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Movie Review: 'The Hunger Games'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The Hunger Games throws its hat in the pop-culture ring, hoping to join Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Lord of the Rings as the next globally embraced fantasy franchise.

It just might.

(3½ stars out of 4)

The Hunger Games is a science-fiction action drama, set in an indeterminate, post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, about Panem, the ruins of what was once North America, and the brains-and-brawn bloodsport for which the vengeful government conscripts youngsters.

Because an uprising by the twelve districts of Panem was unsuccessful over seven decades ago, the rich, ruling residents of the decadent Capitol want both to remind people in the 12 outlying districts of that outcome and punish them for their participation in it.

So, resorting to dehumanizing brutality as an intimidation tactic, they conduct an annual raffle -- known as a "reaping" -- in which one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each district are chosen to participate in the titular fight-to-the-death competition, a nationally televised death match that continues until only one contestant is left.

The survivor is to receive honors, gifts, and sufficient food and supplies for a lifetime.

In District 12, the poorest of the fenced-off, enslaved districts, sixteen-year-old, expert archer and hunter Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence), whose father died in a mine accident five years ago, takes care of her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and her sister, Prim (Willow Shields).

Each year from age 12 on, in exchange for grain and oil for her family, she has taken the extra risk of having her name placed in the reaping.

She has also been hunting for food -- illegally -- outside the boundary fences of District 12, along with her hunting companion and friend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), whose father died in the same mining accident as her father's and who urges her to run away with him rather than risk perishing in the Games.

But this year, Prim, now 12, has her name placed in the reaping as well.  And it is drawn.

So Katniss volunteers to replace her younger sister in this 74th annual edition of the Hunger Games -- a substitution that is permitted -- in which she will compete against other Tributes, as the chosen ones are called, including Career Tributes, who have been training illegally for the Games throughout their lives.

She'll also be competing with Peeta Mellark, District 12's male tribute, played by Josh Hutcherson, who has secretly loved Katniss his entire life and demonstrated with a particular act of kindness that she vividly remembers.

Prior to the Games, she is assigned a compassionate stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), a prep team to help her prepare, and a mentor, the inebriated Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson, District 12's only living victor.

If Katniss, lethal with a longbow, is ever to return to District 12, she must make strategic decisions, navigate thorny dilemmas, and demonstrate superior survival skills.

With Elizabeth Banks as villainous chaperone Effie Trinket, Donald Sutherland as fascistic President Snow, Stanley Tucci as reality TV host Caesar Flickerman, and Wes Bentley as reality-show producer and keeper-of-the-Games Seneca Crane, the supporting cast offers a comfortingly array of familiar faces, not unlike that of the Harry Potter franchise, albeit not British.

Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) stays substantially true to the source material in this generously detailed production.

And, yes, he tones down the book's graphic violence far enough to get the PG-13 rating necessary to be suitable for its target audience, yet he manages to convey the horrific without being terribly explicit.

The screenplay by director Ross, Billy Ray, and Suzanne Collins, based on the best-selling, socially pointed 2008 novel by executive producer Collins (the first in a trilogy), offers real-world parallels that provide oblique political and social commentary about the oppressiveness of totalitarian governments, the manipulativeness of the purveyors of reality television, and the growing have/have-not gap that suggests numbers like 1 and 99.

Lawrence, the Oscar nominee for best actress for 2010's Winter's Bone, hits the thespian bull's-eye once again as the "girl on fire," carrying the movie on her shoulders with a never-a-false-move star turn that presents us with a compellingly resourceful and resilient heroine who displays steely determination but emotionally vulnerability as well, and is thus easy to root for as she comes of age, with her grit and her grime and a hunting bow as her weapon of choice.

True, Ross' climactic sequence falls a bit short of the standard set by his surehanded, absorbing, and convincing opening. But an intended franchise couldn't ask for a stronger, make-them-hungry-for-more first entry than this mass-entertainment triumph.

So we'll televise 3½ stars out of 4 for the engrossing teen epic, The Hunger Games.  May the odds be ever in its favor. Yeah, like it needs any help.

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