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.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Jennifer Check and Anita "Needy" Lesnicky are lifelong best friends and high school students in tiny Devil's Kettle Minnesota. Needy is the practical bookish counterpart to small-town sexpot cheerleader Jennifer who controls most everyone around her — Needy included — with knowing relish using her hypnotic good looks. After Jennifer and Needy escape a grisly fire at the local dive bar Jennifer is whisked away in a creeper van by the band that was playing there despite Needy's pleas not to. In a "sell your soul for rock and roll"-style move the fame-hungry indie rockers Low Shoulder kill Jennifer in an occult virgin sacrifice ceremony which goes awry because Jennifer isn't one. After being left for dead Jennifer shows up at Needy's house covered in blood spewing black bile and grinning wickedly.
The next day amidst the fire tragedy aftermath Devil's Kettle's star football player is found disemboweled and half-eaten in the woods adjacent to the school. Jennifer of course did it and after the vixen kills a sweet emo boy she confesses to Needy (after a too-brief girl-on-girl makeout session complete with heavy tongue close-ups) that the botched sacrifice turned her into a demon and that she becomes happier and more beautiful — and thus deadlier — after she feasts on the blood of horny high school boys. Needy does some research in the occult section of the high school library and discovers her best friend is indeed a pawn of the devil. Needy warns her boyfriend Chip to watch out for Jennifer and consequently finds herself covered in bile with Chip dead in her arms at the prom because he doesn't. Then she seeks revenge.
WHO'S IN IT?
The ever enjoyable Amanda Seyfried takes the lead as plain jane Needy and Johnny Simmons is her sweet doting boyfriend Chip. Adam Brody doing a spot-on Brandon Flowers impression is the killer front man of Low Shoulder. Amy Sedaris makes a too-brief cameo as Needy's mom and Juno's dad J.K. Simmons is a high school teacher with an unexplained hook for a hand. Megan Fox is in it too.
Diablo Cody's script is smart funny and infinitely more interesting than the typical teen slasher swill. The movie revels in its gory moments without being gratuitous and employs a healthy amount of sex without coming off like it's pandering to horny teens. Rather Jennifer's Body is the perfect template for the incomparably hot Megan Fox to use her looks as a plot-forwarding mechanism. This is a professionally signficant departure from her eye candy turns in the Transformers movies and lets Fox prove that she can actually act. There's no one else in Hollywood right now better suited to this role. Fox's performance is unhinged and charming and she makes good use of all the Diablo Cody-isms ("You need a mani bad. You should find a Chinese chick to buff your situation.") that devil-may-care Jennifer gets to utter. The love/hate best friend relationship is interesting and there's a load of good-girl-gone-wrong catharsis in Seyfried's revenge-fueled rampage. Cody and director Karyn Kusama are adept in skillfully if a bit condescendingly creating a convincing depiction of a small Midwestern town which serves as the perfect ultra-real backdrop for the story.
Cody's unique style adds the perfect quirk factor to what could otherwise be run-of-the-mill cinematic garbage.The Cody-isms however sometimes come off as cloying when they aren't being uttered by Fox. Also hopeful Fox worshippers might be disappointed that the sexually radiant actress despite her character's penchant for using sex to lure her victims doesn't actually bare anything that necessitates the film's R-rating.
With its surprising plot twists a snarky bff vs. bff subplot and Cody's flair for linguistics Jennifer's Body is a smart horror flick for anyone who enjoys jolly gore or Megan Fox in a mini-skirt.
I say "creepy" because Untraceable’s theory could actually be a reality. The possibility of a tech-savvy psycho setting up a Web site that displays graphic murders could happen with the fate of each of the tormented captives left in the hands of the public: The more hits the site gets the faster the victims die--and in the case of Untraceable die in very gruesome ways. Of course Untraceable also gives us a peek at the good guys--the FBI division that is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is one such Internet expert who along with her co-worker (Colin Hanks) is stymied by KillWithMe.com’s untraceablity. But soon the movie turns predictable as the cat-and-mouse game gets personal and Marsh must race against the clock to stop the madman. Lane has certainly looked better in her past movies. For obvious effect they’ve made Agent Marsh rather worn-down with dark circles under her eyes and very little makeup as she sits in front of the computer hunting the bad guys all night on the late shift. The fact that she’s also a widow having lost her cop husband to the job and caregiver to her young daughter doesn’t help the woman get anymore rest. Then when the crap starts hitting the fan and people close to Marsh get hurt the actress really shows the pain on her already haggard face. Marsh even admits “I do a lot of things well but I don’t lose people well.” It’s a standard tough-FBI-agent role and Lane is very capable at it. Supporting her is Hanks (Orange County) as the resident comic relief (what little of it there is) as well as Billy Burke (Fracture) the local cop trying to help Marsh catch the psycho Internet killer. As for the killer himself the actor who portrays him (and I won’t give it away) is very effective in the role. There are a couple of other things Untraceable has going for it besides the chilling premise: director Gregory Hoblit who knows his way around a crime thriller having directed gems such as Primal Fear and Fracture and the dank Portland Oregon locale. Hoblit creates just the right amount of tension and dread as the clock ticks down and the race nears its end but something about an overcast rainy environ just lends itself to more doom and gloom doesn’t it? Of course there are also the torture scenes which add a certain level of Hostel-like horror. What Untraceable lacks is a compelling narrative. The bevy of writers involved (never the best of signs) tend to throw in too many conventional thriller plot points--like the red herrings on who the killer is before he’s revealed and explaining why the killer is doing what he’s doing. All these things dilute the film’s initial potential. Still let’s just hope this doesn’t spawn real-life copycats.
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.