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.
Veteran actresses Betty White and Rue McClanahan have paid tribute to their Golden Girls co-star Bea Arthur, who died on Saturday.
The actress passed away peacefully in her sleep at her Los Angeles home after losing her battle with cancer at age 86, according to personal assistant Dan Watt.
Arthur, who starred on the hit show from 1985 until 1992, won an Emmy Award for her role as Dorothy Zbornak in the sitcom, which chronicled the lives of three retirees in Miami.
And co-stars White and McClanahan fondly recall the seven happy years they spent with Arthur on the series.
McClanahan tells Entertainment Tonight, "(Thirty-seven) years ago she showed me how to be very brave in playing comedy. I'll miss that courage. And I'll miss that voice."
White adds, "I knew it would hurt, I just didn't know it would hurt this much. I'm so happy that she received her Lifetime Achievement Award while she was still with us, so she could appreciate that.
"Bea was such an important part of a very happy time in my life and I have dearly loved her for a very long time. How lucky I was to know her."
Born in 1922, Arthur grew up in New York and earned a degree as a medical laboratory technician, before enrolling in a drama course at the New School of Social Research in the city.
She shot to fame in her twenties with numerous stage roles and won critical acclaim for her performance in a 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.
Arthur also landed a Tony Award for her turn as Vera Charles in 1966 musical Mame -- and composer Jerry Herman was taken aback by her natural acting ability and comic timing.
He says, "There was no one else like Bea. She would make us laugh during Mame rehearsals with a look or with a word. She didn't need dialogue. I don't know if I can say that about any other person I ever worked with."
The actress moved on to television in her fifties and won the starring role in 1970s show Maude, for which she also won a coveted Emmy Award, before landing her part in The Golden Girls.
Arthur married twice -- first to producer and director Robert Alan Aurthur and then to director Gene Saks from 1950 to 1978. The couple adopted two sons.
She is survived by a sister, her children Matthew and Daniel and two granddaughters.
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