Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Let’s get right to the moment everyone was talking about from last night’s two-hour installment of History’s The Bible. The actor who played Satan, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, looked very familiar. A Sith Lord, right, because of the hood? Nope. Think a little more earthbound. As in someone who resides in Washington D.C., and who the right-wing base that's the core audience for The Bible often despise. See what you think…
Yes, the Twitterverse exploded after Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness and was tempted with the prospect of universal health care, bank and credit card reforms, and the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wait, no, that didn’t happen. But Satan did look a lot like President Obama. Shortly after the episode aired Glenn Beck even tweeted the following, so it must be true:
Anyone else think the Devil in #TheBible Sunday on HIstory Channel looks exactly like That Guy? twitter.com/glennbeck/stat…
— Glenn Beck (@glennbeck) March 17, 2013
History denies the allegations, calling them "nonsense." And to be fair, Ouazanni has appeared in multiple Biblical movies, including David, Jeremiah, and The Satanic Angels, so he may have been cast for his experience with this kind of material, not for looking like the POTUS. That said, executive producer Mark Burnett also produces Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. Just sayin’…
Before we get any further, let me introduce myself. I am Christian Blauvelt, the ‘Christian’ of the headline. Now, I’m not actually religious. I consider myself agnostic, though my family does have a Presbyterian background. But despite the fact that my parents were never adamant churchgoers, I devoured all of the Bible stories as a kid. I've never viewed the Good Book as the “Word of God” so much as a historical document that reflects the attitudes and prejudices of its time, and, as the Satan/Obama similarity in History’s version may show, continues to reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the people who interpret it today.
The biggest thing I’ve taken away from History's The Bible so far is that it’s not based on the King James Version so much as the George R.R. Martin version. Game of Thrones casts a sizable shadow over this interpretation of scripture, except for when it comes to sex. I mean, no one ever bathes on The Bible. Everyone has scraggly hair and scragglier beards. Torture and slaughter are constant. But is there any “knowing” in the Biblical sense? Nada. A sexy dance from Salome didn’t even precipitate John the Baptist’s beheading!
Nebuchadnezzer, for one, could just as easily be fighting for the Iron Throne of Westeros as laying waste to Jerusalem. He’s the kind of king who wears a Tin Man funnel hat, emphatically devours mutton, and says things like, “It begins,” “There’s a price for betrayal,” and “You know what Jerusalem means? ‘City of Peace.’” As in, he’s gonna go so Old Testament on the Israelites’ collective asses that Jerusalem damn well won’t be a City of Peace when he’s through with it.
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At the court of Jerusalem’s king, Zedekiah, the prophet Jeremiah was experiencing a major failure to communicate. He was trying to convey that the city would fare better if they immediately surrendered to Nebuchadnezzer, rather than endure a prolonged siege from his Babylonian forces. But with his shock of wild, seemingly electrified hair, and his insistence upon strapping a wooden beam to his back to symbolize how Zedekiah should submit to the yoke of Babylon, Jeremiah was far too alienating to be taken seriously. This is why you’ve got to sweeten the message, man. So no one listened to Jeremiah, and Babylon began an 18 month siege of Jerusalem. At no time do the makers of The Bible ever make Jerusalem feel like a real, lived-in city. Even when we learn that some of its denizens turn to cannibalism, we only see like five or six people clawing at each other, rather than the Hieronymous Bosch-like hellscape of a people run amok that Cecil B. DeMille would surely have given us.
Oh yeah, so I talked about the gore. The Bible really went all Game of Thrones when it showed Nebuchadnezzer finally catching up with Zedekiah as he fled the city. In front of Zedekiah, he butchered the Israelite king's young sons, then declared, “A shame that is the last thing you will ever see.” He then proceeded to gouge out Zedekiah’s eyes the old-fashioned way — with his thumbs.
Thus began one of the darkest, but most influential, epochs in Jewish history: The Babylonian Captvity. Nebuchadnezzer’s armies drove the people of Jerusalem hundreds of miles in an epic trail of tears to Babylon, where, like they had been centuries earlier in Egypt, they would be slaves. The Israelites there would need a new kind of leader: one who lived by his faith more than by his sword. That man would be Daniel. Daniel followed in the tradition of Joseph as a man who could interpret dreams, and Nebuchadnezzer, like the Pharaoh of long before, was troubled with very bad dreams. He needed Daniel to tell him what they meant. Daniel said his vision of a golden head atop a wooden statue that shatters is symbolic of Babylon: the greatest of all empires, yet still doomed.
You could argue that Daniel is a sell-out, even a traitor for working so closely with Nebuchadnezzer. But this is what he needed to do to help his people survive. When his friends refused to bow before the Babylonian gods, Nebuchadnezzer threw them in a furnace. But the CGI flames didn’t sear their flesh! They lived, because their faith in God protected them, and they emerged from the inferno like the Mother of Dragons. Nebuchadnezzer shortly went mad, and ended up chained like a dog, while his empire crumbled around him.
Daniel’s dream proved correct. Babylon’s days were numbered, and soon Cyrus I (immortalized as Cyrus the Great), who had built Persia into a massive empire of its own, marched on the city and took it without firing an arrow. He didn’t immediately free the Jews, however. Partly because he really wanted to keep Daniel around so he also could have a dream interpreter. Cyrus’ other advisers were all threatened by this, so without the king knowing about it they threw Daniel into a lion’s den, which maybe isn’t as scary as being thrown into a furnace but is still pretty scary. (Whoever did CGI tiger Richard Parker in Life of Pi really should have been brought in to render these lions, because they kind of sucked. They certainly weren’t intimidating.) Cyrus found out about this, was really pissed that his advisers did this to his friend behind his back, and used this as an opportunity to let Daniel and his people go. Thus, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon, an act for which Cyrus is enshrined in Judaism as “The Anointed of the Lord.” The Iranian Culture Ministry, which is planning a lawsuit against Hollywood producers and directors for promoting Iranophobia (like in Argo) should take comfort in the fact that on The Bible the Persians are the good guys.
NEXT: The Babylonian Captivity ends, and a beloved character with a massive following makes his Bible debut. Yep, Jesus.
Thus ended the Babylonian Captivity. This period in Jewish history was significant because it began to herald the end of the Old Testament Era, and the transition of Judaism’s view of God (or Yahweh) as sectarian, warlike, and jealous, to a God of compassion, redemption, and forgiveness. A God who will always be there in your time of suffering, as long as you have faith. In a sense God went from being the God of the Jews to the God of Everyone.
Maybe that theme is why the producers of The Bible chose to end their Old Testament coverage there (sorry, Maccabees, this is very much a Protestant reading that cuts you out completely) and skip ahead directly to a beloved character with a massive following. A character who’s inspired ardent fan devotion and the creation of multiple appreciation societies (or, rather, denominations). A guy who’s so adored that you could call him the Daryl Dixon or Boba Fett of The Bible. I’m talking about Jesus.
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Fast-forward five centuries to Nazareth in the time of Augustus Caesar. I thought at first Mary looked exactly like a young Roma Downey because Mark Burnett thinks his wife is so angelic and virginal that he wanted to cast someone who looks exactly like her, as a tribute. Actually, it’s because in subsequent installments Roma Downey really is playing Older Mary, so it’s just a craven set-up to cast the woman who’s sleeping with the showrunner in the star role.
Mary and Joseph are visited by Gabriel, who wears armor, and looks kind of badass, and they learn that God has found her hot and wants her to bear His child. It was important they explain this to Joseph, because in 1 A.D. if your fiancée gets pregnant before your wedding night your wedding present for her might be a bag of stones you hurl at her face. Oddly enough, in no versions of the Christmas story that I’ve ever seen depicted, nor read in the Bible itself, do we actually get an account of Joseph and Mary getting married. That’s just totally glossed over, like it’s too worldly of a detail to include in the account of the birth of Christ.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, is like something out of a John Waters movie. He’s morbidly obese yet wearing nothing but a massage towel when we first meet him. Herod’s taking some healing vapors, while leaches are covering his skin to draw out the sickly humours that affect him. After this introduction, we’ll only ever see him wear a muumuu. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even like to wash off the blood of the prisoners he’s personally executed before sitting down to dinner. We get it: he’s a bad dude.
Mary and Joseph make the journey to Bethlehem to be taxed. In this version there’s no interest in examining the identity of the donkey that carries Mary, who by this point is now very great with child. By my reckoning, there are at least two competing versions of who this donkey is in the annals of TV Christmas specials. There’s Rankin/Bass’ Nestor: The Long-Eared Donkey, which imagines the ass that carried Mary to Bethlehem as a quasi-Dumbo figure; and there’s also Disney’s The Small One, directed by Don Bluth, which imagines the donkey as old and frail, the beloved pet of a boy who has to sell him to support his family, and, lucky for him, sells him to Joseph! Both of those specials are more profound examinations of faith and love than anything I’ve seen on The Bible so far.
The depiction of the first Christmas itself was pretty low-key. The wise men showed up, but there were no angels overhead, and there were too few shepherds for my liking. This was not your idyllic Nativity scene.
The show then jumped ahead 31 years to when Jesus decided to begin his ministry. John the Baptist was taking a break from eating locusts to violently baptize some followers via total immersion in the River Jordan. Jesus, out of focus, walked forward slowly toward the camera like the way Bond is introduced in Skyfall, until we saw him in crystalline clarity. He gets baptized by John, then goes out into the desert where he meets Obama Satan. He resisted the temptations of socialism. Meanwhile, John had been captured by Herod Antipas, Herod’s son who’s now the self-proclaimed King of the Jews. In this version there was no creepy love triangle among him, his wife, and his stepdaughter, no sexy dance from Salome, no intoxicating commingling of eroticism and violence as Salome tells a hot-and-bothered Antipas that she wants John’s head on a silver platter in exchange for having gotten him horny. None of it. Not even a silver platter! John was merely beheaded off screen. End of story. What a letdown.
The episode ended with Jesus recruiting Simon Peter to his cause with an offer of fish, as Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, string-heavy score signaled the momentousness of the occasion. It sounded exactly like Zimmer’s final musical cues in The Dark Knight, because watching Batman ride his Batpod into the Gotham sunset is the equivalent of the start of Christ’s ministry. I’m surprised narrator Keith David didn’t say something like, “The Jews will find that Jesus is not the Messiah they need, but the one they deserve.”
So what did you think of last night’s episode of The Gospel According to Mark (Burnett)? Do you maintain that this is worthwhile television? Or is this the cheesiest damn thing you’ve ever seen? And did anyone else think this story is totally incomplete without the presence of Salome?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Joe Alblas/History Channel ]
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The little golden men have been carried away by the lucky winners. The rented jewelry is being returned. Quentin Tarantino is high-fiving himself in a mirror somewhere. Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic are weeping because E! has to put aside its 360 Glam Cam until Emmy time. And Captain Kirk is now safely back in the 23rd century. But, like the bad taste that lingers from host Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song, many questions about the 2013 Academy Awards remain. We consider it a public service to answer 10 of the biggest for you.
1. Who Was Snubbed During the In Memoriam Segment? While more than ever the Academy discouraged applause during the depressing annual segment honoring the film industry notables who’ve died in the past year—hence the lack of a true Applause-o-Meter this time around—we were crying foul about a few notable omissions from the weepy montage. Gee, pa, where was Andy Griffith? Before he played Sheriff Andy Taylor on his long-running sitcom, the Georgia native burned bright in Elia Kazan’s A Face on the Crowd (1957), as a rube turned demagogue, and showed the comic timing he’d later display on the tube in the charming military laugher No Time for Sergeants (1958). Not to mention his latter-day turn as a lovable diner patron in 2007’s Waitress. Not cool, Academy.
Less surprising omissions included Larry Hagman and Phyllis Diller, who, despite making movies, are most strongly associated with TV. The same goes for Richard Dawson, the Family Feud host who played the villain in 1987’s The Running Man. More egregious were the absences of Ann Rutherford, who played one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in Gone With the Wind, Our Gang star Jack Hanlon, and Snakes on a Plane director David R. Ellis.
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The Academy should consider itself lucky that they included Sans Soleil director Chris Marker, or we would have lost it.
2. Did Samuel L. Jackson skip over part of the teleprompter’s banter when presenting Best Visual Effects? It’s hard to tell if it was teleprompter problems or the awkwardness of having five Avengers stars presenting two awards—for Cinematography and Visual Effects—but Marvel’s Nick Fury got especially tripped up. After awkwardly getting through the cinematography award, Jackson jumped over most of the banter for Visual Effects just to announce the winner, while Robert Downey Jr. tried to stick to the script. Maybe Jackson was worried about getting played off with the Jaws theme—understandable considering his battle with sharks in Deep Blue Sea. Since no other presenters deviated from their sometimes lengthy scripts, despite the bloated runtime of the telecast, it seems Jackson made this decision without prompting from the producers.
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3. The sound editors for Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall both won in their category. How many previous ties have there been in Oscars history? There have been five previous tie winners, but none since the 1995 ceremony. In 1932, The Champ’s Wallace Beery and Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde’s Frederic March tied for Best Actor, because of a rule that allowed two people to share a prize if only one vote separated them. Beery received just one extra vote than March, so both took home statuettes. Under today’s rules, Beery would have been the sole winner.
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At the 1950 ceremony there was a tie in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, and in 1987 there was a tie for Documentary Feature with Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got and Down and Out in America scoring the same number of votes. In 1995, Best Live Action Short film was split between Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Trevor.
But the most famous Oscar tie of all occurred in 1969 when both Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand walked away with Best Actress for their roles in The Lion in Winter and Funny Girl, respectively.
4. Where did the 2013 ceremony rank among the all-time longest? Actually, not that high. At three hours and 35 minutes it was the longest telecast since…2010, when The Hurt Locker won best picture at the end of a three hour and 37 minute broadcast. That’s still well short of the longest Oscars ever, the four-hour 23-minute sprawl that was the 2002 Awards hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. The fastest ceremony ever? The 1956 fete that lasted only a brisk 90 minutes.
NEXT: What’s up with Seth MacFarlane’s dig at Entertainment Weekly? And just who is Steve Battaglio?
5. What is Seth MacFarlane’s beef with Entertainment Weekly magazine? At the end of his opening monologue, in which Captain Kirk’s intervention had repaired the timeline and prevented MacFarlane from being declared the “worst Oscar host of all time,” a new headline appeared onscreen that said “Best Oscars ever, says everyone except Entertainment Weekly.”
Why such a pointed dig? Well, it all goes back to April 9, 1999 when EW’s TV critic Ken Tucker published a review of Family Guy. He gave the new show a "D" and never warmed to it thereafter. In the 2005 direct-to-DVD movie Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, the baby breaks the neck of a reporter the moment he learns he’s from Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky then that I emerged with my hide after interviewing MacFarlane in 2011 for EW, after he hosted The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump. His first words to me: “You’re from EW, huh? Have you fired Ken Tucker yet? Have you guys gotten rid of him yet?” Then on Jan. 13, 2013, he launched a Twitter war with Tucker, in which he said “Dear Ken Tucker and Entertainment Weekly: Please tell me how I may earn a review as glowing as the one you gave Urkel,” and linked to Tucker’s "A" review of Family Matters from 1990. Tucker tweeted back, “Easy: Just be as funny as Urkel once was.” Though the glossy magazine gave MacFarlane a major cover story just two weeks before the Oscars—not to mention that Tucker has left the publication—that faux headline during the ceremony shows he’s still holding a grudge.
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6. Who is Steve Battaglio? All of the fake headlines during that Captain Kirk segment were attributed to a writer named Steve Battaglio. No invention of MacFarlane’s feverish brain, Battaglio is actually the business editor at TV Guide Magazine, a publication for which MacFarlane seems to have greater affection than EW. TV Guide’s LA bureau chief Michael Schneider tweeted, “Seth MacFarlane picked @SteveBattaglio as the author of that nasty review as thanks - Steve was an early supporter of #FamilyGuy.”
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7. How Does Captain Kirk’s Appearance at the Oscars Fit Into or Disrupt J.J. Abrams’ Rebooted Star Trek Continuity? Along with the realization that this is the first time we’ve seen William Shatner in the captain’s chair since 1994’s Star Trek: Generations comes the sorry recognition that we have to refer to his version of the character as "Kirk Prime," since he fits into the old Trek continuity that was almost entirely erased by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film. Unlike Chris Pine’s Kirk, Shatner’s didn’t lose his father at the moment of his birth but was raised in a loving two-parent family, meaning that he has so few psychological issues to unpack that he can risk time-traveling to 2013 just to prevent Seth MacFarlane from being deemed the all-time worst Oscar host. Wait…or maybe this means this version of the character has even more issues than Pine’s. Then again maybe by traveling back through time, Kirk Prime erased the alternate history of Abrams’ franchise, throwing the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness into a third timeline—like Fringe! None of this addresses, though, why MacFarlane didn’t warn Kirk that he will be crushed by a bridge. That’s one do-over we really want to see.
NEXT: Are the Malfoys now Oscar winners? Take our quiz!
8. Which barber-free Oscar winner/Malfoy relative is which? These three guys are Claudio Miranda (Best Cinematography, Life of Pi), Paul N.J. Ottosson (Best Sound Editing, Zero Dark Thirty), and Per Hallberg (Best Sound Editing, Skyfall), but not in that order in the photo above. Try to match them up, then find out which one is which in the answers at the bottom of this post.
9. Were the technical nominees playing musical chairs during the broadcast? It sure seemed that way, huh? Seats were designated along the sides of the Dolby Theatre in which to place the technical nominees (for Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Makeup, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Film Editing) a couple minutes before the presentation of each category. That way, there wouldn’t be such a long delay as the winners march up to the stage. A good idea as a time-saving measure. Too bad this show was still 20 minutes longer than those in 2011 and 2012.
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10. Is there precedent for someone from the White House crashing Hollywood’s biggest night? GOPers were crying foul on Twitter after Michelle Obama read the winner of Best Picture via satellite from the White House. They should note, though, that this is not the first time someone from Washington has been involved. Ronald Reagan recorded an address for the 1981 Oscar ceremony, shortly after taking office. And in 2002 Laura Bush also taped a segment for the first Academy Awards after 9/11.
What else about the Oscar ceremony left you scratching your head?
Answers to the Long-Haired Winners Quiz:
Oscar Victor on Left: Paul N. J. Ottosson, Sound Editor, Zero Dark Thirty
Oscar Victor in Center: Per Hallberg, Co-Sound Editor, Skyfall
Oscar Victor on Right: Claudio Miranda, Cinematographer, Life of Pi
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credits: Kevin Winter/Getty Images (3); Robyn Beck/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images]
Oscars 2013 Special Coverage
Oscars 2013 Best Dressed: PICS!
• Anne Hathaway: Oscar’s Worst Dressed?• Seth MacFarlane’s Opening: How’d He Do?• Adele’s Performance Gets Mixed Reviews• 15 Oscar-Winning Nude Scenes• What Happened to Renee Zellweger's Face?• Oscars 2013: The Full Winners List• Why Kristen Stewart Was on Crutches
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.