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.
While Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan helped define the style of a modern day war film it was his HBO mini-series Band of Brothers that truly captured the World War II experience. The multi-part saga dealt with every nook and cranny of the US military's involvement in the war from large scale battles to intimate character details. The new movie Red Tails developed and produced by Spielberg's Indiana Jones collaborator and Star Wars mastermind George Lucas attempts to cover the same ground for the sprawling tale of the Tuskegee Airmen—albeit in a two hour compressed form. The result is a messy handling of a powerful story of heroism. The good intentions make it on to the screen...but the drama never gets off the runway.
Red Tails assembles a talented cast of young actors to portray the brave men of the 332nd Fighter Group a faction of the Tuskegee Airmen. The ensemble is reduced to a jumble of simplistic one-note characterizations: Easy (Nate Parker) the do-gooder with a dark past; Lightning (David Oyelowo) the suave rebel who never listens to orders; Junior (Tristan Wilds) the fresh-faced newbie ready for a good fight; and the rest a nameless group of underwritten yes men all with just enough backstory to make you interested but never satisfied. Thankfully with the little material they have to work with the gentlemen excel. Rapper-turned-actor Ne-Yo is a standout as the quick-witted Smokey overshadowing vets Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who spends most of the movie chomping on a corn cob pipe and grinning).
With the plethora of characters comes too many plot threads and Red Tails stuffs its runtime with everything from epic flyboy dog fights romantic interludes (Lightning finds himself infatuated with a local Italian woman) office politics alcoholism and even a POW camp escape. If there was a true lead character the movie may have succeeded in stringing the events together in a coherent narrative but instead Red Tails is choppy and uneven. The aerial battles for all their CG special effects nastiness are incredibly exhilarating but when the movie's not tackling the intensity of a battle (which it does often) it comes to a near halt. That mostly comes down to history standing in the way—the crux of the story focuses on how segregation caused the military's higher ups to avoid utilizing the Red Tails in true battle. Meaning there's a lot of talk on how the team should be fighting as opposed to actually doing it.Director Anthony Hemingway tries to do this important historical milestone justice but the execution flies too low even under made-for-TV movie standards. Red Tails is a dull history lesson occasionally spruced up with Lucas' eye for action. The charisma of the the main set of actors goes a long way in keeping the film tolerable but they can't fill the gaping hole where the emotional hook belongs. This is a movie about heroes yet not once are the filmmakers able to pull off a moment that feels remotely brave. Which is unfortunate—as it's a story of the utmost importance.
Like Madagascar the story starts at the New York Zoo. Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) the lion is once again the star of the show but unlike Madagascar’s Alex Samson claims he came from the wild. He regales the other odd assortment of zoo denizens--including a talkative giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) a lisping anaconda (Richard Kind) a snarky Koala (Eddie Izzard) and a take-charge squirrel (Jim Belushi)--with tales of danger and excitement abroad. Of course Samson can’t tell the real truth that he was actually born in captivity and is making it all up because everyone including his rebellious teenage son Ryan (Greg Cipes) would think less of him. But when Ryan runs away thinking he can’t live up to his dad’s reputation and is mistakenly shipped off to the wild Samson has keep up the charade as the gang embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue him. The lion does come clean at some point in case you were wondering. Another vocal roster of big names another dollar. This time around we’ve got Sutherland Garofalo Belushi all doing the animal thing. There’s also William Shatner as a villainous wildebeest headed for the loony bin after deciding he’s tired of being the prey and turns predator. He’s even got his herd of wildebeest dancing a Busby Berkeley number around a volcano á la Lion King. Sigh. Luckily there is one saving grace--sort of: Izzard as the wisecracking Koala bear Nigel who gets mistaken for a god by the wildebeest and milks it for all its worth which isn’t a whole lot. Still if anyone has seen the British comedian’s hilarious HBO special Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill you can just imagine him strutting around as a Koala dressed in women’s clothing and doing his shtick. The Mouse House once again proves it doesn’t have an inventive bone in its body--or even the gumption to realize that had something with potential. Apparently the pitch from writers Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin had been mulling around Disney for about nine years before it got made giving the likes of Nemo and Madagascar a head start (I’d be peeved if I were those writers). But even if The Wild did come first it still wouldn’t be able to measure up mostly because the story is insipid. Wildebeest turning into predators? What’s THAT all about? The CGI-animation is spot on of course but we are definitely taking all of that for granted these days. No now what we want is a good compelling story. If not that then at least we should have a couple of really funny characters--like commando penguins or a fish with short-term memory--to help things move along. The Wild doesn’t have either so while children may be left mildly entertained for an hour and a half parents will be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for it to be over.