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.
The black and white film completed a weekend trio of triumphs after also winning gold at the Cesar Awards in Paris on Friday (24Feb12) and the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California on Saturday (25Feb12).
The Artist filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius was also triple weekend winner after claiming the Best Director honour at the Hollywood & Highland Center on Sunday, and the film also took home trophies for Costume Design and Score, while Jean Dujardin became the first Frenchman to pick up the coveted Best Actor award for his portrayal as silent film star George Valentin.
Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese's first 3D film Hugo picked up five of its 11 nominations in categories including Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
Other big winners at the 84th Academy Awards included Meryl Streep (Best Actress), Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress), Woody Allen (Best Original Screenplay), Alexander Payne (Best Adapted Screenplay), Christopher Plummer, who, at 82, became the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award, for his supporting role in Beginners, and A Separation, which became the first movie from Iran to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Billy Crystal returned to host the ceremony for the ninth time and kicked off the show with one of his famous movie montages, playing The Artist's leading man George Valentin in a silent torture scene and George Clooney's comatose partner in The Descendants.
The odd couple shared a kiss as the movie hunk and Oscar nominee woke the sleeping comic and told him he had to host the ceremony, joking, "The Academy has got the youngest, hippest writers in town."
Crystal also placed himself in scenes from The Help, Bridesmaids, The Adventures of Tin Tin, Moneyball and Midnight in Paris, where he doubled up as Sammy Davis Jr. opposite Justin Bieber.
There was also a cameo for Tom Cruise in a brief Mission: Impossible skit.
In his opening monologue, Crystal joked, "The movies have always been there for us... so tonight, enjoy yourself because nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues."
The full list of 2012 Oscar winners is:
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Octavia Spencer (The Help)
Best Achievement in Directing
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
Alexander Payne, Jim Rash & Nat Faxon (The Descendants)
Best Animated Feature Film
Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
A Separation (Iran)
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Robert Richardson (Hugo)
Best Achievement in Editing
Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)
Best Achievement in Art Direction
Dante Ferretti & Francesca Lo Schiavo (Hugo)
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Mark Bridges (The Artist)
Best Achievement in Makeup
Mark Coulier & J. Roy Helland (The Iron Lady)
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
Ludovic Bource (The Artist)
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
Bret McKenzie (Man or Muppet from The Muppets)
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Tom Fleischman & John Midgley (Hugo)
Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Phillip Stockton & Eugene Gearty (Hugo)
Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman & Alex Henning (Hugo)
Best Documentary Feature
Best Documentary Short
Best Short Film, Animated
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Best Short Film, Live Action
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards
James Earl Jones, Dick Smith & Oprah Winfrey
After garnering widespread praise (and an Oscar nomination for screenwriting) for his 2000 directorial debut You Can Count on Me Kenneth Lonergan was in-demand. In September 2005 the writer/director began production on a follow-up feature: Margaret which touted Anna Paquin Matt Damon Mark Ruffalo Matthew Broderick Allison Janney as well as legendary filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) as producers. The movie wrapped production in a few months time. The buzz was already growing.
Now six years later the movie is finally hitting theaters. So…what took so long?
The journey to this point hasn't been an easy one and it shows. If a film's shot footage is a block of granite and the editing process is the careful carving that turns it into a statuesque work of art Margaret feels like it was attacked by a blind man with a jackhammer. The film is a cinematic disaster a mishmash of shallow characters overwrought politics and sporadic tones. The story follows Lisa Coen (Paquin) a New York teenager who finds herself drowning in chaos after distracting a bus driver (Ruffalo) causing him to hit and kill a pedestrian (Janney). Initially Lisa tells the police it was all an accident but as time passes regret takes hold and the girl embarks on a mission to take down the man she now regards as a culprit. That's just the tip of the iceberg–along the way Lisa deals with everyday teen stuff: falling for her geometry teacher (Damon) combating her anxiety-ridden actress mother losing her virginity dabbling in drugs debating 9/11 and the Iraq War cultivating a relationship with her father in LA and more. There are about eight seasons of television stuffed into Margaret but even a two and a half hour run time can't make it all click.
For more on Margaret check out Indie Seen: Margaret the Long Lost Anna Paquin/Matt Damon Movie
There are few things America loves more than a baseball movie. It goes right along with apple pie, cheeseburgers and The Blue Angels. But there are all kinds of sports movies, what makes baseball so special? Why do these movies universally give us the warm and fuzzies? Even when they’re more about the math behind the baseball than homeruns and catching foul balls like this week’s Moneyball? Well, we’ve got a few ideas.
Click on the infographic for larger version.
Left Field: Nostalgic Allusions to Baseball History
What’s a baseball movie without a clear-cut connection to the history that makes the sport such an integral part of our national consciousness? Most every baseball movie takes at least the smallest chance to pay homage to the greats of baseball past, but some even rely on it like Field of Dreams with its ghostly baseball greats coming out of the cornfields, or Eight Men Out which lends even a big-time baseball scandal a thin veil of peanuts and cracker jack-flavored nostalgia.
Center Field: Motley Crew with One Standard Wild Card
From films like The Sandlot, to Bad News Bears, to Major League, or any one that has a team really, baseball movies always involve a band of uncouth, mismatched players and there’s always one who sticks out like a sore thumb. In A League of Their Own, that wild card was the floosy Mae (Madonna); in Major League, it was bad boy pitcher Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen); and in Bad News Bears it was our protagonist, Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau). After all, what’s a baseball team without a few weirdos?
Right Field: Cute Kids with Big Dreams
There’s something about a baseball game that takes us back to that moment we watched our first game with our dads, and in case the film doesn’t give you that feeling, filmmakers know they need to give you a bit of a push in the right direction. That’s why he have the adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt as our guide in Angels in the Outfield and why Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid) has such an adorable, excited young song in The Rookie. They help inspire the kid in us all.
Shortstop: Hearty, Easy to Remember Catch Phrases
Nothing helps bolster the scrappy essence we so love to see in a baseball movie than some fun, little catchphrase to remember it by. We could regale you with the multitudes of baseballisms we’ve gained from Hollywood’s contributions, but we’ll stick with the best one: Tom Hanks’ “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Second Base: Late Night/Inclement Weather Solo Practice
There’s a pretty typical story arc with every baseball movie: the odds are bad, then they get better, then they’re not so good and our hero has a bout of introspection, then our hero triumphs over the not-so-good odds. It’s at that point when the odds start dipping again that we find our hero, out on a field with minimal lights, fresh cut grass and nothing between him and the game. Sometimes, we even get a nice downpour to boot. It’s typical, it’s overdone, but it’s necessary to understand the Zen of the game.
Third Base: Shots of Stadium Lights and Fresh Cut Grass
Right alongside the solo practice are the requisite, sweeping shots of stadium lights turning from dark to blinding, fresh cut grass standing perfectly still and delivering that signature scent (we can assume, until we’ve got smell-o-vision), and vastness of a major league ballpark when the fans have yet to file into their seats. It offers up a blank canvas, just like every new game does. It’s full of promise and hope and that’s just the tone you need when you’re bringing baseball to the big screen.
Pitcher: Kevin Costner
This guy love, love, loves making baseball movies. And he’s in some of our most beloved films of the genre. Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and For the Love of the Game all cemented Costner’s name alongside America’s favorite pastime on film – well, we watched For the Love of the Game, I’m not sure we universally loved it. It’s been a while since he picked up that bat, maybe it’s about time he takes a role as a beat-up old base coach, hell-bent on keeping his team from making the mistakes he did as a youngster? Yeah, we’d watch that.
First Base: Terrible Odds or Underappreciated Divine Talent
There is no such thing as a baseball movie wherein our hero is not extremely disadvantaged, but with incredible heart or gusto or in so many cases, an inexplicable, divine talent that is somehow untapped though it’s heads and tails above this competitors’ talents. Of course, The Natural takes this to a whole new level, by taking young Roy Hobbs' father, leaving him with an incredible talent, sending him through the baseball ranks, and delivering him into a corrupt organization that discredits his talents due to his mid-thirties age. Even when you’re “a natural” in a baseball movie, you’ve got to beat the odds.
Home Base: Bottom of the 9th Inning Triumphs
And what goes hand in hand with incredible heart and terrible odds? Winning at the last minute of course! The reason this is so crucial in a baseball movie, is that baseball more than any other sport holds the capacity for a team to come from a desolate, impossible deficit and in one single inning, take the entire game back. A team could literally be down 10 to 1 and with a handful of good hits, come back around to surpass the opposing team’s score. Of course, this kind of a comeback is a bit of a small miracle, which is why it never ceases to work in our favorite movies about America’s pastime. It’s not over ‘til it’s over, and in a baseball movie, it’s over when our hero’s team miraculously wins.
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.