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.
Flimflam man matchstick man con man--there are all kinds of names for them but Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a slightly different sort of con artist. He is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose habits include opening and closing a door three times before walking through it; keeping a house so fastidiously clean it reeks of disinfectant; and displaying so many physical ticks it's hard for him to carry on a normal conversation. Watching him you wouldn't dream Roy is a consummate professional who along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has spent years amassing a small fortune doing mostly short con jobs. But Frank is getting restless for a really big score and convinces a reluctant Roy to go in on a difficult job with huge payoff potential. The wrench in the plan however is the unexpected arrival of Angela (Alison Lohman) the 14-year-old daughter Roy suspected he had from a doomed relationship 14 years earlier but had never met. She's a precocious sweet-faced junk food-eating wild child who proves to be just the spark Roy needs to get past his hangups. This is where the film really takes off becoming more a character study than a typical who-is-swindling-whom scenario. Roy and Angela bond immediately and when the spunky Angela finds out what Daddy does for a living she is instantly smitten. In fact she talks Roy into teaching her some tricks of the trade and takes to it like "a duck to water." The web of deceit eventually gets more and more tangled as Roy's burgeoning paternal instincts cloud his fine-tuned judgment out in the field--and unfortunately the results are tragic.
It does seem a little odd Cage would decide to take another highly neurotic part after wowing audiences as quirky Charlie Kaufman in last year's Adaptation for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. One would think he'd want to try something else. The fact remains Cage is really good at playing this type of characters but with Roy he goes a little over the top as he races through a pharmacy twitching grunting and making "whoop!" sounds while trying to get a prescription filled. Sometimes its funny sometimes it's forced. When Angela shows up Roy's quirks become more subtle as he slowly sheds the neurosis and starts to care about the girl. Fresh-faced Lohman (White Oleander) rises up to the challenge of working with the seasoned likes of Cage and Rockwell and does an outstanding job as the wayward teenager who becomes the bright light at the end of Roy's dark tunnel. The two have an instant connection on screen and their scenes are what truly give the film its energy especially when Angela shows how the apple doesn't far from the tree. Accepting the fact she's a natural con artist she tells Roy "Mom was wrong. I didn't just get your elbows." Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was born to play the wisecracking and confident Frank; you get the feeling he could actually be a successful con man if he tried.
For obvious reasons more than a few comparisons have been made between Matchstick Men and Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon which follows a con man and his adopted daughter as they swindle their way through the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although Matchstick Men doesn't quite live up to that classic under the steady guidance of Ridley Scott the film is still a gem in its own right. Producer/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey turn in a wonderful script full of vivid and interesting characters and the versatile Scott is able to elicit the exact performances needed to make the film come alive. With films ranging from sci-fi (Alien) to epic (Gladiator) to personal (Thelma & Louise) the versatile director consistently is able to create scenes in which the characters don't even have to speak for you to still understand them. And with Matchstick Men it's clear Scott is slightly in love with Roy and Angela. One of the more poignant scenes is where Roy takes Angela to lunch for the first time at a greasy diner and as a typical teenager the girl stuffs a hamburger in her mouth. The neurotic Roy watches his newfound daughter with simultaneous disgust and amazement.