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.
Matt Reeves' magnificent Let Me In is an Americanized adaptation of Let the Right One In a Swedish horror film which itself is based on an acclaimed novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (also Swedish). As such its setting has been moved from frigid Scandinavia to the more familiar but no less frigid Los Alamos New Mexico a town depicted as so bleak and uninviting as to provoke a lawsuit from the state’s tourism commission. Its atmosphere is particularly inhospitable to timid loners like 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a spindly late-bloomer who suffers regular humiliations at school courtesy of a trio of pubescent sadists.
Owen’s home life isn’t much better: Dad’s gone for good pending a divorce from mom who’s an aspiring wino and something of a religious nut. He seeks refuge nightly in the solitary confines of his apartment complex courtyard where he meets and befriends Abby (Chloe Moretz) a new neighbor and apparent kindred spirit whose quirks include a penchant for walking barefoot through the snow. That along with her professed inability to recall her exact age provides Owen with the first clues that his new friend may not be entirely normal.
She is in fact a vampire. And like any vampire Abby requires blood for sustenance. But since the sight of a little girl chomping on the necks of locals is certain to raise eyebrows at Child Protective Services she entrusts the duty of procuring nourishment to her haggard elder companion (Richard Jenkins). First believed to be Abby’s father but later revealed as otherwise he (his name is never stated) trots out wearily on occasion to find a fresh young body to drain of its blood. His skills appear to be slipping in his old age (like Owen he is a mere mortal) and his sloppiness soon attracts the attention of a grizzled local cop (Elias Koteas) who has no idea how far in over his head he is. (The film is set in 1983 when the vampire-detection tools available to law enforcement officials were woefully inadequate.)
Meanwhile Abby and Owen’s relationship blossoms and notwithstanding the inevitable complications that arise in every human-vampire relationship they develop a profound and sweetly innocent bond. Still lurking in the back of our minds is the knowledge that Abby at her core is a remorseless bloodsucker and one significantly older than her pre-teen visage would have us believe. Is her affection for Owen sincere or is she merely grooming him to assume the role of her caretaker once her current one exceeds his usefulness?
There’s a great deal of manipulation at work in Let Me In both on the part of Abby and director Reeves who alternates between tugging on our heart-strings and butchering them. Abby is one of the truly great horror villains — so great in fact that I suspect many audience members won’t view her as one even as her list of mutilated victims grows. Reeves does well to preserve an element of ambiguity resisting the urge to proffer a Usual Suspects-esque denouement inviting us instead to connect the story’s dots ourselves. The film’s unique and affecting juxtaposition of tenderness and savagery combined with a slew of stellar performances makes for an experience unlike any other in recent horror-movie memory one whose effects will linger long after the closing credits have rolled.
After Anne Heche's heartfelt interview with Barbara Walters on ABC's 20/20 Wednesday night, where she talked about her own mental illness due to years of sexual abuse by her father, it was revealed by Walters that Heche is indeed 3 months pregnant. She and the baby's father, Coleman Laffoon, were married Saturday.
On the other side of town, Ellen DeGeneres is keeping tight-lipped about her ex-girlfriend's recent news. Instead, DeGeneres is concentrating on promoting her new CBS sitcom The Ellen Show, as well as hosting the upcoming Emmy Awards, Sept. 16. "My life is back on track now and I'm really grateful and thrilled to be working again. I've got so much going on right now that I don't need to be distracted. I'm just working on me," DeGeneres told reporters during a press conference yesterday.
Super model Cindy Crawford has given birth to her second child with husband Rande Gerber, a girl, Kaya Jordan Gerber. The baby was born Monday in Los Angeles and weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces. The couple already has a son, Presley Walker Gerber, 2.
Country singer Trace Adkins and his wife, Rhonda, had their second daughter, Brianna Rhea Adkins, Tuesday. The couple has another daughter and Adkins has two teen-age daughters from a previous marriage.
The Kennedy Center announced Wednesday the recipients to their prestigious 23rd annual Kennedy Center Honors, including actors Julie Andrews, 65 and Jack Nicholson, 64; opera star Luciano Pavarotti, 65; composer and music producer Quincy Jones, 68; and concert pianist Van Cliburn, 67. The gala event will take place on Dec. 2.
Rapper mogul Sean Combs has had a series of incidents with the court system. Most recently Combs was ordered to pay $350 for pleading guilty to clear-cutting environmentally protected plants around his East Hampton estate, which he also had to restore. As well, he is being threatened with arrest for failing to appear in New York City's family court, where he is being sued for child support by Kim Porter, mother of Combs' three-year-old son. And finally, he was cleared of charges in Miami of passing several cars in a motor scooter last April 14; the case was dismissed.
A federal grand jury indicted country singer LeAnn Rimes' former bodyguard and personal trainer, Robert Lavetta Iadevaia Jr. for extortion. He allegedly threatened to sell personal information and photos of Rimes to the tabloids if he wasn't paid off. Lavetta has pleaded innocent.
Aaliyah's family will make their first public statement about the tragic death of the R&B singer at the MTV Video Music Awards on Thursday night at New York's Lincoln Center. Aaliyah's brother, Rashad Haughton, is scheduled to make the address following a tribute to his sister. As well, Michael Jackson is reportedly going to perform at the show with a surprise guest. The show will air on MTV at 8 p.m. ET.
Carlos Santana and Spanish recording artist Hevia will perform at the 2nd Annual Latin Grammy Awards, joining Christina Aguilera, Marc Anthony, Nelly Furtado and many others. The show airs on CBS Sept. 11 at 9 p.m. ET.
VH1 and VH1.com announced the return of My VH1 Music Awards, the first only fully interactive music awards show. The first show aired in November 2000; music fans were able to design the show from start-to-finish by logging onto VH1.com to suggest and vote for categories, nominees, winners and more. The second show will air on VH1 Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. ET from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
25,000 specially-made Harry Potter coins were sold out in under five hours in London. Fans of the novels revolving around a teenage wizard and his adventures scrambled to get a hold of the collector's coin, which on one side features Harry casting a spell and on the other the image of the British monarch, which was apporved by Queen Elizabeth herself. The coins are official legal tender on the Isle of Man only.
The world's longest-running musical, The Fantasticks, will finally shut down production Jan. 6, 2002, due to dwindling grosses and the rising cost of production. The show, a classic boy-meets-girl love story with some memorable tunes including "Try to Remember," had been playing the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a theater in Greenwich Village, since May 3, 1960.
Anchorwoman Paula Zahn, who was recently fired from Fox News Channel for breach of contract, landed a job anchoring a new morning broadcast on CNN. According to Fox News, Zahn, whose contract with them was to last through February 2002, was let go when it was discovered her agent, Richard Leibner, had been talking with CNN.