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.
For the first several minutes of There Will Be Blood--just a small portion of its 160--there is no dialogue. Then Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) strikes oil. The year is 1898 and as time jumps ahead Plainview is soon no longer struggling to make ends meet. By the turn of the 20th century the oil prospector is something of a traveling salesman in California getting local farmers to give up their land so he can drill with his young adopted son/gimmick (Dillon Freasier) in tow. Until that is he stumbles upon a goldmine: a rural farm teeming with oil just beneath it. He promises to make the landowners the Sunday family as rich as he himself will become as a result. But the landowner’s teenage son Eli (Paul Dano) a highly religious evangelist doesn’t much care for money. In fact he doesn’t much care for Daniel his motives or his ungodliness and looks to cure him of these ills at which Daniel scoffs. The two clash on more than one occasion before not seeing each other for a while. At the end of the movie the year is 1927. Daniel is now a madman oil tycoon/recluse living off of his riches and exploitations stumbling about his oil-made mansion with alcohol in hand. He’s a shred of his former self only much wealthier. In walks his old buddy/adversary Eli who sobers him right up. As complicated a thespian god as Daniel Day-Lewis has always been in his career his acting skill has been consistently and easily the best. Every performance of his is great to the same degree and Daniel Plainview a character unlike any he has ever played is no exception. The actor known for his long breaks between movies and his Method-like transformations is so powerful here that his performance is as responsible for the tone as any of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Day-Lewis can often be heard delivering diatribes on humanity in There Will Be Blood typically while sporting a devilish grin more disturbing than the film’s most violent scenes. It makes you wonder: Who would even want to go so deep into a character so dark? But the minutiae of Plainview--the walk the demeanor the misanthropy--round out Day-Lewis’ incredible performance more than the spoken words. Young actor Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) is equally intense as Plainview’s pious opponent/lightning rod and maybe more--maybe just maybe his innermost demon. It’s a performance worthy of a Supporting Actor nod but ultimately this is Day-Lewis’ show. There Will Be Blood is the cliché of an auteur fighting for his art as evidenced by its length and obtuseness; otherwise though it is the anti-cliché (and anti-crowd pleaser). For that we can thank--yes thank--Paul Thomas Anderson who as his three other well-known films (Boogie Nights Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) hinted was probably dying for a film of this limitless grandeur. While Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! could be seen as a veiled allegorical wink to modernism it’s really a story about an oilman the money that his oil hath wrought and the demons that swirl around him and his religious detractors. Anderson the genius writer has conjured up a tale of evil family and greed as well as a religiosity/secularism push/pull that is at once opaque and crystal clear. Anderson the genius director frames a story that is beautiful and horrifying neither of which is ever mutually exclusive. The highly deliberate writer-director clearly values quality over quantity and he got both out of this movie an epic masterpiece in a career so young. There Will Be Blood also has this year’s far-and-away best score from Radiohead guitarist/electronics mastermind Jonny Greenwood which fills in any empty spots of weirdness and/or tension left vacant by Anderson and maximizes such spots elsewhere. Anderson now has shot to the No. 1 spot on the Hollywood-outlaw list with this absolute non-adventure of epic proportions. He is utterly unconcerned with any sort of expectations--from audiences or studios. Hell you could even call it a bit of a f-you to everyone except his fans and cinephiles. Congrats PTA!