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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Top Story: Hawaiians Keep Local on Idol
If there is one thing TV viewers have learned from the third installment of Fox's American Idol it's that the best singers don't always necessarily win, and judge Simon Cowell was right when he said Hawaiian native Jasmine Trias owed her home state a lot of thank you letters. Instead of getting the boot for her mediocre performance this week, Trias got a boost from the Aloha State. A Verizon spokesman told The Associated Press Thursday of the 29 states in the phone company's local territory, only New York and California logged more calls on its network than Hawaii after the show aired. The AP noted Hawaiian viewers also benefit from a less-crowded calling period to cast votes since the state is six hours behind the East Coast. To sweeten the pot, many in Hawaii are campaigning for Trias, including, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a local newspaper, a radio hosts and a TV news anchor at KHON, who signed off with a reminder to vote for Trias. In the show's finale, which airs May 25-26, Trias, Fantasia Barrino or Diana DeGarmo will be the crowned American Idol and win a coveted record contract.
Rupert Gets $1 Million Survivor Consolation Prize
Rupert Boneham, the bearded giant from Indianapolis, won the $1 million consolation prize during CBS' special edition of Survivor All-Stars Thursday night, which host Jeff Probst jokingly referred to as America's Tribal Council. During the Sunday night finale, CBS had called on fans to vote one of the losing 17 contestants of Survivor All-Stars a second million-dollar prize. Following winner Boneham in the votes were Tom Buchanan, Colby Donaldson and "Boston Rob" Mariano-who lost the show's initial $1 million prize to his fiancée, Amber Brkich. And get ready for more Survivor love-fest: Mariano and Brkich, who became engaged during Sunday's live finale, said a network had approached them about televising their wedding.
Frasier Crane Has Left the Building
The multiple Emmy-winning NBC comedy Frasier ended it 11-year run Thursday night with its trademark antics: Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and wife Daphne (Jane Leeves) welcomed their first child, while Martin (John Mahoney) got hitched to Ronee (Wendie Malick). Series star Frasier, Kelsey Grammer, made the decision to leave Seattle and accept a new job hosting a TV show in San Francisco. But the surprise came during final scene, which showed Frasier in a plane touching down with the pilot announcing, "Welcome to Chicago"--the city where his potential soul mate Charlotte (Laura Linney) had just moved. The touching farewell will surely fuel rumors of a possible spin-off in the Windy City.
Jackson Prosecutors Want Gag Order Upheld
Santa Barbara County prosecutors submitted a letter to the state Supreme Court Thursday asking that a gag in the Michael Jackson child molestation case be upheld in order in order to maintain an untainted jury pool. The letter comes in response to a request from news organizations to lift the gag order, which bars anyone connected to the case from talking about it. Attorney Theodore Boutrous, who represents the news organizations, said in an interview the prosecution's attack on the news media access was unusual. "The notion that public information should be limited in cases where public interest is the highest offends First Amendment values," Boutrous said. The Supreme Court has asked both sides to submit arguments by Friday.
Kelly Rowlands Engaged to Dallas Cowboy
Columbia Records announced Friday that Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland is engaged to Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams. Williams proposed in New York on Monday in a room filled with friends--including fellow Destiny's Child singer Beyoncé Knowles, AP reports. Rowland and Williams, both 23, haven't set a date for the wedding. They have been dating for about six months. Rowland, who won a Grammy last year for collaborating with Nelly on the hit single "Dilemma" from her solo albumSimply Deep, is due back in the studio with Destiny's Child next month to record a new album.
Weinstein To Publish Memoirs
Publisher HarperCollins announced Thursday that Miramax film studio co-founder Harvey Weinstein is writing a memoir. Weinstein, known for his feisty temper and producing critically acclaimed films, will tell the history of how he and his brother Bob grew up in a "lower-middle class" household in Queens, New York, and founded the studio named after their parents, Miriam and Max, Reuters reports. "This book offers a great opportunity to share many of the lessons I've learned about the business world and the entertainment industry over the past 25 years," Weinstein said in a news release. The book is due out in 2006.
Osmonds Beef Up Security at Mother's Funeral
The Osmond family has upped security for Olive Osmond's funeral after being informed of rumors of a $30,000 bounty for a photograph of the family matriarch in her coffin. According to the AP, fans contacted the Osmond Brothers to let them know them a Web site had posted a rumor offering money for "a photograph of Mrs. Osmond with the children around the coffin mourning, but they want her in the coffin." Osmond family spokesman Ron Clark didn't corroborate the rumor, but said extra security had been added for the Saturday funeral at Provo's Oak Hills Stake Center, a meetinghouse for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Olive Osmond, mother of Donny and Marie Osmond and other members of the Utah entertainment family, died Sunday of complications from a stroke at the age of 79.
Role Call: Bruce Almighty Sequel in Works
Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures and Spyglass are in talks to mount a Bruce Almighty sequel based on the freestanding script The Passion of the Ark from Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg. According to Variety, but the plan is to court Jim Carrey to reprise and to have Tom Shadyac return as director.