This is a lean time of year for good films– but THE HUNGER GAMES has put an end to the famine. It isn’t perfect– but it is perfectly cast.  Jennifer Lawrence who earned considerable notice for her powerful, understated performance in 2010’s WINTER’S BONE, is bound for superstardom in this futuristic thriller directed by Gary Ross, and which just scored the 3rd biggest opening in box office history.

I had never heard of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of Suzanne Collins best-selling books, but Jennifer Lawrence with her noble cheekbones, direct gaze, and upright carriage — made me want to be her. In this futuristic “Capitol” of North America,  Katniss is a natural warrior– she is one of 24 tributes from 12 districts who have been chosen as sacrifices to fight to the death before a televised audience. It’s reality TV pushed to the limit; not only entertainment, these “games” are also a form of initimidation to keep the starving rabble in check, payback for a long ago, failed rebellion. I don’t know what’s coming, but Katniss will surely lead the way.

She’s a woman of few words, looks best unmade up, and can shoot a bow and arrow straight through the heart. Her character and superior skills are immediately understood by everyone in the room. How refreshing to see a young woman portrayed in this way, and how annoying that it’s still enough of a rarity for me to point out.

Katniss and her district’s male tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)  flee through the woods; it’s everyone for him or herself, some forming alliances, some turning on each other immediately, while the “producers” of the games watch from the control room and tweak the action and the plot lines for maximum viewer titillation. I suffered at first from the deliberately dizzying camera work, and action scenes so frenetic we can’t exactly see who’s doing what to whom, but then, we are also spared an excess of blood and gore. The emotional arc and tension are clear and compelling though, especially as Katniss grows closer to some of the players, and frantically runs for her life.

The rest of the cast includes Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, a dissolute former HUNGER GAMES winner who’s brought in to “mentor” Katniss and Peeta, and soon finds his cynicism melting before her unflinching spirit. Equally engaging and enamored is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ coach and guide. A white-maned Donald Sutherland plays President Snow who looks down from on high– with a cool eye on Katniss.

Finally, there’s a special place in my heart for Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, THE HUNGER GAMES TV Host whose noxious grin while goading the contestants before a live audience makes Ryan Seacrest look sincere. In fact, this aspect of the film is one of its biggest selling points– the way it skewers the fakery and coarseness of reality television, and its appeal to our most bloodthirsty instincts. The overfed, viewing masses watch the games on big screens in public places; they are gaily painted, pouffed, and powdered like some decadent aristocracy from the underside of the rabbit hole. This is our looking glass– and it ain’t pretty.

I can hardly wait for part 2.