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 Sopranos' " stranglehold on awards shows no sign of weakening.
HBO's runaway mob series -- a hit at last month's Golden Globes -- has staked out four nominations for best direction in a TV series from the Directors Guild of America, making it the first drama series ever to walk away with four mentions in a single category for the same year. The DGA's TV categories were announced Monday.
The four "Sopranos" helmers tapped for the best director award are: Daniel Attias, for the episode titled "46 Long"; Henry J. Bronchtein, for "Nobody Know Anything"; David Chase, for the pilot episode; and Allen Coulter, for "College." The "Sopranos" foursome is up against Thomas Schlamme for his work on the pilot episode of NBC's "The West Wing."
The nominees for best director in a TV comedy series are: James Burrows, for an episode titled "Yours, Mine, Ours" of NBC's "Will & Grace"; Thomas Schlamme, for the episode "Small Town" from ABC's "Sports Night"; Pamela Fryman, for the "Frasier" episode "The Flight Before Christmas"; Katy Garretson, for the "Frasier" episode "Dr. Nora"; and Victoria Hochberg, for "The Man, The Myth, The Viagra" from HBO's racy "Sex and the City."
In the category of best director of a musical variety show, the DGA nominated Gerard Foley for CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman"; Dennie A. Gordon, for HBO's "Tracey Takes On ... End of the World"; Louis J. Horvitz, for the "71st Annual Academy Awards" on ABC; Rob Marshall for ABC's "Annie"; and Beth McCarthy Miller, for NBC's "Saturday Night Live 25th Anniversary."
The Directors Guild of America Awards will be announced March 11.
'MALCOLM' ON THE RISE: The fledgling Fox smash sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" is set to continue its comic form, as the network has ordered up 16 new episodes.
The light comedy has been a surprise hit since its debut last month and has been holding its turf as the top-ranked show during its 8:30-9 p.m. Sunday time slot. Its renewal comes as an expected move given the overall unspectacular lineup plaguing Fox of late.
Three of the 16 new "Malcolm" episodes will run as extra installments during the May sweeps; the remaining 13 are slated for the show's 2000-2001 fall season.
MALLRATS OF THE WORLD UNITE: Looks like MTV has stumbled upon a cost-efficient, foolproof formula for grabbing the undivided attention of 18- to 24-year-olds: Put real-life folks in probable confrontational situations, tape them, and then broadcast the video for the consumption of viewers worldwide.
Such is the concept of MTV's latest exploit -- "Mall Confession," another quasi-"drama" series being developed for the teen-music empire. In the cinema-verité tradition of "The Real World" and "Road Rules," the new "Mall Confession" is said to involve a traveling confessional booth that will solicit personal testimonies and intimate secrets from teens in malls across America.
No word yet if MTV's upright Carson Daly will be on hand to offer absolution.
THE HUMANITY OF IT ALL: And now a moment of silence for "Shasta."
The low-rated hip-hop sitcom, formerly titled "Shasta McNasty," will depart UPN's prime-time lineup next month. Starting March 21, the network will place the new cop drama, "The Beat," in the 9-10 p.m. Tuesday time slot. The move also will bump UPN's "Dilbert" toon from the schedule. Both departing shows will see their last air dates on March 14.
Produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana ("Homicide"), "The Beat" follows Derek Cecil and Mark Ruffal as two young policemen fighting crime and personal evils in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
WHERE'S ROSIE: Rosie O'Donnell, seemingly the hardest-working woman on TV, will have a guest spot on NBC's "Third Watch" on Feb. 21.