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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Political intrigue corruption scandal sex — it’s all here in this Americanized adaptation of the much acclaimed 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries. With the story shifting from London to Washington D.C. the focus is now on a married congressman who is chairman of an important committee overseeing defense spending. He is a rising star in his party until his beautiful young assistant with whom he has been carrying on a clandestine affair is suddenly found dead. Things get complicated when his old friend Washington Globe investigative reporter Cal McAffrey is assigned to track down the story and try to uncover the identity of the killer. With cub blogger Della Frye forced on him as a partner the two journalists step into a government coverup that is much bigger than anyone could have imagined.
WHO’S IN IT?
Four days before production kicked off Brad Pitt dropped and Russell Crowe replaced him in the key reporter's role. It’s hard to imagine Pitt in this part since Russell Crowe disheveled-looking with long hair and about 30 pounds overweight owns it in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind. As his blog-savvy young partner Rachel McAdams firmly captures the essence of a determined but inexperienced young journalist in over her head. A sharp-tongued and feisty Helen Mirren is ideal as the newspaper boss more concerned with profits than integrity as she spouts out lines like “I don’t give a s--t about the rest of the story. We are going to press!” Ben Affleck also has his best screen outing in a while as the ambitious congressman Stephen Collins who gets caught with his pants down. A bevy of fine supporting turns include Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ unhappy wife; Jeff Daniels oily and smarmy as a conservative politician who knows more than he lets on and especially Jason Bateman stealing scenes as a slimy PR guy who provides some key details.
Not only does State of Play work well as a political thriller its pointed take on the failing state of newspapers and lax journalistic standards could not be more timely. Stunning widescreen cinematography and lavish sets add to the authenticity of a movie that in its best moments can be compared favorably with similar '70s classics like All the President's Men.
As the dense plot unfolds it gets a bit confusing trying to keep all the players straight particularly towards the end where you might need "State of Play for Dummies" just to follow it all.
A nail-biter beautifully staged by director Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland) where Crowe plays a cat-and-mouse game in an underground garage with a mysterious armed suspect he has just confronted.
HOW MANY WRITERS DOES IT TAKE TO SCREW IN A LIGHT BULB?
Four major ones in this case. Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) Tony Gilroy (Duplicity Michael Clayton) Billy Ray (Breach) and an uncredited Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon The Queen) are the superstar team of scribes who each took a crack at whittling down a six-hour miniseries into a two-hour flick.
Look for Bateman and the art directors responsible for the massive newspaper office to turn up on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.
Crystal Lake. Dumb kids in the woods. Sex drugs booze. A hulking maniac in a hockey mask wielding a machete. Yeah that about sums it up.
Are you kidding? The new Jason Derek Mears probably fares best among the actors because he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue. Everyone else unfortunate enough to stumble in front of the camera – Jared Padalecki Amanda Righetti Danielle Panabaker Travis Van Winkle – is basically fodder for the slaughter. Some of them get naked. Most of them get dead. Some die more gorily than others. No one dies quickly enough. Having previously (and woefully) directed the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Marcus Nispel does his best – and worst – to resurrect yet another popular horror franchise from the past. He also adds absolutely nothing new to the formula. Quite frankly anyone could’ve directed this film. Judging by the results anyone did. This is the 12th Friday the 13th film for those keeping score at home and with any luck it’ll be the last. Of course it won’t be. But we can always hope.