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.
Ron Howard (the Oscar-nominated director of A Beautiful Mind) is currently scouting locations in Texas for his upcoming feature film based on the legendary, fateful battle at the Alamo. Howard says he plans to deal with some complex issues of the combatants at the Texas landmark heretofore untold on screen, including Jim Bowie's slave trading, Davy Crockett's bigotry and the alleged infighting between the NBA's David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Madonna's been open about her sex life before, but now it's turning audiences off. Featured in hubby Guy Ritchie's new film based on 1974's Swept Away, Madonna gets beaten up as a prelude to lovemaking, which, according to thestar.com, is making viewers upset. Incredibly, this is an improvement for Madonna, whose acting in her previous movies made viewers VERY upset.
Not that you asked, but we have more from the world of Madonna. Seems the actress/pop diva, who demanded a cameo in return for singing the theme song of the latest James Bond flick, has withdrawn completely from any involvement in the movie. Given the last news item, perhaps the James Bond series just isn't misogynistic enough.
Kenneth Branagh, the man voted by his high-school class as most likely to channel Shakespeare, has returned to the bard's work on stage for the first time in 10 years. Branagh can be seen in the lead role of Shakespeare's Richard III at the Crucible Theater in the northern English town of Sheffield. No word if Branagh has yet been able to turn Sheffield's winter of discontent into a glorious summer, but word has it that he'd give up his kingdom for a horse.
Mary Tyler Moore's character from her eponymous hit TV show is to be honored May 8 with a bronze statue in Minneapolis, where the show's story was based. An eight-foot-high statue of newswoman Mary Richards tossing her hat into the air will grace the downtown corner of 7th Street and the Nicollet Mall, pleasing not only fans of the '70s sitcom, but also pigeons from both of the Twin Cities.
Bill Maher hosts a show called Politically Incorrect, and his latest statements to the Seattle Times prove that label true about himself, as well. "Look, I'm not gonna lie," Maher opined, "I knew back in September our days were numbered. But what is a little galling is that for six years on ABC, we had to live with Nightline as the ultimate sacred cow. You could never ask Ted Koppel to do anything. He never asked viewers to watch Politically Incorrect after his show; instead, he'd tell them to go to nightline.com. Suddenly, he's not a sacred cow--he's a slaughtered cow." If Koppel's a slaughtered cow, wouldn't that make Maher little more than gristle?
It's still signing season for TV pilots. Helen Mirren, nominated by the Academy for her work in Gosford Park, is set to star in CBS' Georgetown; The WB has gotten Jennie Garth, formerly of Beverly Hills, 90210, to relocate to New York for an untitled comedy with Amanda Bynes (Big Fat Liar), and Murphy Brown's Grant Shaud is heading to Fox for Oliver Beene. ABC's big move for the week was...nothing!
Fox is gonzo for eras past (That '70s Show, That '80s Show) and, according to EW.com, is planning a retrospective of seminal '70s sitcom Three's Company; just don't expect John Ritter to host. "I can't see sitting in rocking chairs and going, 'Remember the time we sat on that f---ing dog, and Mr. Furley came in and kicked you in the nuts?'" Ritter told EW.com. Ah, how we miss Don Knotts.
Billy Baldwin, star of Backdraft and brother to Alec, Stephen, Daniel, Jermaine and Tito, is jumping to the small screen in CBS' grammatically challenged R.U.S./H.. Yet another cop drama, R.U.S./H. is the story of a special L.A. unit that's based in the tough neighborhood of South Central.
Keys auction house in London has told Reuters that it expects letters hand-written by the late Princess Diana to her former housekeeper could go for as much as $28,430 (approximately), when they are auctioned off later this week. Princess Diana passed away in a Paris car crash in 1997. In related news, correspondence written by editor Noah Davis to his imaginary friend Fred was receently purchased for 42 cents. (Thanks, Mom!)
Music giant EMI Group is cutting almost 1,800 people from its worldwide workforce, the Associated Press reports. Contraction began in April 2001, when EMI had 9,338 employees. By September 2002, that number will be reduced to 7,600. No word if Mariah Carey's release is counted in this number, but we're willing to bet that not many other employees will receive the same $28 million golden parachute the sultry songbird did.
Food infected with sewage pollution has been blamed for the mystery illness that graced some attendees of the March 2 event in Beverly Hills honoring scientific and technical achievement in cinema. Investigators aren't sure how the virus spread, nor do they know what arugula really is.