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 first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
AFI creates movie quote list
The American Film Institute is paying tribute to American movies by researching and compiling a list of the top 100 movies quotes of the last 100 years of film, The Associated Press reports. The AFI chose from over 400 classic lines of dialogue to compile this years winners, to be revealed on CBS' upcoming special, AFI's 100 years ... 100 Movie Quotes in June. Included in the tribute are Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" from The Terminator and Humphrey Bogart's "Here's looking at you, kid" from Casablanca. The top 100 were chosen by sending ballots to 1,500 directors, screenwriters, actors and critics all involved in the movie industry. AFI director Jean Picker Firstenburg believes that great movie quotes are an essential part in American history. "Great movie quotes become a part of our cultural vocabulary," he said.
Funeral held for rapper Ol'Dirty Bastard
A funeral for the late rapper Ol'Dirty Bastard was set for Thursday in Brooklyn, New York, the AP reports. Family and friends attended the open-casket ceremony at St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem to remember the former Wu-Tang Clan member. Floral arrangements consisted of red and white flowers adorning the casket. "He just loved life," said his father, William Jones, who had spoken to his son, born Russell Jones, just three weeks before his death. The 35-year-old rapper suddenly collapsed and died in a Manhattan recording studio on Saturday. The cause of his death is still undetermined, but Jones did report having chest pains shortly before his death.
Roman Polanski battles for justice against Vanity Fair magazine
According to the Associated Press, the lawyer of Roman Polanski said that the filmmaker has been denied the justice of suing an American publication while living in France. In a 2002 article published by Vanity Fair magazine, Polanski is accused of seducing a woman on his way to his wife's funeral in 1969. A court judge in Britain ruled that 71-year-old Polanski would be allowed to testify via video link, but an appeal from Vanity Fair magazine reversed the ruling. Polanski moved to France in 1978 to flee from child molestation charges, and now fears that if he came back to the United States to testify, he would be deported back to the United States.
Richie's estranged wife charged with illegal drug treatments
Pop singer Lionel Richie's estranged wife, Diane Keri Richie, has been charged with letting a man use her Beverly Hills home to perform illegal anti-wrinkle injections, the AP reports. Richie has been charged with two counts of aiding and abetting Daniel Tomas Fuente Serrano, who does not have a license to perform anti-aging procedures. Richie was arrested and spent one night in jail but was then released on $25,000 bail on Tuesday. Investigators say that 20 to 40 people allegedly came to her Beverly Hills home to receive the illegal treatments from July to December of 2003. Serrano reportedly charged thousands of dollars for injecting clients with Artecoll and Metacrill, two foreign drugs not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A few of Serrano's former clients have now reported problems with the procedures that have made it difficult for them to live normal lives. Diane Richie and Lionel Richie divorced in January of 2004 citing irreconcilable differences.
Rap star Xzibit urges more communication through music
Hip-hop superstar Xzibit is speaking out against glorifying violence in music. Xzibit, whose real name is Alvin Joyner, told Reuters Television that he is hoping for a musical reform to take place. "Hopefully it goes back to that positive side where we can start communicating and saying something through our music," said Joyner. "Hip-hop went through a total stage of positivity and then transformed into gangster rap and then it got commercial." In addition to its heavy influence on society, the genre pulls in some $2.8 billion annually, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Xzibit, who also hosts MTV's car makeover show Pimp My Ride, will host tonight's MTV Europe Awards. The singer kicked off his solo career in 1996 and is awaiting the release of his new album, Weapons of Mass Destruction, slated to hit stores in December.
Rapper/comedian Ali G to add a new character to the mix
Sacha Baron Cohen, best known as his alter ego the rapper/interviewer/comedian Ali G, has set his sights on a new character. According to Reuters, Ali G is interested in taking a role in The Mortdecai Mustache Mystery, drawn from British comic books by Kyril Bonfiglioni and Craig Brown about aristocrat Charlie Mortdecai, an art dealer and thief living in the United States. Warner Bros. is now negotiating the rights to the series, published in the 1970s. Cohen's former credits include Ali G Indahouse and Da Ali G Show which currently airs on HBO. Ali G was first introduced as a character on Britain's The 11 o'clock Show in 1998. Cohen is also expected to play a role in the upcoming DreamWorks film, Madagascar.