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.
November 15, 2001 1:15pm EST
Levelheaded Sean (Dr. Dre) and free-spirited Dee Loc (Snoop Dogg) are roommates. After getting fired from Footlocker and waking up to find his car booted Sean decides to take Dee Loc's suggestion and apply for a job at his workplace a full-service hand car wash. When the owner Mr. Washington (George Wallace) hires Sean to manage The Wash tensions flare between the two roommates. Dee Loc thinks Sean is on a power trip while Sean must deal with Dee Loc's side hustles in the car wash parking lot. But petty bickering turns out to be the least of their worries when local gang-banger Slim (DJ Pooh) kidnaps Mr. Washington for a $50 000 ransom. The plot thickens when disgruntled ex-employee Chris (Eminem) comes back to The Wash looking for revenge.
Dr. Dre portrays his character Sean fittingly well. In fact Sean's character is probably the only empathetic one; he's not as power hungry as he is depicted and comes across as someone who is trying to deal with a crappy situation as best he can. Snoop Dogg is also perfectly cast as Dee Loc a pot-dealing car washer who's always looking for something for nothing. Though both men have been typecast based on their personalities it works to the movie's advantage here: the two have great chemistry on screen. Wallace is hilarious as Mr. Washington as is DJ Pooh the not-too-bright kidnapper. There are a couple of great cameo appearances including Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) as a weed supplier and Pauly Shore as some guy tied up in the trunk of a car. Also look for appearance by hip-hoppers Ludacris Kurupt and Snoop Dogg's Eastsidaz partners Tray Dee and Goldie Loc. But don't expect too much screen time from Eminem; he appears for maybe all of four minutes.
Writer/director DJ Pooh (Friday) came up with the concept for this homage to the 1976 comedy Car Wash during last year's Up In Smoke rap and hip-hop tour featuring both Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. (Perhaps The Wash is what happens when you write a script through a haze of bong smoke!) The film has some really funny moments like when Slim calls to give the ransom demands but forgets to block his name from appearing on the caller ID. But the overall pacing is off and the focus is a little um fuzzy. Only after Mr. Washington gets kidnapped (about half way through the film) does some sort of story start to develop. Up to that point the movie lacks momentum and a sense of focus. And with a background radio conspicuously announcing new songs by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg it feels a bit like a marketing vehicle for their music. Though The Wash doesn't compare to Friday it still generates some good laughs and showcases considerable talent.
Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) has one day and one day only to prove himself to his new partner Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) a 13-year vet of the LAPD narcotics division. Harris' years of hardcore experience on Los Angeles' meanest streets though have turned him into the same sort of criminal he's supposed to be putting away. At first it seems Harris intends to teach Hoyt his own brand of justice: that in order to catch the big fish sometimes officers must throw the smaller ones back. But as the hours slip away Hoyt learns just how bad his badass partner really is--Harris starts out as a taunting joker who just wants to give Hoyt a hard time but by nightfall he's turned into a full-blown monster bent on saving his own skin no matter what.
This two-man show is really a one-man show. It's Washington's game all the way as he bursts the almost priestly bubble of do-goodness that has surrounded him like a halo for most of his career with a sudden murderous burst of gunfire. In Day he is larger than life; clad in black leather and huge jewelry he towers both physically and psychologically over a scrawny goateed Hawke (looking like he just walked off the Reality Bites set) who tries valiantly to keep up with his Oscar-winning co-star. It's not that a perfectly wet-behind-the-ears Hawke doesn't adequately carry off the acting required for the situation he's in but really we're supposed to believe he hold his own in a fistfight-turned-deathmatch against guys more than twice his size? For his part Washington chews the scenery like it was his last meal as Alonzo goes from bad to worse but he sure makes it look fun.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Bait) used to direct music videos for artists like Coolio and it shows. Love the cool camera angles the warped POV shots the primary colors and raw soundtrack. And Fuqua's not afraid to show the L.A. streets at their worst. The first two-thirds are masterful work in character study as the line between good and evil becomes increasingly blurred. But by the final third the plot disintegrates getting hacky and waaayy contrived especially the "Hey! It just so happens..." coinky-dinks and a laughable ending that falls flat as a pancake and panders to an urban audience almost to the point of patronization. Most of this movie is so over-the-top it would be unwatchable were it not for its charismatic lead.
Jody is a jobless but highly charismatic young man who has not only fathered two children by different women--Yvette (Taraji Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass)--but still lives with his own mother Juanita (A.J. Johnson). He wants to be with Yvette but can't quite fully commit to her and quit his philandering ways. Jody doesn't think his life is all that bad and somewhat enjoys skirting the line between boy and man. Juanita tries as hard as she can to make Jody grow up and become a responsible adult but it isn't until a new man Melvin (Ving Rhames) enters her life and moves into the house that Jody must face the consequences. There isn't much room for a grown kid who has overstayed his welcome and this realization scares the heck out of him. However the hard journey Jody embarks upon forces him to face his fears own up to his responsibilities and finally settle down with the woman he really loves.
Singleton is known for using relatively unknown actors in his films and has generated some exquisite performances especially from Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. in Boyz and from the late Tupac Shakur in 1993's Poetic Justice. This time around Singleton has found a gem in popular MTV DJ and recording artist Tyrese who besides some guest stints on a few television shows marks Baby Boy as his big screen debut. Tyrese easily handles the role's dramatic requirements as well as exuding Jody's charm. And he certainly holds his own with veteran actor Rhames (much like Gooding Jr. did with Laurence Fishburne in Boyz). In one of the film's particularly tense moments Tyrese and Rhames never say a word but the emotion is all there. The rest of the unknown cast do a fine job relaying a the everyday life of South Central L.A. and one can tell there was a true comradeship between them.
Baby Boy is certainly an interesting companion piece to Singleton's view on life in South Central Los Angeles and the director calls this film his third in a trilogy about the "'hood." Boyz was obviously his most heartfelt and most compelling. The film explored a world of an African-American family life in a violent South Central neighborhood that the audience had never really seen before. And Singleton did it with such finesse that one wonders why those techniques are not as prevalent in his follow up films including the second installment Poetic Justice. He may have given all he had in his first film--Baby Boy also misses that powerful punch. The story doesn't hold many twists or turns but rather slowly goes through the motions showing things we've basically seen before--and done better. It may appeal to a particular group but won't hold the attention of a broad audience like Boyz did. And maybe it can't. Once you've seen the harsh reality of such a life why see it again?