Monday, April 16, 2012

Genre Movie Box Office Explosion! The Cabin in the Woods, Lockout, and The Raid: Redemption!

Regular readers know that I don't normally have a lot of chances to hit up the Cineplex (or what passes for one) these days. It's rare that free time, free cash, and a slate of movies I'd actually want to see, manage to all align at the same time.

So imagine my surprise when I found I had a free weekend, after payday, and there were several movies playing that seemed to be up my alley.*

("Up My Alley with Brent Stewart" has already been considered, and rejected, as a new name for the blog.)

It has been a long while since I was able to wake up and head out to the movies and just spend the day there, and I don't think I realized just how much I missed it. It was reinvigorating. Heading to an 11:30 matinee on a Sunday morning is the Brent Stewart equivalent of going to church. Even if the movie about to unfurl was only an adequate sci-fi actioner, the very act of sitting in the quiet theater, my vision engulfed by the silver screen as the lights go down, is something of a religious experience for me. It's important. I don't even care what I see, I just like going.

So this weekend, I went. And here is what I saw.

The Cabin in the Woods

You may call my geek credentials into question when I tell you that I am not really a follower of the Whedonverse. Why? Did I run into too many Browncoats or TanShirts or Floppyhats or whatever the hell they call themselves at DragonCon?

I have never watched the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" television series, or "Firefly", or "Dollhouse". I don't have anything against them, I could just never muster the interest. I did see Serenity, and didn't care for it, but I can't really blame the movie for that, when I didn't watch the television show that spawned it. Seems like kicking a man when he's down.

So the sum total of my exposure to nerd renaissance man Joss Whedon is "Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog" (it was cute but forgettable), his run on Astonishing X-Men (really enjoyed the first storyline, thought it really lost its way after that) and his screenplay for Alien:Resurrection (which was probably the best thing about that movie.)

The common thread that these all share, and indeed that they share with The Cabin in the Woods, (and it is the element that I assume makes them "Whedonesque") is the dialogue: it's too cute by half. I'm assuming that all of his works probably share this trait, and it's not the end of the world, but it can be grating.

That being said, I still really enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods, a movie I can't really tell you very much about without, uh, telling you what it's really about. It is a horror movie in the well-worn "cabin" genre (ala Evil Dead 1 & 2, The Friday the 13th movies, Cabin Fever, etc.), however it is also a movie ABOUT horror movies, and their archetypal characters and conventions.

The opening scene is incongruous to most horror films, making one wonder if perhaps they've walked into the wrong movie. But soon enough the opening credits roll, and as time passes, the seemingly innocuous references to "Stockholm going down" begin to make sense. TCitW is a movie, but it is also a puzzle, and it reveals itself, and its cleverness, at the perfect pace.

You will get the things you expect from a horror movie: blood and boobs. But you will also get a lot more. TCitW knows how to reward the audience by giving it what it expects, while commenting upon and tweaking the conventions at the same time.

Again, I hesitate to discuss much of it, because the joy is in letting the movie unwrap itself. Suffice to say that while the first two reels are so clever that they border on cloying (a Whedon trademark, I guess?) the third reel is so delightfully unhinged, I would call it inspired.

My nitpicks are small: I would have actually liked the "Cabin in the Woods" aspect of the movie to have lasted longer. Once the kids get there, things unravel pretty quickly, so we don't have much time to allow that dread to build, which is a hallmark of the genre.

Also, while it is a horror movie, it's never actually really scary. That being said, I almost never find horror movies scary anymore, so I can't really fault this picture either.

At the end of the day I liked the picture quite a bit. I will not rush to join the chorus heralding it as genius, but I do think it's a smart, fun little movie, and once it really breaks free from its moorings and allows all hell to break loose (almost literally), I found myself belly-laughing. I had a great time and would definitely recommend it to genre fans.


When I saw the trailer for Lockout, I turned to the wife and said "It's Escape From New York in space." She said something along the lines of "that doesn't mean anything to me" or "I don't know what you're talking about", but the point is this: I was sold, instantly.

Personally, you don't get much more exciting than a movie which is, in essence, "What if John Carpenter made Space Jail"?

And yet, the movie I saw was not the movie I wanted to see.

Set in what seemed to be the near future, Lockout is about an America were our worst criminals are placed in cryogenic storage in an orbital Super Max prison space station. The President's daughter goes to visit (to expose the secret testing that is being done on the inmates) and, of course, is taken hostage when things go awry in a series of events so unbelievable, well, you, uh, won't believe them.

Since a full-scale military assault won't work, a single ex-CIA agent is sent in to extract her. That agent, Snow, himself now a prisoner for a crime he did not commit offered a chance at redemption by rescuing the girl, is played by Guy Pearce.

Pearce does his best Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, who himself was doing his best Clint Eastwood. It's third (or fourth or fifth) generation watered down tough guy shtick. To be fair, the dialogue is better, and funnier, than you might expect, and Pearce is unexpectedly charismatic in the tough guy role. Too bad he doesn't have much to work with.

For starters, this is a PG-13 movie, so it is pretty tame. When you go into an exploitation actioner like this, you expect some blood and guts. Lockout doesn't deliver on that front. And I'm afraid that the movie uses up most of its mojo on the opening action sequence, generating so much manic energy that the rest of the movie is a relative downer in comparison. To be frank, most of the "ZIP!" is used up before Snow even gets to the prison.

There are generic prison inmate bad guys led by generic villains with generic eccentric bad guy twists. There is absolutely nothing here that you won't expect, which is a shame, because THIS IS SPACE JAIL DAMN IT, so something awesome SHOULD have happened.

Even Peter Stormare, perpetual Bringer of Weirdness, can't do much to make the movie more interesting than your typical direct-to-dvd sci-fi action fare. Which is a shame, because aside from the generic script and plot, the production looks pretty good. While I'm assuming that it was made on a shoestring, it looks like a well-budgeted flick. Clearly the producers and director did the best they could with what they had, and the result was a believable-looking movie, even if it wasn't believably written.

Pearce does the best he can, and it would be interesting to see him cast in more action roles like this. Maggie Grace (as the damsel in distress) has no discernible charisma. This movie isn't eye-rollingly dumb, it's just kind of boring. "Eye-rollingly dumb" may have been an improvement, as it would have at least implied that the movie was fun. As it is, Lockout fails to live up to its genre-trash roots, and was a pretty big disappointment for me, even with the admittedly lowered bar.

The Raid: Redemption

I invoke the name "John Carpenter"so often on this site, he should get a kickback on ad revenue(congrats John, you get negative 30 cents!)

But there can be no denying the JC influence on much of the current wave of indie cinema these days; and in regard to The Raid: Dedemption, we are definitely talking about Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13.

However, whereas Assault was itself a riff on Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, all of which concerned a band of survivors trying to keep cowboys/zombies/gang-members out of their stronghold, The Raid: Redemption is about a group of  tough SWAT-team style cops trying to infiltrate a crime infested tenement.

We are told by squad leader Sergeant Jaka that the building they are about to raid is a nigh impenetrable fortress of crime; a 30 story apartment complex filled with blood-thirsty murderers lurking behind every door. Somehow, 20 specially trained cops are supposed to infiltrate the complex and make their way to the ringleader, Tama.

Tama is a charismatic big boss villain, and he is flanked by his seconds, Andi (the brains) and Mad Dog (the muscle). The Raid is a story of crosses, double-crosses, and familial bonds.

But again, what it really is, is the story of people getting the living shit kicked, punched, stabbed and shot out of them for about 105 minutes.

"Crazy-assed mayhem" would be a good way to explain it. This isn't some lame wire-fu, CGI crap. This is the best martial arts movie to hit the states since Ong Bak, and one of the best pure action movies since, well, ever.

But if it was just an hour and 45 minutes of ass-kicking, even that might get tired. The Raid: Redemption excels because it is a fundamentally sound movie beneath the relentless onslaught of fists, knives and bullets.

Awais is not just an amazing martial artist; he manages to bring charisma, courage and conviction to his character Rama, who has a personal stake in this raid. The supporting characters are fairly well drawn and interesting. And to once again invoke Saint Carpenter, the movie is shot with a veneer of 70's B movie grime, and the most obvious tip of the hat comes in the form of the score, which perfectly nails the synth-driven dread of JC's best works, while updating them for a modern audience.

And dread is the operative emotion. While this is unquestionably an action movie, there is a horror element to the dread that builds as our heroes find themselves cut off behind enemy lines, literally surrounded on all sides by vicious, murderous thugs.

An Indonesian martial arts movie directed by a Welsh filmmaker, playing on screens in the US right now. You don't get a lot of chances to see well-made movies that kick this much ass that often, so if you get a chance, and you are a fan of the genre, this one gets my unreserved recommendation.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog continues to have one of the most interesting directorial careers in motion picture history. I've said for many years (at least once Ingmar Bergman passed) that he may be our greatest living director, and I still think that the case could be made. Of course, it may have be settled Royal Rumble style, in a steel cage match against Scorsese, Godard, Spielberg, Miyazaki and Woody Allen (and if it was a literal cage match, I'd have to like Werner's odds against that particular group); but I don't think anyone could argue that he at least doesn't deserve to be in the mix, right?

Consider his career, and how crazy, long, and interesting it has been: Getting his start with the German New Wave, during which time he made several indisputable masterpieces (Aguirre The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Woyzeck etc.), Herzog has since then drifted between documentaries (too many to name, but most notably the engrossing Grizzly Man and the Oscar nominated Encounters at the End of the World), personal passion projects (Invincible), and the occasional mainstream Hollywood oddity (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I'm looking at you.)

With the exception of Bad LieutenantPoCNO, any director that made any ONE of those pictures above would have to be recognized as a movie genius of some sort. But Herzog made all of them, and many others as well, more than 50 all told.

He also made Even Dwarves Started Small, and appeared as himself in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Werner Herzog eats his shoe...which further proves my point: Herzog has mad skills AND visionary insanity.

In recent years he has seemingly become something of a superhero; he nonchalantly blew off being shot by a sniper with an air rifle during an interview ("It is not a significant bullet."), pulled Joaquin Phoenix out of an overturned car, and even did a voice on "The Simpsons". He is intrigue personified!

But it is his work in the world of documentaries in which he has perhaps found his strongest voice, as he continues to explore the farthest reaches of the world and human endeavor. Each of his docs has a palpable sense of curiosity; you can practically feel Herzog's desire to LEARN about people (and nature) and why they do the things that they do.

Into the Abyss is specifically about Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two men serving time due to their involvement  in a triple homicide. Jason is serving a life sentence; Mike is sentenced to be executed. Each blames the other.

It is also the story of two broken men and the people that they affected with their crime, from their own families (Burkett's father is also serving a long sentence for another, unrelated crime) to the families of their victims, and how they all relate to one another.

But it is also the story of the death penalty itself, and Herzog makes no efforts to appear neutral on the subject; confronting soon-to-be executed murderer Perry, Herzog explicitly states that he believes that killing people for any reason is wrong.

However, while he makes his feelings on the subject clear, Into the Abyss does not become a one-sided, Michael Moore style piece of propaganda. Through interviews with death row staffers, the convicts themselves, their families, and families of the victims, a well-rounded picture is presented of how the death penalty affects all involved in different ways.

The picture is not argumentative or given to finger-pointing; it simply collects the interviews and lets them play out, allowing us to draw our own conclusions on the subject. The film is not political in nature, and it is telling that Herzog has minimized his own involvement in the story. In most of his docs, he plays an onscreen role. In Into the Abyss, he is simply the invisible interviewer, a voice heard off-camera, questioning his subjects.

The interviews are gripping, the stories compelling. They are given long, uncut takes in which to tell their tales, and whatever your personal stance on the issue is, you can't help but feel sympathy for all involved.

Into the Abyss is too brief to make a full case for or against the death penalty, the subject is too large to be succinctly captured in one short documentary. But while Into the Abyss may lack the epic scope of Herzog's best work, it is still a well made and compelling documentary on an important subject.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Random Bits: Attack the Block, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Some random thoughts on bits and pieces of things I saw over the last week or two. Please enjoy, per usual.

Attack the Block -

Like City of God's dumb little brother, with less character development and social drama and more fuzzy gorilla aliens, Attack the Block is yet another throwback to the 1980's (what is it with the 80's genre revival lately? Drive, House of the Devil...what's next?) when genre pictures like this littered the racks of your local Video Vault.

AtB is a fast and funny Brit import dealing with an inner-city tenement block that is unexpectedly besieged by gorilla-sized aliens with glowing teeth. The irony of the situation is that it's up to the same gang of juvenile delinquents that normally terrorize the local citizens to defend their home turf against alien invaders.

However, what was interesting to me was not the alien invasion itself, but rather the relationships between the "heroes". I liked listening to their slang and learning about their life, as they rolled innocent ladies in the streets and then had to report back to their own homes where their unaware parents scold them for staying out too late. I liked learning about their perverse sense of honor. I simply liked the characters. Take away the toothy aliens, and you'd still have an interesting and amusing picture about the lives of a bunch of punk kids making their way in the projects.

As for the aliens themselves, they are ratty, natty, gleefully lo-fi creations, like galloping gorillas with black light chompers.

AtB isn't a great motion picture, and may not even be an all-time classic for the genre, but I do think it is an enjoyable and interesting take on the monster picture. It would pair up nicely with a John Carpenter movie, or any of the number of creature features of the 80's (Critters, Ghoulies, Bad Taste, you get the idea.) I probably won't be adding it to my permanent collection, but I would watch it again.

Martha Marcy May Marlene -

Simply put, MMMM is the story of a young woman who escapes from a cult on a farm in upstate New York. What makes the picture interesting is the choice that was made in how that story was told.

In the hands of Hollywood, the impulse would likely be to make the picture about the escape itself; it would no doubt be a white-knuckled thriller in which Martha faces fiendish cult members at every turn as she makes a daring escape.

However, in the hands of director Sean Durkin, the escape itself is one of the least interesting aspects of the movie. In fact, it happens in the opening scene, and amounts to little more than Martha heading out in the early morning hours, escaping from the woods into a nearby town where she calls her estranged sister to pick her up.

MMMM is not about escaping a cult. It's about how Martha finds herself mentally unable to escape even after she has been physically delivered from their clutches.

Taking cues from Rosemary's Baby, MMMM uses Martha's paranoia as a means of exploring "is this really happening?" sort of scenarios. Is the cult coming after her, or is she just jumping at shadows? The movie doesn't offer a definitive answer, which no doubt will frustrate some, but ultimately I found it a rewarding experience.

John Hawkes is on a roll since his Oscar nominated turn in  Winter's Bone, and is in particularly creaky, creepy, charismatic form here as Patrick, the leader of the family cult. But Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation as the deeply disturbed title character, alternately charming, fragile,and frightening.

Also she gets naked a lot.

I particularly liked the manner in which the movie showed the quiet way that a cult gradually strips a person of their personality and blends them into the herd. The portrayal here is realistic and believable, and not an obvious, mustache-twirling cartoon of evil, and the movie is better for it. Another one that I really enjoyed, but that I probably wouldn't buy...but you know, I liked it, and again, lots of nude scenes, so...if I find it on sale, I might.

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

First of all, let's just lament the fact that Rose McGowan, who is really hot and normally looks like this

or this

or even sometimes like this


got saddled with this

for Conan the Barbarian 2011. That is just wrong.

Secondly, I know Conan the Barbarian. Conan the Barbarian is a friend of mine. And I must tell you, Conan the Barbarian 2011, you are no Conan the Barbarian.

And why is that? Is it the absence of Arnold? No, not really. While Arnold will always be the cinematic Conan for most, I am open to the idea of someone else stepping into the role. There is a large, warm, gushy place in my heart for the original Conan the Barbarian picture; Conan The, not as much.

However, having read many of the myriad novels and comics starring Robert E. Howard's Hyborian hero, I am used to different depictions of the character.

That being said, while Jason Momoa (most popular for Game of Thrones, I'd suppose) definitely has the physique for the role (and some may even argue that his relative litheness and agility make him an even more suitable fit for the role than Arnold was) he lacks a great deal of the charisma that made Arnold's Conan such a charming rogue. He is fierce and brooding, and he inhabits the physicality of the role, but he really doesn't have much else to work with.

However, what he does possess is razor sharp butt cheeks. I swear. There is a scene where Conan is lounging post-copulation, and when he turns over, his butt flexes in such a way that his muscles become like butt-blades. It is almost disturbing. I actually paused and rewound so I could see it again, then I actually paused and rewound again, then called the wife into the room so she could see it too. It's really something. If I had screen-cap capabilities, you can bet you'd be staring at his sharpened buttocks this very instant.

But pointy butts aside, there isn't much to recommend about Conan the Barbarian 2011. I feel like Lionsgate had their hearts in the right place. This isn't a watered down picture, like the PG-13 Conan the Destroyer.

Nope, this thing is rated "R", and it features slave girl boobs, screwing, decapitations and skewerings galore, just like any self-respecting barbarian fan would demand. It even has Ron Perlman!

But at the end of the day it's kind of a bore, which is a shame, because you can tell that they were really trying to go balls out. Stephen Lang, whose career got a second wind with his appearance in Avatar, seems woefully miscast as the major villain in this picture. I don't know what kind of accent that is, but it's not working. Hyboria via Texas?

The CG isn't terribly gratuitous; there's a scene where Conan fights some dust creatures that sort of reminded me of those god-awful "Mummy" movies, but aside from that there wasn't anything glaringly off. There was even a pretty cool scene with a tentacle creature that bites people in half.

So, I know what you're saying: R-rated, boobs, tentacle creature, practical effects, decapitations, stabbings, Ron Perlman...for chrissakes it even has a Morgan Freeman narration! What more could I want?

I'm really not sure, but it's not really this, I think. I guess it's simply a matter of the parts not adding up to make a cohesive or entertaining whole. You could certainly do worse than this Conan picture, but at the end of the day it left me feeling kinda meh. And unfortunately the movie was something of a major bomb at the box office, so it's unlikely that they'll get another chance to get it right.

Now, what we really need, since Arnold is old, is a "King Conan" movie, picking up with that image of the elder Conan sitting on his throne, written and directed by John Milius. I would kill every last one of you with my father sword to make this happen. And Grace Jones can even tag along if she wants. That's how badly I want this to happen.

In the meantime, I will have to be satisfied with my Blu-Rays of the Arnold flicks, and the fact that The Missus can now recite the "What is best in life?" speech on command.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Think "Hunger Games" ripped off "Battle Royale"? Take a number and get in line behind Series 7, The Running Man, and many, many more!

My initial reaction, upon hearing the plot of "The Hunger Games", was similar to millions (or at least thousands) of movie nerds around the globe: "But...but...they're just ripping off Battle Royale!"

If you're one of the three or four internet media consumers who actually haven't already read about the Hunger Games vs Battle Royale flap, here's the basic plot summary of Battle Royale:

In an alternate timeline future, where violence and crime are rampant, each year a junior high school class is selected for "The Program"; the students are transported to a remote island, issued random weapons and outfitted with tracking devices, and are forced to kill one another off until only one student remains alive. If more than one student is still alive at the end of the competition, everyone dies.

Sound familiar, Hunger Games fans?

But the truth is that while there are many similar strands of DNA shared between the two stories (teenage kids killing each other off in a twisted game show created in a dystopian future) the fact is that this story, and variations on it, have been told for decades now.

The Most Dangerous Game

The original (or at least the most commonly recognized) "man hunting man" story is "The Most Dangerous Game", a short story by Richard Connell published in Collier's in 1924, and most successfully adapted for the screen in a 1932 picture starring Joel McCrea. It has been subsequently adapted and otherwise stolen from in the form of more movies, television programs and video games than you can count.

The film tells the story of big game hunter Bob Rainsford (McCrea) who finds himself shipwrecked and stranded on a small, private island owned by another big game hunter, Count Zaroff. Bored with hunting animals, Zaroff has decided that the most dangerous game of all, of course, is man. Unable to sway Bob to his way of thinking, Zaroff hunts Bob and eye candy Eve (Fay Wray), telling them that if they can survive until dawn, they will have their freedom.

Isolated island hunting grounds. Survival to a predetermined deadline = freedom. The themes for these death sport stories (and subsequent films) were established long ago.

Lord of the Flies

And while Lord of the Flies (based on William Goldman's novel of the same name) doesn't feature an organized death sport, it does concern a group of schoolboys stranded on a remote island, forced through their circumstances to confront the darker nature of mankind (meaning that when you trap enough of us in a harsh environment, we're going to end up killing each other).

There have been at least two cinematic adaptations of William Goldman's novel: pictured above, the "classic" version available from Criterion (and featuring more sorta-creepy, pedo-vibe giving shots of nekkid kids than I'm strictly comfortable with watching) and an MGM version starring Balthazar Getty.  When I mentioned Lord of the Flies to the wife, she didn't think of the classic movie, or the novel, but instead, automatically and with great excitement, said "Oh yeah, with Balthazar Getty." So make of that what you will. Somewhere in the world, Balthazar Getty's Balthazense is tingling.

Death Race 2000

While having this HG v BR discussion this weekend, my BFF (I'll let you fill out the acronym in whatever disgusting manner you'd prefer) Danny reminded me of Death Race 2000, Roger Corman's 1975 cheapie in which the contestants race across the continent in sports cars outfitted with guns and blades; only in a twist from the gladiatorial norm, these racers aren't trying to just kill each other, they're actually scoring points by killing pedestrians.

Why would such a race take place? Well, it's the result of the United States falling due to an economic crisis and military coup, being regrouped into a singular fascist police state, where "Mr. President" keeps the people in place with a transcontinental bloodsport. Meanwhile a people's rebellion is forming to end the cruel games. Sound familiar (again)?

DR2000 Digression:  I always thought it was odd that the elderly were worth more points than a baby, but maybe that's just me.

The fact is that this lowbrow schlocker is crazy entertaining, highlighted by a cornball performance by David Carradine as race favorite Frankenstein, a young Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe Viturbo, and more decapitations, orange-red blood, and fine, naked, natural-bodied 1970's honeys than you can shake your turgid stick at.

It was re-made in 2008 as Death Race starring Jason Statham. No one seems to know why.


Released in the same year as Death Race 2000, Rollerball is yet another example of the violent-game-show-as-reflection-of-future-dystopian-society genre. However, while Rollerball has gone on to be recognized as something of a classic, personally, of the two movies, I'll take Death Race 2000. It's just a weirder, goofier good time. Rollerball plays it much more straight, and therefore suffers in comparison.

And while we haven't yet arrived there in our "Evenings With Arnold" series of Arnold Schwarzenegger appreciation pieces, we would be remiss to not mention The Running Man.

The Running Man

I will now fill in the plot with shorthand you've already picked up from the other movies we've talked about. Say it along with me: "Dystopian future"; "Collapsed America becomes totalitarian police state"; "Death Sport Game Show used as means of suppresion of the general public"; You're seeing the themes, right?

At any rate, The Running Man (based on a short story by Richard Bachman aka Stephen King) offers the variables of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a wrongly accused military pilot, framed for a mass murder he didn't commit, and sentenced to play on the game show "The Running Man", in which prisoners can fight against futuristic gladiators in an attempt to gain their freedom. Of course, the whole thing is fixed. And of course, Jesse "The Body/The Mind" Ventura is there too, because why wouldn't he be?

But what really makes The Running Man SING (aside from the Austrian Oak, of course) is Richard Dawson as the emcee of the Game Show, bringing his A game in a role that is so oily, it makes the work he did hosting "Family Feud" seem positively restrained. It is hammy and over-the-top, but it really sells the picture, and every scene with Dawson is better for it. Needless to say, while watching The Hunger Games, every time I saw Stanley Tucci's blue-haired host, all I could think about was Richard Dawson in The Running Man, and he definitely suffers in comparison.

Series 7 - The Contenders

Perhaps most prescient of all of the Death-Sport-as-Reality-Televisions stories is Series 7, a 2001 film in which ordinary citizens are chosen completely at random to participate in a reality television series called "The Contenders".  In the seventh season, the returning champion is Dawn, a pregnant woman determined to kill whoever she has to kill in order to see her child safely delivered.  And if you think the idea of star-crossed lovers who end up in a death match is unique to The Hunger Games, I'm afraid that Series 7 has a leg up in that respect as well.

However, while the shot-on-video look, MTV style cutting and narration are spot-on in evoking the particular vibe of Reality TV in the 2000's, Series 7 is ultimately let down by bad dialogue and not-so-great performances.  While the production sells the reality element hard, it's difficult to believe in the world when you don't believe the characters, who seem, unfortunately, very "actory".  I didn't for a minute buy that I was watching "real" people, and ultimately that is what unravels the whole picture.

It was a fairly novel idea at the time, and there are parts of the production that are interesting, but ultimately even an appearance by a pre-fame Will Arnett can't save the movie from being kinda dumb.

The Hunger Games

So, now, the Hunger Games.

By the time the film of THG was released, I had been privy to several conversations between my wife and my mother, both of whom had devoured the entire trilogy of books, and had completely fallen in love with them.  So at this point, I was pretty much filled in on what to expect.

I had also given up the "they're ripping off Battle Royale'" argument, because the truth of the matter is that there are only so many stories in the world. The key is in making the telling of those stories unique.  The Hunger Games isn't the first movie to feature teens killing each other for sport, and it won't be the last. But is there enough there to make this particular story worth seeing?

It's odd that my first impression while watching the movie was "I should read the book." That is because I found elements of the storyline interesting, but ultimately felt no emotional connection to the characters.  I realize that it's difficult to cram an entire novel into a 2 and a half hour movie, but it is still important to create characters that are relatable and interesting to the audience.

Instead, I felt as if a checklist was being marked off as the movie went along, making sure that all of the highlights from the novel were hit. But having not read the books, my brain can't fill in the characterization shorthand that many can.

And this sort of adaptation probably works for people who have read the books (both my Mom and The Missus really seemed to enjoy the movie and thought it did a good job of adapting the material) who can fill in the details on their own; but for someone who can't tell the different kids apart, much less remember their names or have any reason to root for any of them, I felt like I was missing out.

I don't want to beat a dead horse by making too many comparisons to Battle Royale, but I will say that BR did a better job of juggling a large cast of characters and making you care of them. From the hackers trying to break the collars to the house full of girls who don't want to fight, to the lovestruck teens to the fat kid who can't catch a break, BR masterfully introduces, fleshes out, and creates connections with a cast of dozens. When I was introduced to the cast of The Hunger Games, I was interested in knowing more about the kids and where they came from. I'd see a kid in the background and think "Oh, we'll get to know their story!" But we don't. Aside from Katniss and the sad, lumpy love interest from her district, we are only given sketches of a couple of the other characters (Cato is a hardcore killing machine, there's a girl who can throw knives, and...uh...that's about it...) while the rest are simply cannon fodder.

There is a sequence, when the kids arrive at the battlefield, that manages to build a certain amount of dread. The children stand on their platforms, waiting for the countdown to end so they can grab weapons and supplies. We've already been promised that a bloodbath is about to occur, and our anticipation builds as the seconds pass. But once the countdown has ended, rather than be treated to visceral, bloody catharsis, we're given a blurry, confusingly edited, choppy scene of randomness. It's hard to care about the characters when you don't know anything about them. It's even HARDER when you can't even tell who is killing who.

My other major gripe with the flick is that there is a cheapness inherent to the production, which is no doubt the hallmark of the fact that this movie was produced by Lionsgate.  Lionsgate is mostly famous for putting out genre cheapies (though they will tell you that they are the producer of 2005 Best Picture Oscar winner "Crash"...though I wouldn't be too proud of that, personally), and you can palpably sense that they are pushing the edges of their funding envelope with this picture.  Establishing shots are fleeting and relatively nondescript, and the sets and costumes look like something that wouldn't be out of place on a more highly-budgeted episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation".  Something just doesn't seem...quite...right.

However, you sorta have to root for Lionsgate for having the nuts to back the picture, and one kind of assumes/hopes that the enormous success of this movie will help further legitimize the studio, much the way that the Lord of the Rings films helped New Line (aka The House that Freddy Krueger Built) be taken more seriously. The main benefit should be that the NEXT Hunger Games flick should want for nothing.  With this world now established, we look forward to a better-financed, better-looking, and hopefully better-cut film.

Those gripes aside, The Hunger Games is a fairly entertaining film, mostly as a vehicle for its lead actress, superstar in bloom Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen.  She is a believable action hero, interesting and easy to root for. The problems with the film do not lay with her or her performance, and in fact, nearly everything that does work in the movie works as a result of her believability.

At the end of the day, the question is not "Is The Hunger Games a successful adapation of the book?", because honestly, I have no idea. According to the people I was with, the answer was an enthusiastic "Yes", with the qualifier that I "really should read the book."

But if I have to read the book in order to appreciate the movie, then the makers of the movie have failed in their task. Because books are books, and movies are movies, and each should be able to stand on their own.

So what about the BR vs HG fuss?

At the end of the day, I think Battle Royale fans feel compelled to protect BR, at the expense of The Hunger Games, due to a sense of ownership. There is a certain sense of clique-iness (ironic given the basic anti-clique stance of the Battle Royale film) inherent to a relatively small subset of people who find something and love it passionately. I felt the same way, you know? It's been more than ten years ago now since my friend Kirk brought his imported copy of the DVD over to my house. We watched it that night, and I was so floored by what I saw, I asked if I could borrow it, and then watched it again immediately that same night. I sought out my own imported copy. I double-dipped when the imported Special Edition steelbook was released; I bought the novelization, I bought the manga; I LOVED this movie.

So, bringing us back to the beginning, when I found out how popular "The Hunger Games" had gotten with a similar plotline, I felt protective of Battle Royale. I wanted to speak up for it.

But the truth is that while Battle Royale is a great film, the story itself isn't that much more original than The Hunger Games is in comparison to BR. There are only so many stories in the world. The key is in how they're told.

So now we have two similar stories that have lead to the creation of two very different films, told in two very different ways. I personally prefer the pitch-black humor and social satire (and exploding necks) of Battle Royale. Millions of others will prefer the relatively tame and therefore more approachable Hunger Games.

And the fact that we have so many compelling tales to choose from is a great thing.

Now, let's watch Death Race 2000 again!