Saturday, April 28, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 2

Silent Hill 2 -- In My Restless Dreams, I Adore This Game

Here’s one awesome thing that games have over films: with games, it’s more common for the sequel to top the original. After all, the first game in a series is kind of the prototype, the shot in the dark. Can this work? Okay, what didn’t work? Let’s fix it! Whereas movie sequels’ attempts to “outdo” their predecessor often fall horribly flat. (This may be changing; note the Harry Potter series, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, Toy Story 3, etc. On the other hand, Cars 2.) Some of my favorite video games ever are sequels: Resident Evil 4, Sly Cooper 2, Riven....and, holy fucking shit on toast, Silent Hill 2.

If there was ever a perfect case of learning from the original, it’d be Silent Hill 2. It’s barely even a sequel, really; it tells a self-contained story and references the first game only fleetingly. The boys at Konami took the bold step of moving sideways instead of forward, asking the big question of how exactly the haunted town of Silent Hill preys upon the mind. Suddenly, the town isn’t merely a physical site where bad things have happened, but a mental site as well, a true dreamscape. It’s a place where the tortured and damned are drawn, somehow -- perhaps because evil calls out to evil, or because we can only find redemption by facing down our own demons. Call it an extremely painful and traumatizing health spa for the soul. Isn’t that more interesting than some nonsense about a religious cult?

Silent Hill 2 is not about killing monsters. It’s about one man’s private journey straight into the depths of hell. That man is James Sunderland, who has been half-catatonic since his wife, Mary, died from disease. Impossibly, he gets a letter from Mary, inviting him to Silent Hill, where they vacationed in happier times. Torn between disbelief and pitiful hope, James drives to Silent Hill and heads in on foot when the road is blocked. What he finds is the corpse of a town, slowly rotting away with no one to see. The roads have collapsed. The storefronts yawn vacantly. The mist never lifts. There are monsters in the mist, but they seem more pitiable than dangerous. James begins his search, and the town of Silent Hill begins to work on him....and on the player.

What I admire about this game is that it’s so quiet. So understated. Yes, there are loud and violent moments, but for the most part, James is locked in stillness and solitude. In such an environment, you dread the horror even more. You jump at every noise, and boy, does this game know how to make use of scary sounds and music. The predominant flavor of fear on display in Silent Hill 2 is not shock or panic, but dread. Cold, creeping dread. The certainty that nothing is right or normal. This is generated not only by the sound design and the sense of isolation, but also by the careful doling out of horrific images. They scare at first glance, then get under your skin on a subliminal level. Example: at one point, James revisits a room he already searched, and finds that a bloody corpse is now seated in a chair, facing a TV which is showing static. Someone put the corpse there. Recently. Every time James enters this room, chilling music plays. Nothing else happens and I know nothing else will happen, but even after multiple playthroughs, I still dread going into that room. Oh, and you can’t really see it, but the corpse looks exactly like James.

Silent Hill 2 is entirely the story of James. As you play the game for the first time, you realize that what you’re experiencing is far more than generic frights; it’s a nightmare that is custom-tailored. The town has somehow reached into James’s mind. It has become James’s mind. He mourns his wife, yet resents her for dying -- thus, the monsters are mostly female in appearance, and James encounters a woman who looks like his wife, but is sexier, needier, more slavish to him. Everything he hates about himself is paraded before his eyes. Pyramid Head makes his debut in this game, and while it’s easy to joke about the infamous scene where he rapes a lady-monster, it doesn’t make him any less terrifying. There are moments in the game where you encounter Pyramid Head with no warning or fanfare; he’s just THERE, stalking James in the dark. Only, in a fucked-up way, he kind of is James. And only James; despite what future Silent Hill games would have you think, Pyramid Head only belongs in the psyche of James Sunderland. What I love is that we get flashes of other nightmares; James meets two other tortured people, Angela and Eddie, who are both dangerous in their own way, and who are almost certainly seeing something completely different than James. And there is a little girl, Laura, whose innocence protects her from the nightmare -- although she, too, has a danger about her. One of the game’s most horrifying sequences comes when Laura locks James in a room, I won’t spoil it. It’d make anyone shit their pants.

Does the game have any flaws at all? Well, yeah. There are only three types of monsters that appear regularly, and fighting them is very repetitive, especially in the claustrophobic indoor sections where running isn’t an option. The puzzles and item hunts are arbitrary, but then, it wouldn’t be a survival horror game without utterly nonsensical puzzle logic -- right, Resident Evil? The graphics probably aren’t the best, but in a game like this, that actually works. Everything is murky and unclean-looking; sometimes the whole town seems like a diseased organ. The voice acting is a tad weak, the combat is still lousy....and you know what? Fuck all this nitpicking. The more you play Silent Hill 2, the more trivial these things seem. The game just gets better and scarier as it goes, and it culminates in a couple really devastating plot twists and the possibility of several endings, some of which just fucking ruin you, emotionally. A lot is left unexplained, but in a way that cries out for juicy theorizing. In pure storytelling terms, Silent Hill 2 can’t be beat; the scene near the end, with the fire and the staircase, took my breath away. Those who played the game should know what I’m talking about.

Okay, time to come up for air after fellating this game for several paragraphs. The bottom line is, Silent Hill 2 represents everything that’s good about the Silent Hill series and almost nothing that’s bad. While it isn’t a perfect game, it is without a doubt the scariest game I’ve ever played, and one of the best overall. It took the concept of the haunted tourist town to giddy heights. I’m far from the only one who adores Silent Hill 2, and my big regret is that the series peaked this early. Silent Hill 2 was so awesome that it couldn’t really be topped. Konami and various Western developers have been trying ever since to make lighting strike twice. But it won’t.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 1

Silent Hill -- A Good Town to Grow Dead In

Let’s sit down around the campfire for a few minutes and talk about horror. Horror is much harder to capture than you think. It’s far more than just having dudes in masks jump out of dark spaces and machete horny bimbos in half. That’s just cheap surprise. Real horror creeps up on you, slithers under your skin, and takes over your body, imbuing you with a mix of paralysis and shivery pleasure. It’s hard to describe. I can’t quite say why I chuckle at the Friday the 13th movies, yet am rendered fetal with terror while reading “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood. It’s different for everyone. But there are some accepted universals.

The Silent Hill series is my favorite video game franchise of them all, largely because it’s truly scary -- in fits and starts, anyway. It’s scary because it doesn’t draw a line between the player character and the nightmare. It sucks you into its fear and implies that you are not an observer or survivor, you are part of the horror, maybe even its author. It’s cerebral and, at its best, quite subtle. You don’t realize that you’re terrified until you’ve been playing for seven hours and your fingers are perma-locked around the controller. Because fear is a drug. And I’d like to discuss my addiction. So welcome to Part One of my Silent Hill review series. I’m gonna go over all the console games and, as a bonus, the 2006 film. Put on your wellies and grab a jumbo iced tea because it’s RETROSPECTION TIIIIIIME!

First, the backstory. Silent Hill is a lakeside tourist town somewhere in America (Maine, possibly, or West Virginia) that, according to the guidebooks, is a serene and welcoming haven where visitors of all ages will have a gay old time. Ho ho ho. Actually, the town was built right on top of an undefined, intangible evil that tends to infect the mind and soul. Behind the picturesque scenery and quaint small-town charm, something is wrong. The town seems to attract foulness; prisoners are locked up underground, children are brainwashed in the woods, there’s a rather unusual drug trade, and a pseudo-Christian religious cult known as the Order has the town in its grip. By the time you, the player, arrive on the scene, Silent Hill is choked off from the world by fog and falling ash, its inhabitants are missing or butchered, and there are monsters. Lots and lots of fucked-up monsters. Who are possibly ordinary people that you are perceiving as monsters. As if that weren’t bad enough, the town’s reality sometimes shifts into a lightless, rusty, bloodsoaked Otherworld where anything can happen. And it does.

This is what you’re flung into in the first game, which was released in 1999 by Konami. It’s a terrific premise, the game rocks, and I’m now going to upend expectations by saying that I find Silent Hill 1 to be the weakest in the series. Oh, well. Its blahness is mainly due to technical limitations, which I’ll get to in a moment. You play as a widower named Harry Mason, searching for his young daughter, who has a strange connection with Silent Hill. (SPOILER ALERT) Your search through the town leads to the discovery of Alessa Gillespie, a girl with possible psychic powers who was intended as a sacrifice for the Order. Needless to say, things did not go well, and Alessa became a catalyst for the evil force that presides in the town. Harry just wants to find his kid and go home; he’s your typical everyman, forced to be an unwilling player in a game he doesn’t understand. The gameplay introduced most of the series’ trademarks: thick fog, low lighting, disorienting fixed camera angles, a radio that buzzes with static when monsters are near, and a whole lot of ambiguous symbolism. The sense of being alone and ignorant, of stumbling along with little to no knowledge of events, would also become the norm. And on a horror story level, it’s brilliant. There’s no comfort. No relief. You can’t predict what will happen next, and you dread every monster because Harry’s fighting skills are desperate and amateurish. It puts your mind through the wringer.

Where the first Silent Hill game fails, for me anyway, is on a technical level. Yeah, I respect it as The First One, but it hasn’t aged too well. The PS1 graphics just look bad, and one suspects that the fog and darkness were partly conceived to hide the sloppy visuals. The controls are clunky as hell; Harry movies like a tank with its treads covered in used chewing gum. Also, this was back before there were small armies devoted to redubbing Japanese games, so the English dialogue and voice acting are painful. Harry asks “Have you seen my daughter?” in the tone of voice one would use on the phone with one’s tax accountant. The sound design is pretty good, as is the music by Akira Yamaoka, who provided this and future games with a mournful, quietly unsettling soundtrack that’s masterful in its subtlety. Even then, it doesn’t quite hold up. The game’s other problem is that it’s too vague. Ambiguity is fine, but Silent Hill 1 is so stingy with its plot details that it fails to satisfy; I actually appreciated the film version for clarifying what the hell was going on. Of course, like I said before, lack of answers makes for a more harrowing experience.

I think it’s just me. I mourn the fact that I never knew the experience of playing this game for the first time, back when the first PlayStation console was still the bee’s knees. It would have blown me away, I think. Because the sheer shivery enjoyment of these games rises above any technical issue. There is nothing quite like them. They whisper in your ear while tickling your neck with a knife blade. Play them late at night with the sound turned up, if you dare. They’re fucking scary, and as we’ll see, the next game in the series took all the good stuff, discarded the bad stuff, and ended up a minor masterpiece.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Top 10 Assholes

First, God created Man. Then God thought Man’s existence could use some spicing up, so God created Assholes. And some time later, Man said, “Hey, maybe there’s a place for Assholes in pop culture! They represent all our flaws, force us to laugh at our own follies, and say the things we wish we could say!” And it was good.

An Asshole is not the same thing as a Douchebag. Almost all Douchebags are horrible, offensive, loathsome creatures who should be shipped to a tiny island with no women to date-rape and only enough hair gel for one head. Assholes, on the other hand, can be funny, relatable, and even lovable. Sometimes they’re villains we love to hate, sometimes we’re not-so-secretly rooting for them. Here are my faves!


Dilbert is well-populated by jerks, cynics, tools, and morons. Rising to the top of the heap is Dilbert’s pal Dogbert, truly the greatest asshole to ever hit the comics page. It’s almost as if Dogbert was put on this world to test those around him -- can they maintain their sanity in the face of his monumentally selfish, despotic, and borderline-socipathic behavior? The bespectacled canine with the egg-shaped body loves two things, himself and absolute power, and nothing gives him greater satisfaction than to pat the former on the back while abusing the everloving fuck out of the latter. Truly, it takes “man’s best friend” to point out all the reasons why he’s better suited to run the world than the incompetent human race. And then it won’t matter how rich or successful you are. You will be Dogbert’s personal slave. Now quack like a duck.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: After mastering hypnosis, Dogbert hacks some satellites and takes over the planet. When we complain, he makes us all wear bras over our shirts. And then he gets bored and decides we don’t deserve to be enslaved by him. If only other despotic tyrants could be this full of themselves.

Frau Totenkinder
She’s Hansel and Gretel’s nemesis. She turned the Frog Prince froggy. She has existed for millennia, accumulating a godlike degree of power through the murdering of innocent children. And she’s one of the good guys. Yes, Frau Totenkinder from the Fables comic series is definitely someone you want on your side, even if you don’t feel comfortable being in the same room as her. Seated in the rocking chair that somehow follows her everywhere, knitting placidly away, and the whole time, she’s carving and filleting you with her eyes. Her motives are so obtuse that not even a king would dare question them, and the best guess the other Fables can make is that she allied herself with the forces of good because she felt vaguely sorry for them, the poor little lambs. Without spoiling her big character arc, let me just say that Frau Totenkinder kicks more ass than just about anyone in the universe. And, man, is she a gigantic asshole. AND SHE LOVES IT.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: The sleazy Prince Charming is elected mayor of Fabletown, basing his campaign around the promise of magic spells to humanize the non-human Fables so they can live normally in a modern world. But he doesn’t get to enjoy his inaugural ball, because Frau Totenkinder, wearing the biggest trollface you ever saw, informs him that you can’t just dispense magic like prescription meds, all the stuff he promised will never happen, and maybe he should have consulted her first. Problem?

General Tsao
Chickens are supposed to lay eggs and become delicious when you place them in an oven. Chickens are not supposed to rule half of China, proclaim themselves living gods, and treat women like shit. That’s why General Tsao, one of the bad guys from Sly Cooper 3: Honor Among Thieves, is such a glorious mix of funny and repulsive. Some might accuse Sucker Punch of racial stereotyping (note the Fu Manchu facial hair and thick Engrish accent), but come on. It’s a chicken. Named General Tsao. However, all goofiness aside, Tsao is one of the best villains in the Sly universe. Arrogant, delusional, and inflated by hubris, he kidnaps an unwilling young maiden to be his wife, and Sly and the gang vow to get her back. By the end of the caper, they’ve basically decided to punish Tsao as much as possible because he’s that fucking unpleasant. Kudos, Sucker Punch, for creating a character whose picture should be in the dictionary next to “Huge, Raging Asshole From Hades.”
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: After Tsao says that his weeping, terrified bride-to-be doesn’t know what the hell she wants because she’s just a woman, Sly basically informs him, “You’re the worst person I’ve ever met.” To recap, Sly has gone up against a tyrant king who pulverizes villages for fun, a giant spider who brainwashes the innocent while wearing the badge of a police agent, and the group of bastards who MURDERED HIS OWN PARENTS, and he doesn’t think any of them are quite as bad as General Motherclucking Tsao.

So, you’re trapped in a room with an asshole who won’t shut up, only the asshole is a sentient computer who controls everything that happens in the room and is not-so-subtly out of her freaking artificial mind. GLaDOS from the Portal series is one of the best video game villains in human history, largely because she manages to be both menacing and balls-out hilarious. Her voice, intended by her makers to be soothing, makes you want to scream; voice actress Ellen McLain imbues every line with dripping, passive-aggressive contempt. It’s no secret that GLaDOS wants to kill you in all sorts of nasty ways, and yet, in a twisted sense, she depends on you. Like a lot of assholes, she needs constant self-validation, which she attempts to achieve by making you her personal squeaky toy and belittling you at every turn. God, what a bitch. It’s so satisfying to fuck with her plans and so disappointing when the game ends and you can no longer enjoy the pleasures of her smug psychological abuse.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: She murdered everyone in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin. And then she spent the entire game making you believe that you were the bad person.

Every tragic hero needs a nemesis. But how big of a bastard do you have to be to spend decades chasing a guy across France because he jumped parole after serving twenty years for stealing one measly loaf of bread? A Javert-sized bastard, apparently. The main baddie from Les Misérables is so smugly shortsighted, so convinced that Good and Evil are the only states of being, so unwilling to take his moral blinders off, that he elevates being an asshole to an art form. And he sings! He sings about how all criminals are inherently vile, how free thinkers should be stabbed to death, and how the stars remind him of Lucifer! Sound like the kind of guy you want to invite to your clam bake? Javert wins bonus points for his awesome threads. Big buttons and high leather boots are perfect asshole wear -- right, Nazi Germany?
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: His death scene, spoiler alert. Basically, the heroic Jean Valjean, whose life Javert has fucked up for so long, gets Javert at swordpoint -- but forgives him, gives him a condescending pat on the head, and lets him go. Suddenly, Javert is forced to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the nature of humanity and entertain the notion that maybe it’s not just our actions that define us. His narrow little mind can’t cope with this, so he kills himself. That’s right, he’d rather be dead than not be an asshole.

The Looney Tunes
All of them. Every single goddamn Looney Tunes character makes this list. They’re all assholes....bless them. Seriously, show me proof to the contrary. Bugs Bunny’s various antagonists all want to murder the fuck out of him, but Bugs, in his turn, torments them with spiteful glee. Sylvester the Cat is a self-loathing creep and Tweety Bird is a sadistic little shithead. Wile E. Coyote is an arrogant, delusional fool, but the Road Runner clearly enjoys annihilating him over and over. Pepe le Pew is a fucking RAPIST. Marvin the Martian is guilty of PLANET-WIDE GENOCIDE. And then there’s Daffy Duck, about whom encyclopedias of assholery could be written. Even the seemingly innocent ones, like Porky Pig or Sylvester Jr., are handy with the snark and sarcasm. And, c’mon, would we want it any other way? The Looney Tunes are us, with all our flaws on full display. We are all assholes, my friends, and it takes cartoon animals to make us realize it.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: I could never pick one single moment from a million. But “Ain’t I a stinker?” is up there, as is “Wabbit Season! Duck Season!” I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Master Li Kao
I’m gonna continue doing everything I can to make people notice Barry Hughart’s awesome Chinese fantasy trilogy. Today’s plug is for Master Li, who’s like Sherlock Holmes with seven or eight additional decades and even less ethics. This is a guy who fondly remembers the good old days when he was ninety, who rose to near-sainthood via his intellect and wisdom and then decided humanity was shit and could go to hell. Hughart’s books are basically supernatural detective stories, driven by Master Li’s ability to not only think outside the box, but destroy the box with sledgehammers and piss on the remains. Everywhere he goes, people get killed, fucked over, or (if they deserve it) showered with unexpected fortune via highly illicit methods. He takes nothing seriously, he has nothing to lose, and the naive world is his to corrupt. As Master Li is fond of saying, “there is a slight flaw in my character.” And it’s called giving so few fucks that his fuck-giving exists on a subatomic level.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: Master Li and his sidekick, Number Ten Ox, accidentally murder a creepy dude who happens to be the boyfriend of a very powerful warden. They have to dispose of the corpse in a way that leaves no room for error. So Master Li carves the dude up, turns him into a series of delicate gourmet dishes, and serves him to his own lover at a feast. And, just to prove how little of a fuck he gives, Master Li joins in the meal. Scrumdiddlyumptious.

Miles Straume
Yeah, yeah, it’s Lost again. Today’s token Lost entry is Miles Straume (played by Ken Leung), the conniving ghost whisperer who jumped onboard during the show’s fourth season to inject a dose of dickbaggery into the proceedings. Boy, did I find him welcome. While most of the characters insisted on being earnest about the show’s increasingly ludicrous plot, Miles took one look at the scenario and basically went, “You’re all fucking morons; how can I profit from this?” His utter lack of morals was a much-needed counterpoint to everyone else’s tiresome emotional baggage, and although Miles eventually got a sympathetic backstory, he never lost one bit of his edge. Clearly, he’d struck the right chord; latecomers to the show tended to fare poorly, but not only did Miles survive to the end, he also got away scot free with a stash of buried diamonds. He was rewarded for being an insufferable little shit whom you wanted to punch in the face. Says something about our values.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: I’d give it to his very first appearance on the show, when he arrived at a grieving woman’s house to ghost-whisper with her dead grandson. Left alone in the grandson’s room, Miles used his ability to uncover a massive wad of drug money, which he pocketed. Then he gave the lady a 50% discount on his usual fee. What a generous guy.

Sam the Eagle
I feel like the Muppets are well-stocked in the asshole department, but some of the funniest assholes of all are those with a misguided moral compass. Every single thing that Sam the Eagle says and does is hilarious for just this reason. Uptight, conservative, and very easily shocked, Sam sees the other Muppets as a festering horde of immoral weirdos whom only he can cure. Some of The Muppet Show’s best material came about when Sam tried, and inevitably failed, to make the show more wholesome. I find Sam oddly poignant; his wretched attempts to uphold political correctness are awfully close to home. I suspect Jim Henson and co. based Sam on some real people they encountered while shopping the Muppets around. Truly, Sam weeps the bitter tears of a clown. I feel for Sam, even as I’m laughing at his failure. He’s the asshole we all need to put life in perspective. Or he’s just a punchline. That works too.
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: Sam hijacks the show when Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev guest-stars, determined to show proper respect. His blatant man-crush only gets more comical as he confuses the dancer with an opera singer (“Culture is culture”), mistakes Nureyev for a bum and throws him out of the theatre, then watches in horror as Nureyev eschews ballet in favor of performing “Top Hat.”

Willy Wonka
As I mentioned before, Roald Dahl was such a good children’s author because he knew that, more often than not, kids need a boot in the trousers. That’s why one of his most beloved characters -- Willy Wonka, owner of the world’s most safety-inspector-proof chocolate factory -- wins kudos for essentially leading spoiled brats into horrible fates. Wonka is a mentor figure with a twist, a recluse who wants a child to inherit his factory but has little idea how real people actually think. In the original novel, he’s reckless and rude, dragging the other characters into one strange predicament after another. Of course, he’s better known in his movie incarnations: Gene Wilder in the 1971 adaptation, Johnny Depp in the 2005 take. Wilder, with his raving psychosis bubbling beneath his placid surface, is very effective, but I (unlike most people) like Depp’s Wonka a little better. He nails the misanthropic asshole behavior, giving us a man who knows and cares so little about actual human emotions that he might as well be from another planet. You don’t like him, but then, I’m not sure Dahl intended you to. Charlie is the hero and Wonka is the maladjusted sideshow. Sums up the role of the Asshole pretty well, no?
CLASSIC ASSHOLE MOMENT: In all versions of the tale, we love to watch Wonka’s careless, quietly amused reactions as the four brats get what’s coming to them. On Augustus Gloop’s fatal conversion into chocolate bars: “I wouldn’t allow it. The taste would be terrible. Can you imagine Augustus-flavored chocolate-coated Gloop? Ewww. No one would buy it.” On the Salt family falling down the garbage chute: “I think that furnace is only lit every other day, so they have a good sporting chance.” God, I love this man. Let’s send all the brats to him!

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Hunger Games



Surely you didn’t think I wasn’t gonna review The Hunger Games after all that casting ballyhoo I posted last year. I’ve been rabidly awaiting this film for a long time, and now that it’s out and all the hubbub has died down, I can offer my own humble take. First and foremost, I’m so happy that it’s been a box office smash, leaving Twilight in the dust and ensuring that the sequels will get made. I’m also really happy that people like it, that the fans are largely pleased and the newbies are mostly engaged. Heh, was there any way this could have been a negative review? Probably not.

I’m not gonna spend a lot of time comparing the book to the film, though I’ll probably make a few points. I’d rather look at Hunger Games in terms of its own merits, which are considerable. I love, love, love the stripped-down take on the story; it’s actually what I was hoping the adaptation would do, before I even knew anything about it. Suzanne Collins’ novel is a very fantastical sci-fi tale, with descriptions of the high-tech Capitol and the enclosed microcosm of the Games that border on magic. Gary Ross’s film strips away a lot of the excessive (and sometimes kooky) future tech and focuses instead on the idea of a messed-up, rotting civilization where all the wealth is in the hands of those who don’t know what to do with it. The Districts are trapped in the past; in District 12, where heroine Katniss Everdeen hails from, it could still be the late 19th century. By contrast, the Capitol is awash in gaudy retro chic, pinks and turquoises, fashions and architecture that invoke ancient Rome, Elizabethan dandies, 1950s gentry, and others. Not only does this look cool, but it reinforces the notion that the Capitol is stuck in a mental rut, copypasting ideas and stagnating. The most high-tech stuff we see is in the Hunger Games control room, where white-clad techs manipulate events via floating holographic touchscreens. In other words, they could fix things, they do have the technology, but it’s all wasted on useless bullshit and bloodsport. Touché.

Into this decayed future world are tossed great characters played by skilled actors. Based on this film alone, I’d say Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely a movie star. It’s tricky to play someone as prickly, introverted, and closed-in as Katniss without coming across as an unlikable sourpuss. Lawrence does tons of acting with her eyes, making Katniss’s long silences into a mantra of inner turmoil. When she does burst out in strong emotion, getting angry at Peeta or mourning Rue’s death, it’s like a dam has broken. The supporting cast do a fine job -- I especially loved Lenny Kravitz’s quiet grace -- but Lawrence holds the whole movie, solid as a rock. Bravo. Also, the film was more expansive than the book (which is narrated by Katniss in present tense), so we get more insight into these folks. We see the reactions of characters outside the Games, the two media personalities (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones) provide handy commentary and exposition, and we get way more of gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, upstaged by his now legendary beard) and President Snow (Donald Sutherland, portraying the kind of evil despot who convinces you he’s reasonable). No complaints here! It fleshes out the story and provides groundwork for the sequels.

The Hunger Games is very long but goes by in a flash. So different are the film’s two halves that it’s like we’re watching a double feature -- first a documentary about a theoretical dystopia, then a frenetic action flick. I did really appreciate the long journey toward the Games -- the Reaping, the trip to the Capitol, the prepping and training and media appearances. I’ve seen what happens when a screen adaptation tries to condense the book’s first act; I’m thinking specifically of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which crammed the entire Quidditch World Cup into fifteen lackluster minutes. The leisurely pace of the early Hunger Games scenes are just right, though they do clash with the action-oriented second half, which isn’t as compelling. Yeah, it’s exciting, but it’s mostly running and fighting and hiding and the like, and my interest occasionally wavered. A lot of character building gets jettisoned and important sequences like Katniss’s alliance with Rue or her gradual bond with Peeta are reduced to quick episodes, done and checked off. People have complained about the relative lack of bloodshed, and I agree, it lessens the horror of what these kids are being forced to do -- although the jagged editing and near-subliminal gore do give the fight scenes a kind of nightmare logic, especially during the desperate, eerily hushed Cornucopia massacre that kicks off the Games. And, yeah, they could have toned down the shaky-cam. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it was like we were watching a particularly off-topic Blair Witch sequel.

I guess that’s it for quibbles. I really liked this movie and my high expectations were pretty much met. As always, it can’t quite live up to the book, but what it does do is make the story about as plausible as it could be, thanks to the aforementioned stripped-down aesthetic and the incredibly grounded, haunted performance from Jennifer Lawrence. And it effectively shows us this awful vision of a future America where decency and progress have taken a backseat to mindless passivity, nihilism, and recycling of thought. The placid reactions of the Capitol citizens, the hollow faces of the half-starved District 12 laborers, the blank eyes of butchered children -- the sheer idea that the Hunger Games could make any sense at all -- it’s all there. As my philosophic best friend (who knew nothing about the story beforehand) asked, how could this society even function? Why wouldn’t everyone rise up in fury and stop this? Well, the point is that they must, and they will. In the sequels. Which I wish were already out, goddammit.

PS: I’d like to apologize to Jackie Emerson, who I earlier dismissed as not looking right for the role of Foxface. In the film, she looked exactly right, and there was one moment, where she and Katniss stared at each other like terrified prey animals, that sent a shiver down my spine. Kids are murdering each other in the name of so-called social order. Strip away the spectacle of a blockbuster movie and just think about that.