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.
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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Trimspa defends Anna Nicole Smith
The American Music Awards may be over, but the buzz over Anna Nicole Smith's odd behavior at the Sunday night event isn't.
The hubbub began when the newly svelte Smith stepped on to the stage to introduce hip-hop artist Kanye West. "Like my body?" the former Playboy model turned Trimspa spokesperson slurred while attempting to strike a pose. West's band, meanwhile, was cued to start playing before Smith was able to finish stumbling through her preamble, which host Jimmy Kimmel dubbed the "performance of the night." Smith's eccentric conduct snowballed during yesterday's post-show coverage, leaving many speculating on the entertainer's condition and her continued association with Trimspa, the diet plan that helped her shed close to 70 pounds. The star of the reality series The Anna Nicole Show told Entertainment Tonight reporter Kevin Frazier she takes two pills a day to maintain her weight. "Clearly, last night's award ceremony has become more about Anna's introduction of Kanye West than about who won the prized awards, which is unfortunate," Alex Goen, founder and CEO of Trimspa, said in a statement Monday, adding: "Like all our customers, we stand by Anna. More important, we stand with her as our friend." Smith's weight loss garnered media attention with Trimspa's TV ad campaign, in which she tells paparazzi on a red carpet how she lost all that weight: "Trimspa, baby!"
David Lee Roth training as paramedic
Former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth is reportedly training to become a paramedic. The AP reports Roth, 50, has been riding along with ambulance crews in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn several nights a week. "I have been on over 200 individual rides now," Roth told the New York Post Tuesday. "Not once has anyone recognized me, which is perfect for me." Roth, who said he did not want the neighborhoods he was working in named so that he would not draw attention to himself or co-workers, even saved the life of a heart attack victim several weeks ago in the Bronx by using a defibrillator. "You would never know you were dealing with a rock-'n'-roll guy," Roth's EMS consultant and tutor Linda Reissman said. "His commitment really is touching. He wants to help people."
Polanski wants to sue Vanity Fair from abroad
Lawyers for Roman Polanski, who lives in France, will ask England's highest court Wednesday to overturn previous court rulings barring the director from suing Vanity Fair via video link from Paris, Reuters reports. Polanski wants to sue the magazine over an article that claimed he propositioned a woman in a New York restaurant on his way to the funeral of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered in 1969. But Polanski is scared to come to Britain for fear of being extradited to the United States as a fugitive from justice. In 1977, Polanski pleaded guilty in a California court to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, but fled the country before sentencing. The Court of Appeal ruled last year Polanski should not be allowed to testify from Paris because it would be allowing him to use judicial process when it suits him, but avoid it when it does not.
Garrett absent from Raymond honoree bash
The cast and crew of Everybody Loves Raymond were honored at the Museum of Television and Radio's annual fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel Monday night--minus co-star Brad Garrett, The Associated Press reports. Garrett's conspicuous absence was a reminder of last year's bitter salary dispute between CBS and the cast, who secured generous increases for the show's 10th and final season. CBS chief Leslie Moonves joked: "Negotiating with Doris (Roberts) is like negotiating with your mother ... You can't win. Negotiating with Brad (Garrett) is like negotiating with John Gotti." Star Ray Romano, one of TV's highest-paid performers with a per-episode salary of more than $2 million, said of Moonves: "Like my father, I go to him when I need money."
UPN brings back TLC
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, the remaining members of the hip-hop trio TLC, have teamed up with UPN for a reality series titled, R U the Girl With T-Boz & Chilli. Reuters reports the series will focus on resurrecting the '90s group--who tragically lost their third member, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, in 2002 after she died in a car crash--and will go through the rigorous challenges of finding a replacement who will join them for a concert and recording session. "We want to find someone with the right chemistry and magic to work with us," Watkins and Thomas said. "We have been blessed with great success, and this is a chance for our fans to join us as we give someone a once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfill their dream."
More on reality television...
Former supermodel Rachel Hunter is set to join TBS' reality series The Real Gilligan's Island as pampered movie star Ginger, the AP reports. Hunter, who is also Rod Stewart's ex-wife, "shares the flightiness and aloofness of Ginger," a statement on the TBS Web site said. The series features several stranded castaways, including a skipper, first mate, professor, movie star, millionaire and his wife, who must pool their resources to get themselves off of a deserted island--including challenges modeled after episodes from the original 1960s series Gilligan's Island. The show also stars Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann, the pretty but unworldly young woman from Kansas.
Peter Fonda files suit against clothing company
Actor Peter Fonda has sued Dragonfly Clothing Inc. for more than $123,000, claiming the clothing company violated a licensing agreement that allows it to market apparel bearing his image, the AP reports. According to an amendment agreement attached to the lawsuit, the Fullerton, Calif.-based Dragonfly failed to pay Fonda guaranteed minimum royalties. Dragonfly markets clothing bearing the logos or likenesses of a number of famous personalities, including Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, James Dean and others.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.