The Hunger Games

In theaters.

Successfully adapting a book about two dozen teenagers forced to fight to the death into a PG-13 movie is, perhaps, a dubious achievement: can it really be accomplished without sanitizing material that has no business being sanitized? I still have my doubts. Director Gary Ross conjures up stomach-churning tension as the deadly Games approach, but some of that tension goes slack once the event arrives because the suddenly hyperactive camera seems virtually unable to confront the violence at the heart of the story—not just the violent deaths of children but the fact that other children are doing the killing.

That criticism feels a bit bloodthirsty, but one of author Suzanne Collins's greatest accomplishments in her Hunger Games trilogy is creating true horror, not merely an entertainingly dark fantasy world but rather an ever deepening, unsettling, provocative dystopia. I can't help but feel that the transition from page to screen has defanged her vision to some extent.

That said, despite my suspicion that something here has fallen quite short of its mark, I enjoyed the Hunger Games movie a great deal. How could I not? It's a sleekly made film with a stunningly deep cast and an admirably adept, spare screenplay. It allows the actors' performances and the little details of the production to convey subtext, and even better, it trusts the audience to pick up on those nuances. It's a smart, sharp thriller featuring an already iconic heroine—and, yes, a weirdly antiseptic approach to the darkest of her trials. You can't have everything, I guess.


On DVD and streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

At the Academy Awards, Moneyball was described more than once as a baseball movie. This drives me crazy. First, and most obviously, virtually all the action in the movie happens behind the scenes, so we see almost no gameplay whatsoever. But beyond that, most baseball movies are deeply romantic about the game; in fact, it's not just a game. Hell, in Bull Durham, it's a religion. Baseball movies are built around the idea that there is something exceptional and magical and unquantifiable about baseball.

Moneyball is a blunt repudiation of that idea. The whole point is that people's love of narratives and image, the whole mythology of baseball as America's pastime, has blinded them to the realities of how the game actually works and how it can be won. Moneyball is about boiling down all the would-be magic into cold, hard statistics. The fact that the team using those statistics is an underdog makes the coldness more palatable, but there's still something oddly unromantic in the fabric of the film, something that makes it an obvious outlier from the arena of baseball movies. And that, of course, is a big reason why I like it.


In theaters.

No one slums with so much style as director Steven Soderbergh. The Ocean's movies, for example, are far more aesthetically polished than any star-studded trifle really needs to be, but that, of course, is part of what makes them so charming. In fact, I secretly prefer frivolous Soderbergh to serious Soderbergh. His sleek manner can come across as cold when he's dealing with some substance, but it's just cool everywhere else.

Haywire, his latest, isn't comedic like Ocean's or sexy like Out of Sight (my personal favorite)—and it's not on their level—but it's fun all the same and just as impeccably put together as the man's films always are. Plus, the conceit is great: Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs set out to make a vehicle for mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano by catering to her strengths (looking tough, kicking the snot out of people) and underplaying her weaknesses (emoting, delivering extensive dialogue, maybe acting in general). Transcendent it's not, but as tight, hard-boiled B-movies go, it's terrific.

A Separation

In theaters.

The most intractable disagreements are those in which each party believes himself to be the true victim, the one most deserving of an apology. A Separation dramatizes that essential truth as well as any film I've ever seen, and it does so by playing fair. The four adults at odds in Asghar Farhadi's moving domestic drama all have legitimate grievances, even as they also have all contributed to the destructive mire in which they find themselves.

It's a lose-lose mess, but although A Separation is poignant and sad, it's not depressing. Farhadi's careful unspooling of his tale keeps the movie from wallowing. In fact, the movie is outright suspenseful, perfectly paced, both tense and thoughtful, and the actors are so talented and quietly expressive that watching them is a joy, even in an unhappy context.


In theaters.

For decades, director Martin Scorsese has been a dedicated film preservationist and an enthusiastic cheerleader for early cinema, but Hugo may be the first time he has aimed his pro–silent movie message squarely at children. It's an odd moral for kids (as opposed to film students or cinephiles), and it makes for an odd film: broad in its style and messaging and self-indulgent in its pacing, yet also magnificently cinematic in Scorsese's inimitable way and charmingly earnest about its subject matter. The idiosyncratic result sometimes plods, but more often it takes flight, particularly after it begins its exploration of the extraordinary films of Georges Méliès. I'm not sure whether I would have enjoyed Hugo as a child, but as an adult, I eventually fell under its spell.

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

In theaters.

Back in college, a friend of Sean's used a particular phrase to describe mushy emotional subplots that interrupted otherwise comedic or suspenseful movies: "feelings and woman crap." It's completely asinine, but the term nonetheless has become something of a running gag for Sean and me—partly because it's such a parody of stupid offensiveness that it becomes kind of funny and partly because, loath as I am to blame such nonsense on women, the poor storytelling Sean's friend was describing is so widespread that it's useful to have a shorthand way to identify it.

In any case, when Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (that punctuation—kill me now!) came off its awesome action high with ten endless minutes of tell-don't-show melodrama, I left the theater muttering "feelings and woman crap" under my breath despite myself, and Sean grinned knowingly. For the most part, Protocol is a expertly constructed thrill ride, but even virtuoso director Brad Bird can't do anything about the leaden display of feeeeeeeeelings, especially when Tom Cruise's self-satisfied rictus of a smile comes into play.

The Ghost Writer


Does The Ghost Writer qualify as a roman à clef? The premise—a former British prime minister has become a loathed public figure for his support of controversial American efforts in the Middle East and the "War Against Terror"—is obviously meant to evoke Tony Blair, and the movie features obvious stand-ins for Cherie Blair, Condoleezza Rice, and Halliburton, among others. But it progresses in such a loopy, paranoid way that even I—not exactly a huge fan of the CIA or Cheney-linked defense contractors—could only shake my head in a daze.

In lesser hands, the whole thing might not have ranked much higher than a dopey "ripped from the headlines" episode of Law & Order. But it's not in lesser hands; it's in the hands of Roman Polanski, who, despite being a repugnant human being, is a brilliant director. Consequently, The Ghost Writer is a far better movie than it has any right to be: tense and pointed, with finely layered performances and a haunting air of exile. (I try not to think too hard about that last bit.)


In theaters.

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a meticulously composed, sleekly stylized film. The problem for me is that its style isn't really to my taste. Knocking a movie is easy when it sports obvious flaws, when it feels awkward or haphazard or just plain stupid, but Drive is none of those things. Every line, every shot, every sound cue and beat feels extraordinarily purposeful. I understand the thinking behind some of the aesthetic choices even when that aesthetic doesn't appeal to me, which makes assessing it remarkably difficult. Do I respect Drive? Yes, absolutely. Did I enjoy Drive? Well, sometimes. It's a fascinating, frustrating, bewitching, disquieting work. I'm glad I saw it, and I never want to see it again.


In theaters.

Imagining how another director might have handled Contagion is a fun thought experiment. The subject matter—a highly communicable and deadly flu virus sweeping the globe—is the stuff of shrieking headlines and showy thrillers. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) might have given the movie a gritty, grimy look with a panicky moving camera and a grim air. J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) might have created a glossy sheen with a few bravura action sequences and an underlying streak of sentimentality. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) might have made it unbearably tense and hyper-realistic and fast-moving. Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) might have, I don't know, lustily panned up the legs of a Victoria's Secret model and blown a lot of shit up.

But Steven Soderbergh directs Contagion, and he brings his typical coolly imperturbable style to a story from which one expects perturbance, so to speak. The tone of the movie often feels oddly detached from the terror and death onscreen, as if we're looking over the shoulder of a disinterested (but not uninterested) alien. That keeps Contagion from being thrilling, but it also keeps the movie from being sensationalistic, and without a frantic buzz, the movie is able to explore quieter moments behind the scenes and offstage entirely. Paradoxically, its very detachment makes it humane.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In theaters.

The title makes it clear that this is a zero-sum game. We have only one planet, and if the apes are taking over, it stands to reason to humanity is rapidly losing ground. In short, Rise of the Planet of the Apes depicts an apocalyptic event. It should be depressing (think every post-nuclear movie ever), yet it isn't because human beings aren't the true protagonists here. Rise is ultimately about the apes, and as such, it's darkly triumphant, a feel-good twist on a familiar post-apocalyptic story. Rise might not be a great movie, but it's a hell of a lot more fun than I expected.