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A blockbuster that's worthy of the hype

THE HUNGER GAMES Sci-fi/adventure. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz. Directed by Gary Ross. Cert 12A

In a week which saw every newspaper run stories about the dismal box-office performance of Disney's frankly dismal John Carter, it's a relief that with The Hunger Games we have a blockbuster with imagination, heart and no little skill on display at every level of the production.

The Hunger Games stems from the first novel of a best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins which, although marketed at the young adult demographic, sci-fi fans of all ages can grasp.

Set in a dystopian near-future United States, now called Panem, society has survived a civil war and the Capitol now rules over 12 districts of which it demands a terrible tribute annually.

This takes the form of two teenagers from each district being trained in armed combat and let loose in an arena until only one survives. The whole exercise is made mandatory viewing for the population.

The central character is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a savvy young woman who's a skilled hunter from the poor coal-mining District 12 who volunteers for the games in place of her younger sister.

Playing a role not too far removed from her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, Lawrence has a lot to carry in the film but sails through, thoroughly convincing as loathing what she's been forced into but determined to survive.

We have a young baker Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who's long harboured feelings for Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a coal miner who's her soul-mate. The love triangle aspect has drawn comparisons to the tedious Twilight series but it's a minor theme here as director Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) draws us into a story with much more scope and heft.

You can easily see influences from Battle Royale, The Running Man, Rollerball, Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game and even The Truman Show here, but The Hunger Games presents a believable world on its own terms, which is a hard trick to pull off.

Director Ross is helped greatly by the fact that the source material is so strong and by loading the cast with fine actors in supporting roles, Woody Harrelson as a former Hunger Games winner and now a drunken mentor, Stanley Tucci as an oily TV presenter and Donald Sutherland sending a chill down the spine as the sinister President Snow, he spreads the dramatic load quite ingeniously.

The violence in the books is handled quite superbly, the threat being ever-present while the gore content is kept to a minimum and the depiction of a fascistic future is gripping.

Certainly, the notion that the decadent inhabitants of the Capitol happen to look like particularly poncy New Romantics caused the odd chuckle or two but that's a minor gripe in what's a classy and compelling film, one in which Jennifer Lawrence shines as a classic action heroine.

If the producers can keep this team together then roll on the sequels. HHHHI

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE Drama. Starring Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Eve Hewson, Olwen Fouere. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Cert 15A

Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino follows up that award-winning masterpiece with a quite bizarre, confusing and ultimately frustrating film which isn't without its highlights.

Sean Penn holds centre stage as Cheyenne, a Robert Smith lookalike and former Goth superstar holed up in a Dublin mansion with his firefighter wife (Frances McDormand) and haunted by the suicide of two fans more than a decade earlier.

Shambling around Dublin shopping centres trailing a luggage bag, Cheyenne cuts a pathetic figure and the opening section of the movie meanders in a similar fashion until the director contrives an unlikely plot twist which sends the simpering Goth to America for his father's funeral.

There we discover that he's from an orthodox Jewish family and he sets off to find and kill the camp guard who tormented his father in Auschwitz. From here on in we're in the frankly ludicrous terrain of Robert Smith -- Nazi Hunter as Sorrentino delivers a typically European arthouse director's notion of the classic American road movie, with its echoes of Paris, Texas unsubtly drilled home via a cameo from Harry Dean Stanton.

Parts of This Must Be the Place look stunning, Penn is commanding and operating well outside his comfort zone and there's a great performance of the title song by David Byrne, but this film is absolutely all over the place.

The fact that it's been travelling the festival circuit for over a year in different versions suggests that there was a mighty battle for control in the editing suite, a battle which nobody won by the looks of things. HHIII

THE KID WITH A BIKE Drama. Starring Cecile de France, Thomas Doret, Jeremie Renier. Cert 12A

The latest film from Belgium's Dardenne brothers features a terrific performance from young Thomas Doret as Cyril, a troubled 12- year-old who has been abandoned in a children's home by his feckless father (Jeremie Renier) and is trying to make sense of the world.

A concerned hairdresser (Cecile de France) agrees to take him in at weekends, but Cyril's anger and frustration threatens his future at every turn. The Kid with a Bike is a quietly absorbing study in rejection and acceptance and definitely recommended. HHHII