Light & Magic George Lucas’ visual effects firm Rango staunchly defies many of the conventions of current mass-marketed cartoon fare. It's not in 3D; it's a family film that borrows heavily from such adult works as Chinatown and the post-modern westerns of Peckinpah and Leone; its oddball comic sensibility includes references to prostate exams and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well as the more tried-and-true potty humor; and its cast of unsightly critters isn’t likely to inspire any bestselling children’s costumes come Halloween. It's an unusual strategy but it works: Rango makes for a delightfully strange if somewhat inconsistent experience.
Much of the inspiration for Rango’s skewed spirit comes from its famously skewed star Johnny Depp who voices the title character a domesticated chameleon cast by fate into the desert to find his true identity. He eventually lands in Dirt a decrepit frontier town that’s literally dying of thirst. The townsfolk of Dirt desperately need a hero and Rango a wannabe stage actor ingratiates himself with them by bluffing his way into a job as town sheriff. But Rango is something of a coward at heart and when a real threat emerges in the form of a terrifying outlaw named Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) his lifelong habit of hiding behind false identities and just "blending in" is suddenly and devastatingly exposed.
The film's narrative is a bit jagged structured loosely around a mystery involving the sudden disappearance of Dirt's water supply and the shady machinations of the town's corrupt mayor voiced by Ned Beatty. An overabundance of characters makes matters confusing at times and some of the action set pieces including a sprawling chase scene set to Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" (a la Apocalypse Now) are breathtaking to watch but do little to advance the storyline. The jaw-droppingly vivid animation is magnificently evocative of the frontier towns of the classic westerns: its dusty distressed aesthetic dominated by brown and beige hues will make you feel grimy -- and not a little bit parched. Verbinski does tremendous work with atmospherics in Rango manipulating space and light and shadow to create an experience more immersive than even some of the better 3D-animated films.