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.
Today in holy crap news: Alison Brie, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend have all joined an new indie called Save the Date, according to Variety, which is a romantic comedy produced by The Kids Are All Right's Jordan Horowitz. Yes. We're for real. The film, written by Jeff Brown, Mike Mohan and Egan Reich, will tell the story of two sisters, "one who's ambivalent about her future (Caplan) and another more at peace with life and long-term commitment (Brie)." Mohan will also direct.
The cast seems almost too good to be true, considering that pretty much everybody is in love with Brie and Caplan right now. Brie's won us over with her portrayal of the sweet and innocent Annie on NBC's Community, while Caplan showed us a dirty, comedic side in Starz's critically-acclaimed series Party Down (which has since been canceled, R.I.P.). But beyond the two ladies, Starr also comes from Party Down (and a couple other memorable roles, specifically Knocked Up). And Arend? Well, that dude is married to Christina Hendricks, which clearly speaks to his incomprehensible level of charm.
Second Update: Well, ABC has picked up another show. (That makes four -- count 'em -- FOUR shows today!) This one's called Poe and, according to Deadline, focuses on a "criminal procedural following Edgar Allan Poe, the world's first detective as he uses unconventional methods to investigate dark mysteries in 1840s Boston." What do we say to this? We simply facepalm. It's just the latest example of studios whoring out great figures in history just to make a few bucks.
Update: ABC is lining 'em up and knocking 'em down today with all this news about picking up shows. While they may be picking things up left and right, some of these ideas seem like the network may fare better if they leave them where they found them like one of those pennies you find on the sidewalk that's heads up but looks like it went through a trash compactor before serendipitously finding it's way to that patch of pavement. It seems like good luck, but you're probably going to get a weird fungus from it.
First up, the 1960s drama, Pan Am. Well, I think it's fairly obvious that TV producers are jumping on the Mad Men band wagon (oh, only FOUR seasons after it became one of the best shows on television), but even though the decade fits for the ad men hit, it doesn't need to be the go-to time period for every other network too. (Starz is also diving into those waters with their upcoming series, Magic City.) Pan Am is about the pilots and stewardesses - ahem, it wasn't deemed politically incorrect to use that term in the 60s, folks - as they fly the friendly skies for the iconic airline. Unimpressive, right? If I wanted to seem Mad Men 2.0 in the air, I'd watch Mad Men.
Second, the network just picked up Lost and Found. It's another multi-camera sitcom and an annoying one at that. A self-centered bartender and "party girl" has to reevaluate her life when the 18 year old son she gave up for adoption shows up and starts sharing conservative wisdom which contradicts with her loose-living ways. Really ABC? Could you at least be a little more subtle when you try to teach us to lead better lives? Also, Raising Hope is already giving this whole thing a shot, except that instead of an 18 year old dude, they have a cute little baby and a cute baby wins every time.
Earlier: Good news! Friends is coming back to television! Well, not really; sorry about that. But, the people who made Friends are, so, woot! According to Variety, ABC has ordered a half-hour multi-camera pilot from former Friends writers and producers Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen called Work It.
The show sounds kind of funny, but that's not really surprising considering most new sitcoms nowadays are based on Twitter feeds, but anyway, it's about "two out-of-work car salesmen - both husbands and fathers - who dress as women by day to get jobs working as pharmaceutical reps. At night, they hang out at their local bar, where they can be themselves." So, you know, that won't stereotype genders at all. But really, with the news about Work It, let's get to the real question on everybody's minds: when's the next sitcom based on a Twitter feed featuring characters in blackface? Are you listening, CBS?
Source: Variety, Deadline