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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The clock is ticking down. There are only a few more weeks to catch up on Hollywood's end-of-the-world flicks before life as we know it goes to ... well, you know.
Don't worry about whether you're prepared for armageddon, though. We've done the research and stocked the shelter with enough apocalyptic flicks to see anyone through a nuclear winter.
So grab your sunscreen, head for the hills and remember the remote. It's time for the final countdown:
20. "The Omega Man" -- Imagine your worst nightmare about the end of the world, and Charlton Heston probably suffers it in this adaptation of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." He's the last guy on Earth, and as luck would have it, there are zombies spawned from germ warfare trying to tear his guts out.
19. "The Seventh Sign" -- Forget Ah-nuld in "End of Days." The true biblical blood curdler is this mid-'80s parable starring Demi Moore. She's the only one who can stop the rivers from forever running crimson. Michael Biehn, out of Terminator/Navy Seal mode, plays her low-key husband. Jurgen Prochnow is the ultra-creepy avenging angel.
18. "Strange Days" -- Nothing's more timely than this millennium murder mystery, which takes place on the eve of the 21st century. Ralph Fiennes is a cyberpeddler hawking memories of real experiences to sensory-deprived customers. When someone starts using his virtual addictions for real-life killing, the hustler finds it hard to keep partying like it's 1999.
17. "Night of the Comet" -- So bad it's great, this low-budget sci-fi quickie features a killer comet, valley girl heroines and a couple of hilarious, over-the-top villains. As the baddies chase the gals cross-country, the filmmakers forgo logic and effects and concentrate on making cheeky fun of the genre.
16. "Deep Impact" -- Last chance to clear those tear ducts before Y2K becomes reality. "Armageddon" may have the firepower, but when it comes to good old-fashioned emotion, even cynics agree that Morgan Freeman makes a first-rate president as the fate of all mankind rests in the balance.
15. "The Stand" -- Nobody does the good, the bad and the apocalypse quite like Stephen King. Clocking in at around six hours, this epic showdown between the forces of light and dark tempts viewers to figure out who'll be the last man or woman standing. Our bet: Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe, who have already survived their Brat Pack infamy.
14. "A Boy and His Dog" -- Before he lost his socks and collared shirts, "Miami Vice's" Don Johnson roamed the wasteland with a telekinetic dog in this smart and sassy cult favorite. On a mission that would make his '80s alter-ego proud, the young traveler and his trusty guide forage exclusively for two things: food and women.
13. "WarGames" -- It has no radioactive mutants, martians or supernatural boogeymen, and it's not rated R. But John Badham's "what if" scenario for world destruction is as tense and thrilling as cinema gets. In today's Internet-crazy universe, the prospect of a Matthew Broderick-like hacker accidentally setting off World War III is an apocalyptic possibility a little too close to reality.
12. "The Road Warrior" -- After the world goes boom, there's nothing like a harried Mel Gibson in shoulder pads and biker boots to raise hopes for a new savior. It wouldn't be the end of the world without Mad Mel dispatching a dozen or so mohawked punks who can't wait for their turn at the gas pump.
11. "Escape From New York" -- One look at Kurt Russell's scowl and eye patch, and director John Carpenter's message comes through loud and clear: The future could be very, very ugly. Nihilistic, dark and altogether winning, this action-adventure has hero Snake Plissken out to rescue the president in 24 hours, or else the world gets it.
10. "Ghostbusters" -- If the destructor of the universe really were a 100-foot Stay Puft Marshallow Man, who else to call than smart-ass Bill Murray and friends? The "Saturday Night Live" star knows how to handle millennial boogie woogies: Simply sit back and make fun of them. Dogs and cats living together? That's "mass hysteria."
9. "Planet of the Apes" -- Charlton Heston is in for an unforgettable surprise at the end of this classic sci-fi flick. He's a U.S. astronaut stranded on a planet where ape creatures walk and talk while humans wander about beast-like in loincloths. The first in the "Planet of the Apes" series offers plenty of action, intrigue and the best use of a New York monument in movie history.
8. "The Last Wave" -- "The Truman Show" director Peter Weir arrived on the scene with this frightening vision of the apocalypse. Richard Chamberlain of "Shogun" infamy stars as a lawyer assigned to defend a group of aborigines on trial for murder. His investigation leads to a series of scary, oddly fascinating discoveries.
7. "On the Beach" -- The bombs have landed, and the radioactive cloud is on the way. Submarine commander Gregory Peck surfaces long enough to search the barren Australian landscape for survivors. It's all in the name of superior drama that realistically explores the effects and true terror of nuclear holocaust.
6. "Last Night" -- Winner of multiple Genie Awards (Canada's equivalent of the Oscar), this low-key drama skips the Bruce Willis histrionics and focuses on regular people living through the last six hours of the planet. They eat, they talk, they fight, they even love a little. In the end, they do exactly what people might do on the last night of their lives.
5. "War of the Worlds" -- The granddaddy of martian invasion movies puts "ID4" and everything that followed to shame. The effects stand up, and the concept's sound. Based on H. G. Wells' famous story, this classic, featuring Gene Barry as a scientist who's on to the green beings' game, is truly one for the ages.
4. "12 Monkeys" -- Bruce Willis can't stop the world from coming to an end, but maybe he can figure out what pretty boy Brad Pitt has to do with it. As a psychologically damaged hero from the future, the action star finds himself trapped in a Terry Gilliamesque present that's flawed with all sorts of dark eccentricities.
3. "The Rapture" -- "The Player" screenwriter Michael Tolkin directs a singular motion picture that's unlike anything you've ever seen. Mimi Rogers stars as an L.A. swinger who trades in her hedonism for religious fanaticism just in time for an apocalypse literally straight out of the Book of Revelations. Expect the unexpected in this controversial mind-blower.
2. "The Day the Earth Stood Still" -- Klaatu barada nikto! That's the unforgettable phrase from Michael Rennie as a foreign visitor who comes to warn Earth about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. This landmark science-fiction film is the best defense against the real apocalypse. If aliens can't stop us from playing mean, who can?
1. "Miracle Mile" -- Never heard of this gem from director Steve de Jarnatt? When it comes to end-of-the-world scenarios, this one's the absolute keeper. Before he donned his "ER" scrubs, Anthony Edwards had his best part to date as a modest, likable musician who finds the girl of his dreams ... 90 minutes before a nuclear bomb strike. As he demonstrates, when it comes to the end, it's not about quantity. It's all about quality.