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.
Pre-production on The First Avenger: Captain America is moving into high gear, with director Joe Johnston expected to soon reveal the name of the actor who will ingest the Super Serum and battle the Nazi scourge in the superhero's World War II-set origin story, which is slated to hit theaters in July of 2011.
At a press conference last weekend for The Wolfman, the troubled horror flick he guided to completion after landing its vacated directing job just two weeks before shooting, Johnston dismissed concerns that Marvel Comics' famously patriotic superhero might be played by — gasp — a foreigner (say, Aussie Sam Worthington, for example). Johnston stated that he was "absolutely" commited to casting a Yank in the role, adding, “I don’t think we could make the film without an American playing the part.”
But while the actor playing Captain America will almost certainly be an American citizen, he may not necessarily be a famous one; Johnston is unsinterested in A-listers. “I’m looking for a complete unknown,” he declared, putting to rest various dubious reports that had pitched everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Will Smith for the role. “I hope it’ll be somebody that we discover, and who has never been in [anything]. Well, he’s probably been in something, but you won’t know who he is. You won’t recognize him. And we’ll surround him with more prominent names.”
Of course, “unknown” is a relative term, one that provides fuel for endless debate among members of the fanboy community. Are we talking Chris Pine-level unknown, Brandon Routh-level unknown, or Matt Salinger-level unknown? Recent reports seem to land somewhere in the middle, with Ryan McPartlin (Captain Awesome from TV’s Chuck) and Cam Gigandet (Twilight, The Unborn) among the names being mentioned as leading candidates for the potentially star-making gig.
Presumably, whoever eventually receives the nod will have undergone an extensive vetting process to verify his credentials as a genuine, full-blooded American (but not too American — sorry, Adam Beach), lest the production find itself besieged by the comic-book equivalent of the “Birthers” movement.
Interestingly, there apears to be considerably less pressure from German citizens for Johnston to choose a suitably Teutonic actor for the role of Red Skull, Captain American’s crimson-domed Nazi nemesis. However, some of the more optimistic fans of the comic harbor the vain hope that Austrian star Christoph Waltz, recently nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Gestapo fiend Hanz Landa in Inglourious Basterds, might eschew typecasting concerns and sign on to portray an even more cartoonish Third Reich villain.
The supporting players of The First Avenger: Captain America are slowly coming into focus as well, with CHUD recently confirming that The Invaders, a second-tier, international supergroup of B-list Marvel heroes like Silver Scorpion, Union Jack, and Bucky, will figure prominently in the film.
The California Supreme Court threw out a sexual harassment case against the bosses of defunct TV hit Friends yesterday.
Former studio assistant Amaani Lyle, 32, alleged that raw sexual remarks during conversations she heard on set and during writers' meetings could be construed as sexual harassment.
Lyle accused three of the show's writers--Adam Chase, Gregory Malins and Andrew Reich--of discussing sexual matters concerning Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer and Courteney Cox, as well their own raunchy exploits.
Lyle made the allegations six years ago, after she was fired by Warner Bros. Television Production in 1999 following a four-month employment. Lyle's contract was terminated because she allegedly could not transcribe writers' meetings fast enough.
The justices ruled 7-0 yesterday that 'trash talk' was part of the creative process and insisted no jury would believe the writers' assistant was the target of harassment for script sessions "for an adult-oriented comic show featuring sexual themes."
Justice Marvin Baxter wrote, "Most of the sexually coarse and vulgar language at issue did not involve and was not aimed at plaintiff or other women in the workplace."
The justices noted that Lyle had been warned of the sexual content in the NBC comedy by studio bosses when she was first employed.
In a statement, the writers say, "(We are pleased with the justices') staunch support of creative freedoms for writers everywhere. We maintain, as we have since Day One in this case, that the majority of the allegations the plaintiff made against us are complete and total fabrications."
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