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.
There are 115 films selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Even the most die-hard film buff couldn’t see each one that Park City, Utah has to offer but luckily we have selected the few that look most promising based solely on their loglines, cast, etc. (for a full list of competing films go here, for a full list of non-competing films here). Check out our top picks below!
Cedar Rapids (Director: Miguel Arteta; Screenwriter: Phil Johnston) —A wholesome and naive small-town Wisconsin man travels to big city Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at a regional insurance conference. Cast: Ed Helms, John C Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alia Shawkat, Sigourney Weaver.
Ed Helms helped write the movie. That alone should sell the film to you.
The Details (Director and screenwriter: Jacob Aaron Estes) —When hungry raccoons discover worms living under the sod in a young couple’s backyard, the pest problem sets off a wild and absurd chain reaction of domestic tension, infidelity, organ donation and murder by way of bow and arrow.Cast: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert. A movie with raccoons, infidelity, Elizabeth Banks, and a death by bow and arrow? Sold.
Life in a Day (Director: Kevin Macdonald) —Life in a Day is a historic global experiment to create the world’s largest user-generated feature film. On July 24, 2010, professional and amateur filmmakers captured a glimpse of their lives on camera and uploaded the footage to YouTube, serving as a time capsule for future generations. While the film may be boring, the fact that they did this makes the film worth watching.
The Music Never Stopped (Director: Jim Kohlberg; Screenwriters: Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks, based on the story “The Last Hippie” by Oliver Sacks) — A father struggles to bond with his estranged son who suffers a brain tumor that prevents him from forming new memories. He learns to embrace his son’s choices and to try to connect with him through the power of music. Cast: J.K. Simmons, Julia Ormond, Cara Seymour, Lou Taylor Pucci, Mia Maestro. While this sounds a little too sad for my tastes, J.K. Simmons is the man. He alone could get me into any movie so I guess I’ll stick it out for this one.
My Idiot Brother (Director: Jesse Peretz; Screenwriters: Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall) — After serving time for selling pot, Ned successively moves in with each of his three sisters as he tries to get back on his feet. His best intentions quickly bring the family to the cusp of chaos and ultimately the brink of clarity. Cast: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer. If the cast alone isn’t working for you, Zooey Deschanel plays a lesbian with Rashida Jones. Don’t forget to breathe.
Perfect Sense (Director: David Mackenzie; Screenwriter: Kim Fupz Aakeson) —A poetic and magnetic love story about two people who start to fall in love just as the world begins to fall apart. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green, Ewen Bremner, Stephen Dillane, Denis Lawson and Connie Nielsen. I only included this one for its ridiculous logline.
Red State (Director and screenwriter: Kevin Smith) — A group of misfits encounter extreme fundamentalism in Middle America. Cast: Michael Parks, Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Melissa Leo. Let’s see how well Kevin Smith handles the horror genre. He’s been talking about this one for years, time for him to put up or shut up. Though something tells me that won’t happen any time soon.
Salvation Boulevard (Director: George Ratliff; Screenwriters: Doug Max Stone and George Ratliff, based on the novel by Larry Beinhart) —An evangelical preacher who has captivated a city with his charm frames an ex-hippie for a crime he did not commit. Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei. There is something alluring about the prospect of a preacher framing someone for something they didn’t do. Add this cast in and we’re definitely excited.
The Son of No One (Director and screenwriter: Dito Montiel) —Two men in post-9/11 New York are forced to relive two murders they committed as young boys. Their lives start to unravel by the threat of the revelation of these shocking and personal secrets. Cast: Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Tracy Morgan, Ray Liotta, Juliette Binoche. The closing night film doesn’t sound too interesting except that it has Tracy Morgan. Color me intrigued and let me stroke my long and gorgeous goatee.
Bobby Fischer Against the World (Director: Liz Garbus) — The drama of late chess-master Bobby Fischer's career was undeniable,as he careened from troubled childhood, to World Champion and Cold War icon, to a fugitive on the run. Bobby Fishcer is one of the most fascinating people to ever become a grand champion of chess. His story has been told before but personally I don’t think one more will hurt.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Director: Morgan Spurlock) — A documentary about branding, advertising and product placement is financed and made possible by branding, advertising and product placement. A film buff endorsing a movie from one of the best documentarians working in his new film about the film business? You must be crazy.
Bellflower (Director and screenwriter: Evan Glodell) — A ballad for every person who has ever loved and lost – with enough violence, weapons, action and sex to tell a love story with apocalyptic stakes. Cast: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes. Case in point of a second half of a sentence completely saving the sentence from the first half.
Lord Byron (Director: Zack Godshall; Screenwriters: Zack Godshall and Ross Brupbacher) — When he's not pursuing women, Byron is smoking weed and loafing around. But he's grown restless in his middle-age and feels the need to escape – he just doesn't know where to go. Cast: Paul Batiste, Gwendolyn Spradling, Kayla Lemaire. We’re definitely not wanting to see this looking for advice. Definitely not.
The Off Hours (Director and screenwriter: Megan Griffiths) — A passing truck driver brings an unfamiliar sense of optimism to a woman working the night shift at a quiet diner, reminding her it's never too late to become the person you always wanted to be. Cast: Amy Seimetz, Ross Partridge, Scoot McNairy, Lynn Shelton, Bret Roberts, Tony Doupe. I love truck drivers. I’m pretty sure I still want to be one. If this doesn’t have a killer country soundtrack I want my money back (which is whopping zero dollars, but whatever).
to.get.her (Director and screenwriter: Erica Dunton) — Five girls come together for one fateful night where anything goes. They all had secrets, but their friendship was the only thing they knew to be true. Cast: Jazzy De Lisser, Chelsea Logan, Adwoa Aboah, Jami Eaton, Audrey Speicher. BLUGH.
Kaboom (Director and screenwriter: Gregg Araki)— A science fiction story centered on the sexual awakening of a group of college students. Cast: Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Chris Zylka, Roxane Mesquida, Juno Temple. A science fiction film about sexual awakening? I’m there.
Meek’s Cutoff (Director: Kelly Reichardt; Screenwriter: Jon Raymond) — In 1845, three families who have hired mountaineer Stephen Meek to guide their wagons over the Cascade Mountains get lost and face hunger, thirst and a lack of faith in their instincts for survival. Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Zoe Kaza, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson. So this is basically a period piece of Alive with two of the best actors around. Done.
Submarine (Director: Richard Ayoade; Screenwriter: Richard Ayoade from the novel by Joe Dunthorne) — Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate has two big ambitions: to save his parents' marriage and to lose his virginity before his next birthday. Cast: Craig Roberts, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Yasmin Paige. This film had a big showing at this years Toronto Film Festival. I just want to see it already!
Uncle Kent (Director: Joe Swanberg; Screenwriters: Joe Swanberg and Kent Osborne) — A pothead cartoonist in Los Angeles spends a weekend trying to sleep with his visiting house guest – a woman from New York he met on Chatroulette. Cast: Kent Osborne. While the premise sounds awesome, basing around the already past its prime fad Chatroulette seems like a wrong move.
Hobo with A Shotgun (Director: Jason Eisener; Screenwriter: Johnathan Davies) — A hobo hops from a train with dreams of a fresh life in a new city, but instead finds himself trapped in an urban hell. When he witnesses a brutal robbery, he realizes the only way to deliver justice is with a shotgun in his hands and two shells in the chamber. Cast: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Gregory Smith, Brian Downey. Looks like we found the winner for Best Title.
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Director and screenwriter: Madeleine Olnek) — A shy greeting card store employee unknowingly falls for a lesbian space alien while two government agents closely track their romance. Cast: Lisa Haas, Susan Ziegler, Jackie Monahan, Cynthia Kaplan, Dennis Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Rae C Wright. Just kidding about the best title thing from above. This is the clear winner.
Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren) (Director: Andre Ovredal) — A group of student filmmakers get more than they bargained for when tangling with a man tasked with protecting Norway from giant trolls. Cast: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Hans Morten Hansen, Johanna Mørch, Tomas Alf Larsen. Norwegian giant trolls, what more could you ask for?
Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel (Director: Alex Stapleton) — Tracks the triumphant rise of Hollywood’s most prolific writer-director-producer, the true godfather of independent filmmaking. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, James Cameron, Roger Corman. Just look at who all is involved and tell why you wouldn’t watch this? Now shut up and learn something.
Jess + Moss (Director: Clay Jeter; Screenwriters: Clay Jeter and Debra Jeter) — Without immediate families that they can relate to, and lacking friends their own age, second cousins Jess and Moss only have each other. A series of visceral vignettes conjure memories of companionship and sexual awakening during a summer shared together on their Kentucky farm. Cast: Sarah Hagan, Austin Vickers. So it’s like George Michael and Maebe make a movie? Whatever, I’ll watch.
The Nine Muses (Director and screenwriter: John Akomfrah) — An allegorical fable divided into overlapping musical chapters, this film retells the history of mass migration to post-war Britain through the suggestive lens of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. And the Most Pretentious Sounding Film award goes to The Nine Muses. Thanks for playing.
Benavides Born (Director: Amy Wendel; Screenwriters: Daniel Meisel and Amy Wendel) — A high school senior in a forgotten town has earned admission to the University of Texas at Austin but can't afford to go. Her one shot is a scholarship for winning the State Powerlifting Championship. Cast: Corina Calderon, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Joseph Julian Soria, Julia Vera, Julio César Cedillo. Female Powerlifting hasn’t exactly gotten the best films attached to it. I hope this film changes that.
Homework (Director and screenwriter: Gavin Wiesen) — Quirky, rebellious George has no ambitions other than to cut his next class. But one day, one girl gives him the perfect reason to figure out who he really is. Cast: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Elizabeth Reaser with Rita Wilson and Blair Underwood. This sounds stupid but Emma Roberts is kind of cute, so who knows.
The Ledge (Director and screenwriter: Matthew Chapman) — Perched on a ledge, a man says he must jump by noon, while a cop races against time to get to the bottom of it. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson and Terrence Howard with Christopher Gorham. Early reviews of this film say its really good. So I’ll go along for now.
Like Crazy (Director: Drake Doremus; Screenwriters: Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones) — A young American guy and a young British girl meet in college and fall in love. Their love is tested when she is required to leave the country and they must face the challenges of a long-distance relationship. Cast: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston. UGH... wait, it’s Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence? Never mind, this is going to be awesome.
Take Shelter (Director and screenwriter: Jeff Nichols) — A working-class husband and father questions whether his terrifying dreams of an apocalyptic storm signal something real to come or the onset of an inherited mental illness he's feared his whole life. Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker. This looks super serious, and that’s great, but I really just want to see Katy Mixon.
Terri (Director: Azazel Jacobs; Screenwriters: Patrick Dewitt and Azazel Jacobs) — Orphaned to an uncle who is fading away, mercilessly teased by his peers and roundly ignored by his teachers, Terri is alienated and alone. When the dreaded vice-principal sees something of himself in Terri, they establish a friendship which opens Terri up to the possibility that life is not something to be endured, but something to be shared, and even enjoyed. Cast: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina. Ok, I know this film sounds ridiculous, but it has Creed Bratton in it. That’s gotta count for something, right?
The Untitled Sam Levinson Project (Director and screenwriter: Sam Levinson) — A pair of reckless siblings are dragged into a chaotic family wedding by their overwrought mother. Cast: Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth, Jeffrey DeMunn, Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Thomas Haden Church. Wedding movies involving dis-functional families are always the best.
BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer’s Journey (Director: Constance Marks) — The Muppet Elmo is one of the most beloved characters among children across the globe. Meet the unlikely man behind the puppet – the heart and soul of Elmo – Kevin Clash. A movie about the guy who has his hand up Elmo’s butt all day? Actually, that sounds kind of sweet.
Page One: A year inside the New York Times (Director: Andrew Rossi; Screenwriters: Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi) — Unprecedented access to theNew York Times newsroom yields a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity. Something tells me it will be more than bored journalists checking Twitter all day.
The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Directors: Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion) — A brutal warlord who murdered thousands during Liberia's horrific 14-year civil war renounces his violent past and reinvents himself as an Evangelist, facing those he once terrorized. And the award for logline least like the film the title suggests goes to this film.
Abraxas (Director: Dai Sako; Screenwriters: Dai Sako and Naoki Kato) — After botching a speech on career guidance at a local high school, a depressed Zen monk with a heavy metal past realizes that only music can revive his spirit.Cast: Suneohair, Rie Tomosaka, Manami Honjou, Ryouta Murai, Kaoru Kobayashi.
Zen monks and heavy metal? This nirvana goes to 11.
All Your Dead Ones (Todos Tus Muertos) (Director Carlos Moreno; Screenwriters: Alonso Torres and Carlos Moreno) — One morning, a peasant wakes to find a pile of bodies in the middle of his crops. When he goes to the authorities, he quickly realizes that the dead ones are a problem nobody wants to deal with. Cast: Alvaro Rodríguez, Jorge Herrera, Martha Marquez, Harold Devasten, John Alex Castillo. Sounds gross to find a bunch of dead bodies amongst your crops, but it does sound like a great film.
Happy, Happy (Sykt Lykkelig) (Director: Anne Sewitsky; Screenwriter: Ragnhild Tronvoll) — A perfect housewife, who just happens to be sex-starved, struggles to keep her emotions in check when an attractive family moves in next door. Cast: Agnes Kittelsen, Henrik Rafaelsen, Maibritt Saerens, Joachim Rafaelsen.
You had me at sex-starved Norwegian housewife.
Vampire (Director and screenwriter: Iwai Shunji) — On the surface, Simon seems like a fairly normal, average young man, devoted to his teaching job and ailing mother. Secretly, he is compelled to hunt through online chat rooms and message boards, searching for the perfect girl who will ensure his own survival. Cast: Kevin Zegers, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rachel Leigh Cook, Kristin Kreuk, Aoi Yu and Adelaide Clemens. A Japanese film about creepy guys hunting girls? Surely you jest.
KNUCKLE (Director: Ian Palmer) — An epic 12-year journey into the brutal and secretive world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting, this film follows a history of violent feuding between rival clans. I hope this film will make me want to break a bottle over my head and throw someone out a pub window.
Project Nim (Director: James Marsh) — From the Oscar-winning team behind Man on Wire comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who was taught to communicate with language as he was raised and nurtured like a human child. I’ve often dreamed of a world where men and monkeys live as one. Also I’ve always wanted to ask a Gorilla if he wanted to play video games with me.
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Director:Matthew Bate) — When two friends tape-recorded the fights of their violently noisy neighbors, they accidentally created one of the world's first 'viral' pop-culture sensations. And with a great title and an intriguing logline, this film has me wanting more. Sounds delightful.