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 Roommate directed by Christian E. Christiansen is ostensibly a remake of the 1992 film Single White Female a trashily effective thriller about a woman who gradually awakes to the realization that her Stepford roommate is a actually homicidal stalker. The Roommate’s twist on the concept is to shift the setting from Manhattan and the world of 20-something yuppies to a freshman dorm at the University of Los Angeles a fictional school whose enrollment is apparently limited strictly to models and other members of the genetic aristocracy. (Seriously they couldn’t have thrown in a few nebbish tutors or tubby teacher’s assistants?)
It’s not a half-bad idea truth be told. Dorms after all are places where emotionally undeveloped young adults are herded together and forced to live on very intimate terms with people they’ve never met where personality defects are exacerbated by chronic sleep deprivation and diets heavy on caffeine alcohol and junk food. This unfortunately is the only wrinkle of inspiration to be found in The Roommate’s otherwise rote succession of stalker-flick clichés assembled in a hasty bid to capitalize on the cresting popularity of its attractive young stars.
Former Friday Night Lights star and current Jeter conquest Minka Kelly plays Sara a perky aspiring fashion designer whose only discernable flaw is a fatal blindness to the warning signs of psycho-bitch disorder a plethora of which are exhibited by her dormmate Rebecca (Gossip Girl and Country Strong star Leighton Meester) a friendly but temperamental art student pursuing a double major in Applied Batshitry.
Sara adjusts to college life well making friends excelling at schoolwork and even finding a boyfriend an eighth-year senior named Stephen (Twilight alum Cam Gigandet looking every bit the 28-year-old). All of which proves vexing to Rebecca whose interests appear restricted to 1) Sara and 2) staring menacingly at anyone who gets near Sara.
As Sara’s social life thrives Rebecca’s jealousy and infatuation deepen and her behavior becomes increasingly disturbed. What begins with simple passive aggressiveness eventually escalates to include self-mutilation threats of violence actual violence spontaneous lesbianism (but not with Sara sadly) implied kitten torture and finally murder.
How director Christiansen manages to cycle through all of these titillating elements without producing any actual titillation is something of an accomplishment. He’s held back a bit by the film’s strict PG-13 sensibility which requires us more or less to imagine the blood that Rebecca spills but he also plays things much too straight. A film like The Roommate needs a healthy dose of wry humor to make the craziness palatable to acknowledge that yes this is pretty freaking far-fetched. Part of the appeal of Single White Female was that it knew that it was cheap and tawdry and ridiculous; The Roommate unfortunately is not quite so self-aware. No film featuring a beret-clad Billy Zane as a college professor should ever take itself so seriously.
Alex "Hitch" Hitchens (Smith) is a dating consultant of sorts. Working strictly from referrals this legendary but strictly anonymous New York "date doctor" helps men all over the city woo the women of their dreams. He coaches the guys on how to make it to the third date. After that they're on their own. When Hitch meets his newest client--the meek bespectacled accountant Albert (Kevin James) who is completely smitten with the glamorous heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta)--the self-proclaimed Michelangelo of love believes he has found what he calls his "Sistine Chapel." But at the same time Hitch is prescribing his magic to Albert he finds he can't take his own medicine. He's falling for the gorgeous whip-smart gossip columnist Sara Melas (Eva Mendes) but their dates are more than disastrous. To top it off Sara's biggest scoop could very well be the unmasking of Manhattan's most famous date doctor. Oh what's a professional bachelor-turned-lovesick fellow to do?
It's about friggin' time Will Smith did one of these. He's tailor-made to play the romantic lead. Smith's funny smart sexy suave and at the same time a little nerdy--you know the same type he's been playing all along while battling any number of sci-fi creatures. Thankfully he gets to turn on the charm with an actual woman this time. Unfortunately it isn't the right one. Smith and Mendes (2 Fast 2 Furious) don't quite ignite the requisite sparks that we want them to even though on her own Mendes is a breath of fresh air. She never makes Sara a one-note ingénue instead adding a lot of gutsy layers. No the person Smith seems to click with the most is Kevin James (of TV's King of Queens) who quite frankly almost steals the movie away from our leading man. In his first real foray into features James is simply sidesplitting as the dorky Albert. He's all thumbs and constantly drops mustard over himself but always has a pen--as well as a genuinely kind spirit and teddy-bear sexiness. The romance between James and supermodel-turned-actress Amber Valletta as the Paris Hilton-like heiress is the real deal.
Director Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama Ever After) seems to have a pretty good handle on the romantic comedy genre. The action moves at a nice clip for the most part especially in the beginning. In one of the better opening montage sequences around there's Hitch explaining to the audience his ideologies. We then see Smith putting them into practice as he assists three guys in getting their dream dates. It grabs you right away and sets the tone. The script by newcomer Kevin Bisch also is peppered with surprisingly refreshing dialogue especially in the pre-date banter between Sara and Hitch and pretty much all the stuff with Albert. But there are a few snags in Hitch namely with the aforementioned chemistry between the two leads or lack thereof. The Sara-Hitch plot ultimately drags the film down mostly because of its inevitability and the somewhat mushy ending. Shaving off about 15 minutes would have made Hitch hum.
Everything is just oh-so-dramatic for 15-year-old Mary aka Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who is uprooted from her beloved New York City by her artist mother (Glenne Headly) and forced to live in what she thinks is the dregs of New Jersey suburbia. Once there however the wanna-be actress decides she'll make a difference in her high school and stand out among the common folk and show them what true art is all about. Of course with an attitude like that Lola immediately gets on the bad side of the school's most popular--and mean-spirited--girl Carla (Megan Fox) but makes fast friends with the meek Ella (Alison Pill) when they both discover they worship the same rock band called Sidarthur. Lola soon proves with unstoppable determination that whatever Lola wants Lola gets; she stands up to the evil Carla wins the lead role in the school musical and has the adventure of a lifetime trying to see a Sidarthur concert in New York with Ella. Yet Lola comes to realize that while being the premiere drama queen she sometimes has to come back down to earth to see what really matters in life.
Lindsay Lohan a Disney favorite who has truly become the Hayley Mills of this generation has the same bebop freshness she displayed in other Disney fare including last year's mega hit Freaky Friday and is the best choice to play the ultimate Teenage Drama Queen. Yet if you strip away all the sparkle and showmanship could Lohan hold her own playing a real honest-to-goodness dramatic role? At least the actress has far more potential than say that other teen fave Hilary Duff (who supposedly has a real-life feud going on with Lohan. Talk about drama). Alison Pill on the other hand who did a nice job playing the forgotten sister in the indie film Pieces of April is the one to watch out for. She illustrates far more depth as best friend Ella who is transformed from a mouse to a lion under Lola's influence. The scenes where Ella and Lola moon over Sidarthur--and the subsequent misadventure to see them in concert--gives the film its most realistic insight to a teenage girl's psyche--and the girls seem to have a great time connecting to one another. In the supporting roles character actress Headly does a quiet down-to-earth turn as Lola's mother while in comparison Carol Kane really hams it up as the drama teacher Ms. Baggoli with the wacky hair lispy speech and hyperactive personality.
Teenage Drama Queen is a Disney specialty. It's the kind of movie the studio is been known for and can execute the best--cutesy over-produced teen fare with a wholesome message tied up in a brightly colored and oftentimes zany package. Back in the day Kurt Russell and Hayley Mills were the favorites in films such as Russell's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and the sequel Now You See Him Now You Don't (takes you back doesn't it?) as well as Mills' original The Parent Trap (which Lohan went on to remake in 1998). For Teenage Drama Queen the studio picked the up-and-coming Welsh director Sara Sugarman (Very Annie Mary) a self-proclaimed recovering drama queen herself who infuses the film with right amount of joie de vivre while keeping things in vogue for the MTV generation especially with the musical numbers and Lola's dream sequences. Plus the character's wardrobes are terminally hip; even the Sex and the City gals would be impressed. But while the film is certainly not as scary as the very dark Thirteen or dull as Catch That Kid Teenage Drama Queen doesn't offer anything poignant or remarkable beyond its glittering production value.