Kicking the Tweets

The Rock-afire Explosion (2008)

Moldy Oldies

Maybe it's just bad luck that I've seen way too many context-free documentaries lately.* Or maybe there's a disturbing new film trend on the horizon that mistakenly treats documentary audiences the same as blockbuster audiences. Of all the genres, this is not supposed to be a safe haven for "turn off your brain" movies, but The Rock-afire Explosion willfully bucks that idea.

Director Brett Whitcomb and screenwriter Bradford Thomason dive deep into geekdom's murky, outlying oceans to profile fans of the titular animatronic rock band made popular by the Showbiz Pizza chain in the 1980s. The film capitalizes on a minor resurgence of pop cultural interest from a few years ago, when an Alabama enthusiast named Chris Thrash posted YouTube videos of his personal Rock-afire band performing contemporary music. No doubt, some people tuned in out of nostalgia, while others simply wanted to watch a freak show--who in their right mind would spend so much money resurrecting motion-control stuffed animals using dead technology?

I can't decide which camp Whitcomb and Thomason fall into. They take great pains to explain the story of Showbiz Pizza, detailing wacky engineer Aaron Fechter's rise from tinkerer to head of a multi-million-dollar production company, whose job it was to supply the fast-growing franchises with complete stage shows. But the film takes frequent detours to interview Rock-afire's most ardent fans, many of whom come off as distinctly Southern and uniformly pathetic.

Sure, that's harsh. But so is the filmmakers' treatment of their subjects. The Rock-afire Explosion is like a lost Christopher Guest mockumentary, a showcase of bad teeth, worse hair, and obsessions that should have been put in check long ago. Unlike a Guest movie, though, there's no attempt to humanize these characters or provide (here's that word again) context for their unconventional lifestyles. The audience is simply invited to watch the idiot parade and, I guess, measure their own passions against those who let their interests get completely out of control.

Unlike other fan-centric films like The King of Kong or the Trekkies series, The Rock-afire Explosion is a completely insular beast. As such, it feels insincere. Rather than getting the interviewees to open up about why Showbiz and Rock-afire meant so much to them (aside from throwaway Disneyland comparisons), Whitcomb and Thomason appear to just let the camera roll and leave the viewer to make their own decisions. That sounds great, until Thrash asserts that he only drinks Mountain Dew--like, exclusively. If you were to meet someone like that in real life, I imagine you'd want to know more about their situation; instead, the comment is left floating in the air, like a word balloon circling a cartoon character.

I also found it troubling that, aside from Fechter's wife, Kerry--herself a lifelong Rock-afire fan--the filmmakers don't interview anyone from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. We're told that Showbiz Pizza (and, by extension, The Rock-afire Explosion) began in the South, but the movie would have you believe that its appreciation is strictly a regional quirk. Are there fans in Peotone, Illinois or Sydney, Australia? I don't know--because the film's lens is so narrow.

Worst of all, the coda provides a brief "Where are they now" catch-up, in which we learn that Thrash and his wife, Sandy (whom he met and married at the local roller rink--yeah, you can't write this shit), opened their own, local Showbiz franchise--complete with the fully functional Rock-afire kit Chris purchased from Fechter's warehouse. This information breezes right past, and I wanted nothing more than to hear that story.

During the previous seventy minutes, Thrash is presented as a developmentally arrested rube who married an almost literal bump-on-a-log with terrible teeth. That the couple had the wherewithal and ambition to open a business together is a twist of pre-crash-Shyamalan mastery. Again, it's a footnote in the freak show.

Even if Whitcomb and Thomason didn't care to get into their subjects' personal lives, would it have killed them to interview some experts on pop culture and/or psychologists who deal with these kinds of obsessions? Was it too much trouble to chronicle the length and significance of Rock-afire's YouTube phenomenon? The movie left me feeling queasily like that wasn't the point of this exercise; that an interviewer likely sat, straight-backed and empathy-faced, listening to subjects drone on about the ape piano player's molds and gears--while a producer giggled into his ear mic, urging him to make the next question about the durability of collectible cups.

*Yes, two is one too many.


The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Last Horror Movie

In a post-screening Q&A* of his directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard explained that the film was shelved for three years not because of studio concerns over quality (as is often the case), but because MGM went bankrupt. Lionsgate eventually acquired the rights, and will release the movie nationwide on Friday, April 13th. This is an early review.

Thank God for the financial meltdown. Just as Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns would not have set the comics world on fire before 1986, The Cabin in the Woods arrives at the perfect moment in its medium's history: the point at which the genre it comments on, satirizes, and demolishes has been completely run into the ground by years of sub-par garbage.

By 2009, mainstream horror was on its last legs. Deconstructing it then in the way that Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon do here would have been like shooting a zombie in the chest instead of the head. The genre had to creak along and suffer through barrell-scraping remakes; hand-held-horror and its attendant, cheap sequels; and, finally, Wes Craven's limp-dicked stab at re-invigorating the monster he'd helped reanimate--after it had already bored legions of victims to death. If the world ends tomorrow, and The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be mankind's last horror movie, I'd say we're going out on top.

"No more preamble! Talk about the movie!"

Fair enough, Fictive Reader Voice, but I must say this really is the kind of film you'll want to experience blind. Watching the trailer or even looking at the poster gives away far too much information.

Ah, hell with it. Let's just dive in.

Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly should know right off the bat that a Goddard-and-Whedon horror movie isn't going to be like other horror movies. I'd even say it's a stretch to give The Cabin in the Woods that label; like the grand scheme of the film's sinister puppeteers, the film wears the skin of a standard stalk 'n slash, but is essentially a wry sci-fi comic yarn. Yes, five college kids head to a remote cabin for Spring Break and wind up resurrecting a family of "pain-worshipping redneck zombies", but they don't do so in a vacuum.

Beneath them is an expansive underground lab that controls the reality of the cabin and its surrounding woods (did I mention that Goddard also wrote on Lost?). Two bored bureaucrats, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, oversee a vast array of manipulative technology that leads these kids to their respective, gruesome dooms. When sociology-major-turned-jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth), orders the gang to stay together at the height of the zombie outbreak, one of the lab attendants releases a fine mist that helps him change his mind.

Early on, the group's stoner/dweeb, Marty (Fran Kranz), begins to see through the lab's ruse--though he can't be sure if he's being astute or just succumbing to the potent weed he inhales like oxygen. Soon, he and the others are running for their lives, not just from the trowel-wielding undead, but from electrified force fields and mountain-pass tunnels that mysteriously collapse on their own. When the smoke clears, there's a Survivor Girl, of course (mousy Dana, played by Kristen Connolly), and a mysterious door in the woods' floor.

Seriously, you need to turn back now if you intend on seeing this film!

The door leads to the lab, which, in form and function, is like the Umbrella Corporation's Racoon City operation from Resident Evil, crossed with Willy Wonka's factory. Dana and Marty** find themselves as sacrificial offerings in a corporate game whose purpose is to placate the ancient, pissed-off gods slumbering near the Earth's core. Stations just like this one exist around the world to create horror-movie scenarios based on indigenous pop culture tropes (the Japanese facility stages a creepy-ghost-girl setup)--each tasked with providing both bodies and sadistic entertainment for the beasts.

The tag line for The Cabin in the Woods is "You think you know the story," and I have to hand it to Goddard and Whedon: I didn't think any more could be mined from the slasher/possession/zombie premise. Their attention to detail in dredging up every stereotype and story cliche of the past thirty years and turning them on their ugly heads is breathtaking. When Dana and Marty open the floodgates on the caged monsters that the lab workers keep handy for any scenario, Cabin makes a sharp turn into gooey-bloodbath territory, offering as many chuckles as stomach-turning moments. It's like the prison-riot scene from Natural Born Killers, but with Hellraiser's Pinhead and Samara from The Ring as the inmates.

I also appreciate that the filmmakers take me seriously as an audience member. Rather than a shiny save-the-day scenario, Goddard and Whedon see their premise through to the end. Goddard, who also wrote the grim, shaky-cam phenomenon, Cloverfield, seems to take great joy in killing everyone off and then wiping out the planet. The same is true here, but it's hard to be bummed out when laughing your ass off. That was my experience, anyway.

If you've read this whole thing without having watched The Cabin in the Woods, I can only hang my head in disappointment. You should check out the movie anyway; it's fantastic, regardless of the twists and turns. But no amount of snappy dialogue, and brilliant character actors infectiously enjoying their time on-screen can make up for having robbed yourself of surprises. This is a breakup letter to horror movies as much as it is a love letter; it understands that the only place left to take the genre is so far out into left field that most fans won't recognize it as a a horror movie. In this way, The Cabin in the Woods is also a eulogy, and a spectacular one at that.

*Special thanks to Steve Prokopy of Ain't it Cool News for hosting the event, courtesy of Lionsgate.

**I told you to turn back!


Endhiran (2010)

Sweet Gig

Before watching Endhiran yesterday, I'd never seen a Bollywood* film. What better introduction to the genre than the most expensive and spectacular movie of its kind? Had Stephen Chow made Terminator 2 as a romantic comedy with a nasty streak, it might have looked like this. I'm a huge fan of Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, and wouldn't be surprised to learn that Endhiran's director, S. Shankar, is, too.

The movie stars Rajnikanth as Dr. Vaseegaran, a computer scientist obsessed with developing the perfect android. With his two bumbling lab assistants, Siva (Santhanam) and Ravi (Karunas), he constructs Chitti (also played by Rajnikanth), a head-to-toe approximation of himself with gargantuan strength and light-speed intelligence. Vaseegaran hopes to win the approval of AIRD, the robotics council, so that he can sell Chitti to the army; he reasons that using capable, humanoid drones in place of flesh-and-blood humans will help prevent senseless death (except for the other side, I guess).

Standing in his way is mentor and council member, Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa), an evil genius who's building his own legion of killer androids in secret, which he plans to sell to terrorists for use as suicide bombers. His research has hit a snag, though--namely, he can't figure out why his robots are so dumb. Chitti, sends his mind into overdrive, plotting ways to separate creation from creator.

Sana (Aishwarya Rai Bachan) wants the same thing, but for different reasons: she's Vaseegaran's girlfriend, and played second fiddle to Chitti even before he was created. Once the robot emerges fully formed, she becomes infatuated with both its innocence and curiosity with her; Chitti, in turn, begins to encounter a bizarre and nefarious virus that corrupts his programming: emotions.

Endhiran is divided into three parts, which I like to think of as, "Creation", "Devotion", and "Destruction". They're pretty evenly spread across each of its three hours; because I had to watch the film in three sittings over the course of a day, I can highly recommend this as the best way to appreciate the story. As Chitti becomes more emotionally aware, he becomes a threat to Vaseegaran, then to Sana (who doesn't appreciate his weird advances) and, ultimately, to the world.

There's way too much plot to cover here, and doing so would destroy the awesome discoveries that await you. From the first recorded incident of android-assisted birth, to a bargaining conference with mosquitoes, to the most insane freeway chase/police stand-off you will ever see (until Endhiran 2, no doubt), Shankar packs his movie with more spectacle, surprise, and heart than most American action blockbusters of the last decade.

If you're thinking about looking up scenes or trailers on YouTube first, allow me to warn against that. My friend, Phil, lent me the movie, sight unseen, and was prepared for a cheesy laugh-riot. He came away disappointed. In turn, I expected gaudy, cheaply made, indefensible junk. After fifteen minutes, though, I was completely caught up in Shankar's weird world. Sure, the computer effects pale in comparison to mainstream CG houses, but they work in the same cartoonish way that similar gags worked in Big Man Japan or Kung Fu Hustle. The effects artists don't seem to care about how the audience will perceive the "reality" of their work, and pour all their energies into making what amount to Ray Harryhausen-style destruction sequences. The images look goofy at first, but quickly blend into the goofy world in which they're allowed to exist.

But it's not all fun and games. I mentioned a "nasty streak" before, and there are scenes in this film that dropped my jaw like it was made out of lead. Though it's mostly a comedy, and partly a romance, Endhiran deals with the dark side of giving emotions to machines that only understand logic. Chitti harms people. At first innocently, and to great comic effect; eventually, he becomes a full-on, girl-obsessed terminator--with all the crushed heads and eviscerated bodies that implies.

Shankar and co-writers Karky, Swanand Kirkire, and Shree Ramakrishna also inject some fascinating social commentary into the screenplay regarding Indian cultural perceptions of nudity. What begins as a cause for celebration quickly devolves into a nightmare of persecution and deadly shame. You'll know exactly what I mean when you watch the film.

I'd be remiss in not bringing up the musical numbers. There are, if I recall correctly, six or seven of them, and they pop up about every twenty minutes. These aren't musical numbers as Americans typically think of them. Mostly, they're full-on fantasy music videos in which the characters perform the emotions they feel in the real world. These elaborate affairs with dozens of extras, outrageous costumes, and some of the most unintentionally (?) hilarious lyrics ever to be recorded are like everything else in Endhiran: there's not a cynical beat in them, and the actors sell the epic, otherworldly profundity with each movement and verse. The music is catchy, too, even if you don't speak Tamil.

What began as a lark turned out to be one of the most fun and satisfying viewing experiences I've had in a long time. As Endhiran played, I kept wishing I'd been able to see it on the big screen in an old-time movie palace. Rather than the empty idiocy implied by the term "blockbuster", Shankar delivers an upbeat, soulful love story that's as sure to satisfy fans of mushy romance as well as sci-fi geeks who love seeing CG extras get torn in half. If every movie were as giddily entertaining as this one, the market for antidepressants would shrivel up and die in a week. 

*For the uninitiated, "Bollywood" is short-hand for Indian (Hindi) cinema.


The Hunger Games (2012)

The Interests of Conflict

Novel adaptations are often the hardest movies to write about. If I haven't read the source material and dislike the film,* I'm accused of not having done my homework. If I've read the book, it stays with me through the movie: a split screen plays in my head, displaying what I already know versus what the director and screenwriter have omitted, added, changed, etc.--making the subsequent critique half book report and half film review. In these cases, I'm accused of not giving the movie a fair shake as its own thing.

But how do you un-know something? Isn't the point of an adaptation to not only create new fans but also to help existing ones visualize the worlds they'd painted in their minds? My litmus test for judging an adaptation's success has always hinged on whether or not the movie made me want to read the book. It's easier to think in reverse terms: many people can't wait to see their favorite characters and far-away places realized on the big screen because, frankly, many of these folks lack imagination.

Wait, that was a bit harsh--and probably not entirely correct. I should say that they lack an ability to be satisfied with their imagination's rendering of events. How else to describe the puzzling truckloads of cash gobbled up by the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises? I doubt the stories are any better on screen than they were in readers' heads the first time they encountered them on the page. So there must be something to the notion of stories not being valid or good enough until the "real" version--the "definitive" movie version--makes its way to the multiplex.

This disturbing, Shiny Objects Syndrome runs rampant in pop culture, and is the reason I find it harder and harder to enjoy insanely popular movies. If the key to "getting" Avatar is ignoring the fact that I've seen less-pretty versions of it a hundred times before, then what chance do I have against The Hunger Games--a film that, despite author Suzanne Collins' protestations, is too similar to Battle Royale to be given the benefit of having a unique identity?

Yes, kids, I'm finally going to review this movie. I'll begin by saying that I was more engaged by The Hunger Games than I was any of the Lord of the Rings films or the entire Harry Potter franchise. The Twilight saga gets a slight leg up in the entertainment department because of how awful those movies are. But for the first time in more than a decade, I found hope in a movie targeted at teens, which adults are supposed to take seriously. Granted, much of this enjoyment was thanks to elements directly or indirectly lifted from Battle Royale.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager living in a post-war America that has been renamed "Panem". She hunts for food with best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and raises her kid sister, Prim (Willow Shields); the girls' mother has been emotionally unavailable since the death of their father in a coal mining accident years earlier.** The movie opens on Reaping Day, when representatives from The Capitol descend on Katniss' village to randomly select one boy and one girl to participate in The Hunger Games.

Prim is chosen, and Katniss immediately offers herself up as a replacement. Representing the boys is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a more privileged local who's long hidden a crush for his new competitor. The teens are shuttled off to The Capitol and mentored by a drunken former Games champion named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). He reluctantly teaches them strategy, while state-appointed stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) gives them outrageous makeovers (via an illusion that makes their wardrobes appear to burst into flame). Presiding over this crew is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the cheery, plastic face of the government's iron-fisted glam regime.

About half the movie is eaten up by prologue and extended training montages, with Katniss and Peeta steeling themselves for battle against twenty-two other kids--one pair from each of the eleven other Districts of Panem. They test weapons, get into scraps, and appear on a popular television show to talk about their journeys. This portion, while interesting, is like the slower parts of the X-Men franchise, crossed with Access Hollywood's coverage of Jersey Shore set drama.

When the game begins, however, the brightly colored world of The Capitol is replaced by a gray, savage wilderness, where the twenty-four contestants must first race to a giant, metal cornucopia to select their weapons and then make for the woods. Several children die in the first five minutes, and I was surprised at the brutality of the attacks. Soon, though, the movie settles in for a prolonged and only intermittently interesting chase through the woods. Members of the more elite Districts form an alliance to hunt and kill the weaker kids, and the manner in which they're picked off becomes the main reason to stay tuned in--kind of like a Friday the 13th movie.

If you've never seen Battle Royale (or The Running Man, for that matter) or read the Hunger Games books, this might all seem very novel and exciting. Or maybe not. I was pleasantly surprised at how grim the material was allowed to get, seeing as this is a shameless ploy for mall money.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but think how much stronger the movie would have been as an R-rated picture. It's not that I needed to see all the blood and guts that are merely implied--though the shaky-cam and cut-aways give much of the action an edited-for-TV feel. No, the real reason I would've appreciated an adult Hunger Games is because--despite strong social and political themes--director Gary Ross and co-writers Collins and Billy Ray sideline many of their great ideas by either not seeing them through or getting caught up in the conventions of teen-fantasy story structure.

They're also handicapped by the fact that the audience knows The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy. We have zero doubt as to who will be left standing at the end, and I have no idea how the filmmakers will pad out this story for another three installments.*** Frankly, I don't care what happens. Unless the creators have some mind-bending new direction in which to take these characters, I have little interest in seeing a third, fourth, or fifth kiddie Xerox of Battle Royale.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy my time with Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence is a solid actor, and a welcome change from this generation's other puzzling feminist-of-fantasy, Kristen Stewart. In fact, the whole cast is pretty good, though I quickly grew impatient with all the Big Stars in the adult roles. It smacks vaguely of stunt casting, but more so of several savvy agents going "beep beep beep" as they promise armies of money trucks backing up to their clients' gated communities.

Only Stanley Tucci manages to do more with his part than simply show up; as the wacky TV personality Caesar Flickerman, he brings a sinister energy to the film that the actual bad guys can't muster.

This is all to say that I thought The Hunger Games was okay. It kept my interest and occasionally excited me, but the truth remains that it is, at best, a less-focused and wimpier version of Battle Royale. I hate to keep coming back to this, but those of you who've seen both films will get what I'm talking about right away. 

As for Ms. Collins' claims that she hadn't heard of Battle Royale until after she'd handed in her manuscript, I'm going to go on record as saying that I don't believe her. Even if I accept the premise that she was inspired by reality television and the Iraq War, she wrote The Hunger Games in the age of Google. I would think that one of the first steps in writing a novel today is research--not the library kind, but a few simple keystrokes that will help an author determine whether or not their bold, original idea has already been taken.

In Collins' case, a query such as "teens killing each other on an island" would have brought up a reference to either Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale. Add keywords like "contest" and "random weapons", and there's no way to avoid Kinji Fukasaku's movie.

There's also the sticky little matter of Collins' editor at Penguin Books telling her that he didn't "want that world in her head" when she asked him if she should look into the Battle Royale novel, books, or comics after they were brought to her attention. She insists to this day that she never peeked; I guess multi-million-dollar publishing contracts and film residuals are enough to buy willful ignorance these days--or at least to claim it.

You don't have to be a fan of her books to recognize this as Capitol thinking.

Note: I started reading the first Hunger Games book a few days ago, and am intrigued enough to keep going. Judging from the few pages I've read, the novel is far superior (if for no other reason that it actually explains why the contest is called "The Hunger Games"), and I think the best way to experience this story is to read the book, skip the film, and rent Battle Royale.

*This happens eight times out of ten.

**In case you're wondering: no, I didn't mistakenly cut-and-paste a portion of my Winter's Bone review.

***Yes, I know there are only three books in the series, but given this genre's track record, the third will likely be split into two installments.


Battle Royale (2000)

Wasted Youth

Imagine a totalitarian government that, aided by the media, forces randomly selected teenagers to compete in a harrowing fight to the death. Fans of The Hunger Games novels may be disappointed that this is not an early review of the new movie adaptation, but rather of Battle Royale--a controversial Japanese film that came out nearly ten years before book one was published.

I'm not here to argue my belief or non-belief of Suzanne Collins' claims that she'd never heard of Battle Royale before writing her wildly successful kid-lit opus--that will happen tomorrow, after I see The Hunger Games. Regardless, director Kinji Fukasaku and writer Koushun Takami's film (based on Kenta Fuasaku's book) is distinctly powerful and original in its own right. The decade-plus since its release has seen rampant speculation about an American remake--speculation always followed by head-shaking insistence that no mainstream studio would dare to go as far as the original.

At the turn of the century, we're told, Japan experienced a violent outbreak of teenage rebellion that led the government to pass the Millennium Education Reform Act. Under this law,several times a year, a class of high school students is randomly drugged, transported to a remote island, and then revived in order to participate in "Battle Royale".

They are provided backpacks stocked with food, water, a map, and a weapon--the effectiveness of which is not always apparent (a pot lid, for example, might seem pathetic compared to an uzi, until desperation and imagination kick in). At the end of three days, only one person can remain standing. Otherwise, the explosive collars with which everyone in the group has been outfitted will detonate. To keep the action moving, the island has been split into zones that emit signals to the collars during certain times of day. This prevents the children from simply waiting out the action or seeking a means of escape.

Battle Royale features a class comprised of forty-two students, many of whom recognize the man administering their collective torture: Kitano-sensi (Takeshi Kitano), a former teacher who resigned years earlier after having been stabbed outside of class. He watches them with the cool, distant stare of a zoo janitor, while cruelly barking out inspirational phrases over the island's many loudspeakers ("Go for it!").

The film tells many of the kids' stories through vignettes ranging from ten-second flashbacks to several sub-plots peppered throughout the long weekend. Mostly, it centers on Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), two friends who we know will eventually fall in love. Spinning out from there is a web comprised of his crowd and her crowd, plus their mutual enemies and their enemies' enemies--amping up the already magnified world of teenage drama and petty differences to epically lethal proportions.

It's a child-centric story, for sure, but don't mistake Battle Royale for the kind of movie where spunky, resourceful kids band together to defeat the bad guys. No, this film is a brilliant study in human behavior, particularly youth behavior. The movie's deaths are often sudden and shocking because the actors all look like they were picked from a real high school assembly. Many get picked off early on due either to clumsiness or not understanding how high the stakes really are. Others succumb to despair and exit the game early, of their own accord. Still others use Battle Royale as an excuse to get revenge for past wrongs and turn into far-from-expert, wannabe killing machines. If it weren't for the inclusion of two older boys--outsiders who'd survived previous battles--I don't know that anyone would have been left of this lot.

Ah, yes, the older kids. Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) survived a previous challenge and was recruited again to compete against students three years his junior. He befriends Shuya and Noriko as a sort of badass Han Solo; mostly, he helps them stear clear of the other older boy, Kazuo (Masanobu Ando), a psychopath who volunteered for the games so he could execute people. His status as the island's most dangerous hunter is rivaled only by Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki), though both of them share an appetite for blood that far outmatches their skills--Kazuo never learns to properly fire his machine gun, choosing to let stray bullets do most of the damage.

But I digress, sort of. Battle Royale takes the premise of teens killing each other as a form of discipline and population control to all the great, bleak conclusions the premise implies. Sure, it gets a bit goofy towards the end, as Kitano goes off the rails and professes what may or may not be inappropriate affection for Noriko--but his character stands as a great warning to both teens and adults. His is a tragic story of an educator betrayed by his students who gives up and runs in the totally opposite direction: if you can't beat 'em, give 'em weapons and a deadline. I also love his opening speech, in which he essentially lays out information that any one of the kids could have discovered had they paid attention to the wider world around them.

Battle Royale is the reason I have huge problems with most American movies aimed at teen audiences. Actually, my problem isn't with the teens--they are, after all, who Harry Potter is made for. No, I take issue with the adults who defend such things as entertaining, dark filmmaking. When someone tries to convince me how heavy the drama is in, say, The Deathly Hallows Part Two, I wonder what their reaction would be to seeing Hermione Granger stumble out of the enchanted woods with an arrow through her neck. Now, that's heavy drama!

I'm not suggesting that every film aimed at kids feature dismemberment and betrayal, but there's a big difference between movies made about children and movies made for children. If you're going to suggest that I give a story about pubescents legit consideration, at the very least I'd appreciate some emotional honesty and a conflict whose resolution can't be guessed by looking at the poster or release schedule. If you're truly hungry for a smart, gripping coming-of-age story with a sick sense of humor and a sicker body count, you can't beat Battle Royale.