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.
With ABC premiering Dancing With the Stars' 14th season Monday March 19, there are 13 seasons worth of lessons to be learned on that hallowed stage. If this year's slate of stars hopes to get close to winning the Mirror Ball trophy, they'd do well to heed the advice of those who've been through the competition before: enter dance instructor, choreographer, and Dancing With The Stars expert Louis Van Amstel.
Throughout the competition, Amstel will be chatting with Hollywood.com with choice advice for the contestants as they move from the cha-cha to the fox-trot, all the way up to the freestyle. There are lessons to be had and Amstel's here to deliver a few before the contestants even hit the dance floor for March 19's night of Cha-chas and Fox Trots.
On Sports Stars' Shuffling Skills
In his many seasons as a member of the series' dancing set, Amstel knows a thing or two about spotting latent talent and he says that for some uncanny reason, football players are often secret twinkletoes. "It’s funny that the football players are far away from ever having learned to dancebut the confidence, the flexibility ... they just have a natural ability somehow," he said. Do you hear that, Green Bay Packer Donald Driver? Get ready to wow us!
Cha-cha vs. The Fox Trot
The season premiere of DWTS will find the 12 pairs alternating between the Cha-cha and the Fox Trot (next week, each pair will take on the dance they didn't in the premiere). Being that these are some of the staples of ballroom dancing, Amstel had a few important pointers. "Cha-cha is a little harder than the fox trot ... Cha-cha has more personality ... Fox Trot is very elegant and safe," he said. "The music alone is more enticing in the Cha-cha." Don't Judge the Stars Too Soon
When he said the Cha-cha and the Fox Trot are very different, he means the Cha-cha and the Fox Trot are very different. It's for this reason that he urges voters to take a breather before next week's elimination. "You have to judge by comparison, because not everyone’s doing the same thing. So really you should compare after week one, all the cha-chas against eachother and all the fox trots against each other," he said. If We Can't Judge the Dances Just Yet, What Can We Judge?
It's almost a dirty phrase in the TV talent competition world to say a series is a popularity contest, but that characterization is actually accurate and beneficial for DWTS. It's a show about glamour and performance, so of course personality (and subsequent popularity) is a huge factor, and it's the one thing we're prepared to judge from the first few seconds of the premiere. That's why it's something Amstel urges the contestants to be aware of.
“In the first two or three weeks it’s [important] that the couples show their personality," he said. They’re just learning to dance and the audience has no context, they “don’t care about the technique.” His advice? Keep it simple: “It’s not about reinventing the wheel...celebs have this chance to show more of themselves,” Amstel said. And what's easier for stars than showing their larger-than-life personalities? So Who are the Pairs to Watch? Amstel kept it cordial; he didn't pick a frontrunner, but he did admit who some of his early favorites are: Gladys Knight and Sherri Shepherd. "[Sherri] has such a funny streak," he said, adding, "Gladys Knight, what an amazing woman.” Knight might have a bit of a leg up in the rhythm department, and Amstel particularly appreciates her motivation: she never got to dance with her accompanists, the Pips, so now it's her turn to try it on for size. Of course, Amstel is looking forward to all the pairings, especially Karina Smirnoff and Gavin DeGraw. DWTS premieres at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. Check back tomorrow for our full recap and hop back over next Monday for more Dancing tips from Louis Van Amstel. About Louis Van Amstel and LaBlast The 5-disc series includes the titles “Let’s Dance,” “Turn it Up,” “Hot ‘n’ Spicy,” “Work ‘n’ Burn,” and “Blast a Move,” each providing a 30-minute cardio workout. The series provides students with an easy introduction to the program and gradually builds a solid foundation before moving on to more advanced techniques. All LaBlast workouts focus on building stamina, increasing muscle tone, improving technique and learning new choreography. The LaBlast DVD series is designed to help you get in shape and stay in shape, while having a great time doing it.
Click on the photo to bring Louis' dance and fitness advice home!