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.
It’s hard to do something unique with an exorcism movie. There’s definitely a feeling within the film buff community that the horror sub-genre has not only seen better days but is in fact worn thin. After all how many times can one watch a holy man work his magic on a possessed soul? The Exorcist was a looong time ago and it takes a lot more than spinning heads devilish make-up and erratic body movements to give contemporary audiences the heebie-jeebies. Nevertheless Warner Bros. seemed to believe that moviegoers would fancy another take on the religious practice in Mikael Hafstrom’s The Rite but the studio was wrong.
Sure the film features a batty performance from Sir Anthony Hopkins but its story is about as standard and predictable as can be. Inspired by true events the supernatural thriller follows a seminary student (played by the uninspired Colin O’Donoghue) who is sent to study exorcism at the Vatican in spite of his skepticism about the controversial practice and his own waning faith. But after witnessing the terrifying phenomenon first hand he begins to questions everything he believes.
As stated Hafstrom offers nothing original in his film. There’s a bit of tension between Hopkins’ Father Lucas and O’Donoghue’s Michael Kovak but only as much as the Oscar-winning thespian will allow. He chews the scenery through most of the movie and believe it or not that’s the most interesting part of the picture. The rest is all about Kovak’s backstory (which somehow ties into the convoluted plot) and a slow-burn build-up to a reveal that you can see a mile away. In between you’ll find all the trappings of an exorcist movie: haunting visions a girl in dire need of biblical intervention a dark and moody atmosphere and gothic but beautiful production design.
What you won’t find anywhere in this release is worthwhile bonus content. I’m all about production; the ideal Blu-ray (for me at least) would always contain an in-depth making-of featurette. There’s just no reason why in this day and age studios can’t have a team on the set of any picture documenting the shoot. Behind the scenes footage and interviews offer insight into creative decisions and story itself which often proves more informative and interesting than the feature. The Rite contains nothing of the sort and instead uses its disc space to boast an alternate ending a few cut scenes and a profile of Father Gary Thomas whose life story inspired the film and the novel from which it’s based (“The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist” by Matt Baglio). In addition you can take a virtual tour of the actual Exorcism Academy (I sense a CW show in the making!) but after wasting two hours on the feature I can’t promise you’ll want to.
The supernatural thriller The Rite is a different kind of literary adaptation a film not “based on” or even “inspired by” a written work but rather “suggested by” one. The degree to which this fictional film adheres factually to its source material Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist is anybody’s guess. Fans of The Exorcist might argue that it’s more strongly “suggested by” William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic than anything else.
Erstwhile unknown Colin O’Donoghue in his first feature role plays Michael a seminary student sent to Rome to learn the intricacies of demonic possession. A pronounced skeptic who isn’t even sure he believes in god much less the Catholic doctrine of exorcism Michael is inclined toward the more humanistic view of the “possessed” as simply disturbed or schizophrenic individuals. What they really need he insists is not a priest but a good psychiatrist. (That belief certainly won't endear him to the Church of Scientology.)
To rid him of such malignant pragmatism Michael’s headmaster (Ciaran Hinds) ships him off to serve an apprenticeship under Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) a Welsh Jesuit (shorthand for “eccentric”) and practicing exorcist. Having been around the theological block a few times Lucas reacts to Michael’s unbelief with wry nonchalance (a Hopkins specialty and the film’s most appealing trait); he knows that Satan’s arguments will prove far more convincing than any he might offer.
And Satan gets to work forthwith first using a pregnant Italian girl as his vessel then incorporating other representatives of the animal kingdom tormenting Michael with horned frogs and red-eyed demon mules. At first exhibiting admirable restraint director Mikael Hafstrom eventually employs just about every weapon in his terror arsenal bombarding Michael with harrowing visions and flashbacks (he grew up in a funeral home with an undertaker father played by Rutger Hauer who had a habit of bringing his work home with him) which offer ample opportunities for cheap scares. His trump card of course is Hopkins whose character eventually becomes possessed himself thus allowing The Rite to fulfill the Lucas/Lucifer conceit we all knew was coming.
The Rite varies wildly in tone with Hafstrom seemingly unable to decide if his film is to be a moody serious-minded psychological thriller or some campy outlandish horror-comedy. By the time Father Lucas becomes possessed and the reenactment of the first great celestial battle begins the film gives itself wholly over to the latter. As channeled by Hopkins the devil comes off as a less eloquent more vulgar version of Hannibal Lecter taunting Michael with naughty words and voraciously devouring scenery. The Dark Lord as a dirty old man is something of a novel concept I suppose. Scary? Maybe a little. Creepy? Oh hell yes.
The movie focuses on a disillusioned young priest, played by Colin O'Donoghue, who finds his true calling after training to perform exorcisms. The film is based on the life of Father Gary Thomas, whose story was told in Matt Baglio's book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.
Thomas, who works at a parish in Saratoga, California, spent a week in June (10) on the set of the movie in Budapest, Hungary, acting as an adviser to director Mikael Hafstrom.
He admits he's pleased with the finished film and hopes audiences will find the story inspiring, rather than frightening.
Thomas tells Mercurynews.com, "There's nothing in the movie I'm ashamed of. You walk out of there with a sense of hope... I just want to do what I can to inform. I'm not offended if someone doesn't believe it. What I've described, I've seen."