Monday, April 30, 2012

Sound of My Voice (2012)

Sound of My Voice
Dir. Zal Batmanglij

4.5 out of 5

Self-styled investigative journalists Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) find themselves getting a little too close to the subject of their exposé in Sound of My Voice: an enigmatic cult leader named Maggie who claims to be a messenger from the year 2054. Their thrall is understandable given that Maggie is played by Brit Marling, whose hauntingly ethereal presence was established so well in last year's Another Earth (which, like Sound of My Voice, was also co-scripted by Marling). The film opens with Peter and Lorna's initiation in the basement of a nondescript house in the San Fernando Valley, where the couple believes that Maggie is amassing followers for a nefarious purpose. They are surprised to learn that there's a distinct lack of doomsaying in Maggie's rhetoric, which instead combines a vaguely New Age philosophy with aggressive psychotherapy. But as they embed themselves deeper into the cult, both Peter and Lorna find their hard-earned skepticism tested by Maggie's ability to deflect attention from the veracity of her own story by ruthlessly exploiting the many doubts they still have about themselves.

Sound of My Voice truly shines when it picks up on similar discrepancies between its characters' personal truths and the lies that they tell themselves to sustain those principles. Though Maggie can quickly switch from cuddly to demanding, Peter is just as fond of hectoring his girlfriend when he harps on the need to expose this supposed time-traveler as a shrewd charlatan. Never mind that as a substitute schoolteacher with severe abandonment issues (stemming from his mother's refusal to seek medical treatment for her terminal cancer), he's both professionally and emotionally unequipped to withstand Maggie's powers of persuasion. And while Peter is using Maggie as a stand-in for his maternal revenge complex, Lorna comes to understand her as a kind of mascot for those with broken, unfulfilled lives like herself. Indeed, most of the group takes Maggie's frailty at face value (she claims that the unfamiliar atmosphere is slowly killing her) and regards her with the compassion typically reserved for nursing sick animals.

This is a film that is beyond belief, and proudly so. It is staged with urgency, waiting until the final frame to connect the dots of its several ostensibly non-sequitur scenes, but much of its meaning is obtained organically. Maggie's dewy-eyed finale is perhaps the only bit feels partially unearned - it's difficult to accept after her normally placid gatherings turn into physical and emotional hazing rituals about halfway through the film. Batmanglij is also unsuccessful in imposing a pointless chapter structure on such a dreamy, elliptical story. (It's a formal misstep he atones for by recruiting his brother, Vampire Weekend bandmember Rostam Batmanglij, to contribute the movie's appropriately spacey score.) Thankfully, Sound of My Voice is happy to leave the boundaries of its general narrative undefined, and wisely preserves the mystery that makes Marling's character such a tantalizing figure in the first place. No matter how inviting or perceptive she seems, her essence is ultimately unknowable - a comforting reminder that even if we believe some things are preordained or part of a greater destiny, our future technically remains unwritten.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lockout (2012)

Dir. James Mather and Stephen St. Leger

2.5 out of 5

There's something charmingly old-fashioned about Lockout, an epic act of recycling in the grand tradition of Die Hard knockoffs. It feels like an experiment in reverse-engineering the most successful elements of popular American action films, except one where the results were buried in a drawer for over 20 years. French super-producer Luc Besson has been cranking out slick facsimiles of smarter and more expensive action fare for decades - he's responsible for the entire Transporter series, as well as the smash Francophone franchises Taxi and District 13 - but with Lockout you can feel his lingering affection for the comparatively simple gimmicks of yesteryear. The result is a film that loses points for its lack of originality, but gains most of them back with its nostalgic appeal.

Guy Pearce stars as the film's Bruce Willis surrogate, a former CIA agent arrested on trumped-up murder charges who gets a shot at redemption when the very first Supermax prison in outer space unexpectedly goes Attica. It just so happens that the president's daughter (Maggie Grace) is on a "humanitarian mission" to investigate the convicts' living conditions when things get hairy. I suspect that if the warden had to do it again, he wouldn't have chosen a half-blind, psychotic Scotsman (Joseph Gilgun) for a meet and greet with the First Daughter. Armed with little more than his wits and an arsenal of atrocious one-liners, Pearce gets his ass to space jail with orders to rescue Grace before the cons find out exactly who she is.

I've always wondered if the other hostages ever get bored in a movie like this. Establishing shots show the prison facility as an enormously imposing structure - large enough to absorb a collision with the International Space Station - yet the interior is as barren and deserted as the infinite void surrounding it. Everything about Lockout is conspicuously economical, though the sparing use of CGI and strategic placement of extras successfully contribute to the film's claustrophobic atmosphere. Unfortunately, the limitations extend to the functional dialogue and one-note performances - Pearce is particularly wearying in his state of perma-smugness. Lockout is at least a sincere effort at creating fun, brainless entertainment, even if it's ultimately just a shallow simulacrum of something you've seen before.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Three Stooges (2012)

The Three Stooges (2012)
Dir. Bobby and Peter Farrelly

2 out of 5

If comedy exists on a scale similar to the familiar classroom diagram of human evolution, the Three Stooges would land somewhere in the section with our knuckle-dragging simian ancestors. But whatever the slap-happy trio of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard may have lacked in sophistication and critical acclaim, they earned many times over in laughs and in profits from the cycle of shorts and films in that "classic" lineup's 15-year run. It's this configuration of characters that returns to the screen in the Farrelly Brothers' homage to their populist predecessors, a project that languished for years in development hell (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Jim Carrey were once slated to play the Stooges in a version that never materialized, to the chagrin of few). And though The Three Stooges is a surprisingly tender and respectful nod to these iconic slapstick artists, the film is also an unintentional primer on the devolution of lowbrow comedy - an attempt to fill in a massive generation gap with gallons of baby piss.

Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, and Chris Diamantopoulos are physically passable as Larry, Curly, and Moe, respectively, but it's the plot that stands out as noteworthy, at least by Three Stooges standards. Though structured as a series of "episodes," the movie follows an unexpectedly strong thread as the three mooks struggle to save the Catholic orphanage that nurtured them through childhood and still employs them as live-in handymen. The diocese is in desperate need of cash, and the Mother Superior (Jane Lynch) is out of options when these man-children volunteer to go out into the real world and raise the money by any means necessary. It's a significant challenge that tests the strength of the Stooges' lifelong friendship, especially when they stumble into a murder plot hatched by a bombshell trophy wife (Sofia Vergara) who exploits the trio's naivete for her own gain.

Despite maintaining the characters' Bowery accents and anachronistic wardrobe, the movie doesn't fully capitalize on the idea of the Stooges as castaways adrift in the modern world. Except from a highly enjoyable interlude where Moe terrorizes the cast of Jersey Shore, the 21st century is just a procession of generic backdrops for slapstick comedy: Hospital, Zoo, Fancy Party. The Stooges' cartoonishly violent antics - which still cause enough consternation to necessitate a closing "don't try this at home" disclaimer - don't mesh well with the garden-variety potty humor. (I'm not sure why a close-up of lion testicles appears in a PG film, but there you go.) The resulting movie is a messy amalgamation of silliness and scatology. Credit The Three Stooges for doling out an impressive variety of physical abuse and letting its cast (which includes an unforgettable Larry David as a nun with an unrepentant hatred for the Stooges) indulge in spectacularly hammy performances. It's just too bad that so many of its banal hijinks are beneath even these thick-skulled mouth breathers.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (2012)

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (2012)
Dir. Paul Bunnell

2.5 out of 5

A love letter to 1950s exploitation films, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X features a kitschy concoction of juvenile delinquents, fawning teenyboppers, and exiled aliens converging around the recent disappearance of a popular singer (Creed Bratton), a pioneer in the outlaw country genre of "cactus rock." The titular hero (Will Keenan) - leader of a coed gang of extraterrestrial hoods called the Ghastly Ones - is also searching for a piece of technology that absconded with his former flame (De Anna Joy Brooks): a suit that lets the wearer turn the living and the dead into his personal finger puppets. The suit comes in handy when the hard-living Bratton expires just before his big comeback show at a desert music hall, but it doesn’t take long before this fabulous alien technology is wrested away by forces far more sinister than intergalactic greasers.

It’s all a hoot until Johnny X’s madcap plot is quickly overwhelmed by an obsessive quoting of its creators’ arcane cultural tastes. And did I mention that this film is a musical? It is, at least for a little while. It starts with a lavish musical number but approaches the genre haphazardly for the remainder of the film, with gaps just long enough to make the cast's transition into song-and-dance mode consistently jarring. (That's a shame - the entendre-laden songs are some of the film’s brightest spots.) Writer-director Paul Bunnell nails the hothouse look and feel of a ‘50s cheapie, but rushes through important characterization, like a revelation about Keenan's parentage and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it villain turn, and favors dialogue choked with clumsy period slang.

Still, Johnny X has a somewhat noble quality. Bunnell's go-for-broke homage will surely enthrall as many viewers as it alienates. That's ok, given that the film is also distinguished by its relative wholesomeness, a sort of John Waters-lite for people who like their nostalgia skewed but their actors freshly-scrubbed. It's just really, really difficult to dump on such an obvious passion project (Bunnell purchased every last remaining scrap of Kodak's Eastman Plus 5231 film stock to get that perfect black and white drive-in movie look), and the film operates with the conviction that what it's doing is the cutting edge of cool. I badly wanted to like Johnny X, what with its commitment to carving a new niche for the B-movie trends of yesteryear. But its total immersion in ‘50s chinziness kept reminding me, inconveniently, of the reasons why those trends faded away in the first place.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods
Dir. Drew Goddard

4 out of 5

Horror films, by and large, allow us an opportunity to assert ourselves in the face of fear. We are probably startled, perhaps disgusted, and maybe a little anxious, but all that is nothing compared to what is plausibly scary in the real world. Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods is deliciously implausible, but also truly disturbing in how it anticipates exactly how we expect to feel watching a scary movie and delivers that intoxicating sensation until it has us where it really wants us.

The premise is deliberately familiar. Four friends make a weekend getaway to rustic cabin near a remote lake: shy Dana (Kristen Connolly), horny couple Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison), and nonthreatening newcomer Holden (Jessie Williams), who nails the rare triple archetype as the romantic bait and the surprisingly bookish jock and the token nonwhite. Also tagging along is their stoner buddy Marty (Fran Kranz), whose paranoid and pseudo-anarchic ramblings are actually the film's sole source of reason. Too bad his friends are dumb horror film protagonists and merely view this as a cute eccentricity. But as the situation turns increasingly suspicious, they are at least smart enough to recognize the parts they are playing and the fabricated drama that surrounds it: the old coot who acts as the harbinger of doom, the creepy taxidermy, the mysterious cellar door.

Meanwhile, in some sort of security compound, two chatty technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) watch surveillance footage and hint that the nubile youngsters are actually part of a larger plan, one that has to do the fundamental nature of terror. That's really the meat of The Cabin in the Woods, which belies its off-the-shelf title with a madcap explication of genre tropes. Joss Whedon's script is more mash-up than deconstruction, presenting novel juxtapositions (It's H.P. Lovecraft meets Scream! It's Evil Dead meets Clive Barker!) without a whole lot of analysis. It doesn't really attempt to explain where fears come from, but instead shows how easy they are to manipulate. The film's climax - which I applaud the studio for keeping secret, even if it would make a fine selling point with some key demographics - essentially proves that you can make people afraid of just about anything, whether it is based in a taboo of the distant past or rises from the twisted imagination of a screenwriter.

Shelved for nearly three years due to MGM's financial woes and nearly (but thankfully not) converted to 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods has been worth the wait. That's quite the journey for a movie based on a fait accompli. The film has plenty of twists that keep the adrenaline pumping, but they're also used against the audience to attain a level of suspense that the average horror flick couldn't reach with a ladder. By constantly juggling the inevitable and the unknown, Cabin suggests that despite our morbid obsession with tales of ghosts and ghouls and bloody murder, fear is not something we can control - at best, it's only something we keep at bay.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar (2012)

Monsieur Lazhar
Dir. Philippe Falardeau

3.5 out of 5

A 2011 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film,
Monsieur Lazhar begins in its emotional nadir, as a young boy named Simon (Émilien Néron) discovers his elementary school teacher hanging from the rafters of her classroom. The teacher's suicide leaves a void that is quickly filled by Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), an Algerian immigrant whose outdated pedagogy is trumped by his calming presence and his ability to coax honest reactions from traumatized students and faculty alike. (He bristles when a school-appointed psychologist forces him to leave his classroom for scheduled rap sessions.) But Bachir harbors a secret pain of his own, one that may explain his serendipitous appearance at the school when it needed him the most. This suggestion of an emotional symbiosis is an empathetic and noble idea, even if the film promises a bit more than it can deliver in its exploration of grief and loss.

Bachir's telegenic star pupil is Alice (Sophie Nélisse), who jolts the class from its postmortem haze when she turns an essay assignment about "violence in schools" into a scathing critique of their late instructor. From there, the film plots a straight and narrow course of Bachir clashing with his colleagues over the students' unresolved feelings and struggling to fit in due to the mildest of cultural differences, if you can even call them that. It's as if the film is stretching to include examples of a backlash to the multicultural, cosmopolitan composition of Montreal - such as the phys ed teacher (Jules Philip) who confides in Bachir his weariness toward the school's "woman-ocracy" - that exist to show us just how saintly and post-racial Bachir truly is. His simplistic
raison d'être is further solidified when the film largely glosses over a subplot involving the circumstances of his flight from Algeria. Whenever Monsieur Lazhar is tugging on the heartstrings with virtuosity, it's simultaneously straining credulity.

But this is not a story that necessarily calls for a deeper analysis of character. It's more like an elegant chain of dominoes. I can understand why writer-director Philippe Falardeau (who adapted the film from Evelyne de la Chenelière's stage play) would want to avoid halting its forward momentum for anything that disturbs its thoughtful construction. The student-teacher dynamic is handled a rare maturity and a warm sense of humor, and the Algerian playwright Fellag is a revelation as Bachir, gradually earning the trust of students that have every reason to close him off. It's just a shame that it feels like it's all over too fast, with pat resolutions for all the loose ends.
Monsieur Lazhar at least recognizes that the path of recovery isn't a sunny one, even if it can't help but smooth out so many of the bumps.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Damsels in Distress (2012)

Damsels in Distress
Dir. Whit Stillman

4 out of 5

Characters in a Whit Stillman film are usually adept at the art of graceful condescension - I'm thinking of Kate Beckinsale's club queen in The Last Days of Disco or Chris Eigeman's ugly American in Barcelona. Maybe they know they are mean, but they don't intend any serious harm.
Damsels in Distress, Stillman's first new film in 14 years, is a snapshot of those characters in a more innocent time, when they are mere beginners at the burn game. It's unusual for a Stillman character to extol the virtues of "clichés and hackneyed wisdom," as earnest overachiever Violet (Greta Gerwig) does. But she's got a point, and not just about the kernels of truth in otherwise empty platitudes - now's the time to get the fundamentals down, while everyone is still giving each other plenty of leeway.

Nobody needs it more than Violet, who commands a clique of prim do-gooders who consider themselves the social betters of both the cynical intellectuals and the unwashed fratboys at their faux-Ivy League institution. But in their brand of social Darwinism, contempt goes hand in hand with concern. Violet runs the campus Suicide Prevention Center along with her lieutenants Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), seeking to combat clinical depression and poor hygiene with tap dance routines; she also practices her brand of "social work" by dating dimwitted fixer-uppers from Roman letter houses (the film's satirical spin on the Greek system) like Frank (Ryan Metcalf). When clear-eyed transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) appears at orientation, Violet spies another reclamation project and pounces. But the group's quest to subsume Lily's identity backfires, as the world's constant challenges to Violet's inexorably cheerful dogma eventually send her into a depression of her own. (Though she'd prefer you call it a "tailspin.")

Like any good farce,
Damsels in Distress takes place in a strangely mannered world. Students are rarely seen in class, and the campus seems to exist solely for the purpose of ambulatory conversation. Stillman sure can turn a phrase, but he's never been one for giving his actors a lot of business: spicing up a scene usually means sending the characters on a stroll or out to supper. The film's hyper-verbal style walks a fine line between sublime and spoofy, and while this can be off-putting at first, it eventually becomes difficult to resist its genial charms. Much of the movie's conviviality is owed to Stillman's dialogue, which is complex but not aloof. Though humorously precise, it sounds like the kind of stuff that young people too convinced of their own cleverness might say, like repeatedly deeming a simple courtship ritual a "player or operator move."

While it presents an impressively up-to-date cross-section of the urban bourgeoisie,
Damsels doesn't seem to be saying anything that Stillman hasn't said before. It's another exchange of high and low culture where no person is all good or all bad, and everyone is ultimately well-meaning, despite their tendency to hurt each others' feelings. But this idea has a certain primacy at college - a place where many people will learn, perhaps for the first time, that the world has its own agenda and is largely unconcerned with their own. In the end, Damsels in Distress is a familiar but very welcome yarn from a magnanimous raconteur who hasn't lost his knack for capturing the stumbling search for self.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Goon (2012)

Goon (2012)
Dir. Michael Dowse

4 out of 5

To say that fighting is hockey's worst-kept secret is a bit too optimistic - for many who play or follow the sport, it's a point of pride. Goon is a raucous ode to the brawny subculture of hockey brawls, a surprisingly heartfelt sports comedy that approaches its problematic subject with brutal honesty, then dares the audience to cast judgement. It helps that the film's hero, Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), is such a mensch. Already making a living with his fists as a bouncer, Doug stumbles into a new career opportunity while attending a semipro hockey game, defending his mouthy friend (Jay Baruchel) from an irate player climbing into the stands. A coach quickly sees Doug's potential as an "enforcer" - a player specializing in physical intimidation - and signs him up with a minor league team in Halifax where he's to serve as an on-ice bodyguard for the squad's petulant but talented star prospect, Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin).

Exceedingly sweet by nature, Doug is initially baffled by the way the crowd prizes his pugilistic skills. But the game gives him the opportunity to re-cast himself a paragon of self-sacrifice - a transformation of purpose beautifully captured by Baruchel and Evan Goldberg's warm yet un-treacly script. It's easy to see Doug as a broad parody of overachieving lugs like Rocky Balboa and Rudy (the latter is referenced in one of the movie's many terrific one-liners), but Scott's magnificently droll performance doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of the character. He carries a sense of painful self-awareness even as the team's play begins to improve and through his guileless pursuit of Alison Pill's hockey groupie, who rebuffs his offerings of chocolates and official stuffed mascots by straight-up telling him that she prefers to sleep with lots of men.

But whereas relentless misanthropy might work for a character study like Big Fan, Baruchel and Goldberg are clever enough to realize that Goon most resembles a Western with its familiar archetypes and unapologetic attitude towards violence. That's no more apparent than in the introduction of Ross "The Boss" Rhea (a wickedly good Liev Schreiber), a legendary enforcer with a reputation for cheap, career-ending hits who's looking for one last scalp as he slouches towards retirement. His presence turns the film somewhat unnecessarily toward the defense of certain forms of violence, but at least Scott nails the big speech where he justifies his thuggery as a noble responsibility to protect others against wanton makers of mayhem like Rhea. Luckily, director Michael Dowse doesn't feel a greater need to moralize. Despite its lip service to the uplifting conventions of the sports underdog narrative, Goon is fittingly content to let Scott's fists do most of the talking.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

Wrath of the Titans (2012)
Dir. Jonathan Liebesman

1.5 out of 5

In the grand tradition of unnecessary sequels that retroactively improve the reputation of their less-than-stellar predecessors, Wrath of the Titans operates with the philosophy that if it ain't broke, then the first guy simply wasn't trying hard enough. It essentially amounts to a desperate checklist of cosmetic changes to 2010's Clash of the Titans, itself a pigheaded remake of the similarly-titled 1981 family adventure flick. But whereas Clash's ideas were merely overdrawn, Wrath is creatively bankrupt. It's a bad sign when the hero's new shaggy coif is the only notable development in his character.

Sam Worthington returns as Perseus, the demigod who's now a single dad and a simple fisherman, his Kraken-slaying days long behind him. His life is interrupted again by the machinations of the god Hades (Ralph Fiennes), plotting with the traitorous Ares (Édgar Ramirez) to kidnap Zeus (Liam Neeson) and steal his godly mojo to unleash a slew of horrors on the puny mortals. To oppose them, Perseus recruits Andromeda (a re-cast Rosamund Pike), who has since transformed from damsel in distress to warrior queen, and Agenor (Toby Kebbell), a fellow demigod whose curdled Russell Brand impersonation is a fitting complement to Worthington's leaden sense of humor.

While Wrath promises a bigger and better spectacle, a quick-and-dirty vibe permeates almost every scene. The plot works backward from the action sequences, only serving to move the characters from battle A to monster B. A terrific dullness sets in and you begin to note the movie's curious compression of time and space. I thought the underworld was a very deep place, but it's established that Worthington and friends can access it in minutes via a labyrinth that begins high atop a cliff. Worthington is promptly separated from the group by the maze's shifting walls, yet he's somehow able to rendezvous with his friends right outside the threshold to Hades' lair. (Though not after a perfunctory battle sequence with a Minotaur that's improbably worse than the one in Your Highness.) Once there, they discover a massive lava monster who bursts out of a mountain in the film's climax. When standing, he towers over the entire landscape. How did he fit down there in the first place?

Wrath of the Titans registers as a disappointment even with severely diminished expectations as a sequel to a not especially beloved film. It's constantly laboring to provide entertainment value and whatever bright spots it does have are fleeting, such as Bill Nighy's movie-stealing cameo as Hephaestus, the armorer to the gods. Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) fails to clear the already low bar set for brainless Hellenic action. He draws out the elaborate justifications for the film's ultimately pointless conflicts when he should just be getting down to brass tacks. All that's left for the Titans franchise is the dubious distinction of squandering a few millenia of storytelling potential in a combined three and a half hours.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games
Dir. Gary Ross

3.5 out of 5

The Hunger Games isn't just an adaptation of author Suzanne Collins' bestselling YA novel. It's also an update of various dystopian social critiques, from the dark rites-of-passage in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Logan's Run; to the futuristic bloodsports of Death Race 2000 and Rollerball; to its closest comparison in tales of overwrought teenage violence and romance, Battle Royale. Even its aesthetic sensibilities remind the viewer of previous sci-fi touchstones, borrowing touches like the faceless police uniforms from THX 1138 (though switching the colors from black to white) and the flamboyant wardrobe and hairstyles of the idle rich in The Fifth Element. But far from being derivative, The Hunger Games takes all these reference points and molds them into a gripping narrative for the reality TV era, taking the notion of "bread and circuses" to its extremes.

In the nation of Panem, the wealthy Capitol dominates the political and economic affairs of its outlying 12 districts. Each year every district is compelled to offer two of its children - one boy and one girl - as tribute for a failed rebellion against the central governing power, which places them in a wildly popular televised fight to the death (picture the Olympics crossed with Survivor and cold-blooded murder). When her younger sister is selected as a tribute, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) impulsively volunteers to enter the competition in her stead. She's whisked away to train for combat alongside sadistic "careers" who make the Games their life's purpose and similarly befuddled teens like her sensitive schoolmate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Once inside the arena, Lawrence must rely on the survival tactics of her hardscrabble upbringing and her skills as an accomplished bowhunter to keep herself alive and her moral identity intact.

The role isn't much of a stretch for Lawrence, who already proved her mettle as a tough, resourceful teen navigating dangerous terrain in Winter's Bone. She keeps the film grounded as it methodically lays out its premise in the selection of the pubescent tributes and their primetime debut in the Capitol. These exposition-heavy sequences are also the movie's most satirically sound. As the elite reward the unfortunate youths with professional makeovers and gushing interviews, it's a damning indictment of popular culture that normalizes the worst aspects of human nature.

After all that table-setting, the Games themselves are intense and disturbing. Gary Ross' queasy cam and quick cutaways don't diminish the senseless sacrifice of these young lives - despite the PG-13 rating, violence in The Hunger Games hits harder than any of the gonzo viscera in Battle Royale. The film as a whole doesn't have much room to breathe as it's chopped up into discrete halves focused on exposition and action. It's a little overwhelmed by its own subject material, as if making a visible effort not to omit any important information: Stanley Tucci's chipper Games MC is ubiquitous and a bit tiresome as the movie's chattering Greek chorus. The film's allusions to Roman decadence (character names include Caesar, Seneca, and Cinna) further establish a grandiose tone. I suppose we have to wait for the sequels - there are three novels in the Hunger Games series - to find out if it's truly earned, but for now it's like watching an epic in abridged form.