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.
Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.