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.
Martha Stewart appeals conviction from Camp Cupcake
Martha Stewart is urging a federal appeals court to overturn her conviction because she claims her trial was "tarred" by suggestions she was charged with insider trading, The Associated Press reports, although she was never with insider trading, only deceiving investigators. But the appeals brief argues prosecutors and the trial judge kept the jury from understanding the difference. "Martha Stewart was never charged with insider trading," lawyers for the homemaking maven wrote. "But a barrage of pretrial leaks and in-court accusations left the indelible impression that she was guilty of that offense." Stewart, who was sentenced to five months in prison followed by five months of house arrest, is serving her time at the minimum-security federal women's prison in rural Alderson, W.Va., also known as Camp Cupcake. She reported to prison Oct. 8 and has posted at least one letter on her Web site saying she is being treated well. Her lawyer, Walter Dellinger, said on NBC's Today that Stewart is exploring "innovative ways to do microwave cooking" with her fellow inmates. He also said Stewart, who has hinted she may write a book about her experience with federal law enforcement, spends up to three hours a night writing on a typewriter. Stewart will be released from prison in March, but it is unlikely the appeals court will hear the brief by then.
Cojo shoots pilot for one-hour talk show
Style guru and Entertainment Tonight correspondent Steven Cojocaru has shot a pilot for a one-hour talk show. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the show features Cojocaru's colorful commentary of fashion and pop culture trends, combined with celebrity interviews. Star Halle Berry is said to have been a guest on the pilot episode, but the show's producer, Paramount Domestic TV, declined comment Thursday. Cojocaru, whose memoir Red Carpet Diaries: Confessions of a Glamour Boy was published in March 2003, is a frequent contributor to NBC's morning show Today. The show's debut has not been announced.
MPAA warns of the dangers of piracy
The Motion Picture Assn. of America said piracy could cost the movie industry up to $15 billion over the next four years if bold measures are not taken at once, Reuters reports. MPAA chief John Malcolm told a luncheon panel Thursday at the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce that civil and criminal actions needed to be taken to stop the growth of illegal file trading and worldwide DVD bootlegging, otherwise the film industry would suffer as the music business did. Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn said 92 percent of the movies made available for illegal downloading originate from camcorders. Hahn noted the entertainment industry represents a $30 billion slice of the Los Angeles economy, employing about 200,000 people.
Stolen U2 briefcase returned 23 years later
A stolen briefcase full of notes and lyrics intended for U2's 1981 album October was returned--23 years after it was stolen at a Portland concert, the AP reports. The briefcase was allegedly stolen by some women who joined the band backstage at a now-defunct Portland nightclub. U2 frontman Bono had to rewrite the lyrics to October in the studio, and band members called it their worst recording experience ever. When the band returned to Portland a few years later, Bono asked the audience if anyone knew about the briefcase and asked the question again when the band played at the Rose Garden in 2001. A woman said she found the briefcase in the attic of a rental home in Tacoma, Wash., in 1981 but didn't know it had been stolen until many years later. She spent much of the past year contacting U2's management about the briefcase.
Bo Diddley gets toe amputated
Bluesman Bo Diddley canceled a Thursday concert at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center in Lancaster, Calif., because he needed more time to recover from a toe amputation. Scott Free, the musician's longtime friend and business partner, told the AP Diddley checked into the North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville about two weeks ago because of a hyperglycemic condition. Diddley, 75, is diabetic. Free said doctors kept Diddley for a few nights to make sure they wouldn't have to amputate his foot. Diddley, whose real name is Ellas Bates McDaniel, popularized rhythm 'n' blues in the 1950s with hits including "Bo Diddley" and "Mona." Free didn't know whether Diddley would make scheduled performances in Connecticut on Saturday and in Texas on Oct. 31.
Judge rules out Blake defense theory
A judge ruled Thursday Robert Blake's lawyer can't present jurors a theory that others, including Marlon Brando's son, Christian, conspired to kill the actor's wife, the AP reports. "I've found there was no link, direct or circumstantial, with Mr. Brando," Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp said. "It's pure speculation." Last week, Schempp also ruled out as evidence a taped phone call between Brando and Bakley in which he told her she was lucky someone didn't put a bullet through her head. Blake has pleaded not guilty to the 2001 killing of Bonny Lee Bakley, 44, whom he married after DNA testing showed he was the father of her baby. Schempp said a jury selection for Blake's trial, which is expected to last four months, will begin Nov. 15.
Michael Jackson's friend and confidant Gary Pudney tells Access Hollywood that he and "The Gloved One" are working on a feature film about Edgar Allen Poe. The pop oddity plans to star as the father of suspense writing in The Nightmare of Edgar Allen Poe and is reportedly getting acting tips from his eccentric friends Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Still in the early development stage, the film is about the last days of Poe's life. Pudney said he and Jackson are working to get a producer for the project.
Jerry Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica Sklar, are expecting their second child, due early next spring, a spokesman for the comedian tells People.com. The couple already has a daughter, Sascha, born in November 2000. Seinfeld has reportedly succumbed to incorporating parenting into his stand-up comedy routine and earlier this year announced plans to publish a children's Halloween book, due out this September.
One-time Baywatch babe Yasmine Bleeth tied the knot this weekend with her boyfriend Paul Cerrito at the exclusive Bacara resort in California, according to People.com. Bleeth and Cerrito, you may recall, were both arrested last September in Michigan after police found cocaine in her purse while investigating a car accident. The two apparently met at the Malibu rehab facility Promises prior their arrest.
Actress Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the late '70s and early '80s Superman movies, is recovering from a broken pelvis she suffered in a weekend highway accident in Belfast, Maine, The Associated Press reports. Kidder's GMC Yukon rolled over several times after hitting some raised pavement. The 53-year-old actress was headed to Montreal when the accident occurred.
Judge Lloyd Nash granted more time Tuesday to actor Robert Blake and his bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, to prepare their defense against charges in the murder of the actor's wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, the AP reports. The judge, however, set a preliminary hearing date of Nov. 13 and declared it unchangeable. Blake is being held without bail in the shooting death of Bakley. He also is charged with solicitation of murder and conspiracy and faces a special-circumstance allegation of lying in wait. Caldwell is charged with a single count of conspiracy to murder and is free on $1 million bail that Blake posted.
Hollywood screenwriter Dean Riesner died Aug. 18 of natural causes at his Encino, Calif., home at the age of 83, Reuters reports. Riesner, a one-time child actor, came up with Clint Eastwood's all-time great lines "Do you feel lucky, punk?" and "Go ahead, make my day." Riesner is survived by several nieces and nephews.
TV writer Robert Dellinger sued Nicolas Cage and five companies behind the as-yet-unreleased feature film Sonny Tuesday for copyright infringement, Variety reports. The defendants include Intermedia, Gold Circle Films and its subsidiary Vortex Pictures, Pony Rides and Cage's production company Saturn Films, as well as Cage, screenwriter John Carlen and Vortex executive Paul Brooks. Dellinger said he and Carlen collaborated on several scripts, including the ideas behind the Sonny project, while they were serving time at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The suit seeks $2 million in damages and the prevention of the picture's sale overseas.
The Walt Disney Co. is teaming up with Ice Cube for a sports-themed comedy feature film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Ice Cube wrote De-Fense and will produce the movie through his Cube Vision company with his partner Matt Alvarez, along with Disney-based Gunn Films and Andrew Gunn. De-Fense is described as a Bad News Bears set in the world of football.
Actress/singer Jennifer Love Hewitt will host the third annual Women Rock! Girls & Guitars concert at the Kodak Theatre on Oct. 10. The event, part of Lifetime Television's public awareness campaign "Stop Breast Cancer for Life," will feature a musical performance by Hewitt, whose fourth album is due out in September. The concert will air Oct. 25.