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.
First the good news for the Backstreet Boys: When it comes to the number of albums they can sell in a week, BSB is, by far, tops.
The pop idols sold 5 million units of their latest album, "Black & Blue," worldwide the first week out, Reuters reports -- a new record. But it wasn't as good of news for the boy band here in the States.
Released Nov. 21, "Black & Blue" sold 1.6 million copies in the United States in its debut week, an impressive feat but placing them third on the list of the largest first-week openings behind rival 'N Sync's "No Strings Attached" (2.4 million) and Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" (1.8 million).
It’s not the first time an album by the boy band has reached platinum status (1 million copies sold) in the first week of release. "Millennium," released in May 1999, debuted with a then-record of 1.1 million units sold in one week and has since gone on to sell more than 30 million units globally. BSB is the only band in history to have the back to back 1 million distinction.
To date, "Black & Blue" has gone multi-platinum in five countries; platinum in 16 countries and gold (500,000 units sold) in 10 countries.
Backstreet's back, all right.
BILLBOARD NOMINATIONS: Hold on music fans, Santana isn’t done taking home a heap of awards just yet.
The organizers of the Billboard Music Awards announced their nominations for this year's event, and multi-Grammy winner Santana led the pack, again, with six nominations -- including Artist of the Year and Hot 100 Single of the Year.
Singer Faith Hill nabbed five nods, including Female Artist of the Year and Country Artist of the Year. Also nominated were some usual suspects in the pop, hip-hop and rock categories: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ‘N Sync, Eminem, Joe and Metallica with three nominations each. Destiny's Child, Pink, DMX, Donell Jones, Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw and Creed received two nods each.
The awards will be handed out Dec. 5 at Las Vegas’ MGM hotel and will air at 8 p.m. on Fox.
LOS LOBOS MURDER CASE SOLVED: Cesar Rosas finally has closure. The singer/guitarist of Los Lobos was informed late Monday night that the body his brother-in-law led police to was in fact the remains of the musician’s wife.
Sandra Rosas disappeared from her L.A. area home in October 1999. The identification, based on dental records, came 10 days after the victim’s half brother, Gabriel Gomez, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for her kidnapping and murder, Reuters reports. Gomez first denied killing his half sister, but then led sheriff’s to Rosas’ remains after he was convicted of the crime on Oct. 31.
MONKEES TOURING ... AGAIN: Hey, hey they’re going on tour, again. Three original members of the TV pop group "The Monkees" will reunite again next year for their first tour in four years, Reuters reports.
Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork will kick off their 15-city "Monkee Mania Returns 2001" tour in March.
All four original members, including Mike Nesmith, recorded a new album in 1996 and even toured for a short time before Nesmith dropped out, leaving the others to finish the North American tour that year.
CLEANING OUT THE CLOSET: Decked out in black leather, flamboyant British pop singer Elton John arrived to a celebratory breakfast today to kick off a fundraiser expected to raise $570,000 by selling more than 15,000 of the singer’s most outlandish outfits.
The proceeds will go to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The fundraiser, "Out of the Closet III," marked the third time his wild stage clothes were sold to raise money. Items on sale range from cotton shirts for $56 to a grand piano going for about $71,000