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.
Top Story: The Donald Fires Kwame, Hires Bill
Bill Rancic, a Chicago-based cigar company entrepreneur, prevailed in the cutthroat game of corporate politics played in NBC's hit reality series to be named real estate mogul Donald Trump's first Apprentice. In the two-hour finale of the show Rancic barely beat out Wall Street investment manager Kwame Jackson, securing a $250,000-a-year job supervising construction of a new Trump skyscraper in Chicago and a new Chrysler Crossfire. Reuters reports Rancic told reporters after the show that he thought his agility and adaptability had helped him win, along with a preference for micromanaging, which Trump advocated in his latest book. Jackson, however, freely admitted many times during the finale that he preferred not to be a micromanager. "Today is a great day for entrepreneurs around the country," Rancic gushed. "And it's probably the biggest day of my life." On the other hand, calling himself "an unadulterated capitalist," Jackson promised, "you'll see me cutting deals all across the board," starting with his new TV, video game and live event production company.
Schwarzenegger Appoints Friends to Film Board
In an effort to bolster the film business in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named former Twins co-star Danny DeVito and actor/director Clint Eastwood to the California Film Commission, a 26-member group that will encourage filmmakers to make films in the Golden State and will work to reduce taxes and other liabilities that make Hollywood less attractive to filmmakers, Reuters reports. "The mission is very important to keep production here," Schwarzenegger said at a press conference Thursday, referring to the flight of Hollywood productions to other countries such as Canada and the Czech Republic, many of which offer incentives to film there. "We want to make sure that Hollywood becomes the booming town it once was." Others on the board include actor/director Bill Duke and producers Lili Zanuck and Tom Werner.
HIV Scare Shuts Down Porn Industry
California's multibillion-dollar adult porn industry ground to a virtual halt on Thursday after a popular actor, Darren James, tested positive for the HIV virus, Reuters reports. James tested positive for HIV on Wednesday in a screening conducted routinely on the industry's 1,200 regular actors by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare (AIM) Foundation, the foundation's Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell told Reuters. They must show negative tests to keep working in the industry, Mitchell said, adding that only about 17 percent of performers use condoms. Mitchell said James might have contracted the virus about four weeks ago while filming in Brazil on a "non-condom" set. Industry advocates immediately called for a 60-day suspension on filming so that others James may have infected could be tested.
Cobain Biopic Planned
The WB Network is developing an original movie about late rock icon Kurt Cobain, the frontman for the band Nirvana who shot himself in 1994. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the network has obtained the rights to Charles Cross' 2001 book Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, could be aired as early as next season. The day Kurt Cobain died was the day the music died for a generation," Tana Nugent Jamieson, senior VP of the WB's new longform original programming unit, told the Reporter. "His story is perfect for our audience." No casting or director is attached.
American Idol Be Damned!
After the surprising success of Idol reject William Hung, the WB is also launching a new reality series called The WB's Superstar USA, in which the contestants are unaware of the true nature of the show--that the judges are looking for "singers" who do not really sing that well, Reuters reports. The show, which the network calls "an off-key version of the red hot performance reality genre," will air over seven episodes beginning May 17.
All-Gay Cabler Launches
Here! TV, a supplier of gay and lesbian-oriented content to satellite customers via pay-per-view, is eyeing an Oct. 1 launch for a round-the-clock programming service that will feature classic and original films and TV shows, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Some of Here!'s original content includes series Dante's Cove, a gay and lesbian Gothic horror thriller and Weapons of Mass Destruction, a spy thriller.
Role Call: Malkovich Hitches Ride to Galaxy
John Malkovich has signed to do the feature film adaptation of the classic Douglas Adams novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The story follows an undercover alien, Ford Prefect, who sets off on an intergalactic journey with his best friend and the film's protagonist, earthling Arthur Dent. The duo hitch a ride through space--with the two-headed ex-hippie Zaphod; his girlfriend, the beautiful scientist Trillion; and a robot--to discover the meaning of life. Galaxy begins shooting this month in London, with Garth Jennings at the helm and stars Mos Def, Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel and Sam Rockwell. Malkovich will play religious cult leader Humma Kavula.