With his white hair and face cracked with wrinkles that bespoke the personification of kindliness and wisdom, Seneca is perhaps best remembered for his critically praised portrayal of a blues singer i...
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.
Appeared with James Earl Jones in "Of Mice and Men" on Broadway
Writer, "Sesame Street"
Toured with Elizabeth Taylor in "The Little Foxes"
First appearance in a Spike Lee film, "School Daze"
TV-movie debut, "With All Deliberate Speed" (CBS)
Feature film debut, bit part in "Kramer vs. Kramer"
Re-teamed with Lee for "Mo' Better Blues"
Co-starred in Broadway production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Singer with satirical group, The Three Riffs, in 1950s
Final screen role, Rev. Isaiah Sweet, in "A Time to Kill"
First substantial screen role, "The Verdict"
With his white hair and face cracked with wrinkles that bespoke the personification of kindliness and wisdom, Seneca is perhaps best remembered for his critically praised portrayal of a blues singer in "Crossroads" (1986). He spent much of the 1950s as a singer with the satirical group The Three Riffs and most of the 60s as an itinerant composer. From 1970-73, Seneca was a contributing writer for the acclaimed PBS children's show "Sesame Street".<p>Turning to acting in the 1970s, Seneca managed to debut in a big way, in the Broadway production of "Of Mice and Men" starring James Earl Jones. He later was featured in the Broadway and touring productions of "The Little Foxes", starring Elizabeth Taylor (1981), and co-starred in August Wilson's award-winning "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1984).<p>Seneca made his TV debut in "With All Deliberate Speed" (CBS, 1976), about school desegregation, and went on to appear in "Wilma" (NBC, 1977), the biopic of athlete Wilma Rudolph, "Terrible Joe Moran" (CBS, 1984), with James Cagney and Art Carney, and "A Gathering of Old Men" (CBS, 1987), with Louis Gossett Jr. Seneca was a guest performer on numerous shows from "Amazing Stories" and "The Equalizer" to the comedic "The Cosby Show" and "The Golden Girls".<p>Although he had a bit part as a party guest in Robert Benton's "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), Seneca's feature film career did not take off until the 1980s. Sidney Lumet cast him as Paul Newman's medical expert in "The Verdict" (1982) and he had a meaty role as teacher-singer Willie Brown in "Crossroads" (1986). Seneca was a scientist destroyed by "The Blob" and the college president in Spike Lee's "School Daze" (both 1988). He went on to appear in Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" (1990) and "Malcolm X" (1993). He also earned critical applause for his turn as Spits in "The Saint of Fort Washington" (also 1993). Seneca's final screen role was as Reverend Sweet in Joel Schumacher's "A Time to Kill" (1996).
The press information for "The Saint of Fort Washington" and some subsequent reviews erroneously reported that Seneca had died after the conclusion of filming.