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.
S11E9: It’s time to separate the men from the boys – and a few women from the girls. Perhaps saying this signals a personality issue, but the severe eliminations are generally the most rewarding. Generally, the weaker singers – who’ve hung on despite lacking any real vocal depth – are picked off when it comes time to harmonize on group night or when they get their first shot at performing with the Idol band.
The thought of trimming the fat is a delicious one. Plus, there’s the additional notion that every cut gets us just a little closer to the hallowed Idol stage, where we start forming fabricated bonds with contestants, forming irrational hatred of others, and generally spouting rash, yet steadfast opinions at every turn. That’s why this double episode really got me going. We witnessed not only the sudden death cuts and whiny dynamics of group night, but the brutal four-room split at the end of Solo Night. This brings Hollywood Week to a close, but it certainly didn’t manage to put a lid on my opinions about this year’s crop of singers.
The Betties: Jennifer Malsch, Cherie Tucker, Cari Quoyeser, Gabrielle Casava
Here we find the group that almost broke up last episode, when a few of the girls insisted on staying up all night to practice. Clearly, this idea did not pay off because Cherie and Gabrielle cannot carry their weight or a tune – and that’s in addition to the fact that the group’s routine is generally flat. But the cuts are based on group night and past performance. Jennifer and Cari move forward, though neither one of them seem to have earned it.
Groove Sauce: Reed Grimm, Creighton Fraker, Nick Bodington, Aaron Marcellus, Jen Hirsch
As a whole, this group delivers a rousing performance of “Hold On, I’m Coming” – they get the entire theater on the their feet. They transcend the rinky dink high school piano accompaniment behind them, but the sum is not equal to its parts. Reed Grimm is his jazzy, musical self. Jen Hirsch continues to perform stronger and stronger (though I forgot her when she originally hit the screen). The others, however weren’t so great. Creighton continues his ridiculous over-performance, Nick is a bit of a snooze, and Aaron gets praise from the judges, but his tone just doesn’t do it for me. Still, Randy gives off a big “woooooo” and he sends them all to the next round.
679: Brielle Von Hugel, Kyle Crews, Joshua Ledet, Shannon Magrane
This is the group plagued by the stage mom from hell: Brielle’s mother was supporting her controlling daughter in her vendetta against Kyle Crews. Unfortunately, Kyle proves them right and his run goes into wild territory. It was pretty terrible. Then again, Brielle was fairly flat. Their group mates Joshua and Shannon are strong, but Shannon is slightly off as well. Despite Brielle’s subpar performance, Kyle is the only one sent home. The sad thing is, he’s pretty talented. That’s the danger of sudden death.
Make You Believers: Amy Brumfield , Jacquie Cera, Dustin Cundiff, Mathenee Treco
Amy’s group is the epicenter of the mysterious “Idol Flu” that seems to have overtaken a great portion of the contestants. She’s feeling slightly better, but her teammate Jacquie faints. The team manages to pull it together to get to the stage, but they can’t muster much beyond that. Dustin forgets the lyrics. Amy can’t hit any of the right notes. Jacquie is reaching notes that only dogs can hear. Mathenee is a little sharp, but it’s clear that he’s affected by the cacophony going on behind him. Mathenee is the only one who goes through.
Those Girls and That Guy: Alisha Bernhardt, Christian Lopez, Samantha Novacek, Isabell Gallegos
Ah, Alisha the crazy cop. It seems that between her overbearing nature and Christian’s flu symptoms, the whole group fell apart. Christian sounds pretty decent considering how sick he is, but everyone else is nothing short of terrible. As the producers use shots of sleeping contestants to show us how boring the song is, we find the quick and dirty results: they’re all done.
Hollywood 5: Eben Franckewitz, Jeremy Rosado, Gabi Carubba, Ariel Sprague, David Leathers, Jr.
The set of five sang “Mercy” and while Ariel, Eben, and Gabi are decent singers, they lack the passion or depth of their fellow group members. David is fantastic as always and Jeremy surprises us with a smooth falcetto. They all go through.
Area 451: Imani Handy, Johnny Keyser, Kristi Krause, Bryce Garcia
As seems to be the theme with Hollywood Week this year, another contestant is taken under by a fainting spell. Imani collapses, but insists on performing anyway. After Bryce forgets the whole beginning of the song, Johnny delivers another solid performance, Kristi breaks and is flat, and Imani – despite her solid voice – is overwhelmed and faints again. And Johnny may be cute, but apparently no one taught him that you have to stop singing when someone collapses. The judges seem to think Imani just collapsed from nerves, but it certainly seems like something else. Johnny is the only one they send through.
MIT: Heejun Han, Jairon Jackson, Richie Law, Phil Phillips
The best thing about this dysfunction group is the how often the dynamic prompts Heejun to make one of his now (Idol) famous quips. However, it seems that their bad blood hurts the group dynamic, because the group as a whole experiences some serious pitch problems. Richie is especially bad – he lacks power and range, and his falcetto was just plain painful. Somehow, the judges send all of them through. It was all worth it when Heejun apologized: “I’ve talked a lot of craps about Richie. I’m really sorry to…your parents.” Stay forever, Heejun!
We begin with the annual Ford commercial disguised as the contestants arriving at auditions, and somehow Ford has not asked Idol to switch up this format yet. To welcome the Idol band, Steven and Randy hop up on stage and jam with the contestants who are pushy enough to get up to the front. A few lucky folks get to live out a bit of dream with this impromptu show – and not a moment too soon. This round, the contestants have to deliver a polished performance with the help of the Idol band, and then split into the dreaded four separate results rooms to find out their fates.
While this phase is exciting, it seems that our contestants have a serious case of “Georgia on My Mind” fever. Almost everyone who attempts the song does a fantastic rendition, even the beloved classic can get old.
As he comes out, Steven yells “Heal me. Heal me,” and for some reason, I’ve come to trust Steven’s anticipation more than the other judges. He’s right, and Ledet takes “Jar of Hearts” to new emotional heights. He’s got fantastic range, a strong voice, and he connects with the material.
This young man didn’t want to audition, but the judges begged him to when his sister took her shot. I sort of wish he’d refused. He plays piano and sings “What About Now” and it’s not that he can’t sing, but he’s got a severe case of Timberlake-it is (a condition wherein singers think they sound like Justin, but really they’re just a bit too nasally and borderline unpleasant).
As adorable as Phil is, I worry his charm is wearing off. He plays guitar and sings “Wicked Game,” but he’s sounding a little too Dave Matthews instead of occupying that range of country blues we fell in love with. Still, he’s talented. If he makes it to the top 12, he will undoubtedly be a polarizing contestant.
She’s the first contestant to sing “Georgia on My Mind” and she makes it a tough competition for the rest of the folks who chose the same tune. Where has this been? WHERE. Jen’s performance was truly musical – she sings from the bottom of her soul. She’s not singing “deeply” in a showy way, she really just feels it and you can sense that.
He sings “What a Wonderful World” and believe it or not, this is the one performance of his that I haven’t hated. When he’s not trying to do runs, his tonality is much better. Still, he’s looking to be the season 11 version of James Durbin – the other contestants seem to love him.
Reed is a bit of a problem child. He doesn’t know he can’t sing acapella, so at the last moment, he gets a vocal coach to help him prepare a song to sing, but he’s not serious about it. He says he doesn’t know if this “whole thing” is right. The compromise: he plays drums. Randy says that he’s “another Casey” and that he’s performing “real music.” Normally, Randy’s a bit hyperbolic, but this time, he’s right. Reed’s got a little of the “John Mayer face” going on – he’s actually musical, not just a pretty voice, and you can see it in his face. The only problem: yet another rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.”
Shannon’s version of “What a Wonderful World” certainly wasn’t perfect. She’s not so great on the easy parts of the song, but she can really belt the bigger notes and of course she adds that growl. The 16 year-old has a serious amount of talent, she just needs a little polish to learn how to use it correctly.
The next contestant was taken to the hospital the night before this performance, but that didn’t seem to cause her any problems. She sings “The Way You Lie” and Jennifer says she reminds her of Reba McEntire. Skylar’s cute, and she is an almost vintage style country singer.
This singing mother participated a little too heavy in the early morning jam session with Steven, and her solo performance suffers. The judges give her a mulligan when she flubs the beginning of “The House That Built Me” and it was sweet, but it’s nothing compared to the people before her. We know she’s going home when all Steven can manage is “that’s a great song.”
Again, with “Georgia on My Mind.” Were there only four songs to choose from? Adam is obviously talented, though there’s something irksome about him. Perhaps it’s the fact that he interjects a sob story into Solo Night (the one place we are rid of the heavy-handed back stories), but we’ll have to see what happens during his next performance.
Finally, we have the dreaded four-room split. The three judges – Jennifer in her bathrobe of doom – deliver the news to each of the rooms in the usual drawn-out fashion. I wonder if they realize we’ve learned all their little tricks by now, and if they just keep them around for nostalgia sake. And perhaps it’s the fact that they are suspiciously the largest of the four groups, but everyone in group three seems to understand that their fate isn’t looking so great. Watching them bicker really made it easier to let go of the lesser singers.
Group 1: Including Hallie Day, Creighton Fraker, Erica Van Pelt, Jen Hirsch, Adam Brock, Joshua Ledet, Jonny Keyser, David Leathers Jr, Jermain Jones, Lauren Grey, Colin Dixon.
Conclusion: They’re all safe. (But we knew that – Lauren Grey and Johnny Keyser were in there!)
Group 2: Phil Phillips, Eben Franckewitz, Skylar Laine, Shannon Magrane, Reed Grimm, Jessica Phillips.
Conclusion: They continue in the competition. (Again, you can’t put Reed Grimm and Phil Phillips in a room together and be surprised when they’re a safe group.)
Group 3: Brittanny Kerr, Rachelle Lamb, Jennifer Malch, Jairon Gibson, Sarah Phillips, Madison Shandley.
Conclusion: They get Randy’s “Best Group of Talent Ever” speech before getting the bad news. They’re going home.
Group 4: Stephanie Rene, Brittany Kellogg, Angie Ziederman, Richie Law, Bailey Browne, Heejun Han.
Conclusion: The judges are arguing outside about who’s going to do it, so clearly they all made it. And surprise, they did!
Next week, we’re on to Vegas and things are about to get very emotional. Are you ready?